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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: The desegregated garden

I love maintaining seed strains and sharing them with others, but I also think there is room in the garden to allow for a mixed strain of poppies – red, pink, purple, white, gray and salmon – that celebrate the genetic diversity of their species.

In preparing for a trip to Turkey, I watched Chef Ottolenghi’s “Mediterranean Feast,” which takes us through the markets of Istanbul. The colorful array of vegetables from deep purple, green, and rose-marbled eggplants, peppers of every color imaginable, yellow and green courgettes, and displays of bold red and pink tomatoes, carefully segregated by type, had me hoping that not only would I get to eat the rainbow while away, as the USDA now recommends, but bring home some seeds of these wonderful varieties, especially some of the Middle Eastern flavorful squash varieties that a friend has shared with me over the years and that I have come to covet.

If I am able to bring back such seeds, I would want to save their seeds from year to year so that I could grow them in my garden for years to come. And as I headed out into my garden, I came to realize I was already doing that with another species native to Turkey – Papaver somniferum or the breadseed or opium poppy. Throughout my garden I have strewn the seeds of various cultivars of these poppies and have red, purple, pink and white colored flowers – some are double-petalled, others single with their centers open to the world and to the bees and butterflies who pollinate them.

A double-flowered form of poppy

But if I hope to save seeds of whatever I bring back from Istanbul, I will need to follow the same strategy that I have used with these poppies to keep the seed strains from crossing. I will need to segregate the varieties from one another by distance so as to protect the gene strain of each variety. Heirloom seed varieties are maintained by collecting seed of a variety of a flower that was pollinated by the same variety – a ‘Frosted Salmon’ poppy crossed by the flower of the same variety will maintain the characteristics of that variety – an orangey-pink variety whose color fades at the edge of the petals and whose full form has more petals than the straight species. This variety has some variation in it and that is part of its beauty.

A dark pink flowered rogue shows up in the white poppy bed and is a likely product of cross-pollination.

I grow ‘Lauren’s Grape’ poppy about 50 feet away on the other side of the house, hoping that this will prevent cross-pollination between it and the white poppies in the back bed with the Alaskan cedar. For the most part, this technique seems to be working – most pollinators collect pollen from the same species (this is known as floral constancy) and move from flower to flower where they are, so if they are surrounded by the deep purple of this variety, they will stay in the area and cross like flower with like flower. Perhaps at the end of their collecting they may fly off to another area with pollen on their legs and cross a white double ‘Swansdown’ with ‘Lauren’s Grape’, but such cross-pollination should be minimal.

The deep purple flowers of ‘Lauren’s Grape’ capture the light and lead pollinators into the collection of pollen covered stamens at their center. Poppies tend to flower when day length is about 16 hours and the temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

And before I sound like a 19th century eugenicist “keeping the varieties pure,” let me say I enjoy the crossing of the varieties and the end results of that as well. A soft red poppy came up in the purple border – and while I could have rogued it—that is removed it from the mix to prevent it from contaminating the seed lot – I also could simply cover it with netting, preventing it from crossing with ‘Lauren’s Grape’ and collected its seed to plant elsewhere next season.

White ruffled forms are less likely to cross-pollinate as the ruffles conceal the stamens and promote self-fertilization.

I love maintaining these seed strains and sharing them with others, but I also think there is room in the garden (perhaps out back where there is more space) to allow for a mixed strain of poppies – red, pink, purple, white, gray and salmon – that celebrate the genetic diversity of their species. A rainbow collection of poppies will call to mind the colorful vegetables of the markets of Istanbul in their range and diversity of form. I may not just eat the rainbow, as recommended by the USDA, but cultivate it in my garden and in my life.

The seedheads of poppies are beautiful as well and will start to break open when the seeds are ripe. They can be collected and shared with friends who can spread them about in their garden in early spring to germinate as the weather warms.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


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