Monday 28 September 2009

Seed Saving of the Second and Third Kinds


Lots of people will be saving their own seed this year for the traditional purpose of maintaining propagating material of favourite varieties for the next season. It's cheaper and makes sense in the home garden, as long as you take time to understand how to keep your chosen varieties true to type by working with the individual needs of the plants. It's something I get a bit worked up about when talking about heritage varieties and seed sharing, I want to know that the varieties I'm preserving are in fact true to the characteristics that made them candidates for saving in the first place. Anyway, if due care is taken and the seed is kept pure we might call this seed saving of the first kind.

dill seed

So what then are the other sorts of seed saving? Some seeds are saved as a food crop in their own right. This covers all sorts of plants from popping corn to drying beans to quinoa all the way on to herb seeds like dill and coriander. These seeds are never going to be used for growing on into new plants, they have already met their nemesis in the form of the meal they will be used in. Unless you specifically grow for these seeds it's easy to overlook the bonus harvest of a handful of celery or coriander seed from a plant that got away. That's the second form of seed saving where the seed is gathered and dried for consumption.

cos seedheads

The third type of seed saving is where by chance or the change of the seasons plants have gone to seed without any particular care being taken over their selection or provenance, when a row of radishes turns straight into flowers because of drought or when the rocket reaches the end of its useful life for salad. These seeds aren't really of much use within a formal varietal seed saving system, who knows what their naughty parent plants have been up to, but they can still be gathered and used for sowing where their lack of breeding can do no harm.

I spent some time today gathering radish, rocket, mustard leaf, purslane and lettuce seeds which I shall use over the winter in the greenhouse, sown into small pots as mesclun, my own mix for harvesting as baby leaves and entirely free. If you have a real abundance then gather the lot and use it as green manure, turning it in as soon as is a few inches high. It cost you nothing and will put some added nutrients back into the soil ready for your next crop.

Thursday 24 September 2009

The hunt


It took a while for the gloom and mist to clear today from up here on the top of the hill, no matter what the Meteo had to say about it. When the sun finally came out it seemed like a good moment to see if any sorts of fungus had started to sprout.

oak tree at the edge

So I headed off to the woods, with a couple of followers.


But when we got there, it was still disappointingly bare of any sort of fungi, one well chewed russula and half a dozen earthballs like the one above. Until we found this.

chewed cep

This would have a been a decent sized mushroom, almost certainly an edible variety of cep although it was so comprehensively eaten it was difficult to tell. No good for supper but at least it shows the season is finally beginning to get underway. Hurrah.

woodland cats

Not that these two gave a damn, they were just enjoying racing through the fallen leaves and pretending they were going to climb 30m tall beech trees. I'm not sure where Fatty Birdkiller is, sleeping it off somewhere comfy no doubt.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Into Autumn


I thought we'd really turned the corner into autumn a few days ago with misty damp days like an Irish summer but today the afternoon is clear blue skies with really hot sun and as dry as you like.

The cats and I went for a wander to check out the sweet chestnuts, not quite ready yet but at least there are plenty of husks on the trees showing promise, and to have another look for mushrooms. Nothing doing there, just one toadstool of a very nondescript version.

On our way we found this poor thing.


I think it's a young heron**, it has the stabbing beak and the webbed feet but the plumage isn't that of the adult bird. I couldn't see any shot marks although the hunting season has just about started now and think it must have been mobbed by crows as it left the nest. It can only just have happened, the flies were hardly started on it.


I've had a couple of inquiries about seed swaps already. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to have to swap this year yet. Some of the esoteric items I received in last year's exchanges aren't sufficiently bulked up yet to have spares for sharing and most of the other items I'm growing are either available commercially or will not be harvested/adequately dried for a couple of months yet.

Definitely for swap will be French climbing bean Purple Giant, some Yin Yang bush French beans and some Jersey beans. There should be a few packets of Tomato Salt Spring Sunrise and the Whangaparaoa Crown have plenty of seed but as part of the selection process I want to collect seed from the fruit that last longest in storage which means a wait until next April before the best seeds will be available.

Oca and Ulluco - these are always in demand but my plants have been quite stressed with the heat this year. I strongly recommend anyone who wants these tubers to place an order with Realseeds, although at the time of writing they haven't updated their site since last harvest. If I do have any to share they won't be available until February next year. I may have Good King Henry plants, Babington leek topsets and Horseradish thongs.

This isn't the definitive list, I expect to make a page for Swaps 2009 in the next month or so when everything should become clear, so check back later.

** thanks to Dave Appleton at flickr who identified this as a young Gannet, very unusually far from the coast.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

I say, potato

pink fir apple

Yesterday was probably the last really dry day of the season. The rain came down today in heaving great buckets, good for the fungi crops to come but no fun to dig spuds in. Luckily I took the last of the serious crop before it came.

We've had a pretty good year for potatoes. Everything grew, blight was nearly non-existent and it's been easy to dig the tubers from the dry soil. This pile of Pink Fir Apple is the yield from about 3 plants. We have boxes of them and I'm waiting for some hessian sacks to arrive from the UK so that they can be stored more appropriately. We're going to hang them from the roof beams this year to avoid the losses to rodents experienced last year.

I also took up the donated New Zealand Blue potato and some of the Vitelotte for a comparison.

two blues

There's really nothing to show between the two of them. This is one of the issues I have with saving the so called 'heirloom' varieties. There is no way of knowing what you have, or that what you have is true to type or that saving it will make the slightest bit of difference to anything in the long run. I can't tell if these two examples of potatoes are sufficiently genetically different to justify their two names and actually, based on the evidence of my eyes, I'd say they definitely weren't. There does appear to be a slight difference in tuber shape but I'm pretty sure the original Vitelotte showed a longer tuber and I know that the plants I grew this year weren't in particularly good soil or healthy to begin with. The differences could be purely down to that.

I couldn't even find a variety listed as New Zealand Blue (or any German rendition of it) when I researched in the spring - it has to be a case of mislabelling or mis-identification.

Since I'm not really in the business of saving potato varieties I'll probably let it go. The real issue for me is that it's not just in the area of potatoes this problem exists.


I was going to write that the swallows left yesterday morning, but as I sit here typing half a dozen of the naughty birds are flying like maniacs around the yard. I don't know whether they left and turned back because of bad weather or if these are just some stragglers passing through. It's a good two weeks later than our nesting group normally set off south from these parts, we think they stayed longer to allow a late brood to build up strength, but they must surely leave soon, it's definitely becoming more than a touch autumnal around here.

Saturday 12 September 2009

Over the rainbow

green quinoa

The quinoa was a new trial crop for this year. Seeds came from Realseeds and were started in modules in the latter half of April. I planted a few seeds in each potlet and didn't thin, allowing several small plants to develop. These were then planted out a few weeks later into good soil, the multiplanted modules spaced about 50cm apart. No fertilizer was added.

Apart from looking like a row of weeds for most of the summer the plants grew strongly and quickly reached about 1.5m in height. Reasonably drought resistant, I only watered them once during the year, shortly after they were planted out.

Despite being sold as Rainbow Quinoa they were rather dull, the picture above was taken less than a month ago and looks like nothing more than a row of out of control Fat Hen but within the last three weeks a transformation has occurred.

rainbow quinoa

Glorious colours! Unfortunately this has coincided with some strong winds so the plants are toppling over a bit but for a late summer display they would even take a place in the flower border if adequately staked. Cover the rather bare and ugly lower stems with a row of rudbeckias and it would be prize winning.

Something I've only just discovered is that this quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa will apparently interbreed with Chenopodium album (aka Fat Hen) and presumably other chenopods like our over abundant Magentaspreen. This is a bit of a blow as I expected to be able save seed for next year from this year's crop. Still, I still have some seed left from my original purchase and will grow a seed crop from that next year under better controlled conditions.

Still to come, harvesting and cleaning. Harvesting should be relatively easy, by threshing the dry heads over a tarpaulin and then gently winnowing to remove the chaff.

Cleaning may be more problematical, if only because I've never had to do it before. Quinoa seeds are coated with a saponin, a bitter soapy chemical which discourages birds and deer from feasting on them. In order to render the seeds edible they must be washed or physically rubbed to remove the coating. Commercially, rubbing or abrasion is often used because it lends itself to large scale mechanisation and removes the need to re-dry the crop after processing but most home and small scale production is prepared by washing, with up to five changes of water needed before the seed becomes edible.

We'll have to see how this goes. If it's possible to dry the seeds after so that they don't go mouldy in store it might be a task that can be undertaken as a single job but I'm wondering, for the small amounts I will have, if it would be better to store the grain unwashed and only wash as needed. More reports as the situation develops!

Friday 11 September 2009

Kitten Diary #10

Where was I? Oh yes, kitten diary tomorrow! We had visitors, the kits and I, and so all normal activities were suspended for a while.

Although they were pretty shy of the strangers they got over it fairly quickly and managed to make new friends and fans of my family. They also gained some new working titles. Pictured above, Fatty Birdkiller, a name I feel has some Viking resonances in keeping with the Swedish family connections.

Slinky Stinky was particularly neurotic with the intruders, keeping a watchful eye and even extending his head for a tentative pat only to disappear with legs and tail flying at the sight of anyone standing upright.

Freshly dug earth is always a temptation for cats and the potato patch is no exception unfortunately.

Little Miss Me Me Fluffytail was her usual adorable self and quickly decided that whoever was sleeping in her favourite bed was her friend, which was lucky really.

Now everyone has left and it's just the three of them and me for the next few weeks. Time to tidy up and set things straight for the autumn break. The kits are 10 months old now, too old to be called kittens anymore so this will be the last "Kitten" diary but I'm sure they'll feature in many blog posts of the future.