Lessons in Nature: Plant Selection
By Malcolm Beck
About the author: Malcolm Beck is the founder of Garden-Ville, Inc. and author of "The Garden-Ville Method: Lessons in Nature" and "The Secret Life of Compost." This article was previously published in The New Garden Journal, Mar.-Apr. 1998, Vol. 5, pp. 26-27, and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
There are six rules to follow in order to grow plants for health and top production:
1. Always use the very best adapted plants in each environment.
2. Plant in proper season.
3. Balance the mineral content of the soil.
4. Increase and maintain the organic content of the soil.
5. Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life.
6. Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms that one of the above five rules has been violated.
Of the above six rules, plant variety is the most important. Mother Nature has plants adapted to almost every square foot of this planet that are thriving without any care from man. These plants became perfectly adapted through many years of natural selection and survival of the fittest.
The plant breeders usually go for high-breeding. High breds, or hybrids, don’t always produce seeds that are true to the parent plant, so other means of propagation must be used for reproduction. Hybrids are vigorous growers and usually broadly adapted. I have used hybrids on my organic farm with good success, but it took trial and error before I found the best ones for my location.
Most commercial seed companies sell hybrids and open-pollinated varieties, which are also broadly adapted. Every location, however, has its own set of environmental factors: soil structure, pH, drainage, rainfall, humidity; temperature range, altitude, and so forth. The trick is finding the perfect seed or plant for your particular farm or garden.
I was in a nursery once getting some seeds for the spring garden. I asked the elderly owner, "Which varieties will be best for our location?" He told me that all the seeds in the rack were good, but if I wanted the very best I would have to grow my own on my farm. Then he explained to me the process of natural selection. He said to start with a good open-pollinated variety, and each year I should select the best of the first fruit from the very best plants in the garden and use that for next year’s seed. If I continued that process year after year and continued to select the best of the best, my quality and adaptability would continue to get better each year. This old gentleman practiced what he preached and knew what he was talking about. I found out later that many varieties of trees and other plants had his name on them. Of course, like most gardeners and farmers, I have never found the time to do a lot of this natural selection; however, my wife and I have been saving the seed and upgrading a special okra for several years now. And, in fact, it has gotten better and better.
Over the years I have heard many success stories of upgrading through selection, and there is one I must tell. It was done by my wife’s folks on her mother’s side. Back in the 1800s, Delphine’s grandpa and grandma were newly-weds who settled on a farm near the little town of Yorktown, Texas. Both Grandpa and Grandma brought seed corn from home for a start on their new farm. One was a plain yellow corn and the other a reddish corn. Through the years, they mixed together until each cob had about equal parts yellow and red kernels.
When my wife took me to visit the farm, two of her old uncles were still living there and growing the old family strain of corn. Knowing my interest in farming, they showed me around. When we got to the cornfield, I saw that the corn was taller, with bigger ears, than corn I’d seen growing in surrounding fields. When I looked down to see the kind of soil it was growing in, all I could see was nut grass. It was so thick it looked like a green carpet. "How can you possibly grow corn this big and beautiful in nut grass this thick?" I asked. To my surprise, the uncle answered, "The nut grass is what keeps the soil rich!"
I asked the uncle for some of his seed and couldn’t wait to plant it on my organic, rich, weed-free, irrigated farm. I just knew I would grow prize-winning ears. Come harvest time, I was in for a surprise. The ears were not filled out. Instead, they were lightweight and not even worth harvesting. I figured, maybe just a bad year and tried again the next year. The uncles gave me more of their best seed, and I tried again and again, but I never could make the ears fill out. Maybe if I let the nut grass grow? No way. Never.
Years later, we visited the Yorktown farm again. By that time, the uncles were up in age and had leased some of their farm to my wife’s cousins and naturally we talked about the crops during the visit.
The cousins had always believed that their grandpa’s farm must have super-rich soil in order to grow the huge open-pollinated corn. When they took over some of the acreage, they assumed that their excellent hybrid corn would grow to new heights. To their surprise, the hybrid did no better there than on any other farm.
The cousins gave the uncles a share of the hybrid corn. Like most old farmers, the uncles had a typical farm—a few old hounds, chickens, ducks, cows, and pigs, and, of course, the corn was used to feed all of them. For the hounds, they ground the corn and cooked it with lard. One day, they ground the hybrid corn for the dogs, but they wouldn’t eat it. The next day they still wouldn’t eat. At first, they thought the dogs were sick, until one uncle decided that maybe the dogs wanted the old corn. They mixed up a batch with old corn and the dogs gobbled it up. They all got a laugh at the dogs, so they decided to see if the hogs would eat the hybrid. Sure enough, the hogs wouldn’t touch it. Neither would the chickens, nor the ducks, unless they were really starved. The animals have instincts which tell them which food is the most nutritious for them to eat. A healthy, well-grown plant will pick all the needed nutrients from the soil to make it a nutritious food that animals will prefer.
Since this corn had been grown on the same farm for nearly 90 years and had constantly upgraded by choosing seed from the very best ears for the next year’s crop, it was perfectly adapted to its particular spot in the world. Not only that, the nut grass was perfectly adapted as a good cover crop for the corn.
After so many years of selecting the best from the best on the same farm, that corn would never produce as well anywhere else. On the other hand, in its own place, no other corn could beat it.