Roots and shoots: breeding for beginners

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This season, I have been keeping a close eye on which of my perennials and grasses are most drought tolerant. I’m curious why part of my Joe pye weed, a 10 year old plant that has been in the same spot, barely flowered, turned brown and wilted, but another section had larger flowers and green foliage .

During the drought, this Joe pye weed wilted and died in one section while another section bloomed. (Photo by P. Doan)

Joe pye would generally not thrive where I planted it, in full sun and dry soil. It likes humidity and a few hours less sun. But it worked well all these years because I planted it directly in the extension of a gutter. In a season with constant rainfall, it’s almost a rain garden effect. The plant absorbs rainwater flowing towards it, giving the water more time to soak into the soil. This year’s drought, however, has thrown the relationship off balance, and it is suffering.

I will experiment by collecting seeds from the part of the plant that did better and see what they produce. By collecting seeds from certain plants and germinating them, we adapt them to the specific microclimate of our landscapes.

In botany, the word ecotype is a sign of how one native plant is, well, more native than another. This means that the plant has adapted and evolved to hyperlocal growing conditions. If your seed was harvested in Cold Spring, it’s conceivable that it has traits that help it thrive here.

This may not be the case for some generalist plants such as the sylvan aster (Aster divaricatus), common milkweed (Syriac Asclepias) and butterfly grass (tuberous milkweed). But the ecotype can play an important role for more specific plants such as whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), which prefers sandy, rocky and clay soils in the woods.

As for vegetables, by collecting seeds, gardeners can choose plants for their taste, hardiness and other characteristics. Even if your tomatoes are all the same variety, save only the seeds of the most vigorous plants. When you sow them in another season, you influence its genetic composition.

It is important to know your seed types to collect and propagate. Stick to open-pollinated plants and upright species. Open-pollinated plants will grow true to type and carry the characteristics of the parent plant. It’s reproduction, don’t forget that. A hybrid plant has two parents. For example, the Summer Sun bulls-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides, var. scabrous Sommersone) is shorter than the straight species, more compact, and has an orange disk instead of yellow.

If I collected seeds from Summer Sun, they might have orange or yellow discs, they might be taller or shorter, or they might have different characteristics from either parent. It’s a fun experiment as long as I don’t mind a surprise, but it’s a waste of garden space if it’s a zucchini hybrid. The plant resulting from saving the seeds of a hybrid vegetable may be inedible.

I tested this once and let a squash plant grow in the compost heap. The fruit was yellow and oblong and full of seeds. Even the hens weren’t happy.

Some perennial seeds can be preserved by drying them and storing them in an envelope. The Wild Seed Project (wildseedproject.net) is a useful resource for instruction in the preservation and germination of native plants and grasses. Or skip all those steps and order seeds from the project, which is a Maine-based nonprofit.

Vegetable seeds are more delicate and the process depends on the plant. Tomatoes do well after fermentation by sitting on the counter for a few days. Growers recommend taking tomato seeds from different plants and combining them. Once the seeds are dry, they can be stored in an envelope or in the fridge or freezer. Do not attempt to sow frozen seeds.