At the heart of it, I’m an amateur home gardener with only a limited amount of free time to devote to the immensely satisfying pastime of growing my own fruit and vegetables. With this in mind, I spend a fair amount of time each year carefully selecting which crops and different varieties to grow to try and increase the chances of a bountiful harvest throughout the year. In general, I look for varieties that are well suited to the growing conditions of my allotment, my local climate and personal culinary tastes. So, when a large seed company in the UK such as Mr Fothergills announced that they had the most “exciting development for the seed market in decades” which was aimed at home gardeners I was pretty intrigued. This is going to be big, right…?
Erm, not quite.
This revolutionary technology is an improvement in seed germination time through some proprietary seed priming method they’ve named ‘Optigrow’. From their own marketing, I could expect my Optigrow carrots to germinate 2-3 days quicker and this would lead to some other unquantified improvements in ‘uniformity’ and ‘quality’. In my own experience, seed germination is rarely a problem and I’ve never felt short-changed when a fraction of my hundreds of carrot seeds in a packet don’t germinate. Under the right conditions, decent quality fresh seed will simply germinate without any problems at all. As far as I’m concerned, this so-called revolution completely misses the point of what amateur home gardeners actually want and need from large seed companies.
So, as an amateur home gardener what do I want from large seed companies?
More detailed and informative seed labelling – Almost without exception, the descriptions of different varieties in seed catalogues and online are absolutely terrible. As an example, there are seventeen varieties of beetroot available from a particular large seed companies’ website and almost all of them have a very similar synonym laden brief description. No matter which variety I choose, I’ll seemingly be getting tasty beetroots with good flavour, texture and uniformity. Now, from my own experience there are major differences in the taste, disease resistance, susceptibility to bolting and cropping season between all of these different varieties and almost none of this undoubtedly useful information is actually included in the descriptions. If I were a novice gardener, reading these descriptions would give me hardly any of the information I needed to select a variety suited to my own growing conditions and local climate.
More varieties with disease resistance – Where possible I try to be organic on my allotment and so this limits my options for disease control. But even if this wasn’t the case, my options for disease control pale in comparison to those available in commercial farming. From experience, there’s nothing worse than losing a whole crop of brassicas to the unseen menace of clubroot or an entire crop of tomatoes to the archenemies blight. Obviously, gardening is all about the ups, downs and learning from past experience. Although if I was a novice gardener, inexplicably losing crops may put me off gardening completely. With this in mind, I want new varieties with better disease resistance and at the very least better labelling of disease resistance (or vulnerability) in variety descriptions.
More varieties suited to cooler climates and long cropping seasons – As you probably know all too well, Summer in the UK can be all too unpredictable and crucially lacking in Sun. With this in mind, I want new varieties that are tolerant of a wide variety of climate conditions and don’t depend on a blisteringly hot Summer to do well. Sweetcorn is a prime example of this with some of the varieties available from large seed companies needing a three-month long heatwave to have any chance of producing anything ripe and edible. The same goes for some supposedly ‘outdoor’ varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and melons. Similarly, there are often times where I can’t regularly visit the allotment and I don’t want my harvests to suffer because of this and be left with rows of stringy french beans or woody beetroots. With this in mind, I want new varieties that are resilient to some degree of neglect and have a long cropping season.
More varieties with improved flavour – All thing being equal, I want to grow varieties that have the best flavour, taste and texture. Whilst this is somewhat subjective on a personal level, I’m betting that most people would be keen to grow sweeter tomatoes given a choice of otherwise identical varieties. So, why aren’t large seed companies consistently bringing out improved or new varieties selected for improved flavour each year? Looking at some of the new varieties in the 2018 seed catalogues we’ve got long broad beans, some pastel coloured radishes and minature courgettes. Although I haven’t tried them, none of these varieties are likely to be an improvement on anything that isn’t already currently available. Although in their defence, Suttons do have the ‘Grow for Flavour’ range which does focus on selecting varieties for flavour.
Why does this matter, there are plenty of good smaller seed companies out there?
You could easily argue that there are plenty of brilliant smaller seed companies which do focus on pretty much everything I’ve mentioned so far and this is absolutely great. However, it is almost exclusively seeds from the larger seed companies that are stocked in garden centres which are often the first port of call for novice gardeners buying seeds. Similarly, the majority of free seeds and adverts in gardening magazines are from large seed companies. Presumably, large seed companies also have considerable resources available and can lead the way in developing new varieties especially for amateur home gardeners.
As you might have guessed, this is something that I feel particularly strongly about. Although, I’ll freely admit that I know very little about the commercial seed industry and so my opinions are inevitably fairly one-sided. I’d be very interested in what everyone thinks about this; as an amateur home gardener (or professional), what do you want from large seed companies? So please feel free to leave to comment or get in touch on Twitter.