The Regional Garden, Part 2.
How to Regionally Adapt A Garden.
Part 1 of the Regional Garden discussed seed industry consolidation, the sovereignty of regionally adapting your own seed crops, how a vibrant seed economy leads to a vibrant food landscape, and offered some tips on creating a growing space. Part 2 dives deeper into technical aspects of seed growing. We touch on plant biology, the selection process, example seed crops, companion planting, interspecies cooperation in building soil health, and the role seeds within regenerative agriculture.
A basic understanding of botany will help tremendously as you start saving seeds. Annuals (lettuce, squash, and tomatoes) complete their life cycle within one year. Biennials (carrots, kale, cabbage, beets, and onions) require vernalization, or an extended period of cold, to trigger flowering. Biennial crops are planted in one season and either left in the field or brought inside for storage through winter. The following spring they flower and complete their life cycle. Perennial crops (lavender, rhubarb, trees) remain planted and continually grow. Most garden crops are annuals or biennials.
The most common fruit, vegetable, and grain crops are within 9 plant families. Often plants within these families will cross pollinate. To understand which crops will breed we must know their Genus species. For example, Brassica rapa (napa cabbage and turnips) will cross but generally won’t cross with Brassica oleracea (Lacinato Kale, traditional cabbage). Understanding how your favorite crops are categorized will shed light on how they pollinate, their life cycle, and broaden your understanding of how crops relate to one another. High school biology all over again, sorry not sorry.
Pollination is a crucial element in seed saving not to be confused with propagation. Propagating takes plant material to create genetically identical offspring from the parent plant (usually done through cuttings or dividing roots). In pollination genetics from both parents are incorporated into the next generation. In pollination we have promiscuous “outcrossers” and more subtle self pollinators. If your goal is to keep a variety true to type* then you must consider isolation distances.
Outcrossing plants are pollinated by insects or wind, which can travel for miles and will cross members of the same species. Physical barriers like trees, buildings, and large plants can break up wind and dissuade pollinators from traveling further. To breed true to type plants you will need to isolate them from members of the same species.
Peas, beans, and tomatoes are mostly self-pollinated. You can grow several varieties within the same garden, distanced less apart than outcrossing plants. These crops still need to be separated from one another to a recommended distance of 20 feet.
When adapting crops we need parent plants that thrive in the local conditions. Growing an adequate population will allow more prospective plants to select from. Traits to look for range from drought tolerance, bolt resistance, vigor, color, stature, harvestability, and so much more.
Plant life cycle and days to maturity are key with seed saving because it can take almost a whole season to produce viable seed. There are 4 categories we use to organize our plantings; hardy annual, semi- hardy annual, tender annual, and biennial. Planting in rhythm with their natural cycles can help reduce disease and insure a healthy harvest. Below are example from each of these life cycles.
Hardy annual- Cilantro Coriandrum sativum
Cilantro can be directly seeded in the garden after the ground thaws. Floating row cover helps keep seedlings protected from cold temperatures. This multi-use crop producing fresh herb harvests, edible flowers, and culinary seeds. Cilantro, a member of the Apiacae family, produces pollinator friendly flowers that readily outcross.
As the plants develop into the warmer days of summer so begin our selections. As an annual that can be repeatedly harvested we select plants that produce abundant fresh greens. Specimens that show signs of earlier bolting* are removed at the base of the plant (leaving the roots in the ground). After a couple weeks of thinning, plants demonstrating “bolt resistance” are left to flower.
The plants remaining in the ground take on new life as they grow an abundance of white flowers. Their elongated stems appreciate trellising to keep off the ground. Once the entire plant is dry and the seeds want to drop they are ready to harvest.
Adaptations: cold tolerance, productivity, bolt resistance= earlier and longer harvestability
Semi-Hardy Annual- Lettuce Lactuca sativum
Lettuce is spring planted directly in the garden or in the nursery several weeks earlier. Since lettuce is self-pollinated, you can grow several varieties in the same garden separating them by 20 feet.
Lettuce will begin to mature about 6 weeks after planting. During this time, cull* any plants wildly outside the varieties characteristics but cutting at the base. Plants that look diseased, often a sickly yellow, are immediately removed. As we get further through the life cycle we remove plants showing early signs of bolting. Dense head formation, no signs of bolting or disease, and preferred size are key considerations for select plants.
A member of the Aster family, lettuce will produce an abundance of yellow flowers. Once these flowers create white puffs the and the seed falls off they can be harvested. I often shake individual heads into containers over the course of several weeks as the seeds mature indeterminately*.
Adaptations: color, head formation, disease resistance, bolt resistance= consistent product, high shelf life, extended harvest window, healthy plants.
Tender Annual- Peppers Capsicum spp (annuum, frutescens, chinense, baccatum, pubescens)
Peppers are tropical perennial plants, however in northern climates we grow them as annuals. Transplants are started inside the nursery 8-10 weeks before planting outside. Your growing region will have frost free dates to consider. Peppers have zero tolerance for frost. Peppers both self-pollinate and outcross through insect pollination. I have personally messed this up by crossing a sweet and hot pepper, making some truly dangerous offspring. So take it from me, isolate your sweets and hots by about 300 feet. Another trick is to use row cover during pollination. Keep plants of the same variety covered and alternate days to open the different tent. This process allows them to be pollinated, but in physical isolation from others.
Since peppers are slow to grow, our selection process starts in the nursery. We plant several seeds in the same area (or cell), thinning to a single plant. Observing which seed sprouts first, grows faster, and develops quicker we choose which plant will be left to impart vigorous traits to the offspring.
Once transplanted, culling of off-types and diseased plants is all the selection needed. As fruits are ready for harvest we seek the most productive plants. When we find a plant loaded with fruits and flowers we mark it, making it very clear to not harvest from this plant. These fruits are left to mature until the final days of fall. We harvest the fruits right before the first frost of winter picking the most brightly colored and mature peppers.
Adaptations: vigor, productivity, quick maturation= stronger plants, lots of marketable food
Biennial- Carrots Daucus carota
Carrots are direct sown from spring to mid-summer. Carrots intended for seed are sown in midsummer for fall harvest. The first growth stage requires culling any flowering plants the first year. Carrots are in the Apiacae family and are pollinated through insects. If you live in an area with substantial Queen Anne’s Lace, a common roadside weed, beware these two will cross and produce lackluster carrot offspring.
After harvesting we are looking for root development, color, split resistance, and shape. Carrots that fulfill these requirements get set aside from the main harvest, saved back as stecklings* to replant and produce seed. Carrots are prone to inbreeding and having genetic diversity within your desired traits will help maintain healthy variety lines. A period of vernalization, or winter dormancy, triggers the carrot to flower once replanted.
Come the following spring we replant the entire carrot. From this root, a new leafy top will emerge and produce a large umbel flower. The seeds are ready to harvest when the flowers are fully dried out. Carrot seed ripens indeterminately often requiring hand harvest.
Landrace Section- Winter Squash, Cucurbita maxima
If you are having trouble sourcing seed stock that performs in your growing conditions then landrace breeding is an option. Established landrace varieties are specific to certain areas and adaptations. Any vegetable, fruit, or animal can become a landrace variety with enough attention and time. We are using winter squash because it is a readily outcrossing, insect pollinated, plant thereby making it easy to breed and increase the genetic diversity.
Winter squash requires a full season to mature and not all varieties produce everywhere. The first steps in creating a regional cultivar of Cucurbita maxima is sourcing many varieties of this species, planting them in the same area, and letting them grow. As they mature you will see a range of fruits develop. Ideally, some squash will mature faster, provide a shape you enjoy, and flavor that is delicious. Save the seeds from your absolute favorites and replant them the following season.
You have now created an F1 generation that will have a tremendous amount of genetic diversity. By unlocking the genetic tool chest you hopefully gained access to traits like disease resistance, vigor, and early maturation. As you continue the process of selecting across generations (F2-> F3-> ect.) you can whittle down to the best traits for your local settings. For further reading I would recommend Landrace Gardening: Food Security through Biodiversity and Promiscuous Pollination.
Throughout the process of growing your garden your plants should be under just the right amount of stress. We are adapting crops for a changing climate and the future generations have to be strong.
It is very important to allow your plants the chance to work for resources like fertility, water, and fight some weed pressure. Doing so pushes the plant to search for nutrients and water leading to more nutritious food crops. Applying these pressures to a population will illuminate the more vigorous plants and become your selects*. Just as humans have to work to keep our bodies in shape, plants also appreciate gentle pressure to improve.
An easy way to strengthen your plants is allowing the soil to completely dry between waterings. Then water deeply and let it drain again. This practices trains roots to chase to water deeper into the soil making more robust root systems and fostering greater carbon sequestration.
Companion Planting, Soil Health, Unlocking Hidden Nutrients
Growing different species of plants together is older than seed saving. Not only are you increasing biodiversity above ground, but a powerful alchemy is happening unseen below ground. Studies have shown that multispecies commingling roots in the soil help attract and utilize powerful soil microorganisms. Plants are not solitary creatures, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and getting to work. They are cooperative beings exchanging carbohydrates sourced from photosynthesis and releasing this energy through root exudates to feed soil mycorrhizae and bacteria. In turn these microorganisms make minerals accessible to the plant.
Attracted by the proliferation of food, other soil critters come to feed on the colonies of microorganisms. The greater diversity of plants in our gardens, the greater diversity of soil biology. Your drought stressed plants now have allies to help them unlock nutrients in the soil, store water, and even communicate pest issues. Through breeding plants you strengthen relationships with these microscopic forces, fostering an annual underground garden ecosystem.
Companion planting is possible when fresh vegetable crops are interplanted with seed crops. Flowering plants occupy larger amounts of space and often need to dry down*. When incorporating companion planting and seed saving expect to remove the vegetables before the seed crop gets too large. Quick crops like radishes, lettuce, or green onions made great companions that can be removed before being smothered.
The importance of unlocking nutrients from the soil cannot be overstated. Biological partners exchange nutrients unreachable to solitary plants thus imparting higher nutrient contents to the food we eat. There have been dramatic losses in nutrient density since the 1940s due to a lack of understanding soil biology and dependance on soil chemistry.
The chance to remedy this degradation begins with stewarding vigorous seeds capable of producing crops in unfavorable conditions. As our soils heal, biology will return to meet plants adapted to the local microorganisms turning the process into truly regenerative agriculture. These soil building practices have been shown to sequester 38,000 pounds of CO2 per acre per year!
Adapting and growing a regional garden changes your body and mindset. Seed saving requires we consider future generations of plants through the stewardship of local varieties and soil biology. Compounded by a volatile climate and continued consolidation in agribusiness now has never been a more potent time to begin adapting crops. Adaptive seed saving challenges our cultural norms and reconnects us with an ancestral way of being. No longer are we autonomous creatures, but directly involved with a series of beneficial interspecies relationships providing our bodies with increased nutrition. Our connections to the mysteries of soil and seeds synchronize us with the natural rhythms of ecosystems and foster a cooperative way of living.
Every little plot of land helps contribute to local sovereignty, regenerative agriculture, sequestering carbon, and general enjoyment of growing food. Fostering these relationships as a community has rippling effects that we will discuss in further detail in The Regional Garden Part 3. Bringing the Seeds Home.
Seed Savers Exchange Seed Saving Chart- Helpful information regarding plant species, life cycle, population size, and more!
True to type- meaning the offspring of a plant will be the same as the parents
Bolting- the early stages of a flowering plant often seen through elongated stems or budding.
Cull- the removal of an “off-type” or undesired trait within a population
Indeterminate Flowering- Flowers that ripen in stages. For example, the central flower in a carrot plant will ripen faster than the outer flowers.
Steckling- a prepared root of a biennial crop (carrots, beets, ect.) to be planted to produce seed
Selects- plants that exhibit the desired characteristics within a population
Dry down- discontinuing water and allowing a seed laden crop to dry out before harvesting the seed
Aron, J. (2022). Soil: A living, breathing ecosystem. Growing for Market, 31(1), 1–6.
Navazio, J. (2012). The Organic Seed Grower. Chelsea Green Publishing.