Monday, July 20, 2009

Weeds, Beans, and Tubers, Oh My!

A few Tuesdays ago, I spent the entire day outside on in the gorgeous weather that we had, surrounded by some of the most picturesque rural Appalachian hilltop vistas and gorgeous agrarian scenery one could imagine…. staring at a bunch of weeds. It’s true, and I had absolutely no problem doing it. The clouds were majestic, the grass was green, the air was warm with a nice cool breeze, and I was sitting in the dirt searching for bush beans and potato plants amidst a sea of weeds.

Don’t get the wrong impression - I had an awesome day weeding. There’s nothing to stop one from looking up to admire the scenery every now and again while weeding, or feeling a nice breeze whisk the sweat off one’s back. On top of that, there’s just something very rewarding about looking back at a nice tidily planted row of beans or potatoes, knowing that less than an hour ago it looked like nothing so much as a field of weeds that would choke out any possibility of growing food for the year.

Amidst all the nice weather and beautiful views was my grandpa Tom, sitting across from me doing more or less the same thing as I was (though I’m sure he did it better, having done it his entire life). My grandpa raises cattle, but he also plants a rather large garden every year, and I was helping him out for the day. I spent all morning and afternoon weeding the crops while he went back and forth between cutting hay with the neighbor and joining me in the garden. Aspiring to become a farmer myself, it wasn’t long before he and I got to talking about what he was growing this year. The row of beans I first weeded turned out to be “Blue Lake” green beans, a delicious stringless variety that Grandpa recommends best for canning. Among many other green bean varieties he’s planted throughout the years, each with their own benefits and shortcomings depending on the growing conditions and what you’re looking to get out of the crop, his next all-around favorite was “Top Crop” which he told me has consistently given him the biggest and longest-lasting harvest of green beans he’s ever had. There are lots of different varieties of green beans out there. I recommend trying them out to see what kinds of beans you think work best for you and your garden (and your taste buds!).

Having been raised on potatoes as a child, and loving them in all the multitude of ways they could be prepared and eaten, you’ll have to forgive me if I go too in-depth with the next crop, but I will. Potatoes have been a favorite of mine for a long while, and only recently had I learned about all the different colors they come in. That’s right, colors! The skins can range from deep bright red to dark purple to yellows to whites and browns, and the flesh is much the same but even brighter. Just take a look at a “Purple Peruvian” fingerling sliced in half, or the earthy mottled-red look of a plump “Huckleberry” potato. Though I haven’t yet tried one (I’m growing them this year), the bright golden-yellow inside of a “German Butterball” looks so tasty I’m tempted to be impatient and dig one up right now. My grandpa wasn’t very familiar with any of these more exotic-sounding varieties, but he did have a particular favorite that actually I hadn’t ever heard of until we talked about them earlier this year. It’s an old but fairly reliable variety of white potato called the “Irish Cobbler.” Grandpa used to plant several hundred pounds of them every year as a child, and was quite fond of them. The potatoes sold in supermarkets anymore are probably all guaranteed to be the one of the standard white potato varieties “Idaho” and “Kennebec,” which both he and I agree are a little too mealy for our tastes. On top of that, most people aren’t aware of how much of a potato’s nutrition lies in the skin, which is generally a bad idea to eat when dealing with “conventionally-grown” potatoes, meaning they’re grown with excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and who knows what else. All of those chemicals are absorbed right into the soil where – you guessed it – the potatoes are growing, and soaking up all of that grossness right into their skins. Some pesticides now banned by the United States government can still persist in soils today from when they were first outlawed decades ago!

These varieties are just a small sample of the thousands of heirloom potato varieties that were bred and grown by the ancient Native American cultures of the Andes Mountains, where potatoes were first domesticated. Many of the ancient Andean varieties have since been lost to civilization, but many still survive today, and have become increasingly easier to find and grow through the revolution of the internet, along with heirloom variety preserving organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange and others.

Not only are there lots of heirloom varieties out there to experiment with growing, but you can also breed your own NEW varieties of potatoes (and just about any other vegetable for that matter) with their own new sets of characteristics, flavors, resistances, etc. Even though the potatoes we eat are tubers (a type of modified underground stem for storing nutrients), potato plants flower and produce fruit just like all other angiosperms (flowering plants).

Though the potato fruits might look just like miniature tomatoes (which happen to be a close relative of potatoes), potato fruits are extremely toxic and should never, under any circumstances, be eaten.

After a potato has bloomed and been pollinated, a fruit will begin to grow where each flower was. Once these fruits feel tender and ripe like a tomato would when it is ready to be picked, pick them and toss them in a blender with some water for just long enough to get the seeds separated from the rest of the fruit. If you let this mixture sit still for a day in a bit more water, the potato seeds should sink to the bottom while the rest of the fruit matter floats to the top. After separating the seeds and washing them a few times, you will have clean potato seeds. Let these dry on a paper towel and then store them in an airtight container for planting in future years. They should keep for several years.

That’s basically all you need to start growing your very own new varieties of potatoes. Each of those seeds in the potato fruit is genetically unique from any other potato, and from any other seed (even from the same fruit!). With selective harvesting and continued breeding of the most successful (or tasty, disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, huge, etc.) plants, you can successfully breed your very own new and improved potato varieties that have all the qualities you want them to. When you do find that potato that seems to be just the one you’re looking for, you can save some of the tubers from that one to plant next year and grow more and more of that favorite spud. Check out this link for a more in-depth description of how to breed potatoes.

While this description of “vegetable husbandry” was specifically geared towards potatoes, the same general principles apply to many other crops as well. Selective breeding is exactly how we’ve acquired such a vast array of delicious varieties of crops to choose from. Don’t think you need a PhD in crop science and a nice white lab coat to breed new vegetable varieties. Everyday farmers and gardeners have traditionally done it since humans first domesticated plants over 12,000 years ago. Have at it!

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