How Much Do Seeds Really Matter?

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When I grab a ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato seedling from the nursery, I look to see if it’s been grown organically but I have no idea where the seed used to grow that seedling came from. And I never gave it a thought—until this year. This year, seeds and where they come from has felt a lot more urgent. And I’ve tried to make sure that all the Dirt to Dinner seeds came from companies not involved with GMOs, the more local and more independent the better. In order to support the Safe Seed growers I have found, I bought seed of my favorite varieties from more than one source. I have ‘Cherokee Purple’ seeds from four different companies growing. I think I ended up with ‘Lemon’ cucumbers from at least five different places.

Which got me thinking, “How much does it really matter where my seeds come from?” Of course it matters in terms of voting with your seed dollars for the kind of practices you want to see in the seed industry, supporting local economies where possible and to the folks who grow and distribute safe seed. But does it matter in my garden? Does it matter on my table?

Turns out, I think it matters a whole lot more than I ever imagined. In late February, I started seeds of ‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes for drying from Tomato FlowerBountiful Gardens and Victory Seeds. I planted them under the same conditions in the same flat. All the BG seed was sprouted a week later, with less than half the VS seeds up. Final germination was BG 100% and VS 75%. I eventually thinned to the best four plants from each seed house and on April 16th I planted them in the same warm and cozy growing bed. The tallest, strongest, plant, which is already flowering, is one of the Victory seeds. And the only seedling that didn’t do well in the transplant process? It’s also from Victory. Though maybe I should have more thoroughly thawed the salmon heads before I stuffed them in the bottom of the tomato holes. If that poor seedlings roots were scrunched up against frozen salmon eyeballs the first day or two, that’s hardly the seed’s fault! I plan to measure the amount and weight of tomatoes produced and to dry each batch separately in case there is a difference in taste. If it doesn’t eventually taste good, who cares which day it germinates?

The day after I started the tomatoes, I planted ‘Scarlet Ohno’ turnips from High Mowing and Bountiful Gardens. The BG tops are taller and earlier, Scarlet Ohno Turnipswhich, if you are growing for turnip greens, could make a big difference. But the roots are different as well. The Bountiful Gardens ‘Scarlet Ohno’ is a vibrant, almost-beet red. The High Mowing root, though the same size, is clearly more pink even though the two turnip rows are growing in the same bed, with the same soil, water, everything.

I’ve been surprised by the amount of variation in some of the varieties. I tried ‘Canellini’ beans from three different sources and one variety didn’t even come up at all!

I don’t actually understand enough about the seed industry or plant genetics to fully get why this would be. I’m heading back to Carol Deppe’s Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties to see what I can figure out. And I’m going to keep experimenting with side-by-side trials like these to see what else I can learn with the kids in the garden this summer.

Turnip Testing 2011

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TurnipsWe didn’t have enough turnips in the Dirt to Dinner garden in 2010. Or in 2009 for that matter. When I was growing up in the 70’s in the suburbs around Cincinnati, no self-respecting kid would have eaten a turnip. Today, in California, I know kids who will happily eat raw, pickled, braised or stewed turnips without complaint. So, I guess we really are making progress. It just takes a long-range perspective to appreciate it.

Because the turnip is a popular vegetable around here, and we have an unexplainable deficiency in the radish growing department, we’d like to identify a turnip variety that does well in our conditions, grow a lot of it, save our own seed, and maybe even further improve or adapt the variety in the future.

This is probably a bad idea for several reasons:

#1. Turnips are biennials. They won’t even make seed until after they have been in the ground over the winter. Which means they are going to take up their space in the garden for a long time.
#2. Turnips are out-breeders so even if we grow only one turnip variety we could still have our seed accidentally crossed by a bee visiting from a neighborhood garden growing a different turnip variety we didn’t know about. But how many neighborhood gardens are going to have turnips laying around long enough to go to seed, you say?
#3. Well, it’s not just the turnips we have to worry about! Turnips are classified as Brassica rapa and could potentially cross with mustard, rutabagas, Chinese cabbage, Chinese greens or those radishes we can never seem to grow! On the up-side, Ecology Action’s booklet #13 “Growing to Seed” says we only need to keep seed from five plants to maintain enough genetic diversity in the line.

Not one to be deterred by facts, I went ahead and started Phase 1, which is growing several varieties in order to choose one to work with in the fall or next spring. This part just involves growing and eating. We have identified six types of turnip seed to trial, four of them were planted today and after the next storm front passes, we’ll add ‘Tokyo Market’ and ‘Tokyo Cross.’

2/23/2011 We seeded two 2.5′ x 2.5′ beds with turnips separated by a North-South running strip of ‘Petit Pois’ peas saved from 2010.

Bed A is ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from Bountiful Gardens vs. ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from High Mowing Seed. I’m hoping they aren’t both repackaged seed from the same farm! At the very least we should see some landrace variation. The Bountiful Gardens package says, “Greens are smooth and hairless, excellent for greens. Roots for fresh use and pickling, not keepers.” High Mowing adds, “Hot pink skins with white, mild and crunchy flesh. Excellent for baby roots or greens with a signature pink streak.” 50 days. The Bountiful Gardens pack is marked for planting in May-August, but I’m guessing that’s either not right or not for our area. Seems odd when everything else says, “As soon as soil can be worked,” or “4 weeks before last expected frost.”

Bed B is ‘Gold Ball’ side-by-side with ‘Orange Jelly’ with the same separating strip of ‘Petit Pois’ between the varieties. The Sustainable Seed package for ‘Gold Ball’ says, “…perfectly shaped 3-4” amber globes…never woody…perfect storage turnip for the root cellar.” ‘Orange Jelly’ is also recommended for its storing ability and says flavor is improved by frost. Might be nice to try these two again in the fall.

By about mid-April we should be munching, marinating, fermenting and baking our different turnips and picking a winner. Do you already have a favorite turnip that does well in your area or a favorite turnip recipe to share? Leave us a comment!