Good beginner's species for a local landrace project?

I’d like to get word out soon to our Cape Cod community about starting to save seeds for maybe 2 specific landrace projects. Any recommendations (and why) for good starter species that would work well for beginning growers and maybe one for a little more of an advanced gardener?

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Good starter species often depend on what does well in your area. Are there any garden plants that everybody in your area seems to grow? If so, that’s likely a good starter species.

Here, it’s zucchini. Probably squashes in general. Tomatoes do well, too.

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  • Sweet corn! Astronomy Domine. If people’s gardens are big enough. Its cool because its so colorful and you can’t buy anything like it. In my area other sweet corn doesn’t do well, AD does fine, so that’s an extra boost. They just have to learn to pick it at the right time.

  • Melons. Everybody loves sweet things. And diversity is usually OK.

  • On the one hand I agree with Emily, but also I have found that people get most excited about being able to grow something they love to eat, that normally doesn’t do that well in their area. Sweet corn and melons were that for my community. And both are highly outcrossing, so, easy to landrace. So consider if there is something that is right on the edge of thriving in your area that everybody loves to eat, and it should be on the Easy list of Joseph’s table.

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Very good points, Julia!

I didn’t even consider those factors, and I think you’re absolutely right!

I was thinking somewhere in-between the two – not too common to make it interesting but also not to unusual to make it within reach. On the Cape we don’t have a lot of land and so I don’t see people growing a lot of corn although it would be a nice way to see the direct impact of crossing with the pollen connection to seed color. Melons are also tricky because of our very short season but that’s a crop I definitely want to develop so that would be my first choice. I was also thinking cucumber because every loves them and there’s a lot of variety to be had.

My plan is to have a local facebook group which outlines parameters (and link to the resources here) and also connect with our seed libraries and local gardening groups and maybe get an article in the local paper. The plan would be to do something soon so seeds can be saved from this summer’s harvest and get a jump start on the process.

One idea I have been approaching in my garden is to identify and grow out historic land races.

It might be useful to see if there are any varieties like this from your area that could be maintained or improved, or perhaps brought out of inbreeding depression if it hasn’t been maintained in a way that adds genetic diversity over time.

There are a couple varieties of tomatoes and a couple varieties of squash that historically used to be grown more commonly in this area, so people sometimes still have a fond memory of them.

One idea that is developing in my neighboring town that might work for others: A community garden is hosting a seed saving series. There is a separate collaborative seed project not associated with this community garden,

  • It will start in October as a community seed saving event. There will be a few teacher/experienced seed savers that each have a station (in or next to the community garden). They will be teaching about a particular species. Anybody is welcome, and people are encourage to bring unprocessed plants/seeds to the event. It is mostly intended to be a hands-on event without much of a presentation. Handout for each species. Also this is subject to change as we consider details.

  • Winter-- Choosing varieties and planning for spring. Growing for seed in small areas. Focus on landrace gardening, flavor and nutrient density, and adapting to local conditions. Including seed exchange, people bring back the seeds cleaned and dried after the initial event.

I like this because it kind of eases people in, and involves experienced local seed savers.

You’ve inspired me to work on the outline for this series asap… do you think something like this would work for your community?

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Julia, that sounds great. The only thing is I’m really on my own with this project here and I don’t really have the patience to do a lot of educating with new growers. Right now I’m enjoying working on my own experiments and am hoping to collaborate and exchange ideas one-on-one on a small scale. So…I’m trying to set something up where I can be the distribution hub and maybe inspire a handful of motivated growers to take part. I think then it could, over time, develop into something.

Workshops and lectures would be great but it’s not quite right for me to be doing them myself and a lot of information can be found on the Internet…it would be great if those of you that are already doing talks were to come to this area (I’d help organize that) but I understand that’s not always practical.

What would really be useful is very simple guides by species. I’m thinking I’ll start with a cucumber and melon project and will need to put together a one-page simple guide for each of those starting with what type of seeds to get, how to grow and save them, and then what to expect in the next few years. I think that’s how most new people would get into it: 1. I like the idea. (I’ll try and get an article published) 2. Which crop should I pick to grow? (we’ll start with Cape Cod cukes and melons) 3. How? (this is the cuke and melon PDF I need or links if we could put something concise and user-friendly as a group)

Alternatively one could choose something that specifically doesn’t do very well in the area! Maybe something that some people grow, but struggles, but that enough of you love to eat! Perhaps especially if it’s expensive to buy.

I’m saying this because if it’s already easy to grow there, there’s maybe not much problem left to solve. If nobody grows it because it’s too far out of the range, it might be too hard for a starting project. But if it can grow, but is just hard, then it might be not too hard as a starting project, but be interesting enough and with enough reward for people to be excited about. And that will probably be even more so if it’s expensive.

I chose tomatoes largely because they’re expensive to buy, and I love them but buy them infrequently due to cost. And, there are climate and disease issues here making them somewhat of a challenge to grow outdoors in a neglectful way. So I am trying to breed delicious neglectable tomatoes for our climate.

I’m also working on peppers for the same reasons, and black sticky rice which I anticipate being far harder - this one I doubt anybody is trying here! Plus rice is cheap and takes lots of effort to grow, so would not fit my general criteria, but, black sticky rice is really expensive, and I can delight myself by adding just 10% to white rice and the whole thing goes dark purple. So there is some efficiency there. Also it’s really not a popular thing. But there will be a certain number of people who will absolutely love it. And I think this is significant too - you don’t have to work on something that everyone knows and loves. I’m a musician. It is rare that I like pop. And pop seems to be something that the masses like, but often in maybe a shallow way? So much of it isn’t even made with heart. Whereas there’s so much music that is way less popular but a significant number of people absolutely love it with a passion. And I think that can be great with food too - if enough local folk either do or would love it, that ticks an excellent box I think. Plus, it could even make your work more important. There might be so much work being done or having been done already, on the ‘most popular’, so sometimes one can make more of an impact on something slightly less mainstream/common. Like, I would say, if there’s a crop that you yourself are passionate about, and at least some other people around you are into it, that could be a good one to choose.

Not saying you shouldn’t go for something everyone already grows. But, just sharing an alternative perspective.

OK let’s do it!
I’ve been planning to make this kind of one-pager like you’re talking about for a while. So I just made this draft below. Tell me what you think. We can make a template for melons and then we can eventually customize for every single crop that GTS is offering. For anyone editing (please do!)-- think printed, no hyperlinks, accessible to non-seed savers, never read Landrace Gardening or took the course. Super simple.

[Melon One-Pager for Local Seed Projects]

@dougrugh I believe at least for total beginners that I would focus on things that they may already be familiar with either by growing them themselves or seeing them in neighborhood gardens. Pushing the boundaries of your location, as you mentioned with corn or melons, I would save for the those with a little more experience. You don’t ask a kid to multiply and divide until you’re sure they can add and subtract.

I think difficult-to-grow-in-your-climate species are excellent landrace projects for experienced gardeners. I think it’s good to give beginners an easy win, something to buoy them up and make them feel like it’s worth trying again their second year.

Maybe, for a community project like this, you’ll want to have three species: two easy wins, and one with moderate difficulty? That way, experienced gardeners who may have tried to grow that species before and been unable to will get super excited at the prospect of the challenging one. And beginning gardeners will get super excited to have anything growing that tastes delicious.

As long as you made sure to make it clear, I think that would work well.

Maybe writing something like this on the mixed grex packets you distribute through a community seed bank type of thing?

  • Community (species name) Landrace. Difficulty level: Easy.

Your first year doing it, three total (two easy, one medium) would probably be a good balance. Your second year, introducing three more (one new easy, one new medium, and the first hard) might work well. Then, after that, you could introduce more – or not! – depending on community desires.

I would definitely recommend getting suggestions from gardeners in your community. If 40% of people in your community who want to participate say they want to grow cucumbers, for instance, take the hint!

Maybe a suggestion box of “What new species do you want to add as a community landrace next year?” You could make it convenient for people to provide that feedback by having it very easy to see and in the same place people will go to drop off their seeds to share at the end of the season.

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My much more experienced and knowledgeable gardener friend is skeptical of a melon project here on the Cape. He says that he hasn’t had any luck with them since the 60’s because of insect borne diseases on the leaves and vine borers and white flies, not to mention our short season (and now drought challenges). To me that sounds like a good chance to really test these landrace ideas. I do hesitate to start a big public project like this that might fail spectacularly…but…it’s also an intriguing challenge and it seems that the more people that get involved the more chances we’ll have of success. Life is short.

Julia, I thought your handout was a good one but I wanted to clear it from my mind and put together one from scratch based on our Cape specific conditions, which are very different, and then combine them together. I also have particular things I’m working on at the moment: overcrowding and intermingling – jungle style growing - so that’s where my interest is and I see it as a strategy that would be both most productive/workable for typical small residential landowners and most beneficial to the planet. I think we need a mass 180 degree change to a wild and natural, uncontrolled gardening aesthetic (as opposed to controlled, clean, and domination over nature), and we need it to become mainstream to really make a difference. But that’s another topic.

On the Cape few people have more than ¼ - ½ an acre, our season is short, and can be very humid. We are affected by the surrounding warming effect of the ocean (since we stick out on a peninsula) so we are always warmer in the fall/winters than Boston and cooler in the spring/summer. We’re in the Northeast but our zone can be similar to Tennessee. Springs can be wet with dry runs, cool or warm…and the season is over quickly. I think we get the pests from NJ later in the summer.

So, I might do a handout something like this (in the simplest language possible):

==================HANDOUT/promo DRAFT===================

Falmouth Melon Landrace Project
Take part in a “survival of the fittest” community seed-saving/sharing experiment in an attempt to create a tasty melon that thrives here on Cape Cod.

Late Summer 2023

If you’re a seasoned gardener who is able to grow melons: you’ve got skills! - save your seeds to share with our group during the off-season. If you have many fruits, save mainly from the tastiest.

If you’re a new gardener, acquire as many different varieties of melon (cucumis melo) seeds as possible. If possible get those with a shorter ‘days to maturity’. Coordinate with the steward of this project about sharing/swapping.

Preferred Growing Conditions - Don’t be Afraid to Stress the Plants
Minimum 4’ x 8’ area of unadulterated but weeded, sod-free full-sun Cape Cod soil (let plants trail onto adjacent areas).
Don’t add amendments, fertilizer or compost but water as needed.
Don’t use fungicides or herbicides or pesticides. Hand pulling of stray weeds and a little pest hand squishing is okay but make sure to read up about whether it’s a pest or not.
The idea is to find those few seeds that can grow in our soil, as it is, and let those die that don’t do well here. If you find 90% of your plants die from disease or pest issues that’s not a bad thing because the genetics in the remaining 10% are what we are after.

Suggested Method
Starting in early-mid May, plant seeds regularly every week until early-mid June (divide up your seeds based on your planting schedule). Plant each week’s seeds in a small hill or patch which you can keep moist until germination and then the following week move on to another spot. Plant seeds as densely as needed (based on how many seeds you have) and let them fight it out. Many may not germinate because of not ideal conditions – no problem! Melons need most of our short season so in the first year we want to see how early we can get them in the ground. As plants die they can be dropped on to the soil as mulch and to spread the disease around or removed to a distant compost if you’re feeling less risky.

Harvesting Seeds
If you are able to grow any fully ripe melons, scoop out the seeds and let them ferment in a glass of water for a couple days. Viable seeds will sink and floaters can be poured off. Once the seeds are clean of any melon meat let them fully air dry for a couple weeks (they should break rather than bend). I like to keep each melon’s seeds separated in a return mailer envelope that I save from junk mail labeled with ‘saved melon’ and the date. At the end of the season I take a few from each envelope and mix them all together as a ‘grex’ or mixture of varieties, for sowing the following season. The extra seeds can be shared with our group to spread our successful melon genetics around the Cape. If all you can grow is a tiny unripe melon, save the seeds and test for viability when dry by attempting to germinate a few in a moist paper towel.

Second and Following Years, Selecting for Vigor and then Flavor
After the second season we will combine and share whatever seeds we come up with and repeat the process. These seeds will likely be crosses between two parents.

Seeds collected from the third season will likely have a lot more genetic variety and the hope is we can continue on to develop a variety that we can name, “Falmouth Melon”.

Contact the seed steward about sharing/swapping seeds or any questions you may have. New gardeners without seeds are welcome to participate.

List of Resources
Going to Seed link
Etc…

=====================================End of draft=========

I welcome your thoughts/additions.

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May want to rephrase the last paragraph.

Very thorough! Couple thoughts

  • In my interviews with people, many have objections to the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ because of it’s historical associations with humans. Took me a long time to figure that out. Other phrases meaning the same thing are no problem. The concept itself, for plants, is not problem, it’s only that phrase.
  • @Lauren said in her interview - you don’t have to select for everything the first year. If you’re already worried about a complete failure, you could remove at least the part about not amending the soil with compost. As Joseph says let people can just plant how they normally plant and are used to, focus on pest/disease resistance. Especially at first.
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I’d say leave this out or just go with “Water as needed.” Those who are “ready” will see the comment above about unadulterated soil. The rest will plant as usual. I think the important piece at first is no pesticides or herbicides.

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I would suggest thinking about scale and stages. The early phases of a landrace project often involve trialling different species to assess basic vigor, then gathering diversity of species that are promising. Then, once the grex has been successful, there is another phase when as many seeds as possible are grown out and selected for desirable traits to stabilise a local landrace.
The early stages are best done by a small number of relatively experienced growers. Only the final stage is really suited for involvement of the wider community, when the initial grex undergoes mass selection.

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For the melons specifically and for Cape Cod specifically, I might go with something like this.
Falmouth Melon Project

I’ll probably delete that file after a while. If you like any of it go ahead and copy paste it.

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Yes, that seems like a wise approach.

Nice write-up Mark.