Get Growing: A new way to choose seeds

Erica Browne Grivas

Erica Browne Grivas

It’s that wonderful time of year. No, not the holidays. For gardeners, the most wonderful time of the year is January, when we are knee-deep in seed catalogs dreaming of the bounty to come. Or nowadays, with more companies opting for online catalogs to save paper, it may look like you have 11 tabs open on your computer and you are making your list and checking it twice.

The dreaming is the same. Your garden is limitless, you have any conditions requested by the seed description, and you have all the time to plant the seeds you order – because it’s all in the future.

Those components feel like old friends – I know I will likely overorder in my enthusiasm, but seeds generally keep a good long time, several years usually. But this year, a new awareness has crept in to my purchasing.

A side effect of interviewing so many wonderful landscape designers and curators for the stories I write is that I learn how some of the people at the forefront of the green industry are making their plans.

One throughline coming through loud and clear among trends, industry marketing, and interviews like the ones mentioned, is the idea that our choices can make a difference.

The plants we choose and the way we plant and care for them can help increase habitat, food equity, improve soil degradation and stem the pollution of local waterways, and help restore some of the biodiversity we are losing due to climate change.

I used to buy any sunflower that took my fancy in a catalog. All the better if a variety was early and/or multiple branching (more flowers, sooner), or pollenless (less mess when used in bouquets).  All these benefits – better display, productivity, and harvest – were for me.


I recently read about 2023 studies saying sunflower pollen helps protect bees (both honeybees and bumblebees) from two different mites – serious contributors to bee decline. (Interestingly, other members of the sunflower family, including dandelions, with similar spike- shaped pollen, also had a lesser effect.) However, pollen is intentionally bred out of some ornamental varieties to appeal to the cut-flower industry – one article estimated 90% of the cut-flower sunflowers sold were pollenless varieties. So now if the catalog doesn’t specify a variety produces pollen, I’m cross-checking for pollen references from other online sources.

Here's your sunflower cheat sheet: some lovely varieties known for their pollen are ‘Lemon Queen,’ ‘Velvet Queen,’ ‘Autumn Beauty,’ and ‘Sonja.’


Helpfully, many catalogs are going out of their way to identify benefits for pollinators, perhaps specifying bird, bee, or butterfly. Some of the best will explain specific beneficials a plant supports, like sweat bees, or Monarch butterflies.

I found myself highlighting the ones that attracted more than one category, though it’s not a dealbreaker if it only supports one.

Finding native plant species is a great start to supporting your local ecosystem. After all, your neighborhood fauna evolved with its flora. Note here we’re talking about locally native to reap the most local benefit for pollinators which feed on unique plants. There are generalist pollinators which will feed and nest on multiple plants, so you can still feed some pollinators while growing non-native. The mint family (Lamiaceae) and the aster family (Asteraceae) have many examples of these.


To reduce my dependence on my water hoses, I will be rationing out the sections of the garden I’m willing to give supplemental water in the summer. This includes all container plants and those planted in the last year or two, as well as tomatoes and dahlias. Because of all those containers, new plants should be drought-tolerant once established, and need little in the way of supplemental organic matter or fertilizer.

So, monardas may have to wait for me, but zinnias, yarrows, poppies and calendulas are fairly drought-adapted.


• Does it help feed beneficial insects or pollinators?

• Bonus points for a Northwest native. Maybe one bonus point for being native to the U.S.

• More bonus points for being open-pollinated, so I can save the seed for next year, versus an F1 hybrid which will not “come true”.

• Bonus points if it will self-sow.


• Does it require extra water or fertilizer?

• Is it poisonous?

• After these are satisfied, I’ll look for beauty, fragrance, height, productivity, and ease of growing, which will create a beautiful garden reaping benefits this year and for many more to come.