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The Mysteries of Seed Adaptability

Bryon Pike high altitude garden seed adaptibility

“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ”
Michael Pollan The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

How are vegetable, flower and other seeds able to adapt to their environment? I'm talking specifically about the high altitude, harsh market garden sites that I've been developing for the last 15 years in the San Luis Valley, Colorado. Early on in this venture, I discovered by trial and error (more accurately loss and gain) that some of these seeds I'd been working with, that grew in other geographic regions, were adapting to their surroundings here. I would order commercially available seed for large market grow-outs. Some of the plants did well, lived up to my expectations for yield, uniformity and vigor. But a percentage of them were less productive in the same conditions. Through experimentation, observation, trait selection, taste testing , intuition and techniques I had learned, I could see patterns in why some seeds adapted well and others didn't.

Generally, most commercial seed comes from regions of the U.S. or world that favor the conditions needed by that particular crop, where they are accustomed to growing. This keeps the seed production economically viable by producing the greatest yields. Unfortunatey, my 'specific region' was dramatically different from the optimal conditions the seeds came from. I was losing time, effort and space in my attempts at economically sustainable vegetable gardening in difficult conditions, at 7,000 feet plus.

seeds sproutingSo I started to experiment with growing out our seed crops 2 to 3 years in advance, on a smaller scale, hoping to adapt and produce the seed that would be successful in The Valley. This saved me significant time and lost ground space to poorly performing crops for market production. Using this method, I would buy in suitable seedstock for my market crops, bringing them into seed production on a smaller scale. I would then use my self-produced seed (adapted) for the larger scale market garden applications. Through this process of discovering the adaptive nature of plants, I have discovered my true work/purpose. Local food production grows leaps and bounds when using seed that has the advantage of adaptation to harsh, unfavorable conditions, which brings greater vigor, yield, and resistance to environments not as favorable as the preferred seed producing regions.

Plants are very responsive and want to work with us and have us work with them. We just have to be a bit more 'rooted' and to get this valuable perspective. This is what led me to discover my passion as a seedsman and plant adapter. All the seeds we offer from our High Grounds Garden enterprise have received some degree of 'work' towards furthering the adaptability of the plant population. Understand that this is a general overview of a process that can be, and often times is, very involved. You can go a long ways down this 'rabbit hole'.

Our relationship with seeds and plants is founded on paying attention to how our life-supporting crops have evolved over large spans of historical time with humans having selected for the favorable traits of the food we enjoy today. Now that's advanced! Do we grow the seeds or do the seeds grow us?

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