Evaluating Hundreds of Heirloom Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange team members working on one of the hundreds of varieties evaluated each year.

Each year at Heritage Farm we grow a portion of our collection—family heirlooms passed down generationally and given to Seed Savers Exchange for safekeeping.

Part of the responsibility that comes with maintaining this unique collection of fruit and vegetable varieties is understanding as much as we can about each one.  To gain this understanding, every summer—in addition to growing varieties that are in need of refreshed or increased stock—we also grow a portion of our collection for evaluation purposes.

Images are an important part of the evaluation process, serving to both document and promote the collection. (photo of Squash 5554 ‘Sweet Fall’)

This year we are growing more than 400 varieties of heirloom seed in our evaluation gardens—from amaranth to watermelon—with beet, carrot, celery, collard, corn, cowpea, cucumber, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce, lima, melon, mustard, okra, pea, pepper, radish, rutabaga, squash, Swiss chard, tomato, and turnip in between.  

Why do we evaluate these varieties?

The evaluation crew spends their summer documenting and describing each variety we grow. The crew collects data on traits such as plant height, flower color, days to maturity, and fruit size, to name a few. We also evaluate how a variety might do in the marketplace, considering taste and culinary usage. For example, this year we are evaluating 40 varieties of beans and will classify them as snap beans, shelling beans, or dry beans.

High-resolution scans of plant vegetation (e.g. leaves, flower, and fruits) are made in our laboratory throughout the growing season, and staff members assess flavor to identify potential additions to the Seed Savers Exchange Catalog.

Evaluation data not only helps us make informed collection management decisions, it also gives us the information we need to write detailed plant descriptions. Plant descriptions are key to promoting our collection in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook and other publications, increasing the distribution of collection varieties to our members’ gardens and bringing more active participants into our preservation efforts. It is our hope to see more and more of our collection being grown, enjoyed, and preserved in gardens across the country.

We are one of the few organizations doing this important work with heirlooms.  And with thousands of varieties in our collection, this is work we do each summer, year after year.

You can help by supporting this work essential to our preservation efforts.

 A tax-deductible donation to Seed Savers Exchange will help us continue to maintain genetic diversity through projects like the evaluation program. Support our effort by making a donation or becoming a member online today, or call us at (563) 382-5990 (M-F, 8:30 am – 5:30 pm Central Time).

Thank you for helping us maintain these heirloom varieties for future generations to come.

John Torgrimson                                                              Diane Ott Whealy
Executive Director                                                           Co-founder and Vice President


Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization, with a mission to conserve and promote America’s culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.

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  1. Glad to see this being done. I think this will be far more useful to “standardize” a type than the somewhat arbitrary notes listed in past catalogs (ie one person’s yellow is another person’s gold, tall/short, midseason/late etc )

    Any plans to re-evaluate the same lines over time? Would be interesting if differences were noted. Both from drift and/or purity issues but also responses to environment (such as this drought year). I noticed differences in my evaluations this year due to drought.

    • Jenna Sicuranza says:

      Your comment points out a few of the challenges of the evaluation program.

      Standardization of evaluation traits is something we spend quite a bit of time thinking about in the evaluation program… it can be particularly challenging when documenting colors.

      Another challenge we face is that our evaluations are often limited in time and place. Ideally, we would be growing a variety over several growing seasons to get a better picture of how it performs overall, not just in one season which may have been especially dry or wet, hot or cold, etc. This is challenging, however, given the size of our collection. Currently, if we feel a variety has been adversely affected by environmental conditions, we will regrow it. Also, when a variety is identified as being of particular importance to the collection, we will grow it more than once to improve it’s description. We are furthermore limited in that our observations are based on how a variety performs in Northeast Iowa; a variety that does not perform well here may very well perform excellently in another part of the country. This is why we started the Member-Grower Evaluation Network (for more on this program see: http://www.seedsavers.org/Content.aspx?src=member-grower-evaluation-network-m-gen.htm).

      Thank you for your interest in our work!
      - Jenna Sicuranza