How to Choose Seeds

June 15, 2015

Back when we were home gardeners, we never could have imagined how complicated seed choices would become when we began to farm commercially.  I remember browsing through the catalogs and being drawn in by the pictures of all the perfect looking vegetables.  Those were the days of growing 50 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. We really enjoyed trying to grow new varieties of vegetables, but when we began to farm, we quickly realized that an interesting heirloom tomato grown in Russia posed a couple of problems.  First, many customers may walk by it not even realizing it is a tomato and therefore never purchase it.  Second, it may have no disease resistance to the fungal disease in our climate, which is why it was grown in Russia and not the Lehigh Valley.  Once we realized that the seeds we purchased and planted had a direct effect on our livelihood, we began to look past the pictures in the catalogs and experiment with seeds that would give us the best chance of flourishing and producing a high yield.


Most home gardeners know this, but for the novice, there are three types of seed- heirloom seeds, F1 hybrids, and GMO seeds.  Heirloom seeds are seeds that have been cultivated for generations and can be saved and replanted.  When the seed is replanted, it will produce a vegetable with the same traits as its parent plant.  The most common form of this is with the tomato.  Home gardeners can plant an heirloom tomato plant and when they harvest the tomatoes, can save seed from some of the tomatoes to plant the following year.  When they plant the seeds the following year, they can be pretty confident that they will get the same type of tomato.  F1 hybrids are very different.  Seed breeders working for universities or companies will create hybrid seeds for seed companies to sell (this is not GMO seed).  Let’s take the tomato again.  A breeder will grow many different types of tomatoes in a test plot.  Often times they will even grow wild varieties of tomatoes found in South America.  Now for an example of how it works- they may grow an heirloom tomato and a wild variety and take the pollen from the flower of the wild variety and rub it inside the flower of the heirloom tomato.  They will wait and harvest the heirloom tomato, which will still look like the heirloom tomato that they had planted.  They will save the seed from this tomato and replant it and monitor what type of tomato they get.  Much of this ends up being trial and error.  Sometimes they get a tomato that has characteristics that are desirable for growers, but most times they get tomatoes that nobody would be interested in growing.  There is a catch to this type of hybrid seed- the desirable characteristic will only occur in the first planting.  If you were to save this seed to replant the following year, you will most likely not get the same tomato as the year before. I won’t delve into GMO seed, because we do not use this seed and most people reading this have a basic understanding of genetically modified organisms.


Now, to choosing seeds if you are a farmer or gardener.  There are three basic rules to think of: 1-Understand the climate you are growing in and what diseases are present yearly. 2-Focus on what the catalogs description does NOT say. 3-Look for yield, taste and disease resistance.  When I look through a catalog and am choosing seeds I am looking to purchase a seed that I know has disease resistance to the common diseases in our area.  For example, we grow fall and winter lettuce mix in our high tunnels.  My first year, I planted the same seed as I usually did, but did not understand that downy mildew fungus can decimate lettuce in a high tunnel planted in the fall.  At the time, I had no idea what had happened, but I knew I had a problem, because all of our lettuce was dying.  Once I found out about downy mildew, I made sure to purchase seeds that were resistant to this disease and have not had the problem since.   I also look for yield because as a commercial grower, I need to produce enough vegetables to earn a living.  I used to grow black beauty eggplant and each plant usually only yielded one eggplant every ten days.  When I experimented with a variety that was described as a heavy yielder, I saw the staggering difference when we had more eggplants than we knew what to do with.  Finally, I learned to read seed descriptions in catalogs focusing on what the description didn’t say.  For example, I remember reading about a specific greenhouse tomato that raved about the flavor, but did not describe the yield or disease resistance qualities of the seed.  When we trialed this variety, I understood why the company couldn’t discuss the yield.  While the tomato tasted great, you couldn’t produce enough tomatoes to justify growing it.


After that longwinded explanation, just remember the three rules when picking seeds, yield, disease resistance, taste, and always focus on what the company doesn’t say about the seed.  On our farm, we try our best to balance all three rules and make intelligent decisions about seeds that will give us the greatest chance at success, while producing a food that tastes great too.  One last thing to remember…don’t let those pictures in the catalogs entice you into buying a seed that won’t work for you!


This week's share consists of:

Full Share- sweet onions, zucchini, cucumbers, red kale, parsley, snow peas, head lettuce, hakurei turnips, red cabbage, carrots, fennel, broccoli

Half Share- sweet onions, zucchini, cucumbers, red kale, parsley, snow peas

What can I make with my share this week?? Here are a couple of ideas!


Zucchini Crab Cakes- this one come courtesy of one of our very own CSA members (thank you Tony and Joyce!) The delicious flavor of crab cakes minus the shellfish. These patties are super easy to make and Tony and Joyce shared with me that they freeze well too. Freeze extra prepared raw patties and defrost them on paper towels before frying to drain off the excess liquid.


Snow Pea, Cucumber and Radish Salad-

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