Free Seeds from the Government

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.

Click here if you’d like to tweet this article to your followers.

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.

Black Cherry Tomato

One of the free seeds from the USDA was a black cherry tomato.
It was the most promising of the bunch.

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.

Plum Lemon Blight

The plum lemon from the USDA
has shown early signs of blight.

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.

Primrose Gage India

The primrose gage from India looks similar
to most common tomatoes in the U.S.

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:

1. Rare Vegetable Seeds from U.S. Government
2. Free Seeds: How I got 19 Heirloom Varieties
3. Free Vegetable Seeds
4. Free Vegetable Seeds, Part II

*If you buy using this link, I make a few cents that helps me continue to write articles for SHF.

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11 Responses to “Free Seeds from the Government”

  1. Monica
    August 2, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Thanks for the great information. I just requested Pinus thunbergii, Arbutus menziesii, Cornus controversa. Once again Thanks

    • August 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      Hey Monica, I hope they send you the seeds you requested and they grow well!

    • Betty
      August 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Just remember that every time you order something from this ARS website it has a big hidden cost. You should get the seeds somewhere else if you can because these seed collections contain a limited amount of seeds that someone had to collect or grow.

      I would bet each time you order the hidden costs are $100 or more. You are wasting government resources if you just order for the fun of it. Someone had to collect the seeds, catalog them, store them properly, deal with your request, update the amount of seeds remaining, pay for postage, pay for the employee time…. That is why they are intended for scientists who are actually going to use them for legitimate research to develop better plants for future use.

      There is no free lunch! Browse commercial sources and find some interesting plants there, pay what they are worth to you and don’t use up valuable plant genetic resources for your back yard garden.

      • August 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

        Betty — These are all valid points, which I hope SHF readers will consider before ordering seeds. I’m hoping that we can have a good conversation about this to educate my readers.

        Have you considered that if the seeds don’t get used before their viability ends, then all the investment made in collecting, cataloging, storing, inventory and postage are lost. How many seeds have been lost in the past simply because no one used them?

        I’d also like you to consider that you have made the assumption that research by scientists is more valuable than when backyard gardeners grow crops and save seeds, ultimately producing plants that are ideal for their micro environments. It may very well be that work by scientists is more valuable, but you will have to explain why. Is it because seed companies pay scientists for their work? Why is this more valuable to the tax payer?

        After all, we all pay taxes to pay for this service. In fact, we pay taxes and universities do not.

  2. Betty
    August 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm #


    Probably some seeds do expire, but most are tested on a regular basis and are regrown as needed to keep viable seeds available.

    Back yard research may be useful, but how many back yard “researchers” do replicated trials and then make the results available for others to use? It may be useful for them, but how useful is it for the rest of the taxpayers who ultimately are paying for it? By using well tested scientific methods, scientists tend to produce better data, with well documented methods that someone else could follow and get the same results. Most back yard experimenters don’t have the background to do this type of experiment, so it is much less useful to the general public.

    Everyone now days complains about paying taxes, and with the budget cuts planned, this service will probably go by the wayside before long as there won’t be funds to pay anyone to fill these orders.

    • August 20, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

      It’s unquestionably true that professionals will conduct better and more sophisticated research. Can you tell me who benefits from the professional research being conducted?

      It’s also probably true that this service would be one of the first area’s to be cut because so few voters benefit from what is provided. If more voters were to benefit, there may be more support.

  3. Bruce Perrygo
    July 7, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    I picked my first Bolgiano I.X.L. Extremely Early tomato today 7/7/13 from seeds i got from Bill. May 1st is our “safe” date here in Southern Maryland, but this was a weird spring. Near 90 in April and frosts in the middle of May. Also very dry, then very wet, then dry, then wet. Of the 14 varieties I have, the only other tomatoes for me so far are Juilet, a paste tomato, and a Better Boy.

    I did request I.X.L. seeds from USDA. They notified me they received my request on Jan 3rd ’13, but that is the last I heard from them

  4. Dena
    August 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    Thanks didn’t ‘t know about this hope it works out. I’ll keep you informed about what happens.

  5. January 12, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

    Cool, and thanks! just ordered for our community garden ended up with 64 different items and different varieties. Although tomatoes were 6-8 week hold and a lot was in quarantine still. Bit got a good order in. Thanks again. Now if we could find a place for flowers like this

  6. Alex
    January 30, 2016 at 1:53 am #


    Interesting debate about the (hidden) costs of these seeds and what is considered viable research.

    For what it’s worth, I’m just getting into gardening and I’m quite nervous that it won’t work out. I have an analytical background with very little in horticulture, so I have been scouring the internet for information to give me my best chance. I have found that gardener’s blogs are often the most helpful for me because the authors usually respond, there are discussions and they remark their results in a way that average people can understand. I think that research by scientists are important in a different way than that of “backyard gardeners”. There are things that scientists will look for and other things that backyard gardeners will look for. It seems like scientists’ work will influence large manufacturers and growers, where backyard gardeners’ work will influence other community gardeners.

    I have a hard time feeling like I will be doing “viable research” but this discussion is encouraging. I cut open some tomatoes on a whim and planted super early (December) and I didn’t expect a high germination rate, so I now have some 30 standard size tomato “toddlers” (their cotyledons haven’t fallen off yet). It’s a bit unfathomable for me to grow 30 tomatoes by myself, plus all the other tomato varieties and other edibles I’ve become interested in, so I’ve offered to prep some for anyone who would like to grow them. But a part of me is attached and wants to run a bunch of tests because I have enough to do it in the spirit of the scientific method. There’s unlimited variables to test out and I’ve been looking into SIPs (especially via GreenRoofGrowers), planting the seedlings in trays and figuring out how and when to transplant to individual containers, self watering by burying an accompanying water bottle, self watering by horizontal wicking with no drainage, self watering by wicking from below, etc.

    On many blogs, I’ve been encouraged when people say about the benefits of planting, such as GRG’s “Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do–to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.”

    Personally, I’ve found myself drawn to hobbies that bring out the conservationist in me. I was an avid rock climber/hiker/camper, hobbies which inevitably make enthusiasts consider how to reduce damage to the environments they love and the world as a whole. In the same way, gardening encourages a similar thinking pattern. While I’m not being published in scientific articles, may I humbly suggest that my gardening related efforts have encouraged at least a few others to also do some gardening or to otherwise think about where food comes from. At the very least, I’ve convinced my mom to save all her compost for me and help me pick edibles to plant. Together, we discovered that we could collect compost from some juice bars, coffee shops and restaurants, much of which would just go into the trashbin. I reconnected with an old friend who does some gardening, so we’ve been talking about sharing seeds/plants/worms and other conservation ideas.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this information and allowing me to comment. I may have just sussed out some of the importance of gardening for myself and why it might be interesting to grow some of these government seeds.

    • April 14, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

      Alex — You certainly have done your research. Good luck with your garden.

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