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