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Seeds travel a long path to the garden

Seeds from garden centers or on order by mail from catalog suppliers represent much more than attractively lithographed packets enclosing vegetable varieties. The seed industry comprises a world of development, production, collection, cleaning, packaging, marketing and shipping.

An important industry, it requires special services of plant breeders to develop more superior seeds; plant pathologists to produce disease- and insect-resistant plants; growers specializing in seed production and harvesting techniques.

Even when seed has been received at the supplier's warehouse, it still requires special handling to assure viable and grow-worthy seed. Storage, after packaging and while awaiting shipment to customers, represents something of a problem. Correct temperatures and humidity must be maintained to provide a viable product. Some seed companies package their product in life-lock containers to maintain desirable humidity and prevent drying out. Fine seed, such as lettuce, may come securely wrapped in foil to assure germination after planting.

Some companies assure customers their seeds will grow and be satisfactory. They back their product with a money-back guarantee, with replacement without further charge.

Few suppliers grow their own seeds. On the contrary, they may offer contract-grown products, grown in drier areas of the United States, such as California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. Contract growers, specializing in particular crops, may grow seeds for other suppliers. Some varieties may come from Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Kilgore Seed Co., a Florida supplier, reports: "Very few of the seeds we offer are Florida-grown. As you probably know, the Florida climate is not conducive to growing good quality seed. High humidity and the rainy season make it very difficult to produce good, viable, disease-free seed. We conduct small-scale tests on new varieties ourselves and rely on the University of Florida and others to determine what varieties we wish to carry. We then have these contract-grown in the drier areas of the western United States."

As a young man I recall seeing Ferry-Morse Seed Farms in Michigan, but few seed suppliers today provide their own growing areas. Seeds displayed in stores or received in familiar brightly colored packets, from various providers, may have come from the same contract grower. The difference may be found in testing. Some companies either farm their seeds out to university gardens or conduct their own experimental plots.

The next time you see a vegetable seed display in some store or garden center, think back to the warehousing methods required, to seed cleaning, packaging and shipment to the store offering one of nature's most efficient reproductive units. Without seeds, there would be no future harvests.

Each package comes carefully marked to indicate either open-pollinated or hybrid seeds. Either has advantages and disadvantages, but only the former will breed true, an important consideration for anyone who saves seeds.

Leo Van Meer's book, Natural Gardening, is available from Van Meer Publishing, P.O. Box 3431, Palm Beach, Fla. 33480 ($10.95 post-paid, plus 77 cents sales tax). Address questions to Garden Naturally, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg 33731.