THE MOST POPULAR ARTICLE on Suburban Hobby Farmer is Rare Vegetable Seeds Free from the U.S. Government. In fact, the article is part of a three-article series on free seeds that has had over 36,000 pageviews since the first installment in December 2010.
It’s no wonder that the series is popular, since it provides info on how to request rare vegetable seeds from the USDA. More specifically, the seeds are from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Plant Genetic Resources Unit (PGRU). (Boy, is that a mouthful.)
These are not ordinary vegetable seeds. They’re heirloom varieties from all over the world. Often, you can find them nowhere else. I’ve asked for, received and grown six tomato varieties from the PGRU, which they sent me at no cost. I didn’t even pay postage. All it took was for me to apply for the seeds through the PGRU’s online request form.
But since the particulars of how to go about this are spread across three articles, I thought it would be helpful to summarize the important details in one article.
Before you order
One key point to consider before you order is that the folks at PGRU feel it’s important to NOT BE SEEN AS TAKING BUSINESS AWAY FROM HEIRLOOM SEED SELLERS. You can imagine how angry heirloom seed producers would be if lots of people got their heirloom seeds from the USDA instead of buying them. So PGRU only supplies seeds to organizations for educational, agricultural research or breeding purposes.
It’s my guess that requests for seeds from PGRU have skyrocketed since I wrote this series of articles. Before, they probably only received a small amount of requests from university researchers and plant breeders. Now there’s an increasing number of Suburban Hobby Farmer readers who have made requests. The number could be in the thousands.
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If you decide to order from PGRU, be sure to make your case in the online application for how you are using the seeds for educational, agricultural research or breeding purposes.In fact, you may want to publish the results of your vegetable growing experiments here in the comment section of this article because PGRU will ask where you intend to publish your research.
How the request process works
Here’s a step by step description of how to order seeds or cuttings on the USDA site:
1. Go to the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS).
It’s located here.
2. Enter a keyword into the text search query.
For example, enter “raspberry” into the box.
3. NPGS displays all the plants in the system with that keyword in the description.
Don’t expect that the information displayed will be user friendly. It’s designed for researchers and plant breeders who are used to working with databases. The system will display a cryptic summary of each of the available varieties. The heading provides the name of the variety and where the seeds were originally found.
4. Click through to the detail page.
Sometimes there’s a lot of information on a variety (even photos of plants). Sometimes there is very little info. It depends on what was originally entered into the database.
5. If you want to order a variety.
Click from the detail page to the “Request This Germplasm” page. This puts the selected variety in your cart.
6. Click complete.
You are then presented with a form to fill out. Note the important “Describe Your Planned Research” box. This is where you need to make your case that you are asking for the seeds for a worthy cause. Hit submit and you’re done.
Free Tomato Seeds
It took the Government quite a bit longer this year to send me free seeds than last year. In fact, I had pretty much given up when they finally arrived in the mail. I figured that they had decided that my research wasn’t important enough to send the seeds. But it just took them longer than last year.
In the first year I ordered three tomatoes:
Kwand hsi hung shih
Pomodoro palla di fuco
IXL Bolgiano’s extremely early tomato
Of the three, the Kwand hsi hung shih was my favorite because of its squat pumpkin-like shape. But none of them were out of the ordinary in the taste department. It’s hit or miss when it comes to PGRU seeds. You don’t have a lot to go on.
This year I’m once again trying three new tomatoes:
Plum lemon from the Russian Federation
Primrose gage from India
Black cherry from the U.S.
Of the three the black cherry looks the most promising. It’s the most vigorous plant of the three. Plus, it was the first to set fruit.The primrose gage from India seems to be a normal tomato plant in almost every way. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The Plum lemon seems to be in the early stages of blight. I’m debating if I should take it out before the blight spreads to the others. It’s a shame because I really would like to see what the ripe fruit looks like.
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I ordered just tomato seeds from the PGRU, but they have all kinds of heirloom vegetables and fruits. I just settled on tomatoes.
If you’ve ordered from PGRU, let us know about your experience, or if you have questions about the site or the process, ask using the comment section below.
In case you’d like to read the original three articles in the series to get more details, they can be found at: