Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

by Jean English, Copyright MOFGA - 2006

"It wouldn't hurt you to grow one thing for yourself to seed," said Frank Morton, keynote speaker at November's Farmer to Farmer Conference, co-sponsored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Cooperative Extension.

"People who care about maintaining power in a dispersed way... it wouldn't hurt you to grow one thing for yourself to seed, even if it's just a flower," said Morton. "Just so you know what it's about... That's why I'm here. I would like to get one person in this room [hooked] on the idea of keeping some seed, of adapting it to your own purposes, and maintaining it so you can pass it on to your kids."

The Oregon plant breeder and seedsman thinks that gardeners, especially, should save seed. "Risks can be taken in gardens that cannot be taken in commercial fields. Commercial fields are all about making money to pay the rent, buy food. Farmers who are working too many hours already all have the same response to me: I don't need another thing to do! Gardeners, on the other hand, are often looking for another thing to do... for a new variety, a new opportunity, some new twist in their garden to give them a new sense of adventure...  

"And so here's a new twist. Just try this: Find a long, white radish and a round, red radish, grow one of each side by side in the garden [or] in a window pot. Plant it early in the spring so that it has enough time to run its whole life cycle. This should happen with your very earliest planting..." As the radishes grow, "notice how many hairs are on their leaves, what the margins of the leaves look like, what the exact shade of green is, whether it gets spots on it or not. Watch it bolt. Notice whether the stem goes straight up and stays straight up, or whether it goes up and then becomes a snaky kind of thing that falls to the ground. Notice the color of the flowers. Notice the insects that come to the flowers.

"If you get really hot or really cold weather, notice if the colors of anything change. Let those two plants be visited by insects and see which insects come to the flower. Watch them pollinate."

Eventually, harvest and clean the seed, and put the seed of each plant in its own envelope, writing on the envelope the variety, date planted, date harvested, and interesting observations. "The next year, grow each of those packets out in its own little row and see what comes up, and you will be amazed!"

Likewise, plant a green "Oak Leaf" lettuce and a red "Romaine" lettuce early so that they will bolt. These are self-pollinating plants, so you're going to have to coerce them to cross. Take their heads and sort of push them together so that insects can walk from one to the other. Lettuce pollen is kind of sticky. Most lettuce is self-pollinated before it's even available to be pollinated by anything else. You put those heads together, save seed separately, grow them out next year. You're going to find crosses.

"In the radish you're going to see that most of them crossed." A few that self-pollinated will look like their parents.

With the lettuce, plant a row of each. The row from the red "Romaine" will produce some plants that have red, oak-shaped leaves. The row from the green will produce some red oak shaped leaves. "Essentially that's how you find the F1. You just made yourself a hybrid!" said Morton. "You're high tech!"

Plant the hybrids next, save seed from these hybrids, and plant them. "You're going to see very different things probably, but you'll be on your way. What comes out of that hybrid is the first view that you will get of the potential that you have created.

"In the lettuce you're going to see this spectrum of traits in all different kinds of re-combinations going from green to red." Radishes will be pure white and round, or red and long, or pink and long... many different combinations.

When you find combinations of traits that you like, save seeds from those plants. "You will be on your way to creating your own variety of a radish or a lettuce... just keep growing it. All you do is grow what you like. And in about six years, you get to put a name on it, and it's yours. It might not be a great variety. It might have all sorts of problems to it, because you
don't have enough experience to see problems as they're developing, but that's OK. You'll be on the way." You'll understand more than anyone can teach you, if you plant the seed.

"The seed of our futures," Morton concluded, "comes from seed that we plant today and tomorrow and the next day and the next day. You never stop planting. You never stop selecting. You never stop improving the thing that you're working with. If you stop working with it, what you like about it will disappear. My friend John Navazio likes to say, "Good traits are like good teeth. You ignore them, they will go away."

Frank Morton has been breeding and experimenting with vegetables for some 25 years. Varieties that grow well under organic cultivation on both coasts are offered in quantities of 1/2 ounce or more in his Wild Garden Seed catalog from Gathering Together Farm, PO Box 1509, Philomath, OR 97370 -- Smaller quantities of many of Morton's varieties are available through Maine seed companies. A longer version of his keynote speech will appear in the March-May 2007 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

This article is provided by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), PO Box 170, Unity, ME  04988; 207-568-4142; [email protected]; Joining MOFGA helps support and promote organic farming and gardening in Maine and helps Maine consumers enjoy more healthful, Maine-grown food. Copyright 2006. Please let us know if you reprint this article. Thanks!