I haven’t found any example of participatory varietal selection (PVS) with ‘run-of-the-mill’ average UK gardeners using their gardens as trial sites to compare varieties in even one commercial company website. I’ve also checked a few foreign ones too, though I can’t claim to have done this exhaustively
Some UK seed retailers provide customers with free seed to try a new variety – but this isn’t PVS, it’s advertising.
But something akin to PVS is desperately needed by gardeners, not least to help them decide which varieties to buy amongst the plethora available.
Sometimes a hundred or more varieties of a single crop or flowering plant are presented for sale to gardeners. My local garden centre, not an especially large one, about 5 miles from my home, has around 4,600 different packets of flower, herb and vegetable seeds for sale, though many seemed to be duplicate varieties from different companies.
As an extreme example, just one UK retailer advertises over 200 varieties of tomatoes online. I read somewhere that there are over 10,000 tomato varieties worldwide, though I can’t imagine anyone counting them. It can be quite overwhelming.
Most seed companies tell us that they test all their varieties on offer in field trials in the UK; from the numbers on offer, that has clearly failed to restrict the number of varieties!
One way gardeners can identify varieties they can grow in their gardens in the UK is by consulting the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHA) list of plant varieties with an Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
But, like retailer catalogues, the AGM tells us only that a variety can grow well in UK garden conditions. Apparently, over a dozen runner bean varieties do. Even more extraordinarily, about 130 dahlia varieties are also listed so the AGM may even be less discriminatory!
The AGM may help gardeners avoid real losers but, like the retail seed company trials, it still doesn’t tell us which one to buy!
This makes deciding which varieties to grow both wonderful and awful, wonderful because there is a huge choice and awful because we have space in our gardens or allotments for only one variety of each crop, at the most two.
This is made worse by most modern varieties sold to gardeners coming with traits selected primarily for commercial growers, though heirloom varieties have their share of disadvantages.
Gardeners can try to ‘read between the lines’: ‘early’ or ‘dwarf’ will be true but there is no mention that this may mean it doesn’t flower/ yield much or for long. Varieties common to several retailers are not necessarily the best; they may just be cheap to produce.
And I think most gardeners don’t want information to come from trials on company or society sites; they want results from gardens, in the case of fruit and vegetables with the produce picked and consumed by gardeners and their households. They want varieties selected by themselves, i.e., by some form of PVS.
The stumbling blocks for PVS with gardeners have been that most have small gardens which are widely dispersed and very diverse, that the number of varieties to test is enormous.
We need something that:
- puts gardeners in the driver’s seat;
- works for different varieties of all vegetable, flowers and fruit crops;
- provides a way of coping with the bewildering choice of varieties currently available.
Can electronic means of communication, as with PPB, now provide a solution?
Knowing the most popular/ commonest varieties would seem to be a great starting point, especially for novice gardeners.
So, perhaps a website that could allow every gardener to input the varieties of plants they currently grow in their gardens would be a first approximation to PVS, especially if it also had filters so gardeners could look for information specific to their country or region, soil type, interests (organic/non-organic!) etc.
It would, admittedly, also need to be safe from abuse by, for example, a seed company wanting to promote their varieties unfairly. Let’s not forget there is a lot of money at stake. The UK ornamental horticulture industry alone is worth more than twenty-four billion UK pounds and provides over 500,000 jobs or one in every sixty jobs in the UK (Oxford Economics, 2018)!
But PROBLEMS = OPPORTUNITIES.
Such a website could be very popular. The section on PPB has already documented how thousands of gardeners in Germany and Europe contributed to finding new cold-tolerant soybeans and mildew resistant lettuce varieties respectively.
Just identifying the most popular varieties wouldn’t be PVS with gardeners but it could be a first step to doing it.
Whilst PPB seems more exciting and novel, help with selecting from amongst current varieties seems much more in the ‘here-and-now’. The varieties are already bred and, in the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society has already excluded some varieties which do not do well in UK gardens.
So, how to organise such a website?