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Designer seeds are coming to the home gardener, thanks to chef Dan Barber

Annaliese Griffin
Last summer’s bounty.
  • Annaliese Griffin
By Annaliese Griffin

Editor of the Quartz Daily Obsession

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Last summer my husband and I spent hours hacking and then rototilling through tough patches of grass in our back yard, and a small fortune on the fancy fertilizer MooDoo, along with seeds and tiny tomato, tomatillo and basil plants—only to watch our first attempt at a real garden fall into a weedy state of despair.

Despite the heartbreak, we actually can’t wait to do it all again this year—only this time with a handful of new and exciting vegetables from Row 7 Seeds. While folks are probably unfamiliar with Row 7, they likely know its highest-profile founder—Dan Barber, the ecology-minded chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, who created Row 7 along with seedmonger Matthew Goldfarb and Michael Mazourek, a plant scientist at Cornell. These veggies aren’t just novel new faces for my amateur garden, they’re clearing a path for a whole new way of thinking about vegetables.

And just in time for spring!

Row 7 has set out to find the sweet spot where delicious and hardy meet. That might sound obvious, but the seed world has become increasingly divided: There are mainstream cultivars that are extremely hardy at the expense of flavor, and then heirlooms that are exquisitely beautiful, yet finicky to grow with low yields. That’s not such a big deal for a hobbyist like me, but if you’re trying to change the food system one bite at a time, vegetables that are easy to grow, productive and addictive are crucial.

Barber has made it his mission to convince Americans to change the way they eat in the interest of long-term ecological sustainability—a mission that can only be accomplished if vegetables that actually taste good are widely available at the grocery store, and not just on Blue Hill’s hundred dollar tasting menus.

It’s important to note that although breeding in this way is, perhaps, a departure from the romantic ideal of heirloom seeds—which feature lovely backstories and histories to uncover—these are not GMO. Row 7 seeds are bred through successive generations of selecting for specific attributes—like nature but faster and more controlled.

Plant scientists, mostly at universities, have been working on breeding vegetables that are both delicious and supermarket-ready for some time. Their biggest challenge has  been finding a market for their creations, which don’t quite fit into the heirloom model. Without demand from the public though, large seed companies and big growers aren’t interested either. And this is a bigger deal than it might seem.

Row 7 Seeds
The Badger Flame Beet, developed at the University of Wisconsin and brought to you by Row 7 Seeds.

In his 2015 book The Dorito Effect, Mark Schatzker makes the case that the more delicious a vegetable is, the more nutritious it is. As he sees it, by breeding all the flavor out of the produce aisle, we’ve set ourselves up for a lifetime of unsatisfying, and unhealthy, eating. In the book he spends a great deal of time talking to Harry Klee, a professor and tomato breeder at the University of Florida who has bred a delicious, yet also shippable tomato that very few people have tasted.

“In his dreams Harry Klee can see his tomatoes on the selves of supermarkets, plucked by gleeful shoppers who delight in their wonderful taste,” Schatzker writes. “In his nightmares, they end up in some seed bank, an interesting footnote in the history of dilution, ignored by a world in love with ranch dressing.”

So how are Row 7 seeds more than just an “interesting footnote?” Chefs. Chefs and social media.

“The Honeynut could not have happened without chefs,”  Dan Barber told The New York Times today, speaking of a winter squash variety that he approached Mazourek to develop nearly a decade ago. “They Instagrammed it, they talked about it, it was on their menus, and it went from zero to 60.”

Row 7 Seeds
The 898 is an experimental squash.

Barber and his partners are betting that chef-obsessed vegetable lovers will take their seed revolution mainstream.  I’ll be curious to see how their winter squash performs. I ordered both Robin’s Koginut Squash and the experimental 898 Squash, even though they’re not powdery mildew-resistant—which was a major problem in my garden during last summer’s unusually cool and wet growing season in New England. I’m just hoping that my three-year-old loves the Badger Flame beets I ordered—developed by Irwin Goldman, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for his own small and picky eaters.

You can’t fill a garden on what Row 7 has to offer this year, there are just seven types of seeds on offer and no tomatoes or herbs, so for further inspiration, check out High Mowing Seed Company or Baker Creek Seeds, which are both full of garden inspiration.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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