Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Garden gallery ... late April

Once again I'm posting some nice pictures while I'm too busy to write anything more considered. Yes I know there's a couple of greenfly on that orange tulip. But we are an organic garden and we are tolerant.

Lots of peas on the go at the moment. I have tall peas - Sugar Magnolia with its manic tendrils ...

... and short peas - Gravedigger ...

... and some new seedlings. The green ones are another breeding project in the making, an F1 from Magnum Bonum x Carruthers' Purple Podded. I don't know what I'm looking for or what I expect from the cross. It's just that they are in my opinion two of the best peas available, an outstanding heritage greenpodder and the best tasting and most beautiful purple podded. And they were both flowering in the garden at the same time last summer, so it made sense to cross them. To the right of the picture are some peachy-coloured seedlings of Spring Blush which is related to Sugar Magnolia and has the same alien-head hypertendrils.

The apple blossom on all the trees is lovely, and smells distinctive too. Tewkesbury Baron is quite strongly scented.

Many people grow and enjoy the heritage Crimson-Flowered Broad Bean, and rightly so, it's a superior variety. But the seeds I bought in 2005 from W. Robinson & Son showed a mixture of flower colours: pale pink, dusky pink, mauve, two-tone pink/charcoal black, as well as the expected red. I assume the seed stock had been accidentally crossed with a more common black-and-white flowered variety, and this was probably the F2. Not that I mind at all. They were absolutely beautiful, to be honest. It was quick and easy to eliminate the pinkness by saving seed from the best reds, so I'm assuming the red-flower gene is a good hearty dominant. But I like the pink ones too, so I saved some seed from those separately. And here's one of them just coming into bud. Isn't it lovely?

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Why I love out-of-date seeds

The gardening question which never seems to have an answer is "how long do seeds keep?" The reason it has no answer is that there are so many variables ... how the seeds were harvested, processed and stored, what type of plant it is and probably also an element of luck. Tomato seeds keep longer than carrot seeds, for example, but there are no hard and fast rules. You just have to try them.

Take the little beauty in the picture above, photographed last month ... a very rare dark pink Estonian potato-leaf tomato called Siniy. This one came as a freebie from Association Kokopelli as part of their giveaway of out-of-date seeds. I've photographed the seed packet beside it so you can see the date on it: 1998. That's right, this healthy little tomato plant grew from seed which had been sitting in an envelope for 10 years.

Admittedly germination is no longer 100%. I sowed three seeds and only one germinated. But that's enough to give me a whole new generation of seeds if this plant survives to maturity. Tomatoes are naturally inbreeding, so saving seed from a single plant (although not ideal) is not a problem.

I'm not necessarily recommending out-of-date seeds as being better than, or even as good as, fresh seed. Old seed often has sporadic or very slow germination, and sometimes the plants which do grow are a bit weak and wobbly. But there are many good reasons to keep hold of those old packets.

There's not always much point going to the trouble of rescuing old seeds when you can just go out and buy new ones, but I often find myself needing to make the effort. Sometimes I get hold of old seeds of rare varieties which can't easily be replaced. Very often I get seeds in small quantities so I can't afford to waste any.

This is one of the very few areas where I disagree with Monty Don, who advocates throwing away any seed packets more than a year old and buying fresh ones. His reasoning is that fresh seed germinates quickly and grows rapidly ... which is true enough. Except that the whole idea of "new" seed being "fresh" is a bit of a myth.

Association Kokopelli have a policy of labelling their seeds with the year they were grown, but that's unusual. "Sow by" dates on commercial seed packets are sometimes arbitrary and meaningless. Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots wrote a very informative post about this a little while ago. When it says "packeted in year ended ..." that's exactly what it means – packeted. What year it was actually grown is another matter. As Patrick explains, the seed is likely to have been produced in a single batch in one year and sold as required. A germination test is done and if the seed passes the test then it gets packeted up and sold. The "sow by" date is based on the validity of the germination test and is not necessarily an accurate indication of the freshness or shelf-life of the seed.

And naturally seed companies are in no hurry to correct the common misconception that out-of-date seed is unviable, and that you need to go out and buy another lot.

In the UK and Europe, where dunderheaded legal restrictions govern the availability of vegetable seeds, readily available varieties often get dropped from the Common Catalogue and when that happens they can become very rare very quickly. The Heritage Seed Library keeps an eye on "deletions" and steps in to rescue them as necessary, but things can slip through the net. In other words, it's possible that the crumpled seed packet you've had languishing at the bottom of your seed tin for years may now be an endangered variety.

Another good point is raised by Soren of In The Toad's Garden. If you save your own seed, there is often a risk that a crop might accidentally cross-pollinate with another variety. Not that that's always a bad thing ... it's potentially the start of an exciting new variety. But if you're growing heritage varieties and need to keep the variety pure it can be a disaster. Soren keeps a few generations of seed for each variety, so when an accidental cross happens he can just go back to his seedbox and start again with seed from a couple of generations earlier, before the cross happened.

Tomato seeds are especially good to save long term, as they really do last for years. I'm still getting 100% germination from some seeds I scraped out of a Marks & Spencer's tomato onto a piece of kitchen roll in 2002. Back then I didn't know how to save tomato seeds properly so I didn't follow the usual recommended method and ferment them. But what the hell ... they still germinate.

Beyond the realm of vegetables, some seeds stay viable for very long periods. Last year, with a little expert care, some seeds from botanical specimens found tucked inside a book for 200 years were successfully germinated. And seeds of the common wild poppy are thought to remain viable for up to 100 years. The incredible display of poppies which bloomed on the First World War battlefields in the years immediately following the armistice was a mass germination of dormant seeds in the soil. Poppies are adapted as a cornfield weed and are sensitive to soil disturbance, so four years of pelting with mortar shells was just what they needed to trigger them off - generations of accumulated seed suddenly brought to life.

There have long been claims about peas found in Egyptian tombs still germinating after thousands of years - though personally I'm sceptical about that. It was a well publicised scam in Victorian times which seems to have kept resurfacing over the years.

Association Kokopelli sometimes give away packets of old seeds, and I have a lot of fun coaxing them into life. With such a large catalogue of varieties, they inevitably have a stock of unsold seeds which have passed their expected germination time. Rather than throw them away, they give them to gardeners to take pot luck with them. At the moment, for every five packets of seed you buy from their UK website you get a free packet of "old" seeds of the vegetable of your choice. Some don't germinate. But a lot of them do. The Siniy seeds shown above (and incidentally that seedling is now a fine healthy plant) was one of the packets I got free with Dominique Guillet's book a couple of years back. Other 8, 9 and 10-year-old tomato seeds I've had from Kokopelli are also germinating fine.

I also have a selection of old seeds from Association Kokopelli's pepper collection. Pepper seeds, in my experience, are not as long-lived as tomato seeds. Some of mine are five years old and not germinating. But the trouble with peppers is that they are very very slow to germinate, and need good warmth and moisture. It's not easy to keep them constantly warm and moist for a month or more, especially when moulds are likely to thrive in similar conditions. So here's what I've been doing to "resurrect" the slow-germinators.

An attempt to salvage some old seeds of Georgia Flame, a mildy hot pepper. The brown tint in the kitchen roll is tea! Using tea to assist pepper germination is a tip I picked up on the excellent Chileman website. (Sadly I haven't been able to germinate these.)

I cut a thin strip of kitchen roll (that's paper towels to American friends), fold it into a small square and wet it with warm water from a recently boiled kettle. A drop of tea is even better. Then I place the seeds within the folded square and put the whole thing inside a small sealable polythene seed bag. Making sure the seal is tight, I put it somewhere near a radiator and leave it for ages.

As you can see in the picture, the advantage of this method is that you don't have to keep opening the bag to see how the seeds are getting on. If you keep opening and resealing the bag, the contents will go mouldy in no time at all. But left sealed it should stay fresh for weeks. You check the seeds by holding the bag up to the light. Any sprouts emerging will be clearly visible. Once the sprouts emerge you will have to unseal the bag and plant them within a few days.

A Hungarian Semi-Hot pepper seed brought back from the dead after spending over a month on a bit of moist kitchen roll in a sealed bag. Nothing happened for a month, and then four germinated over the following couple of weeks. Not bad from what had appeared to be a packet of dead seeds.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Pea update: purple mangetouts

F2 plants from a cross of Golden Sweet x Carruthers' Purple Podded. The colours are stunning when the sun shines on them.

Pictures speak louder than words with these, I think. These are for the Real Seeds purple mangetout project, F2 seedlings from two crosses: Golden Sweet x Desiree and Golden Sweet x Carruthers' Purple Podded. Hopefully a majority of them will turn out purple podded, and from those I hope to find some which have the recessive mangetout pod type. Mangetout peas lack the gristly layer of fibre on the inside of the pod.

All the parent varieties used in this project have purple colouring in one form or another, so it's not surprising that all the F2 plants are showing purple colour. Theoretically they should all be genotype AADD. It is variable though. Some plants have a dark purple axil splodge, some have red edges or red flushes on the leaves, some have rosy stems and tendrils.

They're all beautiful.

Golden Sweet x Carruthers' Purple Podded with non-serrated red leaf margins, pink stems and green tendrils

Deep rose blush on stems and tendrils on a Golden Sweet x Carruthers' Purple Podded plant, and even on the back of the leaves. This one has serrated edges.

I suspect some of the strong purple colouring on these plants has been brought on by the intensely cold nights we've been having. They've been snowed on and endured two or three hard frosts. Tough little things.

Some of the plants have serrated leaf margins, similar to the yellow sugarsnap project. They also share the tendency for dwarf plants to have darker leaf colour ...

Pink stems on a Golden Sweet x Desiree plant. This one is going to have a dwarf habit, it's very low and bushy and you can see the slugs have already been at it. Notice the dark green leaves compared to the yellowy green of the one in the picture below.

A big dark smudgy axil ring on a Golden Sweet x Desiree plant, which also has some purple spots on its leaves.

Pea update: yellow sugarsnaps

Jeremy said the eyes of the world would be on my yellow sugarsnap seedlings. Well, here they are Jeremy, I hope you like them (and the rest of the world does too).

The F2 plants are all slightly different but the differences are subtle at the moment. Purple leaf axil splodges are now showing up on a lot of plants as expected, although it's been slow to develop. The splodges indicate the genotype A_D_ and its assorted variants. A is the gene for anthocyanin production and D is the gene for the purple splodge. They are both dominant. The size, shape and intensity of the splodge varies from plant to plant though, so there are probably other genes at work too. Some plants have a cream band inside the purple one, some don't, others just have a faint trace of it.

This one (below) has no purple splodge in the leaf axil and no other purple or red marking so is presumably the recessive genotype aa. Whether it has D_ or dd I've no idea because D can't express itself in the absence of A. Ah, the joy of genes!

Another thing I've noticed. The dwarf plants have darker, grey-green leaves compared to most (though not all) of the tall plants, which are more yellowy-green. I have no idea yet whether this is genetic or caused by something in the environment, or an interaction of the two. The F2s have separated into dwarf and tall types in a beautiful Mendelian ratio despite the small sample size, and I planted all the dwarfs along the front edge of the frame so they don't get swamped. It may be that they're getting more sunlight, or it may be that their short stature concentrates the chlorophyll in a smaller area and makes them go darker.

If it is genetic, why would there be a correlation between short height and darker leaf colour? One possible explanation is gene linkage. Genes are arranged in long sequences on chromosomes, which break up and rearrange whenever a seed is produced, to form a new genome for that individual seed. Peas have seven chromosomes. If the gene for dwarf height is on one chromosome and the gene for darker leaves is on another, those genes will be independent of each other and will usually recombine freely in the offspring. But if the two genes are close together on the same chromosome, it's much less likely that they can be inherited separately. The closer they are, the more they will stick together. In addition to this, it's very common for genes to interact with each other and even for a single gene to have more than one function (pleiotropy is the technical name for it). Any of these factors could be involved.

Another possible explanation, of course, is coincidence. Just because all my dwarf peas have darker leaves, it doesn't necessarily mean there's a reason for it. As I said, it's a small sample size and I can't draw too many conclusions from it at this stage.

Almost all the F2 plants have got serrated leaf edges, but again there's variability in how strong it is. Some have subtle little points and spikes along the leaf margins while others are boldly zigzagged and look like someone's cut round them with pinking shears. One of the parent varieties, Sugar Ann, has boldly serrated leaf margins while the other, Golden Sweet, shows some variability. Most Golden Sweet plants have smoothly rounded leaf margins but serration does sometimes show up too. I assume there's a dominant gene involved here, which is either not fully penetrant in Golden Sweet or is interacting with other genes. My other breeding project involving Golden Sweet hybrids is showing the same thing, a strong dominance of serrated edges.

Everything I've written here is just idle speculation, I must emphasise. I no more understand the genetic make-up of these plants than I know what colour knickers the Queen is wearing. It's all down to observation and guesswork. I will probably have to grow another couple of generations of plants before I can draw any firm conclusions.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Pea update: general

This year's acquisitions from the Heritage Seed Library

Honestly, I've got so many interesting peas on the go at the moment I'm really struggling to catch up with writing about them. I still have to do a post about my original Purple Pea Project, but in the mean time here's a brief update on the ones I've already blogged about.

I'm quite excited by Sugar Magnolia. It looks so different from anything else I've ever grown, and its height is already apparent in the way it's towered up above all the other seedlings in the tray. The stems are a lovely deep pink and the tendrils are mad - see below. I assume Alan Kapuler named it after a song (by the Grateful Dead). I'm trying to come up with a title for my next album and wondered about naming it after a vegetable.

There's a carrot named after Hendrix's Purple Haze but I'm not sure carrots were the plant substance Jimi had in mind when he wrote the song. Though I suppose it looks carrot-shaped when it's rolled up.

Graham, who very kindly sent me the pea seeds, has sent me some more seeds of both Sugar Magnolia and Opal Creek, along with a third Kapuler pea Spring Blush. I think Spring Blush may have been a sideline which sprang up from the breeding work on Sugar Magnolia. It has the same hypertendrils, apparently, and similar height ... but instead of purple pods it has green pods with a purple stripe. Another great curiosity to look forward to, thanks Graham! If all goes well I will be able to share seeds of these varieties next year.

Hypertendrils. This is what they look like:

Many of my peas are now planted out in the garden and coping very well with the unseasonably chilly weather. At least the snails are not as big a problem as they usually are ... the very dry spring and the drawn-out cold have inhibited their activities considerably, so their numbers are pretty low at the moment. What I am having problems with though is keel slugs. They're those very small ones, often pale or pinky coloured, that live in the soil and come out at night to wreak unspeakable havoc among seedlings. They are far more destructive than those big ugly slithery jobbies you see on the garden path in the wet.

Oregon Trail has been the most severely damaged by the slugs and is a great example of why I generally avoid growing dwarf peas. Some of the plants are completely skeletonised, and none of them are looking good. The plants are so short the apical tip doesn't have a hope in hell of growing out of the slugs' reach. It's like a fast-food restaurant for gastropods.

Carouby de Mausanne is also being savaged, but as it's a tall pea I have every hope it will thrive. The apical tips are already well above ground level so the slugs are mostly just shredding the lower leaves.

I still have lots of F1 seeds from last year's hand-pollinations which need sowing and growing, and I'm also planning out what new crosses I can make this year. I was very impressed with Taiwan Sugar, a rare pale-pink-flowered pea kindly sent to me by Patrick: it's a mangetout (snow) type with a wonderful flavour and no string. But it's a very short dwarf variety and I've already explained what happens to dwarf peas in my slug-addled garden. So I'm wondering what would happen if I crossed it with a good tall mangetout, such as the voluptuous (white) flowered and gorgeous flavoured French heirloom Corne de Belier. A tall mangetout with pale shell-pink flowers and delicious sweet flavour would be a lovely thing to have ...

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Tewkesbury Baron

I posted about my Gloucestershire apple trees in the very early days of this blog but as I hardly had any readers back then I don't expect anyone to remember. So this is the story of my Tewkesbury Baron apple.

At one time Gloucestershire was one of England's primary apple-growing areas (not surprisingly, as it's joined to Somerset at one end and Worcestershire and Herefordshire at the other) but three quarters of the county's orchards have been lost since the 1950s. Fortunately the hard working Gloucestershire Orchard Group have identified, saved and propagated a large number of the survivors and are helping people to reestablish orchards in the area. They have a beautiful database of local heritage varieties which revel in such names as Black Tanker, Foxwhelp and Hen's Turds. I'm sure Bastard Underleaf would have a welcome home in my garden if I had more space, but sadly it's believed to be extinct. Fortunately though many of these trees are now available to buy, albeit from only one or two specialist suppliers such as the one I got mine from, Lodge Farm Trees near Berkeley, Gloucestershire.

A couple of years back I decided to get three heritage apple trees, and to choose the three that were most local to me. Ashmead's Kernal is the localest, originating 300 years ago in the garden of a Dr Ashmead only 7 miles away in Gloucester. The next most local is Tewkesbury Baron, which takes its name from the town of Tewkesbury (pronounced "chucks'bry" around here, not "tyooksburry") about 12 miles away. We used to live there when I was a kid. It used to flood all the time back then too.

A knobbly green cider/cooking apple Taynton Codlin makes up the trio.

Tewkesbury Baron is of uncertain origin but was certainly in existence by 1883. It doesn't get a lot of good press. Its qualities are summed up by the experts at the Brogdale National Collection as (and I quote) "Little flavour." Their online database elaborates on this slightly: "Fruits have a little coarse, dry, white flesh with an insipid flavour." There's not much other info available apart from that, and nobody has anything good to say about it.

I must admit I did wonder if I was a bit mad as I hurtled up the M5 with a tangle of tree branches curled around the inside of the car windscreen ("Whatchoo looking at? Haven't you ever seen a VW Polo with a tree wrapped round its windows before?") A fruit tree is a long-term commitment, it takes up space and its roots will steal nutrients from my vegetable plots. It's important to choose the right one. So why was I being so daft as to give up my precious garden space to a flavourless apple?

My decision was partly sentimental because I used to live in Tewkesbury, and because I wanted to have the most local varieties. But the real clincher was that Tewkesbury Baron is critically endangered. By the criteria of the Gloucestershire Orchard Group that means its population has dwindled to "two sites or fewer". I felt morally obliged to take it on.

I was impressed and inspired by my visit to Lodge Farm Trees. Its proprietor Rob is a great bloke and he's completely passionate about his trees. He loaded them into the car for me and spent a good ten minutes explaining how to prune them and care for them. I also have him to thank for galvanising me into starting this blog. He knows more about apples than I ever will, but when I asked about the flavours and flowering habits of the trees I was buying he shrugged and said "Some of these trees are so rare nobody's grown them for years. So we won't know what they're like until somebody grows them and shares the information." I was really astonished by that because it had never occurred to me before that ordinary gardeners like me can make a really significant contribution to the available knowledge. Instead of being a passive consumer of other people's expertise we can all grow, observe, note, photograph and share information, especially now, in the internet age. I was inspired and set up Daughter of the Soil that very same week.

So, that was over two years ago and I can now share some information about Tewkesbury Baron. My tree was certainly keen to produce fruit. I'd read that apple trees can take seven years to start fruiting properly, but my one-year-old tree produced an abundance of flowers within a few weeks of planting and managed to set 12 fruits. For the sake of the tree I picked off 11 of them and just let it produce one, for tasting purposes. The fruits are a deep rosy red where the sun gets to them, green where it doesn't, and lightly speckled. They have a very waxy shiny skin which feels quite distinctive and silky to touch. The wax is so intense it rubs off on your fingers.

But here's the surprise. I gathered the one specimen fruit when it was ripe, and ate it. And I can say, hand on heart, it was absolutely the most gorgeously exquisite apple I've ever tasted. The texture was slightly grainy, but not in a bad way, it was bursting with juice, and the flavour was beautifully poised between sweetness and sharpness. It was equally sweet and sharp at the same time, so tangy it was almost fizzy ... a really rich and complex flavour. The fruit itself also had a beautiful, beautiful scent even before I bit into it. I left it on my desk for a few hours before eating it and it filled the whole room with an exquisite apple aroma.

How this apple ever got labelled as having "little flavour" is totally beyond me. I'm in no position to argue with the pomologists at Brogdale, but I can only assume they based their assessment on some duff fruit. There could be any number of reasons why the specimens they had weren't up to scratch, but anyway I can vouch that in my garden Tewkesbury Baron is wonderful, an absolute treasure and delight.

The blossoms, as you can see from these pictures taken yesterday, are a deep pink and grow in little posies right the way up the trunk of the tree. I'm training mine into a festoon, hence the bits of string in the top photo. When the flowers open they'll be pale pink.

Hurrah for Lodge Farm Trees, rescuing and distributing these endangered varieties. And if you would expect a specialist nursery with lovingly nurtured heritage varieties and personal service from a genuine expert to be more expensive than a garden centre flogging the bog-standard commercial varieties, well it wasn't. The trees were £12 each, which is several quid less than in most garden centres. They were also well developed for their age and in fabulous condition. They'd really responded well to being grown with loving care rather than churned out by a production nursery. For those with less space to spare the nursery was also offering "family trees" where several heritage varieties had been budded onto a single rootstock, producing a tree with different fruit on every branch.

The moral of the story? Don't let anything you read put you off trying stuff.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Garden gallery ... mid April

I don't have much time for blogging at the moment, so here's a load of pictures which I'm never going to get round to writing about properly. Rather than have them languish in the bowels of my hard drive I may as well just post 'em.

Apple buds, Ashmead's Kernal, a local heritage variety originating in Gloucester c.1700.

An unusual variegated rosemary called Silver Spiers which I've had for years (salvaged from my previous garden when I moved here). The leaves are a sage green with cream edges and although it has a slightly less vigorous growth habit than most rosemaries it tastes just as good.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Things we dig up in the garden - Part two

I found this screwtop bottletop thingy while I was planting my Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy potatoes. It's plastic, but it's an old, dense, heavy type of plastic, probably bakelite or something of that ilk. I love the smell of bakelite, but to be honest this just smells of earth at the moment. I love the smell of earth too though, so that's OK. It was buried in a part of the garden which hasn't been dug over for years, possibly decades. There's a logo and inscription stamped on it, scratched and damaged but still legible, a capital B and the words "Bartholomew" and "Cheltenham". I've no idea what kind of company Bartholomew was or what products it sold, but it's a little piece of social history dredged up from the soil.

Now, one thing I'm certain of is that ever since the dawn of civilisation, when mankind first tilled the soil and sowed seeds and invented agriculture, people have delighted in finding misshapen vegetables which look ... well, rude. So it's my great pleasure to share with you these lewdly bulbous Jerusalem artichokes which I dug up yesterday while clearing the space for the greenhouse. Fnarr fnarr.

If you have a slightly less puerile sense of humour than me you might prefer this artichoke elephant.

The chokies will have to find a new home elsewhere in the garden, but I'm sure they won't mind.

Just after I'd posted about Sugar Magnolia peas and how they have these unusually long touchy-feely tendrils I went and had another look at the description of it on Dr Kapuler's website and saw something I hadn't noticed before, a reference to hypertendrils. Now I must confess my ignorance and say I had no idea what hypertendrils are. Though it does seem like a good name for them, they are pretty hyper. When I googled it I only got three hits, all of which referred to Dr Kapuler's peas, so now I don't feel quite so ignorant. It seems (according to this inspiring article) that hypertendrils are the result of his breeding experiments using parsley peas interbred with other lines.

And funnily enough, I just came across a wonderful picture of a parsley pea on Miss Fuggles' blog the other day. They're not very common and I'd never seen one before ... they have long leafy 'fingers' growing out of them and are very unusual and distinctive. I can highly recommend Miss Fuggles' blog. She's only recently started blogging but she has a lot of interesting stuff to share with the world and it's a great read.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Opal Creek and Sugar Magnolia

Exciting peas ...Opal Creek (left) and Sugar Magnolia

I'm sure sooner or later someone is going to refer me for psychiatric help for the amount of time I spend staring at peas, but I'm irresistably fascinated by the speed with which they germinate. Usually on or around the third day after sowing, the first pale noodle starts showing through the soil and within hours there are suddenly lots of them. I have to keep going back and counting them several times a day to see if any more have germinated. They start off almost yellow, and green themselves up very rapidly with exposure to light. If the variety has the gene for anthocyanin production (whether it's purple pods or just a leaf axil splodge) it will generally have a rosy blush on it by the time it's a day or two old. Some seedlings go quite a deep red, on others you can barely see it.

I've been spending an indecent amount of time gawping at two sets of Rootrainers. The first set contains the F2 seedlings of my original purple pea project Mr Bethell's Purple Podded x Alderman, which I won't discuss in any detail here because it really needs its own post. The second has the two varieties I'm growing for the Heritage Seed Library, plus a few very special seedlings which I'm very excited to have. In my post about my yellow sugarsnap project I mentioned that the only existing yellow sugar pea I know of is Opal Creek, bred by the legendary Alan Kapuler, a molecular biologist turned public domain plant breeder based in Oregon USA, who has devoted his life to breeding wonderful new varieties for the public good rather than commercial profit. (Needless to say he's a hero as far as I'm concerned.) But Opal Creek along with many of Alan's other creations is extremely hard to find, especially in Europe. I'd never even seen it, although I've avidly read about its creation in Carol Deppe's plant breeding book. Well, now I have it, along with an equally exciting purple-podded sugar pea called Sugar Magnolia also bred by Dr Kapuler, and I have to thank the kindness and generosity of Graham in South Wales for sending me these very hard to get varieties.

Two day old seedlings of Opal Creek (left) and Sugar Magnolia

Opal Creek was bred from a cross between the yellow heirloom Golden Sweet and the patented commercial variety Sugar Snap, as part of Alan's mission to reclaim the genes from patented varieties. What I'm doing is very similar, crossing Golden Sweet with another commercial variety, Sugar Ann. Although Sugar Snap and Sugar Ann are both sugarpod varieties and share certain genes they're quite different in many other ways, so I don't expect to get the same results as Alan did. But now I shall be able to grow Opal Creek alongside my own yellow sugarsnap project and see the similarities and differences, which is brilliant.

Now, Sugar Magnolia is a treat. Only a few days after germination it already looks unique. The seedlings have rosy red stems all over (usually a rose-blushed stem will go more rosy on the parts which get the most light exposure, but this variety is a consistent colour all over). The leaves are bright emerald green, which makes a very attractive contrast. What also makes them distinctive is their very prominent tendrils. While most pea seedlings will have a single tiny tendril, often tucked against the leaves and barely visible, Sugar Magnolia has a quirky little tuft of six or eight feelers sticking out of its top like an alien head.

These are the same seedlings 24 hours later, at three days old

I don't know that much about what Sugar Magnolia will grow into, but it's a purple sugar-pod, which is something I've never actually seen. I will be very curious to see what the pods look like, although I won't get much chance to taste it this year because I need to grow this crop mainly for seed. It's also reputed to grow up to 10ft tall, which is taller than any other pea I've ever grown.

Sunshine and snow

View from the window of my music studio, across the neighbour's gardens (with my potting shed in the foreground).

We had snow at the weekend.

This is a fairly rare sight in Cheltenham because we don't get much snow here. The town is built within a cosy semicircle of Cotswold hills which provide us with a very pleasant sheltered microclimate. It's not uncommon for the surrounding hills to be completely white while the town itself has no snow at all. There's even some old local rhyme about it which I can't quite remember but it's something along the lines of oo-arr, there be snow in them therr hills but never a flake in the town.

So I was a bit surprised to open the curtains the other morning and find warm spring sunshine beaming across a thick layer of fresh snow. Needless to say it melted quickly in the sunshine but it was lovely while it lasted.

A view down the length of my garden as the snow starts to melt

Meanwhile I have a greenhouse at last! Here it is:

Yeah, it'll look better when it's put up.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Seed Guardians

A really unusual pea ... Irish Preans, which is possibly a cross-species hybrid

This year I've volunteered as a Seed Guardian for the Heritage Seed Library. I've been meaning to do it for a while, but wanted to do some informal seed swapping for a couple of years first to make sure people were happy with the seeds I produced and I wasn't getting any unexpected cross-pollination problems. The Heritage Seed Library grow a lot of their own seed to distribute to members but they're also hugely reliant on volunteers to grow seed on their behalf.

It's a pretty straightforward process to become a Seed Guardian. You write to HSL and tell them you want to volunteer. They send you a set of instructions for saving seed for various types of plant. And then in March they send you their list of "orphans". You can choose up to three varieties to become a guardian for ... this year's orphan list has 12 beans, 8 peas and 10 tomatoes. And they do let you choose which ones you want to look after (on a first-come first served basis), which is nice, and send you descriptions for each variety so you can make an informed choice. Some of the varieties are things already available in the HSL catalogue, others are new acquisitions or things which haven't been listed for a few years.

There is a sense of responsibility in taking on a guardianship role ... and it is important to ensure the purity of the seed you send back to them. But it's not the end of the world if you have a crop failure, they keep spare stock of everything. Neither do you have to commit yourself to producing vast quantities ... and you are allowed to eat some of it. They welcome feedback on the flavour and cooking qualities.

Here are my three charges. Irish Preans in the top photo is thought to be a hybrid between a pea and a broad bean. I didn't know such a thing was possible, but I don't see why not. They're different species, but they are distantly related and wide crosses like this are sometimes possible. This one was developed at an unnamed crop research institute in Ireland. The seeds are larger than most peas and are dark olive green and slightly oval, so they do look a bit like tiny broad beans ... at least they resemble some of the older, smaller types of broad bean, and unlike most peas they have a black hilum. Very curious.

Very wrinkly and slightly elongated ... the seeds of Gravedigger

I've also taken on a pea called Gravedigger. That's probably not its real name, if indeed it ever had one, but it came to the Heritage Seed Library from someone who got it from a retired farmer who in turn had got it from a gravedigger. In the absence of any other provenance, HSL varieties often get named after either the person who donated them or the earliest known person they can be traced back to. So there you go.

Finally, I have a climbing French bean called Major Cook's Bean. This one has never been available commercially, it's an heirloom which was originally bred by a First World War officer. I've got a strong connection with WW1, having written a play and a novel about it, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to grow this. Major Cook worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the war and gave the bean to a colleague, whose family have diligently kept it going since 1920. Amazing really.

So hopefully these three varieties will be listed in the HSL catalogue for 2009 ...

Major Cook's Bean