Send off the clones

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When selecting seeds, chose open-pollinated varieties, and save your seeds so that you can produce genetically diverse plants that thrive in your micro-climate.

Open-pollinated seeds

Open-pollinated seeds are pollinated by animals–such as insects, birds, or humans–or wind.  There’s genetic diversity–or variation within the species.  The individual plants that thrive are the ones that flourish in the specific growing conditions, and produce viable seeds.  The species slowly adapts and evolves.

Hybrid seeds

Hybrid seeds may occur in nature, but more often occur as a result of human intervention, to breed for a specific trait.  All plants of a hybrid species are the same, and they all mature at the same time (which may be inconvenient for the backyard gardener).  Commercial hybrid seeds are often labelled “F1”.  The problem with hybrids is that if you save their seeds and plant them the next year, they’re less robust than their parents, and they produce irregular specimens.  In order to produce the hybrid plant, you have to buy new seeds each year.

GMO seeds

GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) seeds are created in a lab.  The DNA of viruses, bacteria, animals, and other vegetables are injected into them to make them “better”.  They’re resistant to certain pests, and diseases.  Each year, farmers must purchase licenses to use these seeds and their companion pesticides; they’re not allowed to reuse seeds.  Issues arise when seeds drift into other farmer’s fields, or cross-pollinate with their plants.  (There have been cases in which GMO seed companies have pursued legal action against farmers who were accused of stealing seed simply because it blew from a neighbour’s field.)

GMOs have not been proven safe.  In fact, many studies show they don’t increase yield, but they do increase cost, because farmers aren’t permitted to save their own seeds.

GMO and hybrid seeds produce crops of genetically identical plants–clones, if you will.  If a particular blight or disease hits a clone crop, the entire yield is destroyed.  Pests adapt to GMOs, becoming “super-bugs” that require farmers to increase the amount of  chemicals on the crops that we eventually eat.

Open pollinated seeds, on the other hand, are much more robust.  If the individuals in your garden show genetic variety, and you’re hit with a particular pest, or experience an unfavourable year in terms of weather, chances are some of the crop will survive or produce well enough, even if much of it dies or fairs poorly.  The same cannot be said for GMOs or hybrids.  Entire crops have been wiped out because none of the plants had any hybrid vigour to take on a pest.

For food safety, crop security, and reduced costs, choose open-pollinated seeds.

 

Plant of the week: Corn

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Corn is the most common staple food in the world.  It’s grown on every continent except for Antarctica, and used as an ingredient in everything from marshmallows to fireworks and shoe polish.  It is a significant part of our diet both directly (thanks to high fructose corn syrup), and indirectly–through the livestock we consume.

Corn is high in carbohydrates and fibre.  It also contains some protein, and B and C vitamins.  When it’s mixed with lime, such as in tortillas, some amino acids and niacin are made available to our bodies for absorption.

Most of the corn on the market is genetically modified.  It’s hard to avoid GMO corn entirely, but if you grow a heritage variety, you can ensure that at least some of the corn you are eating has been proven safe for consumption.

Preparing corn

Some varieties of corn, such as the heritage variety Bloody Butcher, shown above and below, produce pale yellow cobs when the plant is young.  As the plant matures, the kernels darken and grow tougher.  This might sound unappealing, but it’s actually not.  You can eat the first few batches on the cob.  As they toughen, you can cook the cobs, cut the kernels off, and freeze them.  Frozen corn is perfect for chili and other dishes.  You can leave some cobs on the plant to dry, then grind the kernels into cornmeal or corn flour for breads, tortillas, and polenta, for example.  Some varieties of corn can be used as popcorn once their kernels have dried.

Ideal growing conditions

Corn likes well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil, and full sun.  It does not like cold soil, and frost may kill it.  Corn is a heavy feeder which takes a lot of nutrients from its neighbours.  Be careful what you plant next to it.

As it is pollinated by the wind, it is best to plant it in blocks of at least 4 rows, in which both the seeds and the rows are spaced a foot apart.  Do not plant different varieties next to each other, unless they mature at different times, or they will cross-pollinate.

Most commercially bought corn is treated with a surface coating that prevents fungus and disease.  Your local heritage seed supplier should have some untreated varieties for you to try.

Types

Often, we think of corn in terms of sweet corn, baby corn, popcorn, and cattle corn, but the six main types of corn are catalogued quite differently.

Friends

  • Beans, peas, and other legumes
  • Melons
  • Sunflowers
  • Pumpkin
  • Squash
  • Cucumber
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Cabbage

Fun Facts

  • The average ear of corn has 800 kernels.
  • Popcorn kernels contain a small amount of water inside their thick-walled casings. When they’re heated, steam builds up until the kernel explodes.

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