When it comes to home gardens, Californians are spoiled. Not only does the pleasant climate afford long growing seasons, but our rich agricultural history means we have access to a huge variety of plants that we can try out in our own yards. Whether you’re looking for organic or native or just delicious, here are seven standout seed companies to turn to as you’re planning your 2023 garden.
There’s just no comparison between a homegrown tomato and the ones from the supermarket. Bradley Gates at Wild Boar Farms in Napa Valley understands this, which is why the farm is devoted to providing the ultimate tomato-growing experience. For 20 years, it’s been breeding tomato varieties from heirloom strains, and it’s created more than 70 in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors, including pink, purple, orange, brown, and blue. Take, for example, Black Beauty, which is coal black on the outside and bright red on the inside. Or Berkeley Tie-Dye, whose green, yellow, and red stripes have different flavors. It’s no wonder Wild Boar’s tomato seeds are prized by chefs and home gardeners alike.
If you want to take ecological gardening to the next level, the Plant Good Seed Company in Ojai is a place to start. The seeds are certified organic—you can view the certificate online—and chosen because they’re adapted to the Southern California climate. Many are sourced directly from owner Quin Shakra’s farm, Ivan’s Meadow, named after his cat. Aside from vegetables, flowers, and herbs, Plant Good Seed sells an unusual selection of grains, fiber and dye plants, and cover crops. This is the place to find culinary dandelion, ornamental tobacco, or oat plants for your own organic milk.
Thirty years ago, Renee Shepherd started her business with one goal in mind: to provide flavorful culinary vegetables to home gardeners. Today, her company sources seeds from all over the world and tests them in its trial garden in Felton. Her edible collection ranges from purple basil to yard-long beans, while the ornamental-flower roster includes cathedral bells and the black hollyhocks once grown at Monticello. “Our thoughts are, Is it wonderful to cook with?” says Shepherd. “That’s our shtick.” Once she and her team choose a plant, botanical illustrator Mimi Osborne paints a watercolor portrait of it to grace the front of Renee’s distinctive seed packets.
If you’re a more experimental gardener, why not try growing some rare fruit? Trade Winds in Santa Rosa features a wide assortment of seeds, from tropical plants to “super hot extreme heat” peppers to carnivorous species to “ultra-rare” varieties. Consider the ground cherry, a marble-size tomato relative with a lacy cover that looks like a paper lantern. Or the 60-foot-tall cardon cactus, which produces fruit for jams and jellies. I might try the musk strawberry, prized in Europe for its flavor but hard to find in the United States. Or the tepin pepper, believed to be “the wild parent of all domesticated chiles,” according to Trade Winds. And frankly, it just makes me happy to know that something called an ice cream bean exists.
While many seed companies focus on vegetables, Swallowtail Garden Seeds in Santa Rosa puts flowers first. Since 1998, owners Don and Lynn McCulley have offered a large number of annual and perennial flowers as well as vines, herbs, and, yes, vegetables. They have the biggest retail selection of zinnias online—121 and counting—and 40 varieties each of coleus, cosmos, petunias, and sunflowers. There are also some truly arresting options mixed in, like the xeranthemum, which feels like paper, and the Armenian basket flower, which looks like a pineapple.
When it comes to organic seeds, Peaceful Valley Farm in Grass Valley has one of the largest and most reputable selections. Since 1976, the company has striven to be a one-stop shop for those who want to invest in healthy and sustainable gardening practices. The farm sells certified-organic, non-GMO vegetable, herb, and flower seeds as well as other products that can be shipped to your door: beneficial insects, drip-irrigation equipment, potato and onion starts, bare-root trees, and mushroom kits.
Gone are the days when people regarded native plants as mere weeds. Now we know that they’re an important addition to the garden, for us and the environment. Not only do natives thrive in local soil, but they also tend to use less water and are a haven for birds, beneficial insects, and other wildlife. Larner Seeds in Bolinas specializes in California natives, including wildflowers, grasses, trees, shrubs, and even edibles. Owner Judith Larner Lowry forages seeds from all over California and propagates them in her 1.5-acre demonstration garden and on property in Mendocino County. More than 200 species are available.