Years ago, when I first started teaching plant propagation for UCLA Extension, I bought a book called, Breed Your Own Vegetables by Carol Deppe. It proved a bit daunting and I put it down. I didn't care for the lessons in Mendelian genetics. I had taught Mendelian genetics before in a general botany class and, though I understood it, it wasn't my cup of tea and so I put Deppe's book down and it collected dust on my shelf.
Last year, with the seed library idea singing it's siren song in my ear, I pulled the book off the shelf again because of it's full title, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving (this is probably about the tenth time I've written about this book in one of my blogs, you get the idea that my copy is well worn!) I pulled the book off the shelf and was immediately impressed with Deppe's writing, filled with warm and engaging descriptions of the seeds and stories she told that illustrated her points. After getting through the seed saving half of the book, I began to stick a toe filled with trepidation in the breeding half.
As I studied seed saving, it was obvious to me that a seed saver is already a defacto plant breeder: It may not be an overtly dedicated breeding program, but simply by saving the seed from plant A (it was taller and had more fruit) instead of plant B, one has bred in favor of the genetic make up of plant A vs. plant B. So all seed savers are plant breeders, even if only 'passive' plant breeders.
After my week long immersion in seed school, I am convinced more than ever that breeding plants for organic food production has got to be the next frontier for me and I hope I can convince a lot more folks to join me. I mean the active kind of plant breeding – the kind that starts at the beginning of the growing season with intention to create a new variety and goes through season after season to achieve the goal of a new variety.
Two Mary Corn
A couple of years ago, we had two Mary's volunteering at The Learning Garden. They met there and became roommates for a time – both were good solid gardeners. One year, they started seeds of corn and after the corn had germinated, found they needed to move and had no place to plant it. They gave about forty growing corn plants to me. I grew them out and the diversity was astounding (first picture, above). I saved that seed, but I was intimidated about breeding corn and never took it forward. Now, I know what to do and I am eager to pull that seed out again and begin to breed it out to be true. That is project number one. It is only to breed out some of the more beautiful corn seeds for a gorgeous corn. The picture of one of the ears can be seen as a heading (L A Garden Blog) or back drop (Record of The Seed Library of Los Angeles) on two blogs I help author. The working name for this corn is Two Mary Corn. Still looking for a good name, but that'll do for my notes.
The one that has totally captured my imagination has a working name of Purple Maize. Sorry, I can't help it. If I am successful, don't worry, it will not be released as 'Purple Maize.' I'll find another name for it before then. This is a corn from the collection of Native Seed/SEARCH, unfortunately an unmarked ear, that is a purple colored dent corn. Dent corn is a combination between a flour corn and a flint corn. I just learned the difference this last week at Seed School. Flour corns are softer and are preferred as the source for flour. Flint corns are harder and can be used like flour corns but they are harder to grind and are therefore not the first choice. However, that hardness insures that they will keep better so most folks dealing with subsistence agriculture were inclined to grow both.
The two come together in a 'dent' corn. A dent corn has the interior of a flour corn with the exterior of a flint. The two dry differently with the flour giving up more moisture than the flint causing the kernel to have a 'dent,' a rather pr0nounced dimple, at the top of the kernel. They have a reputation for being highly productive corns – in fact, from the 1890's to the 1920's, THE corn American farmers grew was Reid's Dent, a charming story I'll write down one day soon. Reid's Dent was superseded by the beginning of the hybrid era which continues through today. This corn, collected from the Native American gardens of America's south west is most assuredly a drought tolerant corn and only a chance cross between a flour and flint corn, in other words, not a stable cross and the resulting seeds are as likely to be a flour or flint as well as a dent.
There is no listing for a purple dent corn in the Native Seed/SEARCH database, but here was this one ear. Purple can be equated with higher levels of anthocyanins. If one could breed a corn that was high in anthocyanins, stored well and produced abundantly, one might have a hit on his hands. Or, in the words of the Tucson gardening community, spoken with a tongue firmly in cheek, “Rich, Rich, Rich! It's going to make us Rich, Rich, Rich!” Of course, nothing in plant breeding does these days and I would be happy enough to breed a useful plant that helps us actually assuage hunger rather than sell more herbicides.
Corn breeding is harder than tomato or pepper breeding, because corn cannot be inbred too much before one gets a very negative feedback from the corn in weak and unproductive plants. I am starting with only a few seeds, so the first year is to grow out enough seeds to begin to experiment – of course, I will only select to plant corn seed that continues to exhibit the purple dent characteristics. It is important to note that I will need 200 or more plants in the second year in order to not experience the negative effects of inbreeding. The good news is that the plants can be located in different gardens. So, I'll be looking around for places I can plant something like forty plants in to achieve my 200 plant minimum.
But we need more plants being bred – we need plants that can survive drought, hotter temperatures (many pollens die at higher temperatures, we need to find look for pollen with more tolerance to heat), plants that remain upright despite harsher storms. All these are likely scenarios in the coming decades because of global climate change. These are plants that will produce the food the world will need in the coming years.
This is the work that will prevent hunger and starvation – not the work of Big Ag and their dependence on oil and patents. If I get a new variety of corn, yes, I WILL patent it. But I'll patent it so it cannot be patented by someone else. I'll give the patent to the Seed Library of Los Angeles or some other philanthropic conscious group.
What would you breed if you had the chance? You probably can do it! And remember, if you fall short, you can still eat the results! I hope you are excited too!
Corn is one of the most hybridized plants in our world today, but most of the hybrids developed in the past 50 years has nothing I want in my garden. This ancient race of corn, at present not precisely identified, from the Native Seed/SEARCH collection does have traits I want: It is a dent corn, meaning it has the keeping qualities of a flint combined with the finer grain of a flour corn. The blue tint holds higher nutrition. One of my projects now is to develop a blue (higher nutrition), dent corn (longer shelf life and finer grain - dents also tend to be among the more productive corn races). I have two corn breeding projects on the books right now.
Even by the time the professionals were breeding plants – before the genetic modification started – the intent was no longer to breed plants for any kind of long term strategy. Just like modern Wall Street, the idea became to get in, make a buck and not be around when the thing imploded. Home gardeners and food consumers became the victims of this make-a-buck strategy. Mind you, the mantra of the promoters of this type of agricultural advancement was: Cheap food – at any price. And no other country bought it up the same way Americans did. And still do. What's the best food store has almost always been the cheapest – a mold that is being broken by Whole Foods Market and that's about the only bone I'll throw them.
It's an odd thing that among 1st World Countries, Americans are the most likely to think food has to be cheap. And, in that guise, we went along for it. Cheap and easy was our national anthem from way before the American Revolution. But the trade offs were huge! Nutrition and taste were not important and were not considered as a 'desirable' outcome of the research.
During this time, the old kind of plant breeding comprised an ever shrinking portion of the plant breeding. And while modern science was breeding in disease resistance to tomatoes and other vegetables, the open pollinated plants were left alone. “Breeding resistance” into plants is another way to describe “breeding more virulent diseases” because, as the plants become resistant, diseases co-evolve to take on the new, improved plants. The net effect of this is that our cherished heirlooms have been compromised by a lack of disease resistance to diseases that weren't around when our treasured plants were being bred.
Now is the time to move beyond 'saving heirlooms.' That is old hat. We have saved a lot of them. Now, we must begin to move beyond just 'saving' them. We must begin to adapt them to our world. We need to confer disease resistance on these tasty and rich jewels of cuisine if we are going to be able to keep them and if they will be the basis of an agriculture that keeps us from starving when the chemicated, profit driven agriculture turns on us by failing to deliver – which it will do sooner or later.
So the challenge before us is to do the work of breeding disease resistance from the hybrids (not the GMOs – which is a different critter altogether and among our people is considered a contamination. There are many hybrids out there from which we can cull disease resistance or other qualities we find desirable in our food. In other words, the word 'hybrid' cannot be a bad or nasty word – we have come to a place where the word 'hybrid' has been far too demonized. It is true that the recent history of hybrids is tied in with the mad rush for profit, but the word itself simply means the 'product of a cross.' Hence most of our rich diverse, collection of open-pollinated plants are all hybrids; the difference that needs to be noted is that the open-pollinated plants are stable crosses – whereas the hybrids of the dollar are unstable crosses – in other words, they have not been grown out for successive generations to insure the good qualities are there to stay.
Many organizations have been saving all this marvelous germplasm that is the basis for this work. We need to get busy - not only in continuing to save the germplasm, but also to breed resistance to the delicious tasting food our ancestors left for us. We need to be true to this treasure and the way best to do that is to not only save it as it is, but to breed it to compete in this modern world and produce fruit reliably and honestly for our children and their children.
For all of the history of agricultural civilization, the farmers and gardeners saved their seeds to have something to plant next year. As soon as humankind began to depend on crops grown in tended fields, saving seeds was as much a part of the process as was planting seeds the following growing season.
This is the way it was, each generation of humans selecting the seeds that would be the food of the following year. In this manner, humans were 'breeding' their crops for characteristics they found desirable. Larger grains, resistance to falling apart in the field before they could be harvested and so on. It was not called 'breeding' but it was breeding. Every choice to save one seed over the others in the basket or on the plant was a decision that carried some genetic information forward and left others to be eaten.
We know this is true because ethnobotanists can look into the detritus of past civilizations and tell within a few years of when a crop becomes domesticated. The change from a wild seed crop to a domesticated seed crop is dramatic and fairly rapid. Seed heads become more uniform, the seeds are larger, they don't fall apart easily in the field and other characteristics clearly delineate the departure from 'natural selection' to human selection.
It continues this way over all history. Up until about the 1950's. In the late 1800's seed companies sprang up to help people experience other seeds, lending a diversification that gardens hadn't been able to have unless the owner traveled a bit or had connections in other parts of the land. The average gardener didn't have access to anything that wasn't local. But seed companies made a lot of seed available to these gardeners and expanded the ability of regions to grow seed adapted to their areas from other similar climates that may not be nearby.
Still, barring a disaster, once a gardener purchased the seed, the gardener would save seeds for future plantings until some other seed tantalizingly calls to be planted (we all know what that feels like). Seed companies also tried to breed new plants to be able to offer something new each year. This was the heyday of many great American seed companies that became institutions, like Burpee, introductions we are all familiar with were bred at Burpee's Fordhook Farm - including Fordhook Swiss Chard. Other plants were bred by a horde amateur seed breeders - including the mechanic 'Radiator Charlie' who paid off his house with sales of seeds of his "Mortgage Lifter" tomato.
I remember many winters as a child in Kansas, sitting in front of Grandpa's woodstove with snow all over the garden. I went through the Burpee catalog, Park Seeds and many other seed proprietor catalogs underlining dozens of plants I wanted Grandpa to order for the coming year - I read each catalog hundreds of times, memorizing the descriptions and the names and adoring every single variety - the Burpee catalog in those days was many, many more pages long than it is today. Grandpa never did, by the way. He saved his own seeds for the most part and, if he needed more seed, he bought locally. I didn't understand this until I was an adult growing my own seeds and feeling a little sheepish at how demanding I was about ordering seeds that Grandpa didn't want or need.
Up until the 1950's, one thing that was true of ALL plant breeding was done by amateur plant breeders. Sometime around the 1950's breeding began to fall into the hands of college educated plant breeders - people well versed with genetic backgrounds - and the beginning of commercial funding of science research. The focus shifted from regional seed production to national and international seed sales and companies more interested in profit than in 'traditional values' of the older seed breeders. Run on that Republican traditional value politicians!
This became the years of the hybrids and crop yields went through the roof! But the concentration was entirely on bushels per acre and very little else. In many cases the plants required disease resistance in order to produce well and that was bred into the plants. I don't want to disparage many advances made in this time frame because a lot of valuable work was done that should not be thrown out simply because the primary interest was in selling hybrid seeds.
Mind you, to me, the line was crossed with genetically modifying plant seeds. And patenting seeds. This is one more of the incursions the 'industrial' model of agriculture. Once the industrial model was applied to agriculture, and profit became the only motive, agriculture as a whole was set adrift, and no part was more adrift than plant breeding. The point was to make profit and keep making profit for as long as possible. Hence, patents were 'necessary' and positive traits, valuable to individual gardeners and farmers and the eventual consumers (like taste) became lost in the race for profit. By the time I became an adult gardener in the 1980's, seeds no longer were the seeds of my grandfather.
More on this tomorrow: the next frontier for garden seeds.
Orchid Black and I on a field trip Spring Quarter 2010, the last time we taught ‘Greener Gardens: Sustainable Garden Practice’
UCLA Extension offers this class in Summer Quarter this year, starting Thursday, June 23, 6:30 PM in Botany 325, on the UCLA campus. People who take this class will get the benefit of the breadth of experience that each of us brings to sustainability in the garden. This class fulfills an elective for the certificate programs in both Horticulture and Global Sustainability.
We will cover sustainable design, soils, swales and earthworks, appropriate use of greywater and rainwater harvesting, along with the basics of native and drought-tolerant planting. All aspects of sustainable backyard food will be addressed.
The UCLA Extension catalog, lists the class as follows:
“Sustainability is today’s buzzword and many people seek to create a lifestyle with a more favorable impact on the environment. From home and school gardens, to commercial sites, our gardens present the perfect place to start. Designed for horticulture students, gardening professionals, educators, and home gardeners, this course focuses on turning your green thumb into a “greener” garden. Topics include composting, irrigation, water harvesting, water wise plants, eating and growing local produce, recycling, and moving away from a consumptive, non-sustainable lifestyle when choosing materials and tools. … “
I taught this course as a half elective on my own for two years before being able to team up with Orchid. Her knowledge and effective teaching puts this class into its own league. Orchid is an award winning designer of California Native gardens, a delegate to the state-wide organization of the California Native Plant Society and did excellent work on the Los Angeles County Native Oak Ordinance Working Group. She has studied water issues for several years and has a keen understanding of the problems we face around that issue. She blogs at Native Sanctuary. On another front, I return to Los Angeles on Sunday the 26th and be a panelist for the upcoming Dwell on Design event. In the mix of the events right now, I was quoted by the Los Angeles Timesin their article on the Seed Library of Los Angeles.
Here’s a link to UCLA Extension page for the class, which still has a few spaces open:
For the past 10 years, I've been the Gardenmaster at The Learning Garden, a one acre garden located on the campus of Venice High School. I am the inaugural chair of the Seed Library of Los Angeles and I am serving on the LA City Urban Agriculture Working Group. I write, speak and teach about growing food in Southern California, the evils of industrial farming and genetic modification of food plants and rail against the evil of Monsanto and other big players in the poisoning of America.