Last summer, Shannon was invited to speak at the Nova Scotia Small Farm Expo about how we choose the varieties we grow. Here’s that presentation in a nutshell.
Every winter, we order seeds for the coming season. We’re always on the look-out for varieties of crops that will become a new favourite. So, we order from diverse sources. High Mowing Organic Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Osborne Seeds, and Fedco Seeds are the companies where we purchase the majority of our vegetable seeds. Geo Seeds is where we buy the bulk of our flower seeds. We also order from William Dam Seeds, Wild Garden Seeds and Adaptive Seeds and seek out a few neat varieties from great small seed companies like Annapolis Seeds, Hope Seeds, Tourne Sol Farm Seeds, Fruition Seeds, and Hawthorn Seeds. You never know where you’ll find that gem of a new variety!
Profitability and Marketability are 2 of the factors that go into our decision-making when choosing seed varieties. Because if we can’t make any money, we’d go broke and need to sell the farm. Profitability is something we think about in terms of space and time. Sometimes higher yielding (in area) crops or varieties take a lot more work or time. And no matter how high-yielding a crop is, if we can’t sell it, it’s not worth it. That was the reality with Italian Dandelion greens for us. For you home gardeners, keep in mind that you and your family are your “market.” Make sure you grow what you’ll eat! And your time spent gardening is valuable, you want it to be time well spent (enjoyment definitely counts as time well spent).
Presently, we don’t attend our farmers’ market year-round. That may change in the future but right now we find it important for us to spend time in the winter visioning and planning and organizing to improve for the following year. In past years, we grew greens in our unheated tunnels that would be ready earlier than we wanted to go back to market. Now we focus on planting them so we can harvest them in early April when we’re ready to start going to market again.
Sometimes, Canadian gardeners think that the shortest days to maturity is the best because we have such a short season. We look a lot at Days to Maturity (DTM) listed in catalogues but they’re first of all not always the same as the DTM on our farm, and secondly, if we only went for the shortest DTM varieties, we’d be missing out on plenty of cool stuff. We use other tools like row cover and tunnels to extend the season. Though, there are some crops that would need way too much pampering (like Luffa gourds to get a fully matured luffa sponge).
Different people want different sized vegetables. We usually prefer smaller-sized vegetables and our markets tend towards the same. Certain carrots for example, taste good at a smaller size but others need to reach a larger size before the good flavour comes out. We need to know that a variety will work well with the harvest-size we want to get out of it.
We grow both heirlooms (open-pollinated varieties that have been around for at least 50 years) and hybrids (newly bred varieties that are a cross between 2 parents and won’t look the same if you harvest and plant their seeds next year). Hybrids are not the same thing as GMO (or genetically engineered) seeds. I could make a hybrid on my farm if I let 2 varieties cross with each other and then saved the seeds (though it takes more thought than that to develop a hybrid anyone would want). We also grow what we think of as “heirlooms of the future.” These are new open-pollinated varieties that are often bred by farmers or in partnerships of farmers and plant breeders.
Our values are a huge influence on us. We go for organic seed as much as possible because we want seed that’s adapted to growing in organic systems AND because we want to support seed-growing farms who farm organically. Fedco Seeds has a really neat numbering system for seed suppliers where each seed gets a number between 1 and 6. A #1 seed means it was sourced from small-scale seed farmers including Fedco staff. A #6 seed means it was sourced by a company that manufactures neonicitinoids: Bayer and Syngenta.
The qualities between plant varieties is often incredibly diverse. Not all tomatoes are created equal. Some tomato varieties were bred to have a thicker skin that won’t bruise during shipment. Some potato varieties were bred specifically to make French fries.
For us and the people we sell to, flavour is the top quality that matters.
Colour is one that may not matter to everyone but we love finding unusual colours of typical crops. Whether that’s a purple daikon radish, purple pepper, or purple carrot (purple is a great colour!). We’re always on the look-out for a good-tasting red carrot since they add so much to a rainbow bunch. And the different colours of leaf lettuce in our popular salad mixes really make a difference.
Nutrition is a passion of ours. While we think that soil quality is the main factor in healthy vegetables, plant breeders are also selecting for certain nutritional traits. Some plants are better able to form relationships with fungi and microorganisms that can help them access nutrients in the soil. It’s a newer but pretty interesting aspect of seed selection.
Since we don’t use any pesticides at all (including organic-allowed ones), we want our plants to have a good start in life with resistance to pests and diseases. In most seed catalogues, you can find out if the variety you’re looking at is resistant to certain diseases (and sometimes insect pests). Keep in mind though that you’ll need to know what diseases and pests might be around your area. If there’s no late blight in your area (where is that utopia?), then you won’t have to worry about late-blight resistant tomato varieties.
Pest pressure in your area might dictate what you grow. The adorable little white Japanese salad turnips (called Hakurei) in the picture above are loved by pretty much everyone who tries them. But I know farmers who absolutely can’t grow them – the root maggot pest pressure is too high. We stopped growing fava beans because they were the only crop we were having aphid problems with.
Know yourself. We know that at this point in our life, we’re not into growing greenhouse tomatoes in a heated greenhouse. We may one day but for now, we don’t need the super fancy expensive greenhouse tomato varieties. There are plenty of varieties that do well in our unheated tunnels. We also know that we’re happy to cover crops in row cover or tunnels or netting for frost or insect protection. Some farmers or gardeners might not be, and so that would also influence variety selection.
Our farm changes each year under our management but so far, it doesn’t seem to love growing spring-planted bulb onions (though it has been happy with overwintered onions, strangely). So, while we still grow them, they are a very minimal crop for us. On the other hand, our farm typically bursts with love for Cucurbit-family crops (like cucumbers, melons, winter squash). So, we now grow more of those crops than we used to when we leased land on a farm that didn’t love growing Cucurbits as much.
We do have unheated tunnels. We don’t have heated greenhouses. We’ve noticed that we haven’t been much into time-intensive tomato trellising in the last few years, instead preferring the ease of basket-weaving. Our farm is small but it’s not our limiting factor. These things all affect which varieties we buy. If you have a patio garden, that will affect your seed variety selection.
Some of our tools dictate the seeds we buy based on size. If all of our salad mix lettuce varieties are pelleted except for one, it will take more fiddling around to plant out that one kind.
The cost of seed is a consideration. It’s not our #1 consideration but it’s sometimes the deciding factor between 2 varieties we’re choosing between. Also, seed is often cheaper when you buy in bulk but if you buy way more seed than you can use before the viability goes down, it’s a waste of money. Making a crop or garden plan BEFORE ordering seed saves you money.
We take as many chances as we can to get together with other farmers, and we always pick up some good tips on growing and variety preferences. That’s also a benefit to belonging to a garden club, community garden, or volunteering on a local farm.
What does it mean for a seed to be either regionally or widely adapted? Widely adapted means that it should do well no matter where it’s planted. Regionally adapted means it might not be great in a different climate than yours but boy, oh boy can it do even better planted where it’s been adapted to.
Especially for the cut flowers we grow, knowing if a variety is an annual, perennial, or biennial makes a big difference. In our first year, we grew a type of foxglove that can be a perennial around here. The next few years, we grew ones specifically as biennials. Now we mostly grow 1st year blooming ones. They just seem to do better for us.
We always decide to buy some new varieties each year as trials. Which means that we need to keep track. Trialling a few varieties of any crop without taking notes on what you think of them is a great way to continue growing varieties you don’t really like. In late-fall, we always sit down and do a crop debrief. During this time, we write down our thoughts on varieties we grew as well as anything else we want to remember. Sometimes, we’ll label different varieties with field stakes or we’ll make a map of where the different varieties are in a row (especially with all the tomatoes we grow!).
Seed ordering and selection is a task we both enjoy. Bryan and I are definitely variety geeks. Hopefully, you now have a bit of insight into our process. Are there any other considerations you consider when choosing varieties?