Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dark Star Zucchini

Steve Peters of Seed Revolution Now would like to introduce what may well be the very best zucchini, bar none, for western climates: Dark Star

The star on the flower end of the maturing fruit is indicative of a high lutein content, and shows how this variety got its name...also derived from a Grateful Dead song!

Tucked into a bend in the Eel River in northern California lies a very special, hidden farm.

This is the land of organic produce grower and dedicated seed breeder Bill Reynolds. Bill is descended from a long line of strong, independent spirits. His great grandfather, for whom he was named, was the first sheriff of Nevada County during the gold rush. Bill has lived on this land for over thirty years, learning well how to work with the local natural givens of climate, soil and water.

Bill was already one of Steve's trusted cadre of organic seed growers when, in 2006, the opportunity arose for them to collaborate with Organic Seed Alliance plant breeder Dr. John Navazio to develop an improved open-pollinated zucchini at Eel River Produce Farm.

The location was especially suitable to this project. It was well-isolated, protecting the crop from unwanted cross-pollination. In addition, the high water table of this river bench allowed Bill to grow without any supplemental irrigation. This dry-farming forced the selection of plants which developed larger root systems. Bill had enough land to enable a sizable population, from which he selected those individual plants which showed the desired characteristics.

These traits include: an open habit, making harvest easy, and straight, smooth, shiny dark green fruit, with faceted sides to prevent rolling. In addition, this particular variety offers the nutritional advantaged of a high lutein content. Because it is open-pollinated, it has a much longer season of productivity than hybrids can muster. The continuous production of both male and female flowers guarantees that late season fruits remain straight. 

Dark Star plants, thanks to their stronger root systems, are about one third larger than other varieties. Their leaf stalks are sturdier, so they don't blow in the wind as readily, and are exceptionally smooth, resulting in less scarred fruit. The extra vigor has proved to offer some disease resistance and even frost tolerance on commercial organic farms. Their ability to thrive in areas with harsh sun makes them ideal for Western dry land farming. In fact, we advise against choosing this variety in areas that are very rainy or have comparatively low light, such as the North East, as the plants do too well, and spend their energy on vegetative growth. This is a good example of the importance of bioregional seed development.

Bill was able to witness the success of his efforts in person, as his seed was used on a huge organic farm in Baja California owned by a friend who hosted him there in the winters. The farmer preferred Dark Star to any of the hybrid varieties he had tried. In the above photo the plants on the left are hybrids. The difference is clear.

This farmer's production was very large, and wound up distributed in natural supermarkets across the US. A few years ago, a killing freeze hit Baja. All of the hybrid varieties succumbed, but Dark Star bounced back. For a while that winter, it was the only variety available in the stores. We were impressed!

Bill continues to work on improving Dark Star. This is strictly a one-man, hands-on operation, in which he takes a lot of pride. 

He has come up with some ingenious improvised tools to help process the seed. Here he stirs the fermented pulp.

A home-made sluice quickly cleans the seed.

Seed Revolution Now and the Organic Seed Alliance continue to monitor this and other crop varieties on farms in many bioregions around the country. Here Bill and Steve visit Full Belly Farm in Northern California's Capay Valley, where a summer squash trial was run. Once again, you can see that the Dark Star plants, on the right, are about a third larger. They also once again demonstrated some tolerance to disease; in this case mosaic virus.

It is important to us to hear from the farmers what they think about the varieties. Steve also wants to get their ideas about what they will need in the future, to direct breeding efforts in useful ways.

 Our germination test in mid-September 2014 was 98% after three days. It wants to grow!

Dark Star is a proven performer on organic produce farms across the arid West. Certified organically grown seed is available in bulk quantities to farmers, seed companies and co-ops from Seed Revolution Now at pricing which is competitive and fair to all. Contact Steve Peters at or call him at 505-660-3933 to inquire about this and our other fine vegetable seed offerings. 

Seed Revolution Now offers other services as well, including classes, consultations, and custom seed growing.
 Call Steve; he's not afraid to go out on a limb for you!

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