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Plant Breeding from a Permaculture Perspective

In Search of our Ancestors’ Gardens 

Breeding Plants for the Gardens to Come

(Originally published in Permaculture Design magazine, issue #105, 2017)

I remember exploring my grandfather’s gardens. Bryce Ping had five gardens located in different parts of the Jackson County, Indiana: each one sporting some of the same—but often different varieties—of squash, corn, peppers, and tomatoes. The garden on his own property was one of the finest examples of integrated systems I’ve ever seen—replete with beds on contour, re-use of water, rabbits, geese, and chickens. Everything was mulched with newspaper and grass, sawdust, or spoilt hay from nearby. He lived on the salvage economy: heating with scraps from the sawmill and re-using every plastic container that entered his house. 

He is also the one that introduced me to the varieties and unusual qualities of many fruits, flowers, and vegetables. His entryways were lined with canned goods (his own parents had tried to run a canning business when commercial grocery stores came into their region) and he continued to value preserved food—often experimenting with recipes. Jars also held seed saved from year to year. Paper plates were often found in the kitchen in summer—drying various seeds from the day’s harvest. He wasn’t very meticulous about labeling them—but I imagine now he must have developed several of his own varieties. When he passed, my aunts distributed the goods—and I wonder what happened to those canned goods and seeds. It would have been a fortune in genetic diversity. 

His story reminds me of one relayed to me one night over dinner in Naperville. Peter Bane and I were teaching a permaculture design course at The Resiliency Institute in Naperville, Illinois, when Ron and Vicki Nowicki came to dinner. I still haven’t made it to their garden—which by all accounts is a feat of implementation. Vicky shared the story of a tomato variety she grows out in her garden. The seed was, like many seeds in the US a hundred years ago, brought into the country by immigrants. The seeds were so important, the relationship over generations so strong, that many immigrants would sew the seeds into the linings of their clothing. The tomato she spoke of had been grown by a second generation Italian man for, if I remember right, 60 years, before passing it on to her. He inherited it from his grandfather and parents, but his own children did not care to garden. So she has taken up the relationship.

tomatoes in the garden

Perspective from the stars

If we consider that flowering plants evolved shortly after conifers roughly 300,000 million years ago, the development of hundreds of thousands of species today in the vast array of colors, shapes, scents, and behaviors is truly astounding. If we take it that humans have been around for 6 million years, plants embody natural wisdom a great deal more. Still, the 200,000 years of human civilization might be defined by the relationship of people to plants—mutually cultivating each other (see Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire for more on that thought). Our leap into agriculture 10,000 years ago is only a fraction of that time and represents a rift in thinking: moving from relationships to plants in community (polycultures) towards primary relationships with a few key domesticated species (wheat, corn, barley, squashes, etc…). This relationship of people to plants—especially cultivation of food plants—is one which we must re-enter: humbly and quickly. If you asked me the top five skills children should be learning, seed saving and plant breeding would be right among them. Food—and seeds—are also one of the very best tools to reconnect, not only with the land, but with our ancestors. (Okay, so I’m not SO keen on the leek favored by my Welsh ancestors, but it has its place). 

Everybody loves popcorn

While beginning to relearn the culture of my Native American (primarily Cherokee/Ani'yunwiya) forebears, I came across a story of “The Lucky Hunter” and his wife, Selu—a Corn woman (1). In order to feed her children, Selu would give of herself. That is the place of corn in importance—it is literally the mother of some of the earliest people in the land. The same reverence for plants which sustain and nourish us is found throughout the world. When I think of the awe which my grandfather instilled in me for flowers, fruits, and tastes which were varied and full of wonder; which resonated with the relationships of people to plants throughout history—I want THAT WORLD again for the next generation and all generations going forward. I firmly believe we will not survive as a species if we do not cultivate that respect and connection to plants and their children (seeds). 

It must have taken some similar connection for people to facilitate the evolution of teosinte into maize. Teosinte, a multi-stem grass found throughout Central America with 5-12 small, hard seeds was domesticated into modern maize and corn varieties. The story might be that earlier people used teosinte as fuel in the fire and found that the kernels popped—everybody loves popcorn! Indeed, some of the oldest archeological records include popcorn. (2) Research now recognizes that the development likely focused on only a few characteristics initially—severely limiting genetic diversity. (3) Once favorable characteristics made the plant more desirable as a cultivated food source,  other genetic variations —leading to more than 20,000 landraces (locally adapted varieties)—were bred into maize through local selection.  This diversity probably reflected a combination of factors for selection including: migration, settlement, and local ecological diversity. Breeding plants has to consider the size of the population in any one area. Inbreeding among a variety can become a problem. Read Zachary Paige’s article for more on how corn was kept from inbreeding too much. 

In the 1920’s, modern agronomists began breeding hybrids selecting for uniform yellow kernels, size, etc….  Today, the close kernel size and the tight hold of the cob to the kernel means that without intervention from farmers, most corn kernels would not be able to germinate and reproduce on their own. Truly, we are in a tight relationship of mutual dependence with this wonderfully diverse species. Our futures are linked. 

Plant Breeding Today

Just this spring the USDA granted $17.7 million dollars to study plant breeding: all to universities—most to public land-grant universities (8). The grants were in the areas of foundational knowledge of production systems; plant breeding for agricultural production; and physiology of agricultural plants. Besides hybridization and cross-breeding, another technique: precision breeding—has become an option today. This technique works with genetic sequencing from embryos of the plant varieties without introducing foreign or new genetic material—and it gives results in one or two years instead of four or five. (4). This technique is more appealing to European plant breeders who are cautious about genetically modified organisms with cross-species introductions of genetic material.

Who’s Who?

We are familiar with the idea that a lot of agronomy research comes from land grant universities throughout the United States. But there are other major players to be found. The Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, which has brought us commercial tomato and strawberry varieties as well as working on developing pomegranates that can tolerate the Florida summer and so replace citrus. (5). Seed companies themselves breed out varieties of plants that are successful or in demand (think Johnny’s Seed Company). Then of course there is Seed Savers Exchange—and now the many seed libraries found in communities everywhere. We are very familiar with plant breeding and patents on commercial seed. South Africa released its catalog of licenses recently and most commercial crops were licensed to US-based Pioneer and Monsanto companies (9). Other countries that do not have national laws recognizing plant patents are pressured to develop them as quickly as possible. 

A new option has been developed in Germany: licensing seed research as open-source. “Anyone can use the varieties, so long as they do not prevent others from conducting research on derivatives; all of the plant's future descendants are also in a ‘commons.’ ” (10) The article continues to describe a similar project in the US—the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) which concluded in 2014 that it was “too unwieldy to gain widespread acceptance among breeders and seed companies…”. This is because intellectual property rights play a bigger role in plant breeding in the US—indeed patenting initiated in the US in 1930.  “Commercial breeders, the main producers of economically important new crop varieties, can't use open-source seeds because they would not be able to claim royalties for any varieties they develop from them. If too many seeds were in the open source–only commons, they would be "killing the business model,” Neils Louwaars of Plantum in the Netherlands says. Many universities would also lose out if they could no longer charge royalties for plant traits or breeding tools.”

Still, thinking back to Vicki Nowicki’s story, many plants we have today were bred a hundred or more years ago and continue to produce (and sometimes cross). Luther Burbank, a contemporary and friend with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries developed more than 800 new varieties of plants—“including over 200 varieties of fruits, many vegetables, nuts and grains, and hundreds of ornamental flowers.” (6). His gardens and programs are continued on today in Santa Rosa, California. Indeed, it was his efforts which inspired the annual Rose Parade. 

Breeding and Selection in Permanent Agriculture

Breeding plants and patenting the seed’s genetics are well-known strategies for privatizing (and maintaining the option to get a yield on, if you will pardon the pun) researched food crops. Open source seeds, seed libraries, and commercial seed sources that maintain open-pollinated and heirloom seeds are some of our unsung heroes for food production. Researching this article has highlighted for me again the need for all of us to take up some small part of the work. There are so many benefits: saving money by saving seed; developing varieties that suit your system—whether that’s being productive under greater extremes, fitting a particular microclimate, or introducing new flavor or color into a species. So, how do you do it? 

Creating a permanent agriculture can start from different theoretical points—but they all go back to breeding and selecting plants. We cannot create a permaculture system without knowing how to select and breed plants in our own communities. Not every person has to be a seed saver or nursery person, but we should all know at least one. J. Russell Smith, in his well-known treatise Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, made the work of John Hershey, a Depression era nurseryman in Downington, Pennsylvania famous. Hershey grafted and developed various oaks: including his famous bur oaks (see issue #102), for their vigor and early production of acorns. [Editor’s note: since the publication of that article, a small group has begun taking scion wood and continuing to improve the oaks through breeding and selection. If you would like to get involved, contact us.] Similar trials for hazelnuts are now famous at Badgersett (see Eric Toensmeier’s contribution, this issue). 

The Land Institute is also well-known for its efforts begun by Wes Jackson in 1983 to create perennial wheat as a way to prevent soil disruption. The Institute has expanded its understanding and framing of its research and is seeking, through plant breeding, to develop several perennial grain crops. Kernza (R) is the closest to commercial implementation. This wheat variant is just now coming onto the market after more than a decade of development. While seeds are smaller (1/5 the size of most commercial wheat varieties), there are more seeds per stalk. The breeding program is selecting for “yield, shatter resistance, free threshing ability, seed size, and grain quality.” (7). Programs to develop sunflowers and sorghum are also well underway. With sunflowers (silphium) the motivation goes beyond choosing a grain or oil crop that can become perennial in the landscape, to considerations for drought tolerance and climate change as well as ecological functions with pollinators. The group started with wild sunflowers that showed remarkable resilience during drought in the Plains states. 

grain field

Whether we are looking to use improved selections for local small-scale gardens or for broad-scale and regional production to local markets, it is important that we consider our capacity to take up plant breeding. Even if you rent or coordinate a garden plot in an urban setting—you have the space and capacity to grow out seed. The new insights provided by Gregor Mendel and others into genetics stimulated the creativity of 19th century horticulturists like Luther Burbank. At a time of rapid change and variability in ecosystems, it might not be the minds and efforts of a few brilliant breeders, but the simple commitments and creativity of permaculturists everywhere working with nature that builds the bridge between the gardens of our ancestors and those of our descendants. 

Whats and Hows

So, what are all of these plant breeders doing? They are, by nature, mostly savers of seed with an eye toward ensuring that particular plants reproduce seed in a relatively pure fashion. Seed saving is one of the most direct ways to cross and breed plants.  In classic plant breeding, individuals that are particularly early, robust, tasty, or beautiful—or fill in any other trait—are allowed to set seed and that seed is carefully harvested, stored, and germinated to breed out the next generation. Any propagation technique can be involved (cuttings, layering, etc…): the operative function is that humans are selecting favored characteristics and cultivating a space to include those varieties. Mutations can arise in cuttings or individuals and perpetuate through cuttings, etc… It might behoove us to more carefully observe what is evolving in our forest gardens and using that as a start. 

As with any breeding project, a variety can become inbred after a few generations—increasing the fullness of the desired traits, but also diminishing other qualities—including germination rates. It is important to renew genetic stocks by bringing in—or intentionally crossing—with other samples of the variety or another variety which is compatible and might improve fruiting, flavor, size, disease and pest resistance, etc…. Two in-bred lines that are crossed produce an F1 hybrid. The yields from these plants theoretically increase, but crosses between F1 hybrids (F2) can be wildly inconsistent in their production. It is a good idea to cross F1’s and F2’s back to the original stock or move back into very narrow selection in the breeding program. 

When breeding your own vegetables and fruits (and sometimes shrub species, but not tree species very practically), you can control which plants pollinate a specimen by hand pollinating and bagging the flowers all the way through seed production, by isolating the variety from potential pollinators by distance, or by isolating the flowering in time from undesirable crosses. You can also weed out undesirable plants among a breeding population (called roguing). 

When it comes to keeping records, it’s a good idea to not only label seeds carefully during storage, but also keep track of what is planted, when, and where; as well as notes on development, in a garden journal. If you keep a digital record, including photographs could be very helpful. Burbank was reportedly a horrible record-keeper; preferring to see results in the garden. 

The Seed Hoarders’ Dilemma

I find myself with a problem which I bet will be familiar to some of you. I do not have an unlimited budget for commercial seeds; nor do I have much land to grow out uncertain seeds on for test plots. What I do instead is hoard seeds—including both commercial and home grown seeds. I now see this as a fear-based way to retain natural capital. Remember our third ethic: I could give away seeds or put them in the seed library to be borrowed, renewed, and returned to me at some point when I can use them well. What I need to do is continue to plant out the varieties in my seed storage and save the seeds from the plants I’ve grown: refreshing viable stocks and renewing genetics by offering seed and bringing in new seeds from seed exchanges and libraries. 

All of this is to say that we can have a lot of fun practicing permaculture by breeding plants that marry our tastes and delights to the needs an functions of the gardens we inhabit. We can do that while feeding our families, sharing with our neighbors, and educating the uneducated. We can use our horticulture to build bridges with those who have a slightly different worldview (ever enter your prize pumpkin in the county fair?). Smart selections might also become valuable locally and spur on greater innovations through seed exchanges. Rather than passively perusing the nursery’s offerings, why not aim to create what you want—allowing the process to surprise, challenge, and delight you with discoveries? 

This summer, my kitchen has begun to look like my grandfather’s. He would be so proud.

References and Resources

Caduto, Michael, J., and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1998.

Hartmann, Hudson T., Dale E. Kester, and Fred T. Davies, Jr., Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Regents/Prentice Hall, 1990.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. New York: Random House, 2002.

Smith, J. Russell. Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture. Reprint. Atlanta, Georgia: Pathfinder Press, 2016.

1. http://sacred-texts.com/nam/cher/motc/index.htm, accessed May 1, 2017.

2. http://www.weedtowonder.org/domestication.html, accessed June 23, 2017.

3. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/Supplement_1/9979.full, accessed June 23, 2017.

4. https://thesheridanpress.com/visiting-research-hopes-to-uncork-expertise/, accessed June 3, 2017.

5. http://www.83degreesmedia.com/features/US-Agriculture-research-Florida-innovation-0617.aspx, accessed June 5, 2017.

6. https://www.lutherburbank.org, accessed June 28, 2017.

7. https://landinstitute.org/our-work/perennial-crops/kernza/, accessed June 28, 2017

8. http://www.growingproduce.com/vegetables/usda-gives-17-7m-in-grants-for-plant-breeding-production-studies/, accessed June 3, 2017.

9. http://www.gov.za/services/plant-production/plant-breeders-rights, accessed June 6, 2017. 

10. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/german-breeders-develop-open-source-plant-seeds, accessed June 22, 2017