When I think about the 2021 growing season, many different thoughts come to mind. Ordering seeds that will be used to start cool and warm season vegetable transplants or used to direct seed other crops is indeed a high priority. Vegetable seeds that are purchased should have a high percentage of germination, resulting in strong seedling vigor and be true representatives of the variety ordered. Seeds are the backbone of any vegetable operation and all other inputs, such as precision planting/transplanting techniques, fertility management, irrigation and pest management inputs, are wasted or not utilized to the maximum if one does not have a good stand with which to work.

My personal involvement with seed companies and commercial vegetable breeders goes back to 1971. I worked for my childhood friend and neighbor Art Abbott Jr. of Abbott & Cobb Seed Company at their greenhouse and trial grounds in Trevose, PA. When I attended Delaware Valley College in the early 1970s, I worked summers for Ted Torrey, director of vegetable research, and Lois Stringer, horticulturist and vegetable breeder, for the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Co. at the company’s Fordhook Farm. These early experiences taught me about the effort it takes to develop a new vegetable variety and then introduce it to the marketplace. My final experience was at Cornell, when I took Vegetable Breeding, a course taught by Dr. Henry Munger, one of the best classical vegetable breeders of his time. Dr. Munger’s class and his breeding program also taught me the importance of having good vegetable varieties available for growers.

What makes a good variety? Plant breeders try to breed a variety that will perform well over a large area of the country. Vegetable breeders work to breed either for the commercial grower or the home gardener. Commercial growers include those in wholesale and direct/retail sales. If shipping a variety to distant markets, how it holds up in shipping and then shelf life at the market is important. For the direct marketer, shelf life is important too, but taste is also of concern. Tomatoes were always the vegetable that drove this point home to me. The breeding work that Abbott & Cobb Seed Co. did in the field of sweet corn development to improve sweetness, shelf life, quality and improve germination and vigor of the seed is one example of improved seed technology available to growers. Vegetable breeders also try to incorporate as much disease and insect resistance as possible into a variety.

Most commercial growers place their orders with seed company sales representatives. They usually cover a region or territory and are excellent sources of information on their own varieties as well as those of their competitors. They visit many growers during the growing season and can relate how a particular variety performed over a larger region. It’s important to establish a relationship with the sales rep, especially when there is a shortage of a particular variety, to make sure you’ll be able to get some of the seed.

Crop failures can occur with producers of vegetable seed also. Hopefully, a seed rep will also be right there if you have a problem with a lot of seed, just like a chemical or irrigation rep.

Most growers buy new seed each year, which is a good idea. If storing seed, it’s important to keep seeds dry and cool. A temperature between 40º – 50º F is satisfactory when the moisture content of the seed is low. Low moisture in the seed means longer life. Most vegetable seeds remain good for about two to three years, but some, such as onions, deteriorate within a year; others, such as lettuce, can successfully sprout after five years.

Growers should always be testing a few new varieties each year to replace the standards they’ve been growing, but only after they’ve proven themselves. An example of improvement in a vegetable variety would be kohlrabi. We had green and purple and in the old days; if it got beyond the size of a baseball, it needed to be cut with a chainsaw. Now I think of the modern varieties of kohlrabi and what size they can get and still be useable.

There are so many good varieties of vegetables available today that it’s hard sometimes to figure which one to grow. I wish you good luck. Remember, I want to encourage feedback and hear about topics that you would like to learn more about so feel free to contact me at wlamont@psu.edu.