Margaret Lauterbach

Pay close attention to your garden: A special mutation could be around the next corner

Margaret Lauterbach
Margaret Lauterbach

A few years ago, a sales clerk mentioned that she loved to garden, and had expected that she’d have to wait for retirement, but she had found drip systems and timers so she could water her garden early in the morning and tend it after work. Our sunlight in June lasts until almost 10 p.m., so there’s a lot of time a person who works only one job can spend gardening. Some folks pour coffee and stroll through their gardens in early morning, checking for new growth, new invaders, problems and pleasant surprises.

One reason to survey your garden often and with a keen eye is to spot mutations. One year the late Ross Hadfield noticed some red grapes on one of his green seedless grapevines. He took cuttings and shared them with Essie Fallahi, University of Idaho professor at the Parma research station. Renamed Pasargad, they’re wonderful seedless grapes for the home gardener, producing a lovely juice. Pasargad is the name of an ancient Persian palace in southeastern Iran (near Mesopotamia) that had gardens full of fruit trees and vines. Fallahi said they have cuttings available at that research station in early spring.

Calvin Lamborn, father of the sugar snap pea, was working for the Gallatin Valley Seed Co. in Filer, Idaho, when he discovered a mutant with a tight, inedible pod. He crossed it with sugar peas. After 10 years of selective breeding, his sweet sugar snap peas were commercially introduced and took the garden world by storm, even being named an All-American selection’s gold medal winner in 1979. Some call sugar snap peas “mange tout,” and others use the English version of those words, “eat ’em all.”

Ten years of careful selection of seeds from the darkest red onions have produced the first red Walla Walla sweet onions that will be on the market this year. Michael J. Locati, a fourth-generation onion grower in the Walla Walla area, was a college student helping with the onion harvest when he noticed a few pinkish onions in the crop. Ten years later, he’s graduated from Washington State University, has developed this new onion and is now running the family farms (est. 1905). He’s calling the new onions Rosé (like the wine).

Most of us probably will not see mutations occur in our gardens, but by saving seeds, we will be developing the most locally adapted fruits, vegetables, flowers or foliage possible. Seeds may carry subtle differences that are difficult to spot.

▪  We know we’re not really feeding our plants, we’re feeding the microherd that feeds our plants. There is a readily available growth stimulator available that is not often mentioned in gardening references. That is a substance called triacontanol. Where can we get it in nature? From the notorious invasive plant called kudzu (do not bring any of that to Idaho, please), or better yet, from alfalfa. In other parts of the world our deep-rooted alfalfa is known as Lucerne hay. We can get alfalfa meal here through Zamzows, or use their alfalfa pellets (no corn in them that could bar seed germination, Jim Zamzow assures me). I’ve used a few tablespoons of alfalfa meal around my pepper plants for several years, after a fellow on the chile-heads forum mentioned it was a growth stimulator.

▪  The University of Idaho’s Ada County Master Gardeners will hold a plant sale on Saturday, May 4, from 9 a.m. until noon at the Ada County Extension Office, 5880 Glenwood St., Boise. Plants for sale will include houseplants, herbs, vegetables, berries, flowering perennials, garden books and more.

Send gardening questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.