David Whiteside on his 2-acre farm, Les Jardins de la Marmotte

David Whiteside has been working on his 2-acre farm Les Jardins de la Marmotte, located in Bromont in Quebec, for 3 years now. The new generation of farmers is facing many challenges: “There is a demand in the region for local products, but it’s really hard to find land and housing. There is also a shortage of labour and accommodation for employees is virtually impossible.”

Purple bok choi was David’s idea: “I was inspired by the work of Gwynne Basen from Ferme Abbondanza, who is trying to preserve rare and heritage varieties, and by Dan Brisebois over at Ferme Tourne-sol. Dan has added a lot of color and diversity in his Tatsoi Arc-en-Ciel and his leafy brassicas. I also love Asian greens. They grow when it’s warm or cold, and they’re tasty!”

According to David, seed production for this type of leafy vegetables is easy to integrate in his market garden operation. They’re annuals with a short reproduction cycle for our climate. It’s possible to produce seeds fast and in large quantities. On top of that, the seeds don’t get damaged by the weather because they’re protected by siliques.

Identifying the parents for the cross was the first step of the project. “Shanghai Green is almost the only open-pollinated green bok choi variety readily available on the market. And it has the typical bok choi shape I was looking for.” He then identified the komatsuna mustard Lady Murasaki sold by Fedco because of it’s beautiful purple coloring. “We told Fedco we wanted to create a hybrid with this variety, and they encouraged us, so that was a big motivator.”

“Dan’s mentorship was very valuable. I learned that it was beneficial to make crosses with the parents for 2 years to increase the chances of new genetic combinations being made. I also learned that I could save time by keeping my seed lots separate. It allows me to be sure I’ve planted the same number of seeds from the mother plants Shanghai Green and Lady Murasaki to create the F2 population.”

The first year, the crosses were done in 2 sites: at Les Jardins de la Marmotte and at the SeedChange demonstration garden in Senneville, in the West Island of Montréal. “My lot got mixed by accident at the time of harvest, so having a production from Senneville meant that we hadn’t lost all our work for the first year.” 

Since brassica rapa produces tons of seeds, David has enough to also grow hybrid bok choi that he can sell to his customers. “It’s a way for me to make a bit of money while trying to create a new variety on my farm. And it also allows me to tell the story of the project and explain the different steps to my customers. It’s a nice way to educate them on how a new vegetable variety is created. SeedChange’s regional coordinator even found a restaurant in my old neighborhood in Montreal where I can sell my leafy brassicas, among them my colored bok choi.”

A F1 specimen (left), proof of genetic diversity in this first generation (centre), and plants just before harvesting the seeds, the siliques starting to dry (right). Source: Jardins de la Marmotte.