Friday, January 8, 2016

Plant Genetics Will Save Us-- or Not!

The garden catalogs are arriving. With each catalog is the mandatory "new" or "improved" varieties of seeds, plants, and ornamentals for our gardens. I would be happy if some of the hype were as true for the home gardener as these promises have been for agribusiness.

You only need to check corn yield statistics over the last 50 years to marvel at the wonder of plant genetics. Similar stories from statistics are our there for most of the major grain crops of the world, along with potatoes and alfalfa. The trend lines versus the actual statistics are probably the effect of severe extremes in the weather patterns in any given year.

But gardening, like politics and economics, tends to be local.
I recently wrote about the high water levels in my local watershed, the Pine River. I was marveling about what should have been no surprise to me later to see these pictures taken from space of the Missouri and Mississippi River watersheds. It was a surprise, I just wasn't extrapolating this water level onto the bigger, wider world. (I have made this mistake made before... particularly during the outsourcing of Motorola's manufacturing capabilities when I queried a co-worker on what would happen if every company did this. His reply, "They won't.")

But as those garden catalogs arrive, I have to ponder whether improved seed will indeed save us in the face of extreme weather, pests, and plant diseases.

This year's Parks seed catalog has taken its photography and layout up a notch. It definitely falls squarely in the plant porn designation for new and improved seed. Even the photography of the tried and true varieties is nearly pornographic-- in a hortiholic way. Enough so, to make me consider breaking my 2016 vow to not raise more seedlings than I can actually find space to plant out.

I'm sure it is my palate, but I find kale and arugula bitter and for the most part inedible. What I want is seed for the spinach I can buy in my grocery store. Seed varieties for spinach seem to be narrow to include Bloomsdale Long Standing, which germinates poorly and bolts as seedlings before leaves are a size to be edible. (Why do few of the first ten Google search pictures for this cultivar look like the same variety, even considering mature and juvenile leaves?)

I want a sweet red pepper that delivers a high yield before the short days and frosty fall mornings in cool years. I want to pull onions from the ground that are not starting to set seed without reaching 3 inches in diameter. I want a tomato for which I don't have to worry about early and late blight blowing in on the very air I breathe.

I want a sweet carrot and a tender green bean which I consume versus deer and voles. I want the weather to cooperate rather than telling my fennel to set seed rather than be vegetative. I want the hazelnuts which the squirrels have stolen four years out of the last seven (Yes, I have been keeping score!).

And you cabbage moths? Get outta here!

I don't want to have to dust and spray, and cover with netting and cloth to get a harvest. You see the neighbor's bees have been busy. They work long days in my garden. The raspberry yield this year was 8 or more  pickings over more than a month. My apple and pear trees set more fruit than desired. The neighbor shared some of this honey. Even my son's palate could detect a taste of raspberries and strawberries, apples, and pears; my fruit, in this honey. So for them, these friendly bees, no pesticides.

Deer were a new visitor to my garden this last year. They nibbled off the growing, fruiting tips of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and beans. No blossoms, no fruit; this is what they browsed.

I fear that for the promise of this new and improved seed to deliver, I likewise have to buy in to the whole package; seeds, chemicals, and four-legged pest controls. One of my neighbors erected a 9'-tall electric fence to deter the deer this past year. There may have been chicken wire along the base to stop the bunnies. The best gardens in town are indeed fenced.

That leaves the weather... and picking and choosing our poisons... and seed varieties when we all eat local.

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