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Gardening Articles: Care :: Seeds & Propagation

Inside the Seed Business (page 4 of 4)

by Warren Schultz

Finding the Best-quality Seed

As recently as two decades ago, most garden seed companies had a personal relationship with every grower. Though gardeners will never have a such a relationship with the person who grows their seed, there are ways to find the best-quality seed. Buy from companies you know, especially if they have their own trial grounds. Look for service, says Renee Shepherd. "Is there somebody there at the company you can call?" Her advice is, "Don't buy cheap seed. To the gardener, the difference between 59 cents and $1.59 is really very small."

If you trust the retailer and you're satisfied with the seed quality, stick with it. Run your own trials with seed from different companies. If you're concerned about the environment, buy from a company that sells organically grown seed. If you're worried about the loss of genetic diversity, buy from a company that makes an effort to keep old open-pollinated varieties on the market.

Even if seed companies don't grow their own seed, differences still exist in terms of quality and philosophy. Along with freshness, germination rates, and purity, we may also want to consider economics, environment, and politics. That little seed represents a huge decision. And it should, because it's about to become a part of our gardens -- and so, part of us.

A Seed's Life

Even after a new variety has been bred or selected, it can take several years for the seed to reach home gardens. Here's how the tomato variety 'Caspian Pink' reached the market. The variety is being introduced by Seminis Garden, one of the few large breeders still in the home garden vegetable breeding game. These days, most new home garden tomatoes originate in its fields. When the new variety 'Caspian Pink' appears next year, all of the seed will have come from Seminis's seed production fields in Mexico.

1992: While on a trip near the Caspian Sea in Russia, breeders from Seminis Garden discover half a dozen interesting open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes growing in home gardens. They return to Seminis's headquarters in Saticoy, California, with seeds.

1993: Plants are grown in trial grounds in Saticoy. The variety known as 'Pink Fruit' shows the most promise as a home garden tomato. Others are promising as parent lines for breeding. About 1 ounce of seed is collected from 'Pink Fruit' and stored over the winter.

1994: 'Pink Fruit' is grown again in trial grounds in California. The consensus is that flavor, size, and other qualities make it worth introducing in North America.

1995: 'Pink Fruit' is renamed 'Caspian Pink', and seed is turned over to the company's foundation seed division. This division grows out new lines, and purifies them by ruthlessly roguing out off-types. About 5 pounds of 'Caspian Pink' seed (at 160,000 seeds per pound) is cleaned, tested, and stored over the winter.

1996: Seed is turned over to the company's stock seed division and is planted in stock fields. This division's mission is to increase the number of seeds to have enough to grow in production fields the following year.

1997: At Seminis's production fields in Mexico, stock seed is planted to grow a crop for general introduction in 1999. However, crop failure results in only 25 pounds of seed. Seed is harvested, cleaned, and tested for germination in Mexico. It's sent to California, where it is cleaned and tested again. A portion is saved for stock; the remainder is offered to one seed company, Totally Tomatoes, for limited introduction in 1999.

1998: Once again, stock seed is sent to Mexican production fields. With the previous year's crop failure in mind, general introduction is scheduled for 2000. This time 500 pounds are harvested, enough for general introduction. After seed is harvested, cleaned, and tested, samples are sent to retail companies. Promotional literature and photos are prepared.

1999: 'Caspian Pink' is introduced by Totally Tomatoes, which has exclusive rights for this year only. An additional 500 pounds of seed will be grown in Mexico for future sales by a wide range of companies.

Warren Schultz has been frequent contributor to the National Gardening Association.

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