Updated: December 7, 2020
Free seeds from the government are available to anyone. All you have to do is use the USDA website correctly and ask the right way.
This never ceases to amaze me! But I’m not the only one. This article has over 100,000 page views since the first version in December 2010.
In fact, the article is so popular that the USDA has written me twice demanding that I take down this page. They don’t want you to know about this service.
It’s no wonder that the article is popular, since it provides a step by step method 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. But don’t be intimidated. It’s not that bad.
Table of Contents
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Rare free seeds
The free seeds I’m talking about here 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 heirloom tomato varieties from the government. Most recently, they’ve sent me rare seed potatoes.
They sent me these seeds through the mail at no cost. I didn’t even pay postage. All I needed to do was apply through the online request form.
Here’s how it works:
Before you order
One key point to consider before you order is that the folks at USDA feel it’s important to NOT BE SEEN AS TAKING BUSINESS AWAY FROM HEIRLOOM SEED SELLERS.
Let’s take a sec to get the legal words out of the way. This article may contain affiliate links. That means if you click and buy from my partners, I will make a tiny amount of money. This in no way affects my recommendations.
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 the Government only supplies seeds to organizations for educational, research or breeding purposes.
It’s my guess that requests for seeds from PGRU have skyrocketed since I wrote these articles. Until then, they probably only received a small number 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 tens of thousands.
If you decide to order, be sure to make your case in the online application for how you are using the seeds for educational, research or breeding purposes!
If you don’t make your case well enough, you will get a letter from the USDA saying they’re rejecting your request.
Related: Better Tomatoes with Walls O Water
Here’s what one section from the USDA’s order confirmation email says:
Distribution of germplasm from NPGS collections to fulfill requests from individuals seeking free germplasm strictly for home use is generally considered an inappropriate use of limited resources and conflicts with U.S. Government policy of not competing with commercial enterprises. Requestors can be asked, in an appropriate manner, to justify the use of specific NPGS germplasm instead of suitable commercially available germplasm.
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.
Note that in order to receive your seeds you have to set up an account with your address info by clicking on the New User button. Don’t worry, there’s no charge for seeds. The USDA will even pay for shipping if you do not volunteer to pay. In fact, the USDA doesn’t even ask for a credit card.
2. Enter the type of seed into the the search for box.
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 to 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.
Some of the plants will have pictures. Most will not.
4. Click through to the detail page.
Sometimes there’s a ton of information on the free seeds (even photos of plants). On the other hand, there can be very little info. It depends on what info the supplier entered into the database.
5. If you want to order a seed.
Click from the detail page to the “Accessions” page. This puts the selected variety in your cart.
6. Click Check Out.
Next, you are 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 research or plant breeding.
If you put down your reason for wanting the seeds as home gardening, the USDA will deny your request.
Hit submit and you’re done.
Free Heirloom Seeds
It took the Government quite a bit longer to send me free seeds the second time I asked. 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 by mail. But it just took them longer than last year. This was probably because so many SHF readers are asking for rare seeds.
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 tasted as good as the pineapple tomato I grew in my hoop house.
The folks at USDA feel it’s important to NOT BE SEEN AS TAKING BUSINESS AWAY FROM HEIRLOOM SEED SELLERS.— Suburban Hobby Farmer
It’s hit or miss when it comes to USDA seeds. You don’t have a lot of info 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 Plum lemon seems to be in the early stages of blight. I’m debating if I should remove it before the blight spreads to the others. It’s a shame because I really would like to see what the ripe fruit looks like.
Free Seeds FAQ
One source for free seeds is the U.S. government. The USDA makes seeds and plants available for research and breeding purposes. Included in their offerings are rare and unusual fruits and vegetables that would be difficult to find anywhere else.
The Government offers this as a free service to plant breeders, seed companies and other businesses involved in plant genetics. The service is not intended for home gardeners, but if you ask in the right way, you can take advantage of the service.
You can order seeds by using the USDA’s website. The website is intended for organizations involved in plant breeding and genetics, so it’s a complicated website that’s not user friendly or intended for use by home gardeners.
They are sent to you through the U.S. mail. You don’t even have to pay for them. But they will ask for a shipping account number in case you are willing to pay for shipping yourself. If you pay for shipping, this helps them save money.
The USDA may deny your request for free seeds. They feel it’s important to not be seen as in competition with commercial seed companies. Can you imagine how angry people who own commercial companies would get if they felt their business was being taken away from them by the Government. The bottom line is you have to convince the USDA that the seeds you are requesting are for research and plant breeding programs. Otherwise, you will not get what you requested.
The USDA says that the website is global, so people outside of the US have as good a chance at getting these seeds as anyone in the U.S.
No, you can also get plant cuttings and root stock from the USDA. It’s a truly amazing website.
I first wrote the article on this service in 2010. I have updated it over the years as they have change what they offer. Over the last 10 years, this article has had over 100,000 page views. The USDA has probably been offering this service for even longer.
I have received many unusual tomato varieties that I have grown in my hoop house. Some of these were originally grown India and China. I have received nine varieties of rare seed potatoes. I’ve even received seeds for an ornamental bush from the middle east.
It depends on how many requests the USDA has at the time. It may take a week or two, but often it will take a month or more.
No, they don’t ask for a credit card number. There is no place to enter one. They do request that you use your company shipping account to ship the seeds, if you have one. But a shipping account isn’t required.
Sometimes there are pictures and sometimes not. It all depends on what the seed supplier has provided to the USDA. Getting seeds from the USDA isn’t like buying them online. The Government doesn’t try to promote the seeds. It’s a rather cryptic process.
Sometime the descriptions are good and sometimes not. It all depends on what the suppler has provided for information.
Other articles you may be interested in:
- Free Water from Your Roof: A Review of Rain Barrel Downspout Diverters
- Which Seed Starting Mix is Best?
- Product Review: Neptune’s Harvest Liquid Fertilizer
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