Sunday, 22 May 2011

Potato blessings

Thank you to all who left comments about the fence issue, they lifted my spirits. The neighbours have now finished putting the fence up, though since I took this picture a couple of days ago they have added a trellis panel to the top as well.

Well here it is: the south side of the greenhouse, which was previously open to the sunlight. What unutterable tossers.

I did have to laugh at the comment by Dim Sum Gardener (thank you) whose elderly nosey neighbour climbs on a plastic table to spy over the fence. I have similar experiences with the bloke next door, who climbs up stepladders and peers into my garden on a regular basis. As I'm very quiet he usually doesn't realise I'm there, so I make a point of shouting a loud "HELLO!" hoping to make him topple off. It'll be interesting to see whether he continues to do this nosey parkering in future – I bet he will. When I first moved in it became flagrantly apparent that he liked to look at knickers on the washing line, and so I carefully calculated all the sightlines from the open lattice fence and made sure I hung my undies in the places which were out of his view. At least the solid fence has resolved that, and I have relative laundry freedom. He will have to get out the stepladder now if he wants to see a bra fluttering in the breeze, or make do with gawking at his wife's grandma pants. It's also put the kibosh on his unsolicited gardening advice, which was generally along the lines of (a) you planted that in the wrong place, (b) you shouldn't water that while the sun's out, or (c) it's no good washin' them greenfly orf, you've gotta kill 'em intcha? I can understand his lack of appreciation for organic methods, which is largely a generational thing, but it was made more irksome because he's one of those men who talks to women's breasts instead of their faces. During these conversations I kept wanting to say "um ... excuse me, I'm up here..." In some ways, it's a relief to be freed from the social obligations, and I no longer have to pretend to be interested while he witters on about some packet of seeds which was 2p cheaper in Aldi's than in Tesco's.

At the root of the fallout is the simple matter that we are just very different people with very different worldview and priorities. They like to keep their garden clean and tidy, with lawn like Astroturf and a Bug Gun at the ready to blast the living daylights out of any hapless insect which chances to venture onto their flowers. It must be distressing for them to have to live next door to a long-haired oik who wears clothes from charity shops and never mows the lawn. They hate cats, and I have two. They hate weeds, and I cherish a few patches of them for the bees and butterflies they attract. The missus next door is absolutely paranoid about dandelion seeds blowing through from my garden to contaminate hers. And the bloke has been telling me for years that home-grown vegetables are a waste of time because "they don't come to nuthin' anyway", presumably disappointed that his cabbages didn't grow with polythene shrinkwrapping like the ones in the shops. He thinks organic gardening is daft ... why put up with insects eating your stuff when you can just spray them? But then he wonders why there are more birds and butterflies in my garden than in his. My plant-breeding work is completely over their heads – I've tried many times to explain it but they are just baffled as to why I want to make new plants when you can pick up seeds so cheaply in the shops. All these differences mean that I can get a kind of revenge on them just by being me ... I can let my dandelions go to seed, and leave the lawn as a scrubby meadow, and it drives them nuts. I could experiment with further environmental practices ... perhaps install a compost toilet next to the fence where their garden bench is, or at least a wee-activated compost heap. Or I could indulge my artistic creativity and make a big papier mâché cat turd to stick in the middle of the lawn, or perhaps a giant inflatable dandelion floating up above fence level on guy ropes.

The reason I've been put off going to the council is that my past experience of trying to use "due process" just results in enormous waste of time and energy which I'd rather spend on positive and creative things. I have in the past had to deal with a bad neighbour who put the current ones well in the shade (pun intended) – an old bat with a personality disorder who victimised the entire neighbourhood, but despite having a petition signed by all the neighbours and the support of our MP we couldn't get anything done. The council said it was a matter for the police, and the police said it was a matter for the council, and back and forth it went for three years. Eventually the old bag really lost it during a row about bin-bags and beat her next-door neighbour around the head with a baseball bat. While it was fun to watch her being carted off in a paddy wagon, still yelling abuse at the police as they took her away, she ended up getting away with it because the Crown Prosecution Service forgot to request the medical evidence in time for the trial and decided to press for a conviction without it - which they didn't get. During the court hearing the woman's son sat directly behind me and the victim, whispering death threats to us the whole time. We reported it, but nothing was done. So if I'm a little cynical about the usefulness of pursuing official complaints, this is why. I would rather just draw a big arse on the fence and blow a few raspberries, and get on with something positive.

An unnamed/unidentified South American andigena potato. The carmine-red splodges in the leaf axils give a clue to the deep red tubers it will produce.

So here's some positive stuff I've been getting on with. I've had some very generous potato donations from Rhizowen and Frank Van Keirsbilck, which I'm watching with great excitement as they grow. They include several colourful specimens of South American andigena (I think) types, a rare phureja variety, and some Maori (Taewa) potatoes which Frank grew from seed sent to him by a gardener in New Zealand. Being seed-grown they are "Frank originals" rather than named varieties, but I am happy with that. To me, a reshuffling of the genes of Maori potatoes is just as interesting as getting hold of existing heritage types, because it shows a lot of detail about the ancestry of these potatoes as the various parental traits segregate out. I'm very excited about them as they are very hard to get hold of outside New Zealand. It's a little difficult to tell what the spuds will look like, as all potatoes at this time of year look like brown wizened prunes regardless of what cheerful colours they might have had at harvest, so I will have to wait and see. But one seems to be a dusky ultra-purple and another a reddish bicolour. Among the South Americans there is a similar range of colour loveliness, including an unnamed pink and yellow bicolour and a black and tan bicolour called Puca Quitish. It's going to be a fun year for bizarre-coloured mash in the Rebsie household.

This is Pastusa Amarilla, a phureja-type potato from Owen. As the tubers were small I started them off in modules, where they grew like rockets, and this one had already begun to set some tiny tubers of its own by the time I planted them out.

I've not yet had time to blog about my TPS-grown potatoes from last year, and there's so much to say I don't know where to start. There were lots of fascinating colours and exquisite flavours, and some amazingly high yields considering the plants were seedlings and not grown from tubers. A great many tubers produced by last year's seedlings are now replanted and growing for the first time as tuber-grown plants. Some are HUGE ... in fact the biggest and most vigorous potato plants I've ever grown. This may be down to the fact that freshly created potato varieties are relatively virus-free. The more established varieties, unless you get planting stock which has been "cleaned" in a laboratory, will have become burdened with a collection of energy-sapping pathogens over the years. It could also be an effect of hybrid vigour, but that's probably less of a factor in potatoes than in other plants, because essentially all potatoes are hybrids. Their tetraploid (doubled chromosome) structure keeps their genes banging around like a pinball machine in every seed. Hybrid vigour is the norm in most potatoes, which is why they're such a successful food crop, and you should theoretically only see a drop in vigour if you inbreed them, i.e. grow seeds which have self-pollinated. But in an illustration of how nature likes to raise two green fingers to such predictions, the most rampant batch of triffid-aspiring monster spuds I currently have in the garden is an inbred line from self-pollinated berries of Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy. These little beauties deserve a whole post of their own as they are wonderful, colourful and precious.

One of the most interesting potatoes-from-seed I have on the go is from a cross of primitive stenotomum cultivars, Pirampo x Khuchi Akita. This is an F3 "novelty line" from Tom Wagner, a cross of two traditional Andean potatoes which are not adapted to temperate zones such as Europe but are still fun to experiment with. I have been erroneously describing them as Bolivian, when in fact only Khuchi Akita is from Bolivia, and Pirampo originates in Peru. Any road, this hybrid is diploid, so it lacks the chromosome doubling which gives cultivated potatoes their big tubers and high yields. It's also limited in its ability to set tubers in the British climate, so I couldn't be sure that the plants I grew from TPS would give me any potatoes at all. But they did give me one very big surprise. They were completely and quite astoundingly blight resistant.

Last September I watched as all the potato haulms in the garden turned brown and rotted, including the ones which I was trialling for possible blight resistance as they had been bred to contain the resistance genes. Fortunately the blight in 2010 was late enough that it didn't curtail tuber production, and I got a good harvest, and was able to simply stand back and watch to see how the blight affected different varieties at different speeds. I had twelve plants of Pirampo x Khuchi Akita, in various parts of the garden, and there was not a speck of blight on any of them. They just sat there defiantly while the plague raged all around them, and then, as a final "sod you" gesture to Phytophthora infestans they put on a second flush of flowers just as I was scraping up the blackened corpses of every other potato in the garden. They were still flowering in October when the first frosts came. Their flowers were beautiful too, have a look at these ...

Pirampo x Khuchi Akita potato blossom, 2010.

I was really surprised, because I wasn't expecting this hybrid to show any blight resistance at all. There are a few species of near-wild Andean potatoes which are blight resistant, but not these; these are technically the same species as normal cultivated potatoes, just a less developed form of it. I'm still not entirely convinced that the resistance is genetic, and will have to see what happens to them this year before I allow myself to get too excited. But it does at least illustrate why I'm keen to experiment with unusual varieties like this.

As it turned out, about half the plants managed to set tubers. This is a pretty good achievement for an Andean landrace type, because they are dependent on daylength, and the long daylength in Europe is completely wrong for them. Consequently they don't start to tuberise until the days shorten in the autumn, by which point they don't have time to do anything before the frosts hit them. What I'm looking for in these plants is the odd one or two which can tuberise successfully in our long summer days. It's one of those things which is self-selecting by default and doesn't require much intellectual input from a plant breeder – if it doesn't tuberise effectively then it can't survive to the following year. Extreme Darwin in action. Another self-selecting trait is the keeping quality, since a short shelf-life is common in Andean potatoes. It's often possible for farmers in South America to grow a continuous cycle of potato crops, perhaps two or three a year, so they don't need to be stored for any period of time. They are just replanted shortly after harvest and off they go again. Can't do that in England though, unless you want to grow a crop of frost-bitten stumps. So I can only regrow the ones which stay alive in storage for six to eight months. This weeded out several of my Pirampo x Khuchi Akita beauties, unfortunately.

The tubers I got from the plants were small, deep-eyed, immensely variable in size (but still small) and not very abundant. However they did come in some absolutely glorious colours and markings, mostly reds, purples and intense carmine pinks.

Alas, this beautiful purple bicolour was among the ones which didn't make it through the winter. I didn't even get a chance to taste it as it was so pitifully low yielding. But I feel blessed to have had it enter my life, however briefly.

This one was a lot more promising. It's a bright red one with yellow eyes, though it doesn't look its best in this shot because it's unwashed. (Washing potato tubers considerably reduces the chance of them keeping over winter.) This was by far the best yielding of the lot - a pretty respectable harvest for a diploid landrace type. Only the largest tubers succeeded in surviving over winter, but survive they did ...

And this is what they look like now, blossoming like mad already. Notice that the flowers are more of a mauve colour than the magenta-purple blossom shown above. The flower colours did vary somewhat between siblings in this hybrid, though they were all somewhere on the mauve to purple spectrum.

42 comments:

Randy Emmitt said...

Rebsie,

The fence is awful! What jerks they are. I think your compost bin should be moved next to the fence where its wonderful aromas can blow through their fence. The potatoes look promising to me.

Robert said...

Compost bins don't smell noticeably; have you thought of a nice patch of Dracunculus vulgaris? I had them till waterlogging killed them off, and the smell is unbelievable, like a month-old dead body. On a good day, I could smell it twenty yards off, and my sense of smell is almost nonexistent!

Do any of your potatoes show any blight resistance? I've got a little Skagit Magic seed, which is supposed to be resistant, but it hasn't been tried against our local strains yet.

keen101 said...

Haha, yeah i agree... Dandelion seeds would be the best way to get revenge if you ever need to. :D

Can't wait to see more posts about your peas this year. The potato breeding is interesting, but i don't grow any potatoes myself yet.

Peter Mulryan said...

Those kind of neighbours are vexatious and not worth of further thought - your potatoes however sound very interesting - also keep us posted on Luna Trick, I am reading your back posts and would love to know how they are progressing.

Madeline McKeever said...

I am sorry to hear about all your troubles. Is moving an option? You really need a research farm.

Jeremy said...

I'm full of admiration for your attitude, and even more so for the whole of this post. How about the magenta on those potato flowers. You're sure you didn't give them just the slightest tweak in Photoshop?

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Robert - I have some Skagit Magic seedlings too. I don't know about the blight resistance yet, but hoping for some interesting colours.

Peter - updates will follow as time allows ... and I'll be happy to give you everything I have in the way of Irish seeds. Just let me know where to send them.

Madeline - ahh, I'd love a research farm! But I'd need a team of gardeners to go with it ...

Jeremy - haha - no Photoshopping on that one, no. The intense magenta-purple seems to be a feature of diploid potatoes, as I see it in both phureja and stenotomum types. Perhaps when potatoes went tetraploid that gene got left behind and now they are stuck with the pastel shades. The magenta blossoms were borne facing downwards though, so I had to practically lie on the ground to get a decent photo of them.

Rhizowen said...

So sorry that you've now got a "peace wall" blocking out the sunlight. I suggest all we sympathisers make donations towards the purchase of the Fairholm Field so that ignorant, maladjusted, f*ckwit neighbours don't stand in the way of your manifest destiny.

Glad the phurejas made it through OK. If you can crack the blight thing you can have all my ulluco varieties and I will abase myself before you. Can't say fairer than that.

Vegetable Heaven said...

Some of those are worth growing just for the flowers! What stunning colours.

Mark said...

Awesome that you have got (apparently) the complete blight resistance in your hybrid. Should have some fun crossing it into other better tuberising varieties or just going for selecting bigger tubers in your variety. Have fun and best wishes.

BilboWaggins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matron said...

Fascinating photo about the leaf axils indicating colour of the potato. I must get my wellies (make that fishing waders today) on.. and go out and have a look at my shetland black!

Anonymous said...

Rebsie- I would like to learn about real potato seeds, so I'm looking forward to your book.

Steve

Flowering Pear said...

Those kind of neighbours are vexatious and not worth of further thought - your potatoes however sound very interesting..
Thanks for post..

madcat said...

What they need is celendines,when do they go on holiday? .Maybe you could seed bomb them with something invasive like comfrey or green alkanet.The dandelions are a good plan too .

madcat said...

If all else fails then get them with the leaf blower !!!!

smallgardendesign said...

yeah i agree... Dandelion seeds would be the best way to get revenge if you ever need to.
small garden design

flowerlady said...

Rebsie
I fully sympathise with you,we have had awful neighbours in the past(but now have lovely ones,who's 2yr old loves picking my peas and sitting down with her 1yr old brother and feeding him)The main reason for commenting is thanking you for soooooo much inspiration! I have been following a friend on her blog for months now but after reading your blog on the HSL site I have actual made myself a profile and am now a newbie blogger.I will defineley be following your posts,love the potato ones cant wait to try some different ones nxt yr I have grown foremost and desiree this year and feel so boring after reading your posts.

Sara said...

Ugh, that is one ugly fence! Are you allowed to paint your side of it? If so, I'd be putting up the biggest, brightest, hippy-est mural I could dream up, all in shades of green to compensate for the lack of actual greenery there now. "It's just decorative" ;)

keen101 said...

Rebsie,

we haven't seen you in awhile. When are you going to update us on how your garden did this year?

Randy Emmitt said...

Rebsie,

Was looking forward to seeing your harvests. We dug potatoes today.

windmoleken said...

Rebsie, I've got some nice Sarpo Mira x Vitelotte Grande seedlings - 21 varieties harvested so far, including lovely purples, blight resistance, great tastes, fingerlings, ... I'll be in touch with you when I've harvested all those surprise spuds!

abc said...

Your idea was useful by Revathi

G-Rex said...

I was inspired by your blog last year to save some potato seeds. so this year i grew them on and was only expecting to get seed potatos. most of the plants were hit by blight before doing very much, but two them have good crops in their own right. one a few large tubers and the other a lot of smaller tubers. the large one roasted and jacketed well, so lets hope it keeps through the winter well.
Thanks for the inspiration.
Greg

Chris said...

Just discovered your blog while surfing for seed swap sites. Loved it! And empathised too. I started trying to set up a fruit/forest farm fairly close to you and discovered I had the neighbours from hell. Gave up on that area and moved to my current garden where I have lovely neighbours and my proto-forest garden is beginning to come together. I'd love to see your garden and what you are growing. Are you interested in this?

Dia said...

Also just discovered your blog in the midst of researching Andean (& etc) veggies, especially tuberous ones - what LOVELY purples!!
I also play Lever Harp - tho I haven't done a CD (keep thinking I will - hope you've made headway on your own label!

I have solid fences on 3 sides, & chain link on the W - nice to have the privacy they provide. My daughter lived to the W for several years, new folks are nice, & I have trees & berries on that side. I'm also a more 'thrift store clad' gal ... & think of doing a bit more on MY side, ... perhaps old doors (quite popular as backdrops at the farmers market a few blocks away, & available from a re-store)
Would love to see the progress on 'taters & peas!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebsie,

I hope that you are still growing all these amazing plants! We miss your updates and hope all is well. Post again soon!

One of your many horticultural e-friends!

Blake Smolensky said...

Hahaha! I love the bio-retaliation idea! Luckily, my family has never had to deal with nose government and landowners when gardening for over 30 years! We get a lot of our foliage from an online marketplace. They have a really cool "flower-pedia" that will give you some more insight to what you can do to annoy the new neighbors! Check it out. http://www.flowershopping.com/

Asbestos Training said...

Perhaps you could knickers on your line with letters on them which spelled out the word pervert

gardening said...

Reading your blog has really made me miss spring. I can't believe how much more winter there is to get through before we're back there again

Jamie said...

Dandelion seeds would be the best way to get your revenge. :)
- environmental issues

Isabela said...

I envy people who can establish and manage their own garden. My house has a limited space that's why I cannot put even a small garden.(sigh)
- filipino folk songs

Anonymous said...

does anyone know of the criollo potato common in colombia..wow excellent...does anyone know of it by another name and availability....Mike Bloomfield farms .

greenworld said...

That fence is terrible. The people sound like jerks!

Jude Cowan Montague said...

Hello Rebsie, it's Jude here the musician. We have a big garden in SE London and we're growing stuff too. I've just got into real seeds and it looks like you have been incredibly incredibly busy with your gardening. What fun to find you when I was doing a search on my new Shetland black potato strain.
Cheers!
Jude

colourme said...

sorry to hear about the fence.
love your photos of plants and flowers.
here's to cheer you up, do check it out coloursinbloom.tumblr.com
flowers online

Phil said...

Almost a year since your last post. Is there any chance we'll see you return to your plant breeding exploits or have we lost you to your music career for ever? Really miss your blog posts, but wish you good luck with your music too.

Connacht Gold Garden Centre said...

Awesome that you have got (apparently) the complete blight resistance in your hybrid. Should have some fun crossing it into other better tuberising varieties or just going for selecting bigger tubers in your variety. Have fun and best wishes..

Thank you for post..

Connacht Gold Garden Centre

Julien said...

So, what did these seedlings become ? And what about your Mayan Gold TPS seedlings ? Your Pastusa Amarilla started tuberizing very early for a phureja. All crosses between diploids phureja, stenotomum, goniocalyx, ajanhuiri etc... are successful, so have fun !
I'd be interested in TPS of Mayan Gold if you have any left. See my seedlist if you wish.

Flor Unikon said...

Very interesting read, look forward to see how those potatoes do, and to more from your posts.

Gabriel Ross said...

Where are you??

canadamike said...

I would like to congratulate you on your new book...and may I ask how to get a copy signed by the author please???

Would be more than ready to buy one and also recommend it strongly...is a canadian distributor in the plans??

Send me a mail at jeanmlachaume@hotmail.com....got interesting stuff for you too...

Big hugs...