Behind the seeds

Master Gardeners help Minnesotans find the best plant varieties



What do Firecracker dwarf sunflower, Emerald Tower basil, Amazing cauliflower and Sugar Ann snap peas have in common? They’re all varieties that won first place in the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener seed trials.

Each year since 1982, Extension Master Gardener volunteers from around Minnesota grow specific vegetables, flowers and herbs from seed in their own gardens and community gardens, carefully observing how each variety performs. The data is compiled to produce recommendations for Minnesota gardeners looking for the best varieties of a certain plant. 


A woman leans in to look at her seedlings under plant lights

Sue Schiess


“We’re trying to serve as sort of the consumer reports of seeds," says Sue Schiess, a Master Gardener volunteer from Hennepin County and the chair of the seed trials planning committee. "We buy the seed, we grow the seed and we provide feedback.” 

Most seed companies are not based in Minnesota. The seed trials give gardeners information about how the plants perform in Minnesota climates. Behind those recommendations is a tremendous amount of time and effort from a dedicated team of Master Gardeners. The committee that manages the trials begins planning the following year’s trials in October. 


How it works


Each year, Master Gardeners conduct about eight seed trials of a particular plant with six varieties per trial. The committee researches and selects the types and varieties for the trials, with the goal of ordering seeds by December.

Master Gardeners who want to participate in the seed trials apply for the trial or trials they are interested in, and the seeds arrive in early spring. Most of the plants are directly sown into participants’ gardens or containers, but some require an earlier start indoors. 

Along with the usual tasks of watering, weeding and tending plants, volunteers track the different varieties and collect data such as germination rates, disease susceptibility and yields. 

Seedlings, especially, require attention. “I check those little plants every single day,” says Blue Earth County Master Gardener Ruth Tweto of the seedlings she’s growing for this year’s trial.


A woman at the table with three children who are measuring green beans

Ruth Tweto and three of her grandchildren measure green beans.


Not a lonely endeavor


The seed trials have a way of drawing in others from the family and community. Vegetables and herbs involve a taste test, and the Master Gardeners often invite their families to join. Last year, Tweto’s grandchildren helped her taste test green beans. (The Seychelles variety took first place overall for pole green beans.)

“They thought that was great. I had six little grandkids sitting around table eating green beans so it just kind of gets them enthused about gardening,” she says. She’s also led garden tours of her garden and showed the trials in progress.


Surprises are part of the learning


Sometimes the seed trials produce surprises, good and bad. A trial of green-flowered zinnias revealed a few plants that produced red flowers instead. Sometimes none of the seeds come up, or die as seedlings, despite the gardeners carefully following the growing directions. 


A woman holds up green mizuna, which looks like a huge bright green cheerleader pom pom.

Cynthia Surprenant with green mizuna


It’s a disappointing experience, but as Brown County Master Gardener Cynthia Surprenant says, “One of the things you need to learn is what doesn't work, what doesn't go right.” 

The trials also expose gardeners to new plants they may not have grown otherwise. Surprenant had never heard of green mizuna before trialing it, and now it’s one of her favorites. 

Selecting seeds to trial also reveals surprises, Schiess says, such as learning that seeds sold under two different names are the same variety or getting fewer seeds than expected of a particular variety.

If there’s one constant in the seed trials, it’s learning. 

“I learn something new every year,” says Schiess, who’s been a Master Gardener for 20 years. Suprenant says part of what keeps her signing up for seed trials is a sense of curiosity.



The Drummer and The Wright County Journal Press

PO Box 159
108 Central Ave.
Buffalo MN 55313

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