Please welcome Kate Munning, who is here to enlighten us on those crazy commercials advertising seeds for “one-acre crisis gardens.”

There’s a new sensation sweeping the right-wing TV and talk-radio airwaves: apocalypse gardening! For the low, low price of $159.95 plus shipping and handling, you too can get a bucket of random seeds that will supposedly be your saving grace in the event of society’s collapse.

Or as one company describes it: “This SOLUTION is for people that DON’T trust government to feed them if the economy collapses or in case of a long term emergency! If the economy collapses, a pinch of heirloom seeds will have more barter power than gold because it offers an endless supply of food and hope for the future.”

What began as one obscure commercial appears to have become a booming business, with at least six companies scrambling to profit from poor non-gardening schlubs. I can’t imagine that any respectable gardener would ever fall for this, but someone is obviously buying these “survival seed” kits. Even Stephen Colbert recently lampooned one of these ads on The Colbert Report, though he wasn’t able to articulate everything that makes this scam so ridiculous.

What’s so special about these seeds, you may ask? I’ll let them tell you:

  • “Non-hybrid seeds can be grown practically anywhere and have the ability to assimilate mineral and trace elements from the soil that man made plants just don’t seem to have.”
  • “Each seed package is sealed in a special foil packet with a very expensive desiccant designed to keep seeds fresh for 20 years at 70 degrees.”
  • “More valuable than silver or gold in a real meltdown.”
  • “Hundreds of pounds of food for $.01 per pound.”

Let’s tackle these claims, shall we? We’ll start with the “non-hybrid” claim, which is the only one with any potential validity. Like all good scams, there’s a grain of truth to it, since hybrid seeds can’t be saved after harvesting and grow true to type next year, and heirloom seeds do contribute to sustainability in that way. And I can’t totally disagree with a point made by one of the most rabid seed survivalists, who bluntly claims, “Monsanto hates you.” But “man-made plants”? Give me a break. Don’t tell that to the birds and bees that have been cross-pollinating plants since the beginning of time, to poor Gregor Mendel rolling over in his grave, or even to the folks at Johnny’s Seeds who do such a fine job with F1 plant varieties.

Most of these companies don’t bother to explain why “non-hybrid” seeds are even potentially advantageous, and the whole thing is clearly marketed to the average American consumer in an attempt to profit from a combination of fear in this dreary economy and the home gardening trend. This is best exemplified in the generic selection of seeds for anywhere in the country. Sorry sweetheart, but if anything, heirloom seeds are most valuable when grown in their native climate. The one-size-fits-all tack taken by seed survivalists belies the low opinion these companies have for their customers. Nowhere on these websites are growing zones or germination rates mentioned. Someone planting that spinach in Georgia is in for a rude awakening when it bolts in the span of a week, and some guy in Minnesota isn’t going to have great luck with cantaloupe.

Also, their claim that the majority of these seeds will be viable longer than a few years is highly suspect. Knott’s Handbook, the go-to guide for many vegetable growers and published by the University of California, maxes out most seeds’ viability at around five or six years, and that’s if the seeds are conscientiously stored with optimal temperatures and humidity in mind. I don’t know what kind of space-age polymer this “very expensive desiccant” is made from, but it’s not magic, and consumers would be wise to remain skeptical.

The list of questions goes on. Does the penny-per-pound of vegetables promised by these kits include the costs of compost, fencing, gardening tools and equipment, pest control, and most of all, the gardener’s time? Perhaps most laughable is one of these outfits’ “online trading system for high-value seeds in a hyper-inflationary economy.” They claim that “if you buy seeds from us now, you will have access to the trading system once it becomes necessary and available and will be able to trade seeds for cash or other commodities.” Um, do you really think you’ll have internet access, let alone electricity, once the state collapses? Might want to rethink that one.

Call me crazy, but I think it’s presumptuous and a little foolish to anticipate the downfall of society and what form such a crisis would take. While there’s nothing wrong with being prepared, stocking up on mushy canned food and hoarding buckets of (non-hybrid!) seeds isn’t the smartest way to ensure your survival, nor is beginning your gardening efforts after the lights go out. Try forging relationships in your local community and cultivating a garden based on your own climate, favorite foods, intensity level, and budget. You’ll learn a thing or two instead of being a sitting duck for fearmongering shysters, and you’ll reap the rewards of sustainability in the process, even if the apocalypse doesn’t arrive as scheduled. It’s a win-win!

Kate Munning writes about gardening and food at Coltivi.