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.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Taking a fence 2

It is a nuisance to have to waste time and energy on neighbour disputes, and I know a lot of you have had all kinds of problems with selfish or thoughtless people encroaching on your property. In comparison to the things I've read on other people's blogs I know I'm dealing with a pretty small and insignificant dispute, but it's an annoyance nonetheless.

I've already blogged about my next-door neighbour's decision last year to put a solid six foot fence along the entire length of my vegetable garden, in place of an open latticework fence which allowed the sunlight through. The impact of this has been noticeable over the last season. The fence runs along the south side of my garden, so the vegetable plot now gets no direct sunlight at all during the spring and autumn months, and even in summer the strip of permanent shadow is two or three feet wide, reducing the amount of growing space I have. It would be annoying enough if it was their fence boundary, but it isn't - it's ours. But in the interests of maintaining neighbourly relations, I decided not to put in a formal complaint about it. The fence does bring me some benefit to compensate for the loss of growing space; being in shade all through the winter does reduce the weed growth, and at least the fence now gives me some privacy and prevents the bloke next door from dispensing unsolicited gardening advice, which he was wont to do with tedious regularity.

Last week, however, I went out into the garden and found the neighbour perched up on the fence nailing a trellis panel on top of it, raising the height of the fence by another 12-18 inches. "It's just decorative", he said when I challenged him about the further loss of light it would cause to my growing area. Thanks a bunch. He was obviously a bit self-conscious about doing the work while I was working out there, and stopped for the rest of the day. As I've always got on fine with them, I thought the best thing to do would be to make a conciliatory approach explaining my concerns. I wrote a polite and friendly letter asking them to reconsider their plan to put trellis panels along the whole length of the fence, explaining the impact their six foot fence has already had on my property and hoping they would understand how much my vegetable garden means to me.

I got no response, but the next morning I found that they had snuck out early in the morning before I was up and nailed the trellis panels up all the way along. As a concession, they had put them slightly lower than they were originally going to be, but they still add to the height of the fence. I was not happy, to say the least, and I told the neighbour so the next time he stuck his head up over the fence. His response was that he'd rung the council planning department and they'd told him that he could basically do what he liked (thank you council), and if I didn't like it I'd have to take out a civil action. We had a good shout at each other but the selfish old bastard knew there wasn't anything I could do once he'd got the panels up - which is probably why he did it while I wasn't around.

To be honest, it's not the further erosion of my vegetable plot that bothers me; it's the disappointment that after seven years of being decent neighbours to them, and asking them nicely not to do something which impacts on my garden, they deviously went ahead and did it while I wasn't looking, and rather than listen to my concerns just told me I'd have to take legal action to get it removed. I'm well within my rights to do so, but I've got better things to do with my time and money than lining solicitors' pockets. I'm just baffled as to why they are being such arseholes.

Maybe the arseholeness was there already and I'd chosen not to see it. I already knew that the woman next door bad-mouths the neighbours while being friendly and polite to their faces. The first inkling I had that I was on the receiving end of this was when they asked me to go round and be a witness on some legal paperwork they were trying to get signed. Their daughter, who is about the same age as me, was there and I smiled and said hello ... and she scowled at me as if I'd just been caught trying to burn down an orphanage. I can't ever remember being greeted with such contempt and disgust by someone I've never met, and I thought oh well, it says more about her than it does about me. But then it transpired that her mum doesn't have a good word to say about anyone and has probably given her the impression that all the neighbours around here are freaks and degenerates. It's also telling how often they have offered me things during their clear-outs which have turned out to be broken. Plant trays with splits down the side, baskets where the handles have come off. They make a show of being kind and neighbourly when they are simply dumping worthless junk.

And now, following my shouting match with the old bugger last week, they have decided to take things a stage further and are now about to put up a solid six foot fence along the length of my greenhouse, where the one remaining lattice panel had been letting some light through. Clearly the chance to cast a permanent shadow over my greenhouse and render one side of it useless for growing plants was too great a temptation to resist. You have to feel sorry for people who are that small-minded, because it's really a symptom of how unsatisfying their lives are. Again, I've got better things to do with my time than getting involved in legal action, but I did take a few moments out of my busy schedule to draw an unwieldy erect phallus on the side of my rainwater butt to give him something to look at while he's working. Does that make me mean-spirited as well? Perhaps, but it's more fun than a solicitor and if he's going to behave like a prick then he may as well have one to look at. Besides, "it's just decorative".