Landrace Gardening: Naming The New Varieties

Reader Contribution by Joseph Lofthouse
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When I started landrace gardening, I had to relearn how to name the plants in my garden. I was used to keeping varieties separate, and to taking great pains to insure that they remained pure. I was pretty much of the mindset that a variety has one name that it carries with it forever. As a landrace gardener, names have become more fleeting. These days, in my garden, plants are more likely to be called something like “Dry Beans”, or “That Dry Bean With The Pretty Purple Flowers.”

Mega-farms which grow seed for the mass-market use a naming strategy in which each cultivar is distinct and separate from every other cultivar. The seed is highly inbred, and measures are taken to keep in that way. Fixed names and unchanging genetics are important when growing commercial seed to be sold in a national or international market. Farmers should be able to trust that the “Bodacious Sweet Corn” that they purchased last year is the same as what they are purchasing this year.

The naming strategy used by landrace gardeners is more flexible. Landrace gardeners tend to lump seeds together into groups of similar type, and then name only the family groups. To people that are saving their own seeds, and localizing them to their own gardens, the history and specific genetics of a variety don’t matter much. What matters more is that the current population has been localized to grow well in each particular garden.

As an example, with moschata squash, I separate the patch into early fruiting, which I save for seed, and later fruiting which I send to the farmer’s market. Earliness is an important trait to me because I can’t harvest a fruit that fails to mature. The first year of my moschata squash trials about 75 percent of the varieties grown did not produce fruits. The moschata landrace contains butternuts, and necked squash, and pumpkins. I lump the seed together and call them by their species name. The distinguishing trait is that they are squash. They look like squash. They grow like squash. They taste like squash.

In some cases it makes sense to separate the seeds a bit more, mostly for practical considerations. For example, with butternut squash, people frequently asked me for smaller fruits, so I divided the landrace into a small/medium fruited landrace, and into an extra-large fruited landrace. I grow them in separate fields so that they don’t cross.

In the early years of a landrace development project I like to plant seeds fruit-to-row. By that, I mean that the seeds from one fruit are planted together in a row by themselves. The row might only be 3 feet long, or I might plant a hill of melons all from the same mother. This allows me to see how the offspring of a particular mother compare to the offspring of other mothers. I might not know anything about the pollen donor, but I can learn a lot about the mother by watching how a sibling group grows. Because earliness to harvest is of great importance to me in melons, I typically name fruits based on the day that they were harvested, followed by a letter to distinguish the different fruits that were harvested on the same day. For example, this photo shows how I label cantaloupes as they are coming out of the garden. On these melons I also added a designation of which field they came from. I planted different populations in different fields, so that also tells me something about the family history of the fruit.

I add other details to the fermentation vat and final seed packet such as “yellow flesh”, or “tastes great”, or “10 percent sugar.” Then before planting I can use those notes to decide what to plant. Offspring tend to resemble their mother.

When I am harvesting popcorn, I label the baskets with the date harvested. I pop each cob separately. I label great cobs with the date harvested, expansion ratio, number of old-maids, and unique traits, such as easy shelling or great taste. Then before planting time, I sort the seed packets to decide what traits I’d like to carry through to next year. I only keep plants separate that have some trait that I’d like to emphasize. Average cobs with average traits are saved and planted in bulk.

I do not typically label plants when they are planted. I am most interested in how the plants grow. I am not much interested in their history. Even if I could keep perfect records, there is unavoidable chaos when saving seeds. For example, one day my brother threw kitchen scraps into the fermentation bucket for my tomato landrace! So my tomato seed included seeds from tomatillos, peppers, and unselected tomatoes. The tomatillo that my brother helped me save was very nice.

I take copious photos or videos while planting, and during growth and harvest. If something interesting shows up I might be able to learn more about it from the images.

I often put a ribbon of surveyor’s tape around a plant that has desirable traits, and write a note on the tape. Then the note is carried along with the vegetable at harvest, and becomes part of the name/description of the plant.

Once I get to a well developed landrace, I use names that describe the phenotype of the crop, along with a description of the location to which it is well adapted: So I grow “Joseph’s Best Cantaloupe landrace.” It is the best growing cantaloupe in Joseph’s garden. I grow “Paradise Sugary Enhanced Landrace Sweet Corn.” Paradise is the name of the village where the corn was developed. “Sugary Enhanced Sweet Corn” describes what the corn is used for, and “Landrace” implies that it is genetically diverse and has been localized to my garden by passing the survival of the fittest test.

Next week I will write about how landrace gardening promotes hybrid vigor and avoids inbreeding depression by encouraging promiscuous pollination.

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.

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