Wildness and domesticity: resilience

Wildness and domesticity: resilience

[Edit: Correction to last week’s post: new posts will come out on Tuesdays.]

I’m growing food for a lot of reasons. It is wonderful six ways to Sunday, even before considering nutritional content and flavor of homegrown food that blow away the cardboard produce you see at the grocery store.

One of my reasons to grow food is that I see a lot of challenges for our food supply in the future, and I want to contribute to making it more robust. I’d like to learn how to raise steady, decent amounts of food and do so without undue disruptions from droughts and freak storms, some dumb invasive species of beetle, or loss of topsoil.

Mostly, this comes down to questions of balancing the amount of leverage, of risk versus reward. How much yield do you get per square foot, and how long from planting to yield? How tasty is it, versus how resistant to pests? How resistant to drought?

On one extreme, the natural state makes incredibly efficient use of sunlight and water to support life, and is very resilient. The amount of biomass in a Douglas Fir forest is incredible, and it is completely unsupervised. However, as a human who can only eat certain kinds of biomass, the Douglas Fir forest isn’t particularly compelling because I can’t eat fir, and living from swordfern rhizomes and venison would require a lot more land than I have. What a convenient copout, right?

At the other extreme is industrialized agriculture: monocrops that exist only via a life support system of irrigation, chemical fortification, and poison applied by large machines and provisioned by an intricate supply chain. Without irrigation the water-hungry varieties wilt away, without chemicals the stripped soil can’t support growth, and without poison the intensely crowded conditions breed disease like an 18th century slum. For me, this package is even less compelling than digging sword fern rhizomes.

The average vegetable garden is between these two, and is a great start. Many gardeners use natural compost instead of chemicals, so the soil is maintained. The home gardener doesn’t have square miles of a single crop, so pests are much less of a problem, and more easily managed with non-poisonous means. The plants selected, though, have much the same character as those used in industrial agriculture.

If you use a normal variety (heirloom, or from a seed company), it has been bred to taste good, look good, come true to seed, and yield heavily given good growing conditions. These are undeniably nice features, but they mostly come down on the “not resilient” side of the scale.

Coming true to seed is nice, although you pay the price of significantly lowered genetic diversity. That leaves the plant population with fewer options for dealing with new situations, like dumb beetles or abnormal weather patterns that give life to a regionally new blight. Yuck.

Breeding for maximum yield under ideal conditions generally leads to plants that take risks and make them not very good at handling less than ideal conditions. For example, a high-yield tomato plant will grow tall, quickly, and bear tons of tomatoes as early as possible. This is lovely, unless you have a dry spell and the root system can’t support that much growth and the plant gets parched. A variety that was more compact and had smaller, later fruits would have much better chances of having enough root system to continue to support its production.

There isn’t anything wrong with growing normal tomatoes varieties for high yield, and I have some under the grow lights right now. But these kinds of plants are what give people brown thumbs, and the kinds of plants that will up and crop fail on you at the drop of a mite.

“Tasting good” is somewhat subjective — some people love kale, others don’t — and somewhat objective. Wild dandelion greens are bitter, and nobody can eat much of them. Often, though, what we mean by “tasting good” is being mild flavored, juicy, and large, and this does make things generally pleasant to eat and easy to prepare. Although these are similar criteria that caterpillars, rabbits, aphids, deer and other pests use to determine what they find tasty. It’s not a coincidence that last year the rabbits completely destroyed my crisp, juicy pea plants and left the sorrel alone. We had to put in a fence, otherwise we would not be able to grow nearly any of the domesticated vegetables we want to. Which is fine, but again, it’s an example of the process of domestication simultaneously bringing risk and fragility along with the rewards.

There are three approaches to get plant varieties that are more resilient than what you get in the seed packets at the nursery.

The first approach is to plant wild things. There isn’t a beetle alive that’s going to touch my dandelion greens, for example. And if that’s just one of the species of wild greens I have, even if some enterprising beetle wipes out my dandelions, I’ll still have sorrel, plantain, miners lettuce, chickweed, and the other forageable greens around here. Most wild things are optimized for being very, very conservative, though, and have correspondingly un-optimized yield and flavor. It’s quite a bit of work to make dandelion salad, and it’s just a touch bitter. These things are important, but peripheral. Notable exceptions are things like sunchokes and nut trees.

Another approach is to domesticate wild plants, which is a worthwhile thing to do but can take lifetimes to see substantial progress. This is really, really cool — but in terms of the immediate project I have of trying to grow more of our own food, again a largely peripheral concern.

Another approach is to de-domesticate cultivated varieties. This is the easiest way to adjust the wildness/domesticatedness of plants, because it’s always easier to move things back towards the natural state than it is to move towards something more specific and controlled. One way to do this to take established, conventional varieties, and cross them like crazy to get populations with high genetic diversity. Then grow them out with the conditions you want the plants to be able to handle. Watering once a week, or rainwater only? Shade, sun? Frost? By imposing the difficulties you want the plants to be ready for, you will select plants that don’t take stupid risks considering those conditions.

Do you want tomatoes that don’t need watering where you live? Plant a bunch of genetically diverse tomato seed, and get ready for a harvest of seed that will grow plants with small fruits of various shapes and generally less yield than if you watered daily. But they’ll be the toughest darn cherry tomatoes you’ve ever grown. If you want something closer to a beefsteak sandwich tomato, you’ll need to have a variety that isn’t as tough – but can still probably be tougher than the kind you get at the nursery.

I’m pursuing this in a couple ways.

This year, I got a bunch of seeds from Joseph Lofthouse [http://garden.lofthouse.com/adaptivar-landrace.phtml], who has been breeding “adaptivar landraces” for years in Utah, and has written a lot that is worth reading on plant breeding. Although he’s been adapting varieties to a different climate than the Pacific Northwest, his varieties are starting with a large amount of genetic diversity, are open pollinated, and have at the least an inclination towards toughness generally. I’ll be adapting these varieties to my climate.

I’m also going to start from scratch on some de-domestication. I’ve gotten a few kind volunteers to let me have use of some of their land for a breeding project. I haven’t finalized the plan yet, but the general idea will be to scatter a ton of seed in these areas, and more or less let things go feral. Hope for (and maybe manually carry out) hybridization, maybe manually encourage propagation of some of the more promising plants, but generally just let nature take its course.

Short term, this ought to lead to some individuals and populations that can hold their own in the Northwest climate, while at the same time giving acceptable yields and tastiness. Long term, I’d love to have a genetic reservoir of feral crops to regularly crossbreed into whatever varieties I otherwise am growing, as a way to essentially provide an anchor of some degree of wildness.

Next week will be April, and I’ll write up a report on March. Budget, tasks done, lessons learned, and fun stuff like that. The week after that I’ll explore a little bit more the idea of genetically anchoring domesticated varieties with a feral counterparts as part of a checks-and-balances arrangement for genetic improvement. And in a later post (didn’t get to it in this one) I’ll talk about wildness, domesticity, and beauty.

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