Monday 25 June 2007

Heritage vegetable review
Pea: Golden Sweet

Age: unknown, but pre-1860
Background: Yellow-podded. Historically significant for its probable role in the development of genetic science
My supplier: Real Seed Catalogue
Pros: gorgeous, vigorous, healthy, high-yielding, multi-purpose, tasty
Cons: none, other than that the flowers never fully open

(The first of my 2007 heritage veg reviews, but they won't all be this long!)

When you start delving into heritage peas you find that some of them are very quirky and unusual, and some are beautiful in ways you've never seen before. That's the main reason I find such joy in exploring them. But it's not that often you come across one that makes you say "this is totally unique". But Golden Sweet is exactly that.

The most obviously unusual thing about Golden Sweet is the colour of its pods, which do merit the "golden" tag. They start off a bright light yellow, just slightly on the pale side of lemon. I don't know of any other yellow podded varieties, although there probably are some. It's no modern novelty though. Golden Sweet or something incredibly like it was used by Gregor Mendel in his pea breeding experiments in the 1860s which led to the discovery of nature's laws of inheritance, even though it took another 40 years for anyone to realise the significance of it.

Gregor Mendel was not a professional scientist. He was a monk. He experimented with pea breeding for the fun of it. Unfortunately that meant that when he published his scientific paper explaining how some inherited traits are dominant and others recessive and they're all passed on by random independent assortment, nobody took a blind bit of notice ... including Charles Darwin, who was in the process of researching The Origin of Species and was busy writing to pea breeders trying to find out exactly the kind of information Mendel had already comprehensively discovered. Mendel, an intelligent amateur naturalist who had gone into the church so that he could get a university education, experimented by crossing a yellow-podded pea with a green-podded one in the monastery garden. The result was a consistent yellowy green in the next generation. But when he planted the following generation he found they all separated out into green types or yellow types again. From this he worked out that inheritance was not about the equal blending of substances from the parents (as had always been assumed). It was more a random assortment of little packets of information, each of which could be passed on in its entirety. He also noticed that the ratios among his plants were roughly three quarters green-podded and one quarter yellow-podded, which suggested to him that these packets must be arranged into pairs in which some packets were able to dominate while others hid themselves completely and then reappeared in subsequent generations. He was absolutely right, but his work was ignored and entirely forgotten until the early 1900s when better microscopes enabled scientists to actually see these packets, which we now call genes, and those responsible for the "breakthrough" were rather surprised to find that an Austrian abbot had beaten them to it.

So if you're looking for a heritage pea with historical provenance, Golden Sweet has some. Its age and origins are not known, but it is thought to have come from India. I suspect it is somewhat adapted from its Asian origins because it thrives very happily in soggy British gardens.

As a garden performer, Golden Sweet is superb. It reaches five or six feet tall so it needs to be grown with some support. It may not produce a good crop if it's planted very early or very late in the season (I found my late crop last year suffered from powdery mildew, though it was less badly affected than some other varieties). But it is very vigorous, fast-growing and voluptuous and its yields are abundant. It also doesn't seem to suffer from anything much in the way of pests and diseases. Apart from late-season mildew and the very occasional mid-season pea moth, Golden Sweet gave me some of the cleanest and healthiest pea plants I've ever grown.

The plants are attractive from quite an early age, because they have a bright magenta-pink splash in the leaf axils. This is something I associate with purple-podded peas, because all the purples I know of have it, and it's very uncommon in green-podded peas. The magenta splosh on Golden Sweet, however, is a wide double one and quite unlike other varieties. It's like there's two dark pink rings, sometimes with white rays through them ... and they are very very attractive. The foliage and tendrils are a fairly normal green while the plants are young but as the flower buds start to develop deep within the leaf buds, the tops of the plants start to go much more yellow. It's not an anaemic, washed out yellow ... it's a deep, intense lemon-green. Once flowering has got underway, stems and tendrils are intense bright yellow with an orangey-rose blush. Sound flamboyant? It is!

But that's nothing compared to the flower colours. I say colours in plural, because each flower goes through a whole sequence of dramatic colour changes, and as the plants are usually bearing flowers of different ages at the same time, all the different colours appear at once in a carnival-like display across the whole crop. They really have to be seen to be believed, and the only way I can begin to do justice to them is to direct you to my photogallery blog post about them. But the gist of it is this. They produce cream coloured buds (instead of the usual green) with pale cream petals emerging. While still quite small, the innermost petal within the bud goes deep pink, and glows through the outer creamy layer. The cream then turns to pink, then mauve, while the inner petal darkens to purple. Often this change happens in a gradual blend across the surface of the petal, which looks amazing. And finally, the mauve gives way to a soft sky blue while the purple inner one turns to deep midnight blue. These colour changes also occur in most purple podded peas, but not always with this level of intensity or colour blending. And of course the cream coloured sepals and rose-flushed bright yellow stems give the plant an even more exotic appearance. There is one hitch though. The flowers never open out fully the way peas normally do. They just become very large half-open buds. But they are beautiful enough for it not to matter. (And of course it doesn't affect pollination as peas don't require any help from bees.)

I found that some plants produced double pods, i.e. two flower buds at each node. But not all of them did this, and of those that did, a reversion to single nodes seemed to happen soon afterwards.

Golden Sweet is usually grown as a mangetout, or snow pea. If you harvest the pods while they're still young they are very sweet and crunchy, so you can eat them raw straight off the plants or put them in a salad (as their yellow colour is at its brightest when young, they are very aesthetically pleasing in salads). As the pods get bigger the colour fades to a pale greeny-yellow and a slightly more bitter taste develops. They are still pretty good for cooking at this stage but not so good raw. Larger pods also inevitably start to develop string. Once the peas start bulging out visibly, you're better off leaving them to develop into full size shelling peas.

This is certainly the best flavoured mangetout I've come across as long as you pick it while it's young. It's stringless and sweet. It's also ridiculously abundant ... the pods are borne in such profusion it's quite a job to keep picking them all. I only planted sixteen seeds and the crop provided as many pods and peas as I could eat for a month or so.

Shelled out and eaten raw the peas are quite sweet and tasty, about 7 or 8 peas per pod, and with plenty of substance to them. The peas are light green (by that stage the pods usually are too) and succulent with a rich old-fashioned flavour. It's a pleasure to eat them straight off the plant. When cooked they go an unusual colour: the skins are a pale grey green but on the inside they are a dark emerald green. It's the kind of colouring I associate with broad beans rather than peas and makes quite an attractive novelty on the dinner plate.

Pink and blue flowers on the same plant

But the delights of this unique variety are not over when you've finished eating them. Drying them down for next year's seed is a pleasure in itself so great it should induce anyone to start seed saving! They go through amazing colour changes as they dry out and finish up with gorgeous speckles and patterns, all different. The colours are at their most intense a few days after harvest, when the pale green of the pea's surface is finely sprayed with particles of deep blue, indigo, purple and rose pink. They look as though they've been splattered with ink from a fountain pen cartridge. The speckles are at their most sharply defined and intensely coloured when the pea is allowed to dry inside the pod, especially those parts which are in physical contact with the pod. Any parts of the pea which are exposed to air (even inside the pod) develop a softer and more blurry speckling. You get to see every pea within the pod developing its own unique pattern of coloured speckles while the peas themselves adopt various shades of green or tan. It's amazing and beautiful ... an aurora borealis on a single pea.

My verdict overall is that, barring a crop failure, I can't see how anyone could be disappointed with this variety ... it has a bit of everything. I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone. A pea like no other.

Saturday 23 June 2007

Saving peas for seed

This is one of my hand-made hybrids, Mr Bethell's Purple Podded x Alderman being grown for seed

I've now started harvesting some of the pods from my hand-pollinations, at least the ones that have had longest to mature. It takes about 5-7 weeks for peas to produce fully mature pods, depending on the variety, the weather, the growing conditions and how early in the season they were pollinated (the earliest flowers on the plants will usually produce the best seed, but may take longer to develop).

If you look at any seed saving guide, the received wisdom for peas is to leave them on the plant until they're fully dry, i.e. when the pods are brown and crisp and the peas inside are starting to rattle. And that's perfectly good advice if you're bulk-saving seed from a whole crop, especially if the weather is dry in the time leading up to harvest. But if you've put a lot of work into doing hand-pollinations then every pod matters, so I tend to harvest them individually as soon as they reach maturity.

Maturing pods of Kent Blue, which are unusually knobbly so you can see clearly how the baby peas are getting on

With tall peas it's very obvious when they have reached the end of their productive season. Their first step is to stop flowering, or produce only tiny unproductive buds. And then they flop. Big time. You should see my Golden Sweet crop now ... no sooner had I posted the picture of it standing six feet tall and full of bounty when it just collapsed, more or less overnight. It's now leaning over its bamboo frame in a great sagging heap. And damned heavy it is too, like a dead weight ... and one that makes a strange squeaking noise as the stems rub together. It doesn't look very glamorous but it's a perfectly natural event. Pea plants are short-season annuals and as soon as they've completed their production they naturally keel over and die.

In my experience, and this may be related to my garden's climate, the plants and the pods are vulnerable to a few problems at this stage. Once they've sagged, all the leaves and pods are pressed together and not very well ventilated, so if the weather is moist they can suffer with mould and mildew. Snails also like to crawl up and hide in the leafmass, where they seem to take a special liking to the mature pods even more than the young and tender ones, and chew great lumps out of them. These problems are obviously worse in damp weather, and if there's a lot of rain it's possible for the peas themselves to swell too quickly for their skins, and split open. It's also around this time of the season that the larvae of pea moths pupate and drop out into the soil to wreak havoc next year.

It takes a while for the pods to dry completely on the plant, but a while before that they go through a phase when the pod starts to change colour slightly or look a bit washed out and the surface goes leathery. The calyx (that's the little pixie hat at the top) dries up and withers, and the top of the pod starts to look a bit dehydrated and sunken where it joins on to the stem. (Picture on the right shows Carruthers' Purple Podded just approaching that stage.) I asked myself what message the plant is giving to the pods when this happens. I think the message is basically "right, that's yer lot!" The plant has been nourishing the pod all this while and now it's starting to withdraw its support. Any further nourishment and moisture the peas need have to be drawn from the pod itself, which is why the pod starts to look so leathery and drained. If the peas are no longer receiving moisture from the plant then there's no particular reason to leave them on the plant, as far as I can see.

So my rule of thumb is to harvest each pod when the calyx has withered, because the peas will have developed as much as they're ever going to, and may as well finish drying in a sheltered place.

Once harvested you can just leave the pods to dry out naturally, and shell them out when they've gone crispy. It normally takes three or four days at room temperature for the pods to dry down, and then they start to shrivel quite rapidly. (The peas themselves will take a while longer.) However, I do sometimes pop the pods open. Not to remove the peas ... I prefer to leave them attached to the inside of the pod until they detach themselves naturally ... but just to keep them well ventilated. I started doing this because I have had some go mouldy on the inside of the pod, which spoils the peas. The other reason is the dreaded pea moth. It's not at all unusual for these maggoty little blighters to pop their heads out of peas shortly after harvest. One of the signs of their presence is a brownish patch on the pea itself so it's a good idea to remove any peas which have brown patches. Once the grubs start to pupate they gnaw their way out of the pea, leaving a small round hole and a lot of brownish powdery debris. Do watch out for them because they are destructive little buggers and will often maraud their way through the whole pod.

Coloured threads tied around the flowers when I hand-pollinate them enable me to identify the different hybrids at harvest time.

If you're going to save the peas to plant next year, leave them until they are completely dry before bagging them up. The noise they make when (gently!) dropped against a hard surface is the easiest way to tell. They should land with a hard clack. Any hint of a dull thud is a sign of moisture.

However, if you're planning to plant them immediately you don't need to dry them out fully. You can plant them straight away, although I've personally had more success by drying them down at least partially before sowing them. I know it seems a bit pointless to waste time drying them out and then waste more time rehydrating them, but I assume some chemical change takes place because they seem much more willing to germinate from a dry or semi-dry state.

Why would you want to plant them straight away? It's sometimes possible to get two generations of a pea crop into a single British season. Unlike things like peppers and tomatoes, which need a complete seasonal cycle to do their stuff and are sensitive to changes in day length, peas complete their business within a short and fairly standard timeframe regardless of what time of year they're sown, as long as the weather doesn't mess them up. In the UK, a crop sown in late February or early March can produce seed by the end of June which can be sown straight away for a crop around September or early October. Some varieties do better at this than others, and there's always a risk of sudden bad weather causing problems ... so it's probably only worth doing if you're an impatient plant breeder like me, wanting to grow out the F1 generation as quickly as possible so I can get on to the far more interesting F2 generation.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Purple potatoes, purple peas

Newly harvested pods of Desiree peas ready for shelling out

I've been looking forward to trying out the Desiree peas. They are certainly handsome plants with compact, lush foliage and beautiful flowers, and the pods are a gorgeous ultra-dark purple, borne in pairs and produced in abundance. No complaints so far. I assume this pea has been bred for shelling out, because the pods are incredibly thick and go tough very quickly. The main purpose of my crop was to provide pollen for a breeding project, so it's a bonus really that I've ended up with all these pods (donating pollen doesn't inhibit pod formation, so they've developed a normal crop). At last the pods are fat enough for harvest!

They really are incredibly tough pods ... it's a job to pull them off the plants. But beautiful. And the peas inside are a luscious bright green (I have yet to see actual purple peas, although speckling is possible in some older varieties). So how do they taste after all that?


Purple podded peas don't have a great reputation for flavour at the best of times. But compared to the other purples I've grown this one doesn't taste great. It's not as palatable as Mr Bethell's Purple Podded and a long way off the juicy sweetness of Carruthers' Purple Podded. It's a bit on the chewy side too. Not hugely impressed, to be honest.

Normally I eat peas straight off the plants because they're too good to cook, but these will most definitely be going into a pan of boiling water.

Of course Desiree is the mainstay of my purple-mangetout project, and I've been crossing it with Golden Sweet in the hope of producing something fabulous. It may still do so, because I'm only trying to transfer the colour genes from Desiree and not the genes for flavour and pod thickness, and I will probably end up doing at least one backcross to Golden Sweet which will skew the genepool in a more flavoursome direction.

And also, because I had no shortage of flowers on my Golden Sweet crop, I took the liberty of making some alternative crosses. That included a number of pods crossed with Carruthers' Purple Podded, which is a tall old-fashioned purple of sublime flavour. It will be interesting to see how the two different hybrids compare in the next generation. I also have a few pods which I crossed with a green-podded sugarsnap pea, Sugar Ann, and some crossed with the eccentric heritage variety Kent Blue.

Freshly dug Shetland Black potato. It doesn't look like anything very special ... until you rub off a bit of the skin to reveal the gorgous swirly purple underneath.

One purple vegetable which doesn't disappoint is the heritage potato Shetland Black. It has the disadvantage that it's difficult to find in the ground at harvest time because it's so dark and ... well ... kinda lumpy ... that it looks like a sheep turd. As I don't normally have sheep in my garden though, I can safely assume that anything which appears to be a sheep turd is probably a Shetland Black potato.

So is it purple, or is it black, you may ask? Well it's both really. The purple is quite stunning when the spuds are freshly washed straight after digging. But the colour is not on the top surface, it's underneath, and there's a layer of thick skin over it which starts off translucent but gradually goes dark and opaque, giving the mature spuds a near black colour. The thick skin is noticeable when you eat it too ... much chewier than a modern variety. But the flavour is rich, earthy and delicious.

I have two Shetland Black crops this year. The first was started in early March, and did well to survive the frosts, so it's just about ready now. I harvested it this week because I desperately need the growing space for other things. It's lovely to have fresh potatoes again though! And I'll be reviewing this variety very soon.

Ah, that's better! You can see here how the "black" outer skin overlays the gem-like purple underneath.

Sunday 17 June 2007

Garlic thoughts

Among poppies I collected from the trenches of the Somme, a flower scape on Music garlic swerves out of a double loop-the-loop.

I don't pretend to be a garlic connoisseur in the same league as Patrick, but I have been taking an interest in this love-it-or-hate-it plant in the last couple of years and have discovered a whole new perspective on it.

Growing up in England in the 70s and 80s, garlic was something I didn't really come across much. You could get it in powdered form to use as a seasoning in cooking, but fresh bulbs were rarely seen except in specialist shops. It was only in my early 20s after I went vegetarian and was looking for new foods to try that I discovered how fantastic fresh garlic tasted (and never touched the dried stuff again). By then you could buy it in supermarkets, but it took another few years to start showing up in garden centres. And when it did, it was usually just called "garlic". No variety name was given, so I assumed there weren't really any varieties.

Oh but there are!

A browse through Patrick's blog will give you a modest idea of some of the varieties out there. But what if you want to grow some yourself? You won't find most of these named varieties for sale anywhere in Europe. Even in the US where there's a better choice, supplies are limited and prices high. If you want to buy garlic in the UK to grow yourself you will have a very limited choice. There's Thermidrome and Printanor (how do they get these names?) and if you venture out on the internet you'll find a couple of companies offering Solent Wight and its variants Early and Purple Wight. Another Scottish firm offers Music. That's about it. Where is the Georgian Crystal? The China Rose? The Persian Star? The Gypsy Red?

I assume the reason the available garlic range is so small is because of a perceived lack of demand. After all, most people in the UK still think garlic is just garlic.

Flower scape on Persian Star

The first time I grew garlic I simply planted some supermarket cloves that had started to sprout. That was when I had an allotment and an Italian bloke down there said I should try it because it's so easy ... "you just tttthrow it on the ground and it-a-grow." It did too. I've been growing it ever since. But what I didn't know back then is that there are (broadly speaking) two different types. These are usually called hardnecks and softnecks.

The difference between them is quite fundamental, because they reproduce differently, and have different culinary properties.

Softnecks don't tend to flower, and if they do the flowers are insignificant. Instead they produce big bulbs with large numbers of cloves (usually 12 - 20 but sometimes up to 40) of varying sizes. After harvest their tops remain very pliant, which enables them to be woven into braids.

Hardnecks produce a tall central flower spike, called a scape, which grows with a curious twist in it and eventually dries out to form a hard woody stalk ... hence the name. They don't produce proper flowers, however. The scapes contain bulbils ... numerous tiny cloves. Bulbils can be planted and will eventually grow into full sized bulbs, but it takes a few years. The usual practice is to remove the scape before it develops too far, otherwise it uses up too much of the plant's energy at the expense of the bulb. The bulbs themselves tend to have fewer cloves in them than softnecks, usually between 2 and 8, although they may be very large in size.

There's also an important difference in flavour and keeping qualities. Hardneck garlic often has a richer mellower flavour and is considered to be of gourmet quality, but it usually only keeps for a few months. Softneck garlic keeps for up to a year, but the flavour is often more pungent and less refined. Hardneck cloves are generally much easier to peel than softnecks.

Supermarket garlic is almost always of the softneck type, which is probably why most people don't realise there's more than one type. The reason softnecks are so popular is because they're much more commercially viable. They are higher yielding, easier to grow by mechanised methods, and their keeping qualities give them a much longer shelf life. Also, because the bulbs have lots of cloves in, the planting stock goes further. They are simply more productive and profitable, so most farmers go for them. One exception is the superb hardneck Music which is sold by Waitrose, but it has a very short season.

For me personally though, hardnecks are the ones to go for. The superior flavour makes them well worth seeking out. I have some Persian Star which Patrick gave me and that's doing well. And for a few years now I've been growing Music, which I guess is an obvious one for me to go for. Within the realms of hardneck garlic there are several sub-types, and Music is a Porcelain type. It's easy to see why when you look at it. The bulb wrappers are silky smooth and translucent with fine elegant purple stripes and are truly beautiful things to behold. Inside are approximately four humungously fat cloves which are gorgeously aromatic and very easy to peel.

I've just harvested this one bulb of Music because the plant was suffering an extreme infestation of rust. The bulb is in perfect condition, and pretty large considering it's been harvested more than a month early. It hasn't yet developed its purple stripes or porcelain glow, however.

Last year I gave away a few bulbs to friends and to the lady who runs our local Chinese takeaway. Since then I've been harassed incessantly. "Got any more of that garlic? Oh please, just one more bulb!" Unfortunately I can't grow it fast enough to give it to everyone who wants it. It's difficult for me to bulk up my supplies because each bulb only contains four or five cloves at most. They are enormous cloves, but nevertheless at planting time the contents of the bulbs don't go very far. They are also large plants and take up a lot of space. And I want to keep some for myself!

But at least those people I gave it to no longer think that all garlic is just garlic.

Friday 15 June 2007

Heritage pea update

Pea Ne Plus Ultra

The weather has become very hot, very quickly this year, and that's not an ideal situation for peas. They are cool season plants, and prolonged periods of hot sun makes them very stressed. Their initial response is to start producing much smaller flowers, and if they're some way into their season they may stop flowering altogether, producing only tiny buds which wither before opening. In my garden, Golden Sweet, Desiree and Ne Plus Ultra have stopped flowering, and the rest are slowing right down.

You can see how rampant Golden Sweet is (on the right) beside the barely visible purple podded Desiree (on the left). Six feet tall and absolutely smothered with golden pods.

But that's not the end of the pea lover's woes. Stressed peas tend to get attacked by aphids. Aphids need no introduction because everybody knows what they are and why they're such a nuisance. As my friend Roz put it: "they don't even have to have sex, they just land on a plant and ten minutes later they've had, like, a million babies."

Aphids don't tend to attack peas as badly as they do some other plants (like roses, ack!) but they have a habit of tucking themselves away under the sepals of developing pods where you don't see them until you wonder why the pod is starting to twist and distort. If you catch them early enough it's easy enough to brush them off and only when the plants are very stressed do they build up to really problematic levels. I wonder also whether they're responsible for infecting some of my plants with an as-yet-unidentified disease which causes severe curling, stunting and rapid death. Pests and diseases are not one of my areas of expertise so although I've had it before I don't recognise it. I've tried searching on the internet to find out what it is but all the photos of pea diseases I come across are so low-res you can't see what the bloody hell they're trying to show (so what is the bloody point, I ask?)

This year I've had an additional problem with snails attacking my peas. Anything I tried to sow direct into the garden got eaten the moment it put its head above ground. Even the ones I started off in bog roll tubes or Rootrainers have been savaged. I've lost one of my sideline breeding projects, a Champion of England x Mr Bethell's Purple Podded cross I made last year ... the plants reached 5ft tall and produced some very attractive purple and green two-tone pods before being completely skeletonised by snails. They even chewed lumps out of the pods which ruined the baby peas inside. As it was only a sideline project I didn't have many seeds, so that's the end of that. I also lost an entire crop of Ezethas Krombek Blauwschok purple peas, stripped bare by snails, but at least those are readily replaceable. The snails also destroyed most of my crop of Mr Bethell's Purple Podded at the seedling stage, and although the surviving plants are making a valiant comeback the crop is a shadow of what I had last year.

The translucent, scimitar shaped pods of Kent Blue clearly show their developing inner bounty

In fact my vegetable plots look like a pest and disease resource centre at the moment. I don't know why everything has been so badly afflicted this year when none of these things were an issue last year, but there you go. I have mangold fly on my beetroot, rust and leek moth grubs on my garlic, asparagus beetles on my asparagus, blackleg on some of the potatoes and my sweetcorn seedlings went mouldy. Strangely enough though, my broad beans are totally free of blackfly ... even the Martock variety which is said to be "a martyr to blackfly" is clean as a whistle. Weird.

But enough of all this doom and gloom. As you can see in these photos, most of my pea crops have been pretty successful so far despite all the problems.

The last of the heritage peas to come into flower this year is Magnum Bonum. It's another tall, vigorous 19th century variety quite similar to Alderman and Ne Plus Ultra, thought to have been introduced somewhere around 1860.

Magnum Bonum is a fine elegant pea with snow white flowers.

And meanwhile other varieties have been setting pods like the clappers. I've had the pleasure of sampling Ne Plus Ultra which is mega-sweet and very tasty with long beauteous pods. I did try eating one of the pods at the mangetout stage but it was rather bitter ... this one is definitely a sheller. The pods puff out to quite a substantial size and the peas are quite large. I will be reviewing this variety soon, so I won't go into too much detail now.

Also up for review very shortly is Carruthers' Purple Podded, and I must say I think I've found a new favourite among the purples! This one has shown itself to be superior on every level, from its rampant growth to its gorgeous flowers to its exquisitely flavoured peas. I tried eating a whole raw young pod a couple of weeks ago and it wasn't bad, but again this variety comes into its own when you shell out the mature peas. Even when they reach full size they have a sweetness I've never yet encountered in a purple. Just magic. I will be growing this one again for sure.

Friday 8 June 2007

Today in the garden ... bean planting

Well, you saw how lovely the Salmon Flowered pea looked last week. This is what it looked like three days later. Whoooo!

My blog has now clocked up over 10,000 visitors, almost exactly a year to the day since I set up the site meter. When I first started this blog it only got two or three hits a day, so it's grown massively over the last year. My continued and grateful thanks to everyone who keeps coming back here, and to those who are kind enough to leave comments. I appreciate all of them and it really makes me feel the blog is well worth the time I spend on it!

Today I've been busy planting out the latest batches of French beans.

Dwarf French beans (that's bush beans to my American friends) are outside my experience because I've never really grown them successfully before. Climbing French beans (pole beans) are another matter ... I've had many a good crop from those. There's not actually any difference between them other than that one type climbs up poles and the other doesn't. In the past I've favoured the climbing type because the yields are much higher for the amount of land occupied, and I used to have serious issues with growing space (I still do, but that's my own fault for buying too many seeds). But this year I'm trying out several varieties of the shortie type. What they lack in yield they make up for in earliness. Apparently.

Dwarf French bean Early Warwick, a 19th century variety now very rare and hard to get hold of. The flowers start off creamy yellow (right) when they first open and then turn pale pinky lilac (left).

I have had some problems with the beans this year, notably an outbreak of halo blight. This is a rather nasty bacterial disease made all the more nasty by being one of the very few diseases which is seed-borne, and which can therefore be transmitted to the next generation as soon as the poor things germinate. It affects French beans and runners. It starts off innocuously enough ... just a few spots of yellow on the leaves. But they get bigger, the leaves go more yellow, and soon turn into brown patches with watery blotches. It spreads very rapidly, dissolving the leaves into a soggy brown mess. And if it gets onto the stems the plants die very quickly. It's not nice.

When I looked up halo blight in The Vegetable Expert it said "lift and destroy diseased plants". Well bugger that. My bean varieties have been painstakingly collected and are mostly rare heritage varieties, some of which I was only able to obtain in tiny quantities. The disposable "chuck it out and buy another" culture doesn't work for me. So I picked off the worst affected leaves, and isolated the least affected plants from the really sick ones, and each day went back and picked off any new blight patches ... tearing off parts of the leaves where necessary. Halo blight spreads rapidly in warm wet conditions, so I took care not to get the leaves wet, and certainly not to let water run off the leaves and into the soil. Within a couple of weeks the majority of plants had recovered. A few died, and I put those in the dustbin rather than the compost. But certainly the plants made a valiant effort to fight off the disease and I'm so glad I didn't destroy them. Tsk. Pesky gardening books.

Another little tip I can give about beans of all kinds is not to worry too much if the first few flowers drop off without setting pods. It seems to be one of those things beans do. After a short while they usually get their act together and start setting pods normally, but the first few eagerly-awaited flowers usually just wither and drop off. C'est la vie.

Another thing that's just about survived against the odds is my onion crop. I sowed the seed last autumn and the plants were looking very promising. But they now have irreparably bent tops as a result of having been sat on by the kitten too many times. Yes I know, but he is a very large kitten and he sits down very hard. Anyway, despite the crushed foliage they are managing to form bulbs. This one is an Italian red (obviously) variety called Cipolla di Genova.

Thursday 7 June 2007

Poppy days are here again

Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule. These are actually golden yellow with orange streaks ... the camera hasn't managed to capture the colour very accurately. Despite its name this species of poppy originates in Asia.

The camera also freaked a little in trying to capture the intense red of this newly opened California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) with fluted petals and orange streaks ... but you get the idea.

Another view of the Patty's Plum oriental poppy (Papaver orientale).

A common wild field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, self-seeded in a pot on the patio. Poppies have a curious ability to express their flower size according to the available conditions, and this rather small bloom is typical of what happens when they grow in pots.

Sunday 3 June 2007

Ooh look, another heritage pea

Now, you probably won't have seen one like this before. I certainly haven't.

It showed up in the Heritage Seed Library catalogue this year, an heirloom pea which doesn't really have a name and is just known as Salmon Flowered. "I grow them as a curiosity," its donor says. I couldn't resist including it in my precious six choices. It differs from all the other pea varieties I know in the colour of its flowers, which as you can see are two-tone pink, the standard petal being a very pale pink, almost white. And very elegant flowers they are too. Not huge, but compact and well formed and very pretty.

But it has another peculiarity. It has enormously fat stems which are ridged and succulent, like a sweet pea. And it also has a sweet pea growth habit, producing branches which come out from the main stem at right angles, and bearing its flowers all in a gigantic bunch at the top instead of singly or doubly at each leaf node like a culinary pea. But it has the leaves of a culinary pea. (I have yet to eat its peas, but I'll let you know.)

To look at it, I'd say it was probably made by a cross between a sweet pea and a culinary one. I don't know whether such a thing is biologically possible, because they are not even in the same genus let alone the same species. But that sure is what it looks like. And I'm itching to cross a few myself now just to see if it works.

I'm also using it for one of my sideline breeding projects. Although the main focus of this year's crop is to produce a stock of seed so that I can continue growing Salmon Flowered in future years (and hopefully share it with others), I'm making use of some of its abundant pollen by hand-crossing it with another pea variety, Alderman. That's a conventional white-flowered pea, albeit a tall one, with exceptional vigour and knockout flavour. By crossing these two I'll create a hybrid, and then in the next generation I'll backcross that hybrid with Alderman again. I may need to do that several times. The idea is to keep most of the existing characteristics of Alderman but introduce the pink flower genes into it. I'm also trying the same thing with Ne Plus Ultra.