Plants for a Future appeal

In developing my forest garden, the Plants for a Future online database has been invaluable. It’s my first reference for the edibility, cultivation and propagation details on any new plant. They are now embarking on an ambitious project to extend their database to tropical plants as well as temperate, which I’m sure would make it a great resource for many more people. They aren’t very good at ‘making the ask’, so their appeal for this project currently stands at a fraction of what they need. I’ve just donated £50 and am taking the rare step of sharing their appeal on my blog and Facebook page. Perhaps together we can help them make it happen.

The appeal is at http://www.pfaf.org/user/cmspage.aspx?pageid=187

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2016 seed list now out

Apologies to website subscribers who received a post called ‘Donating’ earlier today. This was meant to go up as a new page rather than being published as a post. The news that I meant to put out today is that my 2016 seed list is now on the website as part of a redesign in which the old ‘shop’ page has been replaced by a new one which takes more of a gift-economy approach. You can read all about it at forest garden seeds.

A forest garden on Facebook

There’s now a new way to follow the forest garden. I try to write posts on here only when I have enough material for a full, reasonably comprehensive article based on my own experience of a plant or a technique. That leaves a lot of pictures, experiments and observations which might be of interest to people but never get published. I think the best medium for sharing this sort of more ephemeral material is Facebook, so I’ve started a Facebook page: A Scottish Forest Garden. Don’t worry if you’re not a Facebooker, all the more important experience that I gain from the forest garden will eventually find its way into an article on the website, but if you use and enjoy Facebook you can now share the more day to day experience of having one of these wonderfully engaging and enriching edible ecosystems.

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Rhubarb chutney – the reboot

I’m always on the lookout for uses for rhubarb as it is such a great perennial vegetable and forest garden crop, so it has always been a bit of a disappointment that I don’t really like traditional rhubarb chutney, which I find over-sweet, over-spiced and a bit cloying. I’ve also never seen the point of adding gallons of vinegar to a recipe and then boiling almost all of it off again. This year, I decided to see if I could reinvent rhubarb chutney, to turn it into something that I would actually want to make and eat – something that would make much better use of forest garden ingredients and rely less on imported dried fruit. Luckily, I seem to have hit the jackpot the very first time round. I love the result and so has everyone I have fed it to so far.

The quantities in this recipe are very approximate and could be varied according to taste. I use about half as much sugar as I do rhubarb, which means that it keeps well while sealed in jars but needs to be kept in the fridge once opened. If you like it sweeter you could add more sugar and get more preservative effect. The spices are ones that appeal to me and that I have available in the garden, but you could vary them according to your own tastes. The key to the recipe is adding pickling vinegar right at the end. The strength of the pickling vinegar means that it doesn’t dilute the chutney too much and the pickle spices (I used Sarson’s white pickling vinegar, which comes already spiced) give a real depth to the flavour.

Ingredients
2 kg rhubarb stems
8 sweet cicely shoots (i.e the young leaves, before they unfurl)
2 lovage shoots
2 alexanders shoots
1 kg sugar
30 g fresh root ginger
approx 150 ml pickling vinegar

Method
1. Cut the rhubarb, sweet cicely and lovage into 1cm lengths, cover with the sugar and leave for a day or two for the sugar to draw all the juice out of the vegetables.
2. Put in a large pan. Chop the ginger finely and add. Cook until it has become thick and ‘jammy’ (takes 30-40 min).
3. Add the pickling vinegar, a bit at a time, until the balance between sweet and sour tastes right to you (it’s hot, obviously, so don’t scald your tongue).
4. Pour into heated, sterilised jars and seal immediately.

And that’s it. I’d love to hear if you try it, what you think of it and any variations that you make. I find it goes equally well in a curry setting, scooped up on papadums, or as a pickle with oatcakes.

 

Back to my roots (and tubers) – 2016

This post (a catch up on my experiments with all things subterranean) is a little later than I expected. Many roots and tubers are not lifted until after the first hard frost. This can hit in October or even September in Aberdeen, but this year there was nothing significant until January, so many plants just kept on growing. The other factor is that I am still recovering from a slipped disc I suffered last spring, which means that I have to ration my effort in the garden and watch the heavy digging.

Now, however, the harvest is complete and the results (as well as the roots) are in.

Some plants have by now become staples of the forest garden and my winter diet, including oca, yacon, skirret, Chinese artichokes and TPS potatoes. The slipped disc meant that some of these had to cope with very late planting and considerable neglect over the year. In some cases that meant that I only just scraped through the season with my planting stock intact. Fortunately, however, roots and tubers are forgiving plants. They carry generous reserves that allow them to grow quickly and smother annual weeds, so some of them did quite respectably all the same. Roots that I allow to self-seed in the garden, such as parsnips and salsify, did so with little fuss.

These are exciting times for the breeding of many root crops. My oca and yacon both flowered, but far too late in the season for seed, so I think I’ll have to leave those projects to collaborations with a more southerly distribution, such as the Guild of Oca Breeders. Yacon was once thought to be sterile, but the Cultivariable seed company in Washington State has managed to make a range of crosses (I can highly recommend Cultivariable as a supplier of most of these plants). Yacon seems to be an obligate outcrosser – that is, it needs two or more varieties grown together to produce fertile seeds. Anyone with two varieties of yacon and enough sunshine can join in the fun.

I had more luck producing potato seeds. Potatoes also struggle to fruit in time here, but the fruits can be ripened up on the windowsill like tomatoes and will reliably produce viable seed this way. It helps that TPS (true potato seed) varieties can be stunningly blight resistant, meaning that they get the chance to keep on growing right up until the frosts. There’s more on why you might want to grow potatoes and many other things from diverse seed in my post here.

burdock burrs

burdock burrs

Another reason I find for producing my own seed is that a number of root crops can be quite difficult to grow from bought seed as they do not store well and can have tricky germination requirements. My usual way around this is to grow my own, giving super-fresh seed that I often sow in autumn rather than spring. I managed to do this with burdock (Arctium lappa) this year. My saved roots sprouted to nearly 3m high and produced an abundance of the spiky seed heads that were the inspiration for velcro. The only drawback was that they tried to recruit me as a seed vector any time I passed. Burdock seeds may get so lodged in the coat of an animal that they stay with it until it dies, giving the germinating seed exactly the rich, fertile conditions that it likes. I love my plants, but that’s where I draw the line! Seeds that I collected and sowed in autumn are already germinating despite the snow on the ground this week, so I am already looking forward to a summer of kinpira gobo.

A plant that I have similar problems in getting viable seed with is Hamburg parsley so I am trying the same approach this year, with several choice roots saved for seed production. Turnip rooted chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum) benefits heavily from this approach too – I’ll post more about this plant soon.

Going back to the Andean root crops, I had promising results with two more. One that I tried for the first time was ulluku (Ullucus tuberosus) – also known as papalisa, ulluco, milluku, chugua and ruba. Ulluku produces both edible leaves and tubers that taste remarkably like beetroot. It put up with severe neglect and still cropped reasonably well for me. Undoubtedly the most striking feature of ulluku is its looks: the tubers come in a dazzling array of buttercup yellows, rose pinks, lurid magenta and porcelain white. Digging them up is like unearthing semi-precious stones. On the downside, centuries of vegetative propagation have left many lines of ulluku virus-ridden and reluctant to produce seed. Yet again, Cultivariable is having spectacular results in coaxing this species back into reproductive life, so I think we can expect to hear much more about this species in the next few years, with cleaned up tubers and new varieties.

Ulluku

Ulluku – yellow variety

The other new South American is mauka (Mirabilis expansa). Mauka is described on Wikipedia as growing at “cold, windy altitudes” in the Andes, which sounds just ideal to me! My mauka seeds rather surprised me by germinating immediately when I put them in the fridge to stratify, so I now have six little mauka seedlings growing away, just waiting to experience the cold, windy altitudes of Scotland (i.e sea level).

I have spent a while gathering plants of silverweed (Argentina anserina) from different locations and planting them in large pots outside. The reason for this curious behaviour is that silverweed is a very strong spreader, so without control you will tend to have just one extensive clone in your garden. I’d like to get seeds of this plant in order to try breeding it, since it is delicious and locally well adapted, but has the drawbacks of thin, straggly roots and that agressive spreading habit. A non-runnering variety would be favourite! I wasn’t able to collect any seed last year, but the plants all look healthy and I hope for better results this year.

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Finally, a hill of beans. The bean family (Fabaceae) contains a number of species with edible roots, including talet (Amphicarpaea bracteata), hopniss (Apios americana), aardaker (Lathyrus tuberosus) and cairmeal (Lathyrus linifolius montanus). With me, the Lathyrus species have been disappointing: my aardaker has almost died out, while the cairmeal is growing quite cheerfully without producing anything that could be seriously regarded as an edible root. Neither the talet nor the hopniss made it out of the greenhouse and into the ground this year. Both seemed quite happy with this arrangement: both flowered and the talet produced seed. On the other hand, the hopniss produced only one tuber per tuber and I coudn’t find any of the subterranean beans that are meant to be the main yield of talet. Both are now lying low and, I imagine, dreaming of better weather and better health on the part of their gardener for the year ahead. Me too.

Previous posts relating to roots:
Winter harvests 2015
Back to my roots (and tubers) – 2014

While the gardener’s away…

I’ve discovered another advantage to forest gardening. If you’re planning to do yourself an injury, it’s much better to have a forest garden than an annual vegetable patch. I wasn’t actually planning to incapacitate myself, but I made a pretty good job of it all the same. A couple of months ago I was hospitalised with what an MRI scan revealed to be a herniated (‘slipped’) disc in my spine. Since then my ability to garden has been limited.

I have two parts to my allotment, and the difference between them has been striking. One half is annual veg beds. Most of the beds had been dug and I had sown a few things by the time of my injury. By the time I got back down to the garden, the weeds had utterly run riot. The sown vegetables where nowhere to be seen. I have had a few pickings, but only because years of allowing self seeding has meant that a lot of my ‘weeds’ are actually edible, such as mustard greens, coriander, leef beet and mallow leaves. Another major component of my weed bank is Phacelia tanacetifolia, a green manure with beautiful lilac flowers. The bees were having a ball on these so I have simply left them to it.

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The annual beds

The other half of my allotment is the forest garden, which was a completely different story. It’s like the difference between having a dog and a cat. Where the annual veg had major abandonment issues, the forest garden barely seemed to have noticed that I had been gone. The lack of space for weeds meant that there hardly were any. The crop plants had mostly just grown bigger. I had missed a few harvests, such as the hostas, the udo, the Turkish rocket and the remainder of the wild garlic, but of course this only left the plants stronger.

The forest garden

The forest garden

As I’ve written before, forest gardening doesn’t necessarily save work, but it does shift the burden from time-critical tasks to ones that can be done at any time. Just now, I’m really appreciating that.

The Joy of Promiscuity

This might sound like a rather abrupt change of subject for this blog, but no no, I’m still talking about vegetables, and any high jinks herein are purely plant-based. It does, however, begin with a seedy tale of contacts made on the internet…

A bit over a year ago, I offered some turnip-rooted chervil seed to members of a Facebook group I’m on. A few people replied and little packets duly went out. One recipient kindly sent me some kale seeds in exchange, along with a note explaining that they were from an OP grex. A quick Google later, I knew what an OP grex was. Essentially, a grex is a particular cross between two previously-named gene pools (which may be species or may be crosses themselves), plus any further offspring that arise from members of the grex crossing with each other or with the original parent populations. OP simply stands for open-pollinated.

Usually, seed-saving is quite a conservative affair. The aim is to propagate a named variety, keeping it as ‘clean’ as possible by avoiding pollination by any other variety. Seed-saving manuals give the isolation distance required for each species: up to a mile in the case of the brassicas. This keeps the variety stable, of uniform and predictable qualities. This is particularly important when one ancestral species has differentiated into a number of quite different forms: cauliflower and Brussels sprout will cross quite happily, but their offspring is unlikely to be very useful. The kale seeds I received represent a different philosophy.

The grex originated in a rare flowering of Daubenton’s perennial kale, pollinated by a number of adjacent brassicas. Since then enthusiasts have been breeding in as much diversity as they can. The idea is that individual growers can then select for whatever characteristics they like, according to local conditions and personal preference. If the long-lived characteristics of Daubenton’s are also selected for, this could eventually yield a galaxy of perennial kales, from super-cool Tuscan types to my personal hope, a perennial Pentland Brig.

kale panorama

Here you can see the diversity in a single row of OP kale, showing variation in leaf size, form, texture, coloration and yield. In the next generation, I’ll be selecting from this variety on five criteria: leaf size, yield, tenderness, funkiness and lifespan. Perennial kale is a great candidate for this approach. Uniformity isn’t particularly critical in kales: there are some of these plants that I won’t be breeding from, but none that are a waste of space.

Furthermore, a plant with a particularly good combination of qualities can then be propagated vegetatively by cuttings so that it is preserved. A number of other crops also have these characteristics: mostly ones which propagate by seed but also by bulbs or tubers. Most importantly, there is the potato. We usually buy ‘seed’ potatoes in bags of tubers from a single clone, but they also grow perfectly well from the seeds contained in the little tomato-like fruits that you may see on the vines. If you get a good one, it can then be propagated indefinitely from the tubers in the normal way. One variety I’m growing from is Magic Dragons, a very blight-resistant line that I was sent by Tom Wagner. The Kenosha Potato Project is an amazing network of true potato seed enthusiasts.

The alliums are another group with lots of potential. The problem with many asexually-propagated vegetables is that they slowly lose the capacity to produce seed at all, meaning that opportunities for future breeding are lost. Sometimes they can be coaxed back into seeding, as in the work that Kelly Winterton has done on potato onions (which are probably the same thing as shallots).

But why would you want to do this? Aren’t there proper plant breeders out there, honing the perfect varieties for us? Well yes, there are, but they can never hope to produce the range of locally-adapted varieties that an army of amateur enthusiasts can. Also, the nature of their trade means that they have to actively breed diversity out of their seed lines so that they are uniform and stable. Where this is a virtue, I’m quite happy to rely on the big guns to do the work, but where it isn’t, I’d rather have a joyous riot of diversity in my garden.

Big plant breeders are currently trying to claim rights far beyond a just reward for the work that they actually do, patenting not just individual mutations but whole broad characteristics of crop plants. This stifles seed sharing and the genetic heterogeneity that is essential for future resilience. The Open Source Seed Initiative is one response to this. Getting maximum diversity into seed lines is another, as explained in the excellent article Linux for Lettuce. Above all, it is simply so much more fun. The anticipation, interest and potential in my OP kale are simply so much higher than in any ‘clean’ variety I have ever grown. I’m now taking this approach to all the legumes and leaf crops that I grow too. I’ll leave you with a few more of those kales…

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