Creating coastal vegetable varieties
Growing vegetables from seed is one of the most rewarding gardening experiences. Not only can you choose from many exciting varieties, but what could be healthier for body and spirit than eating what you know you planted yourself? For best results, it pays to grow vegetables that suit your climate. Enter plant breeder Brent Loy, who develops plants adapted to the needs of regional seed companies and gardeners.
Loy is a professor of plant biology and genetics at the University of New Hampshire in the department of biological sciences. He has been with the university for nearly 50 years, becoming a full professor in 1981, and he knows what it takes to develop new vegetables that work well for the New England coastline. Specializing in the Cucurbitaceae family, he has developed more than 60 varieties of squashes, melons, pumpkins, and gourds. With each new variety he breeds—a time-consuming process—Loy tries to bring consumers the best possible plants on the market.
“Variety development is an endless process, because once a new variety is developed, say a white pumpkin, then one has to consider what improvements need to be made to the variety: longer stem, stronger stem, larger fruit, better ribbing, powdery mildew resistance, resistance to specific fruit rot diseases, et cetera,” he explains.
This manipulator of plant genetics conducts much of his research in the Macfarlane Greenhouses on the university’s Durham campus or, during the summer, at Kingman Farm, a UNH research facility in Madbury, New Hampshire. He lives in Epping, where his wife, Sarah, ran a small vegetable farm until 2002. They still grow an acre of pumpkins at home, along with garden plants such as sweet corn, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers.
After developing an interest in plant variation by working on a vegetable farm while growing up in Utah, Loy’s post-secondary studies in horticulture led him to work with professors who bred tomatoes, potatoes, and melons. His first research projects in New Hampshire dealt with breeding squashes and pumpkins for the processing industry and melons that would mature earlier. Loy’s childhood fascination with farming and the amount of diversity a plant can generate still motivate him today.
“It is quite inspirational to me to observe the tremendous variation in plant types, which can be created by crossing different parents and growing out the segregated populations of plants,” a process called Mendelian segregation after Gregor Mendel, who bred pea plants in the nineteenth century.
Notable varieties that Loy has developed include ‘Moonshine’, a white pumpkin with a sturdy stem; ‘Sunlight’ and ‘Owl’s Eye’, two yellow hybrid pumpkins that became available last fall; and Slick Pik YS26, a glabrous (non-spiny) yellow summer squash.
‘Sunlight’ and ‘Owl’s Eye’ were the unexpected results of breeding white pumpkins. While previous breeders had discarded this yellow progeny, Loy embraced it and created an ornamental pumpkin that, incidentally, looks great when marketed beside white pumpkins. “Unique plant and fruit types occur with regularity in a breeding program, and most of this type of variation is not useful,” he says. “However, sometimes a unique plant type shows up that may have a potential use.”
The yellow summer squash came about with Loy’s 1990s discovery of a mutant gene that reduces the number of spines on the plants’ stems, and he has been breeding glabrous lines ever since. Slick Pik YS26, the first variety, became available in 2009 and improves the quality of yellow summer squash. The lack of large spines prevents irritation to harvesters and unsightly scratches on the fruit.
Plant breeding is often a cooperative effort between the breeder and a seed company to produce the most marketable vegetables for consumption and ornamental purposes. About half of Loy’s plants were joint developments with seed companies. When time allows, Loy visits seed companies, or seed company representatives come to view his variety trials during the fall. These continuous, and often regional, partnerships promote the exchange of ideas, which in turn creates more variety, he says.
“The development of new varieties is dictated by what markets exist in New England for the crops I work with and what seed companies are willing to produce and market to growers in the Northeast. You cannot just breed varieties willy-nilly, because seed companies have to perceive enough demand for a new variety to be willing to produce and market it.”
By the time he sees a project come to fruition, it is already time to work on an improved variety. “It requires a breeder to continually be aware of changes in consumer preference, new diseases, and so forth,” he says. “For this reason I generally come out with two to four new varieties every year.”
Loy’s favorite varieties include ‘Sarah’s Choice’, ‘Halona’, ‘Passport’, and ‘Diplomat’ melons; ‘Honey Bear’, ‘Sugar Dumpling’, and ‘Thunder’ squashes; ‘Racer’, ‘Prankster’, ‘Neon’, and ‘Orange Smoothie’ pumpkins; and ‘Goblin’ egg gourds and ‘Koshare’ spoon gourds. Companies marketing these varieties throughout the Northeast include Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Maine), High Mowing Organic Seeds (Vermont), Rupp Seeds (Ohio), Harris Seeds (New York), and Stokes Seeds (Canada and New York).
The plant breeder’s most recent project was the development of high-quality acorn squash hybrids, only two varieties of which will be sold by seed companies this year. Although wishing to make more of these new squashes available, he has to demonstrate that his plants are the ones that need to be marketed.
Over the coming years, Loy believes that plant breeding programs will increasingly use genetic engineering as a tool. He says that it is becoming inexpensive to transfer single genes into plants, a technique that safely and efficiently introduces insect and disease resistance into crop plants and reduces our reliance on chemicals for pest control. Even with the broad-reaching benefits of genetic engineering, Loy insists that plants tailored to regional conditions are vital. “There will still be breeding programs such as mine that develop locally adapted varieties with minimal pest problems.”
Loy explains that his goal is to develop new varieties adapted to New England’s environment and to provide growers and farmers with more profitable crops. He also seeks to develop marketable varieties to increase the profitability of regional seed companies catering to local farmers. He says, “Plant breeding is important because there is a need to improve varieties so that a higher proportion of fruit is harvestable, to improve nutritional and eating quality, and to improve disease resistance and reduce pesticide inputs. On a global scale, breeding improvements are imperative to continue to be able to feed an overpopulated planet.”
To promote healthy, vibrant vegetables at the most local level, Loy advises home gardeners to purchase their seeds through a catalog company, especially one that markets varieties within the region where they live. He says that while supermarket vegetables overall are inexpensive, nutritious, and usually of good quality, it is difficult to beat the fresh flavor and quality of a garden-grown vegetable.
“Having a vegetable garden is not so much about improving the nutritional quality of what you eat as it is enjoying the process of growing plants, watching the fruit develop, and experiencing firsthand what it is like to grow and harvest fresh vegetables.”