Decolonizing the Garden

Wild plants have made up most of the focus of this blog. But what about “domesticated” plants, such as the annuals we grow in our gardens?

How can we treat them that they behave more like wild plants – vigorous, resilient, low-maintenance, and more fecund and feral – yet which continue to supply our needs for flavor, nutrition, and ease of access?

The answers, I believe, are found inside the genome of the seed where genetic diversity is found. I will explore the concept behind landrace gardening, which provides for many real-world examples of genetic diversity in action.

The Seeds of Genetic Diversity

The seed has found itself at the forefront of politics lately. With corporate threats to food security and seed integrity like Monsanto and ADM looming large, the voices of the seed-savers have become powerful leaders helping to create a future of food security. A down-to-earth, humble pursuit at root, seed-saving is the cornerstone of food sovereignty but largely a lost art these days. The seed-savers have thus been positioned as more than just the saviors of seed but as the saviors of land-based culture in general.

While the actions of the seed-savers are commendable, this is not a post about seed-saving, though seed-saving is a part of it. My focus here is rather on genetic diversity: one big issue, which can be broken down in many ways.

I aim to show not only how we lost genetic diversity, but how we can regain it. I call it “decolonizing the garden,” because on the right hand it resists the corporate-based objectifying commodity-driven economy, and on the left hand it unspins some of the unquestioned premises and methods guiding the way we’re used to gardening.

Inbreeding Depression

A lack of genetic diversity is known as inbreeding depression, or simply inbreeding. It’s when there is not enough variety in the alleles of a gene to the degree that a corresponding lack of vigor is experienced by the organism. This happens because of excessive homozygosity in the population with either the dominant or recessive alleles.

Punnett Square
Punnett Square

Recall the punnett square of introductory biology: big ‘A’ is shorthand for a dominant allele, and little ‘a’ is shorthand for a recessive. Homozygosity looks like an inheritance of AA or aa, either of which are generally considered deleterious. Heterozygosity by contrast (a big ‘A’ paired with a little ‘a,’ or Aa), usually results in a fitter gene.

Carol Deppe explains inbreeding depression in her book The Resilient Gardener: “Suppose you grow up a hundred [corn] plants and save grain each year from the plant that yields best. What kind of yield will you have in five years? Answer: Your corn variety will be so weak, wimpy, and low-yielding that you will be lucky to be able to keep it going at all. Its yield will stink compared to what you have started with, even though you selected for the highest yield each year.” (pg. 282) The process of selection she describes eventually results in traits which are homozygous.

Not a lot of variation in the grains of this sweet corn (image: Johnny's Seeds)
Not a lot of variation in the grains of this sweet corn (image: Johnny’s Seeds)

Breeders use homozygosity to their advantage in the creation of true-breeding vegetable varieties and heirlooms. True-breeding traits are homozygous by definition, having only one copy of a given gene’s allele. Traits that breed true are useful for the farmer or gardener who wants to grow up a whole lot of the same thing, or in other words a monoculture. While breeders may ameliorate some of the harmful effects of inbreeding and homozygosity, inbreeding remains the thorn in the breeder’s side.

That’s why hybrid varieties have become so popular. With hybrid seed farmers do a cross of two highly inbred heirloom varieties. These controlled-crosses produce predictable phenotypes the first generation (F1), but the stability is ephemeral and doesn’t carry over into the next generations. This means a farmer has to buy hybrid seed every year if they want to keep producing a crop that is uniform in traits for the mass market.

The problem Carol Deppe highlights above is not the case, however, with genetically-diverse varieties such as the corn landraces grown by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Landrace varieties are heterozygous, and that heterozygosity usually means a high diversity not only in genotype but in phenotype. Landrace corn may be multi-colored, for example, as in the popular ornamental landrace variety “glass gem.” Landrace corn even grows feral, apparently, along roadsides in the desert southwest near reservation lands. There’s a great example of a vigorous, versatile plant.

Varieties of Mexican maize. Oaxaca, Mexico Accession #: 2.98.535.001.23
Varieties of Mexican maize. Oaxaca, Mexico Accession #: 2.98.535.001.23

The way selection is done is the key factor leading to the creation of heirlooms as opposed to landraces. To create an heirloom variety, the breeder has to find the traits they find desirable and remove them from their larger population, raising them in isolation in a separate genepool. A landrace breeder is less selective, weeding out only those plants which don’t grow well or don’t taste good and leaving the rest to grow. A grower of a corn landrace, for example, will plant out all the different colored kernels they can find, ensuring that the diversity carries over into the next generation. They aren’t selecting for any singular trait but for a multitude of traits.

It is worth pointing out too that landraces are the norm in nature. Each species of oak tree forms its own genetically-diverse landrace. Moose are a landrace too, and variations can be seen in the way western American moose tend to be lighter in color than their eastern cousins. Every species of bird groups into its own landrace of beings. You get the picture…

The Modus Operandi of Colonization

Turning to history, a look at royal dynasties of the past provides some human examples of the heirloom selection strategy in action.

It should be uncontroversial to state that what made powerful warriors so effective is that they were actually much more physically imposing and stronger than their peers. William the Conqueror and Charlemagne were by all accounts very tall, physically imposing men, and their legacies shaped the destiny of Europe.

One of William the Conqueror’s ancestors was a Viking named Hrolfr Ragnvaldsson, or Rollo. Rollo was so large that as an adult no horse could carry him, and he was obliged to walk. They called him Göngu-Hrólfr meaning “Hrolfr the Walker.” Through his physical prowess Rollo went on to become the first ruler of Normandy and his descendants later became known as the Normans.

Because the first aristocrats and rulers gained their positions of power and influence by dominating those around them, it stands to reason that they may have been more physically imposing or cunning than their contemporaries, as a rule of thumb.

Or at least, that’s how it may have been at the start. As the years went by, the royal families tried to keep these strong traits within the family. They removed themselves from the genepool of the commoners (which was a landrace), and started breeding in isolation, valuing themselves as heirlooms. Thus we see the evolution of the caste system, whether the Brahmins or Kshatriyas in India or the nobility of Medieval Europe. Taboos were instated which forbade the intermixing of nobles and commoners. Knights and nobles vied with each other for the love of the highest-born maidens and the favors of the most powerful estates. Looked at cynically, Medieval love stories are really insipid tales of eugenics run-amok, i.e. a quest with an ultimate fate of maladaptive homozygosity.

Royal dynasties are to heirloom varieties as commons people are to landraces.

The irony is that such practices among the royal families resulted in the opposite of what was intended. Many generations later, dynasties succumbed to inbreeding. Like Carol Deppe’s example of corn, inbreeding eventually led the royal families to the ends of their line.

Sometimes inbreeding ended the royal line directly, as in the case of Charles II of the Hapsburg Empire. Charles II shared the infamous family trait of the “Hapsburg jaw,” but in his case the trait was so severe that his jaw was too large and his tongue so swollen that he could barely eat or speak. He was frail and weak for the duration of his life and died without producing any children. King Tut of Egypt was another famous example. He was born with a cleft palate, scoliosis, weak bones, a club foot, and was so frail and immuno-compromised that he walked with a cane and suffered from malaria.

Charles II of Hapsburg
Charles II of Hapsburg

The ultimate poetic justice is that inbreeding may have ended the monarchy, albeit indirectly. Queen Victoria’s attempt to foster peace through intermarriage among Europe’s various royal dynasties blurred the boundaries between family and nation and led to a pronounced loss in nationalistic fervor.

As Europeans got over their inbreeding hysteria and nationalism, and at the same time there was the genetic melting pot over in America, they started to settle back into acceptance of their commonly shared landrace heritage and the genome opened up, so to speak. But it was too late for the minds and hearts of many. The ideas of purity had saturated deep into the culture and seeded the ideological framework underlying racism, Manifest Destiny, exceptionalism, individualism, and white identity and supremacy. In the wake of the collapse of the old aristocratic order of nobility other forms of social hegemony such as economic standing took over as the dominant forms of class segregation, though the philosophical structure remained more or less the same.

Landrace Gardening

I first tuned in to the practice and philosophy behind landrace gardening after reading through Joseph Lofthouse’s website and checking out his work. Joseph Lofthouse is in a cold mountain valley in Utah, where he has a very short, dry growing season and found that most seed he acquired from outside his region didn’t fare so well in his microclimate. So he started assembling together all kinds of varieties of a given vegetable and letting them be “promiscuously-pollinated,” what in breeder-speak is known as a grex (plural greges). Whatever survived was locally adapted to his microclimate, and the promiscuous-pollination made for a good dose of genetic diversity. Essentially he took the best genes from a number of varieties and made new varieties fit to his particular place on earth. As time wore on, Joseph’s open-pollinated varieties began to settle into phenotypes that were more stable yet preserved their genetically diverse heritage, thus becoming true landraces. His website is definitely worth the read. He writes several explanatory essays but also shows pictures of many of the landrace vegetables that he grows.

Landraces are featured prominently in indigenous gardening systems. These highly place-based varieties arise out of the unique genetic recombinations of diverse parentage as well as the unique genetic expression fostered by microclimate.

Chickpea diversity. Each and every variation in shape, color, and size is selected for. (image: Open Source Seed Initiative, OSSI)
Chickpea diversity. Each and every variation in shape, color, and size is selected for. (image: Open Source Seed Initiative, OSSI)

A good illustration of a landrace is the image of chickpea diversity. In the United States, chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans, conform to a uniform one-size-and-color-fits-all standard. Go to India, by contrast, and the chickpeas look like the picture. All sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Some years the green ones do best. Some years the white ones. Other years the orange ones fare best. A diversity of phenotypes highlights a diversity of genotypes, and a diversity of genotypes leads to disease and pest resilience. It’s the old strategy of hedging one’s bets: you never know what the year might bring, so don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In other words, grow a diverse landrace.

Case in point, the Irish potato famine. Because the Irish were propagating their potatoes from cloned tubers rather than from true seed, their potato monocultures didn’t stand a chance when a particularly severe blight ravaged the land. The result was devastating, almost total loss. Had they grown a genetically diverse landrace of potatoes, the losses would not have been so drastic.

Genetic diversity and the ability to adapt and change through time are crucically important features safeguarding any species’ evolutionary history and trajectory. With open-pollination and genetically diverse landraces, you’ll get the strongest population of plants, adapted to time, place, and disease. It’s a different mindset and a different way to garden.

The Knowing is in the Doing

Starting to work with landraces is fun and easy. Though it eschews simple market-driven commodification, it offers something better: being lower maintenance, they offer ease and time (at least after the first initial years).

Landrace gardening demonstrates to us that the purity or strength of an individual is not as important as the integrity and interactions of the community as a whole. It’s through all of our differences that novelty arises. Novelty, like life, is ever-present and changing.

A sunflower grex, maybe a preliminary landrace? See all the variation in shape, size, color, pattern...
A sunflower grex, maybe a preliminary landrace? See all the variation in shape, size, color, pattern…

The process of forming a landrace is straightforward but requires patience. Want a landrace of beets? Start collecting varieties. Some beets are golden, others are red. Some beets are a deep purple and others have white stripes among the red. Some beets are round and others are spindle-shaped. Since beets are biennial, to grow all these varieties together in one place so that they cross-pollinate will require a wait of two years. Once the pollen is released, the shuffle begins! The seeds collected after this initial shuffling, and planted out for the following year, will come up in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Here’s where the fun happens. Planting out representatives of every phenotype each year ensures that the diversity remains strong throughout the years.

One thing to keep in mind is the taxonomy and horticultural history of certain vegetable species. For example, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are technically all cultivars of a single species, Brassica oleracea. If you grow collards and cauliflower together, you will get viable crosses, but you probably won’t get anything that looks like either a cauliflower or a collard, though it could be interesting. So use your discretion, and keep your groups of Brassicas far enough away from each other that they aren’t likely to cross, if you want to preserve the essential traits of the cultivar. Since Brassica oleracea is a biennial, you could also alternate the plantings for seed so that at any given year, only one kind of cultivar such as broccoli is going to seed in that year.

Spinning the Hoop of Life

Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest engaged in gatherings known as potlatches. The people recognized potlatches as the life-blood of their economy because they were gift-giving festivities during which seeds and other goods from the year were exchanged. The potlatch was a gathering of multiple tribes of people from multiple places. It was a time not only for the shuffling of stories and perspectives and peoples but also the shuffling of seeds. This stimulated the health and diversity of the cultivated plants the people tended – what we might consider domesticated plants as well as seeds of the wild plants around them. With every exchange the genepools all around were expanded and reinvigorated. The people were frisky too…

Alleles of a gene can be thought of as like a rainbow. What seems like white light normally, when seen through the lens of a prism is divided into several different distinct bands of color. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, violet… Sometimes the light appears yellow, sometimes it appears green, but the full spectrum reveals all.

Rainbow