It’s warm out, and there are blackbirds making a racket in the tree behind my house. The snow is quickly receding over the ground, and I’m feeling the farmer’s itch to get outside and do things, even though it’s way too early to do anything yet… we’ll probably get another foot of snow, for all I know! So instead, I’m pouring over seed catalogs and planning things in my head.
I’m always fascinated by seed companies and the amazing things they do. Just a few weeks ago, i traveled down to Naples NY to visit my friend Petra who co-runs Fruition Seeds. They are developing some really great varieties of vegetables that grow well in our particular climate. They are also scouring the world for amazing varieties that already exist, bringing the seeds back to our neck of the woods, and growing them out to save the seeds and offer them to people like me. This work is so important… there are a million different varieties of every vegetable grown, many developed over centuries in tiny communities. If no one finds them and preserves them, they can easily become lost.
There’s so much nuance and detail involved in choosing varieties for a seed company… this zucchini tastes amazing, but how susceptible is it to powdery mildew? This winter squash looks like a giant grey bloated grub, but tastes better than any winter squash ever eaten and stores for months. This red cabbage is smaller, but takes less time to grow and is therefor great for areas with shorter growing seasons.
I grow a cherry tomato at Mud Creek Farm called “Matt’s Wild Cherry.” It’s a typical cherry tomato crossed with a more wild type of plant from the same plant family which is totally resistant to Tomato Late Blight. The wild plant makes tiny edible but not very nice tasting fruit, but crossed with a cherry tomato is gets both the edible fruit and the wild, blight resistant genetics. It is definitely “wild”… it tendrils and branches all over the place and is hard to tame; it looks like nappy bed-head next to the combed, tamed cherry tomatoes in the beds beside it. But when late blight comes, those neat rows are all dead within weeks, while Matt’s Wild is still going strong. The one thing I don’t love about it is the taste. Don’t get me wrong, the tomatoes are perfectly fine, but nothing super exceptional like Sungold or Black Cherry. So I was very excited when Petra told me about two new varieties she’s offering this year that were created the same way; crossing a wild, blight impervious plant with different cherry tomatoes, and these ones taste great. One is yellow and one is red, and I’ll be growing them both this year. I can’t wait to taste them.
Every seed I buy for the farm has had this kind of thought and effort put into developing it. Crazy to think about, right? There are lots of varieties of vegetables that I know from years of experience are perfect for me, and are things my CSA members love; Magenta lettuce, Zephyr summer squash, New Orchid watermelons. Then there are the things that I love that disappear. Last year Winterbor kale, one of my staples, couldn’t be found anywhere. Every seed company that usually offered it had experienced a crop failure, so I had to find a new kind of kale to grow in it’s place. Fortunately I found a variety that was not only similar, but superior in my opinion, and now I have a new green kale in my repertoire.
The fun thing to do every year is find new varieties of veggies to try out. Usually I just get a small amount of seeds for these things, like Bianca eggplants this year. I’ll put a little section of Biancas at the end of one of the eggplant beds, and we’ll see how they do. I’ll pay attention to whether the bugs like them more or less than other eggplants, how good the fruit looks, how many fruits the plant produces, and most importantly, we will taste them. (That’s the funnest part.) Every year I sort through the seed catalogs in search of potential new favorites to trial. Many of them won’t live up to what I’m already growing (because everything I grow has gone through the same trial process), but there’s always that one variety of spinach, that one heirloom tomato that knocks our socks off and becomes the newest member of the Mud Creek family.