This is the time of year when my inbox starts to fill up with a variety of interesting garden planning strategy questions. From the ever popular, If I start my tomatoes super early, I can harvest them in June, right? to the curious Can I make pickles from any type of cucumber? And how do I ensure that the cucumbers will be ready at the same time as the dill?, gardeners are clearly focused on how to set themselves up for gardening success. Whatever the question and its answer, I almost always come back to the importance of variety selection, because while the answer to any of these questions could technically, in theory, be yes, the reality is that choosing the right variety for your intended outcome is a far better strategy for success than planting tomato seeds a solid 4 months before your last frost date or settling for less than perfect pickles.
It’s All in the Genes
Think back to what you learned in 7th grade life science and high school biology about genetic diversity in the plant world, which includes the fruits and vegetables you grow in your garden. Remember filling in those Punnett Squares to determine the probability of each possible outcome when you cross yellow and green peas? And then you started adding other variables in, like smooth and wrinkled seed?
When we talk about different varieties of a type of vegetable, we are essentially talking about the way various traits are expressed in a way that distinguishes it from other combinations of traits. There are home gardeners and professional plant breeders who dedicate many years to identifying desirable combinations of traits, saving seed, and growing out multiple generations of a single line in order to isolate the exact expression of traits that is desirable. When one of those expressions is identified and cultivated for its desirable traits, it is called a cultivar and can be recognized as a variety.
Of course the actual practice of plant breeding is more involved than this simplified version, but for our purposes, this is an important starting point because we can’t expect a variety to be something that isn’t in its genes. If you want a tomato (or any fruit or vegetable) to be a specific color, have a specific flavor profile, or grow to a specific size, selecting the right variety will make a bigger difference than anything else you can do.
A Variety of Varieties
One more helpful piece of background information is to understand the different types of varieties you will encounter in home gardens:
Open Pollinated Varieties are varieties that can produce true to type naturally (by means of wind, pollinators, etc.). This means that as long as the variety is not cross pollinated with a different variety, the seed will consistently produce a plant that is the same as the parent plant(s).
Heirloom Varieties are varieties that have a long history of being passed down from generation to generation. The term is sometimes used synonymously with open pollinated, as all heirlooms are open pollinated (thus their ability to produce true to type and be preserved through the years), but not all open pollinated varieties have a well documented history that would earn them the distinction of heirloom just quite yet.
Hybrid Varieties are the result of a cross between two different varieties that results in a new variety that exhibits some characteristics from each of the parent varieties. This can be the result of natural cross pollination (called hybridization, which is typically unintentional) or by means of controlled plant breeding, where parent plants are sought out for their best characteristics and crossbred to produce a hybrid that expresses the best traits of both plants. A common misconception is that hybrids are the same as GMOs (to be clear, they are not). The creation of hybrid varieties still uses natural means to create the cross; the process is just highly controlled. GMOs on the other hand, typically involve inserting or deleting genetic information that would not occur naturally.
What Does Variety Determine?
In addition to physical characteristics, there are a number of factors that are determined by variety:
Purpose: Certain varieties are better suited for some purposes than others. Yes, you can pickle any type of cucumber, but you will get better results with a pickling type. Similarly, there are some varieties that have a better texture for fresh eating, or flavor that is enhanced when cooked. Want to save seed from your garden? Then you will need to select open pollinated varieties. Selecting the right variety will help you feel accomplished in your efforts rather than wondering what all the fuss is about.
Maturity: If you want early tomatoes, the best strategy is to start with an early maturing variety, rather than spending a lot of time and energy trying to manipulate the calendar. Likewise, if you want your tomatoes to be ready at the same time as your late-maturing peppers to make salsa, a late-maturing tomato variety makes more sense. To determine when a variety should be ready for harvest, use the days to maturity and count out from the planting date. By planting the right variety or combination of varieties, you can achieve a well timed harvest and/or ensure a steady a harvest from early to late season.
Local Adaptation: Over the course of many generations, an open pollinated variety will become well-adapted to its local growing conditions. Therefore, paying attention to phrases like drought/heat/cold tolerant, prefers well drained soil, and long/short day variety are important hints to help you find varieties that will thrive in conditions most similar to your own. Another good strategy for variety selection is to look for heirloom varieties that originated from your area or an area with similar growing conditions. By selecting varieties that do well in your area, your garden will have a greater chance to success, no matter what kind of growing conditions you are up against.
Resistance: There are some varieties that tend to stand up to certain garden problems and others that are more susceptible to these problems. Hybrid varieties are often bred to increase resistance. If you have previously struggled with a specific disease or nutrient deficiency in your garden, selecting a variety that isn’t as easily overcome will improve your odds of success.
Production: Variety selection also determines what you can realistically expect in terms of harvest. If you have plans to do a lot of canning, choosing a prolific variety will give you the quantity you need in a shorter period of time, whereas a varieties that put a lot of energy into producing especially large fruits will often produce a slightly lower yield. Selecting the right variety can help you avoid becoming overwhelmed by a harvest you can’t keep up with, or disappointed by a seemingly meager harvest.
How do I determine the best variety for my needs?
Identifying the “right” varieties for your garden is a process that can involve a fair amount of trial and error and personal preference, but luckily there are also a lot of resources available to help inform your decisions.
As briefly mentioned above, the variety descriptions in seed catalogs and on the back of seed packets are full of helpful information for making your selections. If the description is lacking a key piece of information you need, try looking online, as seed companies are often able to include more information online than they can fit on the back of a seed packet or the catalog.
One of the best things you can do is talk to other gardeners in your area. Ask about favorite varieties, what ripens early, what stands up to the heat or persists during cool spells. Read reviews and articles about recommended varieties. You might be surprised what you can find with a quick Google search of a specific variety name.
And finally, take time to reflect on your past garden successes and failures to pinpoint what did well and why. You will be hard pressed to find a gardener who was lucky enough to select all of their favorite varieties in one year. Part of what makes gardening so rewarding is the process of trying new varieties and discovering new favorites!
Variety selection is just one tool at your disposal, but it is an incredibly important one that will go a long way to set you up for gardening success!