There is nothing quite like this book in the world's literature--it is the Hope diamond of horticulture. In the field of edible plants, Carol Deppe is a modest legend who has been a matchmaker and midwife to many new vegetables.
In this book, Ms. Deppe explains how she and a few other masters of plant breeding have achieved their success. She encourages the rest of us to try our hands and hearts--and patience--at producing our own culinary gems. Ms. Deppe, who combines a doctorate in plant genetics with insatiable curiosity and soil-stained hands, will continue to inspire growers to participate in a creative process as ancient as farming itself.
This book is an intense and readable exposition of the science and art of plant breeding, which will inspire and inform any reader. Even the casual reader who doesn't take up the challenge of developing unique garden specialties will become aware of humanity's debt to our predecessors, who turned wildlings into the organisms that can feed all of us. Ms. Deppe deserves a special pedestal in the company of her kindred spirits for this book, a revised version of a work originally published in 1993.
--John F. Swenson, Volunteer, Plant Information Office, Chicago Botanic Garden.
"Deppe invites you on a journey of discovery to reclaim the lost lore of our ancestors, to relearn the traditions of seed-saving and seed-breeding and to take back control of the seed.
Within you will find information not available in other garden books or anywhere else. Learn how to design trials, why and how far apart to isolate varieties for purity, how to understand and appreciate the subtleties of selection and why the detailed artistry of classical plant breeding makes most genetic engineering look like the work of simpletons.
Here is a woman who knows seeds, who knows the ineffable joys working with them brings, and who has penetrated deeply into the mysteries of their inner workings. She can be your guide as you chart your own path to restore and renew a time-honored tradition one experiment at a time."
--C. R. Lawn, Fedco Seeds
"Any gardener interested in vegetable plant breeding must have this book. It is the standard reference. But it is also much more than that. Deppe's grasp of the intricacies of plant life will enlighten food lovers as well as general readers. Thank you Carol Deppe!"
--Michael MacCaskey, Editor-in-Chief, NationalGardening.com
"This book will be our bible!"
--J.J. Haapala, Research and Education Director, Oregon Tilth
"This is the best book to help adventuresome gardeners become plant breeders and seed savers. But it does more. It explains in clear, readable terms what's going on with the genetic modifications of our food system and why backyard plant breeders are a crucial link to a healthy future for our food system."
--Will Raap, President, Gardener's Supply Company
"When someone asks me 'I'm interested in plant breeding-what should I read first?', I tell them to get a copy of Carol Deppe's book."
--Rob Johnston, Jr, Founder and Chairman, Johnny's Selected Seeds
"Deppe has done Luther Burbank one better. She has bred many significant new varieties and now has provided the instructions for others to follow her lead. Great work. Great book."
--Suzanne Ashworth, Author of Seed to Seed
"The gardening book of the decade."
--Ken Allen, Canadian author and seedsman
"Carol Deppe weaves delightful stories of her own plant-breeding experiences through her thorough, clear instructions for everything from simple breeding projects and seed-harvesting logistics to setting up variety trials and selecting for specific characteristics. Her book makes it a convincing case that all backyard gardeners can and should dabble in plant breeding. Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving will cast a spell on readers--the magic of working with seeds."
--Fern Marshall Bradley, Editor, Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Rodale's Garden Answers: Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs
"So new and unique that it could truly be called one of a kind . . . [it's] unlike any other book on the market . . . Certain to change the way many growers see the act of gardening."
--Don Parker, Publisher, The Growing Edge
"One of the all-time great books on sustainable agriculture and organic gardening. No library is complete without it!"
--Howard-Yana Shapiro, Ph.D., Vice President of Agriculture for Seeds of Change
Reviewed by Chris Roth, In Good Tilth, Vol 11 #6, published by Oregon Tilth.
Until I picked it up and read it, I had the idea that Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties must be a very specialized, somewhat dry and technical book, probably useful to a dedicated plant-breeder but of little relevance to me, an already-overextended gardener and gardening educator who sometimes doesn't even get around to the basic seed-saving I want to do. Now, happily, I am able to say without hesitation that every serious organic gardener and farmer needs to read this book. Even casual gardeners - in fact, anyone interested in our food supply, whether in its production or its consumption - should find it fascinating and inspiring. No one who reads it will ever look at vegetables or other plant foods in exactly the same way again.
The book is not short on the technical information needed by a plant breeder. Carol Deppe is eminently qualified to write about home vegetable-breeding, with a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University, more than twenty years of experience as a working geneticist, and over a decade dedicated to her work as an amateur (and now professional) plant breeder. She may well understand genetics better than any other muddy-booted organic gardener, and she probably understands home-scale vegetable growing better than any other professional plant breeder.
The best news is that Carol Deppe is also a skilled, natural writer and an evocative storyteller, whose humor, personability, and poetic sense make this book a pleasure to read. It is as far from a dry textbook as I can imagine, and yet I learned about technical aspects of plant genetics that dry textbooks and biology courses were never able to teach me.
I am a long-time devotee of Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed, which continues to be an essential reference, probably the best, for the techniques of small-scale seed saving. Deppe refers readers to Ashworth's book often. However, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties goes much further than Seed to Seed - it explores much more deeply and comprehensively the concepts one should be familiar with when saving seed, the forces at work in the evolution of our food plants from year to year and generation to generation, and how we play a part in that evolution whether we are conscious of it or not.
Gardening became much more interesting to me when I started saving at least some of my own seed, and letting plants complete the cycle from seed to seed. I came to understand that a holistic approach to food-growing involves honoring this full cycle, letting crops volunteer and spread themselves from year to year, and saving and spreading some of that seed ourselves, with as little or as much deliberate focus as we can bring to the process. However, I was willing to leave what I thought of as "plant breeding" to the "experts" - the likes of Alan Kapuler, Carol Deppe, and others who've made that their life work.
What hooked me into this book from the very beginning, aside from Deppe's winning writing style, was the realization that every seed saver (including every gardener or farmer who lets volunteers grow) is also a plant breeder. The very acts of saving seed or allowing certain volunteers to propagate involve the same kinds of choices confronting the professional or amateur plant breeder. "If you save seed, you are already a plant breeder, already practicing selection, already choosing what genetic material to perpetuate," Deppe tells us. "This book will help you do it better."
And it does. It contains a wealth of case studies of breeding projects, clear explanations of plant genetics and their implications in breeding, suggestions for the most efficient methods of achieving desired breeding results, and practical tips for doing the physical tasks involved. We learn about the genetic basis of plant characteristics, finding and evaluating germplasm, design of garden trials, inbreeders, outbreeders, heirlooms, hybrids, backcrossing, polyploids, and the importance of cytoplasm. Tables and appendices list interesting plants for potential development, breeding and seed-saving guidelines for common vegetables, hand-pollination techniques, contact information for germplasm collections, seed saver exchanges, seed companies and organizations, and more.
Deppe also provides an overview of where we are agriculturally. All of the major food crops we know and love were developed originally by amateur plant breeders. Professional breeding of garden vegetables experienced a brief heyday, from about 1900 to about 1950, but since then professional breeding has focused on mass-produced commercial varieties for large-scale, chemically-dependent, mechanized farmers. In recent years, professional breeding has strayed even further from the needs of home gardeners and organic growers, by entering the rarefied field of genetic engineering.
Far from being discouraged by this turn of events, Deppe is excited, because it allows and even requires us home gardeners and organic farmers to take matters into our own hands, as our ancestors did. With the additional knowledge of plant genetics to which we now have access (as our ancestors did not), we modern amateur plant breeders can breed new varieties more effectively and efficiently. Plant breeding with Deppe and her friends is an adventure: we see how the genetic discoveries of Mendel and others, combined with our own powers of observation, discernment, cleverness, and imagination, can be applied today to create vegetable varieties that are not only useful but delightful, that reflect our values, our passions, our individuality, our whimsy, our sense of community, our connection to the land. Deppe is particular intrigued by new and unusual crops, perennial vegetables, wild plants with potential for domestication, "happy accidents," "wide crosses" between distant relatives, and the virtually limitless possibilities of plant breeding using the basic techniques she describes.
In Part One, "An Introduction to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving," originally published as a complete book in 1993, Deppe first introduces us to plant breeders like Glenn Drowns, Ewald Eliason, and Tim Peters, providing a context for the detailed information that follows. Whether describing how to set up effective trials and breeding projects, taking us inside the genetic structure of various plants, or explaining the "probability" mathematics that can be invaluable to plant breeders, she grounds these insights in real stories of real gardens, farms, and plant explorers. She describes her own and her friends' breeding work with perennial vegetable buckwheat, orange popbean, high-yielding chickpeas, "Golden Snap" peas, purple-podded peas, a more winter-hardy "Green Wave" mustard, lettuce-salsify, tomatoes, melons, "Rainbow Inca" sweet corn, dandelions, and others. She asks the questions that need to be asked, such as "is all Good King Henry [Chenopodium bonus-henricus, supposedly a delicious perennial spinach substitute] as unappetizing as my line?â?¦no one mentions that it tastes horrible." (I would ask the same question about the awful-tasting Good King Henry that I've grown and sampled.)
Part Two, "Seed Saving Practice," and Part Three, "Developing Crops for a Sustainable Future," reflect Deppe's current interests and work, which are increasingly concerned with the overall sustainability of agriculture and security of our food supply. The seed saving section is a welcome addition and complement to Suzanne Ashworth's book. The enthusiasm of Carol's introduction to these chapters reflects the passion she brings to her entire subject:
"Saving seeds is fun. Cleaning the seed, holding the clean seed in your hands, is magical. Gaze at the seed, run your fingers through it, play with it, and you can feel the connections. You're like a child with a gallon bucket of marbles, or a squirrel sitting on a hollow log full of acorns."
Part Three contains Deppe's unforgettable encounters with the FlavrSavr tomato (including her musings on genetic engineering) and with the "Sandwich-Slice" squash, a summer squash of her own discovery/development, which represents the positive alternative to such high-tech disasters as the FlavrSavr.
Deppe's suspicions as she anticipates the much-touted genetically-modified FlavrSavr - that "'this isn't going to workâ?¦These molecular engineers don't know about pleiotropy' [the effects of genes on characteristics other than the 'primary' one]" - are confirmed when she attempts to taste it:
"I cut a small slice from one of the tomatoes and put it in my mouth. The taste was so bad I almost spewed it out by reflex. Instead I deliberately spat the offending morsel into the trash, then examined the tomato carefully. Had something really awful been spilled on it? I couldn't see anything wrong with the tomato.
"I cut a small chunk from the other tomato and sampled it. I spat that out too.
"I told myself that it really wasn't a taste test if I didn't swallow. So I took another very tiny portion. But I just couldn't swallow it. The body rebelled.â?¦
"It's easy to describe the flavor of those tomatoes. They tasted like gasoline."
Sandwich-slice squash is another story altogether. Whereas FlavrSavr, the epitome of engineering arrogance, was a multi-million dollar disaster, Carol's new squash, unusually delicious raw as a bread substitute in sandwiches and in many other uses, was a happy, no-cost accident. "The first Sandwich-slice squash plant turned up in my squash patch in 1998 and began producing the first Sandwich-slice squashes in late July. This was just a year after I started the breeding project. Or maybe no years at all. You see, I never started a breeding project to create Sandwich-slice.
"It never would have occurred to me that a summer squash could taste so good, especially at such a large size. Had anyone suggested I try to develop Sandwich-slice, I would have dismissed the idea at once on the grounds that it was impossible. I didn't even like summer squash. Up until Sandwich-slice I didn't grow them. I certainly didn't like them raw."
Both through happy accidents like the Sandwich-slice and deliberately-bred innovations like purple-podded peas, we see the potential and genius at work when humans and plants cooperate to bring new vegetable varieties to life. The development of the food crops that sustain us has always involved that kind of partnership, and it always will. Deppe shows us that we can each be part of the process, and that it contains more possibilities than we can even imagine.
Joining Carol Deppe on her plant-breeding adventures throughout these pages is a privilege and a delight. Her mastery of genetics, far-ranging experience and contagious passion in plant-breeding, and wonderful talent for conveying it all through the written word, make her book as unique as her vegetable varieties. The food supply of the future can indeed be flavorful, nutritious, interesting, and sustainable, if we amateur plant breeders learn the lessons she shares.
Chris Roth co-coordinates Lost Valley Educational Center's Organic Gardening in Community Apprenticeship, which runs March through October. For more information contact LVEC, 81868 Lost Valley Lane, Dexter, OR 97431, (541) 937-3351, www.lostvalley.org, [email protected] He also edits Talking Leaves magazine (www.talkingleaves.org), subscriptions $18/yr. from the same address.