Thursday, 16 April 2015

Saving yacon over winter and wapato

asparagus from the garden

 It's very hard getting back into this. Asparagus from the garden, just enough for my tea tonight (along with some other things, I'm not wasting away at all). The patch is struggling with weeds as usual and the seed raised plants rather variable. If I trusted myself more I'd invest in a clutch of commercially prepared roots next autumn, it takes too long to bring them up from seed and even for just the two of us we need a lot more plants to make a few good meals each spring. But, I'm not sure it would be economic without a gardener to set to the weeding or a big change in my self discipline.


And so to Yacon. People sometimes have difficulty in overwintering the parts of the plant that form new growth in the spring. I've failed myself but last year I tried two methods and they were both successful. The simplest and easiest thing to do is to lift a plant comparatively early - yacon aren't slow to form tubers like oca or ulluco so you will still get a reasonably harvest from a plant lifted in mid to late October. Clean it up a bit and pot it in spent compost in a pot just big enough. There will still be a bit of green top growth so trim it back to a few inches. Keep the pot very slightly damp at about 10C. Light isn't too important so a garage window or warm shed will probably do, I keep ours in an unheated room in the house but our walls are thick and the temperature doesn't vary much. One plant preserved like this should make several in the spring when divided into growing points and potted up.

Alternatively wait until frost has killed the top growth but don't wait too long. Take up the plants, remove the storage tubers, shake off the dirt and keep the crowns just as they are until the spring. Again, it's the temperature that's important. Too warm and the roots will dry and die but too cold and they die from that instead. In the spring clean away the dead and dry roots and split the crown into growing tips. Pot and keep warm and lightly moist until they sprout. Plant out in the usual way.


A few weeks ago Rhizowen was kind enough to send me some of his seedling wapato tubers. We have newly cleared the quite extensive water works around the house and I was hoping to be able to introduce them straight into the pond and stream margins but the lovely tidy environment has attracted attention of a less welcome sort and the blasted coypu is back, as can be seen from the rather blurry picture above. He (or she) is currently enjoying the watercress and other water plants and a lingering  doubt about liver flukes leaves me fairly content with this but it does mean I dare not introduce the wapato or indeed put the waterlilies back in position after they were moved during the works.

So for the moment they've been potted into holding pots and are living in the baby bath bought for my son just before his birth 33 years ago... how little I could have imagined that then! I've no idea what I'll do when they start to outgrow this nursery bed, it's not like I'll shoot the wretched creature but I'm at a loss how to encourage it to move away.

By the way, if you interested in odd Andean vegetables take a look at the Oca Breeders Guild where crowd sourcing is being used to speed up development of day length neutral oca varieties suitable for cultivation in Europe and North America. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Just a quickie

I'm not sure I'll ever be able to blog regularly again but here is a picture of some purple sprouting.

And a swallow.

Back in France,  lots to do and talk about but I've forgotten how to ramble on. More later maybe.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015


Last autumn when I wasn't really paying much attention at all, too depressed, Paul got the seed potato order organised for me.

The one variety we try always to grow is Ambo but in 2014 we weren't able to source any. We grew a row from some saved tubers which seemed healthy and I'm not sure if they were the cause but we had terrible blight last year which I wasn't able to do much about. So I didn't want to risk home saved seed tubers again. The only supplier we could find this year was Tuckers. They are a well established company with a big range and we've used them before but all the packs of seed potatoes are quite large, 2kg minimum which means we now have 18kg of spuds to plant, with carriage costing over £50.

You can buy an awful lot of commodity potatoes for that sort of money. Still, we've managed to secure a good range of our favourites and perhaps I can find a few local peeps who'd like a handful of novelties to try out for next year.

We have this year then:

Maris Piper - rather more conventional than our usual choices but we wanted to see why they've been so popular for so long.

Sarpo Mira - as everyone knows one of the first varieties with excellent blight resistance from the Sárvári Research Trust

Kestrel - a potato I have mixed feelings about. It's good but in some seasons produces rock hard tubers, fine for slug resistance but strangely unappealing in the kitchen. Seems to be better here in France than on the old allotment in Newport Pagnell.

British Queen - the potato we grow for chips. She's lovely but not terribly tough and needs good soil for a big crop.

BF15 - has a following of devoted fans and I've been one for years. Easier to get in France than the UK, I first grew it from tubers from a packet bought for dinner in a supermarket.

Arran Victory - sturdy, late, lovely purple skin and they do well for us.

Ambo - a good general purpose potato that we've grown since our first gardens together. Makes lovely big baking potatoes and nice roasted. Suits the way we grow potatoes.

Epicure - another old favourite. A first early, not quite as fast as some but much better flavoured.

Shetland Black - delicious, great for soups and stews. There's lots of erudite discussion about the 'true' black but these are the commercially accepted sort and I like them very much.

Reviewing the list it's clear that we are keen on high dry matter, floury potatoes and that seems to set us apart from the French. Judging by the supermarket selections, they mostly prefer the sort known as 'waxy' although that's not a very good description in my opinion and should be reserved for salad potatoes like Pink Fir apple and Ratte. Another reason for growing our own.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Making planks

raw material

Living in a forest with lots of trees on our land we do a lot of work with wood. When we have a lovely healthy trunk, like this section of a beech tree, it seems wasteful to simply chop it up for firewood although that is our major fuel need.

We've tried lots of traditional ways to get workable wood for furniture and building from trees but splitting and sawing and smoothing huge boles that weigh tons by hand needs a full team of burly lumberjacks or much more time than we have.

However commercial sawmill equipment is very expensive and not economic for the relatively small amounts of wood that we process for home use, so we've been investigating alternative ways.

alaska mill

Chainsaws are the dangerous but extremely useful and powerful tools that have become standard equipment for cutting down trees but they are much more difficult to use for anything like precision work, some very clever chainsaw sculptors notwithstanding. However a method has been devised to frame them and use the frame as a guide to make parallel cuts through a body of wood, which might more easily be described as making planks.

This kit of parts for a Granberg chainsaw mill came from Alaskan Mills. This was our first attempt at using it.

tools and ladder

As part of the preparation for the work it's necessary to make the knobbly and uneven surface of your felled tree horizontal. You can buy another kit of bars to support the saw during this difficult first cut but, if you have one, a light ladder (provided it's not warped) will do the job. It simply has to hold the saw frame level for one cut and after that the trunk itself provides the bearing surface.

prepped log

First the larger bumps were trimmed away so the ladder would lie fairly flat. This was freehand chainsaw work.

ldder in position

We held the ladder to the trunk with some plywood and screws. It's important to set the depth of the first cut to allow for the ladder frame and the ends of the screws within the wood, cutting metal with a chainsaw ruins your chain at best.

Once the ladder or frame is secured you can make the first cut. The piece of wood you remove will mostly be bark and sapwood and will end up as firewood.

 first cut

Making the first cut is quite scary. Although the chainsaw is enclosed in bars and firmly held in position it still seems wrong to have it on its side and to be pushing it along a trunk.

finishing first cut

I had to stop taking photos at this moment and hold the near end of the ladder down so that the whole thing didn't lift up with the weight of saw, frame and overhanging ladder as the cut was completed.

bearing surface

After the first cut you can still see an indention but the majority of the top surface is now levelled and ready to start turning into planks.

nice and flat

Nice and smooth, the surface is clean and will require relatively small amounts of finishing for a good appearance. Not so much positive can be said for the appearance of my thumb there.

first plank

The first plank cut was just 2" thick and has a hole in it where that indentation was still visible. I'm going to have this one and turn it into solid beech chopping boards, hoping eventually to build a small business selling natural wood products as a sideline.


We took three 3" planks but it quickly became more difficult to work as the trunk was removed and each cut was closer to the ground.

more low cut

In this picture you can see the wedges that were inserted into the cuts as they were made to hold the slab up, keeping the cut level and easing the work of the chainsaw.

A final thin and narrow plank was taken before the bottom bark was sent to the fire. Now the wood has to season until it's ready to use. Apart from my slice it's currently destined to become a new workbench in a couple of years time.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Mashua and Yacon and Tiger nuts


The end of a wildly windy and wet but mild spell drove me out of  the house today to harvest the three remaining plants of Mashua before the hard frosts come - regular readers won't be surprised to hear I left a few behind but even so the crop exceeded all my usual expectations of the roots of the Andes. That's a full washing up bowl and the tubers are, compared to oca or ulluco, huge. If it wasn't for the taste they'd be a worthy addition to the potato crops, blight free, almost pest free, productive and attractive.

A few days ago I also lifted the yacon. No picture of these mucky roots, but you can imagine. I'm not much of a fan of these for eating either although I should experiment more, I think they'd do in Chinese style stir fries with five-spice powder and coriander. What I hope to do eventually is juice them and boil down for syrup in the manner of maple or birch sap, but I suspect that this year that's not going to happen. It would be nice if someone could breed a variety that wasn't quite so brittle during harvest, a lot of good roots won't keep now, not a problem if they were going straight to the juicer but no good for winter storage.

Three crowns look like they'll have propagation material for next year and they've been brought into a cold room to sit out the winter, just frost free.

Finally tiger nuts or chufa. I had great hopes for these and they were planted out in a row that initially seemed to be growing well. Then in the warmer days of summer the plants inexplicably started to wither and become loose in the soil before dying completely. I can only think the resident voles were to blame for this. I can't decide whether to try again. Sometimes it really is easier just to buy a pound or two from someone better placed than struggle on alone.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Crop curation

Not a great picture, sorry

Finally, the tubers are counted. Pathetic aren't they. To be fair, these were grown from the survivors of the great deer attack in 2013 before the fence was installed but I was hoping for a better return.

From the top left, oca Rose Pink originally from a another enthusiasist, Ian Pearson I think, who gave me two types from his breeding programme. A very light pink and white and a slightly darker pink and white one which was very similar. One of these has fallen by the wayside but I'm not sure which. Anyway, what's there is barely enough to try next year - a story that's going to be repeated again and again sadly.

Still on the top line the next oca is the "shocking" pink variety I saved from Waitrose all those years ago. As can be seen they make a good sized tuber when they're happy but again I don't have enough to actually eat any.

In the middle at the top is the so called Wild ulluco. These were sent to me in a selection pack by Bill Whitson of Cultivariable seeds and this is the first year I've grown them. Compared to the other ulluco they finished early and I wonder if a greater yield would have happened had I been able to keep the plants going a little longer. Anyway, there's enough there to try again, if it seems worth it.

Next along that row are the ulluco I've managed to keep going from my original Realseeds varieties. They might possibly be Cusco Market if a name is helpful and last year I tried growing the two very slightly differing variants separately to see if it was possible to distinguish them more clearly. The jury is still out. These are the pinker sort, and immediately below the more yellow type. It's obvious that some are pinker than others and in the yellow team ditto. So who can tell?

Finally at the end on their own are the Purple ulluco  also from Cultivariable. These did best of all this year (not saying much) and look clean and attractive. I may have enough tiddlers to offer a few for swaps if anyone is interested in giving this most unrewarding novelty a go.

On the left again for the bottom row, just two tiny white oca tubers (Realseeds, years ago) survive. These white ones were the only reliable flowerers I had, so seed breeding looks like a no go area for a while yet. Hopefully I can bring them back from the brink.

Next to them the dark red New Zealand type collected from Waitrose at the same time as the pink. I have a particular fondness for these, the colour is pretty and I've already lost and found them back in 2007/8 when the crop failed but I found some volunteers from a previous year in a piece of land returned to scrub.

In the middle at the bottom some white ulluco from Bill. I am a fool as these were sent from his trials and identified only by a working title, some letters and numbers which I kept meaning to transcribe somewhere safe but then forgot to do. So I've no idea what they are exactly. However, they were chosen as part of an attempt to get flowers for seed production and I've been calling them 'flowering' on labels. Interesting looking long white tubers but not many of them. Another one to nurture (or not) next year.

Next to those the yellower Cusco Market ulluco mentioned above.

It's not a very inspiring collection. This year was, in terms of late maturing root crops, practically perfect with a long golden autumn and next to no serious frost before Yule but the field crops were non-existant and the potted ones nearly the same. I keep hoping I'll perfect my growing techniques and start to get usuable quantities. I'm beginning to think that this isn't ever going to happen.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A Tuesday in pictures

This was quite a surprise, a daffodil out already. Sadly, I can't find any snowdrops even though we had a few last year.

A beautiful self seeded chard has had no trouble with the mild winter and is bountiful.

I put the swedes in far too early last year but they've done surprisingly well and we'll probably be able to eat the last few here before they get too tough.

A quick peek into the forest, not a hunting day today but they were out in force yesterday. Makes you a bit nervous about going for a walk there.

Something lovely in the woodshed, lots and lots of wood.

Water over the bridge. Well, it's a weir really but for most of the year it's a dry pond boundary.

pink primrose
It is a cultivated variety gone feral but this pink primrose is far earlier than the native yellow sort.

jan sunset
The sun sets much further to the south west at this time of year.