Selection by Seed
W. F. Massey
To the Editor of American Gardening
I HAVE read the note on page 780 in regard to the selection of seed corn by the Illinois College, and the method of selecting the judges. Now it seems to me that a rational seed selection cannot be made after the crop is harvested, no matter how many points the boys may score in corn judging. The time to judge corn for seed, or any other plant for that matter, is while the crop is growing. A man may select the typical ears of a variety, the finest corn in the pile, and still not make a proper selection for seed. He would simply be selecting for a single character, that of making a fine ear. He would not know under what conditions the ear was grown, what was the character of the stalk that bore it, nor whether it was a single ear on the stalk, as a particularly fine ear is apt to be.
Suppose we have a stalk bearing a particularly fine ear, that was surrounded by stalks that bore no ears but gave a plentiful supply of pollen. Would not that fine ear have been in all probability the result of the pollen from the strong male and barren stalks around it? Would it not be apt to repeat the characteristics that it inherits in this way and produce numerous barren stalks? It might have been borne on a long-legged plant and be the sole ear on it. Would it be desirable to perpetuate that characteristic? In short, the whole matter of improvement of plants by seed selection requires a study of the whole plant, and not a mere scoring of points with nothing but ears of corn before one. Usually the finest ears in the crib are produced by plants that either bore but one ear or they are the top ears on twin eared stalks, and have hence inherited a tendency to make no ear above them, and a continued selection of the finest ears only will result in the production of long-legged, single-eared stalks.
A fine ear produced in a field surrounded by barren stalks would be a bad one for seed, and yet in the pile this fact could not be known. I have for years been interested in the selection of seed for the improvement of field and garden plants, and I have found that one of the most important things to attend to in the patch reserved for seed corn is to watch it at the time the tassels are forming, and then go through and remove the tassels from every barren stalk in the patch. Then when the crop is fairly matured select and mark those plants that come nearest to the type of plant we want, and take the seed always from stalks that bear more than one ear; and never take the top ear, but the lower ones, for these will inherit the tendency to produce ear or ears above them, while the top one will not, but will continually get you further and further from the ground. The same rule will apply to other plants.
Many years ago, before we had as highly developed tomatoes as we have now, I noticed in a patch of the old Tilden, a smooth tomato, but rather inclined to be hollow, a tomato of great beauty and solidity. But it was surrounded by typical Tildens, and I argued that if I selected it for seed I would have it damaged by the disturbing influences around it. Therefore I used the fruit and did not save a seed from that plant. But in the fall I made a lot of cuttings from it and rooted them in the greenhouse and carried them over the winter, propagating quite a lot from them, so that in the spring I had quite a patch, all of this identical tomato from which I saved seed which almost entirely reproduced the variety, and which would have been sent out the very spring Trophy was sent out but were lost by an unfortunate accident.
I have been interested in producing a sweet corn that would answer for the South, and have sturdiness to be productive here. When about to start with the variation I was thinking of I found that the Illinois Station had made the very cross I wanted, by crossing the Leaming with the Mammoth Sugar. I got Mr. McCluer to let me have an ear of this cross and from this began my selection. The first crop, though carefully selected from only the wrinkled yellow grains, showing the cross, came a general mixture of yellow wrinkled grains, white wrinkle grains, yellow dent grains and white dent grains. I kept selecting the seed from typical plants of the sturdy character I wanted, and planted only the yellow wrinkled grains. It took seven years to get this corn to come uniformly yellow wrinkled grains all over the ear, and it well developed the character of plant I was after and the habit of profuse earing. Last year, having no place to keep it further isolated, I sent it out in packages all over the state and left it to the tender mercies of the public. Some of the recipients of packages were cheeky enough to write that the corn was so fine they ate it all up and wished I would send them more, but as I had no notion of rivalling Uncle Sam's seed shop I declined further contributions, especially as mine was planted where it was inevitably disturbed by other corn. The place to teach boys to score corn correctly to in the field during its growth.
If we want to fix a race of plants that will come true from seed we must do it not by merely selecting some prominent characteristic, but by a careful study of the plant and not simply of one of its products. A gentleman in Virginia, who has been breeding corn in an ideal way, has gotten his corn up to the production of over 160 bushels per acre. There was produced on our college farm this season a crop of corn of 88 bushels per acre, from carefully selected seed, on land that ten years ago would not grow corn enough to feed the mule that plowed it. This corn was planted in 4-foot rows and a stalk for each 10 inches in the row. And yet all the old farmers here will tell you that "we have to plant corn 6 feet or more apart and a single stalk in a place, because corn needs more air here than North." This condition is mainly because the big ears have been selected continually, and the corn has gotten so long legged that it does need room.
This matter of plant breeding is one of the greatest importance to every gardener, for there are some plants that every one should try to improve for himself, if his climate allows it.