Mid-winter research; heritage, hybrids and natural mutations
As your gardening anticipation grows, it’s the perfect time of year to pour through seed catalogues and make plans. We all want to grow the very best quality plants, otherwise what’s the point of growing your own?
When we grow our own produce, we have control over the process. We grow it because it tastes better – think of the vine-ripened tomato, or the sweetness of a carrot just pulled from the ground and wiped on your pant leg. Children enjoy the experience as well.
Hybrid pros and cons
A hybrid is the result of crossing two closely related species in a controlled environment. Professionals, like those at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario are coming up with new varieties every day.
Many hybrids that make it to market are more disease-resistant than their parents, they bloom longer, and they produce hardier fruit, which is great for shipping long distances. While flavour is often compromised, they generally possess a couple of qualities that make the plant, or its fruit, appealing to buyers.
The Sweet One Million cherry tomato is a hybrid, and it’s the most prolific producer and, by far, the sweetest in its category. My favourite rose, the Bonica, is another hybrid. If you see ‘F1’ after the name of a plant, this means that it’s a hybrid that was created by crossing two pure parents. It takes growers many years to achieve a pure line before they can continue with their goal to produce an F1 hybrid. These varieties generally have outstanding characteristics, but cost more because they are expensive to produce.
Strange things can happen in the garden. A cucumber can cross with its close cousin, the pumpkin, and create a cuckin. The melon family are famous for family in-breeding. The reason is that they are open pollinated. This can happen if a bee or a hummingbird visits a flower on one plant, gathers its pollen or nectar, and then moves on to another.
Purists often go out of their way to find those varieties that have been around for more than 100 years. If you grow heritage varieties, be sure to keep a keen eye out for powdery mildew, and the like, as many can be susceptible to disease. Give your heritage plants lots of space in the sunniest positions in your garden to increase air flow and to help burn off disease spores in hot, dry weather.
Plants will produce unpredictable changes as they evolve from one generation to another. It has been reported that Purina was growing a large field of sweet potatoes for use in their dog food products when one of the plants produced brilliant lime green leaves. A smart-thinking plant breeder isolated the plant, produced seeds from it that were true to their parent, and created a whole new ornamental plant category – the sweet potato vine has become a staple in floral containers with its vibrant, trailing leaves.
Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada, and provides gardening advice to more than two million Canadians each week. Ben Cullen’s specialty is food gardening. markcullen.com; Facebook @MarkCullenGardening and Pinterest @MarkCullenGardening.