Wednesday 30 May 2007

Today in the garden ... potatoes and poppies

Here's the first of the oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) and this one didn't flower last year so I'm all the more grateful for it. It only produced this one bloom which opened just as the weather changed and it got pelted with fierce winds, rain and hailstones, but it survived. It's a variety called Patty's Plum.

I must thank Vicki of I Need Orange for linking me to some info about the blue speckled slow worm I recently posted a photo of. (She has some pretty amazing wildlife photos on her own blog, by the way.) Apparently they sometimes develop the blue colour when they're three years old or more, especially in coastal areas (I'm in the midlands, but never mind). I didn't know slow worms lived for multiple years, but that one was quite a whopper, admittedly. It's now living under a black polythene sheet in the middle of the veg patch and somewhat thwarting my tomato planting as I dare not move the sheet. As they're a protected species and they do a sterling job in munching slugs and snails off the vegetable patch, priority goes to the legless reptiles. (And we all know a few of them, right girls?)

And another beautiful item of wildlife, courtesy of next door's pond, is the damselfly. Available in two colours, bright azure and bright red. Here's one of the red ones, perching on a leaf on one of my heritage peas. They are smaller than dragonflies but just as welcome in the garden and also more likely to hang around long enough to be photographed.

I got an electric shock off a beetroot today. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or the beetroot. In fairness I had just been stroking one of the cats so that must have built up a static charge which zapped when I touched the leaf. I've had a lifelong problem with static electricity ... when I was a kid I had to have other people open car doors for me because if I touched any part of the car (plastic, metal or glass, inside or out) I would get a really nasty electric shock. Thankfully it's nowhere near that bad these days but I'm still more prone to static shocks than most people and I've never found out why.

Talking of beetroot, I've read in several gardening books that you must never, ever allow leaf beet to run to seed at the same time as beetroot because they will cross with each other and both be ruined. Well I can't resist a challenge like that, so I've got three of last year's Cheltenham Green Top heritage beetroots sprouting nice big flower spikes among the similarly robust flower spikes of last year's Bright Lights chard (two pinks and a scarlet). Chard and beetroot are both the same species, Beta vulgaris, which is a rampant outbreeder so they cross like the clappers. They do however have minor varietal differences, with chard (var. cicla) producing nice succulent stalks and leaves, and beetroot (var. conditiva) being optimised for plump edible roots. If you cross them you will probably end up with the worst of both worlds ... inferior roots and small leaves, at least for the first generation or two. But with a little patience and careful selection they should start to separate out in lots of different ways. And that could *possibly* result in beetroot infused with some of the beautiful intense pinks and reds of leaf beet. Modern beetroot breeding has focused on other factors of commercial importance to farmers, such as "monogerm" varieties (seed clusters which only contain one seed instead of the usual 2-5, eliminating the need for thinning). I don't know of anyone who's trying to produce new beetroot with beautiful leaf and stem colours. So that seems like a good reason to try it. And as always, the beauty of amateur plant breeding is that even if it's a total cockup, you can still eat it.

Everything you ever wanted to know about beetroot can be found in this wonderful eBook, made freely available to all by the generosity of its author Stephen Nottingham.

May I also draw your attention to the much underrated flowers of the common spud? Well, this is not one of the really common ones but it's enjoying a renaissance in the UK ... Salad Blue, which is not a salad potato at all, being very dry and floury, but it certainly is completely blue. I don't rate it that highly for flavour but it produces very interesting blue mashed potato which has health benefits over ordinary white-fleshed potatoes. And as you can see, it has very pretty flowers sporting blue-violet petals and unusually dark anthers. It's the first of my potatoes to flower this year, and no doubt I'll be posting more pictures of spud blossoms over the coming weeks as some of them are very beautiful.

The dusky blue flowers of Salad Blue potatoes.

Sunday 27 May 2007

More heritage peas coming into flower

I apologise to anyone with a dial-up internet connection, but a whole load of my unusual heirloom peas are now flowering and they're all worthy of a few pictures. I am a pea nerd, I can't help it.

Carruthers' Purple Podded
I already described this one in a recent post ... it's from Co. Down in Ireland and the flowers are large and beautiful on long curvy stems. The pods are starting to look promising too.

Carruthers' Purple Podded

Clarke's Beltony Blue
Superficially very similar to Carruthers' (it's not the same though because the seeds look very different) and also from Northern Ireland, this time from Co. Tyrone. It's been grown on the same farm there since 1850, possibly much earlier. Mine has proved slightly less vigorous than Carruthers but it has the same pattern of purple markings on the calyx and similarly large and beautiful flowers.

Clarke's Beltony Blue

Corne de Belier
A French mangetout (snow) pea with a gourmet flavour reputation, dating back to the 19th century and also sometimes known by the less glamorous name of Tall White Sugar. Flowers are a modest size and creamy white.

Corne de Belier

I previously reported that this looked to be a dwarf variety ... but it isn't. It's just a bit compact and slow growing compared to other purples. Mine has reached about three feet now and still going. The leaves have a purple splosh on the back, and the flowers are large and beautiful and mostly borne in pairs. Wide compact pods are a very dark purple colour. I know nothing about this variety or its background.


Ne Plus Ultra
Very popular in the mid 19th century, and still very elegant in the garden today. The pods are large and smooth and they look like they're going to have about eight peas in each.

Ne Plus Ultra (with California poppies)

Kent Blue
You can see how this one got its name. It goes through the same flower colour changes as other purpley-type peas, i.e. starting off with cream buds then two-tone pink and maroon flowers which gradually turn blue. But the colour on this one is darker and more intense, and the flowers turn blue while they're still in their prime, unlike other varieties which only go blue when they're old and sagging. The wing petal is a really deep velvety midnight blue ... lovely. The standard petal is pale blue with a pinky-red base and has dark veining which is also very attractive. They are small flowers compared to other varieties but they're borne in pairs.

The exact origins of this pea are unknown, but it has apparently been saved as a family heirloom since the 1940s in Sevenoaks, Kent.

Kent Blue

If you're interested in getting hold of any of these you may have to search around, but here are some places to start:

Carruthers' Purple Podded - Heritage Seed Library
Clarke's Beltony Blue - Heritage Seed Library
Corne de Belier - Thomas Etty or Association Kokopelli
Desiree - may be available from SSE in the US
Ne Plus Ultra - available from W Robinson & Son
Kent Blue - Heritage Seed Library

Friday 25 May 2007

A brief pea-free interlude

Here's a picture of a red-flowered broad bean (fava), another heritage vegetable treasure which I've already reviewed. I'm growing them in the patio border this year because they have a beautiful scent (one of the rarely mentioned blessings of broad beans) as well as that gorgeous colour. They look breathtaking when the sun shines through them because they have a very subtle translucence, but that's one of those things that cannot be photographed because the intensity of light and colour is beyond the scope of digital media. So you'll have to make do with this non-sunlit picture and use your imagination. Or grow some yourself.

Another translucent red heritage vegetable I'm growing this year is this beetroot, a very old French variety called Rouge Crapaudine. It's a fairly rare one only available by mail order, which is probably just as well because you wouldn't want to have to go in to a garden centre and ask for it by name. Thomas Etty Esquire is one of the few suppliers who stock it. It's a bit different from yer average modern beet. The root is very long and thin, more like a carrot, and it has a black skin with a cracked and fissured surface. This one has a way to go before harvest time though.

The garden here is a paradise for slow-worms and I see them a lot (ssh, don't tell my mum, she's terrified of them and won't go out in the garden unless I tell her there aren't any) but I've never seen one like this before ... it has bright blue flecks all the way along its body. At first I wondered whether it had gone through next door's garden while he was respraying his motorbike, but nope, it really is that colour. It's the same bright azure colour you see in damselflies. And appropriately enough, seen here lounging under the Salad Blue potatoes.

Errr ... mum, if you're reading this, it's not a real one, OK? Just a plastic inflatable one I put there for a laugh.

Two of my young apple trees couldn't be arsed to flower this year, but the third was an absolute corker. I was worried it would be unable to set fruit in the absence of a pollination partner (one day I'll explain why most apples are not capable of fertilising themselves, which has to do with them having one too many chromosomes) but luckily the neighbour four doors down has an apple tree which flowered at the same time, and despite the distance and the separating fences my tree got well pollinated. It's now covered in fluffy little apples.

This is a variety called Ashmead's Kernal, which is over 300 years old and currently enjoying a comeback. I love it because of its acid-drop sharp flavour and crispness (I hate sweet mushy supermarket apples, bleurgh) but also because it's a local variety which originated in Gloucester, only 7 miles up the road. Another oft-plugged selling point for Ashmead's Kernal is its beautiful flowers, though actually I find them a bit big and blousy for my tastes and prefer the smaller crisper flowers on my other trees (when they can be bothered).

And finally, here's a picture of an upside-down cat attacking my cardigan.

Sunday 20 May 2007

How to breed your own garden peas

Normally when a seed company is trying to develop a new variety they keep very quiet about how they're going about it, knowing that if they come up with something worthwhile everyone else will want to copy it.

There's no secrecy involved in the pea breeding project I'm doing for Ben and Kate at the Real Seed Catalogue. One thing I have in common with them is that we all believe passionately that genes, seeds and the skills involved in their production should be in the public domain. Unlike most seed companies they have extensive seed saving instructions on their website and I've been open about which varieties I'm crossing in trying to develop a new variety for them. So what's to stop anyone else copying what I've been doing? Absolutely nothing. And just to make sure you know how to, I'm going to explain hand-pollination.

The principles of making crosses by hand-pollination are fairly universal, and yet the details differ hugely from plant to plant. These instructions are suitable for all kinds of culinary pea, and will also work for sweet peas, and once you know what you're doing you can apply it to other plants. The basic principle is this: if you have a self-fertilising flower like a pea, and you want to cross it with something other than itself, you first have to remove its capability to self-fertilise.

So the first step is to emasculate the 'mother' flower by removing the little yellow blobs which produce pollen. That will leave you with just the female part, which is a long bendy green thing with a bristly bit down one side. With me so far?

Know your blobs from your bendy bits. The anatomy of a pea flower (with keel cut open)

Pea flowers have all their reproductive bits inside the keel, which is a sealed petal bag. The long green central bit is the style, but only the very tip is receptive to pollen. The pollen-bearing anther blobs gradually grow up towards the tip and shed pollen all over it. By removing the anthers before they get to that stage, you can intervene and fertilise the flower with the pollen of your choice.

The first step is to find a flower at the right stage. With peas that means using young buds, because their self-pollination happens very early on before the flower is anywhere near opening. The optimum stage is impossible to define precisely because it varies quite a lot in different weather conditions, and to a lesser extent between different varieties. The easiest time to do hand-pollinations is on a dry, cool, overcast day. On days like this the pollen is slow to shed (or dehisce, if you want the technical name) so you can get away with using larger buds which are easier to work with. When the weather is hot and sunny the pollen just goes nuts and splurges everywhere, so you have to resort to using only the youngest, tiniest buds. Windy weather is also a hindrance (try carrying a blob of pollen across a breezy garden on the tip of a scalpel blade and you'll see what I mean).

But as a general rule, choose buds where the petals are just about visible as they start to protrude from the sepals. The photo below shows a promising-looking bud.

Step 1: Peel open the bud ... gently roll back the sepals and the two outer layers of petals, and grasp them back out of the way. Inside you will find the keel petal, which is a sealed bag with a crinkly seam down the middle a bit like a cornish pasty. Using a scalpel or similar, carefully cut a slice in the keel. (You can remove part of it if necessary ... it won't do any harm.)

Step 2: As soon as you cut the keel open you will be able to see whether the bud has already self-pollinated or not. In an ideal bud, the anthers will be smooth dark yellow blobs with no traces of yellow powder on them, and will not yet have grown right up to the tip. Being careful not to damage the long green bendy bit in the middle, hoik out all the yellow blobs and pop them off with the scalpel blade. There are ten of them and it's best to remove them all.

If the anthers look fluffy or there is yellow powder inside the keel, it's probably too late. If in doubt, have a look at the tip of the green bendy bit. If it looks pristine it should be OK, but any trace of yellow stuff on it means that self-pollination has already happened.

Step 3: Mark the bud by tying a scrap of coloured thread around its stalk ... not too tight, to allow it room to grow a bit.

Step 4: Find a pollen source on another plant, of whichever variety you want to use as the 'father'. Again you may need to do a bit of poking about with a scalpel to find one with lots of pollen to spare, as it varies with the weather. The best ones are usually larger buds which are almost ready to open. Slice open the tip of the keel and scoop out as much as you can onto the blade. This will not harm the flower at all, because it will already have self-pollinated and started growing a pod ... all you're doing is making use of the surplus pollen. Fresh, fertile pea pollen is a deep rich yellow colour. If it's turned a pale sandy colour it's too old.

Step 5: Take the pollen to the 'mother' flower and gently slather it all over the tip of the green bendy bit. The receptive part is the stigma, which is the flattish area right at the tip. Please note, the stigma is NOT the bristly brushy bit just below the tip ... it may look like it should be, but it isn't.

It can be a bit fiddly to get the pollen in the right place but it gets easier with practice.

Step 6: If the remains of the keel petal are still intact, slip it back over the green bendy bit to give it some protection and help stop the stigma drying out. It's not essential though ... you can get away with just closing the outer petals back over it.

The flower should then open pretty much as normal over the next few days, and shortly afterwards you will get a pod. While the pods are small they are translucent against the light, so you should be able to see the baby peas inside if the pollination was successful. If it wasn't successful the flower will drop off.

In peas, it's quite usual for hand-pollination to have a lower success rate than natural self-pollination. So don't worry if your hand-pollinated pods only have two, three or four peas inside them. That's normal.

If you're looking to possibly produce a new variety, it's a good idea to hand-pollinate quite a few flowers ... at least 20. You don't need to do them all at the same time ... just do three or four a day for as long as the plants are producing good flowers. Allow the pods to develop fully and harvest them when they've started to go dry and crispy (in wet weather you may have to grab them earlier, to avoid problems with mould). Hang them up in a dry airy place to finish drying. You now have your own unique F1 hybrid peas. When you grow them they should produce plants with a mixture of characteristics from both parents.

Saturday 19 May 2007

Pea "Golden Sweet": photo gallery

The Golden Sweet peas are so beautiful at the moment I decided they deserved their own 'photo gallery' post. There's no other way to convey the fantastic colour changes in the flowers as they mature.

These plants are being grown for a breeding project, not for eating, although I should still get a good feast from the leftovers. They came from The Real Seed Catalogue and can be found in their online catalogue. The idea is to use this variety as the basis for a new variety, introducing 'purple pod' genes into them in the hope of creating something else with a unique colour.

Of course if you're a regular reader of this blog you may remember that Golden Sweet also has gorgeous purple-speckled seeds.

Occasionally Golden Sweet produces two flowers at each node. The buds start off a pale cream colour with yellow stems.

Pink buds ensue, gradually turning more mauve ...

... like this.

And as they reach full maturity they turn blue with a purple wing petal.

This is the same flower 24 hours later ... now true blue!

And this is the golden sweet bit.

Thursday 17 May 2007

Rain rain go away

A raindrop settles into the leaf axil of a Desiree pea and highlights the lovely purple-red colour

I did wonder what happened to the April showers, and now I know. They were being saved up for the beginning of May and dumped all in one go.

After two months with a dry, empty waterbutt, it rained hard enough to fill it in a day until it was overflowing all over the patio ... and then carried on raining non-stop for the next week. Just in the last couple of days there have been short periods of dry weather, but otherwise it's been relentless rain. The garden doesn't know what's hit it. Everything's stopped growing except the native weeds and grass. I'm well behind with my digging ... after weeks of barely being able to bash a spade into the bone-hard soil, it's suddenly a quagmire. Seedlings in trays on the patio are drowning in their pots. The first flush of roses are ruined. The slugs and snails have been partying across the veg plots barely even leaving silvery stumps in their wake, just empty spaces. I was growing three different yellow tomatoes and they've all been razed at ground level.

We needed some rain, but it could have done with being spread out a bit better. **waves fist at sky**

Golden Sweet: golden pods and a pretty splosh of pinky purple in the leaf axils

It's been a setback to my pea breeding project too, because the rain started just as the first flowers were coming to maturity. I emasculated a few flowers of Ne Plus Ultra ready to pollinate the next day and then the 8-day deluge came. Needless to say the flowers were somewhat past their prime by the time I had a chance to pollinate them. I wasn't able to make a start on the Golden Sweet x Desiree cross either, because the latter's flowers didn't reach the right stage of maturity before the deluge.

But anyway, I have now been able to hand-pollinate a few buds on both varieties. Desiree has matured into a very handsome plant with compact blue-green foliage and gorgeous flowers borne in pairs. It looks very pretty in the bud stage as you can see, but they open out into very large bicolour blooms with traces of dark veining in the pink petal. I will photograph them as soon as the weather permits. As for Golden Sweet, the photo above tells you all you need to know about what makes it special.

Just to make things more frustrating, I'm practically immobilised with stress-related back pain at the moment. That's the daft thing, I haven't even done anything to it ... it's just got itself so tensed up it's going into spasms, and even if it's only a phantom affliction which will probably disappear as readily as it came, it certainly bloody hurts for real.

Ah well. Here are two more rare heritage peas which have just come into flower.

Carruthers' Purple Podded is a family heirloom from Northern Ireland, available only via the Heritage Seed Library. As you can see it is a very elegant pea, with dainty lantern-like flowers showing the pink/maroon bicolour typical of purple podders. It is unusual, however, in the shape of the calyx, which is swollen up into a distinctive heel with a strong purple flush. Some of the flush extends into the sepals but otherwise they are mostly green. Like all the other purples it has a ring of purple in the leaf axils.

A standard green pea this time, though of the tall elegant Victorian type. This is Ne Plus Ultra, a highly esteemed pea introduced in 1847 and now quite rare, though you can get it from W. Robinson. It's one of the few heritage peas to have resistance to powdery mildew, though I haven't yet had a chance to put that to the test (the mildew is behaving itself at the moment and staying away).

Thursday 3 May 2007

Well here we are in May already ...

California poppies, from seed I sowed last year. They overwintered without any protection and were in flower by late April. Pretty good going I reckon!

Oh dear, I have been most remiss in keeping my blog up to date over the last month. I've been totally wrapped up in getting everything sorted out for my album, which is a month behind schedule and still not ready for release, but it's getting there.

So I thought I'd just catch up a little by posting some pictures taken in the garden today, since everything has been growing away nicely in spite of me.

One of the things I love about California poppies is the groovy little witches hats they produce when they're in bud. As the flower unfurls, the hat slides off. Then another one appears as the seedpod develops.

Meanwhile, I should be able to make a start on some pea breeding work in the next few days. I'm trying to produce a new purple mangetout (snow) pea for The Real Seed Catalogue based on a cross between their yellow-podded mangetout Golden Sweet and a purple-podded sheller, Desiree. They sent me some seeds to start me off and I've been growing them side by side in a bamboo frame and hoping to goodness they'll both flower at the same time so that I can do some hand-pollinations. Fortunately, as the pictures below show, they are looking to be doing just that.

I've grown Golden Sweet before, but I didn't know much about Desiree before I started growing this crop. I'm a bit surprised to find it's a dwarf variety (or at any rate, doesn't seem inclined to get beyond about one and a half feet). The reason I'm surprised is that all the other purple-podded peas I've collected have been tall varieties which reached at least five feet ... so I'd kind of taken it for granted that this one would be too.

You can tell when Golden Sweet is getting ready to flower because it starts to show a lot more yellow colour in the young leaves and stems. And the buds are quite easy to spot as soon as they start to form because they have pale cream-coloured sepals (those are the little spiky bits that make up the 'pixie-hat' around the flower) which stands out visibly from the greeny yellow of the leaves. Another peculiarity of this variety is that the flowers never really open out properly, but to make up for it they do go through some beautifully dramatic colour changes.

This Golden Sweet flower bud is at about the right stage for hand-pollination. Yes I know it's tiny, but peas are extremely efficient at self-fertility, so if you don't catch them early in the bud stage it'll be too late to do a cross with another variety. This bud is so small it hasn't started to open or colour up yet, and the petals are still tucked away under the sepals ... but the female stigma will be receptive by now, so this is the right time to make a cross by introducing pollen from another flower.

To find flower buds on Desiree I have to delve into the foliage because they're a bit less developed, but they are there. Here you can see a whole cluster of tiny flower buds, which have a distinctive purple flush on the sepals. These are too young for hand-pollinating, but soon, soooooon ...

As it's going to be a few days yet before Desiree is ready for pollinating, I may start off by making a different cross. I will have no shortage of flowers on these plants, so I can make as many crosses as I like as long as I label them properly. The only other pea that has flowers open at the moment is the dwarf sugarsnap, Sugar Ann. So I may as well try crossing Golden Sweet with Sugar Ann ... the obvious outcome would be the possibility of a yellow-podded sugarsnap, which would be nice, but actually these varieties are so different almost anything could happen. So it must be worth a go.

The flowers of Sugar Ann look a little different from the other peas I grow ... they have very wide open wing petals, so the innermost keel petal (which is normally fairly well hidden) is exposed. I don't suppose it makes much difference to anything, it's just an observation.