Last spring, we ordered a breeders’ kale grex from an excellent seed farm in the Pacific Northwest (originally from Peters Seed and Research, we got it from Adaptive Seeds). A seed grex is a wildly diverse genetic pool, from lots of different varieties which have been allowed to interbreed. Instead of planting a packet of what it bred/selected, hybridized or OP, as one true variety (i.e. Red Russian, Lacinato, Rainbow Lacinato, Blue Curled Scotch, etc.), the grex is intentionally diverse and used by breeders to develop new varieties or grown by adventurous home gardeners. Here’s a view of our kale grex trial (circa August 2013):
Even as seedlings, with their first true leaves, we observed an amazing diversity between plants. Leaf colors ranging from blue, blue-green, grass-green, dark green, and grey. The stem colors too: green, white, red, purple. Leaf shape and edge – each little plant wonderfully different. In the greenhouse amid trays of uniform(ish) starts, the grex trays were rouge, dissident, where everyday was Hawaiian Shirt Day.
Our kale grex project will allow us to select for preferred variety characteristics and ultimately develop a kale specifically adapted to thriving in this region. A unique kale that conveys the magnificent terroir of the Northern Hills, a Spearfish Valley kale.
In kale, we are especially interested in and will select for flavor, cold hardiness, strong healthy plants that show resistance towards pest and disease pressure, and tolerance for abuse and neglect due to distracted farmers. Kale, being biennial, seeds in its second year. We had a big selection event this winter: extreme cold without the insulation of a snow cover (remember the several consecutive days of -18F in November, and again in December.. and then again in February?). Out of 120 plants, we had 2 plants survive this winter. The grex trial was planted in a row immediately adjacent to our White Russian Kale, a variety which is reputed to be the most super hardy winter survivalist. We lost all of the White Russian, even they couldn’t take the extreme cold temperatures. But these two plants rallied through. Hardier than the hardiest. Here are photos of the remaining grex (circa last week):
We’ll collect and save seed from these two to grow out again – some this fall and another round next spring. Over the course of years we will select for the traits that we’re most excited about.
As regards breeding delicious vegetables, here are some words from Frank Morton, a plant breeder in the PNW. We fancy his lettuce.