Monday, May 16, 2011

Gardening: It's aliiiiiive!

Carol Deppe's book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties is back on my nightstand, for the fifth or eighth or perhaps tenth reading. I have an earlier edition, full of fun stories and genetics and how-tos, and a later edition, with a lot more of the politics of plant patenting and other depressing things. I focus on the earlier edition. I'm shallow.

I feel a mad-scientist glee at the idea of breeding my own plants. I must confess that I have to do a lot of thinking to conjure up "something new" that I want, because I haven't come anywhere near exhausting the possibilities of plants already commercially available. For example, I want a particular mellow meaty yellow-orange tomato that I once tasted, but I know that I just need to discover it, not breed it, because I've already eaten it.

But now that we have more space, my fantasies of breeding are coming to new life, and I'm reading the book again and searching, again, for ideas. In fact, I'm making a list of things I could work on.

My first thought is podding radishes. You know those seed pods that radishes put out after they bolt and bloom? They're edible. There's already at least one variety of radish out there that's sold specifically for its edible pods, but surely the market could use more, right? Right? In any case, this scheme has the advantage of providing discovery in the very first year, because I can start by sending off for a bunch of different radishes and just eating their pods, without ever having done any breeding work. Then I can cross some and grow something new next year. Or, considering the relatively short life cycle of some radishes, could I even grow out the result of this year's cross this year? I need to do some research.

Then there's squash blossoms. Rather like the radishes and the radish pods, I have little use for squash, but I love to eat the blossoms. Fried. I know that there's already a squash variety bred specifically for its tendency to produce lots of male blossoms and few female fruits, but maybe there's more to be done here? Or maybe my squash blossom preferences are different? The variety in question is Butter Blossom, but I can't seem to find seeds, so I'm thinking of experimenting with Costata Romanesco, since Johnny's says good things about its blossoms.

Except, hey! Aren't there climbing squash? Tromboncino, and others? And wouldn't that be a particularly good characteristic for a squash grown primarily for blossoms? Without the weight of a bunch of fruits to pull a trellis down, you could get your squash flowers in a minimum of space. It appears that Butter Blossom (pepo) and Tromboncino (moschata) aren't candidates for a cross, so that obvious path toward combining the two target characteristics (climbing and a high percentage of male blossoms) is closed. I'll do some more thinking.

What else? My favorite vegetable is onions, and my main onion goal is an onion that will have maximum knock-you-down flavor, both hot and sweet, when slowly caramelized. But I already suspect that Copra may be the onion for me.

And just to expose my ignorance (and perhaps my need to read the book again) I'm not at all clear on how one evaluates onions, the kind from seed, when doing breeding work on them. If you do a tomato cross and grow out the results, you can taste a tomato on a plant, and if it's transcendent, you can then let another one on the same plant ripen and rot and make seeds. But tasting an onion kills the onion, so there's no getting seeds out of it later. Do you wait another full generation and keep track of each individual onion's seeds, and evaluate each group of progeny separately? But how can you be sure that the glorious onion that you just tasted wasn't the only one with that particular group of genes? Am I missing something obvious here?

Now, there are the vegetatively propagated onions. Potato onions, multiplier onions, shallots, Egyptian walking onions, bunching onions, chives, garlic chives, garlic, elephant garlic, perennial leeks. And some of them reproduce from seed. I suppose those are the ones to work on--once you have something you like, you could just keep on propagating it.

Actually, that's another area that interests me--perennial vegetables. There are the obvious ones--garlic and potatoes and asparagus and artichokes and so on. But there are some less obvious choices that I haven't experienced. For example, according to Carol Deppe, salsify not only produces edible roots, but also edible green shoots and salad greens. Daylily blossoms are supposed to be edible, though you shouldn't take my word for it. I've never tasted a sunchoke; I'd like to.

Well, this is interesting--I see on a website that unopened sunflower buds, steamed, taste like artichokes.  Is that something worth some breeding work?


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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