by Elizabeth Henderson
Socially conscious gardeners these days consider using hybrid seed politically questionable. For a home garden, the open pollinated varieties are, for the most part, satisfactory. On the scale at which we are producing some vegetables at Peacework, however, we need some hybrids. Why? To supply you with 8 steady weeks of broccoli heads, we grow over 5000 broccoli plants. We need varieties that have dome-shaped heads to shed rain, and are resistant to common fall fungal diseases which can breed in pools of water on flat or concave shaped heads. There are no open-pollinated varieties with these qualities. To supply you with carrots, 1 pound per share per week for 16 weeks, plus bulk sales, we need carrot varieties that are resistant to another set of fungal diseases. Again, only hybrids, carefully bred using classical breeding techniques, have the qualities we require.
Unfortunately, if you use hybrids, you have to purchase new seed every year from the seed companies that maintain them. An alternative, is to de-hybridize the varieties you like. This process takes 7 years to achieve a stable open-pollinated variety. The first year, you plant the hybrid, save its seed, plant that seed, and then select from among its offspring the few babies that are most like the hybrid parent. Most of the babies will be like the two different grandparents which were crossed to produce the hybrid. Each successive year, a higher percentage of the babies have the desired characteristics, until you have eliminated most of the genetic diversity contributed by the grandparents. At Peacework, we would like to learn how to do this kind of breeding. One thing is clear, it takes patience!