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 Bountiful 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, which, 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.