Complete success in vegetable gardening is not possible without good seed. The planting of good seed is one of the essentials, and is just as important as proper soil texture, high fertility, frequent tillage, skillful watering or thorough spraying. Henderson states ("Gardening for Profit," p. 89) : "If there is one thing of paramount importance in vegetable gardening it is purity of seed." He spoke from the experience of a long and active life as a practical commercial grower. Expert gardeners have always exercised great care in procuring good seed, although the significance of the subject has not been fully appreciated until recently. Good seed must meet five requirements: (1) It must be true to name and not mixed. The Matchless tomato may be as valuable for certain conditions as the Stone, but no dealer is justified in making the substitution without the consent of the purchaser. Turnip seed resembles cauliflower seed, but the dealer who mixes the two is a rogue. (2) The seed must produce the best type of the variety in question. Varietal deviations are marked; strains of the same variety differ widely in size, color, form, texture and quality of their products. The strain is by far the most important factor for consideration in obtaining seeds, although it has received comparatively little attention. (3) The seeds must be viable. That is, a high percentage should be able to grow under favorable conditions. (4) They must be free from weed seeds. This is seldom a source of trouble with garden seeds. (5) They must be free from impurities, as grit, sticks or other foreign materials.
Rawson says ("Success in Market Gardening," p. 57) : "Perhaps we might truthfully say that the most important of all points in gardening is the right selection of seed; for without good seed the care and expense devoted to selecting and fitting the land, or procuring and using implements, fertilizers, etc., are all bestowed in vain."
It is easily possible, however, to select seeds for years without making any advancement. This actually happened in the experience of Livingstone. For 15 years he labored in vain, eager to improve all varieties, but no progress was made, because wrong methods were employed; the largest and finest specimens of tomatoes were selected, year after year, with little or no regard for the plant. Then the plant instead of the individual tomato was made the unit, and Livingstone soon became a prolific producer of important varieties; no other man has accomplished so much for the improvement of the tomato.
The securing of good seed is not so much a question of selection as it is of careful and intelligent breeding. Starting with the plant as the unit, the grower must decide what he wants and what his market demands; for he himself might be very well satisfied, and his market very much dissatisfied. Suppose he is growing tomatoes and the plants are yielding well, but the fruits are generally rough and ill-formed, and yet, in looking over the field a few plants may be found which are highly prolific, and also produce better-shaped fruit than the hundreds or thousands of other plants growing under the same conditions. Seed should be saved from each of these plants, kept separately in numbered packets, and the next year the plants from each lot of seed set in different rows or plats. One of the selected plants may possess greater power to perpetuate its good qualities than any other, but this important discovery cannot be made if the seed from these plants be mixed.
This method of procedure is just as important with every other vegetable. The grower who wants better seed must have well-defined ideas before attempting any work of breeding or selection. If the cantaloupes are too coarsely netted, select for fineness of markings; if the cabbage lacks uniformity in time of ripening, select with this in view; if the onions are too flat, deepen the bulbs by selecting with this idea prevailing. Many other illustrations might be given. By intelligent selection it is possible to make improvements in size, color, form, flavor, texture, number of seeds, habit of growth, resistance to drouth, cold, heat and disease. Many valuable new varieties have been developed by the method indicated. The purpose of this chapter, however, is not to encourage the creation of new varieties, important though this may be, but to assist growers in the betterment of old varieties.
In the early days small lots of seed were kept for sale at grocery stores. As the population increased, and farming and gardening became more important, seed supply houses were organized. The first houses were established in this country about 1820, and the first catalogs printed soon afterward. Numerous houses have been started in all of the large cities and some of them have become mammoth establishments.
The seed business is highly specialized, requiring the service of experts who understand the principles of plant breeding. Much greater care and skill are exercised by some firms than by others; the most reliable maintain extensive trial grounds, where the seeds are tested before being sold. It is a means of protecting both the dealer and the buyer.
Two methods are pursued by dealers in securing the seed required for their trade. Most large firms own land on which certain seeds are grown under their direct management. It is usual to charge higher prices for such seed than for that grown by contract, the method under which the bulk of garden seeds is grown. In the contract method, when a house needs a certain quantity of seed, say Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a contract is made with a grower who produces seed of this variety, and who may also furnish seed to many other houses. As this grower probably owns very little land, it is impossible for him to grow all of his seed, and, therefore, he must contract with a large number of other gardeners or farmers to grow the supply for him.