I mentioned recently that I was struggling to finish Ubik and really wanted to move on to my next book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Maybe this sounded like a strange reading transition to you?
Several factors went into this admittedly oddball reading choice. First, I know two professional plant breeders: an old family friend and my landlord, so it's not a totally foreign idea to me. Even back when I was at Maryland, our neighboring USDA scientists would bring us the literal fruits of their labors; leaving trucks in our parking garage filled with GMO green peppers or corn-on-the-cob. Word of mouth would spread the good news and us poor grad students run to the lot with shopping bags ready to be filled with free produce.
Then when we were vacationing in Italy, the proprietor of the Hotel Villa Rita recommended a wine to us made from what he described as an ancient breed of grape that’s rarely used today (it was a fantastic wine, by the way). I'd never really thought about it until then, but there are plant breeds that we've just stopped using and if someone doesn't maintain those seed lines - maybe we'll lose them forever, like a dead language.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast about how the Honeycrisp apple was bred, way back when the vile Red Delicious was the king of the supermarket. It was a great story.
All of these influences, combined with my gardening this summer, made me think, “Hey…maybe I could breed plants too?”
I love to garden. I’m still learning a lot, but I generally know how to keep a garden alive and producing. I figured, why not learn a little more about different plant varieties and how they came about. So I bought Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties a few weeks ago, having read that it’s one of the standard resources for amateur plant breeding. I dove in as soon as I finished Ubik.
And it is incredible. I’m not finished with the book yet, I’ll take my time with this one, but I’m learning so much about how horticulturalists select plants for certain traits; how they cross them by hand-pollination; how they keep records and monitor the next generation of plants for interesting new traits. It’s just fascinating and a cool way to mix the application of the scientific method with something fun like gardening.
I went into the book with the vague idea that I wanted to grow better tomatoes.* I usually grow “Better Boys,” a hybrid variety with a sweet-tangy flavor and meaty texture that makes one of the best sandwiches ever (quick recipe: pick the tomato but don’t put it in the fridge. It should still be warm from the garden. Toast some bread, mayo on both sides, cut your tomato slices about a quarter of an inch thick, layer them on the bread. Add some salt, pepper, and maybe swiss cheese. Boom, world’s best tomato sandwich).
But, as you can see in the image below, the Better Boy suffers quite a bit from “wilt,” a fungal infection that travels up the root system, killing the plants from the ground up.
I got a lot of tomatoes from this plant during July, but now the wilt seems to be weakening the plant’s immune system so it’s also more susceptible to other pests like the hornworm, which are decimating my tomato yield. I haven’t had a tomato sandwich in weeks! (note: I'm now treating the tomatoes with BT, a natural bacterial method to counteract some pests).
It’s incredibly frustrating to watch your plants die while you dutifully weed and water them. The soil itself is infested with the fungi, so short of planting somewhere different, there’s almost nothing that can be done. That’s just part of gardening. You can’t fix every problem.
But some tomato breeds are more resistant to wilt, though they may not have as good a flavor as the Better Boy. Amateur plant breeders (i.e. farmers) have addressed problems like these since the beginning of agriculture. One plant variety has one trait that you like, but is lacking in other ways. So through careful crosses, selective breeding for the traits you want to pass on to the next generation, and then allowing self-pollination to occur in order to stabilize the traits, you can in just a few years develop a new plant variety that has more of the attributes you desire.
Deppe’s writing is thoughtful, clear, and easy to understand. She has a degree in plant genetics, but she’s also a natural storyteller. I mean, she can make the history of a watermelon breed exciting to read.
I’ll have the whole fall and winter to research seed catalogs and exchanges in order to start my own plant-breeding program next spring. Instead of tomatoes, I may actually start with a plant that’s a little different and underutilized. Part me wants to make a new variety of root or bean that has an artichoke heart-like flavor. Wouldn't that be delicious? It should be pest resistant and fast-growing. That's the dream anyway.
Do you like to garden? Ever had any interest in starting? You really only need a sunny spot of land and a few simple tools. I usually only use a hoe, sometimes a hand-hoe, a trowel when I'm planting, and always my knee-pads. If you want to play the piano, you have to practice; and if you want to garden, you have to weed (at least once a week, sometimes twice if it’s rainy and lush). Those knee-pads make a huge difference as you work in the garden.You can move around much more comfortably as you weed on your hands and knees. Or you can get one of the stools, it doesn’t really matter. You just need to find a way to make weeding less of a painful chore. I don’t even mind it now; it's almost meditative to me. Maybe all those years of my parents forcing me to weed their garden turned out to be worth something after all; a sort of childhood immunization plan (much like my religious upbringing).
Anyway, can’t wait to learn more about different plant breeds. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing more pictures of seed catalogues coming from me in the future. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
Do you have a hobby that's bordering on the esoteric? Why is it worth it to you?
*When people say they don’t like tomatoes, I often assume it’s because they’ve never had a real tomato out of the garden. Maybe they've only eaten one of these store bought monstrosities that have been bred for size, color, and durability for harvest and transport. What you get under those selection rules are tough, tasteless, mealy tomatoes, which are disgusting! Restaurants aren't immune to this either since they almost always buy their tomatoes from similar suppliers. So don’t write off tomatoes. Go to the farmers markets and ask if you can taste different varieties. There are some heirloom breeds that will blow your socks off.