Landrace Gardening: Fertilizing Landraces

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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Landrace gardening allows us to minimize the cost and labor of adding fertilizer to our gardens by selecting for plants that thrive in the pre-existing soil.

Mega-agriculture generally takes the approach of growing highly inbred cultivars, and then conducting tests and applying fertilizers to modify the surface of the soil to provide the exact nutrients required by each clone. As a landrace gardener I have chosen a different path. I accept my soil as it is and do not try to modify it. Then I plant a wide variety of genetically diverse crops and select among them for those plants that thrive in my soil. I localize my plants to my garden. I do not modify my garden to fit the plants.

Here’s a photo of what my popcorn crop looked like about ten days ago. It was grown without fertilizer in a field that has not been fertilized in 5 years. It was just starting to tassel, and since that time it has shot up even taller. Many of the cobs are at eye level which makes them very resistant to pheasants, raccoons, skunks, and other corn eating animals.

It has been my experience that a well-adapted localized landrace grows better without fertilizer than a non-adapted off-the-shelf variety grows with fertilizer.

Plant roots penetrate very deeply into the soil. Any fertilizers or amendments that I apply to the soil are surface applications that do little to change the deeper structure of the soil. I figure that it’s better to select for plants that do well with whatever the deep soil happens to be.

I am careful to build healthy soil. Weeds and crop residues get returned to the field. They do not get gathered up and thrown away. They do not get fed to animals unless the manure returns to the field. Kitchen scraps and spoiled fruit are returned to the soil.

Landraces can also thrive in fertilized gardens. The key is to be consistent from year to year in what fertilizers you apply, and in the timing of the applications. Landrace crops become adapted to the gardener as well as to the soil.

By using the principles of landrace gardening we can select among genetically diverse crops for plants that thrive whether we grow with fertilizer or without. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Next week I will write about growing landrace popcorn.

Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.

Photo by Amber Christensen