Word of a seed shortage has sown fear in gardeners, especially as more people are motivated to grow some of their own food this year. Will a dearth of seeds dry up vegetable plots even before they’re planted? That looks unlikely, but there are steps that backyard gardeners — both pros and newbies — can take to ensure a robust harvest.

One of the most important steps: Buy seeds soon and close to home.

At Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis, vegetable seeds are plentiful at the moment, but owner Scott Endres has noticed an uptick in interest. “People are just in a state where they are yearning for something to nurture,” he said.

Other garden centers and hardware stores in the metro area report full display cases of seeds, even while sales are robust, from Home Depot and Menards to Bachman’s and Tonkadale.

But the seed companies that ship supplies to retailers in winter may be running low.

A banner across the top of the Seed Savers Exchange website reads, “We are temporarily not accepting new orders while we restock and ship current orders.” The renowned Decorah, Iowa, nonprofit that conserves and sells heritage seeds explained on its website that it has seen “a sharp increase in seed orders.”

The Burpee Seeds website warns that orders will take 10 days to be processed. The seed stalwart has run out of some popular seed types, including Blue Lake bush beans and Chioggia beets, whose slices show off concentric circles of white and red.

“Even not during a pandemic, seed companies run out of seeds,” said Julie Weisenhorn, extension educator in horticulture at the University of Minnesota. Shortages are most common for new varieties that may have limited seed production. That’s why avid gardeners peruse seed catalogs and stock up as early as January, when fresh-picked zucchini is only a dream.

“We always recommend people buy seeds as early as possible,” Weisenhorn said.

Test old seeds

Gardeners who can’t scare up seeds for a particular plant they adore could turn to a once-forgotten stash. Old seeds — even very old seeds — can produce a plant if stored in the right conditions, Weisenhorn said. Seeds fare best in the cool, dry environment of a refrigerator. But even a packet tucked away in a garage could translate to carrots or snow peas in a plot this summer.

Before turning over garden space to last year’s seeds, test their viability by folding a few in a wet paper towel, placing it in a plastic bag and waiting as long as seven days. If the seeds sprout, they are soil-ready.

Plan ahead

This is not the year to dawdle at the garden store or return time and again until the garden is full. A well-plotted garden will make for quick shopping online or in a store. Many Minnesota garden centers, which were recently categorized as essential businesses by Gov. Tim Walz, have reduced hours and limit the number of shoppers inside their stores. Most offer curbside pickup and delivery.

Gertens, in Inver Grove Heights, Eagan and Denmark Township, has streamlined the flow through its stores and added plexiglass screens between customers and cashiers. At Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis, separate entrance and exits create a one-way flow of shoppers to help ensure social distancing. Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis allows only five shoppers at a time inside its quaint store, though additional shoppers can be in its outdoor spaces. At Tonkadale in Minnetonka, in-person shoppers make a reservation with a $25 fee; the money is applied to same-day purchases.

Websites may be the best way to understand how a store is operating. Many are so busy preparing online orders that it can be difficult to pick up the phone, especially given that some employees are opting to stay at home.

Consider seedlings

In growing centers across the state, miniature forests of seedling vegetables and herbs are sprouting under grow lights. Garden centers sell these starter plants, and in some cases, they may be a better option than planting seeds at this point in the season. Tomatoes and peppers are good examples because they need warmer weather for safe planting.

But carrots, beets, radishes, beans, cucumbers, arugula and lettuces establish themselves quickly from seed, giving gardeners a symbol of hope for the future: From a tiny speck poked into the soil, nourishing food will spring.

 

@kerriwestenberg