WHAT IF I TOLD YOU there’s a new way to shop for seed where your purchase yields not just the packets, but also educational support, and the invitation to share your feedback—to participate in a virtual seed trial essentially, citizen-science style.
Now I know that was a mouthful, but it’s a brave new increasingly virtual world out there. And I want us to get in on the ground floor and learn more about the promise and potential of a newish entity called SeedLinked.com that a number of expert friends are part of.
One who is participating tipped me off to a selection of curated seed collections that are part of the bigger digital undertaking. To learn more I called Bjorn Bergman, who curated the SeedLinked lettuce collection and is also part of the SeedLinked team.
Wisconsin-based Bjorn is, like each of us, an avid gardener, and he’s also a long-time participant in various Seed Savers Exchange programs. And he confessed to being positively mad for growing and eating salad.
Read along as you listen to the November 23, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
seedlinked’s curated seed collections, with bjorn bergman
Margaret Roach: Thanks for making time today, Bjorn.
Bjorn Bergman: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on Margaret. It’s a pleasure to be here today.
Margaret: So like I said: brave new world, and also it’s a bit of a mouthful. It’s not your basic seed-shopping experience or seed experience at all. So I want to sort of start… We’re going to talk mostly about the curated seed collections, which are fun and great for giving as a gift as well during this upcoming holiday season. But I want to first backtrack and get the sort of elevator pitch on SeedLinked, the bigger project that this is a dimension of, and what problem it’s trying to address as a whole and so forth. So can you do that for us? Can you help us with that?
Bjorn: Yeah, for sure. I’d love to. And I guess to connect with all the listeners here, I want to have everyone kind of envision when they go and purchase seeds every spring, kind of spreading out all those seed catalogs on the counter and perusing through all the pages, which I know is one of the most delightful things during the wintertime to do. So you’re looking through all these seed catalogs and you’re trying to decide what to grow. You might be allured by the beautiful pictures or the description. You might have a friend that told you that this variety is great ,and it’s delicious, and performs well.
But when I kind of think of that idea compared with today’s tech world, where we’re so connected, then it’s kind of an outdated model. With so many other things we can go on and look at reviews of things before we buy them, whether it be a car, a child seat, a bicycle, or even visiting a restaurant.
With seeds there’s really not the equivalent of that.
So at SeedLinked.com, we’re really aiming to kind of connect the dots between all the different seed-industry stakeholders—so gardeners, and farmers, and seed companies, seed breeders, and chefs—and bring them together on our platform to help kind of create a more collaborative and resilient seed system to help serve people.
So at the highest level—and we’re not quite there yet, we’re a startup business—but gardeners and farmers can go onto our sites and search for varieties. Maybe, say, they want to find a tomato that performs well by where they’re growing. They can search for tomatoes and find reviews for tomatoes from other people that have grown tomatoes by them.
So like you said, it’s a big citizen-science project, and we just welcome everyone to the table to participate.
Margaret: So one new way in this, again, newish overall bigger project of SeedLinked.com, one new way people can participate right now is that they can order some of these curated seed collections, like the one you have put together of some favorite lettuces. So that’s a little different from even if I went and bought a lettuce assortment at a regular seed catalog, it’s a little bit different. So let’s then say, what is the seed collection aspect of SeedLinked?
Bjorn: Yeah, definitely. We created it kind of in response to this past spring with COVID-19 pandemic.
Margaret: Oh boy [laughter].
Bjorn: Yeah, yeah. I know that in your world, Margaret, there’s just so many people that were excited about gardening for the first time, wanting to buy seeds. Seed companies were seeing sales that were 200 and 300 percent higher than they’re used to. We saw all of this happening at SeedLinked, and we were like, “How can we plug in to this excitement about gardening, and capture all these new gardeners and help them along the way to be successful with growing things for the first time?”
Seed Collections was born out of that interest. What the idea is, is that we partnered with some really awesome food-system changemakers, and they curated a collection of varieties together. So what I did is I curated three of my favorite lettuce varieties that I love growing in my backyard garden, and folks can go on and buy that collection. But beyond just getting the lettuce seeds, they get a really guided learning experience from the curators. The curator does a live check-in three times throughout the growing season with participants.
Bjorn: Yeah, yeah. They get to learn how to maybe like plant the seeds at the beginning of the season, check in midseason, maybe look at disease or maybe pest problems. And then at the end of the season, looking at harvest and how to use these delicious vegetables in your kitchen, which is why we all garden in the first place, or grow vegetables in the first place, is to enjoy the bounty in the kitchen.
Then the other piece to this as well is that folks are part of a collaborative trial with the collection as well. So they’re invited to create an account on SeedLinked. Through our website—and we also have a mobile app—people can rate each variety, how it performs in their garden or on their farm. So they rate different traits like appearance, flavor, yield, disease resistance, and all of those of ratings they provide are part of our citizen-science database that other folks can search in the future.
The other piece as well is on our site, there’s a social feed where people can interact with other people that are participating, with the curators, ask questions, answer questions, and just share their expertise.
Margaret: So this reminds me a little bit, isn’t there some kind of weather citizen-science project where people participate and there’s also some chats and a Facebook group. I’m trying to remember the name. It’s a funny name. O.K.
Bjorn: Yeah. I might not get the acronym totally correct. But it’s Cocorahs out of Fort Collins, Colorado.
Margaret: Right. C O C O R A H S. Right. Right. And I don’t remember. The last part is Rain, Hail, and Snow Network. I know that because it’s about precipitation, right? It’s like everyone contributes their precipitation observations.
Bjorn: Yeah. It’s an incredibly powerful network. I think there’s about 20,000 people nationwide that participate, there’s just an online app that people record any precipitation data that they have in their location. It’s a big citizen-science project, and all of that data being updated daily is incredibly powerful for climate scientists to look at different trends in weather. And so, yeah, there are very similar projects, but this is the first time someone’s tried to do it with seeds and varieties, with SeedLinked.
Margaret: Right. And like with weather where the hyper-local is so critical, seed being alive, genetic material, and like all living things adapted to certain situations or not. You know, not all seed is created equal and it doesn’t all work the same, and isn’t as susceptible to particular climate or weather conditions and insects, and they’re locally present and etc. So I mean, to have eventually, if you end up with 20,000 participants, some of whom I hope are listening today, future participants-
Margaret: …we can have this different way to shop for seed. Or if not even to shop, to just look and say, “What would be a good tomato for me?” like you said earlier, when I’m in upstate New York and someone else is in Illinois. To find other people who have tried it in my conditions would be amazing. Right?
Bjorn: Yeah. That’s one of the things I’m most excited about with SeedLinked. Even for my curated lettuce collection, I know how these lettuces perform in my backyard in Wisconsin, but I’m really eager to see if someone plants them in say Texas, or Florida, or Southern California, or Washington, or Maine, how they perform.
A lot of times these varieties were, like you said, bred in a specific place and they kind of really perform best where they were bred. But what happens when you remove them from those conditions and plant them elsewhere? They can look very different depending on the climate, the soil, and whatnot.
So what’s super-intriguing about SeedLinked because we can start looking at those differences of how things perform across geography. I know I’m just excited for people to join my lettuce trial. And at the end of the season, we can look and see how these lettuces perform in different regions of the United States.
Margaret: Now, do you want me to write in if I participate, is there a fill-in-the-blank, like “other” field in the database where I could say, “The woodchuck ate it.” [Laughter.] Can I say that?
Bjorn: [Laughter.] Yeah. Yeah. Look at our online platform. There’s a way to say that you’ve had a crop failure or something, and you can write a note field. Another fun thing about it is you can upload pictures. So with our phone app, you can just take pictures on your phone and it instantly uploads them for each variety onto our database. So you can show us exactly what you’re seeing. You can enter just general reflections about things, on how it performs and what your thoughts are.
But there’s also traits, like I said, that you’re going to rate that the curator kind of picks. So for my lettuce collection, I’ve picked bolt-resistance. With lettuce that’s something that’s pretty important: lettuce being tolerant to different types of heat and not going to seed super-early so you can enjoy the harvest. And then other things like flavor, which is so important to gardeners. We want to grow these vegetables so that they taste delicious and pretty much all the time they do. But we want to try to find the cream of the crop, things that are going to taste the best for our location.
Margaret: Right. So some of these other… you referred to them as change-makers, some of the other people who are invited to curate collections. Because it’s not like a giant seed catalog of thousand varieties of everything. You can’t go from A to Z and get your whole garden. This first rollout that you’re doing right now with SeedLinked, the Seed Collections, it’s a limited number of collections of three or four or whatever kinds of seeds.
Some of the other curators are people who have been on my show a lot, friends, like the dwarf tomato geek of all geeks [above], Craig LeHoullier [laughter]. And Culinary Breeding Network founder, Lane Selman—she’s doing peppers and I think cutting celery. Who even knew about cutting celery, but she wants us to know about it. And Nate Kleinman of Experimental Farm Network with his perennial vegetable collection, which we talked about last year on the show together. I think he’s doing kales also. And the Organic Seed Alliance and Meg Cowden of Seed to Fork.
Like really, really top-notch people have decided to join you in doing this. But they’re not providing the seed. Right? I mean, where’s the seed coming from?
Bjorn: Yeah. So SeedLinked is taking care of sourcing all of the seed and putting it together. They’re just providing the expertise. So they’ve selected some of their favorite varieties that they want to include in these collections and want to share with you. They are just committing to going on this journey with folks to grow them and help them be successful with growing them.
But yes, SeedLinked is coordinating the whole effort. So we’re getting seed. We’re sending it out to participants. We’re inviting them to create an account on SeedLinked.com and then they’re providing all their feedback through our online platform. So we’re kind of the central hub of the Seed Collections. Then these curators have just really liked what we’re up to and really wanted to participate in kind of this innovative learning experience around different crops.
Margaret: And all the varieties aren’t brand new. It’s not that you’re trialing them because they’re brand new. Some are lesser-known, more known, right? I mean, it’s a mix of things.
Bjorn: Yeah. If you look through the seed collections, it’s such a huge diversity of different things, depending on what the curator is interested in and wants to share with people. There’s something there for everyone.
And I know, like you mentioned Craig earlier, who it’s just such a pleasure to chat with and learn from. His excitement about tomatoes is just so infectious. I know I just want to like plant three more rows of tomatoes in my garden every time I hear from him.
But Craig has grown thousands of varieties of tomatoes over his whole entire life. He’s curated three different tomato collections, and picked out some of his favorites. Some of these are going to be old heirlooms, and some of them are going to be newly bred things, like things from his Dwarf Tomato breeding project that he wants more people to try and get more feedback from. So yeah, it’s not just old things. It’s not just new things. It’s quite a mix of everything in between.
Margaret: And what’s great. I mean, your timing is really good because I don’t think the seeds will ship till in the new year to people, sort of like with a normal catalog, but we can do it now. If I want to give… Don’t tell my sister, but let’s say I want to give her the cutting celery collection from Lane Selman, or whatever, I can put in her email and she’s going to get the education. She’s going to get to join, right, to become part of it? She’s going to get to give her feedback, right? I mean, I’m giving her the seeds plus the experience if I give it as a gift. Is that right? [Above, ‘White Queen’ leaf celery from Lane Selman’s collection.]
Bjorn: Yeah, yeah, for sure. And that’s why we’ve launched this project now, because we really feel like it’s a great gift to give for people during the holiday season. And yeah, like you mentioned, folks can purchase the seeds, and then put in the recipient’s email, and they’ll get notified later when you want them to get the notification that they were given a gift of a seed collection.
They’ll get asked to create a SeedLinked.com account and be part of this experience growing cutting celery, growing tomatoes with Craig, growing cabbage with Meg Cowden. I know when I started gardening, gosh, like 14 years ago, I wish I had this to help me along in the process of learning how to grow things.
Margaret: Well, and that’s the thing, is that gardeners traditionally, as with farming, there’s a mentorship. There’s a hand-me-down. There’s you learned from your grandmother, or you learned from your neighbor, or you learned from someone who’s already tried it in your local spot. Right?
Bjorn: Yeah, for sure. And with the wonder of technology, especially the technology swirl that we’ve been thrown in with the pandemic, increasingly we’re learning from more and more people online. Yeah, I’m excited about this form of sharing growing expertise with a wider audience so that everyone can be successful.
Margaret: So that eventually maybe, I mean wouldn’t it be amazing if like even five people in each state or region, even a smallish number of people to find out, “How did you do?” “Oh, I did well, too.” “Oh, this one worked better for me.” “Oh, me, too.” You know, I love that. I just love the idea of it, the potential for it.
Now how many people right now? So SeedLinked already has an up-and-running kind of trialing thing going on for a while that didn’t come from the Seed Collections. How many people are involved in the SeedLinked participatory database already?
Bjorn: Yeah, so we launched our first software in 2019, and have been working with university research trialing programs and with other different nonprofits that work around seeds. Right now we have about 1,800 and counting people that are participating and rating varieties on our network right now.
We’re just excited about continually adding folks to that network, and kind of improving the data points. Like you said, if five people in each state grew my lettuce collection and we had 250 data points of how each of those three lettuce varieties performed in each of those states, that would be immensely helpful in helping other people find varieties that grow well for them. And so, yeah, I’m just ecstatic about the possibilities of connection and collaboration, and just sharing data openly.
Margaret: And the sharing and the openly part, because from having been a garden writer for so many decades, I know the link to the old-style list over at Cornell, or Rutgers, or wherever it is, and North Carolina State University, or University of California-Davis, blah, blah, blah. I know where there’s like a great chart that compares all the tomato varieties as far as X disease or Y pest or whatever, or flavor. [Above, ‘Speckled Roman’ tomato, part of the Roma Adventures tomato collection at SeedLinked. All the SeedLinked tomato collections are here.]
But they’re not accessible. They’re not in a thing that is interactive, that can then be added to and that’s dynamic. There are these charts and graphs and they’re flat, they’re untouchable files. You can look at them on your browser, but that’s about it. And there’s so much information that can be put together. It’s going to be very exciting to get that kind of stuff that exists out there, but much more regional and much more interactive, I think will be very exciting.
Bjorn: Yeah. I’m glad that you mentioned that, Margaret. There’s actually, like you said, there’s tons of data out there already from all these different university breeding programs. But it’s just not all aggregated in one spot, and we’re really hoping that SeedLinked.com just becomes this central location where everyone can plug in their data points and just really help people with the process. Whether it be farmers finding the right variety in their field, gardeners finding the right variety for their garden, breeders that are breeding new varieties and want feedback on it. The possibilities are really endless.
Margaret: In the last couple of minutes I wanted to ask you, Mr. Lettuce Lover and Grower, do you want to give us just the two-minute course and any tips or anything about lettuce? Are you a direct-sower? Are you a transplanter who starts seedlings inside, or both? Anything about lettuce that you want to share?
Bjorn: Yeah, for sure. For sure. My wife and I just love eating lettuce. We eat lettuce with breakfast every morning. I don’t expect everyone to be that enthusiastic about it.
But yeah, for the longest time I was into like lettuce mixes that I direct-seeded really close together. And in the last few years I started transplanting things out. So starting seeds in soil flats underneath lights in my basement, and then planting them out in the garden.
I started doing that just because I realized I was going through so much more seed when I was doing like a lettuce mix sort of thing. So I really prefer to do heads of lettuce. And I don’t usually wait until the head of lettuce gets full size before I harvest it. I just keep on cutting like the bigger leaves off the side, just cause I can’t wait any longer to enjoy the first lettuce of the season or enjoy a salad. So I just kind of continually harvest the leaves on the outer edges of the florets.
The other thing that I would recommend to people, and I’m sure folks as gardeners realize this, but there’s such a huge diversity of lettuce out there. I know with my seed collection, I’ve got one heirloom variety, a really old German heirloom variety called ‘Forellenschluss’ [above] that’s really delicious and beautiful. But then I picked two other brand new varieties from Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seeds.
Margaret: Yay, Frank! [Laughter.]
Bjorn: Yeah. Frank is one of my breeding heroes, so anytime I can I try to get seeds from him. I always am picking out new lettuce varieties from Frank, and so I picked two of my favorite lettuce varieties, ‘Red-Eared Butterheart,’ and ‘Merlot Red Oak’ from Wild Garden Seeds. These are two things that I’ve grown in my garden and have grown to love and have every single year. But yeah, I don’t know, with lettuce, I think it’s super-important just to keep experimenting, keep trying new varieties.
Lettuce is just such a work of art. When you go and look at it in the garden, it’s just stunningly beautiful. And when you start paging through all these different new varieties that the breeders have produced, especially talking about Frank’s work, it’s just so much fun and you get to eat it, too. It’s like artwork, and you get to enjoy it in your kitchen.
Margaret: Indeed. Well Bjorn Bergman with SeedLinked.com and these new seed collections. I’m glad you kind of opened it up for us early on so hopefully some of my listeners and readers, as I am going to do, want to jump in and look around. If they decide to purchase something, good, and hopefully get some education and participate and give their feedback along the way. So thanks for making time today.
Bjorn: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on and thanks to everyone for taking a look and maybe participating.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 23, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).