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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Research Projects

Paul's Spinach Trial

Two years ago Paul Lyons did the research part of his MSc in Horticulture, at UCC, here on the farm. The project was a trial of spinach varieties. He compared various hybrid spinach varieties with each other and with some open-pollinated varieties, including the varieties we were growing for seed here.  The results showed how much better the hybrids were at producing spinach by weight, and our varieties did not compare well at all. The best of the OPs was a variety developed in the US for organic production called Abundant Bloomsdale.  


The project demonstrated the need for trials to be carried out for all vegetables in Ireland as none have been carried out, in recent years.  It also highlighted the fact that the varieties we grow for seed are a bit random. We don't have time to carry out proper vegetable trials, and the decision to grow and subsequently save seed from a variety is usually based on 4 things.

1 what is already in our collection/bank
2 seeds  we pick up at swops
3 recommendations from other growers
4 whatever  happens to be in the garden centre

If a variety grows reasonably well here and then produces seed, it will go on the catalogue and supply our customers. If the feed back is good and we run out, we grow it again.   For cross pollinating vegetables like brassicas, onions and beets, we do simple observational trials.  We will often grow several varieties alongside, and then decide which one we like the best, and let it go to seed. 

Kale

For example, this year we grew several kales and we have now decided to save seed from two of them.  We are choosing them for purely commercial reasons, not because they did really well. Everyone wants the black Tuscan kale even though it is really not suitable for West Cork. The yield is poor and it was starting to flower in February, so Holly dug it up and brought it into the polytunnel so that it will feel more like it is in Italy. 

Bear Necessities is productive and really frizzy and cool looking so we will keep it too. If we were going for yield it would be the flat leaf one on the left called Medeley. It has produced a ton of greens, but we already have the Asparagus kale and people are not excited by flat leaf kales.

Holly's Sweet Corn Project.

In 2005 I bought some Golden Bantam sweetcorn seed from Stormy Hall in Yorkshire. I grew it successfully and saved the seeds. In 2006 and 2007 I tried other varieties, but they failed to mature their seed. So in 2008 I grew Golden Bantam again. Over the years it has been the only variety to produce a significant amount of seed, and because I am a squirrel by nature, I kept some seed from each year that I grew it. By 2014 I was worried that I had inbred it, as in the desperate summer of 2012, I only got seed from a small number of plants.  In subsequent years it seemed short the cobs were small. So, in 2015 I bought some Golden Bantam from the US and grew it alongside my own.  It was like a completely different variety. The plants were much bigger, and produced masses of pollen. 

The 1st and third rows from the left were from our farm saved seed and the 2nd and fourth were from the US seed. However they silked out so late that there was no pollen left to fertilise them and they produced almost no seed, whereas my little plants all produced cobs. The photo below shows the cobs (rows 1 and 3) from our seed and (rows 2 and 4) form the US seed.


Holly did her research MSc project last summer growing out several of the generations of the Golden Bantam and comparing them with a hybrid variety, and Who gets Kissed, a modern US variety, bred for organic production. The results were fascinating, but I will let her tell you about them herself.


The thing is:
There is an awful lot of very simple research that needs to be done to improve organic growing in Ireland. It is a terrible shame that the UCC MSc in Horticulture is no longer running.  I hope there are other horticultural students looking for projects next year because here are a few questions I would like answered.

Research Questions

1. What are the best varieties of pretty much everything to grow here? We need trials of all kinds of vegetables in all kinds of conditions.

2. Is there any point in growing plants for seed outdoors, if it is easier to do it in a polytunnel. In other words,  is there a genetic or epigenetic advantage to subjecting them to the full Irish summer.

3. Can you select for germination at low temperature and significantly increase the vigour of seedlings by throwing away the propagator and sowing directly in the soil, like we did in the olden days.

4. Is there any truth in the notion that plants with high 'nutrient density' i.e. their juice has a high Brix reading, are more resistant to slugs, and better for you, and that you can influence the 'nutrient density' with soil additives?

5. Do Russian kales actually cross with swedes?

6. How quickly do pea populations evolve? I have been growing Irish Green Peas, sourced from the Irish Seed Savers at least 15 years ago, every year. Do they now differ from those grown up in the County Clare?

The answers to these questions, could point to plant breeding projects that could be easily carried out. 


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