Annual vs Manual

I’ve received two seed catalogues in the mail in the last couple of weeks.  The Diggers Seed Annual and the Lambley Nursery Seed Manual.  They’re almost identical in size and glossiness etc, but couldn’t be more different in their underlying philosophy, particularly in regard to their vegetable seeds.

The Lambley catalogue is a relative newcomer, and totally celebrates the power of modern breeding (emphatically non-GM breeding) to overcome diseases, climatic intolerances and other limitations of old varieties.

The Diggers Club has for years taken a ‘what’s old is new’ approach, slamming all new developments including genetic modification as well as the more benign F1 hybrid technology in favour of heirloom varieties.

I’m kind of enjoying the stoush, as polite as it is.  And we home gardeners, with no need for the argument to be so polarized, are the beneficiaries.

I love the diversity-for-diversity’s-sake approach of The Diggers Club.  I love the breadth of choice, and the recognized importance of maintaining as many of the old varieties as possible.  I even love the romance associated with growing varieties that my great-grandparents may have eaten.  But there are limitations to the heirloom argument, the most compelling being that these varieties were usually the result of many years of scrupulous selection, and that maintenance of this quality requires ongoing careful selection, which is rarely exercised.   Some believe that the quality of many of these old varieties has diminished significantly over time as a consequence.

On the other hand, I love the personal nature of the Lambley catalogue.  It’s more of a personal selection, in fact, than a comprehensive catalogue, and many of the varieties listed are the result of David Glenn’s own frustration with the failure of older varieties and his long-term search for the best for his own vegie garden.  Additionally and consequently, the catalogue is peppered with hard-won tips that may seem like easy give-aways to the new gardener, but are priceless gems to the gardener that may have dealt with long-term failure of certain crops – like me.

I also love, but confess to being a bit disarmed by, the confidence expressed in recent breeding.  We’ve been conditioned to be very skeptical about the motives of breeders of vegetables.  But I’m also used to listening to, and trusting, David Glenn’s findings.  I’ll certainly be trying some of his recommended F1 hybrids this year (despite the elevated cost, which David defends as good value, given the very high germination rates of his seed).

Make sure you get hold of both the Annual and the Manual.  Let’s hope that the rise of the latter reflects a resurgence in the home gardeners’ commitment to, and confidence in, the processes of growing their own vegies from seed.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Great post! I think you put both sides of the argument well.
    Couple of thoughts:
    F1 hybrids lock one into the cycle of the modern breeders’ business model (you can’t reproduce these yourself) and I rankle at that (a bit).
    On the other hand if it works and the benefits outweigh the costs … well why wouldn’t you?
    The corollary is that it will eventually punch a hole in diversity and that is a BAD thing. We need reasons to keep those genes alive and kicking. They might not produce the same sized crop but for sure they will be useful somewhere in the scheme of things, sometime, somewhere.
    Cheers, Marcus

    1. Thanks Marcus. Yeah, I could have written thousands of words, but thought I’d stick with one major point on each side.
      I totally agree with your addenda. I hate being locked to the breeders business model, but if there’s a proven benefit to the gardener, and it isn’t just motivated by business greed…
      And as for the necessity to hang onto diversity for food security, and even for gene pools for future breeding, there’s simply no argument that we’re greatly indebted to those that have hung on to the old varieties. I love collecting my own seed and all that, but won’t be afraid to supplement those crops with the some F1 hybrids if the results are as good for me as David Glenn says they are for him

    2. Thank you for such a terrific provocative post. Coming from a predominantly agricultural region, the topic of hybrid vs heritage seed polarises opinions; each side holding compelling arguments. I must admit there was a tiny little cringe impulse felt when reading my Lambley Manual and saw so many hybrid seed offerings. I was born into a traditional farming family, where Dad saved the best of the crop for next year. Sadly for us, Dad stopped farming way before his time some 22 years ago, but I do recall well, him weighing the benefits of higher yields vs being locked to suppliers. Had he been around a little longer, he would have been grappling with the next moral challenge; GM seeds, some of which have been developed using Gene Shears in a research centre in our own home town! Having said all that; I wonder if many home gardeners, including myself, have a perhaps unfairly placed cringe impulse about F1 hybrids because their understanding of their use is more in a broadacre context? Maybe the cringe can be put in it’s place if we think about the context as well …In the winter I do have fab and generous broccoli in my veggie patch… and it is F1.

    3. It’s a really good point, Jenni. The concerns in the broadacre context (which would appear, from my suburban background, to most obviously be the dangers of monocultures, and the dangers of being locked to suppliers, as you put it) are much less relevant in the normally very diverse environment of the home vegetable garden. But like you, I had that tiny cringe impulse. Surely there’s room for both – the best of both.

  2. I was totally on the heirloom side of this argument until I heard David Glenn speak about his experiences with heirloom seed, which mirrored mine. I thought it was my lack of skill, but David assured me “blame the seeds”. Liking this point of view (a lot), I bought some seed from Lambley and will be trying it this spring. If I don’t get better results this time, though, there really will be no one left to blame but me.

    1. Yes, I’m sure there’s a lot of disillusioned gardeners out there blaming themselves for their failures – particularly since garden TV has insisted that growing vegies is dead-easy. I find that it takes all the brain capacity I’ve got, and even then I can’t pretend to be proud of the results. Having said that, I’ve found it fun right from the start, notwithstanding the failures.

      Clearly we’d be mad to condemn heirloom seeds as a group. It would just appear that the discrimination that was required to develop these once great varieties hasn’t necessarily continued, and that some are suffering as a result. By the same token, we’ve got to be more discriminating ourselves than just being swayed by the heirloom romance, or the often-unquestioned thinking that everything in the past was better.

      I’m more than prepared to do my bit for the preservation of diversity, but that doesn’t mean that I have to be opposed to further breeding

      I’ll be very interested to hear how you go this year, Lyn

  3. Since Lamely, oops Lambley, can’t be bothered with Western Australia, I’ll stick with Diggers. It’s an attitude thing. They actually have the nerve to say “We offer a very good mail order service and orders are sent to all states except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.” Leaving out half the country isn’t very good service…

  4. Hi Michael
    The almost 100% germination rate I’ve managed using both Goodmans and Lambley seeds left me scratching my head somewhat at the rather low success rate achieved when using Diggers seeds. So I’ve been cheating by using Diggers seedling punnets as I find these give much better results. I agree Michael, diversity is the key. There is now such a huge range available to home gardeners that identical veggie plots in the neighborhood are increasingly less likely then ever before. I find many gardener visitors to our nursery are growing mixes of heirloom and commercial varieties. I do keep some of my seeds with varying levels of success though most sown show at least half germination. Our fave are the heirloom sapphire and cranberry spud orphans which keep appearing every year.
    Regards Helen
    Birches Nsy Leura NSW

  5. I have tried both Diggers and Lambley. Starting with Diggers, and having believed in their romantic attachment to heritage varieties, I was frustrated that the watermelons didn’t ripen and that the tomatoes turned up their toes way too early in the season. Lambley seeds last year exploded with dozens of small sweet and healthy watermelons, and my family, friends and workmates could not believe how tasty and early all other varieties of melons were (we grew too many to be able to eat them all in the end). Sorry, Diggers, I have jumped the fence. Healthy progress doesn’t hurt, does it? ?

  6. I see using the F1 hybrids as a viable and proper form of outsourcing. As you point out many of the old varieties have lost their vavoom from a lack of proper selection and breeding so I support the efforts of experts to do that work for me. I also can see the benefits of keeping all that genetic material available but from a home gardener’s point of view, I found using heirloom varieties to be a slippery slope to abandoning vegetable gardening forever.

    1. The classic such story is that of Russell lupins. The guys who developed them (George Russell) was totally obsessive about super-dense clubs of bloom with absolutely no stem visible between the whorls of flowers. He was ruthless with them over a period of twenty years, immediately grubbing out and destroying any that didn’t come up to his exacting standards. I’ve heard that bystanders virtually whinced, and would have been very glad to have grown his rejects, but he’d have none of it. No once since he parted with this crop to a seed merchant has been nearly so discerning, and it’s often said that none of the plants currently sold as Russell lupins would come even close to the original standard.

      Such decline isn’t so easy to detect where the original intent of the breeder isn’t really measurable or even known, but it’s virtually inevitable.

      That, of course, is absolutely no reason to reject heirlooms as a group, but its a very good reason to be discerning about each and every one of them we grow, and stick with those that perform best for us, in our particular climate, and not just get swept up in the rhetoric and romance

  7. For 7 years I have taught kitchen garden classes at Glenmore House in Camden NSW and grow a kitchen garden on the Newcastle coast as well. Mickey Robertson and I exclusively select heirloom vegetable seeds from Diggers, Eden, Green Harvest and Greenpatch Organic Seeds. I have never had an issue with them. Together we have trialed hundreds of different tomatoes, legumes, leafy greens, brassicas, cucumber and root veg. In the tomato corner our harvests are v similar to the yields on the labels (thanks Diggers for the challenge!).
    Apart from the odd climate-related or fruit-fly related failure thown in, we wouldn’t change a thing. We have collected seed from favourites and perpetuated them again and again and again with big results (the 8 of us are trying to eat through 3 square metres of ‘Freckles’ lettuce my 6 year old daughter sowed by just waving the seedhead around like a wand!).

    In our Sydney garden Dad has always slipped the odd F1 tomato hybrid into the patch citing the disease argument. Fine but disappointing on the taste scale and lacking the profusion of heirlooms. This year Mum tried the F1 Carrot ‘Napoli’ from Lambleys (a carrot for cooler months) 100% germaination and uniform results.

    I don’t really get the negative side to your heirloom argument… ‘susceptibility to disease, climate intolerance and other limitiations’. I have experienced none. I completely understand David Glenn is gardening in an ‘intolerant’ extreme environment with little natural rain. That must have a bearing on his selection but irrelevant to me where I am. I do think different vegetable seed companies choose varieties for their specific climates for example I think Eden Seeds and Green Harvest are better suited to subtropical climates. Australia is a big place.
    My ‘heirloom’ community of Catherine Hill Bay would be very disappointed if I didn’t sow & grow 300 Tomato ‘Hillbilly’ plants each year for the village fete fundraiser! This West Virginian variety was given to me by chef Peter Gilmore in a little package of 12 seeds 10 years back. I look forward to each plant yielding 13kg of peach and red streaked beefsteak wonders – Summer just would be summer without them.
    Regards, Linda.

    1. Thanks Linda – great to hear a vote for both sides (which also happens to reflect my intentions).

      The quote you refer to as a negative vote for heirlooms was actually a positive vote for current breeding, which isn’t quite the same thing. When I refer to recent breeding addressing susceptibility to disease, I’m thinking of its ability to address well-recognised problems such as powdery mildew on cucumbers and zucchini. As for climatic intolerance, I’m thinking of the recent breeding to adapt long-season crops for zones with a short season (such as melons for climates like David Glenn’s and mine here in Woodend), and by ‘other limitations’ I was thinking of the breeding that addressed issues like premature bolting.

      Each of these has also been addressed in the past within traditional open pollinated selection (and therefore under the umbrella of ‘heirloom’), but if recent breeding has made further advances, I don’t see any reason not to tap into the benefits, particularly in areas where these limitations are at their most crippling.

      Do you keep good records of your sowing and harvest dates etc Linda? The info and experience you’ve gathered over that time would be priceless. Wish I could do a download from your brain to mine…

  8. Hi Michael, I too have both seed manuals but also like to save seed. I worry about possible pesticide residue in modern seeds so tend to buy heirloom and garden as organically as I can. On requesting info from an organic magazine I was referred to look at the website of the Environment Working Group (USA). They list an analysis on new born babies with very high numbers of pesticides already in their little bodies at birth! Pesticides are obviously being passed through generations and this makes me question whether this is happening with our seeds also since the introduction of pesticides. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    1. Thanks Bev. The question, then, would be whether any pesticide residues on seeds can be translocated into the adult plant, and if so, is their presence at all measurable. Since pesticides (unlike spliced genes) don’t replicate along with the growth of the plant, one assumes that the tiny quantities carried on a seed would be infinitessimally small in relation to the adult plant. Nevertheless, there’s the obvious concerns about handling such seed, and any residues in the soil, however small.
      My understanding is that pesticides might linger in us, as animals, following ingestion, but plants don’t ‘ingest’ pesticides in the same way, and the only way that pesticides could pass through to the next generation via seed is to become part of their DNA. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong on this, but as far as I know, the only way this can happen is via GM, not via traditionally applied pesticides.
      Either way, I honour your efforts to ‘garden as organically as you can’. So do I

    2. Michael,

      I wonder how many people who worry about “pesticide residues” are aware that our common food plants are laced with so many naturally occurring pesticides (many being known carcinogens) that we typically consume 1.5g of them per day? I wonder how many are aware that treasured disease resistant variety they plant in the home veggie patch is only disease resistant because produces a more potent cocktail of pesticides?

      Every plant toxicologist knows this but very few science journalists are brave enough to write about it.

      Here is widely cited and seminal paper from 1990 with BN Ames as the leader author (famous for the Ames Test) that covers this topic.

      Now I’m going to enjoy a cup of coffee, complete with 1,000 plus identified chemicals including at least 40 known carcinogens 😉

    3. I wasn’t aware myself, Mel. Seems like a lot of what we blithely consume contains carcinogens. Maybe it’s like so many infections – always lurking around, but unable to get a foot-hold in a healthy person.
      Thanks for the link. Very interesting indeed

  9. Wow, four days since this started and no extremist views yet! (insert grin emoticon here)
    We’ve just put in our order for seeds from David. It does rankle that F1 hybrids can’t be reproduced from saved seed, but I guess that that is the trade off – good yields but you have to buy the seed each year from the supplier.
    Last year we tried to find seed of Golden Bantam Sweet Corn everywhere and eventually got them from Mt Eliza Seed at a stall at the Mt Macedon Plant Lovers Market! To me this is an “heirloom” variety as it was just about the only one available when I was a kid and what we grew in our veggie patch. It actually did better for us that the F1 hybrid which we also tried (but didn’t keep seed because of the likelihood of cross pollinating). We’ll probably try both of them again this year, so our garden will contain open pollinated “heritage” types as well as F1 hybrids (even some F2 where their seeds have fallen),

    1. Yeah, clearly it’d be mad to say that from a yield or performance point of view, F1 is consistently better, or heirloom is consistently better. Every single one needs to be judged on its merits, for each microclimate.
      And one thing that hasn’t come up at all is the matter of seed collection, storage and consequent viability. It makes sense that commercially expensive seed is going to be carefully collected, cleaned and immediately stored (probably hermetically sealed) while home grown heirloom seed is likely to be collected, hung in a brown paper bag, and probably stored there until next year. That alone is going to account for a huge difference in viability (depending on the species).

  10. Hi Michael,

    I made an impulsive decision to take out a five year Diggers membership that I now deeply regret. I cannot stand Clive’s obsessive and blundering arguments about GM and the evil Monsanto etc… I also cannot help but notice how Clive’s propaganda happily aligns with his financial self-interest 😉

    I consider myself Green but also a pro-technology realist. Many of the old “heirloom varieties” that Clive romanticizes have gone out of fashion because they actually aren’t much good. In poor countries, where heirloom varieties often mean low yield and hunger, aid organisations are saving lives by giving farmers better seeds and stock. I doubt Clive approves.

    Maybe I’ll sign up with the Lambley catalogue because they sound more realistic. And I hope I live long enough to see a large range of GM plants available to the home gardener.

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