Breeding Resilient Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 15, 2021

Some people manage to plant, weed, fertilize, water, mulch, trellis, and prune each of their vegetables at the appropriate time. 

Meanwhile, if you’re a plant in my jungle/garden, watch out. If the chickens don’t get you, the aphids might. If I give myself salmonella poisoning, I will forget to water for a week. Hope you like living next to curly dock, because I do not have time to dig it out. Oh, you wanted a taller trellis? The best I can do for you is stick 4 more bamboo posts into the ground and hope you don’t fall on my head. Et cetera. 

But when you’re breeding vegetables, being a laissez-faire gardener is a superpower. I’m serious! Ideal growing conditions are not favored by climate chaos. Think about it: will a displaced population facing major drought and supply chain interruptions be able to provide ideal conditions for each and every domestic plant? No. 

So why are we breeding domestic plants under these conditions?! Because we’ve relegated plant breeding to professionals, that’s why. This is insane. Not only do the professionals not live here on Fidalgo Island, but most of their fields are far more intensively managed than our gardens. In other words, they’re breeding for different growing conditions than we require. 

Many professional plant breeders have goals like increased yield, uniformity, and transportability, but before they ever select for those traits, the environment in which they grow their parent stock has made its own selection: it favors performance under ideal conditions. These ideal conditions essentially hide whatever genetic advantages individual plants might carry against disease, drought, or other hardships, so those advantages can’t be selected for.

In contrast, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon subjected his lettuce to a three-year trial that he called “Hell’s Half Acre,” in which he gave them the worst possible conditions, inoculated them with diseases, and tried to kill them, just to see who would survive. Using survivor parents as breeding stock allowed him to develop new disease- and disaster-resistant varieties of lettuce. 

Let me give you another example. I like dahlias and tomatoes, and I also like to eat beans, but I like dahlias and tomatoes more. The beans never rank high enough to get their own dedicated bed. I grow them underneath the dahlias and tomatoes. Most of them limp along looking resentful and succumb to mildew or aphids before their seed is ready to harvest. But a small proportion of the total bean population manages to dry down its pods in full shade. I save those seeds, and replant them under the dahlias and tomatoes again the next season. Since all of the genes are from plants that “made it” the first year, a bigger proportion of my second-generation beans survive to reproduce. And on and on it goes. I’m breeding towards beans that are happy playing at the feet of dahlias and tomatoes.

 

Can you spy the bean? Also pictured above is the great-great granddaughter of the first Russian Kale I ever planted in Anacortes. I’ve encouraged it to naturalize, and it now feeds us year-round with zero effort on my part. I’m sure it will outlast us on this plot. That’s the sort of vegetable I want to bet on during the climate crisis. 

If you’re like me and you grow most of your veggies in less-than-ideal conditions, I challenge you to claim your superpower. Start to save seed. Different plants have different life cycles and different pollination patterns, so if this is new to you, start with a legume like peas or beans. They’re very forgiving. For further reading, check out: 

Once you’ve begun to develop your own hyper-local, diverse, resilient varieties, share them with friends and neighbors! Transition Fidalgo is working to set up a local seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected. What better legacy could each of us leave for the gardeners who will tend this soil after us? 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

1 thought on “Breeding Resilient Vegetables

  1. Anne Kayser

    Very thought-provoking article… makes me re-think what kind of seeds will serve us best as our climate changes. Thank you for sharing some excellent suggestions. I love the pictures too!

    Reply

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