Skip to main content
Trialing New Varieties

Trialing New Varieties

Posted by Lynn Byczynski on 29th Feb 2024

Every year the seed companies bring you new varieties in almost every category. Even an heirloom seed company like Seeds from Italy is constantly seeking out new products — for us, the older the better! We understand that you like the adventure of growing something new-to-you.

This year, we have a large number of new varieties, and it’s my job to grow them and tell you what I think. I’ll be doing that throughout the growing season, but for now I want to tell you about how I intend to evaluate them. I hope this information will help you figure out how to trial new varieties yourself.

There are three critical components of a vegetable variety trial:

  1. A control planting of a known variety. It’s really important to grow your favorite variety, something you have grown and liked in the past. This will be the standard against which you will compare the new variety.
  2. Traits you want to evaluate. You should decide in advance what you want to know about this new variety. There are objective traits to compare with your control: for example, are you looking for a variety that bears earlier? Or is your evaluation based more on a subjective trait like flavor? Decide what’s important to you — the reasons you are trialing a new variety in the first place. Write them down, and be sure to pay attention to those characteristics when your plants start producing. It’s possible you will see something good or bad about the new variety that you hadn’t even considered in advance, but that’s icing on the cake.
  3. Equal conditions between the control and the new variety. You should handle your trial variety in the very same way you handle your old standby. Plant the seeds the same day, transplant them the same day, put them side by side in the same part of the garden. Try to eliminate any possible differences in your plants’ environment so you will have a valid basis for comparing their intrinsic characteristics.

As an aside, I highly recommend that you have two methods of keeping track of which plant is which variety. Tags get lost, and memory is not as detailed as we would like to think. When I start seeds inside, I write the name on the label AND I write on the flat with a paint pen. Outside, I mark the plant with a label AND I draw a diagram in my notebook in case the label gets lost.

The more plants you can grow of the trial varieties, the better the comparison — especially with open pollinated heirlooms, which tend to exhibit a lot of variability in general. At the least, six plants of each variety will help smooth out any differences and give you a better picture of how the trial variety differs from your control.

To provide an example of a variety trial, here is how I plan to report on our two new San Marzano tomato varieties, Polifemo and Da Pelati. First, I will grow the new varieties alongside our standard San Marzano variety. I will plant all the seeds inside on March1, using the same potting mix, flats, and heat mat. At eight weeks, I will transplant them into the garden in the same bed. I’ll use the same watering, fertilizing, trellising. I’m going to be keeping track of many traits, including days to germination; growth rate; condition of transplants on planting out; days to first harvest; duration of harvest; size, shape, color, and weight of ripe fruits; and, finally, flavor.

As a home gardener, you might want to skip straight to flavor, and that’s fine. Just be sure you are keeping all factors equivalent so you can determine if you like the new variety better, or will stick with your old favorite.

Lynn Byczynski is a retired market farmer, the founder of Growing for Market magazine, and the author of several gardening books including the new Vegetable Garden Planner, which provides gardeners a permanent place to record garden trials and results.