TRAVERSE CITY — Spring planting time is still months away, but it’s not too early for devout backyard gardeners to plan their plots, peruse seed catalogs, research and dream.
And Mike Kiessel, a seed saver and plant breeder is one of them. He stretches “backyard gardener” to the max. He has many backyards – his own, his nearby brother’s place and his parents’ cherry farm in Leelanau County, where he grew up.
Kiessel recently joined five other hardy gardeners who braved slippery Saturday morning roads to go to a seed saving workshop at Grow Benzie.
Kiessel is a man who learned from early experience why breeding a new variety of pumpkin should not be attempted near a zucchini patch. His pumpkin garden produced an orange zucchini the size of bat.
“It looked like an orange log,” he said.
Kiessel has created 50 varieties of watermelon and almost 110 kinds of tomatoes since the 1990s, when his interest in seed saving, plant breeding and preserving heirloom seeds germinated.
Gardening and seed saving takes up most of his free time in the summer, he said. He also takes daily field notes about plants, weather conditions, insects and other factors that can affect fruit or vegetable quality, taste, color and other characteristics. He reviews the notes in the winter when he begins selecting seeds from the best plant varieties in his harvest.
He calls this avocation a hobby. His day job is working for Binsfeld Engineering in Maple City.
Kiessel likes to eat fruit and vegetables, but that is not the primary reason he breeds and develops new varieties.
He wants to harvest and select the seeds of healthy, hardy plants that grow well here in Michigan’s short growing season.
He wants to help preserve plant diversity itself in a world where corporate seed companies want to make one seed variety for the whole world.