Melon tester decides if there's a great new kind

Dick Willard has picked the two melons only minutes earlier from the test gardens of his farm here. And now two slices of aromatic cantaloupe -- one from each melon -- lay on the plate in front of me.

I was about to take a taste test, enjoy a taste treat, and get a behind-the-scenes look at how All America Selections works for the benefit of the home gardener.

The instructions were specific: to take a mouthful ("chew it well, please") from the right-hand slice and then one from the left-hand slice and compare the two for flavor and texture. There was no doubting from the start -- the left-hand, or second-tasted, slice was superior, markedly so, but I repeated the maneuver just to be sure. That done, I dispensed with the first piece and concentrated on the superior slice.

The first slice of cantaloupe came from an established variety, one that has been around for a few years; the second slice came from an as-yet-unnamed variety bearing only a coded number. Currently, it is facing the acid test at All America Selections trial gardens around the country. If it does as well at a majority of these sites as it has done here under the Connecticut sun, it will be well placed to received an AAS award.

All America Selections is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Back in 1932 a group of plant breeders from universities and seed companies got together. They were dissatisfied with the slow improvement rate of flower and vegetable varieties, especially among those suited to the home garden.

The upshot of that meeting was the establishment of a network (now more than 50-strong) of trial gardens around North America in which new introductions could be thoroughly compared with the best varieties already in commercial production. Just as important would be the attendant publicity available to distinctly improved varieties.

What is the good of a new and improved variety if the home gardener never hears about it? they had reasoned.

From the very outset the standards were tough. Before winning an award -- gold, silver, or bronze -- the new variety had to show "significant improvement" over an existing one. Test-garden judges look for taste and texture in vegetables, followed by crop yield, plant compactness, and resistance to disease.

Award-winning flowers are generally more uniform in plant size, blossom form, and intensity of color. Duration of the bloom period, hardiness, and resistance to disease and insects are also important. Fragrance is yet another point scorer.

Novelty and uniqueness are taken into account, but only if the plant will prove a practical addition to the home garden. In short, all the evaluations are made strictly on the basis of home-garden performance.

Meanwhile, varieties that tested out well this past summer will be evaluated according to the points tally in January. At that stage they may be given an AAS award, but it will be at least 1984, and perhaps later, before the award is made public. Simply, an award winner must have an appropriately large seed bank behind it. Producing the seed, particularly if it is a hybrid involving two distinct parents, will take at least one, and often several, seasons.

All award winners may not automatically suit every home gardener. Extreme heat, dryness, or high humidity could spoil performance in a particular climat. What an AAS award means is that the particular variety will perform well in a vast majority of climates around North America.

For Dick and Corrin Willard, whose AAS test site here is the only one in New England featuring both flowers and vegetables (she judges the flowers, he the vegetables), my findings on the cantaloupe taste test confirmed their own made repeatedly this harvest season. Mr. Willard will award the cantaloupe "some points," although how many is his secret right now. In contrast, many vegetables in the trial will score zero -- not that they are inferior but that they offer no "significant improvement" over existing varieties.

In AAS judging, Mr. Willard points out, "the term 'significant' is significant."

A numbered carrot is one new variety that performed outstandingly in the Willard test garden. But apparently the existing comparison variety alongside it enjoyed an exceptionally good season as well. On the other hand, a new tomato (which showed superior disesase resistance) and an okra, suited to the shorter-seasoned North, will go into the finals, so to speak, with a fighting chance of some AAS recognition.

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