Monday, 26 February 2007

Today in the garden ... the ginger peril

One thing you don't expect to see when you open your curtains on a Sunday morning is a strange man rummaging around in your privet hedge. But there he was, standing on the grass verge which borders our front garden with his head stuck deep in the foliage. But when he looked up and saw that I'd spotted him, instead of running away in embarrassment he came and knocked on the door.

"I lost my car aerial in your hedge last night," he said. "Mind if I have a look for it?"

Um ... how do you manage to lose a car aerial in a hedge set back from the road by about ten feet?

"Well, it was dark. And the aerial's black."


Whether he was a nutter or not, there was indeed a black car aerial in the hedge, and he delightedly scuttled off with it.

Meanwhile, in the back garden, we have another mysterious interloper.

I first suspected something was getting into the garden which shouldn't be there when I started to find bones in the vegetable patch. First there was one in the asparagus bed. Then another, half buried in the plot I'm preparing for my peas. Big, chunky bones with sawn-off ends. Well they ain't mine, I'm vegetarian.

My suspicions were confirmed when an enormous trench was dug in a tub of overwintering carrots and a large soggy partially masticated dog chew deposited in the hole. I recently read a post on John's Spade Work blog about a German Shepherd who had taken to harvesting his own carrots, so it's obviously not just me. I eventually found a small gap at the bottom of the chainlink fence, probably just big enough for next door's small white terrier-type thing to squeeze through.

However my garden is facing a new peril which is causing more damage to my plants than all the slugs, snails, dogs and other pests put together. It's our ginger kitten. He's a gardener's nightmare. He digs up or bites the heads off all my seedlings. He wees in my flower pots. I can't plant anything anywhere without it being interfered with. When I tried to protect my sweet peas by making a thicket of prickly branches around them, he stripped the prickly stuff off with his teeth and then crawled in and bit the heads off all the peas. He's such a little hard man, I even saw him gleefully chewing on a bramble the other day.

Here he is ... oh ... er ...

He was slightly less macho last week however, when he somehow fell down a gap between two fences and couldn't get out. It was dark and tipping down with rain, and I could hear this desperate pitiful squeaky mewling. Unfortunately I couldn't get to him ... he was too far down for me to reach and the area was tangled up with brambles. The fence was too high for him to climb. Eventually though he managed to scramble half way up, just high enough for me to grab him. And of course managed to cover me with muddy footprints.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Climbing bean: Kew Blue

Age: no idea
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: velvety purple pods, elegant plant, multi-purpose, gourmet flavour
Cons: none that I noticed

Kew Blue is a beauty. All purple podded beans seem to make for nice-looking plants, but this one really is a corker.

I don't know very much about its origins. I've never seen it available anywhere except the Heritage Seed Library and a small UK supplier called Beans and Herbs (I've ordered from them and they're good ... they appear to have the best range of rare heritage beans in the UK). According to the HSL catalogue, this variety was originally from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. But whether it was actually bred there, and if so when, I've no idea.

The plants have purple stems right from the early seedling stage. And it's a spectacularly rich, translucent colour which is difficult to describe and isn't conveyed adequately in photographs. All I can say is that I spent a lot of time just staring at it. Amazingly beautiful. The leaf stalks graduate in colour from deep purple at the base to green at the top. Leaves are a bright rich green and darken with age, turning gorgeous deep pink and purple colours in autumn.

Kew Blue is a climbing bean and becomes a tall plant (you'll need 7ft canes for a wigwam) and it produces fewer leaves than other beans I've grown ... large, slightly gnarled and asymmetrical. I found it slow to germinate and a bit sluggish to establish itself, but once it got going it was very vigorous. The stems are chunky and their colour is so deep and vibrant it almost glows. Flower buds are a rich purple but open up into a pink-mauve.

When the pods start to form they're dead straight, satin smooth and very slender. They're a very dark purple colour, with a flush of green in the younger pods, and again the colour has a depth to it which is hard to describe. They look very special. They're produced in pairs on long trusses, like they're dangling from little handlebars. You can see them easily when you want to harvest them. Yields are high, although not exceptionally so. Mine was completely trouble free all season and kept flowering and podding well into the autumn.

I tried harvesting the youngish pods and steaming them, and they were sweet and lovely. Very refined indeed with a nice texture. As with all purple beans (as far as I know) the colour changes to dark green during cooking, although if you give them the very lightest of steamings they may retain a trace of purple. The pods stay stringless and tender until they're quite mature, although they lose some of their refinement. If left to mature even further you can shell them out and eat them fresh. The slightly flat kidney-shaped beans are white at this stage but turn a greyish blue after cooking, and their texture is firm and nutty. The flavour is delightful. You can also leave them to mature fully and use them as dried beans, and they turn a tan colour with very light speckling.

I love Kew Blue and will definitely grow it again. It's truly multipurpose and tastes wonderful at all stages. If you want a gourmet quality bean which also looks lovely in the garden you need look no further.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

The purple pimpernel

Self-seeded annuals like this field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) are always welcome in the vegetable garden (photographed last summer)

I managed to get outside today and get on with some weeding. Even at this time of year when there are very few crops growing, weeding is a delicate business for me and has to be done carefully. That's because I'm selective with my weeds. In all the veg beds I allow annual flowers like poppies and calendula to self-seed. I've had to get good at recognising different plants at the seedling stage, so that I know what's what. Field poppies like the one above have not really got started yet, but I have quite a few California poppies which have successfully overwintered and there are also some new self-seeded opium poppies, so I have to carefully hoe around all those. I love opium poppies; not only do they have the most beautiful colourful mop-headed flowers but the bees go absolutely nuts over them. These pollen-rich flowers are a good thing to have in the vegetable plots because they attract hoverflies, bees and other beneficial insects, quite aside from looking gorgeous. The result is a mini-ecosystem with lots of biodiversity and natural pest resistance, thrumming with life. I don't subscribe to the idea of having a separate flower border and vegetable patch. In this garden it all gets shoved in together.

I'm also careful to preserve any scarlet pimpernels I come across, at least until they flower. Now that probably does seem a bit mad, because the scarlet pimpernel is a bogstandard weed in the UK with pretty flowers but no obvious garden merit. But mine are special.

When I first moved here in 2004 and the whole garden was laid to lawn, I spotted something with purple flowers growing through the grass just as I was about to run the mower over it. It took me a moment or two to be sure it really was a scarlet pimpernel because I've never seen one with any flower colour other than the usual creamy scarlet-orange. I spent the rest of the season carefully mowing round it, which meant I had a weird sticky-up tuft in the middle of the lawn all summer, but needs must.

Scarlet pimpernels are not always scarlet (photo taken last summer)

I know nothing about the genetics of scarlet pimpernels. And I don't suppose anybody else does either. Research on plant genomes is limited almost exclusively to economically important crop plants, and there's not much funding available for garden weeds. So I can only hazard a guess at why this plant had purple flowers. It could be a recessive gene which is commonly present in the landrace (wild plant population) but rarely gets a chance to express itself. Or it could be a spontaneous mutation, a natural "mistake" in the plant's DNA. Either way, I only had the one plant so my only option was to save its seeds and hope some of its offspring would be purple. There was no guarantee at all that they would be.

In 2005 I spread the seeds around the garden and let nature do its thing. To my delight, several of the plants turned out purple-flowered. I started weeding out any 'normal' scarlet flowered pimpernels and just left the purple ones to mature and self-seed. In 2006 there was another increase in their number.

So now I appear to have my own strain of purple pimpernel. If you're wondering what's the point, there isn't one. I just like having something different in the garden even if it's a weed. And why not? I don't know how common purple pimpernels are but it's something which my garden gave me spontaneously, so I treat it as a gift.

Tomatoes got headache?

Here's a tip if you're sowing tomatoes at the moment. Sometimes when the seedlings first emerge and straighten out they still have the seed husk stuck on their head. It may come off as the seedling grows and expands, but more often than not it stays there and the seedling is effectively strangled, unable to free itself. When this happens, try putting a drop of water on the head of the seedling. The seedling should then be able to free itself within a few hours. If not, moisten it again until it does.

The problem arises because the seed husk dries out and contracts once it's elevated out of the soil, and if the seedling still has its head inside it when this happens ... ouch.

Never ... (I offer the rosy red fruit of my own experience here) ... never attempt to pull the seed husk off with your fingers. You'll be sorry.

Anyway, I'm growing a preposterous number of tomato varieties this year, albeit in small quantities of each. These are the ones I already have growing as fine sturdy seedlings, and no constricted heads. More varieties still to come.

Black Prince
Yellow Taxi
Green Tiger
Speckled Roman
San Marzano
Purple Calabash
Salt Spring Sunrise
Isis Candy

This year I'm growing them in simple coir (from reconstituted blocks) watered with a very dilute solution of organic seaweed extract. If the weather's bright and not too breezy I put them outside during the daytime to maximise their exposure to light. A day or two of winter sun every week brings them on nicely.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Woohoo! My potatoes germinated

Potato seedball harvested last July. I'm now in the process of growing its seeds.

It may not seem like much to get excited about, but it is for me. It's the first time I've tried growing potatoes from seed. That's right, not the usual tubers left sprouting in eggboxes on windowsills (though I have plenty of those too) but real, true seeds.

Just to confuse things, the term 'seed potatoes' or 'potato seed' usually refers to tubers which are supplied for planting. But they're not seeds really, they're vegetative cuttings. Potatoes do produce real actual seeds though, and to differentiate them from seed tubers they are called 'true potato seed', or TPS.

If you've been looking at the blog for any length of time you may remember the small green 'apples' I collected from my potato plants last year. Not all potatoes produce them, because many these days don't have fertile pollen in their flowers and so have lost the ability to set top fruit (or seedballs, as they're properly called). But every now and then they appear.

They look very like miniature green tomatoes, for the very good reason that potatoes and tomatoes are closely related (hence their susceptibility to blight). When you open up a potato fruit it has juicy white flesh full of small tomato-like seeds. I saved some last year, not knowing whether they would be viable or not, and they have taken a couple of weeks to germinate ... but there they are, little pale green noses poking up out of the compost just like tomato seedlings.

You may be wondering why I'm bothering to grow potatoes from seed when it's easier to grow them from tubers. In fact, it will take two seasons to get a decent harvest from them this way. But the appeal (for me) is that each seed is unique, and effectively a brand new variety. Some will be worth keeping and some won't, but they'll all be unique.

When I do my pea breeding projects I know which genes control the traits I want, and I can predict to some extent what I'm going to get if I cross Plant X with Plant Y, even down to the likely ratio of particular characteristics in each batch of offspring. But that's because peas are efficient inbreeders, genetically stable and easy to control. Potatoes are the opposite. They are a gene lottery. I don't even need to do any crosses ... I can take self-pollinated seeds from one plant and the resulting offspring will all be different from the parent plant and from each other.

The reasons for this are a bit complicated, and if you're not interested in plant genetics you may want to hum a pleasant tune to yourself while you read the next bit. It's basically down to potatoes having twice as much genetic material as normal.

Here goes then. Genes are carried on chromosomes, which are chunks of DNA. In most plants chromosomes are arranged in matched pairs, which means there are two copies of each gene. Each gene pair may consist of two dominants, two recessives, or one of each, and these combinations determine which traits are expressed in the plant. The technical name for this gene arrangement is diploid. When a diploid plant is fertilised and produces seed, the chromosome pairs are torn apart down the middle and only one half is passed on by each parent. The seed (and the plant that grows from it) inherits one set of chromosomes from the ovule of the flower which produces it and one from the pollen which fertilised it. The two sets match up into their correct pairs, so the seed ends up with a new diploid (paired) arrangement made up of one set of chromosomes from each parent.

Potatoes are not diploid though, they're tetraploid. Instead of having two sets of chromosomes they have four. So when they reproduce by setting fruit, each seed inherits two complete sets of genes from each parent instead of one. Every chromosome carries many thousands of genes, and as both parents have four sets of chromosomes each, and the chromosomes break up into parts which randomly recombine, it becomes quite a major reshuffle ... more or less any combination of genes could end up being passed on to the offspring (or not). Which makes for a right mixed bag.

And suddenly the system of one gene being dominant over its neighbour becomes a lot more complicated. Instead of a simple 'either-or' situation you get four copies of each gene vying for dominance. You may get one dominant and three recessives, two of each, four recessives, four dominants, etc. Recessive traits which have been hidden for generations suddenly emerge. The likelihood of a seed-raised potato having the same genetic makeup as its parent(s) is very small indeed.

One way of looking at it is to imagine a diploid plant is like a one-armed-bandit fruit machine with only two wheels spinning inside it. The number of combinations possible with two wheels is relatively small. Increase the number of wheels to four though, and suddenly you have a massive increase in possible combinations and much less chance of predicting what you might get. That's basically what happens with a tetraploid.

Even if my potato seeds come from a flower which pollinated itself, the number of possible different combinations of genes should ensure that every plant I grow is a new variety. Some will be crap and may not even survive. Most will be good, but probably not very interesting. But with any luck a few will be excitingly different. At the end of the first season I will harvest the tubers from each plant and select the ones I like best. They will only be mini-tubers, not full sized potatoes. To evaluate them properly I will have to save them over next winter and replant them in 2008, when they should reward me with a decent crop. And once I've done that, I can select any I want to keep long-term, and that's how I get my new variety.

OK ... so how the hell do you maintain a new variety, when there's so much unavoidable variability every time you reproduce it? Well actually that bit is easy. Once you've grown a potato variety you like from seed, you just save and replant its tubers. The great random genetic lucky dip is only an issue when plants reproduce sexually by producing seed. Because tubers reproduce by vegetative propagation they are actually root stem cuttings (clones) from the parent plant. So each new plant grown from a tuber is genetically identical to the plant which produced it, and remains so in successive generations. This is true of all commercial potatoes too of course. If I plant a tuber of King Edward, for example, I'm essentially growing a cutting from the original King Edward plant which flourished in a Northumbrian field back in 1902.

So that's the genetic basis for wanting to grow potatoes from seed. But there are other benefits. Tubers are genetically identical to the parent plant but they also very efficiently store and pass on all the viruses and nematodes the parent plant may have had. These can build up over successive generations and become a serious problem, which is why most countries have laws requiring commercially available seed tubers to be tested and certified disease free (usually involving hefty blasts of chemicals). However, potatoes raised from seed are generally virus-free anyway, because there are very very few seed-borne potato diseases. And growing from seed represents a good opportunity to select new varieties with better disease resistance, specially adapted for your own garden, because most modern commercial varieties are pretty rubbish in that department.

If you're interested in developing your own potatoes I highly recommend a fantastic eBook, Amateur Potato Breeder's Manual by Raoul A. Robinson, which the author has generously made available as a free download. It's angled towards breeding for sustainable disease resistance, but the information is so thorough and clearly explained it's a gift to anyone who wants to grow spuds from seed. He even explains how to graft a potato scion onto a tomato rootstock so that it has to put all its energy into forming flowers and seedballs instead of tubers. Now that sounds like fun!

2010 update
As this page still gets a lot of hits, I thought it worth mentioning that I've written a new and updated article about growing potatoes from seed, with more pictures.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Ice gallery

Rainbow chard

I had a message today from someone offering me a chance to become a pop star. So that was nice. Possibilities of Top 20 hits and big tours. *cough.* I don't think I'm the person they're looking for, unfortunately. Just as an example, today I went out to post a letter and when I put my coat on it felt a bit heavy on one side. When I looked I found I had a potato in my pocket. That's right, not only am I the kind of girl who has potatoes in her pockets, I don't even have any recollection of how it got there, which is even more worrying.

The weather (as those of you in the UK will know) went from pleasant warmth to ice and then to snow over the course of the week, and made it far too cold to get anything useful done outside, so I've mostly been busy on music stuff instead. But I did nip out in the garden and take a few photographs. The snow pictures were nice, but the hoar frost ones were better, so here's a selection. All taken on Wednesday morning.

These dangly mirror discs appeared in a previous blog post in the summer ... as did the rainbow chard

Yellow jasmine

Purple sprouting broccoli

Monday, 5 February 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Potato: Edzell Blue

Age: before 1915
My supplier: home-saved tubers (this variety is now becoming much more readily available in the UK, so not hard to find)
Pros: gorgeous colour, trouble free
Cons: temperamental to cook

Edzell Blue is certainly a looker, there's no disputing that. The colour is magnificent when newly harvested and scrubbed ... really amazingly vibrant purple. It dries to a muted deep mauve which has an almost metallic sheen. Very pretty indeed. And when you cut it open the flesh is a pure bright white and looks lovely in contrast to the skin. The skin is shiny with freckles and some variation in colour. Tubers are a bit smaller than a modern spud and usually smooth and rounded with quite deep eyes.

Presumably it originates in Edzell, Angus (Scotland). It was first referred to in 1915 but is thought to have been bred in the 19th century.

The flavour is nice. It's not the most wildly exciting flavour I've ever tasted in a potato, but it is nice. Mild and delicate. Texture tends towards the floury end of the spectrum.

There is a definite art to cooking it (no doubt that's one reason it's rarely offered in the shops) and I haven't mastered it myself. It tastes lovely as a new potato when it's small, but boiling it is not an easy process, because the flesh seems to absorb water more than most varieties. Unless you get the timing absolutely right it falls to bits. Mash is an option, but it tends to be watery for the same reason. Baking is less hit and miss, although the spuds are on the small side for baking (not that it bothers me, 'cause they need less baking time if they're small) but they don't really seem suited to this either. They have too much dry matter in them and go very floury, and the baked flavour isn't very inspiring. The skins go extremely crispy and leathery and take a lot of chewing. Roasting seems to be the most satisfying option, and very nice it is too. Steaming might also work well. But all in all Edzell Blue is not what you'd call versatile.

And if you were hoping it might keep that colour when you cooked it, you'd be disappointed. The ice white flesh stays the same but the skin goes a brown colour like any other potato. And if you boil it the water will go dark green as the purple colour dissolves.

Edzell Blue is a Second Early type. The plants grow fairly upright with lightish bright green leaves, and were trouble free in my garden. They produce very pretty pure white frilly flowers with golden centres, which are really lovely. The flowers drop once they've faded and don't produce 'apples'. It was the first variety I harvested (June) and the yields were pretty good. No blight, because they are harvested before it strikes.

So on the whole my impressions of Edzell Blue are positive. It's not one of my special favourites, but that's partly a matter of taste. It's very nice and well worth growing.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

The lost gardens

Photographed in the garden today, a glass lantern with one of last year's leaves still stuck to it.

I try to minimise the amount of ranting I do on my blog, but every now and then I have to allow my bleeding-heart pinko leftie idealism to burst out. So here goes.

Garden Organic (or the HDRA as I've always known it) is concerned at the moment about the loss of domestic garden space in the UK because of the way the planning rules are currently defined. Because gardens are technically regarded as brownfield sites it's very easy to get planning permission to "redevelop" them with housing. And don't I bloody know it – this practice is rife in Cheltenham. It's quite a green and leafy town and a lot of older houses here were originally built with good sized gardens, and what developers have been doing is either building extra infill housing in the gardens or, worse still, demolishing the original house and building a whole cluster of new ones on the site, destroying the gardens and endowing the new houses with barely enough green space to air a handkerchief.

Yeah yeah, it's good for the economy, blah blah, and it's partly NIMBYism on my part because I don't like my beautiful historic home-town being spoiled by people who are just out to make money and who don't have to live with their own ugly contributions to the urban landscape. But it's happening on a much more insidious local-scale level too, which is nothing to do with the planning laws and is entirely down to people's attitudes and priorities.

I live in a street where all the houses have good sized front gardens and driveways big enough for one or two cars. A sizeable proportion of residents are elderly people who constantly amaze me by keeping their gardens so lovely. What happens when the elderly people pass on to other places in this world or the next is that the houses are bought by people who watch Channel 4 property development programmes ... not to live in but to rip out all the original features and chuck them in a skip, "add value" by building out-of-proportion extensions, and raze the front garden with a JCB and replace it with gravel so that the people they flog it on to at a vast profit can park their Jeeps on it.

I'm feeling a bit sore about this at the moment because there was another one only this week, a little way along the road. A developer has done up a house and put it on the market, and one afternoon along came the JCB and the dumper truck, and erased, in the space of two hours, the large mature front garden full of attractive plants that had been nurtured and tended for 70 years. By the end of the afternoon there was a nice flat expanse of gravel in its place, and the SOLD board went up within days.

I completely understand why a lot of people don't want the hassle of caring for a garden when they're working full time and that they'd rather use the space for off-road parking, which is a godsend to multiple-car households and certainly in short supply. So it's an obvious thing for both developers and residents to want to do. But the number of front gardens left in our street is dwindling very fast in favour of a boring gravelled sterility (and more cars) and it's a damned shame I say.

It may be adding value to all the properties as the street goes upmarket, but it will mean an impoverished environment for all of us in the long run.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Broad bean: Red-flowered

Age: 18th century
Background: Also called "Crimson-flowered". Rescued and revived by the Heritage Seed Library.
My supplier: W Robinson & Son
Pros: gorgeous flower colour, gorgeous scent, good blackfly resistance, lovely flavour
Cons: none that I noticed

This has to be my favourite broad bean ever ... the old and un-named red-flowered or crimson-flowered variety. I love it. The flowers are the most beautiful colours and glow in the sunlight.

Clearly others love it too because it's had a surge of popularity in recent years. There are still only a handful of suppliers selling it but it's been busily doing the rounds at seed swaps, so it's not too difficult to find these days.

Very simple descriptive names like "Crimson-flowered" ("Early long purple", "Tall white" etc) are often an indication of a variety's age, because it wasn't really until the Victorian era that romantic names like "Lazy Housewife" and "Egyptian Turnip-Rooted" became de rigeur. Red-flowered broad beans were described in seed lists in the late 18th century, and what we have today is either the same one or a close variant of it. The variety seems to have come close to dying out, until an elderly lady from Kent donated it to the Heritage Seed Library in 1978. It had been grown by her market-gardener father, who was given the seeds during his childhood years a century earlier.

It's a smaller and more dainty plant than a conventional broad bean and grows to about 3ft with three red-tinged stems which usually stay up without support, at least until the podding stage. Leaves are a bright greyish green and fairly rounded. The pods are small and grow almost vertically, and the beans are pale green and about two-thirds the size of a modern type.

But they are very abundant, so yields are good overall. And the flavour and texture are fantastic. It has a slight firmness and mealiness in the texture which you wouldn't find in most varieties today but it's a nice kind of mealiness. And the flavour is sweet and lovely without any trace of bitterness. The beans cook to a nice bright green colour and only need to be lightly steamed.

The real wow-factor of this variety though is definitely its flowers. The crimson colour is so deep, voluptuous and translucent, and on spring days when the flowers are backlit by bright sunlight low on the horizon they can leave you staring at them for minutes on end in drop-jawed wonderment (they did me, anyway). And one of the unsung blessings of broad beans is that their flowers have a lovely scent. Red-flowered has the most incredibly beautiful smell ... and I speak as someone who finds a lot of flower scents headachey and nose-curdling. It's just delicate and lovely, and it stops you in your tracks as you walk up the garden path. The bees love it too and I noticed they were chewing their way through the base of the flowers to get inside them.

Other than a bit of nibbling by bean or vine weevils, who give the leaves frilly edges by eating little notches all the way round, the plants seemed fairly resistant to everything, pest-wise. And most significantly, only mildly bothered by blackfly.

Blackfly is the ubiquitous and inevitable pest of broad beans. For those who don't use sprays, the end of the broad bean season is often brought about when the plants (and pods) are so encrusted with solid black you can't even get hold of them to harvest them any more. So when I first grew this variety in 2005 and found it was completely untroubled by blackfly until the last week or two of the season, I was quite excited. I grew it again in 2006 and the same thing happened ... no blackfly at all until very late, and even then just a smattering (though there was some variation in infestation between plants ... I saved seed from the ones which stayed cleanest, which also happened to be the reddest-flowered).

As far as I'm concerned, this alone makes it priceless in the garden. I've lost so many broad bean crops to blackfly, which are quite disgusting things when they build up to critical mass, and the usual organic methods (pinching the tips and hosing the blackfly off) have limited impact. So to find a variety that just gets on and grows untroubled, looking immaculate right up until harvest time, is quite a coup.

The 'proper' colour for the flowers is a deep wine red with darker burgundy underneath, which fade slightly with age to a deep carmine. But there's been a lot of variability among the ones I've grown and I don't know if it's just me. In 2005 I grew six, and no two were the same. Colours, markings and combinations varied from pale pink, dark cerise, burgundy red, charcoal grey with a pink flush, or pale pink and black bi-coloured. I'm wondering whether the seed I've got has been accidentally cross-pollinated with a 'normal' black and white flowered bean, or whether they naturally have that much variation. They were all gorgeous, but I saved seed mainly from the deepest red ones.

In 2006 I grew 12 plants, mainly from my own seeds, but topped up the numbers with two from the original seed packet. I now don't know which ones were originals and which were mine, but I can guess: there were 10 normal deep red-flowered plants and two pink and black oddities. Broad beans do cross very readily so it would be no surprise if an open-pollinated variety like this had picked up a few stray genes from a neighbouring crop. It'll probably do it some good, too. And as long as I select the best red ones for seed each year the variability should soon disappear.

There is another old-ish broad bean with red flowers, Red Epicure ... but it's quite different, larger and with chestnut-brown seeds.