Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties

I got this for Xmas and have already read it cover to cover!

I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to save their own seed or even anyone who wants to be good at trying out and evaluating different varieties, even if you don't plan on saving seed, since these are all necessary activities to do if you breed plants, so they're well-covered in the book.

As Carol Deppe says, seed saving IS plant breeding, because you're always selecting when you do that, whether consciously or not. This makes a lot of sense, since if you were doing the same thing with animals they would call it "breeding" and not "puppy saving" or something like that, even if you are just trying to maintain a breed of animal rather than create a new one. Maintaining the breed or variety uses the same techniques, after all.

I do have a Master's degree in biology, so I could skim over a lot of the stuff about genetics, since I've heard it all many times before. Don't know how easy that would be for someone with no scientific background, but it seemed to be written in pretty plain language. I noticed she talks about experimental design in the chapter on variety trials without using that term or any of the other technical terms for what she was describing.

But even though I already know about genetics and experimental design, I'm glad to have a book that puts it into the practical context of home vegetable growing. I already had Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, and this book compliments it well. I have the older edition of StS, so I'm not sure what the newer one added, but the version I have is really just a reference book of all the species of plants grown as vegetables with technical information on how to save seed from them.

Deppe's book is a nice compliment to that because it's much more anecdotal, talking about how this information translates to actual, less-than-perfect home breeding situations. I like the stories she tells about her own adventures in plant breeding and that of other people she knows. Ashworth's book is like a list of the rules, and then Deppe tells you how to break the rules if you don't have an ideal situation, with encouraging stories of people who have done that and still succeeded.

I wish there was a little more to Appendix A, which goes into detail on a few selected vegetable species: tomatoes, peas, beans, brassicas, squash, and corn. I wish it also had peppers and melons. I know you're supposed to generalize from there and suppose that plants from the same family as these behave the same way, but I'm not sure that's always true. Might be for squash and melons, but what about tomatoes compared to peppers? As I understand it, other nightshades are a lot more outbreeding than tomatoes.

Oh well, I guess that's what Seed to Seed is supposed to be for. If Appendix A was expanded to include lots of vegetables, it would turn into a whole book in itself.

My head is already swimming with wild ideas and dreams of how I can contribute to plant diversity, so I'm going to have to rein that in a bit and remember that most of that is just dreams and wild ideas.

After all, I only just got a garden again after years of not having one, so not much seed saving has really been going on. And she does make the good point that before you start breeding the next great variety, you should probably grow a bunch of what's already out there to make sure what you want doesn't already exist.

I haven't had time to grow a whole lot of different varieties yet.

Also, now I'm starting to think of the seed saving/breeding projects I've already started since I got a garden again, and wondering if I've been doing them right.

Here's what I've done so far in the world of seed-saving.

Last year I saved seed from almost all the tomato varieties I planted: Red Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Pink Ponderosa, Hawkins Plum, and Black Cherry. I didn't save seed from Yellow Pear because they weren't very tasty, and everyone who grows them seems to agree. I almost didn't save Hawkins Plum, because it had lousy yield, but I'm going to give them another chance.

Tomatoes are very inbreeding, so they're easy to save. They hardly ever cross, and don't suffer from inbreeding depression, so I don't have to worry about either isolation or minimum population sizes. I'm sure the tomato seeds I saved are all fine. There's also so many varieties of tomatoes out there, that I'm not interested in breeding any new ones. My main tomato goal is to trial the varieties that already exist to find ones that work in my climate. It would be nice to find a favorite variety for various purposes, like one for sauce, one for sandwiches, one cherry, etc., but I'm sure I won't be able to limit myself that much.

However, I would like to do a paste tomato trial some time, though probably not next year. I already have seeds for Hawkins Plum, Rio Grande (which I'm growing next year), and Big Month. I could get some more varieties and trial them all together in one year to see which one is the best. That would require devoting a lot of room to just paste tomatoes, but it would let me know if Hawkins Plum was just unlucky last year or if it really isn't that good of a tomato.

This year, due to a late frost, the only peppers I ended up with were jalapenos I bought from a nursery at the last minute. I went ahead and saved seeds from them, even though about 30 feet away is a wild chile pequin.

Is that far enough away? I don't know. It's hard to tell with peppers. I can't even remember if the chile pequin was blooming at the same time (the late frost killed it back a bit and we thought it was dead for a while, until it finally regrew). I also had lots of squash growing, which might have distracted the bees enough.

So maybe my seed isn't crossed after all.

Or maybe it is and I should throw it away.

Or maybe it is, but I SHOULDN'T throw it away, because maybe I got something good from the crossing. Deppe does mention some of the advantages of crossing things back with their wild relatives from time to time. And it's not like jalapeno is a rare variety in need of preserving.

It's complicated. I was planning on growing different varieties of peppers this year, but maybe I should grow out my saved jalapenos too and see if they've crossed. It also might be important to know if that chile pequin can cross with my garden peppers, because this year I'm growing three more varieties of that same pepper species that I want to save seeds from (since I got them in trades where I received only a small amount of seed). I don't want them crossing with each other or with the chile pequin, but I really am not looking forward to putting up screens or bags to isolate them.

Collard Greens
I might have messed up my collards, because I saved the seed from only 6 plants (those were all the plants I had), and brassicas exhibit inbreeding depression. Deppe says I should have at least 10 brassica plants to save seed from, and 20+ is better. Maybe I need to get some new collard seeds. This may also be a good opportunity to trial some different collard varieties. The variety I'm growing is Vates, but there are a few others. Luckily there aren't very many, maybe two or three at most in any given seed catalog. Nothing like the tomato situation with thousands of varieties. I could easily trial all the commercially available varieties of collards in one year. Maybe next winter I can try that.

Squash is a promiscuous plant, so I've decided that I'll grow only one variety of each of the four species each year. That way I don't have to hand-pollinate to get pure seed. None of my immediate neighbors have vegetable gardens (what is wrong with people, anyway?), so I think the possibility of crossing with plants outside my garden is slim.

This past year I grew one variety of each species, and all of them were killed by squash vine borers except the cushaws. So when people said that cushaws were especially SVB-resistant, they were telling the truth. I already showed you my bountiful harvest of Chihuahua Landrace Cushaws. I'm saving seed from them as I eat them, and I'm eating them in order of how ripe they are, which will probably yield good seed.

One thing to take into consideration is this is a "landrace". That means it has more genetic diversity than a standard variety. Strangely, all my squashes ended up cream with green stripes, and only one gave fruit that was a different shape than the others (didn't have necks). I emailed Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds about this, and they thought it was weird too. Their catalog description said they have variable colors, and I grew 9 plants, which should have been enough. They ended up sending me another packet of seed, so now I have the potential for more genetic diversity.

The thing is, I probably can't keep all the genetic diversity of this landrace in my backyard. After reading Deppe's book, I'm sure I don't have the space or resources (or desire) to do that. That would require saving equal numbers of seeds from each of the individuals in the seed packets I received from Baker Creek. No, I'm going to end up selecting them, whether I like it or not. I just need to make sure I select them in a good way, so that they adapt to my growing conditions and yield good fruit. So far the only really obvious difference in the plants I've grown so far is the one plant that had fruits with no necks. Should I save seed from the neckless fruits? Not having a neck might be a bad thing, though. The neck seems to have better meat than the rest of the squash. So I might only save seed from necked squash.

Next time I grow this variety, I will grow a mixture of my saved seed and some of the original seeds from Baker Creek. This is a trick from the Deppe book for keeping your variety genetically diverse, especially if you can't grow dozens of plants at a time. I'll probably do that every time I grow it until I run out of the original seed, so that they all get a chance to contribute some genes to my squash population. Maybe I'll finally get some of those white or orange fruits I was supposed to have had!

Also, I should try some other cushaws, because it's not like Chihuahua is the best, it's just the first one I've tried. I have some seeds for Green Striped Cushaw I haven't tried out yet. Maybe I will in 2011. Maybe one year I'll even plant a whole bunch of different cushaws to compare them. The problem is squash plants are so huge, that it limits what I can do in my backyard. Doing trials is a scientific experiment, after all, so you need an adequete sample size to get meaningful results. An adequete sample size of a plant that takes up only one square foot of space isn't so bad. It's a different story with a plant that grows to ten feet across or more.

I still obviously have much to do and to learn. That's one of the problems with gardening. All the time scales are in months and years. There is NO instant gratification.


  1. Are you concerned about the different species of cucurbits cross pollinating? I thought C. moschata would cross with C. pepo and C. mixta? Could you bag blossoms and hand pollinate? (I admit that even though I own Seed To Seed, I've done very little seed saving...)

  2. I'm not too worried about different species of squash crossing. That should be very rare, and if it does happen, I'd be really curious to see what the results would be, actually.

    But if the botanists knew what they were doing when they divided squash into four different species, then they should all prefer to mate with their own species over a different one. Deppe actually covers cross-species hybrids in her book. It's rare enough that if you really want it to happen, there are various special things you have to do to help it along.

  3. oh cool, so "can cross" isn't the same as "will cross unless you do something to prevent it." Good to know, if I could ever limit myself to just one C. pepo...