Wednesday 31 January 2007

Today in the garden ... potting by moonlight

Just as a break from the veg reviews, I thought I'd post up a couple of pics taken in the garden today.

The top one is a yellow hellebore from a local nursery (it's an "out-take" from one of their breeding projects) and below is a picture of an overwintered Cheltenham Green Top beetroot, looking decidedly bronze-topped but full of healthy new growth.

There's not a lot else out there at the moment, and the garden also looks a horrible mess, because I've done no clearing up at all and the shrivelled remains of last year's crops are still drooping and tangling all over the place. I make no apology for it though, because it gives the birds something to eat through the winter, gives beneficial insects somewhere to overwinter, and when I finally dig it all in it will benefit the soil too. The other reason for it of course is my sluttish approach to garden tidiness. But the advantage of a blog is that I only have to show you pictures of things in close-up so you can't see the muddle all around it.

Talking of muddle, our kitten is now 8 months old and going through a horrible teenage phase (at least I hope it's a phase, or we're in trouble). Like a lot of teenage boys he's fidgety, petulant, smelly, communicates mainly with chimpanzee noises and likes randomly destroying things. This morning I found my husband's iPod earphones in the cat basket along with the usual ripped up tissues and till receipts. He knocked an entire propagator of pea seedlings off a windowsill the other day. Husband was shouting "aaargh, my carpet!" and I was shouting "aaargh, my peas!" Large squidged areas with pawprints have been appearing in seed trays and several chunks have been bitten off a cactus (I found those in the cat basket too). What we really need is a Prisoner-style "orange alert" system, where whatever mischief the kitten is involved in you press a button and a big white weather balloon goes after him and swallows him up. What a lot of running about that would save me.

Anyway, I've been sowing peas today. Yes I know it's a bit early, but I'm experimenting to find out what I can get away with and which varieties best cope with having their butts frozen off. I have one lot of plants out there in the cold frame already, a hardy variety called Alaska, kindly sent to me by Patrick from Bifurcated Carrots, and they seem quite happy so far. Having said that, it is preposterously warm here for the time of year. I'm not organised enough to have a garden thermometer but it was certainly mild enough for me to work outside without a coat and I had the back door open for a good hour or so, which was very pleasant. I didn't get my pea planting finished before nightfall, but it didn't matter ... I was out there on the patio this evening happily stuffing bog-roll tubes with compost by the light of the moon.

Heritage vegetable review
Pea: Champion of England

Age: introduced c.1843
Background: bred by William Fairbeard, a nurseryman in Kent, England. It was originally called Fairbeard's Champion of England.
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: tall with long pods, incredibly sweet flavour
Cons: disease resistance not great

I can only partially review this variety this time around ... I had to save most of the crop for seed and didn't get a chance to do a proper taste test. I'll be growing it again this season so hopefully I'll find out more about it.

The first thing I did find out about it is that the seeds are prone to rotting at the germination stage. I only had eleven seeds to start with, and as a matter of policy I try not to plant my whole stock at once, no matter how small the sample, so I just sowed eight. Of those, three germinated and five went mouldy. It may just be that I got unlucky, or was careless with my watering. It's a common problem with peas ... they rot very easily, but still need plenty of moisture to germinate, so getting the balance right can be quite tricky. But it certainly seemed to me that Champion of England was more vulnerable to this than any of the other varieties I grew.

So I sowed a new batch with the three remaining seeds and this time I put loads of perlite into the compost. That seemed to fix the problem OK. A few more seedlings died off after planting out, so I ended up with only three productive plants.

Once it gets going, Champion of England is fairly typical of an old-fashioned gardener's pea. It's very tall, easily reaching 6 or 7 feet, and quite slender and elegant. The leaves have whitish silver markings, as peas often do. The flowers are elegant and a pale creamy white. Then you get long, long pods, green and slightly scimitar shaped with about 8 or 9 average-sized peas in each.

As I was desperate to ensure my future seed supply I avoided eating too many, but I did try a couple of immature pods as raw mangetouts. They were very sweet and yummy. I also tried a couple of pods worth of raw mature peas, and they were very sweet and yummy too. Champion of England has a reputation for exceptionally good flavour and that certainly seemed to be the case.

Unfortunately my plants had a short-ish season before being struck down by a virus. But I certainly liked this variety enough to want to try it again.

Champion of England is a rare variety and not commercially available in the UK at the moment, although ironically it seems readily available in North America. It's over 160 years old and was very popular and well known in its heyday, which lasted until the early 20th century. As was its breeder, William Fairbeard, who ran a nursery in the Kent village of Teynham and was a very well respected pea man of his day, introducing several other commercially successful varieties (not all of which have survived). Charles Darwin wrote to him in 1855 for advice on pollination issues while he was writing Natural Selection.

Tuesday 30 January 2007

Heritage vegetable review
French bean: Mrs Fortune's

Age: unknown
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: pretty beans and pods, mad yields, long season, trouble free
Cons: none that I noticed

According to the HSL catalogue, this variety has been cared for by Bristol allotmenteers for a number of years, and they got them from a lady called Doris Fortune who loaned part of her garden to a retired head gardener. He had apparently grown these beans in the gardens at Windsor when he worked there. It may or may not originally have been a commercial variety.

Whatever its provenance, Mrs Fortune's climbing bean is notable for its pale green pods with mottled blue streaks, and its dried beans which are an intriguing pale buff colour with whorls of deep maroon-blue. And also for its generosity: the plants grow to at least 6 or 7 feet tall and would probably keep going given a chance, and the yields are mad.

As a garden plant, Mrs Fortune's is not much of a looker, poor dear. Her leaves are quite tidy and symmetrical and slightly raspy like a cat's tongue, with a slightly anaemic pale green colour, and growth is rampant and sprawling. Flower buds are green with a half-arsed splosh of mauve. Not really one for the ornamental borders. More strangely, the whole plant sags at night. It just goes all floppy and the leaves droop. Every single evening, whatever the weather, like it's tucking itself in for the night. And it interprets 'night' very loosely and starts to look like a stack of discarded hankies by tea time on a summer's afternoon.

But things start to pick up from the flowering stage onwards. The flowers are two-tone pink when they open, fading to mauve, and are quite pretty. Then come the pods, which are bright green and fairly wide and flat with a little curly tail. Around the time the beans start to swell the pods develop a blue streaky pattern. The blue becomes very dense and dark on pods exposed to direct sunlight, while the hordes tucked away inside the foliage only develop a shadow of it. I should point out that the foliage is so voluptuous there's no possibility of any sunlight getting through it.

You have a choice with French beans: you can eat the whole pods while they're young, or you can let them mature and shell out the beans to eat fresh, or you can shell them out and dry them. Mrs Fortune's is useful for all three. The pods are palatable and stringless when they're small, and only start to get fibrous when the beans inside have reached a fair size. There's no shortage of pods though, so you can eat them at whatever size you like. When cooked they keep their bright green colour (but not, alas, the blue streaks) and are firm and juicy. Not, however, the best I've ever tasted ... just a little bit on the bland side, with a very slightly fuzzy texture on the pod surface.

My personal favourite way to use them is to wait until the beans have reached something near full size, then quickly shell them out and chuck them in a pan of boiling water for 5 or 10 minutes for immediate guzzling, with butter. Shelling them is a bit laborious because the pods are still very fleshy and succulent at this stage, but it's worth it. Texture and flavour are wonderful. The beans are greenish white and rounded like a haricot. If left until fully mature, the blue streaks turn maroon ... while beautiful maroon splodges appear on the seed coat inside, which darken to a purple-blue when dried. The greenish white dries to a nice warm tan colour. This may be the way Mrs Fortune's climbing bean is bred to be eaten, as a soup bean for adding novelty and substance to gloomy winter stews.

Anyway, it's the most vigorous, robust, rampant, dependable, high-yielding bean I've grown so far. No bother at all from pests. It survived storms and cold weather and stayed productive well into the autumn. It's not a first choice for fresh pod flavour but it has so much else going for it it's really well worth growing.

Sunday 28 January 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Runner bean: Black Magic

Age: pre-1970
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: beans are large and go through beautiful colour changes
Cons: string! string! string!

Black Magic is a macho runner bean. The pods are easily capable of growing over a foot long, the beans are massive and a hard glossy black when dried. But if you want to eat them as conventional runner beans you have to get in there quick and harvest them while the pods are very small. Otherwise you'll be chomping on a mouthful of green gristle. To say that the pods are stringy is an understatement.

Personally I don't think the flavour is anything special either. The pod flesh is juicy and succulent but coarse in texture and taste. I was not impressed.

Inside the pods the beans start off green and turn deep pink as they start to swell, and then go a gorgeous midnight blue before maturing to jet black. It's only by shelling them that these colour changes can be appreciated, but they are very, very beautiful. The dried black beans are a delight to look at and handle.

In the end I gave up trying to eat the pods and just used this variety for shelling out. It may not be the conventional way to eat runners, but I found that leaving the beans to reach a mature size and discarding the stringy old pods is the most rewarding way to use it. The beans have a texture very similar to butter (lima) beans ... they're substantial and delicious to eat. You can eat them while they're still small and pink or leave them to the midnight blue stage. As is so often the case though, the colour doesn't survive the cooking process. On contact with boiling water the beans turn an inky mauve regardless of what colour they were to start with.

In the garden the plants were moderately attractive, having some red veining in the leaves and stems, and nice orangey-red flowers. But the usual runner bean glut never materialised. I probably didn't grow mine in the most advantageous position, but even so, the yields were very low. Mine also performed poorly in flower production, although pod set was good on the few flowers it did produce.

So on the whole I was disappointed with Black Magic. It has size and looks but the pod flavour doesn't match up to it. And although it certainly has merit as a shelling bean, the primary purpose of runner beans is eating the whole pods and it's no fun to find yourself chewing what feels like a mouthful of wire wool. It might appeal to exhibitors who are looking to grow enormously long pods but not necessarily to eat them.

It may not be fair to judge its lacklustre performance this season because I know several other bloggers (and my neighbour) had problems with their runner beans in 2006, so the poor yields may not be anything to do with the variety. I might be inclined to give it another go just to see, but probably not just yet ... I think there are other better varieties out there.

Heritage vegetable review
Potato: Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy

Age: unknown but estimated around 1899
Background: apparently maintained single-handedly by a shepherd, William Little, for over 50 years. He acquired it at a horse fair in the 1940s and it's probably local to the Yetholm area in the Scottish Borders.
My supplier: home-saved tubers; microplants originally from Organic Gardening Catalogue
(NB The Organic Catalogue no longer lists this variety, but it's available direct from Alan Romans.)
Pros: unique and gorgeous three-colour skin, pretty flowers, excellent flavour, retains much colour after cooking
Cons: flesh darkens a little on cooking

There is a reason why you probably won't have seen any seed tubers of this variety for sale anywhere. It's illegal to sell seed potatoes of unregistered varieties in Europe, so obscure heritage spuds like this one never get a look in. The solution, ingeniously devised by Alan Romans (author of that little green booklet about potatoes you see in garden centres) is to sell them as ready-started plants. Or microplants to be precise, laboratory propagated and certified virus free. As I've said elsewhere on the blog, I have a few issues with microplants: they're expensive, too precious to survive without special care and it takes at least two seasons to get a full yield. But they have enabled Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy and a whole host of other rare and interesting old varieties to get out there into people's gardens and not just languish in gene banks, and for that I'm very grateful.

This potato really stands out by anyone's standards. Originating (it seems) from an area of Scotland rich in faery and Arthurian legends and a stronghold of Scottish gypsies for centuries, it has a unique colour combination of velvet purple, hot pink and cream, all swirled about in streaks and blotches like the surface of the planet Jupiter. Some tubers feature a Jupiter-style spot or eye in their pattern. When they're freshly dug and newly scrubbed up they really are breathtakingly beautiful.

Whether the variety originated in the gypsy community or whether it was bred by a local gardener, it was acquired by the Mr Little whose name it bears at a local horse fair, and he grew it for the next half century. Towards the end of his life he passed a tuber to Alan Romans whose subsequent efforts have ensured its future survival and (through his microplants project) availability to gardeners.

So ... it's taken me two seasons to get from tiddly little microplant to abundant crops of super-coloured potatoes, but it was flippin' well worth it.

One characteristic of Yetholm Gypsy is that it's slow to chit (sprout). But that can be an advantage, because it means you can leave tubers sprouting right through the summer and sow them in successive batches to extend the season. I don't actually know whether this is supposed to be a maincrop or a second early or what ... it seems to grow happily and yield well whenever I plant it. Yields are possibly slightly lower than a modern variety but not much, and the tubers are on the small side with some variation in shape, and occasional knobbly bits.

The leaves are smallish and dark green and the plants are very lanky. I mean very lanky. They grow bolt upright for a certain while and look very handsome, and then they flop over and grow leggily in all directions. So it isn't the tidiest of potatoes. But it does have very pretty mauve flowers, which if you're lucky will blossom before the rest of the foliage splats gracelessly over the floor.

The colouring in the tubers appears to be created by a thin layer of purple-blue pigment over a thin layer of pinky red pigment over creamy white flesh. Some of the streaks develop in the soil as the tuber grows. They are mostly dark blue when first harvested, and when you wash them a little of the dark blue rubs off and gives you more streaks of red and white. Then as the potato dries the colour seems to set and become permanent. It really is a most distinctive and unusual thing.

I was fully expecting the flavour to be insipid though. When you find something this wacky you can't really expect it to have a knock-out taste as well. But ... this is a very special potato and it tastes fantastic. Under its thickish skin the texture is on the waxy side and very moist, and the flavour strong, sweet and earthy. And as if that wasn't enough, it retains its colour after cooking! That's right, you can tuck into a blotchy purple red and white jacket potato and it tastes as fantastic as it looks. The colours do fade to brown if baked or roasted for long periods, but in most circumstances it keeps enough colour to make an impression on the dinner plate. It's good for boiling too, although the flesh tends to darken slightly and take on a greenish tint, which is less aesthetically pleasing.

I had read that Yetholm Gypsy has poor resistance to blight, and that nearly put me off trying it. However my crops were trouble free and even the final late summer batch was unblighted right up to the end of September, despite the stricken tomatoes keeling over all around it.

Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy has become my joint favourite potato (along with the modern variety Marfona). I love it.

Saturday 27 January 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Tomato: Black Plum

Age: not sure
Background: originally from Russia (Moscow)
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: very vigorous plants, solid fleshy fruits, high yield
Cons: needs plenty of support, flavour not exciting

First up, I think there may be two different varieties of tomato called Black Plum. I've seen them described in some online catalogues as small or cherry-sized. The ones I've got are a good full size plum and quite chunky and I don't think they're the same, although they may be strains of the same cultivar.

The word 'black' when applied to tomatoes can refer to anything from russety-red to smokey purple, though never actually black. In the case of Black Plum it's really more of a muted chestnut red with green flambéed shoulders. The insides are a dull greyish red and incredibly fleshy. The fruits form bell-shaped plums, blocky at the top and rounded at the bottom, which are dense and heavy and stay firm to the touch until fully ripe. You certainly get plenty of substance from them and plenty of dark juice and slippy gel in the middle. The flesh is succulent with a slightly grainy texture. Flavour is mild and sweet with a black tomato muskiness.

My own preference is for acidic tomatoes, so I must confess Black Plum in its raw state is not to my tastes at all. I also found the graininess a bit of a turn off. But if you like sweeties and don't mind the mealy texture then you might find it more tasty than I did. I mostly used it for cooking, which it seems readily suitable for and imparts a slightly dusky hue to sauces. Because of its thick flesh and mild flavour it's good at adding substance and big tomatoey chunks to a dish but there's no corresponding zingy taste.

In the garden Black Plum plants are extremely vigorous and voluptuous, and it's essential to give them adequate support bearing in mind that they produce a multitude of solid, heavy fruits. The plants are dark green and hairy and reach at least five feet tall with rampant side-branching and abundant flowers ... they are larger and heavier than any tomato varieties I've grown before. The fruits grow in very orderly clusters of about six or eight. Trusses have thick stalks with very pronounced 'knee-joints', and the calyx has long upward curling sepals. Flowers are also large and produce copious amounts of pollen even on cool days, so fruit set is not a problem. The fruits swell quickly but seem to take a while to ripen, and once picked their keeping qualities are not great.

In terms of pollination issues, the anther cone is quite open at the tip and the pistil is flush with it, so I would think there's some risk of cross-pollination with other tomatoes. If you're saving the seeds and want to keep the variety pure you may want to isolate it from other tomatoes by a few feet at least.

My plants succumbed to blight, as did all my tomatoes, but it was one of the last to be affected and the disease took a while to really get a hold. On the whole it's a robust and trouble free plant and the yields are very generous.

Heritage Vegetable Reviews!

At last, here they are.

I had been saving up the reviews to post together in batches, but have now decided to do each one separately ... which will be a lot more helpful for people googling for information on specific varieties. So they'll be appearing one at a time as I finish them.

There's very little information available about many of the older vegetable varieties, so how are people supposed to find out about them, let alone decide which ones they want to grow? That was what inspired me to start this blog in the first place ... to learn more about how the older and more obscure varieties fare in a real garden situation and then share the results with anyone who's interested.

We live in an age where the needs of commercial growers and food processors have superceded the needs of gardeners in most plant breeding programmes, so the modern varieties which fill the catalogues are optimised to produce a single glut for once-over destructive harvesting and to be tough enough for packing, transport and handling ... which is not what you want in the garden. Not to mention the tiresome spread of new and unmemorable F1 hybrids, which offer marginal improvements in performance but often at the expense of higher chemical inputs. Yuk. Heritage varieties have a lot to offer gardeners which makes it well worth the effort to seek them out. They may be better for general disease resistance (though modern varieties are often bred for resistance to specific diseases), flavour, colour, texture, an extended harvesting period ... and certainly for diversity. Many are just fascinatingly different. Most were originally bred by gardeners or nurserymen, not agribusiness.

It seems to me that with the ever increasing commercialisation of our food and our seeds and gardens it's more important than ever to keep our seed heritage alive and in the hands of ordinary gardeners.

Does that mean heritage vegetables are always a better choice than their modern equivalents? Absolutely not. Some are magnificent lost gems and some are a bit rubbish. That's why I'm reviewing them, and I'd be interested to know how other people get on with them too.

These are not scientifically conducted trials of course, just my personal subjective notes on how well the varieties did in my garden during 2006 under organic conditions. They may perform differently in other years and other gardens or with chemical inputs. I'm limited for space in my garden too, so I usually only grow a few plants of each variety, and I don't necessarily know the best way to grow them or cook them. You may find your experiences with these plants is different to mine. But I hope you find the info useful anyway.

All the photos were taken in the garden in 2006.

Friday 26 January 2007

Today in the garden ... an update

Ah, good old leaf beet. Not only is it one of the few vegetables still productive at this time of year, but it easily wins the title of prettiest plant in the garden, looking quite surreal in its flamboyance like a Spanish carnival stuck in the middle of the soggy brown winter squidge. The intensity and luminosity of the colours has to be seen to be believed, and the camera can't do justice to it. Some of the stems are two-tone, pink round the outside and orange up the middle. Rainbow chard as we know it has been grown since Victorian times at least, and a bright red form of it took Aristotle's fancy back in the 4th century. Most of the rainbow chard seeds available today are Bright Lights, which is sometimes sold as an heirloom variety but is actually a modern improved strain.

Leeks are also looking plump and happy ... they ain't huge but I ain't fussy. I harvest them as required. Meanwhile the purple sprouting broccoli is growing well, still producing leaves rather than flower tops. The whitefly have taken up residence but are not too bad at the moment.

Purple sprouting broccoli. I know, it isn't purple or sprouting at the moment but it's getting there.

The snowdrops and crocuses are coming out and so is the hellebore. They may be regretting it now that the weather has turned wintry for the first time, but we haven't had any of the snow that I've been seeing on other British blogs. I've had a nasturtium growing on the patio since last summer, which was still quite green and robust until the recent cold snap, and it's still just about clinging on to life. I've never had a nasturtium survive into January before.

My home-made cold-frame (I use the term in the loosest sense because it's really four slabs of old window glass held together with luck, gravity, flowerpots and clothes-pegs) is currently nurturing seedlings of onions and broad beans. When we moved into this house I removed about 3 miles of net curtains from the windows and they are now coming in very handy as a substitute for horticultural fleece, or floating row covers as they're sometimes called. They even have floral patterns on them. What more could you ask for? I admit they do look a bit strange out in the garden, and I feel a sentimental twinge of guilt at what the lovely old lady who previously lived here would think if she saw how I was abusing her curtains, but they do work extremely well and it's a good way to re-use and recycle old fabric.

My "cold-frame", with the old lady's curtains, optional bubble-wrap roll-top, and ginger kitten included for scale. (Needless to say, moments after this photo was taken he put his great clodhopping feet straight through it ... grrrrr!)

Tuesday 23 January 2007

Five things you never wanted to know ...

I've been tagged by both Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots and Greenmantle to post up five things about myself that I haven't mentioned on my blog(s) before, so here goes:

1. I'm one-sixteenth Indian, my great-great grandmother having come here from Madras in about 1860. My great-great-grandfather met her while serving with the British army in India and brought her back to his home town of Clacton-on-Sea. What it must have been like for her as an Asian immigrant at that time is difficult to imagine.

2. I have had an intense irrational fear of wells (and other water-filled holes in the ground) all my life and even now have occasional problems with plug-holes in sinks.

3. My earliest memory was waking up in the night to find a figure standing next to my cot, glowing with a pale blue colour in the dark. I couldn't see its face but I did touch its gown, which was feathery and soft. And no I don't have any theories about who or what it was.

4. My biological clock has no batteries. When I was five and I told people I didn't ever want kids, they would give a knowing wink and say "ah, you'll change your mind when you're older". Now I'm 38 people have finally stopped saying it.

5. During my 20s I was a very keen theatre actress (though I was repeatedly turned down at singing auditions) and the role I most enjoyed playing was a suicidal scuba-diver. They even built a real swimming pool full of water on the stage for me to fling myself into. Funnily enough the theatre itself was converted from a Victorian swimming pool – the stage was built over the deep end and if you went down one of the trapdoors you could still see all the lovely old tiles under there.

The deal is that I now have to similarly tag five more blogs. Only trouble is, almost all the blogs I regularly visit have already been pounced on, so I'm having to settle for three for the moment:

I Need Orange


Epileptic Gibbon (music and film reviews)

Sunday 21 January 2007

Groovy implement of the month: the kirpi hoe

Weedkiller: it may look a bit peculiar but the kirpi knows how to sort them weeds.

As it was my birthday last week and my parents have long since taken to sending me the cash to buy my own presents, I decided to treat myself to a new experimental gardening implement, and the thing I most need is a hoe.

I am rubbish at hoeing. I hate doing it, so it gets neglected until it becomes desperate and difficult. It usually looks more messy afterwards than it did to start with. And I always end up decapitating a sizeable percentage of my crop by accident.

At the moment I have an old wooden long-handled Dutch hoe which was in the potting shed full of nice stuff I inherited from the previous owner of the garden. I get a lot of splinters off it, but I still feel smug to be using such a fine old-fashioned implement ... a real daughter of the soil thrill. Unfortunately though, it's only any good for weeding between traditional straight rows, and me being a bit eccentric in my planting layouts and shoving stuff in any-old-how or in strange wobbly rows according to my whim or the phase of the moon, it just isn't compatible with my style of gardening. Plus, it's pretty labour intensive. Two minutes scratching backwards and forwards with it and I'm completely knackered.

So I usually end up going off for a cup of tea and then weeding with a trowel, which works for me, but I knew there must be a better way.

I saw the kirpi in the Organic Gardening Catalogue run by Chase Organics. They are my no.1 tried and trusted supplier so I'm always open-minded to the weird stuff that sometimes appears in their catalogue. The kirpi is a traditional multi-purpose gardening tool from India. It costs 17 quid, which is more than I can afford to spend without serious consideration, so I Googled it and found that it had come out as Best Buy in a Which? hoe trial. So that was a good sign. I bought one.

Kirpis are hand made by a blacksmith in India, where a chunk of my 17 quid will help sponsor an organic farming initiative, and arrives with the blade neatly swaddled in a shred of colourful silk. You certainly couldn't be in any doubt that it really is hand made; it's kind of lopsided in its handle and the blade is coarsely beaten and crimped. It looks very eccentric, not least because of the lively green and orange colour scheme (the orange paint is a protective coating intended to wear off over time). It actually feels like a piece of craftsmanship though. It's a nice contrast to the modern mass-produced gardening tools I'm used to ... it really feels like it's been made with care and skill and designed by someone who understands what it's like to be on their hands and knees scraping weeds.

Unlike most hoeing tools, its shape is odd, curvy, spiky and sickle-like. It looks a bit unwieldy in the picture in the catalogue, but once you get it into your hand it feels very natural. Only trouble is it does look like an offensive weapon and I can just see my neighbour screaming off down the garden path when he sees me emerge from the house with one of those in my hand. But it actually has reassuringly few sharp edges. It works more by its ability to maximise your hand movements than by sharpness per se.

I was surprised at how efficient it is for the amount of effort expended. Most gardening tools are straight edged and symmetrical, and I never realised how inefficient symmetry can be. The kirpi is like an extension of your hand and its various odd angles make it very versatile. It's intuitive to use too, and the weight is nicely balanced.

At its most simple level you can use it like a Dutch hoe and slice the weed tops off at soil level, but it's nifty enough to get in between even the most eccentrically spaced plants and because of its efficiency you can use it for extended periods without getting tired. It's sturdy enough to use as a cultivator for ploughing up the top couple of inches of soil, and for making small seed furrows. It's not bad at levering weeds out from between paving slabs either.

What it really excels at though is hoiking swathes of grass out from between the stems of other plants, which promises to make it a godsend in this couch-infested garden. Where there's a lot of grass you can just swizzle it round the blade like candy floss and whip the whole lot out in one sweep. Very satisfying. With a bit more effort the hooked blade is good at digging weeds out from around the roots of plants. The coarse saw-teeth on the inner edge will cut through anything thick or fibrous that gets in the way. I would guess it could be used like a small sickle too for hacking through rampant undergrowth, but at this time of year I don't have anything much to try it out on.

I did wonder what the point was of the sticky-outy bit on the top edge, but it was obvious as soon as I started using it: it acts as a heel which gives the tool substantially more shove. I also came to realise why the tool is lop-sided within its handle: the blade being closer to the edge on one side enables you to get a really good low angle on the soil if you want to (or not, if you turn it the other way up).

Any disadvantages? The blade can get a bit clogged up if you use it in soggy soil, especially on the serrated edge, but that's a small price to pay for the versatility of its design.

I'd certainly recommend it for anyone who likes to have one tool which instantly adapts to multiple jobs rather than lugging a whole array of different tools around the garden, or who wants to get the most power and least effort out of their wrist action. Or who relishes the idea of using something which will make other gardeners say "what the heck is that?"

Saturday 20 January 2007

Heritage Seed Library time

It's that exciting (for me) time of year when I get to choose my six rare varieties from the Heritage Seed Library. Thanks to the ill-conceived legal restrictions on the sale of vegetable seeds in Europe the HSL is one of the few sources of rare heritage varieties in the UK, and they aren't allowed to sell them to you, so the scheme works by sending out free seed packets to members who pay an annual subscription, currently £16. Membership gets you six packets of your choice plus an optional lucky dip. The quantities are not large ... typically 10 or 20 seeds, and while that's not a problem with things like tomatoes and beans it can be a little frustrating with peas, because 10 seeds is not enough for a proper crop and you have to spend the first year just growing them for next year's seed and not eating them (well, a few maybe). But that's kind of the point really, they want to encourage you to save your own seed, and I've no complaints because the work they do is priceless and they have rescued many very rare and precious vegetable varieties from extinction. They have also enabled me to grow some wonderful things which were completely unavailable elsewhere and which have really wowed me with their colours and flavours. All hail the Heritage Seed Library!

Seed diversity in pinky-purple heritage peas: Salmon Flowered, Carruthers' Purple Podded, Kent Blue, Clarke's Beltony Blue.

This year my choice is slightly restricted by my impending trial of purple peas. Although several strains of purple-flowered and purple-podded pea are now available commercially in the UK (I've been buying them up for months in readiness), the HSL maintains a number of non-commercial and heirloom varieties which differ in various ways from the readily available ones and I'm naturally keen to get get my hands on those. So peas have made up most of my HSL order for this year.

I've gone for two full-blooded purple-podders: Carruthers' Purple Podded and Clarke's Beltony Blue, both of which originate from Northern Ireland. The former has a lot of variation in its seed colour along with a small and variable amount of purple speckling, which none of my other purple podded varieties have. Hopefully they will both be included in the trial this season, although with only 10 seeds of each the priority will be bulking up seed production, so I may not get to do much in the way of taste tests.

Not purple-podded but still displaying interesting manifestations of anthocyanin pigment are Salmon Flowered, a green-podded bicolour pink-flowered variety unlike any other culinary pea I've ever seen and whose seeds are very attractive and speckly, and Kent Blue, a variety from ... er ... Kent which has bicolour purpley-blue flowers and unusual dark seeds. Both are round-seeded varieties, which means they are hardier than 'normal' peas but probably not as sweet.

I also grabbed a tall voluptuous white flowered/green podded pea called Magnum Bonum which dates from the 1860s and has been on my wish list for a while.

Ever the legume enthusiast, I've also been collecting more heritage French beans (with no idea where I'm going to put them all) of various sizes and colours. The HSL were able to supply me with Vermont Cranberry, and others I'll be trying out include Caseknife, Brighstone, Early Warwick, Coco Bicolour, Pea Bean and Canadian Wonder. Yum yum.

Early Warwick, Pea Bean, Vermont Cranberry and Coco Bicolour