Do Commercial Growers & Gardeners Grow The Same Seed Varieties? Which Plant Varieties Are Best To Grow in Gardens? Are Commercial Varieties Better? My Answers Are In This Article.

I was recently answered an online question that asked, “Do Commercial Growers & Gardeners Grow The Same Varieties?“. It sounds a simple question, but actually it’s a very complex question and I have to start with thinking about whether it would be a good idea for them to grow the same plant varieties. Because in many ways they should grow totally different varieties simply because they harvest them in a totally different way.

My answer is below, but as I answered it I realised how I couldn’t answer it in just a few lines and that we needed to delve deep into the seed industry, customer buying habits and the reason people were growing crops. Certainly the differences between a commercial grower wanting a profitable uniform high volume crop and a gardener that needs a crop over many weeks or even months has to be taken into account.

My Quick Answer

Most of the varieties available to gardeners are those that have been successful with commercial growers OR are heritage varieties that still get good sales to gardeners. Eg Moneymaker toms are heritage and still popular because of their flavour. In the 70-80s I grew it commercially because I was paid a premium for flavour. But most commercial growers at the time went for higher yielding varieties such as Shirley, Sonata, Sonatine etc. Commercial growers no longer grow them but some are still available to gardeners. 

With peppers I grew Bell Boy. Thick walled, fleshy and hence heavy with good reliability, colour and flavour. 

Yield is one issue that matters to commercial growers and they will often get 2-3 x more yield than gardeners because they pay attention to detail. Gardeners can’t do this (they aren’t on site all the time due to work etc.) Gardeners also  frequently think the yields they get are fine. And they are if you aren’t making a living from it. 

Gardeners often want novelty. New colours, shapes, etc. And they often sacrifice yield for it. Neither is right or wrong … it’s personal choice really. 

I finished by saying ….

I think this topic will make a good future article for my website.

The rest of this article delves deeper into the answer to the plant varieties question. and I’m going to start a the beginning .

Where Do Commercial and Gardening Seeds Come From?

According to government stats in 2016 there were over 90 registered seed producers in the UK. In addition there are a number of plant breeding companies that produce new seed varieties. I think it is highly likely tha the number of registered seed producers has risen since 2016.

Spending on plant variety R&D was estimated at around £30 to 40 million annually. That’s a huge sum that supports a plant breeding industry with an annual turnover of around £200-230million. So it is hardly surprising that they focus on farmers and commercial growers. Gardeners are a niche audience, because we don’t buy as much as the commercial sector.

Then there are seed retailers. Some are seed producers, but most aren’t. Most seed retailers, including some of the seed companies, buy their seed from seed producers and seed breeders. And many of the seed breeders are based overseas where it is easier to produce seed due to longer summers. They are geared up to produce new varieties, especially F1 varieties, which take time and cost a lot in R&D spend. And they need to recoup that spend from large consumers of seeds .. the commercial market.

Some seed, especially that grown on a field scale, is combinable and is harvested by combine harvesters. A lot of carrots and peas for example are grown in NZ where the seasons are opposite to ours. This means seed can be harvested and sent to Europe for immediate packaging and sale. It’s much fresher this way, but the disadvantage is that it isn’t homegrown in local conditions. But many seeds, especially tomatoes, peppers, cues, etc are hand harvested in countries where labour is cheap. The manually harvested crops, grown with low wage labour, are often grown in China, Africa (especially Kenya).

Many agricultural crops, especially grain crops are produced using seed grown in Eastern Europe. Places such as Poland and the Ukraine!

More on Do Commercial Growers & Gardeners Grow The Same Seed Varieties? Below 
Bunching Carrots
Bunching Carrots

Are All Seeds Treated The Same?

No one wants to buy dud seed.

In the UK there is legislation to ensure that seed is viable, true to type and uncontaminated. Even the type of packaging is regulated.

To quote the UK government …….

The standards which must be met by most kinds of seed include varietal purity (trueness to type), analytical purity (a measure of gross contamination), freedom from weeds and germination. There are many other standards such as moisture content or freedom from a particular disease which apply to individual kinds of seed.

I often see people complain that seed has failed. In most cases it will not be that the seed was of poor quality when packed. Mistakes happen but they are the exception rather than the rule. It’s more likely that the seed has subsequently been stored badly OR sown in less than perfect situations.

I sometimes see seeds in garden centres hanging on racks in full sunshine and wonder how hot they might get. And I sometimes see seed sown in poor soils, at the wrong time of year and in unsuitable conditions.

Should Gardeners Grow Heritage or F1 Varieties?

Gardeners often struggle to decide which varieties to grow. And there’s barely a week now goes by where someone isn’t asking for variety recommendation on a social media channel.

What to sow in early winter. Carrots
Carrots come in different colours, thin and skinny … or bigger. Depending on the variety.

The fact is it’s very hard to recommend a variety without knowing the growing conditions it will face. When I grew commercially I’d go to a number of seed trial severe year. I’d look at maybe as many was 40-50 different varieties growing in trial plots alongside one another. I’d look at the cut lettuce, read the report on weight at maturity, the quality assessment etc.

But was it easy to make a decision? No. My greenhouses might be inferior or superior to those I saw the crop grown in. My soil was different, my watering and fertiliser regimes different. And the time of year and weather needed considering.

All I could do was assess what I saw and make a best guess at what might do best on my market garden. Then I would run my own trials out of maybe 5-6 varieties that looked good. Eventually I’d make a choice that I’d work with for a few years .. until more trials made me think and test again.

I would have up to 100 lettuce varieties to choose from at the trial stage. With tomatoes it might only be 20-30. And actually toms were easier as I subscribed to those with flavours rather than yield. And my buyers were willing to pay a premium for named varieties. Moneymaker was my chosen variety and it stood up to its name for me over many years. I still grow it today as an amateur. BUT, it has changed over the years and is not quite the same as the selection I grew when I started decades ago!

Choosing The Right Variety

Gardeners have almost too many varieties they could grow. And they are offered by general and specialist seed merchants as long as it is profitable to do so.

The truth is that seed breeders don’t produce seeds for amateurs. They do so for commercial growers as that is where the profits lie. Gardeners are offered what has been produced by breeders and have been kept in production. They effectively get the “left overs” but I mean that in a positive way. If it works for commercial growers then in many cases it can be bought by gardeners PROVIDED seed companies think they can sell enough to make it profitable. In the vast majority of cases these seeds will be F1 varieties.

The other type of seed that gardeners can buy are the heritage varieties. Some are hundreds of years old and have stood the test of time. They don’t suit commercial growers in most cases but small producers (maintainers) still continue to grow the seed as gardeners want them and they are still profitable for retailers to market. Sadly in a few cases the variety is poorly selected and the quality slips over the years. However, if carefully selected the seed can also improve and suit the conditions we have today as opposed to those they were bred for a hundred years ago!

Gardeners tend to be quite fixed in their ways and tend to buy the same varieties year after year. So we still see White Lisbon spring onions, Musselburgh leeks, Moneymaker and Gardeners Delight toms still on sale. Thats not a bad thing as they have stood the test of time and suit gardeners.

Do Commercial Growers & Gardeners Grow The Same Seed Varieties? Here are Brussels Sprouts

Some gardeners buy F1 varieties. They like to test new varieties and are always trying something new. Thats good, but it is noticeable that most F1 varieties aren’t around for many years.

Old Seed Varieties That Becomes Unavailable

Unless seed is a registered variety it cannot be sold in the UK. Only defined varieties and cultivars can legally be sold. There are a few heirloom varieties that can be produced by micro-suppliers but they are limited. This means that many established historic varieties would die out and we would lose valuable genetic diversity if they were not grown.

It is however possible to exchange seeds via a seed bank and this method is used to maintain old varieties that may have been grown in, say, one village for hundreds of years.

Organisations such as Garden Organic maintain a seed library where seeds can be exchanged. Local cooperatives often run similar schemes.

Beware Seed From Supermarket Vegetables and Fruit

Gardeners sometimes save seed from, say, a tomato they bought at the supermarket. The seeds usually grow and they think they have a bargain. And in some cases the plants produce reasonable yields. But often they don’t. The reason being that they may be from an F1 variety and by the laws of genetics that means a good percentage of the seeds will produce inferior plants. Or they are from plants that thrived in another country but can’t cope with our weather conditions.

In some cases the seed will have crossed with another variety and this can lead to good or bad outcomes. For example, when courgettes, gourds and similar are saved there is a chance they have been fertilised by a plant that donates genes for bitterness. Each year there are cases where people complain of bitter squash, gourds, marrows or courgettes. In some cases they become quite ill if the fruit is eaten.

Disadvantages Of Some Modern Plant Varieties For Gardeners

Because commercial growers buy most seeds they are the market that breeders primarily grow for. Commercial growers want the whole crop to mature and be harvested at once. In many cases to be of a size demanded by supermarkets and to be capable of machine harvesting, processing, transportation and to have a good shelf life.

Gardeners want crops that allow them to harvest overt a long period .. I’ve yet to meet a gardener that wants 20 cauliflowers maturing on the same day!

Commercial growers prefer

F1 varieties.

Tougher skins so they can be transported long distances .. from overseas maybe.

Supermarkets want long shelf life.

Gardeners prefer

Better flavours

Long harvest periods

Ease of growing

Both Gardeners and Commercial Growers want

Disease resistance

Pest resistance

Who Buys Most Seeds?

I mention this again because it is so important. Gardeners buy small pack of seeds weighing a few grams. Farmers buy them by the ton. Even commercial market gardeners buy them by the kg.  I used to grow half a million lettuce a year .. it would take a lot of gardeners to grow that many, so naturally commercial breeders listen to those that buy most.

It’s not that they don’t care about gardeners, it’s that gardeners buy relatively few seeds!

To reiterate, gardeners aren’t the same as commercial growers

Take gardeners that grow peas at home. If we look at total pea seed sales to gardeners it’s probably much less than one large commercial pea grower will buy. And the commercial pea grower, growing for the frozen pea market, wants a variety that will all mature the same day across a large field a day.

Pea growing groups such as Anglian peas grow over 8000 acres of peas a year. They harvest over 15,000 toons of peas a year. Pea harvesters cost several £hundred thousand  each and are run 24/7 for a few weeks each year. The peas are taken from the field and frozen within hours of harvest.

To mechanise this effectively they grow dwarf plants that are all ready for harvest at the same time so. That means they all have to flower at the same time and must be dwarf as they cannot be staked. Stakes would get in the way of pea vining machines that roll across the field at speed. Without them there would be no frozen peas in the supermarkets. The UK is the biggest pea growing nation in Europe.

Gardeners want peas that flower over a long period and harvest over the same long period. That means taller plants that need staking and will supply peas for weeks. And because the commercial breeders don’t grow them we are left with relying on the proven older heirloom varieties .. and many are vey good.

So gardeners prefer taller varieties like Alderman, Early Onward and Hurst Green Shaft which actually provide higher overall yields than the farmers peas. So don’t for a moment think we are ill served by not having new garden varieties! 


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