I breed varieties for the future

Breeder portrait Christhild Brauch

“I was fascinated by vegetables from an early age,” Christhild Brauch tells us, looking back on her career. Today she is a vegetable breeder at Mönchhof in Hesse and part of the growers’ network Kultursaat e.V. She has literally grown into gardening work on the farm which her parents ran. “My siblings and I were involved from an early age. That’s why it made sense for me to do an apprenticeship as a gardener after graduating from high school,” Christhild explains. During her training at the Weilerhof in Großostheim, a long-established Demeter farm at the time, she learned about seed production in addition to commercial vegetable farming.

Followed by a string of bio-dynamic propagation and breeding companies in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland. Here she was not only able to deepen her practical knowledge of cultivation but also got to learn about breeding. The year she spent studying agriculture at the Dottenfelderhof gave her foundations in anthroposophy and Goethean plant science. Stints at the Weihenstephan University of Applied Sciences and the University of Hanover ultimately opened up access to botany, plant biology and genetics. Christhild has been pursuing her own breeding projects since 2014 and is working on a whole range of vegetable crops.

Portrait of Christhild Brauch

Kultursaat’s conservation breeding bank

The starting point for breeding work can be different depending on the type of crop: Varieties from the so-called conservation breeding bank of Kultursaat, other suitable old varieties or newer varieties from the seed trade. Since its founding, Kultursaat has been engaged in the conservation of old open pollinated varieties in order to preserve their genetic foundations. This is necessary because open pollinated, i.e. reproducible, varieties of many vegetables have been disappearing from cultivation for decades.

This not only has an impact on what is available to consumers but also on future development of varieties. After all, every new variety is based on one or more existing varieties. In order to select varieties for the collection, Kultursaat breeders have examined many different varieties in cultivation over the years and documented their observations. The varieties selected for the archive were those that have the potential for further development to suit today’s growing conditions.

Christhild Brauch with seedlings before planting

Goals in fennel breeding

One of them is an older Italian variety of fennel that Christhild cultivates with the aim of “making a beautiful bulb even in summer heat and drought, remaining tender and not blooming too early.” “Pure line summer varieties for commercial cultivation are essentially no longer available,” explains Christhild. “That’s why at Kultursaat, fennel is one of the crops that we pay particular attention to.”

To do this, over several generations she selects plants from cultivation that have the required characteristics. According to Christhild, it is important that their varieties useful to humans in the long run. “Fennel is a beautiful crop that brings a lot of joy. But it is difficult to obtain high-quality seeds,” the breeder sums up after four years of breeding work. A fungal disease, anthracnose, and the increase in true bugs that hollow out the plants make seed production very challenging.

Young fennel plants

Two types of cucumber

Two cucumber projects are significantly further along in the breeding process. Christhild is working on a snake cucumber and a short-fruited snack cucumber. In addition to fruit quality, the main breeding goal for cucumbers is good resistance against downy mildew. This is a common fungal disease that attacks the leaves and gradually causes the plant to die. There is a demand for new cucumber varieties that remain healthy longer than the ones which are currently commonly available. “The cucumber projects are particularly time-consuming because I do the crossings by hand. I have to look for the flowers in amongst 400 plants and clamp them so that there is no cross-pollination.

I then select the plants I want to cross with and also clamp those and do the crossing the next morning,” says the breeder. At the same time Christhild also records the yield of the plants and the quality of the fruits.  A snake cucumber should have a fine, smooth skin and be tasty and healthy. This variety is intended for extensive cultivation outdoors, i.e. growing on the ground. This is attractive for small businesses such as co-operative farms (CSAs) or market garden initiatives, which are becoming increasingly popular. They tend to have less greenhouse space and therefore accept a more labor-intensive harvest. Experience has shown that the breeding of new varieties must always take into account cultivation requirements and marketing conditions in addition to health, flavor and yield..

Pollination of cucumbers and isolation of flowers by hand

Fundamental research activities

In parallel to her own breeding projects, Christhild is involved in fundamental research at Kultursaat e.V. Together with fellow breeders, over many years she has developed alternative methods for influencing plant quality. “It’s about intensive pampering of plants in the form of meditation, eurythmy or sound. These applications can have a lasting impact on the appearance and quality of the plants, even if that is difficult for outsiders to imagine,” says Christhild, based on many years of experience. In order to be able to compare the effects of the different types of treatment, all methods were used in parallel for the first time on a one-year and a two-year crop (spinach and carrots) as part of a research project in 2021-23.

After sowing in different locations, the plants were described in detail to see the effects of the different methods side by side. “This involved very complex data collection as the basis for a statistical analysis,” explains Christhild. The final results are still pending but the breeder is sure that such alternative forms of treatment of seeds can have a positive effect on plant health and resistance to pests. She is convinced that this will definitely benefit the long-awaited new varieties.

Outdoor cucumber breeding

Photos: bioverita