Growing Magazine - October, 2012

FEATURES

Seed Research: Getting to Know a Seed Breeder

By Rebekah L. Fraser

Seeds by Design's owner and chief breeder Patty Buskirk.
PHOTO BY MILES ROGERS.

Established in 1994 in California's Sacramento valley, Seeds by Design is a boutique breeding and production company selecting products for home growers and commercial farmers throughout the world. The company initially provided growers and seed suppliers with standard fare: tomatoes, corn, lettuce, etc. After a few months in business, it became apparent that the wholesale market was already flooded with standard fare seeds. Instead of fighting to make its mark in an extremely large mono-cropped field, Seeds by Design's owner and chief breeder Patty Buskirk chose to move in a different direction: toward heirloom and experimental niche vegetables, ornamental vegetables, sunflowers and herbs. The move turned out to be fruitful.

Today, the majority of the company's product line is heirlooms and specialty seeds. Buskirk reports that Seeds by Design's collection of experimental niche seeds is growing faster than its ability to produce the seeds. Her clientele includes some of the most renowned heirloom seed companies: High Mowing Seeds and Baker Creek Heirlooms.

The product

Seeds By Design's highly varied product line includes open pollinated and hybrid seeds, micro-greens, brassicas, ornamental vegetables, flowers, sprouting seeds, gourds, cucurbits, greens, onions, herbs, root vegetables, nightshades, 16 sunflower varieties, and more than 50 lettuce varieties. Recently, Seeds by Design's ornamental annual pepper, "Black Olive," won the 2012 All-America Selections prize in the flower category. All-America Selections' judges praised the plant for its color and hardiness in all climates, especially in the hot South. The fruit is edible, but Buskirk warns that it produces a heat that's only for those who love a good kick in the stomach.

In addition to pioneering unique varieties, Buskirk proselytizes the concept of growing vegetables with ornamentals, from tiny tomatoes that make cute edible sidewalk borders and look good with zinnias, to pansies that pair with heirloom varieties of kale.

Methods

Buskirk does most of the breeding herself at the Seeds by Design farm in Maxwell, Calif. When the company was starting out, she tried to anticipate the needs of her customers when developing varieties. "We chose varieties we thought our customers would like, and varieties that would perform well in different regions," she explains.

Now, most of Seeds by Design's unique varieties are developed at the request of customers. The top customer request released in 2012 was the Marconi "Mama Mia" Italian hybrid pepper. In 2013, Buskirk will release two hybrid paste tomatoes developed by customer request.

All breeding and selection at Seeds By Design is done via conventional breeding methods. Though Buskirk does not philosophically oppose genetic engineering of large agronomic crops, she feels it's inappropriate for the market her company serves. Noting the heated debate on genetically engineered (GE) and GMO crops, Buskirk emphasizes the difference between the needs of two very different markets. While large commercial farms' mono-cropping strategy seems at times to necessitate GE crops, Buskirk says, "There are so many choices for gardeners and small farmers, there is just no need for GE crops."

Since the developer produces only organic seed, Seeds by Design treats seeds by customer request only. This relieves Buskirk of having to store fungicides in the seed warehouses.

Coming soon

In 2013, Seeds by Design will highlight color in the home garden market. Buskirk will reintroduce an heirloom variety of celery that dates back to the 1800s. This red celery will have higher uniformity than its ancestor, however. A white mini cherry tomato and hybrid red pumpkin will also hit the market. Buskirk espouses the value of alternate color veggies: their uniqueness. "Color makes varieties attractive in farmers' markets and draws attention," she claims.

There's only one way to find out for sure. Test it yourself and see.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massa-chusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.