Heirlooms: Trialled and taste tested

Taking the guesswork out of the vegetables you have grown to love.

The Diggers Club's Trials Manager Ian Magnus

There’s more to heirloom seed than meets the eye.

Diggers offers more than 100 types of heirloom seed, and each year a selection of these are sown and grown in our trial gardens to ensure that they are true-to-type, and to measure how they stack up against other varieties of the same species.

Specialising in publicly-owned open-pollinated (OP) heirloom seed is not without its challenges. The cross-pollination of varieties can greatly impact the resulting seed and, while this can be an interesting experiment in your own garden, it is undesirable when trying to preserve the traits and characteristics of varieties that generations of gardeners have grown to love and trust.

Will Truman started the Diggers Trial Program in 1993, and his work has been pivotal to the Diggers' heirloom range. They were the most extensive heirloom trials for backyard gardeners ever conducted in Australia, and the results formed the basis of our vegetable, heirloom vegetable and tomato books. It is through these trials that we know without a doubt that hybrid tomatoes don't have better yields or longer harvests. Will compiled comprehensive data on all Diggers’ lines at that time — it was the first time work of this magnitude had been done — and Diggers has continued to expand on this work every year since.

Ian Magnus, Diggers’ Trial Manager, is a native of California who came to Australia in 2013 specifically to manage the Diggers Trials and Seed Production program.

Ian has focussed on trial methodology and purpose, maintenance of true-to-type on mother seed lines, as well as developing an Accessions Policy to preserve and test the seed supplied by Diggers Club members.

Growing up amid the orchards and farms of the Santa Clara Valley, Ian had worked in horticulture and agriculture for most of his life, bringing passion and science together to focus on the Diggers’ values of conservation, preservation and education, maintaining seed integrity, germination and, of course, taste! Having developed a close rapport with Seed Savers in the USA, Ian regularly exchanges information with them to ensure varietal maintenance and accuracy. Trials are conducted in several ways and for several reasons:

True-to-type: Seed is grown to make sure it meets the descriptions and specifications set out in the earliest records of that variety.

Comparison trials: Seed of the same species is grown at the same time and under the same conditions to see how each variety performs, with specific focus on plant vigour, health and yield. The produce is then used in taste tests.

Comparison trials are also conducted against the same varietal name offered by other sources to check yield, vigour and true-to-type across the range available.

Taste tests: The Diggers team loves a good taste test, and we have them regularly throughout the year. Most people are familiar with the tomato taste tests which have been running for more than 25 years, but we test everything from radishes to pumpkins, melons and even carrots!

Selection trials: We grow and test “new” varieties to see if they are worth listing for members. These varieties must offer something different or superior to what Diggers already has listed. If they do meet Diggers’ strict criteria, they are then put into production, which usually takes 3 years from trial to being made available to members.

Information trials: Seed is grown on to update missing product information, such as the weight, size and length of the produce, the height and spread of the plant, and the seed's growth information in differing climates.

Products and organic solutions are also tested to ensure they do what they are supposed to.

Trials conducted in 2016-2017

There were several trials conducted over the past 12 months and, while many are still underway, we can share some very exciting results received so far …

Diggers popular Five Colour Silverbeet has been undergoing tests to ensure that each packet contains the 5-7 colours as demonstrated in its earliest release. During this trial, Diggers requested some of our original seed, which had been sent to Seed Savers in the USA, for comparison. From the seed they resupplied, Diggers have just released the Culinary Collection of Silverbeet, selected specifically for cooking (see the member offer on page 25). The flatter leaves are easier to clean and cut and the stems don’t discolour when cooked. With narrower stems and bigger leaves, they are a true gourmet’s delight.

Broccoli trials have been conducted in spring and again in autumn, to test yield throughout the year. From the spring trials, suggested spacings have been adjusted to improve cropping and plant health. Running alongside the autumn broccoli trial is a Cabbage White Butterfly trial with decoys, landcress and other organic solutions. Results so far suggest that cool-weather sowings are certainly preferable if trying to minimise this pesky butterfly!

The complete range of Diggers’ radishes have also been grown in spring/summer as well as autumn/winter, with several taste tests conducted during the hot- and cool-season growth. The radishes are being divided into cool- and warm-season crops, with flavour and texture evaluated throughout the seasons and their development.

The results have shown one variety shining through, no matter which growth season or time of taste — ‘Pink Lady Slipper’ was an all-round winner!

Trials are still underway in Queensland and Victoria, where the same 40 varieties of Diggers heirloom seeds are being grown simultaneously to test yield and performance in different climates.

2016-2017 taste tests

Taste tests are conducted methodically, comparing a standard (which is a Diggers variety of known quantity and quality), a supermarket variety (which sets market standard) and then all other varieties we grow or are looking to include in the Diggers range.

Taste tests are conducted with a minimum of 20-30 people taking part in each test, and most trials are conducted during different phases of the plants development and maturity. This helps to determine ideal time to harvest. Depending on the fruit or vegetable being tested, the criteria are slightly different, but are always the same for that species from year to year.


2021 Tomato taste test results

A weed by any other name

Marcelle Swanson talks about the benefits of weeds and the unexpected culinary delights they can offer.

Heirloom seeds

Heirloom seeds have been carefully selected and saved from the strongest plants each season by generations of gardeners. Exactly like family heirlooms, these seeds preserve what is worth saving for the future.

Peas from the Gold Rush Days

Bernadette Brady digs into the rich history of some gold rush heirlooms

Rescuing Australian Heirlooms

Clive Blazey explores the importance of heirloom seed stewardship and the legacy of the Seed Savers Exchange

SEED - The untold story

Clive Blazey reviews this pivotal documentary.

Sharing an heirloom pea

When May Barnes sent in peas dating from 1853, grown by her family for generations, she knew they were worth sharing.

Should you grow heirloom or modern seeds?

Clive Blazey explains why gardeners must take back control of our seeds

Success with seeds

Tips and tricks from our garden to yours.

True-to-type maintenance of open-pollinated varieties

Ian Magnus talks about maintaining heirloom seed integrity.

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Marcelle Swanson

Marcelle is a sustainable farmer, gardener and horticultural writer. After graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Horticulture) from Burnley, she worked in print, TV, web and published 3 books before joining The Diggers Club as Publishing Manager.

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