Thursday 31 January 2008

Daughter of the Soil Seed Exchange 2008

Here's a list of all the seeds I've got available to swap or give away this year.

I mostly grow and save seed for my own use, but as I tend to go for rare and hard-to-find varieties I err on the side of caution and try to produce more than I need. Once I'm confident I have enough seed to keep the variety going in my own garden, it makes sense for me to give away the rest. I don't have the facilities for long-term seed storage, so there's no point just leaving them languishing in a box. Besides, the best way to help the survival of rare varieties is to get them out there and into people's gardens.

So here's the deal. All the varieties listed below are things I'm happy to give away to anyone who wants to grow them. I may only be able to offer a small quantity (about 20 seeds for peas and beans), which you'll have to bulk up by saving your own seed next year. You don't have to offer me anything in return ... I have limited growing space and to be honest I've already got as many seeds as I can realistically grow this year. If you have any unusual heirlooms, varieties you've had from the Heritage Seed Library, or spare seed from your own breeding projects, I may be interested in those. But otherwise just send me some stamps to cover the cost of postage and packing. A book of 4 or 6 first class (British) stamps will cover the costs of most orders (I'm not looking to make a profit, just to share a bit of garden biodiversity).

All I ask is that you try to care for the seeds. Some are very rare and in growing them in your garden or plot you're taking on a small share of responsibility for their future survival. If possible please save seed from the crops you grow, taking care to keep the variety pure and with a suitably diverse genetic base (see my post on seed saving for guidance on different vegetables, or this even better guide from the International Seed Saving Institute). You may also want to pass on your surplus seed next year, along with the variety names, to other likeminded gardeners.

If you want to send me feedback on how well the crops do in your garden, that's something I always appreciate.

If you're outside the UK, please let me know what you want and I'll calculate the postage. Some countries don't allow international seed swapping. Regrettably that includes the US, which has introduced pointlessly draconian import rules for seeds.

Please email me at: seeds (followed by the little squiggly "at" symbol)

Beetroot: Cheltenham Green Top - long stubby root, lovely flavour
Beetroot: Egyptian Turnip Rooted - round and flat, early maturing, lovely flavour
Beetroot: White beetroot - large white roots, very sweet, very hardy
Beetroot: Golden - small orange/yellow roots
Climbing bean: Pea bean - pretty pea-sized beans, half white half maroon with speckles
Climbing bean: Mrs Fortune's - vigorous, high-yielding, multipurpose
Dwarf bean: Canadian Wonder - dark red kidney bean, pretty pink flowers
Dwarf bean: Purple Queen - beautiful plants with delicious shiny flat purple pods
Pea: Magnum Bonum - very tall, delicious flavour, one of my favourites
Pea: Ne Plus Ultra - old variety, tall, good flavour ... sorry, all gone
Pea: Oregon Trail - dwarf variety with mildew resistance
Tomato: Clementine - golden yellow French cocktail tomato, makes huge trusses
Tomato: Persimmon - very large orange fruits ... sorry, all gone

Available in small/limited amounts (first come first served!):

Beetroot: Rouge Crapaudine - old French variety, long thin roots, delish!
Climbing bean: Kew Blue - beautiful purple pods, excellent flavour
Pea: Champion of England - nice old-fashioned tall pea
Pea: Corne de Belier - very old mangetout type, excellent flavour ... sorry, all gone

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Spring flowers and bean bugs

Crocuses are out!

The previous owner of our house left us with a plentiful supply of purple crocuses naturalised in the lawns. There are some in the front garden - or there were until the Tesco's delivery man wheeled his trolley over them - and there are some in the back lawn where they flower defiantly despite being sat on by clodhopping ginger cats.

And I've also got a rather nice bloom inside the house today. I don't have that many houseplants, but this Chinese hibiscus which my mum bought me at Tewkesbury Garden Centre a great many years ago has survived neglect and house moves and still produces these spectacular flowers with a shamelessly ostentatious set of reproductive parts. The green and pink foliage in the background doesn't belong to it, that's a small dragon tree which I've also had for the best part of a decade.

My most antique of houseplants is a spider plant which came with my first flat which I bought in 1993. The girl who lived there before said she'd had the plant for as long as she could remember. It's still going strong and has come with me on two subsequent house moves. It's also putting out a new flower stalk at the moment.

Seed sowing has begun, with onions and peppers on the go. Peppers take a while to germinate and need warmth so I've got mine precariously balanced on a tray above the radiator.

If you save your own bean seed it's worth keeping a check on your stored seeds periodically through the winter in case you get a problem like this:

Round white bulletholes in seeds of Vermont Cranberry, the work of the bean seed beetle.

These showed up in the space of a couple of days after I bagged up some Vermont Cranberry and put them away in a box, and it was lucky I happened to spot them because more than 20 of them had hatched out inside the seed envelope. I don't normally find bean seed beetles in French beans, they're more commonly a problem with broad beans. I've also tended to find only one beetle hole per bean but these were riddled, with as many as seven holes in each. I don't know whether Vermont Cranberry is particularly attractive to them or whether these just got unlucky.

The Cottage Gardener magazine of the 1840s describes these pests better than I ever could. The beetle "... is produced from a grub or caterpillar, which has eaten away all the vital parts of the seed; and when it has passed through the chrysalis state, and given birth to this beetle, the latter makes the hole in order to escape into the open air, there to perpetrate more mischief upon the growing crops."

Whether the beans are still useable after having holes gnawed out of them depends on where the holes are. Much of the content of the bean is stored energy for the seed and it can afford to lose a bit of that. As long as the embryo of the seed is not damaged the bean will still germinate. I don't hold out much hope for mine though with so many holes ... luckily I've got plenty spare.

The easiest way to prevent this problem is to freeze the beans after harvest, which kills off any insects and their eggs which may be lurking within the seed. Seal the seeds inside an airtight and freezerproof container, and freeze them for at least three days. Then place the container somewhere at room temperature for at least another day before opening it, otherwise you'll get condensation on the seeds which may ruin them. It's also very important to make sure the beans are thoroughly dry before freezing them, as the low temperature can damage the plant tissues within them if there's still moisture in them. This treatment can also be used with peas to get rid of pea moths.

Pity the Victorian gardener before the invention of freezers. Bean seed beetles were a major problem for them, and they had to boil the beans to kill off the pests, which risked ruining the seed anyway.

Monday 28 January 2008

Heritage Seed Library and Irish Seed Saver Association

Don't those look yummy? Bright orange Tangella tomatoes, which the Heritage Seed Library sent me as a freebie lucky dip. (Photo taken in 2006)

This is not the first time I've plugged the Heritage Seed Library, so excuse me if you've heard all this before. But I thought I'd mention it now because this is the last chance to join HSL if you want to get seeds for this year. Their deadline for seed requests is 1st March 2008.

The purpose of the Heritage Seed Library is to make rare and non-commercial vegetable varieties available to domestic gardeners and to encourage seed saving and biodiversity. Their main focus is on British and European varieties but there are a number of things in their catalogue from further afield too. This is vitally important work because of the unfortunate and short-sighted laws in Europe which forbid the sale of unregistered vegetable seeds. It's actually illegal to sell seed of any variety which isn't on your country's National List. As registration on the National List costs a lot of money and requires the variety to be uniform and standardised (which a lot of heirlooms aren't) the List is made up almost entirely of commercial varieties of interest to farmers, many of which, frankly, are rubbish in the garden ... or just plain boring. If you've ever wondered why garden centres always sell the same old boring selection, that's why. Old-fashioned garden varieties and family heirlooms have been vanishing at an alarming rate over the last 40 years, right across Europe.

A rare Irish pea variety, Clarke's Beltony Blue, from the Heritage Seed Library. (2007)

It therefore falls to the charitable organisations and concerned individuals to rescue and distribute as many non-commercial varieties as they can. Most European countries have their own seed saver organisations. It may seem a bit mad to suggest that anyone would actually be prosecuted just for selling vegetable seeds, but that's exactly what happened in France, where the government's 'fraud squad' ruthlessly crushed the seed saver charity Terre de Semences after they started selling seeds in garden centres. Undeterred, they resurrected themselves as Association Kokopelli and continue to distribute 1200 varieties of amazing heirlooms, under constant threat of persecution.

All the seed saver charities have their own ways of working. With the Heritage Seed Library you pay an annual subscription of £20 and they send you a catalogue of about 200 rare vegetables (from the 800 or so they have in their collection). You can join from outside the UK but it costs £5 extra. You choose any six packets you want, and you can also opt to have a seventh packet as a "lucky dip". You can specify substitutions just in case any of your chosen varieties are out of stock, but in my own experience I've always been sent exactly what I asked for.

Now, I know some people baulk at the cost of joining and it certainly isn't the cheapest way to acquire seeds. But the varieties they offer really are special, and many of them are unavailable anywhere else. I've consistently been delighted and amazed by the things I've had from them. Six choices may not seem a lot either, and I must admit I agonise over my selections because there are so many things in their catalogue I'd love to grow. But to be honest it does me good, because it forces me to think very carefully about each variety ... exactly why I want it and what I expect to get from it.

Other seed saver organisations work differently, and one I can highly recommend is the Irish Seed Saver Association (ISSA). They have some lovely stuff, from Tipperary Turnip (which is actually a swede) to a tomato called Auld Sod. One advantage is that their catalogue is open to all ... you don't have to be a member to buy seeds from them.

You can even take part in their breeding projects if you want. Such as Jo's Purple Podded climbing bean, which comes with a hand-written label asking if you could please send back some seeds from the best and purplest plants you get.

I discovered the delights of ISSA following an appeal for help. A musician friend asked if I knew anywhere she could get seeds of James' Longkeeping onion, as she knows someone who's desperately trying to get hold of it. An English market garden favourite for nearly 200 years, ubiquitous in seed catalogues and mentioned in popular gardening books, it seemed to suddenly disappear. The bloke who wants it says he's been looking for it for 15 years, to no avail. It's his favourite ever onion which he grew for many years before it vanished, "sweet like an apple if you eats 'em raw, and keeps for ages", and he's never found another one as good.

I like a challenge like that, and I soon found the reason for his problem. James' Longkeeping was deleted from the National List in 1993. So it's unlikely to have been offered for sale anywhere since then. No matter how popular or commercial a variety is, deletion from the National List can send it plummeting towards extinction in no time at all.

I searched around all the specialist heritage seed suppliers and couldn't find it. Even the Heritage Seed Library aren't offering it at the moment, and their members have been putting in a few requests for it in the "wants" list. But eventually I did find it, nestling among the rare and curiously named vegetables in the ISSA catalogue. ISSA seems to be the only source for it at the moment.

It brings it home to you how easily these old varieties can be lost, and how important this charitable conservation work really is.

Saturday 26 January 2008

The things we dig up in the garden

This is my favourite thing I've dug up in my current garden. An Unidentified Ceramic Object. Yay!

There's not much to relieve the tedium of digging at this time of year, as I make my annual futile stand against the couch grass roots. Digging is a bit of a chore for me. This is a large garden for one person to be managing on their own, and I struggle to keep up with it. And I'm afraid I don't go in for the double-digging that all the beefy blokes on the telly seem to think is necessary for the successful cultivation of vegetables, because (a) I have the body of a weak and feeble woman and (b) if you dig down more than a foot or so in my garden you get to solid sand, and there's not a lot to be gained by dredging that up into the topsoil.

But one of the curiosities I come across when I'm digging is all the little shards of pottery. Small pieces usually, white with occasional bits of blue on them. Old-fashioned willow-pattern stuff.

Our house was built in 1936, so the garden has been a garden for just over 70 years. I've noticed that many gardens of this age seem to have broken crockery mixed into the soil. It's a bit odd really. I mean, on the rare occasions when I break a tea-plate, I can't say my immediate instinct is to open the window and frisbee it across the vegetable patch.

I suppose the most likely explanation is that some previous gardener has used them as crocks in the bottoms of flower pots, and over time they've been dumped out onto the soil. I find it quite fascinating to find these little relics of my predecessors' domestic china. Cups and plates which served tea and biscuits to people in my house in another era. Seeing the china they ate their meals off is a strangely intimate glimpse into the everyday lives of the long dead.

The ghosts of tea-sets past.

My previous house was newly built, on the site of a small television factory. Most of the factory was still there, underneath six inches of topsoil, as that was evidently what the builders thought would serve as a garden. I nearly killed myself digging out all the buried rubble. Bits of glass and wire and concrete and other crap would show up from time to time. But once I got most of that out, I started unearthing bones. Quite large ones, in some cases. And huge teeth. They were old brown bones which had obviously been around for a while. I had visions of somebody burying their pet horse out there. Or had I finally found Shergar?

The mystery was eventually solved by a neighbour whose ancient uncle had lived in the street all his life, and who remembered there being a pig farm and abattoir on the site back in the 1930s. Charming. I'm not sure I'd have bought the house if I'd known it was built over a former slaughterhouse, but there you go.

Anybody else digging up interesting stuff in their plots?

Moan of the day

'Scuse me, but there are times when a girl's gotta have a good rant.


We had beautiful blue skies today and bright sunshine. Joy! Time to relieve the bulging washing basket of its contents which have had to sit there for a couple of weeks because the weather has been too miserable for laundry. (I don't have a tumble-dryer, I like my clothes to smell of fresh air.) I was literally just pegging the first clean garment on the line when there was a loud vrooooom! from the other side of the hedge and I found myself engulfed by a filthy smoggy cloud of poisonous petrol fumes.

Now, fair enough if you have a huge garden, or the occasional heavy-duty job which can't easily be done by hand. But my next door neighbour, still blissfully unaware of the song I wrote about his leafblower, really has a thing about powertools. Talk about using a petrol-driven sledgehammer to crack a nut. Got a dandelion coming up? Vroooom, whip its head off with a motorised trimmer. Is that a twig sticking out of the hedge there? Eeeeeeeooooooww, shred the living daylights out of it with a power-saw. Couple of leaves just fell on the patio? Brrrrrrrrrrr, chase them off with a turbo-charged blower. I guess these gadgets make him feel masculine and empowered. But they also stink and make a horrible racket.

Maybe I'm just grumpy today because I didn't get enough sleep. Last night while I was getting ready for bed I dropped a pair of underpants on the cat, and she just sat there like nothing had happened. And I laughed so much I set my asthma off.

Meanwhile, t'other cat (the ginger peril) has taken to harvesting his own beetroot and chasing them along the garden path.

Hope springs eternal. When you're a potato.

Rather unexpectedly for this time of year, I found a baby potato haulm showing its face above ground. It probably wasn't expecting to find itself in England in January, but there it is. It must be from a previous crop, although with its rosy foliage it looks like Red Duke of York which I planted in this spot last year, way too early, and which never showed itself above ground. If so, it must have sat dormant for the whole of last season and now suddenly decided to go for it.

Friday 25 January 2008

And now I want ... weird coloured carrots!

One of my earlier carrot growing efforts

Inspired by the recent discovery of some yellow carrots thriving under a heap of last year's poppy twigs, I've decided to have another go at carrot cultivation in 2008.

I thought I was rubbish at it. And I don't know why, because my light, sandy and stoneless soil should be absolutely ideal for them. Having abandoned my 2007 crop as a failure, the two solitary specimens of Jaune Obtuse du Doubs not only survived and grew to a good size in spite of me, they came out flawless and perfect. If they can cope with poor conditions and total neglect then it's got to be worth giving them another go. Furthermore, they tasted absolutely lovely. Very sweet and crunchy, and in a different league to shop-bought carrots. The seed came from The Real Seed Catalogue.

What I really want to try though is purple carrots. I've heard mixed views about how successful they are in the garden, but I'm a sucker for anything with an unusual colour, and purple vegetables are rich in anthocyanins. I tried to get some last year but couldn't find any that weren't F1 hybrids. In desperation I bought a packet of Purple Haze F1 from a local garden centre earlier this year, just so that I've got something to try out while I'm looking for an open-pollinated version. But more recently I discovered a mail order nursery in the UK that has a good range of speciality carrots of all colours, and pretty low prices too. Nicky's Nursery are offering two open-pollinated purple carrots: Cosmic Purple, which is purply-red on the outside and yellowy orange inside, and the more intensely purple (but still orange in the centre) Purple Dragon. It'll be exciting to find out how they do in the garden. They also have red, yellow, white, and cream carrots, some F1 and some OP, so it's a carrot fancier's delight.

Friday 18 January 2008

Bless the independent local nurseries

People around here know what goodies to expect when "spuds are in" at Dundry.

I recently read something in the Guardian which made me shudder. A top UK businessman was quoted as saying that British garden centres are "ripe for consolidation". That's right, gardeners are under threat from the same mass-market homogenised blandness that afflicts the nation's High Streets.

Not that that's anything new in itself, there has been a creeping commercialisation of gardening suppliers for some years, and a great many small independent garden centres have been swallowed by large national chains. Some have had no choice, as it gets more and more difficult for small businesses to survive.

It seems to me that it's never been more important to sponsor the independent nurseries and local businesses. You know, those small and slightly weatherbeaten places with hand-painted signs at the roadside, which you often drive past and wonder what they're like but never bother to stop at.

Luckily for me there are lots of small nurseries in my area, a relic of Cheltenham's long history as a centre of plant-raising. Here's one of my most local, in a rural spot a couple of miles outside Cheltenham. Dundry Nurseries and Garden Centre doesn't look especially glamorous from the outside but it's wonderful. I discovered it by accident three years ago when I was out with a friend in the car and we took a wrong turning. As we were turning round in their car park we thought we may as well stop and have a look. And what a pleasant surprise it was. It's a smallish family-run nursery with friendly staff but it's as well-stocked as most of the larger garden centres, and it happens to be the Potato Capital of Gloucestershire.

Chitting some Marfona spuds from Dundry.

I'm used to being shown a choice of ten or so varieties of seed potato. But Dundry are potato specialists and I counted no less than 111 varieties on display in their shop. That's pretty incredible by today's standards. And they'll be offering over 150 varieties at the Potato Weekend they have organised for 19th and 20th January. What's even better, they will sell you literally any quantity you want. Rather than being lumbered with a pre-packed 3kg bag you can mix and match smaller quantities of lots of different varieties. And if you just want one or two tubers to try out in a pot, they're quite happy to sell you that. Yesterday I picked up seven tubers of the heritage variety Sharpe's Express for the princely sum of 75p.

They also sell locally grown vegetables and fresh local eggs, which is a great bonus.

So next time you drive past one of those small scruffy roadside nurseries with the whited-out glasshouses, why not stop and have a look? They may not have a kiddies' play area or a tea-shop, but you never know what else you might find.

Any other bloggers want to do a little feature on their favourite local nursery?

Monday 14 January 2008

Summary of the Purple Pea Project 2007

And when I say "purple peas", I ain't kidding!

This is just a general update on my progress with the peas so far. In my usual disorganised fashion I've ended up with two main projects and a large number of sub-projects, but that's all part of the fun.

Before I start, I'd better reiterate what I mean when I talk about F1 hybrids. When two distinct varieties of a plant are crossed, F1 is the term used to describe the first generation of seed resulting from that cross. It stands for "first filial". When the F1 plants are grown, the seed they produce is called F2 (second filial), and so on. F1 plants tend to be very uniform because their genes are a fairly straightforward half-and-half combination of both parent types. But in the F2 generation the genes are randomly recombined and all sorts of different traits start emerging. That's why the received wisdom dictates that you should never save seed from commercial F1 hybrid varieties, as they won't come true to type. But that's exactly why they are so valuable to plant breeders ... every F2 seed is potentially the basis of a new variety.

Biologically speaking there's no difference between an F1 hybrid made by a gardener for breeding purposes and the F1 hybrid varieties you see in garden centres and seed catalogues. The difference is in how they're used. Seed companies sell F1 hybrids as varieties in their own right, because they make way bigger profits than non-hybrid seed ... not least because you have to go back and buy it again next year if you want to carry on growing it. Whether these commercial F1 hybrids are in any way better than standard open-pollinated varieties is open to debate ... in my own opinion they're overhyped, largely a waste of money and potentially very harmful to long-term biodiversity. But that's a topic for another post! From a plant breeder's point of view, an F1 hybrid is an exciting opportunity to mix up a whole load of genetic material and see what you end up with.

My pea breeding endeavours in the 2007 season had two phases. The first was to make crosses by hand-pollinating my chosen varieties. The rest of the season was taken up with growing out F1 hybrids. My F1 seeds were from the crosses I made in 2006, but I also managed to re-plant some newly harvested seed from the crosses I made in early 2007 (i.e. two generations in one season). It was only the projects based around Golden Sweet that matured quickly enough to squeeze two crops into one season. Alderman is a late maturing variety and doesn't have time to complete a late-season crop before keeling over with mildew, so it's better to be patient and grow one generation a year. Peas are one of the few vegetables you can do the two-generations-in-a-year trick with anyway, because they fulfil their lifecycle in a fairly standard timeframe regardless of when you plant them (within reason). Peppers, tomatoes, onions etc rely on having a proper 'season' and are senstive to changes in daylength, so it's no good growing them outside their proper time.

Another subject of debate is whether F1 hybrids really do have hybrid vigour. I recently attracted some criticism on a plant breeding forum for suggesting that naturally inbreeding plants (such as peas) don't show hybrid vigour, at least not to any significant extent. My own experience is that some crosses show hybrid vigour in an obvious way and others don't, but either way it involves such an elaborate range of factors there really is no precise scientific way of measuring it. With Golden Sweet x Sugar Ann it was pure vigour ... the plants were huge and grew like rockets. Others had more subtle ways of expressing it, in their elegance and beauty or their hardiness. But a number of others just seemed to take after their least-vigorous parent.

Although flavour is one of the most important factors I'm looking for in a new pea, at this stage none of the hybrids are being tasted or assessed for flavour. There's not much point, because the genes will not start to reshuffle properly until the next generation. Any special qualities in the F1 plants are for this one generation only, and their progeny will all be different. Besides, the peas are far more valuable as seed stock, as each one of them has its own unique genetic possibilities. The breeding work really starts with the F2 generation, so the main purpose of the F1 plants is to produce as much F2 seed as possible.

The crosses I've made so far are quite diverse, but the project mainly centres around two principle varieties which have been used as mother plants.

Alderman (click here for pictures)
A very large and luxurious variety of white-flowered, green-podded pea. So far none of the hybrids I've made from it have matched it for pod size, pea size or flower size, though environmental factors may have contributed to this as the hybrids were grown late in the season, and I haven't found Alderman to be well suited to late season cropping, it does best when allowed to flourish slap-bang in the middle of the year. Its real trump card though is its knock-out flavour, which it retains even when the peas have reached a huge size. So flavour will have to be monitored in future generations. It's probably the interactive result of a number of different genes so I don't expect it to be easy to maintain it.

Golden Sweet (click here for review and pictures)
Golden-podded, blue flowered, speckle-seeded and gorgeous, this one was given to me by Ben at Real Seeds to use as the basis for a new mangetout variety. There must be a lot of dominant genes in it because all the hybrids I've made from it have been pretty close matches to the mother plant in every detail. Except – the yellow colour. That is totally absent from all the hybrids. Not a trace of it. I knew the "yellow" gene was likely to be recessive, and this is as good an example as any of how a recessive trait will totally vanish from the F1 population.

Ideally when crossing plants it's a good idea to make the cross both ways, so each plant has a chance to be a seed bearer and a pollen provider. In some cases though that isn't possible because of variety differences. Purple podded pea Desiree is so quick to shed pollen I found it almost impossible to find flowers in a virgin state ... even the tiniest newly-formed buds had already self-pollinated. Earliness of pollination is something that varies from one variety to another, but it's also affected by times of day, weather and seasons, so it's not a precise science. You just have to get used to the individual quirks of the peas you're working with. At the opposite end of the scale, Ne Plus Ultra was an absolute doddle to hand-pollinate, always very obliging.

Splodgy pod, courtesy of Mr Bethell's Purple Podded x Alderman (F1 hybrid)

Here are some brief notes about the various crosses I'm working with, i.e. the ones I've actually grown. Some of them were interesting enough that I'll do a whole separate post about them. I made many more F1s which I haven't grown out yet.

Alderman x Kent Blue F1
Green pods and white flowers. Doesn't have many obvious Kent Blue traits at the F1 stage. It looks like Alderman, but nowhere near as vigorous. The F2 seed does look interesting though, with a mix of colours and round/wrinkled types.

Alderman x Carruthers' Purple Podded F1
A cross between what are probably my two favourite pea varieties, and the F1 hybrid showed many of the best traits of both. The pods are beautifully marbled and mottled with purple and green. This marbling is quite common in a hybrid between a green-podder and a purple-podder (probably co-dominance of the respective colour genes) but they don't usually have colours and patterns as attractive as these. They are really beautiful.

Alderman x Salmon Flowered F1
The F1 here is so unexpected in form I'm starting to worry that I might have mislabelled something. The flowers are a deep, dark, velvety purple with beautiful veining and are borne elegantly in pairs. It actually looks more like a Desiree hybrid than the product of its white single-flowered Alderman mother and pink cluster-flowered father. But at any rate it's been the least successful of the hybrids this season, because it hasn't set seed properly. The pods were late to form, and barely got past mangetout size, so there's virtually no viable seed for the next generation. I only found two part-filled pods of mature size, yielding a total of 3 seeds ... not a very helpful sample size for an F2 crop. Shame, as it has other useful traits as well as its flower beauty and paired pods. It's by far the most cold tolerant pea in the garden, still green and still flowering (albeit with straggly mildewed stems lower down) in late November after hard frosts, and even now still clinging on to life in January.

Mr Bethell's Purple Podded x Alderman F1
My original breeding project. This one is turning out pretty interesting so it'll be getting its own post very soon. The F1 plants produce dramatically bi-coloured green and purple pods with bold splodges (see photo above) along with pretty bi-colour flowers. Most of the F2 seeds it produced are purple-speckled, which is not uncommon for heritage peas but it's a trait not seen in either parent! But it really amazed me by producing one pod of F2 seeds which are actually purple. I've been aiming to breed for purple pods, but purple peas is something I've never seen before. See the pic at the top of this post. They are properly pigmented with beautiful purple right across their surface, it's not just a concentration of speckling. I really wasn't expecting that!

Alderman x (Mr Bethell's Purple Podded x Alderman)
This one is a backcross. In other words, I used an F1 hybrid to pollinate one of its own parent varieties. I know that sounds a bit incestuous, but it's actually a very effective way to transfer a dominant trait from one variety to another. In this case I'm looking to get the dominant purple-pod gene into a plant which otherwise looks and tastes like Alderman. This cross is a quarter Purple Podded and three-quarters Alderman, so I have a better chance of preserving the Alderman traits in its offspring while still getting some purple pods. In this instance however only one plant made it to maturity, so the seed sample is probably too small to make much progress with. I may have to grow more of this one to collect enough seed to take it any further.

Golden Sweet x Desiree F1
This is the hybrid I made on behalf of the Real Seed Catalogue, in the hope of developing a good purple-podded mangetout for them.

To all intents and purposes it looks like Golden Sweet but without the yellow. The flowers are attractive (bi-coloured) and borne mostly in pairs. Pods are predominantly purple, but with some green streaking. The F2 seed it produced was large in quantity but quite small in size, despite both parents having reasonably large seeds. This seems to be a common phenomenon with peas at the F2 stage.

Golden Sweet x Carruthers' Purple Podded F1
A companion to the Desiree cross above. And very similar to it in appearance, though perhaps slightly less vigorous.

Golden Sweet x Sugar Ann F1
You wouldn't believe that the father of this hybrid was a tiddly little dwarf variety of about one foot in height. The F1 grew very rapidly and voluptuously to over 7ft and was top heavy with its bounty. In appearance it was basically like Golden Sweet, but without the yellow. I'm not sure what the status of Sugar Ann is, whether it's protected by plant breeders' rights. Most of the crosses I make are based on heritage types which are in the public domain, but I suspect Sugar Ann is a modern variety. Anyway, it was super-vigorous and produced masses of F2 seed so I'm well set up to continue with it this coming season.

Other lines to look forward to (crosses already made and F1 seed ready to sow): Golden Sweet x Kent Blue, Ne Plus Ultra x Kent Blue, Magnum Bonum x Carruthers' Purple Podded, Mr Bethell's Purple Podded x Champion of England.

Saturday 12 January 2008

Whatever happened to the great garden pea?

A diversity of peas. These are all heritage types which I grew in my garden in 2007.
Top row, left to right: Corne de Belier, Salmon-Flowered, Ne Plus Ultra.
Middle row: Golden Sweet, Magnum Bonum, Kent Blue.
Bottom row: Champion of England, Carruthers' Purple Podded, Alderman.

Probably the first named variety of pea was the Hastings, which has its earliest reference in a poem of the mid-1400s, followed a century or so later by the Rouncival which sprung from the Hospital garden of St. Mary of Roncesvalles in Charing Cross. But for many centuries peas were primarily an agricultural crop, and didn't feature significantly among garden vegetables. They were also subject to a class divide, young green peas being mostly the reserve of the wealthy, while ordinary people had to make do with the starchy over-mature stuff, or dried peas boiled into soup and pease pudding.

The early varieties were probably quite coarse by today's standards, closely derived from the field pea. Sweeter and more refined peas made their way to England from the continent in the mid-17th century. These would mainly have been French varieties, as the French had made huge advances in pea breeding at that time, plus the highly expensive Sandwich pea which originated in Holland and was established in the town of Sandwich by Dutch settlers. By the early 18th century the pea had become a popular garden plant and a fashionable delicacy, and new varieties proliferated.

They proliferated so much, in fact, that it all got pointless and confusing. Dozens of new varieties were almost impossible to tell apart. Richard Bradley, writing in 1724, complains "I have often wonder'd at the Indiscretion of some People, who Delight in giving cramp Names to Plants, and make it their Business to multiply Species without Reason, as if a Fruit would be the better for a Name." Nevertheless the trend continued and reached a peak in the mid- to late 19th century. By this time peas were so popular that vegetable seed catalogues featured them in pride of place at the top of the list, with all the other vegetables listed alphabetically behind them.

Ironically it was during this boom period that almost all of the older pea varieties were lost, including the Rouncival, the Sandwich, the Spanish morotto and a once ubiquitous English early-maturing type called the Hotspur. So great was the demand for the new sweeter varieties, the centuries-old staples just disappeared. In 1855 Charles McIntosh regards the Charlton Hotspur (sounds more like a football team than a vegetable) in his Book of the Garden as "too well known to require description, having been in cultivation for upwards of a century." Yet within a couple of decades it had vanished forever.

Catalogues and books of that period don't always mention the colours of flowers or pods, but generally the newer more refined peas were white-flowered. Older varieties of pea were more likely to have bi-colour pink and maroon flowers, showing their descent from the coarse and starchy field pea. Even today, I've yet to find a bi-coloured pea which tastes as sweet as a white-flowered (though I find the bi-colour ones have other good qualities uniquely their own).

If the pea was the must-have vegetable of 19th century England and the seed-buying public couldn't get enough of it, there was no shortage of dodgy seed merchants looking to cash in on it. Fancy new names were given to existing varieties to give them more market appeal, and miniscule variations of type were launched as brand new varieties. Deceptions really came to a head with the arrival of the Egyptian or Mummy Pea, which claimed to have been grown from seeds found inside a hermetically-sealed jar taken from an Egyptian mummy-pit, and preserved in a viable condition for 3000 years. Excited customers who paid a premium for this amazing rarity were rather deflated to find it was strangely identical to the bog-standard British marrowfat pea they were already growing in their gardens.

By 1850 the Royal Horticultural Society had had enough and conducted its own trials. In their experimental gardens Mr Thompson collected together 235 popular varieties and carefully grew them under controlled conditions. From those 235 he concluded that only 27 could realistically be described as distinct and useful varieties, and of those 27, only 11 were really worth growing.

This is the list of the final eleven, taken from Charles McIntosh's The Book of the Garden:

- o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x -

1. Prince Albert — From 2 and a half to 3 feet, according to soil; a white-seeded pea, forming with Kent's early, early hero, early Warwick, early May, and a lot of others, a section of which the true early frame is the type, and comprising our earliest sorts; moderate croppers; pods contain from eight to ten peas each.

2. D'Auvergne — 4 feet; seeds white; remarkable for its long crooked pods, and the great number of moderate sized peas each pod contains; one of our best for second or general crops. This is identical with Richardson's eclipse and Torwoodlea, two Scotch synonymes.

3. Dancer's monaster—É — 4 and a half feet; seeds white; a good profitable sort for a second or general crop; peas of moderate size, rather above medium.

4. Bishop's new long pod — 2 feet; seeds white. A most abundant bearer, producing a succession of pods during most of the pea season. Like all dwarf peas of its class, it requires a rich soil, and from 4 to 6 inches between the seed in the line. We have had this pea producing a good supply for three months in succession. It is one of the most valuable sorts for small gardens, and for domestic use: its only fault in large establishments is the large size of the peas, but, although disliked by cooks on that account, it is much prized by them for many purposes. It originated with the late Mr David Bishop, author of "Casual Botany," and is a hybrid between Bishop's early dwarf, a pea of only 1 foot in height, and one of the marrowfats, carrying in itself the characters of both its parents.

5. Fairbeard's surprise — 5 and a half feet; seed bluish; a profitable sort for a second or general crop. Pods thick, roundish, containing from seven to nine peas of excellent quality; the same as Fairbeard's early surprise.

6. Victoria marrow — 5 and a half to 6 feet; seed bluish; an excellent sort for a general crop. Pods nearly 4 inches long, generally in pairs, containing from seven to eight large peas each; one of our very best peas.

7. Bedman's imperial —3 feet; seed large; bluish green; called also Bedman's dwarf imperial; very similar to Flack's dwarf victory; perhaps scarcely worth growing as distinct sorts. Very prolific; peas large; excellent for green-pea soup.

8. Flack's new large victory — Seed large; bluish green; 3 feet. Mr Thompson makes this distinct from the last. It seems to us to be a distinction without a difference. There would be, however, no loss in growing both these excellent peas under different names—much less, at least, than scores of others. Pease generally six in a pod, and of excellent quality.

9. Knight's tall marrow —6 to 7 feet ; seed large ; wrinkled or indented when dry; white. Often called Knight's tall white marrow, to distinguish it from Knight's tall green marrow. Originated with the late Mr T. A. Knight (vide sect. PROPAGATION BY SEED). Very much esteemed for its productiveness and fine flavour. Like all the tall marrows, only fit for a large garden, and then to be grown in single rows, at a great distance apart. Adapted for general crops. Pods large—from seven to nine peas in each; known also as Knight's late, Knight's tall green marrow, Knight's tall blue marrow.

10. Fairbeard's champion of England—5 to 6 feet ; seed large ; wrinkled when dry ; bluish green. One of the best of the wrinkled marrows, and well adapted for general crops, as well as early ones, being about as early as the Charlton. From seven to eight large peas in a pod.

11. Knight's dwarf marrow — 3 to 4 feet. There are two varieties of Knight's dwarf marrow, differing, we think, only in the colour of the dried seed, the one being white, the other greenish. However, either is valuable for a general crop. The bluish green variety appears to be preferred by Mr Thompson. Like all the marrows, the seeds are large. Pods large, containing six peas in each, and of excellent flavour; quite sugary.

- o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x - o - x -

To the best of my knowledge, Prince Albert and Champion of England are the only ones that have survived to the present day. They're both very rare and can only be obtained through seed savers organisations.

McIntosh conducted his own trials in the large gardens of Dalkeith House in 1850 and 1851, comparing 100 varieties, and finding 23 worthy of mention. Even in those days, the commercial varieties involved a trade-off in flavour: "Bishop's new long-podded, Thurstone's reliance, Hair's dwarf mammoth— all first-class pease for profitable culture—must not be calculated upon to afford a supply for mouths genteel." His results are attached below in a separate post, listing all the varieties he considered to be worthy and all those he thought were duplicates. Sadly only a tiny handful of the peas he describes are still known to be in existence.

"There is one section of garden pease called sugar-pease, the pods of which have the inner film wanting, or much less tough than usual. The pods in this section are used with the young seed within them, and are cooked and eaten the same as French or kidney beans." Mangetout and sugarsnap peas were not then in general usage, being considered too tender for the British climate, but McIntosh noted their benefits and recommended that they should be widely adopted.

Most of the tall varieties of pea have disappeared from today's catalogues, because tall peas are no use to farmers, and farmers are the main focus for seed companies. (If you thought the varieties sold in garden centres were actually designed for gardeners ... er ... I'm afraid that just doesn't happen.) Some of the worthy types from the late 19th century, like Magnum Bonum, Laxton's Exquisite, Duke of Albany, Alderman, Lincoln and the Gladstone have survived through the efforts of gardeners and seed saver organisations, but most of the peas McIntosh was evaluating in the 1850s have simply vanished.

But are all these lost varieties totally gone? They may have disappeared from the catalogues, but diligent gardeners have always saved their own seed and some of the long-vanished types (or at least derivatives of them) may have survived in the hands of individuals. I've been thinking about this a lot as I continue to collect amazing and unusual peas from the Heritage Seed Library. Many of the vegetables offered by the HSL are of unknown provenance. They're often named after the person who donated them or the locality they've been grown in. Very often there's no known history behind them, other than the last couple of generations of gardeners. I'm convinced that some of them are survivors or derivatives of older types which have officially been "lost".

Blue flowers and scimitar-shaped pods of Kent Blue

Take Kent Blue for example. Donated to the Heritage Seed Library by a family from Sevenoaks in Kent who had grown them since the 1940s, this pea is of unknown origin but looks to me like a relic of a very old variety. It's clearly related to the field pea with its small blue flowers and strange knobbly pods, which grow in a scimitar-shape and sometimes buckle and twist as the peas swell. You can see from the photo at the top of this post that its seeds are very distinctive. Tiny and round, variably coloured and heavily speckled with midnight blue. It really is very unlike all other garden peas, even the Victorian ones. Scimitar-podded peas were, however, well known in England for many centuries before being "lost" in the late Victorian era.

Likewise the bizarre Salmon Flowered pea occasionally offered by the HSL (unnamed and of unknown origin) may be descended from an earlier sort. Its broad thick stem and funny little bunches of pods all growing in a tuft at the top of the plant look totally unlike any other pea I've ever seen. But this type of "tufted" or "crowned" pea was apparently quite popular in the 17th century.

Salmon Flowered, bearing all its flowers at the top.

Matching up the HSL's unnamed survivors with earlier named varieties is probably impossible to do with any degree of certainty. But in a sense it doesn't really matter. If a variety is still carrying on some of the genes from earlier lost varieties then it's still contributing some vitally important biodiversity. Peas in particular are not renowned for their diversity (compared with things like tomatoes and beans which come in various shapes and colours) so anything which shows itself to be different from the homogenised commercial pea is a thing to be nurtured and appreciated.

Charles McIntosh's Pea Trials, 1850-1851

Charles McIntosh (1794-1864) was the author of a wonderful book published in two volumes in 1853 and 1855, The Book of the Garden. It's recently become available online from Googlebooks, and is well worth a browse. The following is an edited extract showing the results of his experiments with peas at Dalkeith House.

Pea Ne Plus Ultra, still just about available today

"During the years 1850-51, we sowed upwards of one hundred reputed sorts in the gardens at Dalkeith — fifty sorts in each of these years. They were in each case sown on the same day (25th March), in the same soil, and under the same circumstances. Out of that number we selected twelve as being truly distinct and useful; yet one half of these would be quite sufficient for even our use, who require them during the longest possible period.

1. Hair's dwarf mammoth.—2 feet; seed large; wrinkly; bluish green when ripe. Equal in flavour to any of Knight's marrows, hitherto considered the best in this respect. A most productive pea, continuing, like Bishop's new long pod, in bearing for a long time, but somewhat later. Indeed, it is a truly second or general crop variety. It is larger in pod than Knight's dwarf marrow, and about seven days earlier. It requires highly enriched soil, and the peas to be planted from 4 to 6 inches apart in the line, as they branch out in the manner of Bishop's. One of the most valuable for small gardens and private families, and, like the latter, although large when sent to the table, if not too old, eats deliciously, having a great deal of the marrow property about it.

2. Lynn's prolific.—4 feet; seeds under medium size; wrinkled, and having a dark eye when ripe; seemingly a distinct variety of marrow; very productive, and stands drought well. Suited for a general crop.

3. Sutton's early Goliath.—4 feet; seed and pod large; in flavour resembling Knight's marrow-fats. Suited for a general crop, as it is an abundant bearer.

4. Early Charlton.—Too well known to require description, having been in cultivation for upwards of a century. We notice it here on account of its great hardiness and fitness for autumn sowing, to stand over the winter. How will those opposed to the doctrine of acclimatation account for this? Originally it must have been as tender as the early frame, its constant attendant, which, like it, is also hardy; and both, with the exception of Hamilton's November prolific (which is no other than seed selected from the Charlton), stand the winter better than those of more recent origin.

5. The true early frame.—The type of the early Kent, of all the really early sorts, and probably of the next two.

6. Beck's morning star.—3 feet ; seeds small ; podding early and largely; pease a proper size for a first-rate table.

7. Sutton's early champion.—3 feet; resembling the last, only somewhat earlier.

8. Burbage's eclipse.—From 18 inches to 2 feet; seed large — from five to six in a pod; blue when ripe. An excellent bearer, having the young pease of a very proper size. Known also as Stubb's dwarf. Not so early as Bishop's new long pod; it is, however, a good dwarf pea for summer crops.

9. Groom's superb dwarf blue.—Under 2 feet; the most productive of its height; well adapted for small gardens, as a second cropper.

10. Woodford's dwarf.—2 and a half feet; seed medium size; very dark green when ripe; a most abundant bearer, and well suited for small gardens as a principal crop. The dwarfest of all peas are, the Spanish dwarf, Bishop's early dwarf, Thompson's early dwarf. These seldom exceed 1 foot in height, and in rich ground give fair returns.

11. Bellamy's early green marrow. — 4 to 5 feet high; pods cylindrical, straight, containing generally six to seven peas; a good bearer and excellent pea.

12. Adamson's matchless marrow.—About 5 feet in height; pods curved, flattish, containing from six to seven peas. As early as the Charlton, and an excellent bearer. The following are so nearly related to it that it would be useless to grow them in the same garden — viz., tall Prussian, blue union, green nonpareil, tall imperial, tall blue imperial, tall green imperial, new tall imperial, Spanish patriot.

13. Blue Prussian. — A well-known excellent pea. We notice it here merely to give the synonymes — early Dutch green, fine long-podded dwarf, dwarf blue Prussian, royal Prussian blue, Prussian prolific, and green Prussian.

14. Woodford's green marrow. — 3 feet in height; pods large, flat, containing six large well-flavoured peas, and an excellent bearer.

15. Dwarf imperial. — 4 feet in height; pods large, containing from eight to ten peas; a good bearer, and excellent for a late crop. Like all good sorts, has a host of names; viz., sabre, blue sabre, new sabre, dwarf sabre, imperial, blue imperial, dwarf green imperial, new improved imperial, new improved dwarf imperial, new dwarf imperial, new long-podded imperial, dwarf blue prolific, green nonpareil, blue scimitar, Sumatra.

16. Dwarf green marrow. — A good pea, but rather inferior to Knight's dwarf marrow. It is to be found in the seed-shops under the following names — New green nonpareil, Prince's superfine summer, Wellington, extra green marrow, new green, early dwarf green, early green, new early green, royal dwarf marrow, Holloway marrow-fat, green rouncival.

17. British queen. — Height from 4 to 5 feet; pods large, containing seven very large peas in each ; sometimes a single pea measuring 1 and a half inches in circumference. Hence too large for a first-rate table, but excellent for private family use.

18. Hair's defiance Knight's marrow. — 4 feet high, remarkable for its strong habit, should be planted from 4 to 6 inches apart in the rows, and each row 4 feet distant. A remarkably profitable pea, of large size, and continuing long in a bearing state.

19. Tall crooked sugar. — Pois sans parchemin √† grandes cosses— grosse schottige zuckererbse; a late rambling sort.

20. Dwarf crooked sugar. — Pois sans parchemin ou mange tout — zwerg zuckerschotte.

21. Dwarf sugar, or Ledman's dwarf. — Growing about 3 feet high; pods long, cylindrical, and slightly curved; rather late, but a good bearer. To those who intend growing this section of pease, we would specially recommend —

22. En eventail. — About 1 foot in height; assuming the habit of Bishop's long pod, and, like it, branching close to the ground ; a moderate bearer.

23. Tamarind or late sugar-pea. — The best bearer, although the latest, in the section ; nearly 4 feet high ; pods from 4 to 6 inches long, proportionably broad, and slightly curved.

The French grow many varieties of edible podded peas; and although suitable to their taste and climate, they are not so with us. The Dutch grow two sorts, and even these, for the most part, are found so tender, even in Holland, that they are generally produced under glass.

The following sorts stand in good estimation amongst growers :—

Early Warwick, 3 and a half feet— a sub-variety of early frame; Thurstone's reliance, 6 feet—one of the largest peas in cultivation; scimitar, 3 feet—an old variety, long podded, and fills well ; ne plus ultra, 6 feet—a green wrinkled marrow; old dwarf marrow, 3 and a half feet ; tall green mammoth, 6 feet—similar to Hair's dwarf mammoth in pod; matchless marrow, 5 feet; Melford marrow, 4 and a half feet.

"Warner's early emperor, Warner's early conqueror, early Bedalean, Essex champion, early railway (or Stevenson's railway), and early wonder, have been proved in the gardens of the London Horticultural Society to be all varieties of the old early frame, and possessing no one merit over the original. Danecroft rival, Danecroft early green, Farnes' conservative, green marrow, and the transparent pea, are by Mr Thompson considered to be all one variety. Clark's Lincoln green podded new early marrow —no marrow at all, but one in the way of the early frame. American dwarf, a good bearer, ripening about a week or ten days later than Bishop's new long pod —a very good dwarf variety. Early surprise, from a foot and a half to 2 feet in height; pods large, thick, containing generally six large blue peas, the plants having the strong stems and vigorous habits of the marrows. Early blue surprise identical with Fairbeard's early surprise. Queen of England, a sort of white marrow, inferior to the British queen. Waite's king of the marrows resembles the ne plus ultra. Great Britain similar in every respect to Knight's tall white marrow. Hunter's new marrow, about the same height as Knight's dwarf marrow; pods roundish or a little flattened, containing about six large peas ; larger than Knight's; of very sugary quality; when dry, indented ; yellowish white ; a good bearer." —Ex Jour. Hort. Soc., vol. v. p. 283.

Prince Albert, One of the earliest of peas.
Bishop's early dwarf, Very inferior sort.
Early race-horse, An inferior var. of early frame.
Shilling's grotto, An excellent pea.
Dwarf green marrow, A good cropper.
Blue Prussian, A good bearer.
Matchless marrow, An excellent large pea, and productive.
Lynn's wrinkled marrow Good late sort.
American marrow, Good pea, and abundant bearer.
Blue scimitar, A good bearer.
Bedman's blue imperial, A good pea, and excellent bearer.
Flack's Victoria, Large pea, and good bearer.
Victoria marrow, Large pods.
Auvergne, An excellent bearer.
Groom's superb blue, A fine pea, and abundant bearer.

Thursday 10 January 2008

Leafblower: the scourge of English suburbia

My life as a gardener doesn't usually have much overlap with my life as a musician, but I do have one horticultural song.

One November morning I was just getting some recording done in my home studio when my next-door-neighbour started up his blasted leafblower. I'm not a big fan of leafblowers at the best of times ... they don't seem to serve any purpose except to move debris from one place to another, turning your problem into someone else's problem. They stir up a whole load of dust and crap into the air, and waste a lot of energy in the process. They also seem to make the most godawful irritating whining noise which for me is on a par with someone scraping their fingernails across a blackboard.

On this occasion I got incredibly cross with my neighbour. Not only did he spoil my recording, because a sensitive studio mic will readily pick up that kind of noise, but he spent a pointless half hour blowing all the leaves out of his garden onto the public highway, where they immediately got messily redistributed by passing traffic. What is the point?!

In fairness to my neighbour he's not the only person in the street who does it. There are a lot of leafblowers in this area, and a lot of people who are selfish and thoughtless enough to blow their garden debris out onto the street, where it blocks the drains and obstructs the pavement. Then the council have to come round with a lorry and collect it all up, and we wonder why our council tax bills keep going up.

Anyway, I had to channel my anger into something positive, so I wrote a song about what I'd like to do with that pesky leafblower.

To my surprise, the song became a minor hit on internet radio, and people still write in to the DJs and request it. I've done a few different versions and remixes, most notably in collaboration with the great Phideaux Xavier.

And now someone has been kind enough to make a video for it!

So here it is, and I hope you enjoy it (click the play button under the vid to start it). The tree images were filmed in Alaska, a very long way from my English garden.

Leafblower (Crazy Paving Mix)
Vocals: Rebsie
Guitars: Phideaux Xavier
Video: Bob Nisbet

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Today in the garden ... fungus rules

There's something very magical about the way mushrooms just emerge from fragile skeletons of wood.

There's not much interesting stuff growing in the garden at the moment, though the snowdrops are preparing themselves for action and I'm still bringing in some Jerusalem artichokes to mix in with the roast potatoes on a Sunday.

The garden looks a diabolical mess at this time of year, and I freely admit that's partly because I can't be bothered to go out there and clear it up. But I've never been the kind of gardener who strives for all-year-round colour and interest, I've more of an instinct for letting everything have its time and season. Winter is the time when everything dissolves into a squelchy quagmire with mouldering twigs and brown saggy stuff all over it.

Guests who come round at this time of year say "I can't wait to see your garden!" and then take one look though the window and go "aaaaargh!"

But however unsightly it looks to the human eye, nature makes good use of it. Birds are supplied with a diet of seeds, insects have hollow stalks to nest in, and the worms are active converting last year's spent leaves into instant fertiliser.

And in a pile of soggy twigs down the bottom of the garden, we have fungus activity. Lots of it. I don't know what any of them are called.

Something else that grows nicely in winter is garlic. Usually at this time of year I find one or two dense tufts of garlic tops emerging where I forgot to harvest some of last year's bulbs. I dig them up and replant them, but very often I get a lot of cloves which are too small to be worth planting.

Here's what to do with them. Carefully wash all the soil off them (the clove skins will probably come off as well, and that's fine) and dunk them roots an' all into a mug of water on the kitchen windowsill. They'll keep for at least a week like that if you keep the roots submerged and change the water every day. Use them as fresh garlic greens in any dish that wants garlic. All you need to do is chop off the roots ... you can use all of the rest of it, green (and pink) bits included. They taste wonderful.

Garlic greens from some unharvested Music bulbs

Monday 7 January 2008

Do you wee in your compost?

Here are the results you've all been waiting for! Many thanks to everyone who voted in the Daughter of the Soil compost widdle poll.

Do you wee on your compost heap?

Yes - 43% (88 votes)
No - 26% (54 votes)
Sometimes, if I'm in the mood or get taken short - 11% (23 votes)
Uuuurgh, how could you even ask? That's disgusting. - 8% (16 votes)
Yeah! I love it so much I wee on other people's compost too! - 12% (25 votes)

I confess, the closure of the poll was not entirely deliberate. You may notice a few design changes on the blog, and they weren't entirely deliberate either. I took the brave step of upgrading my blog template because I needed to introduce a system for indexing my posts, on account of having no idea what I've written or where to find any of it. I know this is old hat to most of you, but the new advanced layout has enabled me for the first time to put a list of topics in the side-bar, which you can click to find all posts referencing that topic. I'd put off upgrading because the new editor isn't fully compatible with my browser. And what Blogger didn't list among the whizzy new features was "Dumps half the content from your template!" and "Now screws your fonts up automatically!"

After a couple of hours of tinkering with the new layout tools, which crashed my browser five times, I managed to get most of the page elements back where they were. And while I was at it I changed some of the colours. But one thing I wasn't able to reinstate was the compost poll. I tried to copy and paste the HTML code straight across from the old version but the new template wouldn't accept it.

Some of the new upgraded features are very useful and time-saving, and I hope the blog will be more user-friendly for readers now that everything is indexed. But do let me know if you see any technical problems with it. Even now I can't get the layout to work properly in Safari, my usual browser, without the fonts getting all squidged up, but in Firefox it has a completely different font and looks fine. I'm only able to test it on a Mac so I've no idea what it looks like on most people's computers.

Sunday 6 January 2008

Heritage vegetable review
Pea: Carruthers' Purple Podded

Age: unknown. Saved as a family heirloom.
Background: From Co. Down, Northern Ireland
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: fantastic flavour, beautiful flowers, beautiful pods, high yields, very vigorous
Cons: the pea moth's favourite

According to the Heritage Seed Library catalogue, this is an heirloom pea from County Down, donated to them by Patrick Carruthers who got it from an old family gardener about 25 years previously, and has grown it ever since. They also mention the beautiful flowers.

Tall and vigorous (it grows to about 6ft), Carruthers' Purple Podded has a slightly olive green shade to its leaves and produces a splash of bright magenta in each leaf axil, and to a lesser extent on the backs of the leaves. So it looks quite decorative even before it flowers.

It was the earliest flowering of all my heritage peas in 2007. After the cream and pink buds it has dainty lantern-like flowers borne singly on very long curved stems. Very pretty. The flowers are large with a distinctive hooked shape in the calyx and a long elegant red-flushed spur at the back, very like an Art Nouveau lantern. They also have a decorative swirly red pattern on the front of the calyx, which is something to distinguish Carruthers' from most other purple podded varieties (I've only ever seen this on the Irish varieties). The top petal is pink maturing to mauve, with patterns of fine darker streaks, and a glowing maroon wing petal underneath. As they die off they turn blue. All the purple peas have these lovely changeable bi-colour flowers, but this is one I found myself standing around and staring at. A lot.

Seriously, the flowers are as good as an old-fashioned sweet pea (albeit not scented) and with its enormously long curvy stems I think this one would appeal to flower arrangers as well as vegetable gardeners.

The pods are a reasonable size with a lovely deep violet-purple colour. They glow translucently in the sun, taking on a dusky dark purple in lower light. Eaten raw at the young stage they are very juicy and crunchy (and the purple colour goes right the way through them) but have a slight bitterness.

Beautiful at all stages, the pods mature to a deep violet purple slightly masked by a greyish bloom on the surface. This rubs off very readily to show the pod's true colour ... if you so much as touch a pod you will leave behind dark fingerprints. The surface goes quite leathery at maturity. Although the pod itself is purple right through, it has a fibrous layer of bright green on the inside. This creates a beautiful effect when you hold an empty pod up to the light ... as intense and vibrant as a stained glass window, but with the colours swirled and blurred like watercolours.

The peas inside are an olive green colour, large and very tightly packed, approximately eight to a pod. They go slightly square and chunky as they press against each other in the pod.

The fresh peas taste surprisingly sweet for a purple ... the best I've tasted. The flavour is mild, but it's the sweetness that dominates. They have a slightly coarser texture than a modern green pea but that's actually rather nice ... and there's none of the earthiness or bitter aftertaste you so often get with purples. This is truly a superior variety and deserves to be much more widely grown.

Mr Carruthers who donated the pea to the Heritage Seed Library says they can be frozen straight from the pod without the need for blanching. I haven't tried this ... they taste so damn gorgeous straight off the plant they don't get anywhere near the freezer.

Yields are very generous and the plants produce masses of pods.

You may have to be vigilant if you want to save this one for seed, because I found it to be more susceptible than most to pea moth. The pods look so beautiful, the last thing you want is to pop them open and find two or three little maggoty chaps gazing back at you. The tell-tale sign of an unhatched pea moth in residence is a brownish sunken patch on the surface of the pea. If the surface has a small round hole or a sideways tunnel chewed out of it then the larva has pupated and will be wriggling around the inside of the pod somewhere. It's a small green-white grub with a dark head. Dispose of it as you will, because it will probably chomp lumps out of some more peas if it's left on the loose.

I should point out though that this review is based on a single growing season, so I can't be sure what caused this crop to attract more than its fair share of pea moths ... it may just have been unlucky or planted in the wrong place.

Even when the plants have completed their life cycle and started to die off, their beauty takes on a new phase. The leaves fade to a golden yellow flushed with rose, and the magenta in the leaf axils and stems becomes very deep and intense. The overall effect is very striking as the green gives way to all these other shades, and makes a beautiful contrast with the pods.

Autumnal colours as the plants reach the end of their season.

While I haven't finished trialling all my purple podded peas yet, so far this one easily stands out as the top choice for flavour. It's probably top choice for looks too, and possibly also for yield.

To my knowledge the Heritage Seed Library is the only source for Carruthers' Purple Podded, and as far as I'm concerned it's worth joining the HSL just for this variety alone, though unfortunately it isn't listed in the 2008 catalogue. I can probably give out a few packets of mine for others to try if anyone's interested, but they'll have to be small amounts.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Heritage vegetable review
Pea: Ne Plus Ultra

Age: introduced before 1847
My supplier: W Robinson & Son
Pros: beautiful, bounteous
Cons: needs to be harvested before the flavour turns

Ne Plus Ultra is an old-fashioned tall pea which needs to be grown on adequate supports. In fact it's one of the tallest, so you should allow for up to 7ft of luxurious top-heavy growth. The name means "nothing better", which might be pushing the bounds of credibility somewhat, although it does date back at least to the 1840s so it may have been the best thing available at the time. (See, even the Victorians went in for marketing bullshit, they just did it in Latin.)

Interestingly, I recently found the variety listed in the 1855 edition of The Book of the Garden by Charles McIntosh, but as an 'also-ran' rather than one of the varieties recommended by the author. However, of the several dozen varieties listed in the book, Ne Plus Ultra is one of only a tiny handful which are still available today (most of the others being extinct) so it must have something going for it.

It's a vigorous plant with large leaves. Flowers are a bright pure white. It's not intended as a mangetout type, and eaten raw the young pods taste quite bitter, although they're pleasantly crunchy. It's much better to let them develop into full size peas and shell them out.

Pods are long, large, elegant and smooth and would probably make a nice exhibition pea for those who are so inclined. They only turn leathery at full maturity.

The peas themselves are well packed into the pod, averaging eight to ten peas each. And the flavour is pretty damn fantastic when the peas are young. It doesn't quite reach the same pinnacle as Alderman but it's pretty close, and it's actually probably even sweeter than Alderman, although the flavour is less rich and complex overall. If you like your peas as sweet as sweet can be, this is a good choice. However, you do have to grab them while they're young if you want the flavour at its best. Mature peas go starchy and develop a certain firmness of texture. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that if you like peas with a bit of substance to them. But I found there was something of a trade off between yield and flavour. To enjoy them at their yummiest they had to be eaten before they reached full size, which felt slightly wasteful.

Not quite mature, but this is the optimum size to harvest Ne Plus Ultra if you want to enjoy the flavour at its sweetest

This is probably of no interest to anyone but me, but I found Ne Plus Ultra a good variety for hand pollinating. It doesn't shed its pollen until the bud is quite mature, so you can allow yourself the luxury of using larger buds which are much easier to work with than tiny ones. The anthers are very easy to pop off, and the stigma stays receptive for quite a few days, so it's possible to pollinate it some while after removing the anthers, or to re-pollinate on subsequent days to increase the chances of success. It takes well to hand-pollination and often produces a whole pod full of peas from a single pollination.

Now, one of the things that is supposed to be special about this variety is that it has powdery mildew resistance. In a British garden, powdery mildew is the biggest menace and will ruin a late-season crop long before the frosts do. Some modern varieties have been bred for mildew resistance but heritage varieties are almost invariably susceptible to it. So I was quite excited to put Ne Plus Ultra to the test, having the notion that I could cross-breed it with other things and possibly make new mildew resistant varieties.

Ha. Although the main summer crop was absolutely fine, once the damper weather set in Ne Plus Ultra certainly didn't show any sign of mildew resistance in my garden. On the contrary, when I tried growing a secondary late-season crop (see below) it was choked to death by the horrible smelly fungus before it produced a single pea. Don't let that put you off trying it, because the 2007 season was exceptionally damp and the summer conditions were ideal for mildew. I will try it another season before making any firm judgements.

Mildew resistance? Er ... I don't think so.

Aside from seasonal mildew, the variety seems healthy, robust and trouble-free, and the yields were good.

Ne Plus Ultra is one of the few Victorian peas which is still commercially available (and one of the oldest), and its availability is increasing. I got mine from W Robinson & Son but I've seen it in one or two other catalogues too.