Monday 30 March 2009

The Joy of Swapping

or what the postman brought me.

Cordula sent a different colour of ulluco, white with pink streaks; these tubers seem more rounded than the elongated ones I've been growing from Realseeds.

She also sent me some Anredera cordifolia also known as Madeira Vine. This is actually related to the Ullucos and is a strong growing, frost tender vine which produces edible leaves and tubers.

And then, in addition to the Sorghum seed I had asked for she sent two tiny tubers of a potato she describes as blaue Neuseelaender. I'm not very bright at German and it's taken me a couple of weeks to realise this translates as New Zealand blue. There isn't such a variety listed for New Zealand but there is a likely candidate in Urenika or its synonym Tutai Kuri, a very ancient variety grown by the Māori and, at least by some, alleged to have been in cultivation there for 1000 years after Peruvian whalers dropped them off in ancient times. The potato actually looks very similar to Vitelotte and it will be interesting to grow them together this year for comparison.

(yes, I do have a real name but don't know if it's in the public domain) sent me some seeds for Lathyrus Tuberosus. As I said before I'd never heard of this but now know a little more. Two of the seeds have germinated and are growing away quite nicely so I hope to be able to document them and maybe even taste them over the next year or two.

lathyrus tuberosus

This same kind swapper also sent me a section of perennial onion, Allium cepa perutile, to help me get started again. I lost my original stocks in a forced house move some years ago.

Derek has sent me some tubers of Apios Americana, also known as the American ground nut although it is nothing like peanuts which are also known as ground nuts. The plant forms strings of starchy edible tubers and is in addition an attractive and vigorous climber that will reach a height of 3 metres in a good year. This plant is associated with the Mayflower settlers of 1620 and is supposed to have contributed usefully to their meagre diet in the first years of settlement.

mayflower bean

With the Apios Derek also sent some Mayflower beans, climbing french beans which tradition would have us believe came over to America on the Mayflower itself. This is almost certainly bollocks. Climbing french beans of this type had barely reached Europe at the time of the Mayflower and were in no way a common enough a foodstuff to be taken as part of the essential provisions for the journey. This is supported by various 'settler's lists' of the time which mention meal and peas but nothing of beans. On the other hand native Americans all over the northern continent were growing varieties of beans with their other crops. I think these beans were possibly a local variety taken or traded for from the Indians in the area although the truth will probably never be known. Leaving all this aside, the beans are incredibly pretty, primitive looking and squarish in shape with delicate pink mottles and streaks over a grey-cream ground. I'm looking forward to growing them.

Tristan has sent me an enormous quantity of Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) for which I'm really grateful as it will give me a great head start on building up stocks of my own. The Elephant garlic is more closely related to the leeks than true garlic (Allium sativum) and actually not that far removed from Babington's leek which I already have. The taste is mild compared to the ordinary sort but the large bulbs offer opportunities for gently flavoured impressive garnishes and easier pickling.

elephant garlic

So this year's swapping has been a resounding success and I repeat my thanks to everyone for their generosity. I'm not sure what I'll have to offer next year but I'm happily anticipating making new contacts and learning about new plants from them. I hope anyone reading who hasn't tried it yet will give swapping a go for themselves too as it's very rewarding.

Friday 27 March 2009

Handful of Hops

The first spring harvest, perhaps. Hops shoots have been gathered and used as a green vegetable for many generations although in the UK they have fallen from favour, perhaps as a result of the shrinking of the hop farms of Kent and I have never seen reference to them in France.

We don't have many hop plants but they are strong growers and very vigorous, it seems safe enough to take a handful of shoots for a spring snack.

Take just the top few cms of the shoot, longer shoots are tougher and you need to leave a node or two to shoot again or you'll have no hops in the autumn. Of course, if your bines are managed intensively you may prefer to limit the shoots to just one or two strong growing tips and sacrifice all the rest but our rather haphazard plants seem happiest with a tangle of new growth each year.

Cooking is simple, drop the hop shoots, tied for tidyness if you like, into a pan of simmering water. They take only a couple of minutes to cook like this and I served them with rather a lot of salt and pepper and a dab of vegan mayo as a summery nibble. They'd also be great chopped and added to rice at the end of cooking or used in a flan or tart in the manner of asparagus.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

The Prince is dead, long live the Prince!

Pumpkins; Vegetable Spaghetti, Melonette Jaspée de Vendée, a poor example of Crown Prince and Pink Banana Squash.

This picture from 2003 shows the last time I tried to grow Crown Prince pumpkins on the allotment. The seed had been saved from a purchased fruit a couple of years before and although several plants had given good results this last plant from the store was barely typical.

The Crown Prince (Cucurbita maxima) pumpkin is an excellent culinary squash, keeps well and is not too big for a small family. The steel grey skin is hard and resistant to pests and the flesh is sweet and dense. For me, it qualifies as a variety that I would regularly grow as part of my core crops each year but I've been inhibited from doing so because all the seeds available in this country are listed as F1 hybrids. It is possible to save seed from such inbred selections but the subsequent generations may have weaknesses, flaws and loss of type that could take years to stabilise again. I was only prepared to grow these if I could find an open pollinated source of seed, but (probably) because these are such well known and commercially useful pumpkins that didn't seem possible. Seed merchants can spot a cash cow when they see one.

However, the Prince didn't arrive from nowhere. It is actually a selection from a New Zealand cultivar grown around Whangaparaoa and known there as Whangaparaoa Crown. This is still a popular variety in the southern hemisphere and a good friend in Australia was kind enough to get me some seed from Eden Seeds so this year I will be growing them out with a view to selecting the best for my collection.

I'm really looking forward to it.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Perpetual Vegetating

I'm not much good with perennial beds of stuff; the weeds come in and it's difficult to get them out. I forget to feed, can't find the crops for the couch grass and before you know it my bed of everlasting veg. has turned back into a wilderness that has to be completely blitzed before anything edible will ever grow there again. Even plants that take just two years to mature like caraway are more likely to succumb than succeed. I'm simply not house proud enough.

Even so, there's no denying the lure of perennial vegetable plants. Slap them in, sit back and wait for the seasons to roll around with none of that agony of timing about frosts, drought or transplanting sizes.

Photo by Martin LaBar on flickr

And some of the perennials are of the very best quality. Asparagus properly tended can go on cropping for 15 years or more from the same crowns and can't be grown usefully any quicker than three years from seed. We had newly established an asparagus bed on our allotments just before we bought the farm. We've moved the plants and I promptly lost them amongst the weeds in the first place we planted them out. Last autumn I relocated about half of them (the ones I could find) into a new bed but it's still going to be a couple of years before we can take a proper crop. I hope I don't lose them again before then.

Rhubarb is a vegetable that is used as a fruit but more importantly for this blog entry it's a perennial vegetable and needs all the same treatment as other perennials in the veg. patch. We've established a new bed of this from crowns recovered from the garden of the Cider House. A tremendously strong grower, even these roots had been swamped by the encroaching grass before I dug them up. I'm hoping to be able to take a few stalks this spring and if I can find some good manure for the autumn a full crop next year.

Good King Henry is a new favorite perennial, one of the few 'weeds' that actually repays cultivation. Other members of the family are pernicious self seeders, providing a continual harvest for foraging but the strong root stocks of this variety allow for easy division and reliable growth in the formal vegetable garden. However, if you look closely at the following picture you can see a curl of bind weed poking up through the leaves. Once that gets into the roots the whole clump must be uprooted and cleaned up.

In the onion family my favourite perennial is Allium cepa perutile, which grows in a non-flowering clump looking a bit like flat spring onions. Very very hardy it can give a harvest in March and April when most other alliums are finished or going soft in store and will regenerate from divisions planted up in good soil as the crop is taken. Other onions have perennial characteristics. The Babington leek reproduces by bulbils on a flower stalks and root division. The leek like bottoms can be divided for a small edible crop in the early summer. Egyptian walking onions, the potato onions and shallots are all effectively perennial but are best cultivated more conventionally by lifting and replanting each year.

There are some perennial brassicas but they're not for me. In fact, I'm barely qualified to talk about cabbages at all, I find them really quite difficult but you can read more about everlasting kales and broccolis at The Perennial Platter a newish blog which I hope will expand on the subject at greater depth soon.

Do you grow any perpetual vegetables? What are they and should I give them a go?

Thursday 19 March 2009

Kitten Diary #2

acrobatics: Crow

The kittens are now 20 weeks old, half way through their official kittenhood which will end at around 9 or 10 months. After that they will become young cats who will continue to develop slowly until they are about 2 years old and fully mature.

They've now been living with us for nearly half their lives and we wonder if they have any recollection at all of their previous homes, their mother and the other humans who have cared for them during their short spans.

We've been keeping a record of their weights as an aid to tracking their health and because it's interesting. Four days after they arrived, 18th Jan, they weighed:

Rook: 1.48kg
Crow: 1.425kg
Raven: 1.231kg

Last Saturday 14th March:

Rook: 2.868kg
Crow: 2.689kg
Raven: 2.209kg

So they have nearly doubled in weight, with Rook always the heaviest also having the fastest gain.

acrobatics: Rook

There is a reason for this; he is the laziest, most comfort seeking of the cats. While Crow worries and prowls around in anxious searches for company and Raven plays prettily at perfecting her precision hunting skills, Rook just quietly sits, sleeps and snoozes his life away. He's also the most mature in other ways, best at tray training and keen to tidy up after the others if they're less particular. He likes sitting quietly on laps and is rarely found being first at any naughty new pastime. He does just enough to master any new trick but never puts himself out.

acrobatics: Raven

Until now we've been feeding them pretty much on demand. There has always been crunch available and once a day a kitten breakfast is served, wet food from one pouch split three ways. They love this and it's been a valuable training aid which has enabled me to bring them in with a call when needed.

Now, though, they are beginning to show a certain embonpoint. Fat kittens are not healthy kittens and so we're starting to measure their food and ration it to three meals a day. I have a whole nest of issues to do with pet food manufacturers and their products but can't really justify boring the pants off people by writing about it here. Bring me a bottle of wine and we'll sit and talk!

Blood for their Rabies test is being taken tomorrow. If the outcome is positive, and we'll know in a week, then we'll be clear to take them across the channel. I think once they get there, they're going to love it.


Tuesday 17 March 2009

Grinding exceeding slow

Peacock Butterfly

We spotted our first Peacock butterfly of the year on the 15th March, which, unsurprisingly, was also the first properly warm spring day. The pic above is from Paul's archive and shows a splendid late summer example. It really is a genuine snap despite the unrealness of its perfection.

Rootstocks have arrived, rather late in the season, so I've potted them up so they're not checked when we can eventually get them to France and plant them out. The plan is to take grafts from several of the existing and close to expiration cider apple trees to secure their future while we try to work out what varieties they are. It's also going to be quite a learning curve for me; I have all the theory and none of the practice required for this sort of work. I'm hoping beginner's luck will carry me through. We also bought three pear root stocks so that the same exercise can be carried out on the wonderful but sadly neglected eating pears on the walls of the cider house.

Seed Swappers: I think I've now tracked down everyone who mailed just before and during my recent computer crisis. You should have received email and will, I hope, soon receive your swaps. If anyone thinks I've missed them please write NOW. I will be closing the list for the summer on the 1st April.

And finally, kittens are fine, fat and furry. I'll do another kitten diary post to cover all the twee details and spare the feelings of readers who are less interested in small beasts but here is a picture of Raven climbing the mulberry tree. She seems to have a natural climbing ability that far outstrips her brothers.

Raven; climbs the mulberry tree.

Monday 9 March 2009

Computer failure

Seed swappers! I know a couple of people have mailed me recently about ulluco but my hard drive died a week ago and I can't find the emails. Please email again if you haven't had a reply. Thanks.

catofstripes {at} gmail {dot} com

Thursday 5 March 2009


One of the great things about gardening is that it always gives you a second chance. Mess anything up, get the dates wrong, miss an opportunity and nature will accommodate you.

I thought I'd missed the chance to have autumn planted garlic for the summer. I was wrong, because nestling alongside the comfrey, where I'd missed a couple of bulbs during last year's harvest, were a two beautiful nests of fresh green garlic shoots just ready for transplanting into the new bed I'd made for them.

a small row of garlic

Along with this row of lucky strikes I've planted another two rows of garlic cloves, which should still make good bulbs but not as good as the autumn started sort, a row of shallots (saved from last years crop), some parsnips, White Gem which we've always found reliable in a heavy soil and two rows of Broad beans.

The plan was to complete the digging on this small back garden patch before I went back to the UK but unexpected snow yesterday kept me indoors and then the soil was so wet and claggy I decided that I was damaging the structure more by walking on it than I was improving it by digging and I've covered the second half with plastic to warm and wait until the weather improves.

pumpkins stored too cold

This sorry sight is what happens to pumpkins if you store them too cold over the winter. The ones back in Newport Pagnell with the benefit of central heating are keeping good condition considering we're into March now, six months from harvest but these unhappy fruits have suffered the chill of Normandy and turned into, as my friend on Flickr Herbi said, pumpkin zombies. I've put them out in case they eat my brains.

I've only been here a few days and now have to return to the UK just as I'm getting started. We hope to be back next month and in the meantime it will be wonderful to get back to the kittens. It's been really strange living here without them.

more kittens

Sunday 1 March 2009

How many beans?


Some of the beans we plan to plant this year. Starting from the bottom, the striking black and white beans are called Yin Yang although I've also seen them described as Orca, like the killer whale. You can see the resemblance. These beans came via a seed swap contact and the donor was very generous and gave me two forms of this bean, the simple black/white ones here and a selection where there are spots of black on the white sections giving an even stronger impression of the Yin Yang symbol. These are dwarf beans and should not climb.

The next bean clockwise is the Jersey bean, a traditional variety from the Channel Islands just a hack and a spit away from us in Normandy. Another dwarf bean, I chose this from the Heritage Seed library because of its history.

I chose climbing French bean Purple Giant because I thought it might be the same as the old purple variety I was saving before everything went so horribly wrong. I've not grown them yet but looking at the seed they seem flatter than my sort so probably aren't what I'm looking for.

In the twelve o'clock position we have climbing bean Coco Bicolor. Another very old variety which I've grown many times before. It's a tasty bean, easy and strong growing and the seeds are very pretty so I'm hoping to start saving this one again in my own collection.

The last Heritage Seed Library variety is the Bridgwater Bean. This was a lucky dip selection so I know little about it but the beans are charming so I shall give it a go and see how it tastes.

In the middle there are some seeds for Broad Bean Red Epicure. Lovely maroon purple beans that I like the flavour of very much. I'm looking forward to getting some of these into the ground this week, the French beans will need to wait until the weather is warmer.

I'll also plant some of the dwarf bean Royal Red and some more Spanish white runners which were very successful last year. That's going to make quite a hill of beans!