Landrace Gardening for the Casual Grower

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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In today’s blog I am writing about my hopes and dreams for the landrace seed movement and offering suggestions about how I think farmers, merchants, and casual growers could cooperate together to improve seed security by localizing our crops to specific eco-regions or towns.

When I was a young boy I gardened with my grandfather.  He grew his own seed and replanted it from year to year. My father was more likely to buy commercial seed from a regional seed company. That trend towards less localized seed has continued, and today the typical method of obtaining seeds for most people is to order them from a mega-international seed company based only on a pretty photo and clever description.

It seems to me that the seed offered by the international seed companies is chosen by executives in far away places with little experience about what grows well in any particular region. Their seed appears to be selected for average commercial growers using a full spectrum of fertilizers and pesticides. Casual home growers typically don’t stick to the chemical application schedule and are often disappointed with the results. Additionally, there is no such thing as an average grower or an average climate. Each garden and each region has its own climate, bugs, soils, and way of doing things.

Despite the individual differences from garden to garden, there are a number of discernable eco-regions. Gardens within each region share many similar traits. If I could recommend only one change to the way that home gardeners and small scale farmers obtain their seed, I would recommend that they purchase seed that was grown in the same eco-region as their garden.  My neighbors are constantly complaining about seed that they purchased from the Pacific Northwest maritime eco-region. It is about as opposite of growing conditions from our Desert Mountain eco-region as it is possible to get. The climate, soils, and pests are radically different. If my neighbors planted seed that was grown in a Desert Mountain eco-region I believe that their gardens would grow much better. My fondest dream would be for each gardener to grow their own localized seed that has been selected by survival-of-the-fittest for each specific garden. Next best would be for a few growers in each town to specialize in producing landrace seeds adapted to that town. I believe that even plain old open pollinated cultivars would do better for the casual grower if the seed was produced locally.

I am aware of two plant nurseries in my valley that carry seed that is grown in our eco-region. They also carry seed that is grown in other eco-regions. They do extensive trials and are constantly seeking feedback from growers to assure themselves that the varieties that they carry perform well in our area. I am very pleased with these two small stores. I highly recommend their offerings to local gardeners. For those of you that live outside my valley, I recommend finding nurseries that carry seeds that have been grown in your eco-region. Ask for regional or local seed. If the seller can’t tell you where the seed was grown it might be appropriate to find a different merchant.

I obtain locally-adapted seed from the farmer’s market and from local produce stands. It has typically grown very well for me. Sometimes I tell the vendor that I am buying their produce for seed, sometimes I collect the seed surreptitiously. And now for my dream: I wish that more farmers would grow their own seeds and make that seed available to the local neighbors. I regularly offer 20 to 40 varieties of local landrace garden seeds for sale at the farmer’s market. It sure would be nice if some of the other farmers offered their own varieties, whether landraces or cultivars. I think it would be clever if I could buy locally-adapted landrace seed from the nurseries in my valley that already carry regionally adapted seed.

When I was a small boy I often helped my grandfather harvest Scarlet Runner Beans. It is a fond memory for me. I have tried for years to find a variety that will produce a harvest in my garden. I haven’t been able to locate a supplier of locally or regionally adapted runner beans. My plantings obtained from international seed companies have failed year after year.  Last spring a collaborator in California sent me a landrace of runner beans. About 80% of them failed to produce seed in my garden. Most of the plants that did set seed only produced one mature pod. There was one plant that produced eight pods. It was white flowered, and white seeded, so it’s not a “scarlet” runner. Nevertheless, I’m super pleased to be growing runner beans again. While the landrace seeds that I received were not locally-adapted enough to thrive in my garden, there was enough genetic diversity among them that a few barely managed to reproduce. That’s better than I can say about the commercial varieties I tried. The survivors are well on their way to becoming a locally-adapted survival-of-the-fittest landrace. I may never recover my grandfather’s seed, but I might be able to come up with something substantially similar.

I hope to see more casual growers buying locally-adapted seeds from local farmers and nurseries. I’d like to see more farmers producing their own seed with enough excess to share with the community. I believe this would significantly increase the reliability of our food system. Buying localized seed is something that can be implemented by every grower and every farmer. The success I have seen from planting locally-adapted seed is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

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