Saturday, April 28, 2012
Thoughts on slugs and stewarding your seed bank
If one of my new neighbors had ventured out in the predawn light this morning, they would have observed me squatted down beside my plants, with a small plastic juice bottle in one hand, while I patiently picked slugs with the other. The morning was chill, the doves sang out boldly, and as the light grew slowly brighter other birds joined in to weave the dove calls into a complicated chorus. Picking slugs, while a rather slimy chore, has its rewards. The lilacs smell sweeter. The colors of the hills--so muted in the early light, gather definition; and then the trees standing on the ridge line catch the first sun rays and glow against the sky.
Picking slugs is patient work. They are colored and shaped to help them blend in with their background—which generally happens to be the tender plants you have carefully grown from seed. Your eye catches the sight of the prey, you squat and pluck, and then you pause, letting your eyes adjust and as they do, you notice other things.
What called me out to the chore this morning were three young cardoon plants settled into their spots in the yard. While they will grow up tough and architectural, while still being delectable (if the slugs let them), at the moment they are very vulnerable and they are getting hit very hard. But once I had cleaned the few slugs from these little plants, I moved on to other garden spots—those dang slugs have been doing their best to recycle nutrients before the plants are done with them.
I have giant red Japanese mustard growing from seed saved in my Hoopa garden. As I have been watching it grow I have been paying attention to the colors, the leaf shape and size, and the general vigor of each plant. I’ve pretty much narrowed it down to which particular plant I want to carefully save seed from and which one I may not allow to produce any seed at all. In regards to saving seed, one plant is absolutely showing more vigor, it has larger slightly more colorfully leaves which are slightly more savoyed--presenting a lovely curled and crinkly texture for fresh salads. This morning I noticed that this particular plant is also somewhat resistant to slugs; it only had a few, while some of the plants had hundreds. In addition, I discovered this morning, that several of the mustard plants are beginning to bolt. My favored plant is showing no signs of bolting at all. This particular plant is definitely a keeper! (Large and vigorous, lovely color and crinkliness, bolt and slug resistant!) As to the one I will probably pull out before it flowers—the slugs like it so exceedingly well that its leaves have been reduced to a haphazard display of lace. While it is serving as a slug magnet now, I don’t want those genes to multiple in my seed bank, because I am trying to grow food for myself!
Between these extremes of desirable and undesirable traits there lies a lot of middle ground in any genetically diverse planting. My next little exercise will be to number the plants, pick a bit of mature leaf and an immature leaf from each one, and give them a taste and texture test. I may discover an additional plant that I wish to save seed from—for its superior or diverse flavor or texture. However, as noted above, there is only one plant that I plan on thwarting completely (unless one or more of the others really tastes terrible or has a terrible texture). The mediocre plants may have latent survival traits that have not yet expressed themselves. I will enjoy their bolts and flowers and immature seed pods at table, and I am sure to enjoy their seeds as a seasoning and for sprouting later in the year. And I will also sprinkle some of their seeds around my yard. Those that manage to grow on their own, without being tended and coddled, will provide a tough counterpoint in genetic diversity to temper the potential sissiness that could be developed in those I carefully select and grow by hand.
In this process, two sets of factors are working towards refining the seed bank while maintaining genetic diversity. The first set, of course, are your own preferences. The second set –is natural selection. With climate change very much upon us, the most adaptable plants are the ones that will survive season to season. By allowing these adaptable plants to pass pollen back and forth with your hand selected favorites you ensure your favorites are not becoming so genetically refined that they will not also adapt.
Hand picking slugs in the early morning hours definitely has its rewards. Having fewer slugs in the garden is important. But time to observe and reflect is just as valuable.
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Copyright 2012, Harvest McCampbell
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"We are apt to forget that the man who owns his own land and cherishes it and works it well is the source of our stability as a nation, not only in the economic but the social sense as well." From: Pleasant Valley, By Louis Bromfield