Maryland Grows

Open Pollinated Corn – Part 3

Why there may be a place for open pollinated corn varieties

In spite of the problems detailed in the previous post, a fair minded observer would have to say that the adoption of hybrid corn by commercial farmers has been a huge success. This applies not only to field corn varieties but also to sweet corn varieties. For the latter, the recent development of the extra sweet and super sweet hybrids have been a big hit with consumers in North America. Why then would anyone even think of going back to these old fashioned varieties? As I see it, there are three reasons.

The first has to do with sustainability. The very thing which makes hybrids so successful turns out to be a drawback. A field of hybrid corn has plants which are all genetically identical. If one plant is susceptible to a pest, all of the plants are equally at risk. On the other hand, a field of an open pollinated variety of corn, although containing plants which have similar genetic composition, will have much more genetic diversity. This reduces risk not only from pests but also from abiotic risks such as drought, extreme temperatures, low fertility, etc. Open pollinated corn varieties are less dependent on costly inputs, such as high levels of fertilizer, irrigation water, and pesticides than are hybrids. Yes, hybrids will yield better if given the necessary inputs in a timely fashion. But open pollinated varieties should have better yield stability – the ability to maintain an adequate yield in spite of less than ideal conditions.

The second reason is that open pollinated varieties may fit into local food, slow food, organic food and home gardener production systems better than hybrid varieties in many cases. The seed can be saved and replanted, significantly reducing costs. There are more opportunities for farmers to do selection and breeding on their own farms for specific growing conditions and market needs. Cultural and ethnic specific characteristics can be selected to supply very narrow local niche markets. A home gardener who is hand harvesting corn does not need to have all of the corn mature at the same time. In fact, this may be a disadvantage for sweet corn in a home garden.

The third reason has to do with maintenance of genetic diversity of corn. Many old varieties of corn have been lost since the advent of hybrid corn. Many farmers had consciously or unconsciously developed unique open pollinated varieties of corn as they saved seed from their crop and replanted it. Some of these farmer varieties and “land races” were collected by commercial seed companies and incorporated into hybrid varieties. Some are maintained in USDA seed banks. Some are maintained as heirloom varieties. But many have been lost forever. A large scale revival of open pollinated corn production by commercial growers and home gardeners will help to not only preserve the genetic diversity that still remains but also have it readily available to farmers and future generations of farmers at relatively low cost. I like to think of this as “genetic democracy”. Let a thousand varieties pollinate? Herbivore Reed

Next: Ok I get it! How can I get started?

What’s Up Doc?

Wouldn’t Bugs Bunny be surprised to see this carrot rainbow? This was my first attempt at growing carrots and was delighted to harvest these jewels in late October. I planted the cultivars ‘Little Finger’ and ‘Carnival Blend’ on July 7.

I will definitely plant these again this spring. I’ll have to remember to be patient though. It can take up to 25 days for seedlings to emerge. These took longer that that – probably because they are a cool season crop and I planted in July. It was well worth the wait!

Share your successes. Comment with your favorite cultivars.

When tomato met basil

My first garden was a mixture of a garden plot and container plants. I didn’t have enough room to plant everything that I wanted to grow so I grew my tomatoes in pots alongside my garden.

One day I came home from Papa John’s (the nursery, not the pizza place) with some basil plants that I just had to have. But I had no room for them. I checked my tomato plants to see if they needed watering and my daughter noticed these tiny little bugs on the undersides of the leaves.

I immediately got online and did some research. Yep. Aphids. I went out and squished all that I could see but there were a lot. I was frustrated and thought my plants were goners. I didn’t want to use any pesticides and I didn’t have the heart to throw my babies away. I thought “well, I’ll just keep them around and see what happens”.

I knew that I liked basil and tomato sandwiches, and was sad at the thought of no garden fresh tomatoes. Then it hit me! Since there was no more room in the garden for my new basil plants, I just put them right into the pots with the tomatoes. I thought since they went well together on a plate, maybe the basil and tomatoes could be friends. I was right! Within two days there was not an aphid to be found on any of my plants. My tomatoes were saved! Yay, basil! The picture above is the first of many maters that I harvested that year. So I saved space and took care of that pesky bug that was bothering my maters.

Seasoned gardeners, I later found out, already knew this trick. So I’m sharing it for those that don’t know. The next time you are growing your maters, throw some basil in the mix. You’ll save space, grow more, and your maters (and your taste buds) will thank you later!

Seed orders finally done!

Planning for the Derwood Demo Garden continues. Here are the stages I’ve gone through so far:

1. Brainstorming ideas. Here’s where I put down on paper that I’d like waves of single-color Swiss chard making a rainbow; beans meant to be harvested in snap, shelling and dried stages; a bed demonstrating cool-weather spinach and its warm-weather substitutes; squash that is resistant to vine borers; slow-to-bolt lettuces, and so forth.

2. Seed inventory. I listed all the seeds we already have, with dates where known. Hm, we already have a lot of seed.

3. Preliminary seed order. Using the two above documents, I came up with an ideal list of everything I’d like to order and that we don’t already have. For example, I found that we have no Cucurbita moschata squash seed (most resistant to borers); that we only have rhubarb chard seed; that we have a little pole bean seed, plenty for Masai bush beans, and also plenty for Black Turtle bush beans (to harvest dried); that we have some Winter Bloomsdale spinach and some New Zealand spinach (which is not really spinach but a hot-weather alternative). So butternut squash and a few relatives, several heirloom varieties of pole beans, and several other kinds of real and false spinach went on the list, along with a bunch of lettuces claiming to be bolt-resistant and every color of Swiss chard there is. And much more. I checked several catalogs and listed comparative prices.

4. Garden map. Using the template for the vegetable garden beds as they exist, and referring to last year’s map to make sure I’m rotating crop families, I drew a map of what will go where. This gave me a better sense of how much space I actually have to work with for each crop. I remembered paths, too.

5. Seed orders redux: trimming for reality and the budget. We’ll try to use as much of the current seed stock as possible, bearing in mind that some experiments failed, some seed is too old to use, and it’s always nice to try something new. I still ordered four kinds of Swiss chard (but not the yellow one that wasn’t carried by any catalog I chose to order from), and several varieties of spinach and summer substitutes. I reluctantly cut back on bean varieties and stuck with one kind of butternut squash (we’ll try again with some of the C. maxima and C. pepo seed we already have, and hope early use of row cover keeps the bugs off). I ordered two new kinds of lettuce, but we’ll also use up old seed even if those varieties aren’t as good in the heat. We will grow kale again, but the harlequin bug problem makes me cautious about kohlrabi and broccoli.

We have seed for parsnips and peanuts, so we’ll try those, and I also ordered seed for golden beets and rat-tailed radishes. And there’s plenty of room for tomatoes, sweet potatoes, all the old standbys.

This is much easier to do for a small garden, although the choices are harder! It took me a long time to learn that the mapping stage is critical, since it forces me to accommodate actual physical reality into the landscape of my dreams. What do you mean, I can’t fit corn into this garden? etc. It’s also great to keep a seed inventory, especially when planning seed swaps with friends and neighbors. Or when you’re being tempted by catalogs to get five kinds of peppers and that really cool new cucumber and two kinds of watermelon. Note: most gardeners are hard-pressed to fit one kind of watermelon into their planting scheme. And yes, I ordered watermelon seed for myself this year (orange-fleshed watermelon! Fun!), and if we have a spare corner in the demo garden I’ll happily donate a plant or two…
(Photo credit: Katherine Lambert)

Garden Giddy

As the end of January approaches and I continue to drool over my seed catalogs that are coming in two by two each day in the mail, I get giddy about winter bidding us adieu.

This is my garden. My little piece of fat earth. She has a few weeds in her now and a few errant vines that I forgot to pull down off of the chicken wire, but she’s there…waiting for me to bring her new life. Every year I try to grow something new. This year, among my long list of things to grow, I am going to try radishes and tomatoberries–tomatoes the size and shape of strawberries. I am also going to try the square foot gardening method. My garden is small, 300 square feet, but I do grow so much in that tiny space! How? Space-saving techniques like letting things grow on trellises instead of letting them sprawl and interplanting certain crops together. However, I think the square foot gardening method is really going to maximize my garden space because I will be utilizing the space a lot more efficiently. I plan to keep you updated on how it goes. In case you are wondering what this method entails, just google ‘square foot gardening’. I can’t wait to get started!

What’s on tap for this year’s garden? Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, radishes, cukes, okra, peas, spinach, cantaloupes and various herbs and flowers. I can just taste those salads now!

Well, I’m off to order my seeds! Until next time…..

Happy Garden Thoughts!

Grow It Eat It Goals

Erica’s article below got me excited. Garden planning is a fun winter activity. I encourage everyone to set goals to change or expand your garden this year. Perhaps you can add a couple of more pots to your condo terrace. Or expand your garden another 100 square feet. Plant some new vegetables or fruits. Or put up some trellises. Improve your irrigation. Or build a hoop house to extend your seasons.

Look over the seed catalogs. Place your orders. Establish your time-lines. Dream and do.

Here are my goals for expanding my garden this year:

Gardening requires strategic planning. Those berries will be in for years so I better plant them in the best location. I must also patiently wait a year for them to start producing. I love staring out my den window in January at my dead garden and making my big plans.

Open Pollinated Corn – Part Two

Why Hybrid Corn Seed Can’t Be Saved and Unintended Consequences

Hybrid corn seed cannot be saved and replanted because hybrid varieties do not “breed true” in following generations. The reason for this is that in the hybrid variety each plant had one gene from the male parent and one gene from the female parent for every plant trait. This is what produced the uniformity in maturity, height, etc. which was so beneficial for machine harvesting. But when the seed from a hybrid variety is saved and replanted, the resulting plants have a random assortment of gene pairs for each trait, producing plants of varying maturities, heights, etc. Thus the advantage of the hybrid variety is lost if seed is saved and replanted. The farmer needs to buy new seed every year in order to have the advantages of planting hybrid seed. Clearly the benefits of hybrid varieties were worth this extra cost to farmers as adoption of hybrid varieties was rapid. Farmers quickly developed loyalties to particular seed companies and varieties and paid premium prices for hybrid seed which continued to yield ever more bountiful harvests throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There seemed to be no drawbacks to the use of hybrid corn seed.

A chink in the hybrid corn armor showed up in 1970. Aside from the obvious yield advantage, a big factor in widespread acceptance of hybrids was the uniformity which facilitated efficient machine harvest. However this uniformity has a pitfall. If a field is planted to one variety of hybrid corn all of the plants in the field are genetically identical. Therefore if one plant is susceptible to a pest, all of the plants are susceptible. The dangers of this genetic vulnerability can be mitigated somewhat by planting different varieties of hybrid corn in a given area or even in the same field. However in the 1960s another factor contributed to the genetic vulnerability of hybrid corn. The process of hand removal of tassels of female parents proved to be time consuming and expensive. Finding high school youth willing to spend their summers trudging up and down corn rows in the heat of the summer in Illinois and Iowa became more and more difficult. When a breeding technique was developed which incorporated male-sterile cytoplasm into female parent lines it was quickly adopted by the seed companies. There was no longer any need to pay people to hand remove the tassels. Unfortunately there were only a few sources of male-sterile cytoplasm and by the late 1960s approximately 80% of the hybrid corn varieties were developed using a line known as Texas Male-Sterile Cytoplasm (T-Cytoplasm). In the crop production year of 1970 a perfect storm developed with the occurrence of a particularly virulent strain of the fungal disease Southern Corn Leaf Blight (SCLB), warm moist weather conditions that favored SCLB, and susceptibility to SCLB in all hybrid corn varieties developed using T-Cytoplasm. Many acres of corn production were lost as a result. “In August 1970, Illinois Secretary of Agriculture John W. Lewis was estimating that 25 percent of his state’s corn crop was already lost to the blight. Just one year earlier, Illinois had been the nation’s top corn producer, accounting for more than one-fifth of the crop.”

In the aftermath of the 1970 debacle the seed companies reverted to using hand removal of tassels until new lines of male-sterile cytoplasm were developed. But a hard lesson had been learned by corn farmers and they would never again have quite the same level of trust in hybrid corn as they did before 1970. Herbivore Reed

Next: Why there may be a place for open pollinated corn varieties