Where Adventurous Gardeners Buy Their Seeds

It’s no secret where to get seeds for famous-name tomatoes like Sun Gold or any of the other catalog standbys you’ve come to count on. But don’t stop there.

An entire world of genetic diversity and cultural history is available to those who look a little further, courtesy of an emerging group of seed sellers who combine a passion for the unusual with a mission behind each offering.

The mission behind a particular seed variety may be environmental: perennial versions of favorite edibles like kale, for instance, that mean less tilling and therefore less carbon released into the atmosphere, which is especially important on a farming scale. Or it may be to preserve and disseminate traditional seeds from places like Afghanistan, Sudan or the Maldives, threatened communities where the genetics of ancestral plants are imperiled by strife or climate havoc.

“Ours is a really collaborative industry,” he said. “We trade seeds with one another and share notes, all working together to preserve biodiversity. The competition is giant agribusiness and the industrial food system.”

Mr. Kleinman and his colleagues share the core belief that agriculture can and should be used to help build a better world, not contribute to environmental decline. These companies’ websites offer messages of environmental activism and social justice — and yes, a whole lot of irresistible plants.

Mr. Kleinman and Dusty Hinz, the co-founder of Experimental Farm Network, met in Philadelphia through the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then they worked with Occupy Vacant Lots, transforming empty plots into productive food-growing spaces.

In 2014, using borrowed land near Elmer, N.J., they started what has become a nonprofit cooperative of growers, focused on facilitating collaboration on sustainable-agriculture research and plant breeding.

Mr. Hinz has since moved back to his native Minnesota, where the seed-company part of the operation takes place today. Rather than relying on grants or donations, the company uses seed sales to support research, breeding and rematriation efforts — the return of varieties to their ancestral people. Heirloom tomatoes and watermelons from the city of Homs, in Syria, for example, have been distributed to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The company’s catalog helps support food-justice efforts, too. At the start of the pandemic, Experimental Farm Network founded the Cooperative Gardens Commission, providing free seeds to empower people to grow food. More than two dozen companies donated seeds that were distributed last year to more than 300 local and regional hubs.

This month, the beginning of the company’s fifth year of selling seeds, it posted its biggest list of seed offerings so far — nearly 500. And last year, it received 4,500 orders, as sales volume more than doubled over the previous year.

Familiar seed-catalog notations like F1 hybrid — the predictable first generation of a controlled cross — aren’t part of the vocabulary in catalogs of companies like Experimental Farm Network. The unfamiliar terms might, at first, sound puzzling.

These are open-pollinated seeds, or non-hybrids. You may even see mention of dehybridization, the process of allowing a hybrid to set seed, and then selecting among its offspring, or F2s. It’s unpredictable, yes, but that’s where the fun is, Mr. Kleinman said.

You’ll find landraces, or seeds that are not standardized, but represent a diverse population with similar characteristics — often drawn from localized populations developed through traditional farming, after farmers have selected for desired traits over generations.

The Kandahar Pendi Landrace okra from Afghanistan sold by Experimental Farm Network yields green, red, pink or white pods, wide-ranging in shape and size. The company’s Nanticoke winter squash is a traditional crop of the Nanticoke people, one of the southernmost groups in the Algonquin language family, historically from parts of Maryland and Delaware. The fruits vary in form, shape, color, size — even flesh texture, flavor and storage capability.

Mr. Kleinman’s love of seeds began as a child. Later, he would develop an interest in world events and study foreign policy at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

When he discovered that he could request seed from the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, a series of seed banks under the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture, his two passions merged. He started searching the database for places in the news — places U.S.D.A. scientists may have once collected seed.

“I started typing in names like Kandahar,” he said, referring to the city in southern Afghanistan. “There were all sorts of seeds collected in these places that aren’t even safe to set foot in anymore. I found seams in the collection rich with cultural artifacts from places that, in the decades since the seed was collected, have seen so much strife.”

Like South Sudan, the homeland of a dear friend, and of several of his company’s sorghum offerings. Or the Maldives, “already affected by sea-level rise, a place that may not exist in 50 or 100 years,” Mr. Kleinman said.

“It’s not just the tractors and the equipment and the chemicals,” he said, “but just the very act of tilling.”

In his catalog, there are many perennial edibles on offer, including unexpected native ones like beach plum (Prunus maritima) and passionflower, or maypop vine (Passiflora incarnata). What’s not to love about a perennial vining spinach substitute called Caucasian Mountain Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)? Work continues on Andy’s Green Mountain Multiplier Onion, a perennial variety from seed, and there is seed for rhubarb, too.

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