In Mutual Relationship with the Plant

Portrait of Breeder Christoph Matthes

After studying medicine for five years, Christoph Matthes (born 1963) found his way to breeding by training as a gardener at the Bingenheim community. Here he first came into contact with seed propagation, processing and breeding. He then attended the academic year at the Dottenfelderhof agricultural school

in 1996/97 and then switched to the Dottenfelderhof Research and Breeding Department (FZD). So what in particular drew him to breeding? “The freedom to find your own way in the breeding process,” says Matthes. “It’s like you are in a conversation, in a mutual relationship with the plant.”

Portrait of Christoph Matthes

A Love of Brussels sprouts

During his initial period at the FZD, Matthes assisted Hartmut Spiess in the vegetable breeding projects of the day. Little by little he took over these projects completely and developed them further. When asked about which project is closest to his heart, Matthes’ answer is Brussels sprouts. Hardly surprising, as this was the first project that he engaged with over a long period – and one he ist still engaged with. From 1998 he was involved in the selection work for the Brussels sprouts variety Idemar. Brussels sprouts are a member of the biennial crop family,

as they are sown one year, but seeds from flowering plants can only be obtained in the following year. The breeding process takes a correspondingly long time. “The aim of breeding Brussels sprouts was to develop a pure line alternative for commercial cultivation, where the F1 hybrid varieties were increasingly dominant,” explains Matthes. “We also wanted to breed a variety with a cylindrical instead of a pyramidal structure so that it could be harvested in a single step,” he adds.

Brussels sprouts

Trial Cultivation in the British Isles

From 2004, Matthes continued breeding on his own until he was finally able to submit the variety for DUS testing (distinctiveness, uniformity and stability) in 2009. Out of interest, he personally drove to Edinburgh, where the European Union’s trial cultivation took place. “I was thrilled to find such a great understanding of this culture among the local staff. To allow comparison with Idemar, many other pure line varieties were grown.

Something that is not always a given”, explains Matthes. Due to the rapid further development of hybrid varieties which are strongly tailored towards the machine harvest, Idemar is now mainly grown by direct marketers and home gardeners. The variety offers a balanced, mildly aromatic taste. And it’s easy to harvest, with a slightly higher crop yield than the other pure line varieties available.

Brussels sprouts in the field

The Variety of Tomatoes – Dorenia staking tomato

In addition to Brussels sprouts, tomatoes play an important role in Matthes’ work. Over the years he has registered three tomato varieties that are also bioverita certified. Tomatoes are annual crops whose fruits and seeds can therefore be harvested in the first year of cultivation. “However, the breeding process can take a long time,” in Matthes’ experience. He mentions the staking tomato Dorenia as an example.

It was created over the course of 15 years by crossing the Matina and Quadro varieties (1997-2011). In addition to good yield and taste, the over-arching breeding goal was resistance to late blight (Phytophthora infestans). At each selection step, plants showing the least amount of blight as late as possible, tasted well and were less mealy were picket out. In 2010 he registered the variety with the Federal Plant Variety Office.

Tomato Dorenia

Bush tomato Fruchta

At the same time, from 2002 onwards, Spiess and Matthes tested several bush tomato varieties from the 1930s for their suitability for organic farming today. The Fruchta variety impressed most in terms of taste and early crop. In order to bring harvest maturity forward even more, Matthes selected specifically for early ripening plants between 2003 and 2011.

In 2012, Bogus Fruchta and Dorenia were finally approved as an amateur variety by the Federal Plant Variety Office. “The variety name Bogus Fruchta commemorates its breeder, the crop scientist Eduard von Boguslawski (d. 1999)”, as Matthes reveals. After all, the professor was behind the first dissertations involving bio-dynamic topics in the 1970s in Giessen.

Tomato Bogus Fruchta

Bio-dynamic Research Projects

Parallel to the above breeding projects and which were funded by the Seed Fund, Matthes was always involved in research projects at the Institute for Bio-dynamic Research in Darmstadt. Here he was mainly responsible for fertilizer and field trials as well as research into preparations. The use of so-called preparations is a fundamental element of bio-dynamic farming. Knowledge preparations goes back to Rudolf Steiner; the regular use of preparations is laid down in the Demeter guidelines.

During the winter months, parts of plants, cow dung or powdered quartz are buried in a cow horn in the ground so that the substances decompose naturally. They are then heavily diluted with water and applied to the arable soil or compost. The effect of these preparations on soil life and plant health has been repeatedly confirmed in scientific studies – including independent institutes such as the FIBL (Research Institute for Organic Agriculture).

Cherry tomato Philamina

This approach apparently had a positive effect on Matthes’ cultivation of the cherry tomato Philomena too. After crossing a progeny of the hybrid tomato Philovita F1 with the bio-dynamic Zuckertraub variety, seeds of the 4th generation (F4) were also placed in a cow horn and buried in the ground.

The breeding line treated in this way later stood out in comparison with its good taste and vitality and was used as a basis for further breeding. Matthes recommends the Philomena variety, which was approved in 2018, particularly for outdoor cultivation, as it is highly resistant to bursting and at the same time is very robust.

Tomato Philamina

Matthes could go on about his cultures for much longer. For example, he is right in the middle of breeding a new broccoli variety. “Broccoli is a particularly challenging crop. There is a good reason why there are hardly any pure line varieties that meet the requirements of today”, says the breeder. Fortunately, however, he can rely on his many years of experience. And always working in mutual relationship with the plant, something that has always helped him along his way.

Photo credits: bioverita, Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, Sativa Rheinau AG