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Diggers 2021 heirloom trials update

Why first-hand trialling and testing our vegetable and flower seed varieties is an important part of the Diggers practice.

The first-hand experience we gain through seed trials gives our members the confidence to grow these wonderful heirloom varieties – because we’ve done the hard work to prove them.

This year, under the watchful eye of Diggers Production Manager Anna-Lize Pretorius, our dedicated team of gardeners grew over 140 varieties from our heirloom seed list to test that seed was true-to-type (an accurate representation of what it should be), to collect and confirm accurate growing information, and to share the flavour of these selections with Diggers staff and visitors to our cafés and restaurants, where this seasonal produce was showcased on our summer and autumn menus. Grown organically, all crops were sown using recommendations in this Seed Annual and on our seed packets, and the results were outstanding.

We are excited to share some of our findings with you – the good, the bad and the unusual. Of course, not everything is great news, but this information is critical to the Diggers community. It’s vital to maintaining quality and improving the advice we provide to ensure success for Australian gardeners.

Tomato results

Left to right - The 2021 tomato taste test winner ‘Valentine’. | Tomato ‘Uncle Tony’s La Stupenda’ weighing a whopping two-thirds of a kilo! 

 

We are glad to announce that overall, the tomato list grown was true-to-type and performed in a predictable way in our gardens, even with the mild summer encountered throughout the southern states of Australia.

Yes, tomatoes were a little slow to fruit and ripen, but when they did, we were inundated with choice, colour and variety. We were able to successfully conduct our annual Tomato Taste Test and, with a few new inclusions in the line-up, the results were very interesting indeed.

Reliably, the Diggers heirloom poster child, ‘Tommy Toe’, was once again in the top two, but this year saw ‘Valentine’ (another Diggers original selection) dominate the taste test results. This stabilised open-pollinated variety was discovered and saved by Diggers from our own trial gardens in 2009 and put into production in 2011. The mild summer certainly brought out the best in ‘Valentine’, seeing it pip ‘Tommy Toe’ at the post by 0.2 points.

Interestingly, ‘Valentine’ was also the only cherry tomato in the trial that did not split at ripening. All other cherries succumbed to splitting this year, which we attribute to inconsistency in the weather.

‘Jaune Flamme’ was also impressive, being the first to bear ripe fruit and also the last, making it a popular choice for extending the season.

Our newest introduction is a Diggers exclusive – ‘Uncle Tony’s La Stupenda’. Thank you to all those members who offered wonderful naming suggestions for this whopping tomato, which was shared with us by internationally renowned Australian artist and photographer Bill Henson. Bill’s uncle Tony Caruso brought this Italian heirloom out to Australia in the 1970s and the family has been growing it and saving seed ever since.

Trialled in our gardens last year, this year ‘Uncle Tony’s La Stupenda’ continued to impress, producing a heavy crop of large fleshy tomatoes that are ideal for sauces and passata. The average size of the fruit was just over 500 grams, with the largest tomato weighing in at just under 667 grams. In other years, fruit has reached up to 800 grams, so it’s definitely one we will include in our trials again next year.

Summer vegetable results

Cucumber ‘Sweet & Striped’ produces its best yields when left to sprawl, not climb. 

 

For every variety of vegetable grown in our trials, we evaluate and test everything from growing advice to suitability for cultivation in pots and small gardens. This year we noticed significant differences in yield when some varieties were grown up a trellis. 

For example, Cucumber ‘Sweet & Striped’ should not be grown up a trellis or support unless absolutely necessary, as this seems to drastically reduce the yield of this variety. Conversely, our newest bush bean, ‘Tiger’s Eye’, will actually climb if given adequate support and, when grown in this way, it substantially increases yield.

Another standout bean in the trial was our new and exclusive ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’. This bean was shared with Seed Savers Exchange in the U.S. by the late Dr. John Wyche who acquired it from his Cherokee ancestors. Seed was also shared with Diggers and we can now offer this bean to our members across Australia.

In our trials ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ proved itself to be a long harvest bean, producing a consistent crop 10 weeks after sowing (like most of the beans trialled) but, instead of finishing up at the end of summer, it continued to produce tasty beans through autumn and into winter.

Left to right - Bean ‘Tiger’s Eye’ is a bush bean whose yield improves when trained to climb. | Bean ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ is a long harvest bean.

Checking for true-to-type

During this year’s trial, we noticed two tomatoes did not grow as they should, in other words, they were not true-to-type. These were ‘Red Fig’ and ‘Wild Sweetie’. This was also echoed in feedback received by members. 

As a result, we will not be listing ‘Red Fig’ until we can again produce true seed. This is done by going back to our mother seed and rebuilding seed stocks from there.

Fortunately, the new seed stocks of ‘Wild Sweetie’ were grown from certified mother seed, so this lovely little cherry tomato is still available. All off-type seed and seed packets have been destroyed.

Staggered sowing extended the season

Left to right - Collards getting started in our trial grounds. | Pea ‘Tom Thumb’ at 8 weeks from sowing.

 

This year, the organic growing area at the Diggers production garden was split into seed production and trial crops.

Production crops of tender vegies were sown in August and we finished harvesting seed at the end of February and early March.

The trial crops were sown quite late in the season, at the end of October, with seedlings transplanted out at the end of November. These plants started cropping in March, after the production crops had finished, highlighting the ability of plants, especially vegetables, to offer an extended harvest through staggered sowings, even of these warm season crops. In this instance, the late sowing and cool spring/summer temperatures reduced yields but still adequately extended the harvest window.

What's next

We have had several requests to stock collards, so we are currently trialling an heirloom given to us by Luis, a Victorian member who acquired the seed from a Portuguese couple who lived near him in Footscray, Victoria. According to Luis this collard is exceptional and, from the seed supplied, it’s looking very promising. We have had 100% germination and seedlings emerged in only three days. Now for the tasting! Stay tuned.

This ‘Northeaster’ bean measured in at 28cm!

2021 Tomato Taste Test Results

Salad and cherry tomatoes have higher sugars, less flesh and more juice, which usually sees them at the top of the charts when it comes to taste tests, but this year a saucing tomato made the top 10!

1. ‘Valentine’ (cherry)

2. ‘Tommy Toe’ (salad) 

3. ‘Lemon Drop’ (cherry)

4. ‘Pink Bumble Bee’ (cherry)

5. ‘Brown Berry’ (cherry)

6. ‘Tigerella’ (salad) 

7. ‘Rose de Berne’ (salad) 

8. ‘Wapsipinicon Peach’ (salad) 

9. ‘Sunrise Bumble Bee’ (cherry)

10. ‘Amish Paste’ (saucing)

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