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to put out today is that my 2016 seed list is now on the website as part of a redesign in which the old ‘shop’ page has been replaced by a new one which takes more of a gift-economy approach.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.

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Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are a relative of raspberries and brambles. They are as easy to grow as raspberries and it’s surprising that they aren’t more common in the UK. There are a number of reasons why you might want to grow them. One is that they fruit in early autumn, nicely filling the gap between summer and autumn raspberries, but they are also worthwhile in their own right, different from either rasps or blackberries.

They certainly look different. The stems of Japanese wineberries are covered in red glandular hairs which give them a red, furry look (and their Latin name – phoenico means red) and an odd, somewhat sticky, somewhat waxy feel. You sometimes see insects stuck to the glands, making the plant look a little carniverous, but apparently it gains nothing nutritionally from these catches: presumably the motivation is more to do with pest control. The hairs extend onto the calyces which enclose the young fruit; as the fruit ripens the calyces slowly peel open to reveal it. The ripe fruit is a design classic. About the size of a wild raspberry, the berries are wine red and share a little in the stickiness of the canes. The taste is sweet and pleasant.

photo by Eva-Maria Kintzel

photo by Eva-Maria Kintzel

The big drawback to growing wineberries at my latitude is that not all plants offered for sale in the UK seem to thrive here. I first came across Japanese wineberry myself at the Plants for a Future site down in Cornwall and it quickly made my list of plants to acquire. Unfortunately, a succession of plants bought from nurseries in the south of England either perished over winter or grimly clung to life but never produced any fruit. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t suitable for the north of Scotland. Then a friend told me about a self-seeding population at Crathes Castle in Deeside. She obtained a seedling for me and it quickly grew into a hearty, vigorous bush that has now seen off several winters. This underlines the importance of local varieties and trying to get hold of local provenances.

Japanese wineberries like to grow in full sun. They are mostly immune to raspberry diseases but mine has poor ventilation due to a tall fence built by a neighbour and the racemes or flower heads have a tendency to rot in wet weather. From what I have seen of other plants moving it should fix this. Like most Rubus plants the stems are biennial although the plant as a whole is perennial. The fruit is borne on the second-year canes (floricanes), which should be pruned out at the end of the season. In growth habit they are somewhere between raspberries and brambles. Like brambles, the canes form a dense clump from a single point, so they need to be trained along wires or tied loosely to a stake at the centre of the clump. Fortunately they don’t spread as aggressively as brambles, but they do share their ability to root at the tips if they touch the ground: a characteristic that can be used to propagate from a superior plant.

UPDATE: You can buy Scottish-grown wineberries at https://plantsandapples.co.uk/

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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

Growing and eating skirret

Never mind the Lost Crops of the Incas, skirret (Sium sisarum) seems to be the Lost Crop of the Europeans. Based on my experience, it’s high time it was rediscovered.

Originally from China, skirret was clearly well established in Europe by Roman times. It was a favourite of the Emperor Tiberius, a man who, don’t forget, could have pretty much anything he wanted for his table. He liked it so much that he demanded it as tribute from the Germans. It remained widespread and popular into Tudor times and then… where is it now?

Two crops of European empires may have displaced skirret. The first was the potato. Skirret is a starchy root, a useful staple, but nothing like as productive as the potato (what is?). The second was sugar cane. One of the most striking characteristics of skirret is its sweetness: even the name comes from a Germanic origin meaning ‘sugar root’. Before ubiquitous sweeteners, this would have made it extremely attractive, even to greedy Roman emperors. Whatever the reasons, skirret faded away from gardens, tables and popular consciousness. I’d say that it has several characteristics that make it worth revisiting.

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First up, skirret is delicious. It has a floury texture, a little like a potato, due to the high starch levels. Its taste is unique, but vaguely carroty, not surprisingly as it comes from the multi-talented carrot family (Apiaceae). It needs very little cooking. A minute or two’s boiling is enough, or you can briefly pan fry it. Being from Central Scotland, I have of course tried deep-frying it and can report that it makes a passable chip, but scoring higher in taste than texture when cooked this way. Wikipedia has an entertaining section on skirret recipes through the centuries. You might also like to try this recipe from the Backyard Larder Blog for skirret pasties – it also uses several other forest garden staples.

Secondly, skirret is quite easy to grow once you know how. Unlike most of its vegetable relatives it is not a biennial with a single taproot but a perennial that produces a whole shaggy bunch of roots. A dormant skirret plant can therefore be lifted, divided and replanted like any clump-forming perennial. Grown from seed, skirret produces a single ‘crown’: several shoot buds around the base of a stem, with a cluster of roots attached. Grown on, this crown will divide to form a clump made from several crowns. The clumps are easy to tease apart into individual crowns again. A cluster of roots will consist of several that are worth picking and a good number that aren’t, so my harvesting method is to dig up the clump, snip off the roots that are worth having, separate into crowns and replant. This leaves the plant with the maximum amount of resources for a good start the next year.

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A skirret clump

Thirdly, skirret ought to be an easy crop to improve. The combination of annual seed production and clonal propagation by the division of clumps means that new varieties are easy to produce and then maintain. The plants that I have grown from seed show considerable variation in root number, thickness, length and quality. I’d like to see skirret selected to produce fewer, fatter roots with smoother skin (cleaning skirret is something of a faff as the wrinkled skin tends to hold the dirt and require a good scrubbing).

One drawback to skirret is that the roots can have a woody core which cannot be softened by any amount of cooking and which is not particularly practical to remove. Guides suggest that this is a problem of young plants that goes away on older ones, or that it is caused by a lack of water while growing or that it is under genetic control and varies from one plant to another. My experience suggests that all three are true, which means that a combination of breeding and correct cultivation should be enough to solve the problem.

Starting skirret from crowns may be easy, but to get a crown in the first place you either have to shell out a fair bit of money or you have to start from seed. Skirret is not the easiest to grow from seed as like many of its relatives it needs a period of winter cold (stratification) to encourage it to germinate. If it is anything like most apiaceae the seed will lose viability quite quickly, so it is a good idea to source current-year seed in autumn and start stratifying straight away.

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A single clump separated into crowns. The labels are to keep track of individual strains for plant breeding purposes.

For cultivation, skirret seems to like moist, free-draining soil in full sun. It’s said not to like hot weather but this isn’t a problem that I experience much. I’d advise growing it in rich, well-fertilised soil as a poorly fed skirret will produce thin roots that aren’t worth harvesting. Mature crowns need to be spaced at 30cm or more. Giving it a mulch is a good idea to help keep moisture in and suppress early weed growth. I have mine planted in a bed with compost dug in and a mulch of leaves over the top. It will grow up through the mulch and require little to no weeding as its strong growth suppresses weeds later in the season. Unless you want to try your hand at seed production, remove the flower stems to divert more resources to the roots. Regular watering will help to avoid the dreaded woody core – I have mine planted right next to my water butt so that I have no excuse for forgetting. Skirret can be left in the ground until needed: towards the end of the season, you might want to mark where the plants are as there can be little sign once the leaves die down!

 

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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EU threat to local seeds

I don’t usually use this blog to promote campaigns and petitions, but I think that this one is important enough to make an exception. On the 6th of May, European Union commissioners will be considering a new law which would make the sale or even the free distribution of unregistered varieties of seeds illegal. There would be a process for registering ‘old’ varieties cheaply, but this would still mean that the whole field of breeding locally-adapted varieties and unusual crops by amateur and small-scale local breeders would be outlawed. Forest gardening would be effectively nipped in the bud.

The Commission is divided on this, with the directorate of consumer affairs proposing the law and the directorates of agriculture and the environment against it, so national commissioners will decide the vote and there is a real chance to swing it. There is more detail on the Real Seeds Catalogue’s website.

Please write to your national commissioner, who is Baroness Ashton in the UK.  Her email address is catherine.ashton@ec.europa.eu. I’ve included the text of the email that I sent below. For other countries, the list of commissioners is at http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/index_en.htm. Commissioners’ emails all take the form of firstname.lastname@ec.europa.eu

If you don’t have time to write, there are two petitions that you can sign on the Real Seeds page, but a clear, brief and polite personal email counts for a lot more than a petition signature. It needn’t take long: in fact short, clear and to-the-point is much better.

Dear Baroness Ashton

I am writing to ask you to vote against the new law on the sale and distribution of seeds proposed by DG SANCO when it comes up  for your consideration on the 6th of May.

As I understand it, the law will ban the sale or distribution of  unregistered varieties of seeds within the EU, with provisions for the cheaper registration of traditional varieties which are currently commonly traded. This will mean that plant breeding will become the sole preserve of companies rich enough to afford such registration. It will outlaw the huge amount of activity that currently goes on breeding locally-adapted varieties of a wide range of plants by amateurs and small-scale local producers. This activity has considerable economic and biodiversity significance, but perhaps even greater cultural significance.

In my case, I am involved in selecting seed of local wild species for use in forest gardening, an increasingly popular method of growing food in which shade-tolerant food crops are grown under fruit trees and bushes. Many of these species are only available in their wild form and would benefit from selection to improve their characteristics. An example would be sweet cicely, which produces an aniseed-flavoured root related to parsnip and which I am selecting for larger and straighter roots. I currently mostly give away seed but hope to sell some in the future. Both of these options would be outlawed by the proposed law.

It is difficult to see how this law would benefit anyone except for the seed companies which will gain an effective monopoly. It is surely significant that it is being proposed by the directorate for consumer affairs while being opposed by the directorates for agriculture and the environment.

Kind regards

Alan Carter

UPDATE.  In a very welcome development, on the 30th of January 2014 the EU’s Environment Committee voted unanimously to reject the seed law in its entirety, sending it back to the European Commission to be redrawn from scratch. This does mean that it will be back in some form or other, so the campaign is not over, but for now it is a major victory.

Off foraging, back soon

Work (and blogging) in the forest garden has had to take a back seat for a while as I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of fruit and fungi to be picked out and about. There’s a close relationship between foraging and forest gardening in any case: a lot of the plants I grow in my allotment are ones that I could forage from the wild, given an infinite time and travel budget. Off the top of my head, the native wild plants growing in my forest garden include hogweed, sweet cicely, wild garlic, dittander, garlic mustard, sea beet, Scots lovage, buck’s horn plantain, common and musk mallows, Babington’s leek, Good King Henry, pignut, wild strawberry, various sorrels and wood violet. Oh yes, and raspberries, currants and small-leaved lime. A meal containing all of these would involve a week-long expedition taking in woods, heaths and coast – or five minutes in my allotment.

With every wild plant I have to weigh up whether or not it is worth giving it a place in the forest garden. Pluses are given for plants that I like and that are particularly productive. Minuses are for being too ‘spready’ or too big or for attacking me when I’m minding my own business, as with nettle. There is also the question of whether I have ready access to the plant on my foraging rounds. All these considerations are fairly individual, so the decision will be different for each person. I’m very much given to changing my mind: the latest one that I’m reconsidering is nettle, after talking to Fi Martynoga of the Scottish Wild Harvests Association, who was serving up out-of-season nettle brose at Wooplaw Community Woodland‘s 25th-anniversary bash. Fi has a patch of nettles is her garden that she cuts down several times a year to keep a steady supply of fresh new growth.

One species I’m still definitely leaving for wild foraging is the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.), a thorny, rumbustious plant that loves to romp around an area, pining dreadfully if it is restricted. I once saw some speeded-up footage of bramble growth on a David Attenborough programme. The briars thrashed around like groping hands; then, finding a purchase with their thorns, they surged forward. Take a look on YouTube and you’ll see why I don’t want them in my garden! We’ve just had the first flush of blackberries in Aberdeen. They are always the nicest so we’ve frozen what we didn’t eat and will make jam with a later batch.

cherry plum

Another fruit I have been picking, literally by the bucketload, is Prunus cerasifera, the cherry plum or myrobalan/mirabelle. I’ve raved about cherry plum before but well, I’m going to do it again. It is a mystery to me how neglected mirabelles are, seeing as how they produce curtains of tasty, juicy fruit and never suffer any disease problems that I have seen. True, any given cherry plum tree can produce fruits that are small, tasteless, sparse, unreliable, perishable or quick to fall from the tree, but equally I have found trees that carry fruit that is large, tasty and lasting, ones which crop reliably and ones which don’t drop their fruit at the first breath of wind. I’m sure it can’t be beyond the efforts of plant breeders to combine all these characteristics in one tree. Indeed there are some named varieties of P. cerasifera, available in the UK from Orange Pippin Trees. Has anyone out there had any experience with any of them?

There is an impromptu breeding experiment going on on a bank near my house, where there are perhaps a hundred cherry plum trees, probably planted with their blossom in mind more than their fruit. Their qualities vary wildly but some are very good indeed. I discovered one this year that has incredibly sweet fruits, even when still partly green. It is yielding so heavily that I picked a bucketful in less than half an hour. Right next to it is a purple variety that has proven itself to be an excellent keeper. I have been growing on seeds from the best varieties that I have picked for a few years now, so if anyone has a field that they aren’t using and would like to do a cherry plum trial orchard, I’m waiting to hear from you.

To add to the plum orgy clearly going on in these parts, cherry plums have evidently been crossing with my Japanese plum tree, Prunus salicina. I’ve been growing on seeds from it and some of them obviously have a variety of cerasifera called Atropurpurea as their pollen parent. Atropurpurea has been bred for deep purple bark and fruit and pink flowers and is unmistakeable. It is a rubbish fruiter unfortunately, but it suggests that other cherry plums will have crossed with the Japanese one too. Since the domestic plum arose as a cross between P. cerasifera and P. spinosa, the native sloe, who knows what will result?

Japanese plums ripening on a window sill