ALBION (WGME) — Memorial Day is the traditional start of the growing season in Maine.
Gardeners and farmers are getting ready to put their seedlings and other crops in the ground.
There is a good chance some of those seeds were bred at a research farm in Maine.
The warm weather has arrived and for many Mainers, it’s gardening season.
But not all gardeners are just “growing.” They are breeding.
“Plant breeding is the art and science of developing new plant varieties,” Dr. Lindsay Wyatt, Johnny’s Selected Seeds plant breeder, said.
That’s what happens at Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm in Albion.
“We’re growing 50 to 100 or more of each type of variety of crop,” Rachel Katz, product technician, said.
They take the best characteristics of each plant and bring them to life.
“We have about 6 1/2 acres of squash and pumpkins. Over 900 different plots of each one, unique that we keep track of and get data on individually,” Dr. Wyatt said.
To create “better-tasting”, easy-growing and adaptable varieties all starts with the breeding program where they are looking at each plant’s distinct qualities.
“There is always changing environmental pressures, new pest and disease, different climate issues that we want to have new varieties that can do better in those conditions,” Dr. Wyatt said.
When the plant blossoms, a 6-week pollination process begins.
“We’ll transfer pollen and exclude the bees so we can certify and make sure exactly the pollen that’s in that plant is what we want to use to make sure out breeding work is consistent,” Emily Stark, pumpkin and squash breeding technician, said.
Breeders then weed out the plants that aren’t effective, and keep growing those that are.
“We’re really identifying each plant and keeping that genetic parentage consistent through our program. It’s a lot of work and it’s very detailed oriented,”Stark said.
To help perfect varieties, researchers get feedback from other farmers, gardeners, and even chefs.
It is a long process. It can take up to a decade to get a new seed ready for customers, but breeders say it’s worth it.
“We consider our assortment like a best in class assortment that’s going to be good, very generally that’s going to be good for a lot of different people in a lot of different areas. It’s going to help guarantee people successes,” Katz said. “It takes a lot of patience but there is something new and exciting to discover every year so it keeps it fun.”
It’s a process Dr. Wyatt says almost anyone can do.
“Someone just saving seeds in their backyard, a garden of tomatoes they like the best, that’s plant breeding,” Dr. Wyatt said.
Johnny’s breeders say they typically have a few new seeds to put on the market each year.
One of the most popular this year is a summer squash called “Tempest.” It’s one of the seeds you can still find and purchase through their catalog.
Their breeding process is organic and does not use GMOs.