June 8, 2021

A New Paradigm for Gardening & Seed Saving

Paradigm - A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality.

Paradigm shift - A radical change in thinking from an accepted point of view to a new one.

I've always striven to be a good organic gardener: compost, mulch, and no chemicals. I've incorporated permaculture, natural farming, and regenerative agriculture techniques into my gardening, and tried to expand my understanding of soil chemistry and soil biology. Even so, there's been a subtle common theme throughout my gardening blog posts for the past several years: poor germination. I've wracked my brain trying to figure this out. What have I been doing wrong? Is it the soil? The growing conditions? Our southern heat? My compost? Not enough water? The cats using the garden beds as litter boxes? I haven't been able to figure it out and it's been discouraging.

The other day, I received a review copy of a new book and read this:

"When I plant seeds obtained from the industrialized seed system*, it is common for 75% to 95% of the varieties to fail."
Joseph Lofthouse, Landrace Gardening: Food Security 
through Biodiversity and Promiscuous Pollination

There it was—in stark black and white—the thing that I haven't even wanted to admit to myself, seed failure! What a relief to know I wasn't alone. And now, thanks to Joseph's new book, I'm beginning to understand. 

*First, I'd like to clarify something. By industrialized seed system, he's not just referring to commercially produced hybrid seed. He's referring to seed that has been selectively bred for genetic "purity" through the deliberate, now standard process of isolation and inbreeding. It can be hybrid seeds, but the same process is how heirloom and open-pollinated seeds are produced.

The result of this seed breeding system is the hundreds of beautiful garden seed varieties that we drool over in seed catalogues. But therein lies the problem. All those varieties come at the cost of an extremely narrow gene pool and loss of vigor and adaptability. I deeply appreciate the desire to preserve our heritage species and varieties, but by doing so we are losing life-saving biodiversity in our seed supply. The more gene specific the vegetable variety, the less it is able to adapt to a different growing region.

This is what I've been experiencing in my own garden. When I compare my early gardens to the germination rates of the past couple of years, it's obvious it's become a significant problem in only a few years.

This isn't just a problem for the home gardener. This is a commercial problem as well, and on a global scale. How many times have you heard that modern industrialized agriculture is the only answer for producing enough food to feed the world? That organic farming can't do the job? The reason why this is believed is found in this article from Independent Science News, "Stuffed or Starved? Evolutionary Plant Breeding Might Have the Answer." Here are some of the key points:

"Today, much of “institutional” plant breeding, . . . has as its objective industrial agriculture (the only one that according to some will be able to feed the world), . . . (and) is based on the selection . . . of uniform varieties."

"One of the reasons for the difference in productivity between conventional agriculture and organic farming is that, in the latter, lacking suitable varieties, the same varieties are grown that are selected for conventional agriculture; these varieties find themselves in a completely different situation from the one for which they were selected, and therefore produce less."

Industry's answer is genetic modification and more chemicals. Except that it isn't fixing the problem. The real answer? (from the same article).

"The method consists in creating plant populations by mixing seeds previously obtained by crossing different varieties, and letting them evolve . . . This offers the possibility of adapting the crop both to long-term and short-term climate change, but also to control weeds, diseases and insects without resorting to pesticides."

Joseph Lofthouse calls these landrace seeds. 

"Landrace: A locally-adapted, genetically-diverse, promiscuously-pollinating food crop. Landraces are intimately connected to the land, ecosystem, farmer, and community. Landraces offer food security through their ability to adapt to changing conditions."
Joseph Lofthouse, Landrace Gardening

What Joseph's book is offering, is a new gardening paradigm. In it, he provides a clear explanation and practical plan for the home gardener. I will have a full review next week, along with news about a giveaway at Permies.com. (Stay tuned for all of that). But if this information is exciting to you as it is to me, you might not want to wait that long. You can get Joseph's book now at Amazon.com.

32 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I thought so too, Gorges, which is why it appeals. I'm looking forward to learning more.

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  2. I guess I'm not sure I follow you on this one. A plant has a set number of genes as do all things. How those genes are modified, by modern hybrids or conventional breeding techniques should result in exactly the same number of genes as started with and doesn't narrow the gene pool. I think the narrowing of the gene pool that is referred to comes from people selecting the same things to plant over and over creating monocultures. Good examples of that are coffee and bananas. Both had many hundreds of varieties that essentially are extinct now due to the choosing and planting of monocultures.

    So how does one force someone else to only grow the banana that used to only grow on their island and not the one favored by Dole? I don't know the answer to that. Bringing awareness to the dangers of monocultures is a start but to me, that can be planting something other than what everyone around you plants whether it be a hybrid or a conventionally crossbred plant or a heritage species. I.e. diversity is the key, not how the diversity was created.

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    1. Ed, I can't say I understand it fully either! But, that's why I'm thinking of it as a new paradigm. It's a very different way of viewing things.

      I'm guessing that technically, it's the alleles that cause this - genetic drift (like I know what I'm talking about, lol). It seems that we can select for specific traits to the point of severely narrowing genetic possibilities.

      Not sure how deep I'll get into this. Both the article and the book keep it within laymen's understanding.

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  3. That is very interesting, as your posts always are, Leigh. I have had 5 different packages of seeds, from different companies this year that just are showing no life at all. It has been very frustrating, as our season is not as long as some are, and we don't have a lot of time for plants to mature within our frost-free season.

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    1. Rosalea, that's exactly what I've been experiencing. And you're right, it is frustrating. I'm hoping this seed breeding program helps strengthen my seed stock. We'll see!

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  4. I hear what you're saying! I was thinking it was just me as well. Friends since this April I started some echinacea is in seed pods under a grow light. I put about four or five seeds in each pod x 6 pods. I only had three that actually germinated. I bought the seeds from a reputable Heritage organization and scratching head. It does explain for sure some seed failures and it is scary as more people are getting into gardening and buying all of this stuff only they have the seeds fail. A good reminder I guess to at least try to save your own seeds year-to-year at least those hopefully will sprout an!

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    1. Nancy, I agree about saving your own seeds, for the reasons we're discussing. Volunteers too! They always seem the most robust.

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    2. Yes, good point on the "Volunteers". I also started some Milkweed seeds, same thing very few sprouted.

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  5. I always have a few things that cause trouble. It is not isolated to flowers or herbs or vegetables. Not isolated to a particular seed company. But when I get a bad packet its BAD. This year it was Profusion Zinnias and a particular patio tomato. Both from Parks. The zinnias seed pack said they originated in China. Just sayin'. That being said, I always have a devil of a time with any and all cucumber seeds. Once I get the first leaf I'm off and running and have awesome plants, but I can plant a lot of batches of seeds to get to that point.

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    1. Alex, it's becoming an increasingly common problem. I've always tried to buy seed from companies close to my growing region, but I still have trouble. I'm really excited about seeing if I can foster my own varieties that thrive in my growing conditions.

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  6. Leigh, this is often a complaint for livestock breeding - especially for rare breeds. It does not surprise me exceptionally that this would be true for plants as well.

    I have actually seen the term Landrace before (the context, of course, escapes me). Would that this sort of thing would bloom in a thousand different locations.

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    1. TB, that's very true about livestock. I have that problem with my Kinder goats. They technically aren't rare, but they are a relatively new breed and so have a relatively small gene pool. At least we have the ability to create new first generation Kinders, which helps. But it often means traveling quite a distance for goats.

      The term "landrace" has popped up from time to time for me too. But I never understood exactly what it meant until I started reading this book. Light bulb moment! (Very exciting!)

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  7. Very interesting, and I must say we have noticed some of our seeds that do nothing! Our go to seeds for beans, and tomatoes are very old strains of heirloom passed down from 5 generations. They always are prolific producers, but they are the only ones we can count on. I may need to look this book up! Thanks Leigh! Great information!

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  8. Wyomingheart, interesting about your heirloom seeds. Are they still grown in the same region or similar growing conditions?

    It's a really good book. I'd say a must read for anyone interesting in successful gardening.

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    1. Yes, the seeds are from Kentucky. Our soil is more clay than the rockier soil of eastern Kentucky, which is where they originated. We also grew this same variety in Florida for years, where it is totally sandy soil. We always get a great harvest from them. They just seem like great seeds.

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    2. It's a relief to know there are still some varieties like that out there. Seed failure seems to be a common theme these days, but no one seems to be talking about it much. I'm going to start experimenting with landracing my garden and see what happens.

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  9. We have also seen a lot of seed failure from commercial seeds. Since our long term goal is to produce as much as possible from our own saved seeds, we try to pick only one variety from, for example, the zucchini species, so they don't cross pollinate and give us franken-squash. We have also observed that after a generation or two, our own saved seeds germinate really well. I suppose we're selecting for our growing conditions but it sure works. I'd be interested to hear how others deal with saving seeds when there are multiple varieties that are all the same species. We grow several kinds of peppers and would really like to save those seeds too.

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    1. Ann, that's exactly what you're doing, selecting for your particular growing conditions. That's the way to do it!

      This book completely busts the idea that cross pollination is always bad. The author lets them cross, tastes everything before making choices, and then selects the best seed to save for his growing conditions. He's creating his own landrace varieties. Very interesting!

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  10. Just reading this post has been a light bulb moment for me! For the past couple/few years, I've had terrible problems starting my seeds indoors. I look at pictures from ten years past of the luscious spread of all kinds of started seeds I've had very good luck with . . . strong, sturdy plants. I've been scratching my head trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong now. I wonder if what you've discovered has more implications than we might imagine. :o\

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    1. Mama Pea, it's amazing to me how many of us have had the same problem. And it seems like it's been in the past several years. It might be the quality of the seed, but now, I'm wondering if they haven't been so inbred as to loose the ability to germinate. I'm very much looking forward to learning more and experimenting!

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  11. Hi Leigh.I too,here in wales uk. have noticed the same problem. About 20 years ago, I started to notice that the seeds I had saved, would germinate far more quickly than the bought in seed. Also that volunteer planys were stronger and that although they might germinate later, would catch up and overtake the seedlings carefully nurtured indoors.
    I think that we can not only save seeds that are better for our environment,but also help us become 'tuned' to our environement and the needs of our land.
    This has helped make sense of a number of rhings for me. Thankyou .

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    1. Walking in Beauty, thank you for sharing that. From the article I cited, I could see that it's a global problem for commercially grown food, but I see it's also a problem for all gardeners around the world.

      I agree about saving our own seed. Now, more than ever, it seems to be extremely important.

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  12. Huh. Maybe I'll stop blaming the weather (cold damp spell after planting) for my snap peas not coming up. The beets and carrots planted same day came up OK, took them a while but they did grow. Only about 5 pea plants came up. New seed, commercial variety on all of them. And the tomatoes I started inside sprouted, started growing, then stopped and turned purple. They are growing again and turning green now that they are outside. The green beans have been in a week now, and I'm still not seeing anything on those either. They were new commercial seed also.

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    1. Gail, I was relieved from the same sense of finally finding an answer. But it raises more questions! I feel that at least I finally have hope.

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  13. Doesn’t matter if they are organic, non GMO, if they can’t reproduce themselves major failure.

    I am having an interesting garden year also. But too many variables to know what to blame. Only my second full season in my new area . Yes a similar climate to the one on the valley floor but don’t kid yourself about what a difference 1400 ft elevation makes over 300 feet . And just for grins and giggles toss in the long debated global or not warming.

    Nubians are a great comparison. The herd books are closed on them. So there hasn’t been a admission to the purebred herd book in many a year.

    In doing so the genetic possibilities are much lower than a breed that still has its herd books open. Now we have limited ourselves. Good or bad?

    I know I am not quite on spot in my comparison but in my book close enough. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

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    1. PS
      I would keep in mind that saving or own seeds is good. But if we keep limiting our genetic pool do we not put ourselves with the same issues eventually? Or am I missing something?

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    2. Goatldi, I think your PS hits the nail on the head. And I think we are now experiencing issues because of it. I've mentally explored other possibilities, especially climate change, inadvertent mixing of environmental pollutants, and increased EMF. I think they are all contributors to the problem, which (to me) means we now need survivor seeds that can handle these increasing stressors. I personally prefer strengthening the gene pool rather than genetic modification.

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  14. This is interesting stuff! We've increasing had the same issue with germination. We usually stay away from "exotic varieties" and go with varieties that have been successful for us in the past. We've been puzzled occasionally with disappointing results on plantings that should have been "slam dunks".

    The reasoning there seems pretty good. Another thing for me to "get smart" on!

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    1. Mark, I'm guessing it's not so much the varieties, as it is getting seed from growers with similar climate and growing conditions as you. That's what the seed will be adapted to. It does seem to be a more common problem than it used to be.

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