Landrace Gardening: Getting What You Want

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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I use promiscuous pollination among genetically diverse parents to get what I want from my garden. One of the most useful traits of landrace plant populations, is that addition to adapting to the climate, and the soil, and the pests, they also adapt to the gardener that is growing them and to the cultivation methods used. It has been a joy to use the processes of promiscuous pollination and local adaptation to tailor my plants to my specific way of doing things and to get what I want out of them. 

Recently, I reviewed the business plan of a newly forming organic seed company. They are intending to sell seed localized to New England. Their marketing materials emphasize that they are growing their seed crops over plastic.  That will tend to create a population of plants that are most well adapted to growing over plastic, and will lead to plants that are not as well adapted as they could be for the typical home garden and small scale farm which do not use plastic ground covers. If you are a New England grower that plants over plastic that might be a great source of seed adapted to that particular method of growing.

Reviewing how other growers care for their plants got me to thinking about how my habits affect the plants in my garden. One way that was immediately obvious was regarding water. I constantly hear people in damper climates say that they water their plants twice a day and they are still wilting. I live in a super arid climate, and I only water once a week by sprinkle irrigation. My plants don’t suffer from lack of water. 

My neighbors also complain about their plants burning up. We have the same irrigation system, and the same soil and climate. I realized that the difference is due to genetics. When I ask them where their seed was grown, if they know at all, it came from Oregon with its humid damp overcast weather and moderate temperatures. My seed has grown in my valley for generations and has become localized to the arid conditions, brilliant sunlight, and wide swings in temperature between night and day. It has adapted to thrive with weekly irrigation. 

My goals for my plants tend to be a mix of pragmatic goals and artsy goals. First is that I want them to survive and produce a harvest. I want the food to be nutritious, and I want it to look pretty. One of my goals a few years ago was to improve the nutrition of my butternut squash by incorporating the extra carotenes from Libby’s Pumpkin into the population. So I planted Libby’s Pumpkin in my squash patch and let it promiscuously pollinate. Then each year I select for butternuts with the deepest orange color. It has been a great project that is both pragmatic and artsy.  Food with higher nutrition looks better to me. I am doing a similar project to incorporate a corn into my sweet corn and popcorn that provides 10 times the vitamin A of regular yellow corn. It even shows up in the popped kernels. Woo Hoo! A naturally occurring yellow popcorn without added dyes.

To get what I want out of my garden, I plant genetically diverse plants, and encourage promiscuous pollination, and then select among the survivors for those plants that are well adapted to my wants and to my way of doing things. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.

Genetically diverse landraces of plants can also be localized to deal better with weeds. I apologize in advance for the pun imbedded in the title of next week’s post. I’ll write about Landrace Gardening: Racing The Weeds.

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.