Seed Complexities

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 by Jenny Watts
    Feed roses to encourage a beautiful display of color later this month. Treat plants to prevent insect and disease problems.
    • Beautiful African Violets will decorate your indoor spaces with their masses of flowers in all shades of purple, blue and pink.
    • Fuchsias in hanging baskets make beautiful patio plants. They bloom all summer and attract hummingbirds to their pendulous blossoms.
    • When you plant your tomatoes, put a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole to help prevent blossom end rot on the fruit later on.
    • It’s time to put out oriole feeders. You can also attract them with fresh orange halves.

Open Pollinated, Hybrid, or GMO Seeds

Each time I plant a seed and watch it germinate several days later, I experience the magic and wonder of Nature. The complex information, which is carried in each and every seed, that tells it how to create one certain kind of plant, color of flower or size of tomato, is truly awesome. Most of the time we take this for granted and are just thrilled with the number of choices of tomatoes and peppers available to us. But a look behind the scenes shows us that even the scientists are just beginning to understand these complexities.

Let’s take corn, for instance. Twenty years ago, Golden Cross Bantam was available on all the seed racks and was by far the most popular variety of corn for homeowners. When you harvest this corn you “get the pot of water boiling first, then run out to the garden, pick the ears, and throw them into the boiling water.” That’s because as soon as the corn is picked, the sugar cells begin turning to starch, so time is of the essence. A nice benefit of Golden Cross Bantam corn is that you can save an ear of corn, dry it and plant the seed the following year. This is an open pollinated variety. Most of the seeds on seed racks are open pollinated varieties. Heirloom seeds are varieties that are at least 50 years old and they are generally open pollinated.

To create a hybrid corn, two varieties are crossed with each other by removing the tassels of one kind so that the second kind pollinates the first. To produce hybrid seed, parental lines are grown side by side in the field, and the cross must be repeated every time the seeds are produced.

In the early 1950s it was discovered that corn kernels that shriveled stored less starch and many times more sugar than the kernels of normal sweet corn. In 1961, they created a “supersweet” hybrid of “Iochief” and named it “Illini Chief.” From there they developed a three-way hybrid named “Illini Xtra Sweet,” which became the first commercially available supersweet corn. This corn lacked the enzyme which converted kernel sugars to starch after harvest.

Once grocery-store produce buyers learned about the extended shelf-life of supersweet corn, almost all the growers of sweet corn switched over to supersweet varieties. Canneries were also happy to process supersweet corn, which required no additional sugar. Other crosses have been made which make sweet corn resistant to fungus diseases such as rust and northern leaf blight. And the development continues as researchers make new hybrids with high sugar content, long shelf-life and creamy texture. Organic seeds are collected from plants that have been grown organically and can be either open pollinated or hybrids.

But these are all quite different from GMOs. A GMO is a plant that has been genetically modified through the addition in the laboratory of a small amount of genetic material from other organisms through molecular techniques. You won’t find GMO seeds on any seed racks.

GMO corn does not cross two types of corn, it crosses corn with a bacterium or fungus. In the case of Bt corn, the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, is injected into the corn gene to produce a protein that kills European corn borer, to reduce pesticide use. This sounds like a good idea however, along with the Bt gene, a gene which is not killed by antibiotics is injected, so that they can determine which genes successfully received the Bt gene. So this GMO corn has in it a resistance to antibiotics, which may be passed on to us when we eat it. This does not sound like such a good idea. In addition, the corn borers are now developing a resistance to Bt which may make this useful, mild pesticide ineffective.

In any case, there is a great deal to be learned about GMOs. FDA scientists have warned that genetic engineering differs from conventional practices and entails a unique set of risks. Long term studies have not been carried out. This is a very new technology and many scientists believe this whole area of GMOs needs more research. Because of these concerns with GMOs we should proceed with more caution before they are released into our environment.

In the mean time, enjoy your supersweet corn with dinner tonight.

Heirlooms in the Garden

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • Alpine asters, columbine, sea pinks and Tiny Rubies dianthus are outstanding plants for spring bloom in the perennial border.
    • Fuchsias in hanging baskets make beautiful patio plants. They bloom all summer and attract hummingbirds to their pendulous blossoms.
    • When you plant your tomatoes, put a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole to help prevent blossom end rot on the fruit later on.
    • Feed roses to encourage a beautiful display of color later this month. Treat plants to prevent insect and disease problems.
    • Earwigs are out and about and hungry. Control them with diatomaceous earth sprinkled around the plants or go out after dark with a flashlight and a spray bottle of Safer’s Insecticidal Soap. One squirt will put an end to the spoiler.

Heirloom and Heritage Plants
What are they and why should we be concerned about them?

Heirloom plants are all around us: ancient oak trees towering over our parks, antique roses growing wild in the cemetery, the cascading Bridal Wreath Spiraea that came with your home, California poppies on the hillside, Tiger lilies along the fence row or Butternut squash in the market. So what makes a plant an heirloom?

It is generally agreed that heirloom flowers are open-pollinated varieties that originated fifty or more years ago. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated varieties that were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture.

Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant can have originated and still be called an heirloom, since that year marked the widespread introduction of the first hybrid varieties.

Open-pollinated plants are fertilized by insects, hummingbirds or wind, and the resulting seeds will produce plants that are identical or very similar to the parent plant. Open pollination allows the same cultivar to be grown simply from seed for many generations.

Old roses and trees are usually referred to as “heritage” plants. Heritage roses are roses that originated in the mid 19th century or earlier. Varieties that date from 1860 or earlier are also referred to as antique roses.

Heritage trees may be trees of exceptional size, form, or rarity; a tree recognized by virtue of its age; or trees that are landmarks of a community. When trees are designated as heritage trees by city ordinance, it gives them protection from being severely pruned or cut down.

The term “heritage” is a much broader term than “heirloom” and can mean whatever you want it to mean. For example, Heritage Perennials® is the name of a line of perennials which includes many new hybrids whose “unlicensed propagation is prohibited.” Such a plant would not be classified as an “heirloom” plant.

In California, the term “heritage plant” is used to refer to plants that still exist from the time of the padres.

So why should we be interested in these plants? What draws many gardeners to heirloom vegetables is flavor. They want a tomato that tastes like a real tomato, not a plastic one. Many of them taste wonderful, look beautiful, and are easy to grow. There are, however, varieties that take a more experienced hand to grow well. Some are local or regional varieties that may or may not be suited to conditions in your back yard. Others are susceptible to problems unknown to earlier gardeners.

Growing heirloom flowers helps make certain that every generation can enjoy the blossoms that were grown yesterday and long before that. They offer a living connection with gardeners of the past: the pioneers, Thomas Jefferson, medieval monks, Chinese emperors, or maybe your own grandmother.

The attractiveness of old roses grows from their disease resistance, their wonderful fragrances, and perhaps most important of all, their graceful growth habit which makes them ideally suited for the informal garden.

Many heirloom plants are rare, endangered, and in need of your help — since the only way to preserve these living artifacts — and their incredible genetic resources — is to grow them!