Plant breeding takes a long time, so 2015 projects will look a lot like 2014 projects, and 2013, and 2012, and so on. I make it my policy to bite off considerably more than I can chew each year while imagining that it will be different this time. 2015 will be no different, as we are going to clear an additional acre or two in order to expand. When not slashing through an acre of old growth blackberries, these are the projects that I will be focusing on this year (not an exclusive list, of course).
Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorrhiza)
I had about a 50% success rate with arracacha offsets, so it looks like we’ll be coming out of winter with six plants. Two will be grown under optimal conditions in order to produce more offsets. The remaining 4 will be starved, dehydrated, and flogged on a regular basis in the hope of forcing them to produce seed. This climate seems a bit too chilly for arracacha, so the hope is that seed will unlock some more favorable phenotypes.
Acquiring new varieties and especially seeds would be a big help.
Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia)
My most Quixotic project, I suppose. I have seeds obtained from my 2013 mass cross. I couldn’t afford the space to grow them out last year, but I hope to this year. This will probably be a very slow project, but I hope to someday have a bitter melon that can grow outdoors in our cool, foggy climate.
I think I actually have enough varieties to work from, having amassed more than 40 bitter melon varieties. Unless of course there is a more northern bitter melon that I’m unaware of. That would be exciting.
Camas (Camassia quamash)
My camas project needs reevaluation. Is bigger roots really the right goal? I don’t really have a problem with the average size of Camas bulbs. It occurred to me last year that what I really would like is fast growth from seed. I had the same thought about Turnip-Rooted Chervil. I would like a Camas that grows to reasonable size in a year and sets seed. So, I may set aside current work and take a different approach.
Carrot (Daucus carota)
I’m getting close to a stable result with my improved Oxheart carrot project. I lost a lot of the carrots to geese last year, so I will have to sow more 2013 seed. Baker Creek brought back the original Oxheart this year, so I bought some for comparison purposes. It will be very interesting to see how different mine is after a few years of work.
Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea)
One of the reasons for clearing more land is so that I can resume my overwintering cauliflower project. Cauliflower is big and in the ground for a long time. Since I have probably years to go before a final product, I’ve had to scale this project back, but I’d like to scale it up again.
All this project needs is time. How much, I have no idea.
Chilean Guava (Ugni molinae)
There is only one selection criterion with this plant at the moment: freeze resistance. They rarely die, but often take damage here. Some young plants show less damage than others, so this project is just a matter of collecting seed, sowing seed, and waiting to see what happens in early winter. Slow going.
Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)
I almost lost my cloudberry plants due to neglect last year. Seed crop was almost zero. I am making up for this by propagating a large number of cuttings this year. Berry yields are low and seed yields are worse, so I need a larger planting. The wetter areas of the land that we’re clearing should be good for cloudberry. Cloudberry and skirret may actually prove to be good companion plants.
I badly need more diverse germplasm. My original seeds come from a very small patch near Queets, WA and some collected near Victoria, BC. I would like to find more seed from coastal Alaska, BC, and especially Vancouver Island.
Dahlia (Dahlia spp.)
I have a lot of open pollinated dahlia seeds to grow out this year, so that should be fun. I should also be able to produce good quantities of a couple of better edible varieties. I’m not sure where this project is headed, but this year will probably give me a better idea.
I would like to acquire more dahlias that have good qualities as edibles to work from, but it is extremely difficult to find any information on the subject.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
One of two new projects this year. (What am I thinking?) I have experimented with embryo rescue with horseradish seeds and although I didn’t get any seedlings, I did get some growth, so I am encouraged to keep trying. I need to find more horseradish varieties to maximize our gene pool. It turns out that there are actually quite a few horseradish varieties. Tracking down more than three of them is very challenging.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
I suppose that I should include the fartichoke. I haven’t killed them yet. I keep growing a few from seed. I want to like this plant. With more space, I might be more inclined to try to sort out the tangled mess of varieties and evaluate them more carefully. Also included in this project is Helianthus strumosus, which seems to grow reasonably well here and may offer hybridization possibilities.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
This plant is a nightmare to cross – higher than 99% failure rate – but I’ll keep working on it. It tastes good and sometimes grows well, so the right genes are in there. On the plus side, it takes up very little space and is difficult to neglect. It does make tons of seed; they’re just all self pollinated.
I suspect that there may be better sources of seed out there. It seems that maca is now grown mostly for the nutraceutical trade and therefore may be deteriorating as a food crop. That’s my guess anyway.
Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum)
Although I lost most of my mashua seed crop last year, I did manage to get about 70 seeds and have so far gotten about 60 more in trade. I will grow every one that I can get to germinate. I’m optimistic about the possibilities for improving mashua. The idea of a mashua breeding project has become very exciting to me; we’ll see if the results can live up to the anticipation!
I do think that I need to find more mashua varieties. There seem to be very few available outside the Andes and I have most of them. The plants must set seed easily in the Andes so, unlike oca and ulluco, which require complicated import of tubers, perhaps there is some way to get true seed. That would be ideal.
Mauka (Mirabilis expansa)
Just getting started with this plant. I haven’t even tasted it yet, so maybe I’ll hate it. That seems unlikely though. I’m hoping to see some seeding in the greenhouse plants this winter, but that may be overly optimistic. I will likely build out some greenhouse space for this plant as well. Mauka is a diploid, so expectations from breeding should be rather humble, but it would be good to at least get gradual adaptation out of self-pollinated seed.
Oca (Oxalis tuberosa)
2014 was a year of huge progress with oca, with several hundred varieties grown from seed and the size of our heirloom collection expanded to more than 40 varieties. 2015 will be similar, with room for about 400 new seedlings and 50 varieties chosen from last year for further trial. If our land clearing proceeds quickly enough, I will also give more of last year’s new varieties a second try.
For the first time, I feel like I have enough oca to work with, although that won’t stop me from searching out more. Now it would be most interesting to find new ocas from the extreme portions of its range, like Chile and Argentina. Those might offer different levels of day length sensitivity.
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)
Trying to stabilize a parsnip with long seed life (3 years at 70%+ germination). The seed life was actually achieved in the first year simply by starting a lot of really old parsnip seed. Not much else about the plants is uniform, so it is now a matter of selecting back to a more consistent root without losing the seed life in the process.
Potato (Solanum spp.)
I grew almost no potatoes in 2014 due to space constraints. That sucked. One of the greatest motivations to getting the rest of our land cleared is to be able to get back to growing large numbers of potatoes from seed. I have a lot of my own lines to play with and a considerable stash of Tom Wagner seed that I haven’t gotten around to growing yet.
Although I usually dedicate a lot of space to them, potatoes are my most aimless project. I don’t really have goals; I just grow a lot and wait for interesting and unusual spuds to appear. I would like to spend more time unlocking varieties that are difficult to obtain seed from. This climate is very good for producing potato seed and, as with the other Andean crops, I know that it is possible to get seed from very difficult potatoes here.
Potato Onions (Allium cepa)
I am uncertain whether or not the world needs another potato onion variety (not that I would ever be slowed down much by such considerations). The existing ones seem to do the job very nicely and Kelly Winterton has been producing fantastic new varieties for a few years. The plant does show some pretty interesting variability and there is really no such thing as too many onions, so I will continue to work on this as a small scale project. Perhaps crossing up potato onions and shallots would move the project in an interesting new direction.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
I have the beginnings of an interesting project with rhubarb. I’m exploring the variability on offer from seed and it is much greater than you might expect. This is another large plant that I haven’t been able to dedicate enough space to. Hopefully that will be resolved this year. Rhubarb is a bit like horseradish in that there are a lot of varieties out there, but tracking them down is nearly impossible. I think that rhubarb has suffered from lack of understanding about its polyploid nature and that there are consequently a lot of inferior (and probably a few superior) seed grown varieties masquerading as heirlooms.
Sea Kale (Crambe maritima)
With more space, my sea kale projects will fork. I have been trying to do too many things with this plant in too little space. The first project is the more serious one: increasing the size of the florets for use as a perennial broccoli. The second project is improving the size, flavor, and texture of the roots. These are not compatible goals, so the plants need to be separated and our two separate plots will now allow for that.
Skirret (Sium sisarum)
Last year was a very disappointing year for skirret. Some kind of disease swept the plants that cause the roots to yellow and go soft. On the up side, there were survivors! What could be better than kicking off the next phase of a breeding project with the few survivors of a slate-wiping disease? The land that we’re clearing has some natural swales, which is ideal skirret territory, so hopefully 2015 will be a comeback. The primary goal of the skirret project is increased root size. I think that is what everyone who is working with this plant is trying for.
Stachys tubers (Stachys spp.)
I played around with Stachys affinis (Chinese artichoke or crosne) and S. palustris (Woundwort) last year. S. palustris actually seemed like the more promising plant. I got a little bit of seed from both and I understand that a cross between the two is likely, because S. affinis doesn’t set seed easily. They’re tasty enough, although not high yielding. They also don’t take a lot of space and are undemanding, so I imagine I’ll keep experimenting with them at a low level.
Sugar Beet (Beta vulgaris)
I still have more varieties to trial and a few crosses to grow out from last year. I also need to do more experimentation with processing the beets. My goal is to produce (or identify from existing varieties) a reasonably good sugar beet for cool climates where honey bees struggle to survive. Mine, for example. If wanting to produce sugar, most subsistence farmers would first turn to honey, but that doesn’t work everywhere. Sugar beets have been almost exclusively an industrial crop, farmed in monoculture with everything that implies. I’d like to find or produce a variety that is well suited to small scale growers in cooler climates.
Turnip Rooted Chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum)
I finally figured out what I want from this plant last year: I want it to be an annual. The roots are never that big. The plants that occasionally bolt in the first year actually tend to have the bigger roots. Biennial breeding is a pain. So, although it flies in the face of convention, I think I will begin to save seed from bolters with reasonable root size. I’ll grow a small plot of the existing seed as a backup plan.
Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus)
This has become the most exciting of all the breeding projects for me. We are now maintaining 20 heirloom varieties and obtained more than 1000 ulluco seeds last year. The focus for 2015 will be to get some of those seeds to germinate. If we can clear land quickly enough, I will significantly increase the ulluco planting in order to try to produce more seed. Last year’s single new ulluco variety is growing indoors and I hope to have it sliced and diced into at least ten plants before spring arrives. I’m very hopeful that it will set seed and that the seed will show even slightly improved germination.
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius)
There are two challenges with yacon breeding: first, get seed; second, get it to germinate. Neither step is easy. To accomplish the first, I need a way of extending the yacon season, so I will build a greenhouse specifically for growing yacon in the ground. We have enough varieties that there should be some possibility of getting seed.
I am also interested in the possibility of inter-species hybrids, since there has been some success with that. I have a few other Smallanthus species to work with. No idea if they have remotely compatible chromosome configurations, but I can give it a shot.