Landrace Gardening: Survival of the Fittest


Landrace gardening is a traditional method of growing food in which the seeds to be planted next year result from the survival of the fittest in a particular garden in previous years. Landrace varieties become attached to a region, and thrive in that region. Landrace varieties are genetically variable so that as conditions change from year to year the population can adapt to the changes.

corn cobs

The first landrace crop that I grew was Astronomy Domine sweet corn. It was the product of a breeding project by Alan Bishop of Bishop’s Homegrown in Pekin, Indiana. The essence of the project was to throw as many cultivars of sweet corn as possible into a field, let them cross pollinate, and see what survived and how the descendants fared. Around 200 cultivars contributed their diversity to the gene pool. Some plants grew vigorously, many grew decent, and some struggled to survive. I saved seed from the parents that thrived and that did okay, and replanted the next year. The results were fantastic! I was hooked on growing genetically diverse crops and saving seeds from them.

My version of Astronomy Domine had diverged from the original version. My population is about ten days shorter season than the original. That is to be expected because in my cold mountain valley a crop has to produce quickly and thrive in cool nights if I am to get a harvest.

After the stunning success of the sweet corn project, I determined that I wanted to explore growing other varieties of localized landrace crops. Melons seemed like a good test project, because they have traditionally done poorly in my valley, and because they are highly popular. Melons are an out-breeding crop, so they cross-pollinate readily, and can produce huge numbers of genetically unique individuals. Generating lots of variety is one of the key principals of landrace gardening. More diversity provides more opportunities to find family groups that thrive in any particular garden.

To start the cantaloupe project, I gathered together the seeds from the few melons that had produced a fruit the previous year, and I added to them as many varieties as I could obtain: from local farm stands, from the Internet, from seed catalogs, from the grocery store. I planted a packet of seeds per row until I had planted a large patch of melons. Then I sat back and watched one melon disaster after another. Some varieties didn’t germinate. Some varieties were eaten by bugs within days of emerging. Others just sat there and shivered in the cold. Some individuals shrugged off the adverse growing conditions and grew robustly. The two best growing plants produced more fruit than the rest of the patch combined.

12/30/2013 12:53:19 AM

Have known of this for several years, but the way you do it aggressively with several species at once is interesting. Also, the term 'landrace farming' is new to me ... having a name helps propagate the concept better. Thanks.

12/27/2013 6:34:47 PM

I am definitely going to try this method this season. Some of the best tasting squash I grew was an accidental landrace squash. I always call them mystery squash when they start growing. :)

12/27/2013 10:45:33 AM

Awesome! Anything that shows up monoculture has my support!

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