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Newer, Better Seed Varieties Come Out Every Year

Alan J. Heavens Philadelphia Inquirer

Whoever said there’s nothing new under the sun obviously never read a seed catalog.

To compete for the attention and financial resources of the nation’s amateur gardeners, seed companies fill their books with dozens of new varieties year after year, promising everything from longer-lasting blooms to larger crops.

Some of the new varieties are prompted by consumer demand. For instance, in the mid-1980s, W. Atlee Burpee Co. of Warminster, Pa., came out with a “long-keeper” tomato that was harvested green at the end of the season and ripened throughout the fall in the basement.

This season, we see new early-ripening tomatoes and dwarf fuchsia, among others. They are the results of painstaking work by breeders employed at seed companies or experiment stations run by universities and colleges.

All-America Selections (AAS) in Downers Grove, Ill., is a nonprofit organization that evaluates new seed-grown flowers and vegetables from around the world for home-garden performance.

Nora Wolfram-Koivula, its executive director, emphasizes that the process of developing a new variety for the market is painstaking, requiring the breeder to pollinate hundreds of female plants with a Q-tip, then wait several growing seasons for something good to happen.

“To breed a new variety can take five to 15 years,” Wolfram-Koivula said. “Just to produce enough seeds for the market can take two years to as long as 10 years.

“Seven years is a short timeline in plant breeding,” she said.

Jaggi Sharma, a breeder at Waller Flower Seeds in Guadalupe, Calif., developed a viola (from the pansy family) that changes color as the season progresses. When the flower opens, it is cream-colored, then turns light blue, then gradually turns dark blue.

A highly touted AAS winner for 1997 is the celosia Prestige Scarlet. As experienced gardeners know, celosia is an annual, a semihardy bedding plant that grows from 6 to 30 inches high. One traditional variety produces a crimson flower head 10 inches across, but the more familiar ones have heads that look like little paintbrushes - the so-called cockscomb.

Why all the work, time and effort to come up with new varieties?

It’s the bottom line, of course. The market for seeds is very large, according to the National Gardening Association. Its 1995 survey showed that 21.6 million households throughout the United States bought seed packets.

Time to start seeds indoors

It’s time to get those new and old varieties into peat pots and trays for transplanting outdoors in six to eight weeks.

Success in indoor seed-starting is achieved by maintaining control of moisture, temperature and light. You also need containers, a planting medium, milled sphagnum moss and labels.

Plants will grow in almost any kind of container. Most seed companies also sell plastic pots, trays, flats and small containers made of compressed peat moss that can be planted directly into the ground in the spring. In fact, if you sow seeds in individual peat pots, and then plant the pot in the ground, you can minimize transplant shock.

The planting medium is a mix devoid of soil, usually consisting of peat moss and vermiculite, ground limestone and nutrients. A commercially produced medium is available from seed companies or in supermarkets and home and garden centers. It is pasteurized to kill insects, diseases and weed seeds.

Milled sphagnum moss aerates the soil and keeps it sterile, which prevents something called damping-off disease, a fungus that makes the seedlings wilt or rot. The moss is spread on top of the planting medium. The seeds are sown on top of the moss but not covered.

The container is placed in a pan of warm water that is absorbed quickly by the soil in the pot. A piece of plastic wrap or a plastic bag is placed over the container to ensure that the soil remains moist and warm.

Seeds will germinate fairly quickly if a constant temperature of 65 to 70 degrees is maintained, using a heating cable or heating tray. Before they germinate, seeds must be kept out of direct sunlight, which may be too intense. The surface of the container must be kept moist by continued bottom-watering.

Once seeds become seedlings, they can be kept in a sunny, south-facing window free of drafts, or under a fluorescent grow-lamp or in portable greenhouses or cold frames.

Proper light prevents the seedlings from becoming too tall, weak and spindly. Seedlings require less moisture than the germinating seeds, but don’t let them dry out.

Once the seedlings get four true leaves (the first leaves - a matching pair - are “seed leaves” or cotyledons), it’s time to transplant them from the growing trays to individual pots.

Water the medium in the tray, then separate the seedlings with a spoon. Try not to damage the roots. A small ball of medium should cling to them.

Poke a hole big enough to accommodate the root system in the middle of the pot into which the seedling is to be transplanted.

Firm the medium around the seedling. Bottom-water the trays that hold the pots - it disturbs the seeds less - and place them in a well-lighted area until it’s time to move them to the garden.

The seedlings normally droop after transplanting because of the shock of losing some of their roots. It will help to keep them out of direct sunlight for a couple of days and gradually increase the amount of sunlight for the next two days.

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