Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

Emma Cooper has written an e-book on the recent rise in interest in novel edible crops for the home gardener.  It covers several topics which will help bring anyone considering trying some of these crops up to speed with what is currently available and most importantly how to succeed with the growing of these novelties, which have so much to offer the adventurous gardener and gourmand.

This is a fascinating subject for those of a horticultural bent who also have interests in botany and history, and very few of us grow vegetables at home as a purely utilitarian activity however much we claim to be aiming for self sufficiency and locavorism. We all have our favourite plants and particular interests in the varieties that have associations in our lives or that we simply find best to eat. Or is that just me?

amaranths in 2004

Certainly I started growing odd plants from seed as soon as I had my first home with enough space - the almost squat we moved into when I was 18. The garden was full of Japanese knotweed - if only I'd known then that it can be eaten - but this noxious weedy intruder was sufficiently alien and unusual to me to study it and that piqued my interest in odd plants. I've never stopped looking for the next original experience in the garden since.

coloured crisps

So in the last very many years I've always had something unusual growing in the garden. To begin with it was mostly just odd coloured vegetables, blue potatoes, yellow carrots, green tomatoes but as more exotic produce started appearing in the supermarkets I branched out into tamarillos, oca, avocado and mango plants (sadly never fruitful). I grew unusual herbs, ornamental fruiting bushes like japanese quince and fuchsias for berries, anything really that was both unusual as a food but produced something delicious to eat.  And if you are a regular reader of this blog you will know the habit persists, most years I try something new and there is even a continuing theme with Andean vegetables which I plant in a Peru corner each year.

spinach blite 2005

And although it is fun it is a subject with wider implications in horticulture and society. Food security is becoming more and more important throughout the world and we all have a responsibility towards nurturing potentially planet saving crops. I asked Emma a few questions on some of the issues surrounding this:

The home gardener is under siege these days from a two pronged attack of multinationals trying to ring fence all crops by patent to increase their profits and the governments attempting to improve standards by imposing bureaucratic laws to the detriment of smaller producers. Do you think the boom in interest represents a citizen's movement in asserting our civil rights to grow what we want or is it just a fashion fad?


I think it’s both. Unusual edible plants have, for the last few decades, been mainly of interest to fringe groups – environmentalists, or permaculturalists, people who don’t like the way the mainstream world has been going. There are constant threads, of the desire to maintain our heritage crop varieties, or to grow organically, that have waxed and waned but never gone away. Environmental messages are becoming more mainstream, and getting more attention, but there’s also increasing interest from commercial companies who see unusual edibles as a new market, and who are capitalising on people’s love of both gardening and novelty. If the new plants aren’t as successful as hoped, they will go the same way as the heritage varieties, and be sent firmly back to the fringe.

The gardeners involved in trying these novel crops are working with a very different ethos to traditional seed producers - it's more communal and reciprocal than the commercial model where breeding was kept secret and access to materials restricted by cost. Can this new style of distribution persist in this form or do you think it will succumb to the pressures of capitalism and profit?

One of the things I learned when I was doing the research for my Masters degree (when the book was largely finished), is that the majority of gardeners in the UK rely on commercial sources for their seeds and plants. If unusual edibles are to become more mainstream, then they need to break into the commercial world. We might be seeing the start of this, as the big seed catalogues are becoming more and more adventurous with their offerings. And clearly there are plenty of gardeners who don’t know how to save their own seeds, or propagate their own plants – far more so now than would have been true 100 years ago. Having said that, I think the non-commercial seed world is holding its own, and I don’t see it disappearing.

Very few of the crops are actually new, they are just newly available locally. Do you think there is a flavour of imperialism or entitlement in taking the traditional crops of other peoples and improving them?

Biopiracy is a serious issue, and there are now international laws in place to help ensure that a country’s natural assets aren’t stripped for profit elsewhere. However… I don’t think it pays to be too protectionist with food crops. The big three (wheat, rice and maize) are now grown pretty much anywhere they will grow, well outside of their original ranges, as are crops like potatoes. The reality is that we will need to feed the world despite a changing climate, and we’re going to need all our biodiversity resources in place to do that. I don’t have the answers, but there must be a way to bring the benefits of these plants to everyone. And, on a garden scale, I don’t see an issue with growing a crop you can’t buy anyway – you’re not depriving anyone of their food or their livelihood.

Novelty crops have great amusement value but may have been overlooked for a reason. From the consumer's point of view what do we need to add into the food supply and is there any chance of finding it in forgotten crops?


A crop may well have been overlooked (or forgotten) for a reason, but we don’t always know what that reason is. Some have been sidelined because of social prejudices. Some crops have been replaced by ones people found tastier, or ones that are easier to grow commercially. What people want to eat changes with fashions, and what we can grow will change with the climate. I don’t think there’s anything missing, as such, from our current food supply, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find something of value to us in forgotten crops.

Why would you recommend gardeners give some of these new crops a chance?


Some people love tradition and familiarity. Others lovely novelty. It’s one of the fundamental tug-of-wars in society, and that’s probably never going to change. If you’re happy with the crops that you have in your garden, and on your plate, then I’m not going to say that you should grow something new. What I’m trying to do is show people who do like trying new things, and who aren’t worried that it won’t all work out well the first time, that there are fun – and tasty – plants out there that they can grow that they don’t even know exist. It’s time to have an adventure in your own back yard.

This post forms part of a virtual book tour and you can catch up with Emma's visits to other blogs here. The book is called Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs and will be available for download on the 1st May from Smashwords

crimson broad

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Frantic

sunny lane

It's hot today, really pleasantly hot and I've been bumbling around discovering things that have survived the winter like the remaining 12 lavender plantlets from a much neglected bargain batch I bought from Thompson and Morgan last year and trying to make them happier.  There is endless work to attend to and as usual it's going to be a race between my good intentions and my endemic lethargy as to how much is completed in a timely fashion.

Having looked through the quantities of seeds saved and the length of time some of them have been stored I've decided I have to grow out at least sample portions of everything, just to check on viability. This means I'll be growing (fingers crossed) something like 15 varieties of beans and peas this year. Quite where these will be placed is not something I can allow myself to worry about just now but I'm anticipating some creative planting when the time comes.

Peas:
Carlin
Irish Preans
Raisin Capucijiner (these are new this year from HSL)
Unidentified Pea - might be Beltony Blue but I'm not at all sure!
Purple podded

Dwarf beans:
Royal Red
Starley Road Red
Ice Crystal Wax
Orca (or Yin Yang)

Short climbing beans:
Mayflower
Striped Bunch half runner

Tall climbing beans:
Purple Giant
Carters Polish
Riana's bean from the south of France (still unidentified)
White Emergo (runner bean)

What I won't be growing is the Salmon flowered pea I got in a swap with with Robert Brenchley as these seem to have fallen in the same black hole as my bundle of seeds from Higgledy. This is quite a disappointment but I've looked everywhere now and can only imagine they've been thrown away by accident.

As well as the beans I've started various other seeds; Monarda didyma, sweet peas,  achocha, some Prescott Fond Blanc melon (a bit early but another viability check on saved stock) , some Cornue Andes tomatoes, Trifetti pepper and some more Alberto Locoto to replace the ones lost over winter.

Plenty more to come with squash, marigolds and cucumbers all waiting a moment to get started, but more on those later.

By the way, be sure to pop back on the 22nd when I'll be hosting Emma Cooper on her virtual book tour. 


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Just settling in

So here are some pictures.

cherry blossom
Cherry blossom, this ornamental variety sets no fruit, such a pity.

borage
The Borage has been out for a few weeks now, very early.

weed
I'm sure I should know the name of this pretty weed but it escapes me for the moment. Can anyone help?

daff
These big blowsy daffs are not my favourites but came in a mixed bag. Saving up for some more elegant varieties.

clover
Red clover, just getting started now. Reminds me to plant some of the crimson flowered for later in the year.



Friday, 11 April 2014

Once more into the breach...

woodanemone

It's been a somewhat abortive start this year. With any luck the gardening season will start properly this weekend when we finally have a chance to move the cats over for the summer and I take up full time residence for a few months again. It'll be a rush to get the potatoes in, no records will be broken for earlies this year, but with any luck nothing else will be too much impeded by the delay.

The enforced stopover in the UK did give me a chance to visit the Harris Garden at Reading University. This is a charming little space which forms part of the School of Biological Sciences and is open to the public all year round. The spring planting is lovely and there are peonies and some exotic plants to come later in the year as well as a sweet little rill with bog garden plants leading to a duck pond. Worth a visit if you're in the area.

One plant that caught my eye there was Nandina domestica. Known as Heavenly bamboo it is nothing of the sort as it is not a bamboo, is actually considered a noxious invasive pest in some parts of America and could be potentially fatally toxic if you were silly enough to eat too much of it. Somehow I'd never seen it before and was taken with the habit and bright berries of the species plants there. It's also considered deer proof, reason enough for me to plant it if ever I heard one so I've acquired some seeds and maybe it will be forming part of my putative ornamental shrub garden one day.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

All in my head

white rosemary

The year is powering on past and for reasons almost entirely beyond my control planting and gardening have been put on hold. It's a pity because this lovely mild spring weather is just perfect for getting the beds in order and main crops settled in. It seems now it will be the middle of April before any work can start in earnest which means I've next to nothing to blog about here.

Today I spent some time using Picasa to scroll through twelve years of digital photography looking for interesting pictures and reliving past hopes (mostly failed) and glories (not nearly enough).  It makes me wish again that I'd tried harder to document  all the years that went before - an unedited photo album may not be the most efficient form of record keeping but it does register something and seems far more reliable than my patchy memory.

Something I am pleased about is the tub of snake's head fritilliaries we planted up last week. After years of buying bulbs and promptly forgetting to plant them before they withered in their packets we found some ready potted on a market stall. I'm hoping that buying them in the green like this will mean the start of a proper meadow of them when the flowers are finished and I plant them out in the field.

snake's head fritilliary

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Past it Pumpkin

past it pumpkin

Finally managed to get a few seeds started in the propagator, mostly tomatoes and a couple of the Capsicum pubescens I received from Magic Garden seeds. This unnamed rocoto cultivar appears to be very different to the Alberto's Locoto (scroll down) sort I've been growing from Realseeds. Alberto's is relatively small and red fruited, the new sort is orange skinned and appears larger, closer in size to a sweet capsicum.

I managed to kill two of my Alberto's during the winter, just let them get a touch too cold but I still have one good plant and saved seeds to start some more this spring.

The tomatoes are a mixed bunch. Avoiding buying seeds this year has meant rummaging around looking for old packets and hoping that some of the oldest are still viable. For example I found a packet of Mme Jardel's Black which I have no recollection of receiving from HSL or any memory of the plants although the packet had been started. I choose not to interpret this as the start of mental decline but even so, it's a bit like trying them for the first time and I wish I'd had more discipline in documenting my various exploits in the garden over the years. And given that I've no idea how old the seeds are they might not come up at all of course.

I've also popped in a few seeds of Tigerella (which were new, gifted to me at xmas) and some of my all time favourite tomatoes Potiron Encarlote, a huge well flavoured fruit that needs greenhouse protection in Normandy. These seeds are also rather aged so I'm keeping my fingers crossed with them. Scotland Yellow completes this first round of tomato starts. These grew excellently in the open in the poor summer of 2007 so I may try some outside this year if a) any come up and b) there's a chance of a bit of sun and not too much blight.

The Whangaparoa Crown pumpkin is the last one from store. A pity to miss using it up while it was in better condition but allowing it to complete a full cycle should produce plenty of plump healthy seeds for this year. In my head I'm imagining a whole field of plants growing out to maximise the genetic inheritance for the coming years. Who knows, it may even happen.












Thursday, 6 March 2014

Back to the future

Back to France tomorrow and the weather forecast is looking good. We're quite apprehensive since we've not been over since the gales and floods. No reports of damage have reached us but we're expecting phone lines to be broken at the least and probably a lot of fallen trees.

To reduce my travelling stress we'll be keeping packing to a minimum but I do have several trays of garlic and shallots to take with us and a whole box of little items we were gifted at xmas, of which I'm hoping the old fashioned oil lamp isn't going to be the most useful. We have another new off-grid toy to play with, my reward for taking part in a crowd sourced funding for Gravity Light who have created a lighting solution that will work anywhere on the planet. They've sent me an example of the product which will make a useful back-up light when the power goes down.

And when I get there I'm hoping to find my pack of Higgedly garden flower seeds because if they're not there I don't know where I've put them.