Updated: December 24, 2019
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.
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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 that your request is rejected.
Related: Better Tomatoes with Walls O Water.
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 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.
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 “Request This Germplasm” page. This puts the selected variety in your cart.
6. Click complete.
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.
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.
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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