If you happen to spend a little time talking to Bonnie or me about plants, you will discover that we are both plant nerds. We love ALL kinds of plants and have worked in both public and private plant breeding programs. Here is a little education for your Monday on plant varieties and how we selected your vegetables for 2015.
Plant breeding is a fascinating field that sometimes gets a bad name because it can push the limits of publically accepted science. I think we can all get a little squeamish when talk of mutations, moving DNA across species and science fiction pictures pop up in the news. The basic principles of plant breeding are things that I think everybody would support.
A plant breeder is working to improve the quality of a plant – this could be yield, disease resistance, flavor, storage life, or nutritional quality (to name a few). This work started a LONG time ago when gatherers figured out which patches of wheat were easiest to harvest, which berries were sweetest and which root crops stored the best. Home gardeners do this today when they let flowers go to seed in the fall and the strongest ones germinate and grow in the spring. Breeding programs work every day to create varieties that will withstand the environments they are produced in and meet the high expectations of the consumer.
Let’s talk types of varieites…
Open pollinated – these varieties are pollinated by the wind, insects, birds or other natural mechanisms. These varieties will be the most genetically diverse and if left in the same environment will adapt to the local conditions over time. Cucumbers, tomatoes and squash could be open-pollinated garden vegetables.
Self pollinated – these varieties typically pollinate themselves. Chance outside pollen brought by insects or other means can increase the diversity of these varieties. Beans and peas are the most common in the vegetable garden.
Hybrid – these can get complicated but the simple concept is that two distinct varieties are used to create a stronger better variety – one variety is the pollen donor to the other. Different crops have different hybrid schemes to make the best varieties. Garden examples include cucumbers and tomatoes!
Heirlooms – it seems that individuals classify these differently depending on their goals. Some will argue that an heirloom must be open-pollinated (not a hybrid) others classify it by the length it has been in production (50 years). I would suggest that there are some amazing hybrids that have been in production for over 50 years that just might be an heirloom variety! A note on heirlooms – we love some of them BUT know that in many cases modern plant breeding has developed improved varieties that we choose over an heirloom. Bonnie tracked down 1 of the 2 varieties of pumpkins that have been developed specifically for pumpkin seeds. Not an heirloom but definitely something we want in our garden!
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) – an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering. GMO varieties can be beneficial to growers depending on their production practices and markets and can be beneficial to consumers in terms of quality and cost of products. Production on our scale really isn’t where these are beneficial…and there are few GMO vegetables available through our sources.
The science behind GMO’s is changing the future of agriculture and our food sources EVEN if not all accept or consume GMO products. GMO research is bringing new non-GMO varieties to the market! Our understanding of DNA and genes is allowing plant breeders to screen traditionally bred varieties more quickly and understand traits that will be so important to all of us in the future. Think big here…DROUGHT TOLERANCE! We live in southern Idaho – reducing water use is a big deal.
So, what will be in your basket this summer? All of them minus the GMO’s. To be brief – let’s just talk tomatoes. We have about 20 different varieties of tomatoes that we started this past weekend. We have open-pollinated, hybrids and heirlooms. We choose some because we knew they were early varieties and we want you to have tomatoes as soon as possible!!! Some have amazing flavor but will be late season. For the canners we looked for great salsa and sauce tomatoes that were heavy producers. We wanted slicers, saucers, cherries and canning… No single variety can provide it all. So thankful for the amateur and professional plant breeders that provide us with the diversity we need and desire!