One of the Joys of Maturity
Working to Save a Pea Variety
I'm not sure when we started growing the Eclipse supersweet pea variety in our garden. Without digging into my paper files, my oldest computerized record of growing them is for 2006, about the year they were introduced. Since that time, we've grown the variety most years and found it to be one of the best shelling peas we've ever tasted. I wrote in a November, 2007, posting:
Over the years, the Eclipse pea variety appeared to lose popularity among gardeners, as fewer and fewer seed houses carried it each year. When we last ordered the seed in late 2011 for the 2012 gardening season, only packet sizes were available, as compared to quarter and half pound offerings in the past. Maybe that should have been a warning for me.
When R.H. Shumway's, the last vendor offering the Eclipse variety, dropped it from their catalog, I wrote the company and was told, "We ran out last year in April and have not been able to get more." But they did suggest searching online, as some sellers might still have seed from the 2011 crop available.
At that point, I still had around a hundred Eclipse seeds from an R.H. Shumway packet dated 2012. Simply growing that seed for our table use didn't seem right. It definitely appeared that if someone didn't pick up growing out and sharing the variety, it could be lost forever. (Much later, I realized that I hadn't checked the Seed Savers Exchange Annual Yearbook for Eclipse seed. When I did, I was pleased and relieved to find one member there who had grown, saved, and shared Eclipse seed for 2012. That took a little pressure off my efforts.)
I did follow up on the search suggestion and was lucky to find a vendor advertising the seed on Etsy. I acquired another 150 seeds there. While I had an ounce or two of Eclipse seed I'd saved from our planting in 2009, it was grown side-by-side with some Encore peas and may have cross pollinated with them. That ruled out using my own saved seed for anything more than table use and freezing.
I sacrificed ten seeds each from the Etsy and Shumway seeds for germination tests and was relieved to find both samples tested in the 50-70% range. So I began to plan in earnest where and how we might grow out a crop of Eclipse peas for seed production.
Planning for a Seed Crop
Since we grow several varieties of peas in our garden which could easily cross-pollinate with a nearby planting of Eclipse, I needed to find a spot well away in our various garden plots from any other pea variety. Our large East Garden, over a hundred yards away from our main garden plot and other pea varieties, seemed to be my best option. Finding room for a row of peas in the plot was another problem, as we'd already done our garden planning and mapping by the time I decided to try growing out a seed crop.
A border along our East Garden appeared to be the easiest choice we had available for our Eclipse peas. I could squeeze in a thirty foot row of peas on a trellis between a planned cover crop of alfalfa and our planned potato plot. Unfortunately, the potato area had been fall treated with sulfur to reduce the soil's pH to help ward off potato scab.
My first job in growing our pea seed crop was obviously to try to raise the soil pH level as close to around 6.8-7.0 as quickly as possible. Ground limestone works far quicker than the granulated kind, so I tilled in a bunch of dolomitic limestone along the edge of our potato planting. If the lime harmed the nearby row of sweet potatoes, so be it. Nancy Hall sweet potatoes aren't in danger of extinction, while Eclipse peas apparently are.
On June 13, 2013, I put in our seed potatoes and transplanted our sweet potato slips. I was totally worn out by noon, but drug my aching bones back outside at 9 P.M. to seed a thirty foot row of Eclipse peas. I'd started soaking the pea seed in the afternoon, planning to plant it the next morning. But by evening, I could tell that soaking overnight might be too much of a good thing for the pea seed. So by twilight, I made a shallow trench, watered it, spaced the pea seed at one inch intervals, and firmed the soil over it. I ended up using every bit of the pure Eclipse seed I had.
Poor Germination Threatens Project
One of the characteristics of the Eclipse variety that may well have led to commercial growers dropping it is that it needs fairly warm soil to germinate well. Like most peas, it also likes fairly fertile, well drained soil. And quite simply, the Eclipse pea is a variety that seems prone to poor germination even under ideal conditions.
While we planted in warm soil, our East Garden is a "recovering cornfield" that consists of mostly heavy clay soil. Over the last few years that we've used the plot of land, we've limed heavily (We live "next door" to a coal fired power plant!) and turned down several cover crops to try and improve the soil structure. But despite our efforts, the Eclipse planting was made in some fairly marginal soil for gardening.
Despite my efforts of watering the planting regularly, we ended up with a very poor stand of Eclipse peas. With no more seed to fill in bare spots, the challenge became one of nursing the few emerged pea plants to full health and production through the growing season to produce a seed crop.
Our East Garden is a rather weedy piece of ground, so I had to spend a good bit of time tenderly plucking out weeds that emerged in the row. After an initial weeding during which I inadvertently snapped off nearby Eclipse plants, I checked and weeded the row daily for almost two weeks. Maybe it was just our growing conditions this year, but the lower Eclipse stems were incredibly brittle.
To combat the stem brittleness problem, I hilled bagged commercial garden soil, potting soil, and even some compost around the base of our few precious Eclipse plants to help them survive. The hilling, along with mulching with grass clippings, seemed to energize the young seedlings. Soon, it was time to add a trellis to the row.
I'd read multiple places that one needs to trellis even short peas such as the Eclipse variety for seed production. Allowing the plants to produce pods that touch the soil surface apparently invites rot in the seed pods. So to prevent such evil potential events, I invested in four new T-posts and another package of my favorite nylon string trellis netting, despite the fact that there were only a few pea plants along the row.
About once a week after erecting the trellis, it was necessary to regularly help the peas weave their vines through the trellis (sorta over and under). That job also got me close enough to see and pull any new weeds that had eluded my hilling and mulching activities. After that, the only special care the peas needed was pulling away sweet potato vines that wanted to invade the pea area from their row four feet away.
I harvested the first of our Eclipse pea pods on September 5. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of pods the plants produced. I shelled out the picking a couple of days later and spread the seeds out on a cookie sheet to let them dry. A quick estimate indicated we had over 2,000 seeds from our efforts. After seeing how few plants had emerged in June, I thought our seed preservation efforts would have to extend over a number of years before I could feel safe offering seed of the variety to others and eventually having enough to have some for table use. The numbers from the initial picking told me we'd done far better than I'd hoped.
A later, final picking of the row yielded another hundred or so Eclipse seeds.
Equally important as producing a crop of seed is making sure the seed is viable. Since the Eclipse variety has a well deserved reputation for being somewhat difficult to germinate, especially in cool soil, it was important to make sure the seed we'd grown would actually germinate well enough to produce another crop of Eclipse peas.
Our germination tests aren't anything fancy. I spread a 25 seed sample on a wet, unbleached paper towel. The wet paper towel was folded over the seed and went into a ziplock freezer bag to retain moisture. The bag then went into a dark drawer for a few days. The seed germinated at an acceptable, but not great, 72%. I did a second test with a treated (captan) seed sample that produced similar results, but also indicated that we may have around 10% "hard seed," seed that has formed a tough seed coating that slows germination.
We've had great success in the past keeping seed viable for years in frozen storage. We grew out a tomato variety this year whose seed had been in our freezer since 1988! Note that manual defrosting freezers are far better for seed storage than the self-defrosting kind. The repeated warming cycles of a self-defrosting freezer are said to weaken seed viability.
Considering how precious our still small Eclipse seed sample was, I decided to split our storage this year. After letting the seed dry for several weeks, I froze a little over half of the seed in homemade aluminum foil pouches that went into freezer bags. The rest of the seed went into a canning jar with a tight fitting lid on a cool, dark shelf of our downstairs pantry.
As I mentioned earlier, I never imagined we'd produce enough seed this year to have enough for anything more than another seed crop next year. But we ended up producing just enough seed that we could offer limited quantities of it exclusively to other, listed Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) members. Listed SSE members are those who save and offer seed to others via the SSE Annual Yearbook, a catalog of open pollinated varieties being preserved. In the future with hopefully good seed crops of Eclipse, we'll open up our offering to all SSE members. Getting the seed into the hands of other experienced seed saving gardeners is essential to preserving the variety.
This Story Isn't Over
As long as we and other Seed Savers Exchange members get a good seed crop of Eclipse peas next year, the variety may be on its way back from near extinction. It would certainly help if entities such as the Seed Savers Exchange and the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) would add the variety to their seed preservation efforts and seed banks. (Note: The GRIN site is currently down due to the government shutdown!)
For now, I have the satisfaction of knowing we've done our part in preserving this variety for at least one more year.
While checking my Seed Savers Exchange account in January for orders, I noticed that our entry for the Eclipse pea was missing from our seed offerings. After mucking around a bit on the online yearbook site, I found Eclipse listed with our legacy listings which no longer are offered. When I attempted to relist the pea variety, I received an error message stating that the Exchange does not accept listings for patented seed varieties.
A posting on a Seed Savers Exchange forum led me to the USDA Plant Variety Protection Office's current listing of patented seed varieties. There, amongst the garden pea varieties, I found that Seminis, a large subsidiary of Monsanto, owns the patent on the Eclipse pea.
I believe that plant patents were intended to protect the rights of breeders of open pollinated varieties. In this case where the seed is no longer being made available to gardeners and farmers, the law would seem to help extinguish a pretty good pea variety.
Monsanto is infamous for defending its patent rights of roundup ready crops, but since Eclipse doesn't fit that classification, a small exemption in the patent law and subsequent defining court cases does allow me to use the saved seed for our own gardening purposes. I just can't save more seed than I bought (I haven't), nor can I sell or give away any of our saved Eclipse seed, hence, the rejection of our listing by the Seed Savers Exchange.
I obviously hadn't done my due diligence in researching the Eclipse pea before attempting to save and offer a seed crop of it. I just thought I was doing a good thing, trying to preserve a good pea variety that appears to face extinction. Had SSE not been on their toes, I could have gotten myself in trouble by selling a patented seed variety.
All of our efforts in growing and saving Eclipse seed last season won't go for naught. While I can't share the pea variety as seed, we can put a lot of delicious frozen peas in the freezer next summer for winter use. That's small consolation, but it's better than an outright ban on using the saved seed.
Send comments and feedback to Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
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Last updated: 6/25/2014