Landrace Gardening: 2014 Progress Report

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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Today I’m sharing stories about the successes and failures of this growing season. Sorry that it’s been so long since I posted. I allowed a slow personal economy and a series of family troubles to distract me from writing.

Vigorous Carrots and Parsnips

In Racing the Weeds I suggested that it would be nice to select among the carrots and parsnips for seedlings that grow vigorously so that they can out-compete the weeds. I am content to say that was a stunning success this growing season! A patch of carrots was grown without weeding or thinning. They didn’t grow as big or produce as abundantly as the patch that was weeded and thinned only one time, but both patches produced food for the table and roots to be grown for seed next year. The parsnips were also grown without weeding. They are still in the ground. The smaller plants can be culled in the spring before the patch flowers. The surviving carrots and parsnips have shown that they can handle the weeds. The photo of a recently weeded carrot row shows the huge differences in growth that can exist between strains. I don’t see the value in keeping the slow growing plants. They would continue to grow slowly for the entire growing season.

Skunks Attack Corn!

Skunks ate 2-3/4 patches of sweet corn. My corn varieties were developed in fields that are not bothered by skunks, so when planted into a new field they were decimated by a new pest. No worries. A quarter of the plants in one variety passed the survival-of-the-fittest test and overcame the skunk predation. They had stronger stalks, or higher cobs, or other traits that kept them from being eaten. I’ll replant the survivors into the same field next year with the goal of developing a skunk-proof, or at least skunk-resistant, sweet corn.

Tomatoes Getting Frisky

Great progress was made on the project to develop Promiscuously Pollinated Tomatoes. A number of varieties were identified that have loose or open flowers. The shorter season specimens were combined into a new grex. Then F1 hybrids were created between them and my earliest tomato. The hybrids are currently growing indoors under lights in hopes that they’ll produce F2 seed to plant in the spring. The second generation after a cross is the most exciting. That is where the most diversity shows up.

Melons & Squash vs. the Rain

We had unusually long and repeated monsoonal rains this summer. The muskmelons and watermelons suffered. Ripening was delayed. Plenty of muskmelons were left in the field – or turned into wine – because they popped from absorbing too much water. There was mildew on the squash leaves! Out here in the desert we mostly forget that mildew even exists. Nevertheless, the squash produced abundantly, including about 9 different types of mixta squash. The total harvest of mixta squash in the previous 5 years of trying was one fruit. I am really looking forward to growing the mixta squash next year.

Named the Beans

This year the dry bean landrace was well enough adapted to my garden and way of doing things that it was given a name. It is consistently performing very well these days and not changing much, it seemed like it was time for a name. We watch for naturally occurring bean hybrids. They get trialed for a year or two. The best get added to the landrace. The rest get eaten. The new additions are about 10 percent or less per year.

Grew Some Trees

To continue the Fruit and Nut Trees From Seed Project, a few hundred hazelnut seeds were planted. About a dozen plants survived without being weeded. A half dozen pecan trees were grown from seed. Some of the more promising walnuts were identified for transplant into a slightly colder micro-climate. Scions from feral fruit and nut trees and friends yard’s were grafted into existing trees. My grafting skills could definitely use some refinement.

Sunroots Get Award for Most Improved

The sunroot landrace showed remarkable improvement this growing season. Last year the feral sunroots were crossed with a commercial clone. The seeds were replanted. About 40 percent of them grew vigorously and survived the growing conditions and the farmers. Half of the plants were not agronomically pleasing and were culled. The others produced vigorous plants with pretty, easy to harvest tubers, and high productivity. They have been replanted into a seed-production and trail bed.

Steady As She Goes for Potatoes and Popcorn

The potatoes and popcorn continue on each year with a little bit of refinement here and there. A few nice cultivars among the potato seedlings were added to next year’s seed crop. The popcorn is refined each year for better popping ability, easier shelling, and taste that is more pleasing to me. Popcorn hybrids were made to add more colors and more carotenes. I figure that more colors equals higher nutrition. Slow and steady is the working meme for these crops.

New Garlic Varieties

The project to produce true pollinated garlic seeds, and thus new varieties of garlic, produced 26 pollinated garlic seeds, and 9 new varieties of garlic. I’m intending to post on that topic this winter.

Other New Crops

In order to assure Food Security Through Biodiversity, work continued on adapting new species to our growing conditions. I felt inspired by William Woys Weaver’s blog post so I grew and ate dahlias this summer. They need some work, but there’s lots of potential there. Respectable amounts of favas and garbanzos were harvested. I’ve only been working with them one or two years, so they are still in a rough draft stage. This was the third year of working on an okra landrace. The first year the plants grew to just above my ankle and 99 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test by not producing seed. The second year a few plants reached knee high and only 95 percent of the plants failed the survival-of-the-fittest test. One of the plants survived the first fall frosts. This year one of the survival-of-the-fittest tests was performed in the greenhouse by selecting for vigorous growth of seedlings. About 80 percent of the seeds were culled before setting out. This year one of the successful plants grew taller than the farmer, and there was an abundant enough harvest to share okra at the farmer’s market. Some of the plants were still producing food when I tilled them under 52 days after the start of our fall frosty season. The third year of a landrace development project often seems magical to me. Frost tolerant okra grown in my cold mountain valley? How clever.


In spite of the complete neglect that some crops suffered, they nevertheless provided food for my people. They produced offspring that seem very capable of providing food next time there are economic or family problems. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

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