What is Regional Adaptation?
Regional adaptation understands that as organisms inhabit a place those who continually adapt to the local settings prosper. People interacting with plants, through the process of genetic selection and seed saving, can facilitate this process and turn favorite garden vegetables into food designed for our region’s microclimate. Growing a regionally adapted garden often begins by sourcing local seed stewarding plants through the seasons.
All seeds and gardens were once regionally adapted. Local plant varieties were a birthright passed down through generations. People traded seeds and new varieties made their way across the world to be adapted. In this way corn spread from Central America, making its way north and eventually up much of the Mississippi River. When giving or trading seed it was understood that you were leaving a piece of your kin for a new group to propagate. These plants are called “open-pollinated” meaning they are left to cross pollinate freely among their population producing “true to type” offspring.
After World War I, F1 hybrid corn hit the market. A hybrid is made through deliberate crosses between two heavily inbred parental lines of crops. By following the specific, and usually proprietary, recipe breeders use the hyper uniform parents to produce vigorous offspring. Save the seeds from these hybrids and you reopen the genetic vault of both parental lines resulting in highly weakened vigor derived from generations of inbreeding. This mess of plant diversity makes hybrids unreliable, and often illegal, to save seed from. Government subsidies propelled hybrids to become standard for farmers resulting in commodifying seed. Farmers using hybrids could no longer accurately save seed, requiring annual purchase along with fertilizers and pesticides. Hybrids paved the way for Genetically Modified Seeds (GMO) where seeds have been altered at a molecular level. Seed production changed from being grown everywhere, adapting to the local climates, to consolidated businesses providing both seeds and chemicals.
Why Regionally Adapt a Garden?
Growing seeds bred to thrive in your local environment will make gardening easier. I grow in Colorado where we often experience 40-50 degree daily temperature swings, high winds, bright alpine sun, and limited rainfall. Imagine you just moved here from sea level and expect to climb mountains; good luck. When you source adapted seeds, or seeds from similar climates, you access the genetically accumulated tools in the plant to buffer against local extremes.
Investment in an open-pollinated seed economy builds our region’s sovereignty. Seeds give at exponential rates. Our active participation in seed saving opens us to 10,000 years of human ingenuity and returns the means of production back to our hands. Imagine water, our most precious resource in the West. The longer water is slowed through a landscape the more life it fosters. Like a pond lined with cattails and nesting ducks, water creates an entire ecosystem built on exchange between species. The opposite, a concrete lined ditch or pipe moving water away as quickly as possible over the landscape. Removal and consolidation of water, or seed, leads to droughts (little local supply), concentrated production (seeds only grown in agronomically efficient areas, seed borne disease), and the abuse of resources (companies selling patented seed and the chemicals they are immune to).
The Chiles of New Mexico and Colorado
The trade off between quick availability and long term investment is lived in the Southwest through the pepper. New Mexico has stewarded its famous chiles for generations, creating the basis of the cuisine and unique varieties between pueblos. Iconic red chile ristras provide vitamin C through wintertime. A successful harvest of red chile requires a long and hot growing season. Peppers ripen from green to bright colors, a process which can take over 100 days. The combination of New Mexico’s warmer climate, longer season, and generations of growers saving seeds led to the red chile becoming a staple crop in New Mexico.
To the north, Colorado is famous for its green chile made from the less ripe fruits of the same plant. A shorter growing season means harvests of fully red ripe chiles will be less than green peppers. In consequence, farmers are saving seeds from those that ripen, and selling the green fruits as food; green chile. Plant breeders are working to create regional varieties that ripen to a bright red as seen in the Pueblo Chile and foster a deeper food culture.
Climate differences put pressure on food production and reinforce traditional ways of eating uniting people around the table. Chiles are celebrated throughout both regions in festivals and menus because of unique regional differences. Cultural backing of these crops insures regional production and keeps resources flowing locally, saturating our economy rather than piping the money elsewhere. A living example of regional adaptation breeding a traditional food culture and cementing resilience ecologically, socially, and economically.
Where to begin?
Gardening in itself is an entire discipline beyond the breadth of this article with plenty of informative resources. This writing focuses to enlighten the seeds and growing techniques to regionalize your garden. Simply put, if you are starting a new garden choose a spot with plenty of sun, access to water, and do not worry about the soil (there is much you can do to improve the Earth!).
There are two predominant ways to begin regional gardening. First, you can find a regional seed company close to your garden or growing in a similar climate. Our farm sources from seed companies throughout the West. Traits we consider include fast maturation, drought tolerance, and frost resistance. Take time and read through the catalogs as growers highlight certain varieties as regional favorites.
As you familiarize yourself with the varieties, consider this crop planning tip. Plant a garden with a diversity of species including leaf, root, fruit, and flower crops to create ecological niches. An elementally balanced garden will attract local species and create an ecosystem. Beneficial insects welcomed through flowers or nitrogen fixing beans will complement your garden lending to a whole neighborhood of characters.
Another path to regionalizing a garden is called landrace gardening. Landraces are diverse strains of plants that contain massive amounts of genetic diversity. Let’s say you are looking for a winter squash, Cucurbita maxima. To begin developing a landrace variety you would source as many varieties of Cucurbita maxima as possible then grow them together to cross pollinate. We will dive deeper into this process next time!
Gardening Tips and Tricks:
Our favorite Rocky Mountain producers:
Folks Farm and Seed, Fort Collins, CO
Masa Seed Foundation, Boulder, CO
Lofthouse Seeds- Cache Valley, Great Basin, UT
Wild Mountain Seeds, Carbondale, CO
High Desert Seeds, Montrose, CO
Regional Seed Company Directory- A great resource for seeds grown throughout the country