HE’S A GO-TO GUY when other seed companies want something special, but when Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed seeks inspiration, he listens to the plants. “The plants showed me what they could do,” Morton says, “and what we could do together.” From his start as a “salad guy” growing greens for restaurants, Morton watched as new traits surfaced, and evolved into a lettuce breeder. From there the plants (and his financially practical wife, Karen) nudged him to become a seed company that grows everything it sells.
He also publishes what is “famously the world’s latest seed catalog” to drop each year, but he’s making no excuses. While other companies are sending out theirs, the Mortons are harvesting the seed those companies ordered from Wild Garden. I’ve bought some gift certificates to share with you—and also gleaned a few of Morton’s plant lessons: about calendula, beneficial insects, and how home gardeners wanting to know just which lettuce to grow can set up their very own seed trial.
FRANK MORTON, whose certified-organic Wild Garden Seed farmland is in Philomath, Oregon, grew salad for 18 years for restaurants, “and that’s when I did my breeding,” he recalls. “I had thousands of seeds and plants going and suddenly there was a red one—an accidental cross between a red Romaine and a green oakleaf. But when I saved its seed, I didn’t get red ones, but traits from both parents.”
A lettuce breeder was born.
“Basically I learned from the lettuce where new varieties come from.”
He learned, too, in short order that different varieties perform best at different times of year, and also this:
“That the whole life cycle of a plant is part of the story.”
“Yes you use the leaves, but you can use the plant right though when blooms start,” says Morton, “and then the flowers attract beneficial insects.
“You don’t just eat the plant for your own food, but also to feed your ecosystem, to make your place attractive to your allies.”
Like the aphid-eating soldier beetles that love those chervil flowers, for instance—assuming you didn’t pull the plants!
Umbel-flowered plants (think: parsley, carrot, fennel) and those in the Mustard family (a.k.a. Brassicas, such as broccoli, turnip, radish) are especially attractive to beneficial insects, he observed, as are calendula, one of the things I asked him about in more detail, in this Q&A:
my q&a with frank morton
Q. When I began growing vegetables, there was not a year my plot didn’t include calendulas, or pot marigold (though of course they are not a marigold). Seeing your catalog photos of the Flashback series (that’s Solar Flashback mix, above) and now the new Citrus Sherbet Mix, and reading about calendulas with less-floppy stems in particular than back then, I long for them again, and wonder why I let them fade out.
You catalog has this further inducement about these easy annuals, that as I recall self-sow prolifically:
“In the field, blooms encourage a host of beneficial insects: minute pirate bugs for thrip control, syrphids for aphids, micro-wasps that parasitize aphids and caterpillars, and native fruit-pollinating solitary bees.”
Sounds good to me! So tell us about your affair with Calendula officinalis, please.
A. Calendula has always been part of my gardens, maybe thanks to John Jeavons suggestion in his book, “How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine,” which was my textbook in the beginning, back in 1980.
By time I began my salad career, I had learned about edible flowers and was enjoying the color fireworks of calendula on my salads. It was easy to begin the same genetic play with calendula as we were enjoying with greens.
By time Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds visited my garden for the first time, ‘Flashback’ calendula was in our seed catalog and all around the garden. Now, and for years, our various calendulas have dominated the Johnny’s selections.
Calendula is just fun, it takes care of itself, is always available when you want some, and has room for re-imagination and improvement. Powdery mildew is a worthy opponent to select against, and the flowers are full of surprises, worth prying forth.
Q. You told me not to ask you how to grow lettuce (or anything!) in my garden; that you can’t advise gardeners everywhere how to grow a particular crop—even lettuce, which you know so well, but from the Oregon-based perspective. (That’s Wild Garden’s farm-original variety ‘Red-Earred Butterheart,’ above, one of 83 kinds they sell.)
A. Where I come up short in my expertise is cultural specificity, yes. How far apart to space lettuce? Well, that depends what you’re growing it for—to cut as baby greens, or as full heads?
“What’s the best lettuce for Florida?” people ask me, and I think, “How would I know?” Instead, I want to tell them how to run a seed trial in their gardens and find out for their location and conditions.
Trials can be super-easy and very informative. A simple “observation trial” can be as simple as 5-10 feet of row for each of several varieties you wish to compare. Plant the seed at the same time and treat each row the same way. By seeing the varieties growing side-by-side, you can’t help but learn their differences and what you like and dislike about each kind.
It is the simple fact of their “contemporariness” (being together in time and space) that reveals their comparative natures. This is something anyone can do in a small space.
[Explore lettuce varieties at Wild Garden Seed, 83 varieties at last count!]
Q. So what about when you conduct trials, as a professional? I assume it gets more complicated, but I’m curious.
A. More extensive trials would add “replications” of the observation plot, other identical plots in a different location. This isn’t necessary for most gardeners, but is critical for farmers, breeders or researchers who are trying to distinguish highest yield, best disease resistance, or other fine points of distinction that are not obvious when looking at just a few plants.
If one needs to employ statistics in comparing varieties, then the number of plants grown in each replication needs to be at least 27 to give meaningful results. The higher the numbers, the more replications, the more reliable the results in teasing out differences that are not apparent in a simple observation trial.
afterword, more from wild garden seed
BECAUSE OF THE MORTONS’ view of a farm or garden as a complex community or ecosystem, you’ll find lots of information about the interaction between the plants and other creatures in the website and catalog descriptions, and also lots of other “aha’s.”
A for-instance: that lettuce is “one of the very oldest garden plants,” and though misunderstood as being low in nutrients, is actually not. “Crisp-leaf head lettuce is one of the richest vegetable sources of choline (an essential brain nutrient) in the normal American diet,” says the website. “Get focused. Eat lettuce.” My advice: sit down for a good read with a salad and the Wild Garden Seed website or catalog soon.
enter to win the wild garden gift certificates
I’VE PURCHASED TWO $20 gift certificates from Frank and Karen Morton at Wild Garden Seed to share with you. To enter, simply comment below by answering the question:
Is there a plant in your garden that you’ve noticed is a lure for “good bugs,” that perhaps you let go to flower accidentally or on purpose?
My answer: I always let my parsley go by, and dill is another real magnet—and last year I let carrots and turnips stay and bloom, too, and it was the place to be if you were an insect. Fascinating.
Don’t have an answer right now, or feeling shy? Just say, “Count me in” and I will, no worry. I’m easy. I’ll pick two winners at random after entries close after midnight on Sunday, February 3. Good luck to all.
(Photos courtesy of Wild Garden Seed.)