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.


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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.

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


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7 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 #

    Bill,

    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

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