I have been following Joseph Lofthouse's development of his version of landrace breeding with some interest. The idea of incorporating more diversity into plant parents rather than restricting the pool fascinates me. Certainly limiting the selection criteria to only a few key characteristics while allowing the rest to vary widely would act as some insurance against changeable patterns in weather, pests and disease. Combined with one of my most common talk/teaching subjects - seeds - a project was born. As I always say, every instance of seed saving is one of seed selection.
I'm not sure why I settled on using butternut squash. Maybe it was because I like it and it stores well for me and it could use a little more selection to ripen well in our climate. Maybe too because it is insect pollinated and only requires one growing season to produce seeds. The seeds are also large and easy to save. At any rate, the idea just struck me that I should offer out mixed Cucurbita moschata seed to people in my growing area with the idea of creating a landrace for Eastern Ontario.
To make it accessible, it needed to have few rules and few expectations. You could fail. Heck, every gardener does. You could grow other squash but if it was moschata, just report to me which types so I knew. You could grow as few as three plants or as many as three hundred just return seeds so I could mix them all together before packaging them up for the next year. You could have your own goals and not request more seeds, selecting as narrowly as you wanted for your own purposes just as long as you respected the OSSI pledge. The genetic material was to remain open source. What I was looking for was minimal; plants that grew well without significant issues that produced family sized fruit that ripened within the growing season from direct seeding. That was it.
Year 3 Results:
Most growers had decent results from 2015 though there were a few that lost their plants to critters and many experienced a sluggish start compared to Cucurbita maxima or pepo. We even had a CSA greenscreekfarm.comBusy Beaver Farm who managed to tuck a few in veg. boxes. The parent population was all classically butternut in shape and seemed to result in medium sizes though there were outliers. I had three flushes of fruit, the first two ripening well and third one struggling to finish. My plants did not have much disease though there was some powdery mildew at the very end of the season. I did not notice many pests, even squash bugs were minimal.
It will be interesting to see how the project progresses. I've also sent out seeds to other areas in Canada and Europe so they can select for their own regions.
In the meantime, I'm eating my way through a lot of squash!
* A gardening friend also participated in the grow out and posted a number of pictures and stories here at Living my Dream Life on the Farm.
Goals for 2016:
1. Package up small and medium sized packages to hand out with instructions.
2. The instructions will also contain an optional sheet to fill in characteristics. I encourage participants to send pictures to Experimental Crops of the North on Facebook or to me here. I find it more fun to share plant adventures.
3. Collect seed for 2017
In 2014, I collected as Rhubarb seeds from different sources so I could to do a little selection. My primary goal was to produce a more decorative and still delicious rhubarb with good winter survival.
To start I did heavy selection for red coloration right into the leaf veins at the tray seedling stage. I also set aside plants with other interesting characteristics.
Like many plant projects, there were moments of disaster. My first plant out was obliterated by some ravenous critter. I replanted the row with more hopefuls only to have many of those whose leaves were eaten to the ground spring back. At least that speaks to their vigour. It also meant that I had a rather crowded row of rhubarb seedlings. They grew heartily nevertheless.
Some showed what I call stress coloration brought on by temperature, drought, light level changes or even pest damage, more common with those that had higher levels of background red expression. Though all the red seedlings selected maintained some amount of red, how it was expressed differed with only a few showing it right into the leaf veins. I also kept some aside non-red seedlings that were particularly vigorous, very light coloured or just unusual. Variations in growth habits included sprawling or upright, thick stemmed or many thin stems, very large or more petite. Leaves of the redder stemmed ones could have hints of blue whereas the lighter green ones had more bright green leaves.
Though tasting will really only start in the spring - traditional rhubarb time - after their first winter, I did help myself to a few stems just before they went dormant. One of the things I was hoping for with the high red coloration was red right through the stems. I reserve judgement as to whether that was achieved though there were some that showed promise.
Goals for 2016
Observe winter survival, pest and disease resistance, emergence timing and taste for flavour. Cut back flowerheads on all non red ones and let those with high red coloration cross. I'm going to pursue other colour and form projects another year.
I'm also growing out other Rheum species such as ribes and palmatum with intentions.
Aster Lane Edible defintion of hardiness (Canadian Zones)
Very hardy: Shown to grow in very cold temperatures and a wide range of conditions. Found in prairie gardens for example. Approx. Zone 3
Hardy: Grows here well. We are Zone 4b
Borderline Hardy: Will grow under ideal conditions most years or with protection. Approx. Zone 5/6
Half tender: Will survive below 0C temperatures but cannot survive maximum cold temperatures in this region Zone 7 or higher
Tender: Frost tender
Instead of using zones in our descriptions, I've chosen to take inspiration from the UK classification of hardy, half-hardy and tender. There are so many variables affecting a true description of hardiness, especially for herbaceous plants, that I am leery of giving a zone. That said, Canadian zone designations take multiple factors into account.
-- Plant Hardiness Zones in Canada --
My observations of hardiness
Hardiness is a hard thing. It depends on a multitude of factors including what it is grown in (shallow, deep, light or heavy soil), where it is grown (slope, water table depth, shelter, proximity to other plants, and buildings), growth habit (thickness of stems, roots, evergreen or otherwise leaves), temperature (low point, freeze-thaw/oscillations, sustained low temperatures), other climatic factors (wind, other stressors), age or growth status when overwintering (how big is the plant, how old, how new is the growth) and type of plant (cultivar, etc…). We estimate zones based on where it is native but also where it is found growing. If you look at the literature, you will sometimes see discrepencies with one source saying it is much more zone hardy than another. It could be that one population is more cold hardy or flood tolerant etc… than another. When growing a borderline plant, it makes sense to try and choose seed parents that are growing in a similar environment to yours to maximize success but recognize that some borderline plants will be winter-killed in hard years. After all, zones are also about averages.
And, just because a plant can survive your climate does not necessarily mean it will thrive or that it will flower or fruit. It may be day light sensitive therefore not flower until near the fall equinox when things are starting to freeze or it may require more heat units to ripen fruit.
Your own microclimate may or may not be favourable to a particular plant either. You may have a wonderfully sheltered alcove that grows the best peaches but your more open gardened neighbours fail, or your soil might be too low, heavy and cold to get good sweet potatoes.
Failure with a plant may also have nothing to do with zone but be because of particular pest or disease pressure, inexperience, absence of pollinator or the wrong growing conditions like soil pH.
Then again, growing a plant out of its usual area may mean that there aren’t any pests or diseases that have discovered it so it is carefree. It may also mean that it is invasive.
So should you grow the plant? I’m an experimental gardener. I try to avoid anything blatantly environmentally problematic. I don’t encourage garlic mustard for example. When it comes to hardiness, I push the limits. As many a gardener’s mantra is “You never know until you try.” Besides, by sourcing from promising seed parents, you might get something special.
All about growing, selecting and using edible plants in the Ottawa valley.