Master Gardeners, Delaware Valley University pilot 'Grow-Save-Repeat' project

Amy Duke
July 28, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Consumers’ growing interest in gardening — and seed saving — has spurred a new project by Penn State Extension’s Master Gardener program.

The “Grow-Save-Repeat” project is designed to provide Master Gardeners with the resources and knowledge they need to educate home gardeners on seed saving and home plant breeding, explained Erin Kinley, area Master Gardener coordinator.

“In 2020 and 2021, we saw unprecedented vegetable seed sales, with shortages of many gardeners’ favorite varieties,” she said. “What many gardeners may not realize, though, is that by saving seeds from their vegetable garden each year, they can avoid shortages while also becoming home plant breeders who conserve and enhance local crop diversity.”

To aid in developing the project, Kinley contacted Sarah Dohle, assistant professor of plant science at Delaware Valley University, who teaches a webinar series on plant breeding for home gardeners. Kinley asked if she would provide the education to Master Gardener volunteers.

“Not only did she enthusiastically agree, but it turned out that one of our Master Gardener coordinators, Diane Diffenderfer, was currently taking Dr. Dohle’s plant breeding class, and they already were talking about ways for us to collaborate,” Kinley said.

Those conversations led to the creation of “Grow-Save-Repeat,” a public outreach/plant breeding program, which Kinley and Diffenderfer, of Wayne County, are coordinating. Master Gardeners aim to show home gardeners of all experience levels how to save the seeds from their garden to use again next year and how they can create their own unique varieties of fruits and vegetables through a few simple steps.

Wayne County plants

Master Gardeners in Bucks, Montgomery, Monroe and Wayne counties are growing peppers, tomatoes, lima beans and winter squash in their Demonstration Gardens.

IMAGE: Diane Diffenderfer

“As Master Gardeners, we work with home gardeners who have questions about different cultivars and colors of plants,” Diffenderfer said. “This new program enables everyday people to learn the basic principles of plant breeding, which they can incorporate into their home gardening projects. They can see firsthand what it takes to create differences in plants, and I think that is fun for folks.”

For the grow portion of the project, Master Gardeners in Bucks, Montgomery, Monroe and Wayne counties are growing trial plants in each county’s demonstration garden for this pilot season. These vegetables — peppers, tomatoes, lima beans and winter squash — are from Dohle’s Participatory Plant Breeding Program, which is a collaboration among farmers, chefs and Delaware Valley University to develop regionally adapted, unique varieties of produce.

Master Gardeners will observe and sample the trial plants’ differences in growth and taste while also practicing cross-pollination techniques to develop their plant-breeding skills. Each step will be explained on signs at the demonstration sites for the public to learn about the process. An online journal will enable gardeners to watch the plants’ progress.

The “save” phase of the project will take place at the end of the summer when Master Gardeners will look back through their data to pick their favorite plants from each species. They will collect, clean and save the seeds from the fruit of their favorite plants, showcasing the process in public seed-saving workshops.

Finally, in 2022, the Master Gardeners will “repeat” the process by growing this new generation of seeds in their demonstration gardens. Pilot counties will share their seeds and lessons learned with other county Master Gardener programs to expand the project to other areas of the state.

After several years, participating programs hope to have various species specially adapted to their locations and demonstration gardens.

“We’re so excited to see what our counties develop over the years,” Kinley said. “Even with one species like winter squash, Bucks County Master Gardeners might make a variety that performs well in a raised bed in their region while Wayne County participants create a variety that can flourish in-ground in their area.”

More information about the program and its results can be found on the Master Gardener's website.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 12, 2021