ON cold window ledges of kindergarten classrooms across the country, tiny fingers will soon be poking green-bean, marigold, or squash seeds into containers of fertile garden soil. The youngsters will wait in awe for the miracle of life to unfold.
Spring approaches - the mail-order seed catalogs have arrived. As home gardeners peruse this year's selections they will marvel at the array of colors, textures, and tastes.
Who decides whether we want fleshy tomatoes or frilly petunias? Who decides that blue potatoes will be popular this year? Where do the seeds come from?
Home gardeners and kindergartners alike might also marvel at the volume of research, the technology, and the complex corporate structure that stands behind the selection and production of simple bean and marigold seeds. The careful, precise breeding process for flower and vegetable seeds rivals the breeding process for Kentucky Derby winners. In the popular home-gardening market, the stakes are probably higher.
The National Gardening Association says that in the United States, 34 million households grow vegetable gardens, up to 45 million households grow flowers, and the numbers climb by about 6 percent a year. Year-round gardening in the South and West, container gardening for crowded urban quarters, and current economic conditions stimulate the thriving mail-order seed business, which provides a pleasant means of reducing grocery bills.
Who is tending this lucrative garden? One of the "big boys" of the seed industry is Geo. J. Ball Inc., parent company of the ever-popular "Burpee Big Boy" tomato. But you'll slice a lot of layers in this multilevel, Chicago-based multinational company before you reach the actual retailer of the famous tomato, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. of Warminster, Pa.
First come layers of research stations located around the world in Costa Rica, the US, England, Italy, and Spain. Next are the biotechnology laboratories in China and Japan. Then slice through layers of subsidiaries, companies that grow and process seeds in places like Chile, the People's Republic of China, Turkey, Mexico, and the Netherlands.
For a closer look at one of those layers, focus on the rolling hills and canyons of the Lompoc Valley in California. Here eight miles from the Pacific Ocean, mild temperatures allow year-round research and breeding at Denholm Seed Company, owned by Ball Seed.
According to Blair Winner, research director for Denholm, the valley temperature varies by one degree for each mile from the ocean, creating a series of perfect microclimates for various flower-seed types.
Winner's task in the greenhouse today is selecting the 1,000 best French marigolds from the vast array before him. His work is "to pick out the right combinations from a lot of variations." And yes, he admits it's fun.
The process began when a breeder handed over an ounce of open-pollinated French marigold seed. While hybrid seeds must be artificially hand-pollinated each generation to produce specific qualities or characteristics, open-pollinated seeds can pollinate each other naturally and grow true to form for succeeding generations. Although open-pollinated, Winner's seeds were planted in the greenhouse to prevent accidental cross-pollination by winds or insects. Later, the secluded canyons and valleys will provide
similar protection during field production.
The marigolds Winner is judging are in their fifth or sixth generation of reselection. After selection today, seed will be harvested from the best plants and again replanted. The very best may finally go to field trials where representatives from mail-order companies like Burpee can come to preview the results.
But, says Winner, the process isn't over. From these trials perhaps only the five best marigolds will be selected, the seed harvested, then production truly begins. "Usually after five to six years of breeding, there's another one to three years of stock seed and supply buildup," says Winner. "You can get breeding work done in two to three years for marigolds, but some crops like cyclamen with longer generations... can be up to 12 years."
"It's a lot of guesswork," adds Alecia Troy, spokeswoman for Goldsmith Seeds, a research and development seed producer in Gilroy, Calif. "Hybrids can take up to 10 years to develop. What you think is great now, in five years may not be. It's an instinct the breeders have - a good breeder on staff counts for a lot."
Flower seeds from Goldsmith's fields in Kenya and Guatemala produce many of the plants sold in US garden centers. The seed-producing companies often choose international sites, according to Ms. Troy, for climate and cost factors. Tomatoes are often grown in Mexico; broccoli and peppers in Taiwan. Impatiens might come from Chile; eggplants and zucchini from Italy. And corn is most effectively grown in the United States.
Even this exhaustive international effort will not always suffice for mail-order companies like Burpee or Park Seed of Greenwood, S.C., who together will mail more than 14 million catalogs this year. Seeds must measure up to their specific criteria for home gardeners; they will undergo trials in the retailer's own gardens before being offered.
At Burpee, Jonathan Burpee and research and development coordinator D. Lee Strassburger have enjoyed access to Ball's vast international research network since Burpee's buyout in March 1991. For their company's independent product selection, both men rely on many standard selection methods, but Strassburger even admits to some "blue-skying," group sessions where creative, new ideas are discussed between research and marketing.
"Ultimately," says Mr. Strassburger, "the breeder decides whether it can be produced. Breeder instinct is relied upon heavily."
Both Park and Burpee sponsor contests to encourage customer participation. This year Park Seed will sponsor a Children's Gardening Contest. Kids will grow Park's seeds, then send in photos, possibly winning a feature in next year's catalog.
Home gardeners might worry that domination of the research-to-retail process by a few corporate giants would eventually limit consumer choices, but the market niche for speciality seeds is filling rapidly. Catalog companies like Shepard's Garden Seeds in Felton, Calif., seek out unusual, hard-to-find varieties and focus on particular seed qualities or characteristics.
Ask Renee Sheperd what makes a good tomato and her answer is "flavor, flavor, and flavor." The Shepard's catalog tries to make fancy, international food easy to grow, and easy to prepare at home. "People get great satisfaction in seeing something from beginning to end and they want fresh ingredients," says Ms. Sheperd.
For the true purist, heirloom seeds are produced and traded. Professional and home gardeners can access and trade heirloom seeds through the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization in Decorah, Iowa. The old-fashioned parents of today's vigorous hybrids, open-pollinated heirloom seeds are now being rediscovered.
Artificially pollinated hybrids often possess a phenomenon known as "hybrid vigor," a special strength or quality that neither parent plant possesses. Parent plants are often cast aside, but heirloom collectors are now reexamining these parent plants to find qualities lost or forgotten in the excitement over new, unusual hybrids.
Retailers like Sheperd's that sell heirloom varieties understand the importance of not allowing heirloom varieties to become extinct, but they also emphasize the consumer value of hybrids. Valuable qualities for home gardeners like disease resistance, temperature tolerance, and rapid maturation can now be bred into many hybrid seeds.
Research, breeder instinct, blue-skying, contests and taste tests, guesswork, and hard work are just a few of the methods for selecting vegetable and flower seeds. Gardeners browsing through their seed catalogs may find it tough to make selections. But the rigorous selection process the seeds undergo before appearing on the catalog pages is even tougher.
The bean seed on that classroom window ledge may well have been developed in Taiwan, the marigold seed grown in Guatemala, and the squash seed probably came from Italy. After years of research and trials, in this single spring season the seeds will finally burst with life. To borrow a phrase from those kindergartners, "It's totally awesome."