Landrace Gardening: Localize Your Garden For a Better Harvest

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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I recently received an honor. It came like the best of honors often arrive, as a totally unexpected and pleasant surprise. It was in the form of an email from Mother Earth News. It said that Editor-in-Chief, Cheryl Long, had noticed my writing about sweet corn and other vegetable breeding and that they’d like me to blog on the Mother Earth News website. I love Mother Earth News! It is the only periodical that I read routinely. I adore the philosophy of life that is espoused in its pages. I like the practical hands-on approach of the articles. If there was ever a magazine that has shaped who I am as a man, it is Mother Earth News.

Whenever I am fortunate enough to get a copy of Mother Earth News, I devour it cover to cover. Some things I have never been exposed to before. Some things I agree with whole-heartedly. Sometimes I think: “That’s the dumbest thing ever, that’d never work here.”

I garden in a cold mountain valley in the desert. My fields are on the very edge of the ecological limits for many species of warm-weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, and melons. Varieties of vegetables and ways of doing things that work for an average gardener in an average climate just don’t work in my garden. There is a saying in the real estate industry that it’s all about “location, location, location.” I think that the saying is even more applicable to gardening. In order to get any harvest at all on many warm weather crops, I have had to develop varieties that are localized to my valley.

I was first exposed to the idea of localized plant populations when I read the pedigree of  ‘Astronomy Domine’ sweet corn. It contains the descendants of around 200 varieties of sweet corn. I grew it and was immediately captivated by its beauty and robust growth. It has been my main production sweet corn ever since. It is now localized to fit my climate and my way of doing things. After I saw how successful the sweet corn project was, I was determined to apply the principles I learned to every crop in my garden.

I have come to think of my new way of doing things as Landrace Gardening. (It’s actually a very traditional way of gardening.) A landrace is a crop with considerable genetic variability which has become attached to a place by growing in it for long enough to become acclimatized to the conditions that make that place unique: The climate, bugs, soil, water, grower, diseases, etc.

I participated in an online forum, seeking information about localizing varieties to my garden, and sharing stories about my successes and failures. I figure that Cheryl may have read some of those posts. In order to rise to the honor afforded me by Mother Earth News, I have accepted their invitation, and will be blogging about Landrace Gardening, and why I think of it as “A path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.”

Topics that I intend to cover include seed saving, isolation distances, genetic diversity, heirlooms, making and using hybrids, inbreeding depression, non-traditional food crops, plant purity, landrace development and maintenance, seed localization, and using wild relatives. There will be plenty of examples of what worked for me, and what failed.

Next week’s post will be a photo essay showing off some of my successful attempts to create landraces localized to my valley. I’ll include commentary about the collaboration network that developed around a project to develop cold tolerant melons.