What is a landrace???
We grow and sell a number of landrace crops. But what the heck is a landrace?
A landrace crop is one containing a lot of genetic diversity that is adapted to thrive in a specific region and climate, typically under low-input systems. This diversity manifests phenotypically (characteristics we can see, taste, and smell) as a wide array of shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, and growth habits. Though these traits can be all over the map, what is consistent with the plant members of a landrace is their ability to thrive in the bioregion is was bred in. For perspective landrace is a more genetically diverse population than a variety, but a more narrow population than a grex, which is still much more narrow than a species. A landrace can be a group of interbreeding varieties, especially with self-pollinating crops like peas, beans, and tomatoes.
For thousands of years subsistence farmers farmed with landraces that were selected to yield well in that area, under a variety of conditions, but no more narrowed than that. This could be opposed to a modern variety, which might be selected for a very specific shape, size, taste, and storabilty all at once- yielding a harvest which is fairly uniform but not necessarily able to thrive in a specific bioregion. With the general decrease in the diversity of our food crops, the landrace has all but disappeared from cultivation in much of the world today. However, it still thrives in subsistence farming communities throughout the world in their crop varieties and animal breeds, and with landrace breeders and stewards like my friend and the breeder of all the landrace crops I grow: Joseph Lofthouse.
Why grow a landrace in your garden?
There are many reasons to grow a landrace variety. I love the diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors I get when I grow a landrace. The beauty reminds me of everything I'm seeking when I garden- a connection to the natural world, a connection to the past, and a path to a healthy lifestyle.
A landrace that is adapted to a specific bioregion will probably thrive outside of that region as well. In fact, because it's such a diverse population it is most likely that at least some of the individuals with thrive in your garden. Because you're starting with a diverse population, there is the possibility for the most basic plant breeding that ANY gardener can do- breeding by selection. Breeding by selection is just what is sounds like- choosing to save seeds from those plants which suit the characteristics you are looking for. This characteristic may be as simple as succeeding under your growing conditions. From there, you can continue to select and if you determine you have something unique- you might have created a new variety!
Stewarding an existing landrace variety:
When you grow a landrace variety, you might like it just the way it is an not change it. Because a landrace is a diverse group of plant crosses, it is constantly changing to some degree, but you can help keep it diverse by not selecting it too much. This means growing a decent number of plants each time you grow and save seeds from it (15 plants at min. for inbreeders, 200 at min. for outcrossers) and saving seeds from as many of those plants as possible. If you notice the population is narrowing over the years, you may return it to diverse landrace status by planting a few new varieties with traits somewhat consistent with the landrace or with what you are looking for and allow your narrowing landrace to outcross with those varieties. This will introduce some new genetics for your open-pollinated landrace to play with.
Creating your own landrace variety:
You can create your own landrace variety from scratch by acquiring many varieties of a particular plant and allowing them to cross. The more plants you can allow to cross and can save seed from, the more likely you will see something you want in the next generations. Again, keep the plant numbers high in the following years, and keep selecting for what you like. Keep adding varieties to cross if you don't see what you like. This may take a number of years to get something relatively stable enough to be called a landrace.