Sunday 28 May 2006

Look, the Victorians had better peas than us

Alderman, 115 years old, produces its first flower of the season

The Victorians were big on peas and developed hundreds of new varieties, most of which have now been lost. Admittedly some of them were crap. But others have deservedly survived.

Most of the peas you get from garden centres these days grow as low bushy plants, two or three feet tall. I always thought that was the normal height for peas. But no, the shorter plants have been bred for commercial growers to make mechanical harvesting easier. And as is so often the case, the needs of commercial growers are the opposite of what you want in the garden. Old pea varieties grow to five or six feet or more, which makes more efficient use of space and puts them at a much more comfortable height to pick by hand. They crop over a longer period and ripen better than the short modern varieties because the pods are spread over a larger area. They're also damned fine looking plants.

One of the most revered peas of the Victorian era was Champion of England, of 1843 vintage, and it's been on my wish list for a couple of years. Nobody sells it on this side of the Atlantic (ironically), but I've now managed to get it from the Heritage Seed Library. I planted them up in some bog roll tubes stuffed with compost and look forward to seeing how they fare.

So far I've found Champion of England a bit erratic with germination. Some seeds are very slow indeed and they're also prone to rotting (more so than other peas). When they do show up though they're chunky and a rich green colour and branch into two stems almost immediately. They should end up growing well over 6ft.

Also from the Heritage Seed Library, Mr Bethell's Purple-Podded is an heirloom variety (i.e. a non-commercial variety preserved by individuals over several generations) from the north of England. So far I've found that germination is good, it's vigorous, and grows very tall very quickly, which is its best defence against slugs. The stems and occasionally the leaves are very lightly tinged with blood red.

And here's one I prepared earlier. Alderman is a tall pea introduced in 1891 by Laxton's, particularly suited to organic growing. Mine is just coming into flower now and looks very elegant. It grows very vigorous stems and foliage up to about 5ft and then a plethora of flowers suddenly appear from the leaf axils, from the top of the plant downwards. The flowers are white fizzled with green and very voluptuous.

It's supposed to have big fat pods of excellent flavour, so I look forward to those.

Pea 'Alderman' just after rain

Saturday 27 May 2006

Today in the garden ...

Aquilegia 'Crimson Star'

At last, I saw a toad in the garden. He was staggering awkwardly across the lawn, so hopefully he was bloated from eating all the slugs on my veg patch.

I left my spade lying on the ground while I had a break (yeah, I'm very slack like that) and when I went to pick it up I suddenly saw it had a slow worm draped over it. I managed not to startle it too much and it came sauntering right over to me to have a good look. It's the fifth one I've seen this year, although there may only be two or three different ones. This one is a shiny dark brown, just over a foot long, with black speckly markings. A beautiful looking thing. (Although I don't think my mother would think so. She'd probably run away screaming.) It had a wide black forked tongue which was darting in and out and licking the surface of the soil.

And the blackbirds on the patio have babies. I can hear them all squeaking whenever a feast of worms is delivered to the nest. I notice it's the female who does most of the work. The male just sits on his backside most of the day staring through the rose bush.

I planted out Mr Bethell's Purple-Podded peas today under a rather eccentric structure of twigs.

Also sowed some carrots in a trough. They won't have room to grow to full size, but that's OK. I planted alternating rows of Chantenay, a French variety of 1830 which has short wedge-shaped roots, and White Kuttiger, a 300-year-old Swiss variety with white roots. The soil medium is mostly coir with a few shovels of sand mixed in (and some blood fish and bone meal). It's very light so the roots should whizz through that.

Friday 19 May 2006

Everything you wanted to know about broad beans but were afraid to ask

A red-flowered bean that actually has red flowers, just for a change

I grow three varieties of broad bean at the moment, all 'heritage' types. Red-flowered, Grando Violetto and Martock.

My favourite ... and I mean my favourite broad bean ever ... is the un-named Victorian red-flowered variety. I love it. The flowers are the most beautiful colour and glow in the sunlight. 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. The pods are small and the beans are pale green and about two-thirds the size of a modern type. But they are very abundant. And the flavour and texture are fantastic. I also found that other than a bit of nibbling by bean weevils the plant was fairly resistant to everything and only mildly bothered by blackfly.

The 'proper' colour for the flowers is a deep crimson with darker burgundy underneath, which fade slightly with age to a deep carmine. But there is some variability among the ones I've grown. Last year I grew six and no two were the same. Colours and markings varied from pale pink to dark cerise, charcoal grey with a pink flush to pale pink and black bicoloured. They were all gorgeous, but I saved seed mainly from the deepest red one. This year I grew 12 plants, mainly from my own seeds, but topped up the numbers with a couple from the original packet. I now don't know which ones were originals and which were mine, but I can guess: I have 10 deep red-flowered plants and two pink and black oddities. So I'm wondering whether the originals had accidentally been cross-pollinated with a 'normal' black and white flowered bean, or whether they naturally have that much variation. Broad beans do cross very readily.

Broad bean Grando Violetto in flower

Grando Violetto is an old Italian variety with very attractive dark purple beans. The plant itself isn't much to write home about ... it's a slightly straggly looking thing and the pods are unspectacular. It's a smallish plant but the stems need support from an early age and it has narrow grey green leaves which are slightly spear shaped. Flowers are a conventional black and white but quite unusual in form, with a pinky-mauve flush at the base. The beans and pods are smaller than a modern variety. They have plenty of substance and flavour though. I don't know how tall the plant naturally grows because mine all got their heads chewed off by slugs. Probably about 3ft though.

Martock can trace its origins back to the middle ages. That makes it the oldest vegetable variety I grow. (But not the oldest plant variety in the garden ... that would probably be a species rose called Alba Semi Plena which was brought over here by the Romans.) It has tiny beans compared to modern varieties, and I can't tell you any more than that because I haven't grown it yet. The plants have just germinated so it's early days.

Size differences in broad bean seeds: left to right, Martock, red-flowered, and a modern strain of Masterpiece Green Longpod.

I'd like to try breeding some new broad beans using the red-flowered type as a basis, but I've been having trouble working out exactly how they pollinate. I couldn't find much info about it on the internet so I had to take a flower to bits and have a look. Very clever it is. The stigma inside the flower is folded over and spring-loaded like a catapult. Given even the lightest touch (i.e. by a bee hovering about wondering how the hell to get in) it boings up and slaps itself straight into the pollen.

Plants are so unsubtle about these things. It's all wham bam thank you ma'am. Or a nymphomaniac on a spring, in this instance.

Maybe if I'd googled for "nymphomaniac on a spring" I'd have got a few more hits. Ah well. And now anybody else who googles for it is going to find my gardening blog and be very disappointed.

So, a broad bean flower doesn't even need to be pollinated by bees, even though that's what it's designed for. Which is probably just as well: I saw a bee the other day chewing through the base of the flowers to get straight to the nectar without bothering to go inside. Lazy little bugger.

Anyroad, I'm beginning to see that hand-pollinating broad beans is going to be extremely difficult. With such a touch sensitive stigma it would only work if you opened up a flower bud and emasculated it before the male bits were ready to shed pollen. Then you'd have to sellotape the bud shut to stop the stigma from drying out. A bit of a palaver really. I think, given that the plants are naturally diverse, I might just let them do their own thing and then select the variations I like and see whether any of them come true from seed.

Another little known fact about broad bean flowers ... they smell utterly gorgeous.

Phwoar, look at them broad bean flowers. Pale pink and black bicoloured variants of the red-flowered type.

Get your filthy osculum off my lettuce

Where have all the frogs gone? Normally they come and hop about all over the patio whenever it rains, but I haven't seen a single one this year. A month or two ago I could hear them all croaking away in next door's pond every night. Now there's no sign of them.

Not only is that bad news for frogs, it's resulted in a mega slug epidemic. For the last two years I've barely had a single slug in my veg patch ... thanks to Frogville, a pile of damp stones and logs next to the veg. As soon as the slugs appeared the frogs would nip out and scoff the lot. But this year they're out of control. I put ten fine sturdy sweetcorn plants outside to harden off and the next day there were four and a half left. Nine out of twelve lettuces vanished without trace in a couple of hours, with only a tell-tale smear of silvery slime. They are vile and destructive little sods.

Also causing trouble at the moment are the dreaded sawfly caterpillars on the gooseberry bushes. Horrible little green wrigglers which are well camouflaged and hang out on the undersides of leaves where you can't see them. Left to their own devices they will skeletonise a plant in just a few days. And as I don't use sprays I haven't much choice but to pick the little blighters off by hand. Ugh.

Same goes for lily beetles, which are already turning my lilies into lace doilies. Luckily they're a shiny chestnut red colour which makes them quite easy to spot. And on warm days they go up to the top of the plants to shag in the sunshine, filthy little exhibitionists that they are. So at least you can pick them off two at a time.

Not all the wildlife is pissing me off though, there's nice stuff too. Blackbirds are nesting in the rose bush on the patio, and goldfinches at the bottom of the garden. I have a sociable robin who sits and watches me working in the garden and we often sing to each other. It freaks him out a bit actually, but he still keeps coming back.

The other day a red mason bee came along and landed on my arm, and stayed there for about ten minutes.

And then there's the slow worms. I'd never seen one before I moved here, but they are regulars in this garden (probably because it's such a mess and they've got plenty of things to hide under). They look like snakes, but have cuter faces. They're actually not snakes at all and are from a different family of legless reptiles.

Heh. Legless reptiles. I've been courted by a few of those in my time.

Found this chap on the patio the other day. Yeah it's not a great shot, but it was the only one I could get of his face.

Thursday 18 May 2006

French beans, runner beans and things that grow up poles

My neighbour offered me some runner bean seeds yesterday and I declined them because I've just had some new ones from the Heritage Seed Library. He didn't get it at all. Why did I need new ones? Hadn't I saved any from last year? Why spend money when you don't have to? He sows the same ones every year which he got from an old geezer across the road, and saves the seed, and that's very commendable indeed. And they are impressive, I'll give him that. He always grows them in the same place, an enormous impenetrable wall of them which screens off the lower garden and yields more than he could eat in a lifetime. I grew some of them myself that he gave me a couple of years back, and they were nice. But I like trying different things too.

My different thing for this year is Black Magic, a black-seeded runner bean (still green podded though) which was commercially available in the 60s and early 70s. It's now only available from seed-saving organisations like the Heritage Seed Library, and I'll have to preserve it myself if I want to carry on growing it. That means I have to plant it as far away as possible from next door's Wall of Beans to avoid it cross-pollinating. Ideally the isolation distance should be about half a mile, and if I could put half a mile between myself and my neighbour I'd be only too happy, but as it is I'm having to make do with an obliging hedge. The thick jasmine hedge was already established along that side of the garden when I moved here and I've allowed it to grow taller to stop my neighbour looking at my undies on the washing line, and with a bit of luck it will act as a pollination barrier too.

Runner beans are quite decorative in their way – they were originally introduced to the UK as an ornamental plant before anybody thought of eating the pods. But I only grow small numbers of them, because they're quite prolific enough to supply as many as I want (I'm not a huge fan).

I'm much more enamoured with climbing French beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), also called pole beans, which are now making a comeback in the catalogues after almost disappearing in favour of dwarf French beans. They are much more tender and succulent than runner beans, and more versatile. You can harvest the pods whole as 'green beans' or allow them to mature for the dried beans ... or a bit of both. I have two Italian varieties from Franchi Seeds which I've grown for several years, having sourced them on the internet in the days when you couldn't really buy them in garden centres. Trionfo Violetto is gorgeous ... it has purple-tinged stems which darken to purple-black around flower buds, violet-purple flowers and dark purple pencil-shaped pods which are very yummy and probably full of nice anthocyanins. The beans themselves are kidney shaped and dry to a pale chestnut colour with slight mottling. It's extremely decorative throughout its lifespan. At my previous house I grew it up an arch and down the other side (it was very easy to pick because the pods hung down under the arch) and it got admiring comments from everybody who saw it. The pods turn dark green when cooked, but they still taste good. The other variety has pale yellow pods ... wider, flatter and with wavy edges, and is catchily named Meraviglia di Venezia. It has bigger leaves and very pretty flesh pink flowers which turn mauve. The dried beans are small, rounded and dusky black.

Climbing bean Mrs Fortune's

This year I'm supplementing the collection with a couple of varieties from the Heritage Seed Library. Mrs Fortune's is named after a lady called Doris Fortune, so I couldn't pass that one by. It might bring Revolving Doris some good luck. And look at the beans ... aren't they lovely? Speckled and ring-marked. The patterns almost look bitmapped.

They're rampant growers too and tough as old boots. They germinated incredibly quickly and turned into very sturdy plants which seem mostly unperturbed by the buffeting spring winds.

I'm also trying out Kew Blue, which I know almost nothing about. Not even sure which bits of it are blue. I'm finding it a little slow to germinate, but it's getting there.

Saturday 13 May 2006

Gloucestershire apples

Apple blossom: Tewkesbury Baron

Gloucestershire is in the middle of a major apple-growing region and once had a good roster of unique varieties with names like Crackstalk, Bastard Underleaf, Kill-Boys (allegedly that's what one of its rock-hard fruits did) and Hen's Turds ... half of which are now extinct. This February I planted three baby apple trees in the garden, all local varieties. Ashmead's Kernal is over 300 years old, has sharp-tasting pale green russeted fruit and originated in Gloucester about 7 miles up the road. Also 300 years old is Taynton Codlin, an acidic cooking or cider apple from the village of Taynton a few miles north of here. It's very rare these days and not a lot is known about it. And a mere youngster at 140 years old, Tewkesbury Baron (that's pronounced "Chucksb'ry" of course, as you'll know if you read my music blog) produces dark red apples, reputedly not especially flavoursome, but we'll see, and is also extremely rare. I got them from Lodge Farm Trees, a specialist grower of Gloucestershire and/or heritage apples, and very helpful they were too. They're connected to the Gloucestershire Orchard Group, an amazing bunch of people who have rescued dozens of rare local varieties from extinction. And since the bloke clearly makes his living from supplying entire orchards, it was especially good that he was happy to sell a few single trees to individuals like me, and meticulously explained how to plant and prune them. He also made sure I chose the right ones. Apples need partners to pollinate them, and they all flower at different times, which doesn't help. Tewkesbury Baron is very early, and flowers before Ashmead's Kernal has even bothered to show any leaves. But Taynton Codlin bridges the gap between them. That's the idea, anyway.

Friday 12 May 2006

Ongoing projects: 'Heritage' veg

I hate using the word 'heritage' in relation to vegetables, because it sounds so bloody smug. "My cauliflower has historic significance, don't you know." But that's the term commonly used to describe what I grow, which is old and unusual varieties. Plant breeding had something of a heyday in the Victorian period and I'm a real nerd when it comes to researching this sort of stuff.

So why am I not satisfied with all the stuff I can get from the garden centre? Well, first there's the appeal of seeking out something that's different, and which has some history behind it. Secondly there's the issue of genetic erosion ... the loss of biodiversity as the available varieties have become increasingly standardised. Thirdly, believe it or not, many old varieties are genuinely superior to the modern equivalents in flavour and disease resistance. Some are also very beautiful.

Heritage veg often shows a bit of diversity, like this Victorian crimson-flowered broad bean which has come out ... er ... pink. It's still gorgeous though.

Since the 1970s it has been illegal under EU law to sell vegetable seeds that are not on the National List. Getting vegetable varieties listed can cost thousands of pounds, so seed producers have concentrated on developing varieties for commercial production (i.e. which can be sold in large quantities) rather than for gardeners. The traits a commercial producer looks for are often the complete opposite of what you want in the garden. Size, appearance and homogeneity have been pursued at the expense of flavour. Getting a plant on the National List also requires a degree of standardisation and uniformity which is next to impossible with some heritage varieties. And is actually pretty daft anyway from an ecological point of view.

We've got so used to growing varieties designed for commercial use that we don't even realise what we're missing. Commercial growers often harvest destructively, i.e. the whole plant is ripped up and stripped of its assets by machine. The produce must mature all in one go, grow to a large size and uniform shape, and be tough enough to withstand transporting and handling. Gardeners on the other hand want plants that are space-efficient, tender, nice flavoured, and which mature gradually to give a continuous supply over a period of weeks. You don't want varieties which mature in a huge glut and have to be quickly eaten up or shoved in the freezer.

That's one reason heritage vegetables are sometimes better in the garden than modern ones. They were bred by and for gardeners. The produce is often smaller and the yields may be lower, but they more than make up for it in other ways.

Something else that's been lost as seed has become more homogenised is the concept of local vegetable varieties. It's worth seeking them out, as they usually do well because they're optimised for local growing conditions.

I don't actually like beetroot all that much but I grow a few plants of Cheltenham Green Top, which is native to the sandy soil in this area and really thrives in it. It's a 'heritage' variety which rose to prominence in 1905 but was widespread in the local area before 1889. Its top is actually two-tone green and pink, and a bit on the hairy side, but very decorative. Unlike modern rounded beetroots it grows into a long tapering root, like a carrot.

'Cheltenham Green Top' beetroot being grown for seed

But ... I wouldn't want to give the impression that all heritage vegetables taste better than their modern counterparts ... some don't. Some vegetables which have been grown here for centuries have never really been bred and improved until modern times (asparagus and garlic, for example) in which case the modern varieties are generally superior. And it would be wrong to think of the Victorian period as an idyllic golden age of pre-chemical gardening when everything was grown in harmony with nature. On the contrary, the Victorians blithely dosed their veg with a giddy array of poisons including nicotine and cyanide.

Ongoing projects: 'Heritage' potatoes

I bet you thought a potato was pretty much a potato, hmm? Well, that's because supermarkets usually sell multi-purpose ones so you can cook them however you like. But if you look around there are some varieties better suited to particular purposes, and they come in a lot of different colours and flavours.

These are some of the vintage potatoes I grow or have grown. In no particular order.

Shetland Black
Low yielding, and a pain to harvest because frankly they look like sheep turds. They are almost invisible in freshly dug soil. But if you can find them they are very tasty indeed for baking and roasting, and have a chewy black skin (which fades to brown when cooked) and pleasantly soft and earthy-flavoured floury flesh. There's a ring of purple pigment inside the raw potato which looks really beautiful when you first cut them but doesn't survive being cooked. Whatever you do don't boil them. They go horrible.

It's still a difficult variety to find, generally only available as microplants and not tubers. In recent years it's been available from Waitrose (for eating). While all the books discourage the growing of supermarket-bought potatoes, I have to admit that's where I got mine from.

The oldest known potato cultivar (first mentioned in 1836) and it's very nice. The tubers are small, deep-eyed and a beautiful metallic mauve colour streaked with cream. Gorgeous. It's especially nice baked or roasted in its skin because it goes crunchy and chewy on the outside and soft in the middle. Yum. The flavour is earthy but not as strong as Shetland Black ... pleasant but not outstanding. The flesh is very dry indeed and needs lots of butter or gravy if you don't want to choke on it.

Red Duke of York
One of my favourites, reliable and easy to grow, and the plants are a lovely dark green with purple edges. Introduced in 1942 and bred from the original (non-red) Duke of York variety. The tubers have a lovely bright crimson skin with a rough mottled surface, and golden yellow flesh. The flavour is very good indeed and they cook nicely and are quite versatile. I've read that this variety is vulnerable to frosts, but when a nasty late frost hit the garden in May last year Red Duke of York was the only variety to survive with minimal damage (most of the others were wiped out). It was also the quickest to recover and regrow.

Fortunately it's getting easier to find Red Duke of York these days and it's well worth growing. A really vibrant spud.

Edzell Blue
Around 100 years old and very beautiful. The potatoes are a shiny blue-mauve and look almost metallic. By contrast the flesh is bright white. It's got quite a floury texture and a delicate but very nice flavour, especially if harvested young. The spuds are quite small by today's standards but are certainly eye catching.

Witch Hill
I've been looking for this variety for years, and now I have it ... kind of. It's very rare and you can currently only get it as laboratory-grown microplants. Personally I loathe microplants ... they're too wussy for an organic garden. They may be guaranteed virus free when you get them, but they ain't after five minutes outdoors. I bought some last year and they keeled over within a month. But luckily one of Witch Hill's special traits is that it produces tubers very early in the season, so I had a 'yield' of six tiny tubers, no more than a centimetre in diameter. I've had to preserve them carefully through the winter and start them off indoors in compost modules to give them a sporting chance of growing into decent sized plants. Then, if I'm lucky, I might actually be able to eat some later this year.

Also known as Snowdrop, Witch Hill is allegedly one of the best tasting and best textured spuds ever. It dates from before 1885 and is one of the only varieties I grow which is a 'normal' potato colour.

Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy
Well, this is different! Its age and origins are unknown, but it was discovered in the Scottish borders and is the only potato variety to have red, white and blue pigmentation (in varying amounts and blotchy patterns). I had to buy this one in the form of microplants, and although it did better than Witch Hill, I only got to eat a couple of tubers, having to save the rest as seed for this year. The flavour and texture are not dissimilar to Fortyfold. Very little information is available about this variety, so I'll be keeping plenty of notes. It's reputed to be reluctant to chit (which I haven't found to be the case, although it does sprout quite slowly) and very susceptible to blight. Joy.

Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy

I grow one modern variety, Marfona, a Dutch baking variety which dates from 1975. It's my favourite potato of all time. Incredible texture and flavour, and huge spuds which bake in no time. Lovely. (If you're lucky you can find it in Tesco's.)