How to Start a Landrace Garden
Do you struggle to grow produce in your garden year after year? Is there always a new pest or disease plaguing your garden? Or an environmental stress such as heat or drought that decimates everything? Landrace gardens are adapted to your exact climate. Certified master gardener Laura Elsner will walk you through starting your own landrace garden.
While the term ‘landrace’ may be new to many of us, it is a method that is as old as agriculture itself. Our modern lives and modern farming techniques have only recently strayed from the traditional landrace gardening methods.
Our focus has moved from growing resilient crops capable of defending themselves to defending them with chemical applications. Instead of breeding fruits and vegetables primarily for flavor, we also breed for travel and shelf life. Instead of saving our own seeds, we purchase seeds from plants grown far away.
Landrace gardens are full of genetic diversity and are fully adapted to your garden. They are some of the strongest and tastiest produce you will ever eat. It is not complicated to start landrace gardening. This article will give you the tools to start your landrace project.
What is Landrace Gardening?
Landrace gardening is a gardening method that uses locally adapted, diverse crops that are suited to their environment. Basically, it means saving seeds from the previous season’s strongest crops to grow strong and genetically diverse plants that can withstand your area’s unique climate.
Landracing is about genetics, the science of passing down parental traits to generations of offspring. That said, you do not need a science background or a strong knowledge of genetics to participate in landrace gardening. All you need to know is that offspring have the traits of their parents.
When you know you have a family history of heart disease, you take steps to prevent it because you know you can inherit it. The same principle applies to plants. Plant offspring will have the same traits as their parents. But plant generations (mostly) are shorter, letting us see and control the traits being passed on.
The term “landrace” itself indicates that it’s a type of seed uniquely tied to its native land. Plants grown in the same location year after year will gradually build up defenses against typical environmental issues they may experience, such as high heat or high humidity. They may develop resistance to certain common pests or diseases in your landscape. In cultivating landrace seeds, you’re developing seeds that are optimized to your exact land, hence a “land race.”
What Are the Benefits of Landrace Gardening?
This is the big one. Genetic diversity is paramount in growing strong, healthy plants. Plants that lack biodiversity are more easily destroyed by a single event or pest/disease.
Bananas are an example of a fruit that lacks genetic diversity. ‘Gros Michel’ used to be the dominant variety of banana. But in the 1960s, Panama disease wiped it out almost completely. This was because this species of bananas had no genetic diversity, so every banana tree succumbed to the disease.
Having an entire species of plants wiped out by a single event due to a lack of genetic diversity can be catastrophic. Ensuring you have plants with lots of genetic diversity allows them to adapt to various conditions and defend themselves from various pests and diseases.
When a plant has a pest or disease, many gardeners treat the plant with chemicals. Lots of commercially grown seeds are grown in environments where lots of chemical pesticides and fungicides are used.
Those plants don’t have to worry about having traits that will defend them against pests and disease. When we try and plant these seeds in our gardens and don’t use the chemicals, the plants haven’t developed these critical survival traits.
Landrace is survival of the fittest. You only save the seeds of plants that survive and thrive. If you plant a bunch of squash and most of them are eaten by squash bugs, the ones that weren’t eaten may have a resistance to that type of squash bugs. When you save those seeds and plant them out next season, you will have a stronger, more resistant crop that squash bugs won’t attack.
Adapted to Your Growing Conditions
When you buy seeds from a catalog, you don’t know what conditions they were grown in. Perhaps they were grown in a nice humid coastal climate. But you live in a hot, arid climate. The seeds you get will not have any genetic information on how to survive your area’s long, hot summers.
When you save your own seeds, you can choose what characteristics you want your plant to have. For instance, if you want plants that work better in a hot climate, save the seeds from your lettuce that bolts the latest in the season. Those plants are naturally better at surviving hot spells, and their offspring (the seeds you collect) will be too.
Depending on your conditions, you can also choose varieties that grow better in sandy or clay soil. Select the seeds from the healthiest plants that thrive in your soil.
You can select plants based on your garden preferences. If you don’t like weeding, let the weeds grow. Only harvest seeds from the plants that grew strong despite the weeds. In a few generations, you will have plants that can outgrow and out-compete weeds.
Fertilizing with compost and/or synthetic fertilizers can take time and energy. Pick and choose the seeds from the plants that thrived without adding anything extra, saving you time and energy when growing the next generation.
If you are constantly managing pests and/or diseases, stop. Let nature do its thing and select only the seeds from the plants that survived the onslaught of pests and diseases.
After a few generations (typically three), you will have plants that can survive and thrive in your garden.
You will not only save yourself time with landrace gardening but money as well. Of course, you save money on seeds when harvesting your own, but you’ll also save money in other areas.
You can spend less on amendments, fertilizers, and pest controls if you save seeds from plants that withstood pests and required little fertilization. You can also save money on water by choosing seeds from crops that handle drought. These savings will add up in the long run.
Not only can you select seeds based on traits for survival, but you can also choose seeds based on personal preferences.
Grocery store produce is mostly chosen for storage and shelf life. Flavor takes the back seat. They want apples that don’t bruise easily and tomatoes that don’t turn mushy on the shelf. These considerations aren’t as critical for the home gardener. You can prioritize plants based on their delicious taste!
Choose the sweetest tomatoes, the juiciest melons, and the meatiest pumpkins. If you discover the most delicious fruit or vegetable, keep some of its seeds. Then, you can grow the same tasty fruit/vegetable the next season. Remember that many hybrids may not produce true-to-type seeds – here, it’s important to work with heirloom varieties!
Community and Cultural Value
Landrace gardening works better in a community. Swapping seeds with neighbors will add diversity to your plants, thus strengthening them more.
It is also a good way to connect with our community elders. When it comes to gardening, age and experience mean knowledge. Listening to techniques and acquiring seeds from knowledgeable members of our communities is valuable. It’s also a great way to build an inter-generational bond to strengthen our sense of community and belonging.
A key aspect of landrace gardening is to grow what grows easily. In your landrace project, you might tend towards native plants naturally adapted to your growing conditions. This will help preserve and strengthen the cultural heritage in your region.
How to Begin Landrace Gardening
Now that you know the why, let’s get into how to start your landrace garden. It doesn’t take much effort, especially if you are familiar with growing a garden. Don’t worry. If you’re new to growing, it’s a great method to start with.
Learn about your area
It’s important to understand the unique climate that you are growing in. This doesn’t have to be overly difficult or scientific. Check for basic things, like your soil type. You can easily check this using the squeeze test. Simply squeeze a handful of soil in your hand. It is sandy if it falls apart and can’t hold its shape. Likely, it has a high clay content if it stays in a hard ball, like putty. Soil that keeps its shape for a second and then crumbles is nice loamy soil.
Other considerations are how dry or humid your area is, the altitude, and the USDA hardiness zone. In landrace gardening, you observe these things but don’t need to think about how to improve or change them. Let your plants do the work by adapting to your conditions.
Next, think about your growing goals. Do you want a garden that is neat and weeded? A garden that grows regardless of the weeds? Are you growing in the ground or in containers? Are you using irrigation, or will you rely only on rainfall? Keep these things in mind as you select and grow your landrace garden.
Choose what you want to grow
What you like to eat (and look at when planting ornamentals) is key. Grow what you love. My veggie garden is mostly tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, and chard because that is what me and my family love to eat. This is the best place to start.
Next, think of local and robust seeds. Finally, consider your skill level and commitment to seed saving. You can save the seeds from all your plants (as long as they aren’t sterile). But some are much easier to save than others.
It’s easy to save seeds from fruiting plants like tomatoes. The same goes for peppers, melons, and squashes. The seeds are within the fruit and can be harvested along with the fruit. This way, you can assess the size, shape, color, and taste.
Some vegetables, such as beets, turnips, and carrots, are biennial plants. These take more effort to save. You have to grow the crop for a season, wait for it to flower, and go to seed in the second season.
Trees can also be grown from seed. Consider how long it takes for trees to reach maturity. Avocados, for instance, may take 10+ years to reach maturity.
Connect with local growers
Finding the seeds to start your landrace project is an important process.
Look into local seed exchanges in your area. If there aren’t any, contact gardening groups and inquire about them. You’ll often find people willing and eager to give away and/or exchange seeds.
Seed libraries are another option. These are community initiatives to save, store, and distribute local seeds. This is a great place to find landrace seeds. I’ve also seen little seed libraries where people drop off extra seeds and seedlings and pick up new ones.
Another option is to find locally grown produce and save the seeds. You can find local produce at farmers’ markets. A lot of this local produce was grown from seeds that are not locally sourced. However, if the produce was grown locally, it has already been grown in your climate for a season. You can start with grocery store seeds, but they usually aren’t bred for flavor, and they aren’t local.
Mix your seeds or plants together
Grow your seeds like you usually would. This means either starting indoors or direct sowing. If you are new to growing and unsure how to start, check out the average growing length of the crop you want to grow and the average number of frost-free days in your area.
If the crop needs more days to grow than frost-free days (or it’s borderline the same), start them indoors. Tomatoes, peppers, and melons are plants that are usually started indoors. Peas, squash, and corn are often directly sown.
You will want to start with a few varieties of seeds, if possible. You can mix the seeds up and plant them together. Or you can plant the seeds separately and then mix up the plants when you plant them. Either way, your plants must be mixed so they can cross-pollinate.
Choose the seeds you want to keep
Once your plants start to fruit or produce seeds, it is time to choose the seeds you want to keep. Sometimes, you do this deliberately, and sometimes, you unconsciously choose seeds with desirable traits.
An example of deliberate choosing is selecting plants that don’t succumb to powdery mildew, leading to a subsequent generation with higher resistance. An example of a non-deliberate or unconscious selection is avoiding pumpkins with rotten, mushy bottoms. The next generation of plants might have sturdier stalks that hold the pumpkins off the ground.
While you might not have correlated the sturdy stalk to having the pumpkin off the ground, you naturally choose the better-looking fruit.
Save your seeds
This is the most important part of landrace gardening. You MUST save your seeds. Saving seeds is a fairly simple process. Just make sure they are dry so they don’t mold. Store your seeds properly so you can use them next season.
Label and store them however you like. Keep records of why you chose the seeds. For example, you could label a pepper ‘deer-resistant pepper.’ Or you can label them just peppers, tomatoes, etc.
Every year, save seeds from various plants. Mix and plant them together the following year. This way, they can cross-pollinate and share their genetic information. Once you find a zucchini that can sprout and out-compete the weeds in your garden, you can mix it with the most delicious variety you’ve tasted. Eventually, you can develop delicious zucchini that out-competes your weeds.
Generally, it takes three generations of the plant to start seeing meaningful results.
When it comes to fruiting plants, this will take at least three seasons. Biennial plants will take six seasons to create three generations. Trees can take over thirty years to create three generations.
Even then, the initial adaptations can use some strengthening; it may take seven or eight generations of an annual fruiting plant to produce meaningful results. Be patient with the process, and you will develop seeds that are optimal for your exact location!
Starting your landrace project is a great way to reward yourself with produce and ornamentals that thrive in your area. Once you get going, it will save you time and money. So start swapping seeds and get started on your landrace garden!