Some of our readers may already be familiar with landrace breeds of livestock. To summarize, landraces are breeds that arose within a very specific geographical context through the blending of the breeds available within that context at the time of the breed’s creation. Landraces display great genetic diversity, partly because of this broad foundation on which they are built, but also because of limited human selection.
Human selection is involved in landrace creation, making landraces distinct from feral populations. However, this selection is very limited in scope and is largely directed at balancing production and appearance with the ability to thrive in low-input situations. The result is that landraces are exceptionally hardy and uniquely suited to small-scale production within specific environments.
Can vegetables and other plants of interest to gardeners be developed in a similar fashion? Absolutely! The basic principles that mark the creation of a landrace are just as applicable to plants as to animals.
How to Start a Landrace Plant Variety
- Start with a wide array of different plant varieties.
- Allow those unsuited to the environment to die out.
- Cull any that are unproductive or are undesirable for eating purposes.
- Allow the survivors to cross-pollinate at will.
- Save seeds from all of the surviving plants of all varieties.
- The next season, plant your saved seed, along with any remaining seed of the parent varieties, and repeat the process, allowing the different varieties to cross-pollinate.
- Continue saving and planting seed from the proven plants of each generation. If you persist long enough, you will have developed your very own landrace variety.
Plants That Respond Well to Landrace Gardening
Plants that typically self-pollinate, such as peas, are harder to work with for obvious reasons. Every generation, a few individual plants are pollinated with the assistance of bees and other beneficial insects, so theoretically you can speed up the process for these plants by providing pollinator habitat nearby. However, be aware that it will take years, even decades, to make significant headway.
In a few cases, closely related plants may cross-pollinate when not wanted. For instance, melons, cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, and pumpkins can all cross-pollinate, but the results of such a blending are often less than desirable. If you want to create a landrace of these plants, consider focusing on one at a time.
A Few Tips
Do not coddle your plants. If the objective is to produce a variety uniquely suited to your environment, then the plants must be exposed to the vagaries of that environment. How far you go depends on your conditions and priorities. If you are working on a vegetable specifically for winter production, then of course a greenhouse will be necessary. At the other end of the spectrum, if you are developing varieties for low- or no-irrigation systems, then little or no water should be provided. In any case, signs of a severe pest or disease problem are a good indicator that culling, not spraying or dusting, is in order.
Most importantly, be patient. It takes years for a new vegetable variety to stabilize. With a landrace, you will (and should) always see some degree of variation in appearance and other unessential traits, but over time the hardiness and productivity should settle into your preferred levels.