Sunday 29 June 2008

Contaminated manure alert

Potato haulms showing typical symptoms of aminopyralid poisoning. Growth is stunted and the edges of the leaves curl upwards in a strange spoon-like pattern. Photo © Green Lane Allotments.

If you're not yet acquainted with the news that gardens and allotments across Britain are being contaminated with a toxic herbicide residue, you can read the full story in today's Observer. There's also a very detailed article (with more pictures of contaminated plants) from some of the growers affected at Green Lane Allotments, who kindly provided the photo.

The gist of it is this. Gardeners have been finding their plants growing a distorted mess of curled up leaves with an almost fernlike appearance. The leaves curl upward tightly in a spoon shape, and the plants are stunted and don't grow properly. The curled leaves get worse near the top of the plant. It's known to affect tomatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, carrots and salad vegetables, but possibly not courgettes. Fruits and tubers either don't form at all or are distorted and sometimes rotten. The symptoms are those of hormone weedkiller poisoning, and it's showing up in organic gardens.

The poisoning has been traced to manure, which most of us use abundantly on our gardens. Specifically to manure evacuated from the backsides of animals fed on hay or silage made from grass which had been sprayed with aminopyralid, a hormone herbicide made by Dow AgroScience.

Thus the buck stops with Dow AgroScience, but I think we can expect them to squirm every which way to avoid being held accountable. They'll most certainly try to blame it on the farmers. There is a reason it's called AggroScience.

Aminopyralid is used on grassland to kill off meadow weeds. It's a new product, introduced in the UK in 2006 and is not licensed for use on food crops. Treated grass is fed to livestock, and the toxin stays in the grass matter as it passes through the animals' system and lingers in the manure even after lengthy periods of stacking. Then the following season gardeners spread it on their plots. As the manure breaks down in the soil the aminopyralid is released and poisons the crops. Nobody (not even Dow) knows whether the poisoned crops are safe to eat or not, because the stuff has never been tested on food crops.

I certainly add my voice to those calling for an immediate withdrawal of aminopyralid products and for some chain of accountability.

If you think you've got aminopyralid poisoning in your garden, I suggest you get in touch with one of the campaign groups like the one at Green Lane Allotments or refer to their blogs for the latest advice on how to deal with it. The RHS also has an information page about it. There may be some chance of making Dow face up to their responsibilities if confronted with enough evidence from enough people.

If you don't yet have a problem, I suggest being extremely careful about sourcing manure, including bagged compost products that may contain it ... or avoid manure altogether for the moment. If you buy hay to feed to animals whose manure you then spread on the garden, be very cautious even if your hay comes from a trusted supplier. The problem has been reported across the whole of the British Isles but I'm not sure what the situation is in other countries. It's also important not to panic if you see poor growth or distorted leaves in your vegetable plants ... the symptoms of aminopyralid poisoning are very specific. If your plants don't look like the photo above, you haven't got it.

Saturday 28 June 2008

Tomato flower diversity (there is some, honest)

Black Prince is a Siberian heirloom variety given to me by Patrick of Bifurcated Carrots and has good old-fashioned classic tomato flowers, on curiously hairy stalks. The fruits should turn out to be a deep dark dusky red.

Was anyone else as disgusted as I was by the debate about welfare standards in chicken farming on Newsnight last night? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was referring to chickens as "birds" while the representative from the poultry industry kept calling them an "assured product". That in itself sums up what's fundamentally wrong with industrial farming.

Anyway, back to vegetables. I grow a lot of different varieties and it's always interesting to compare them, so I thought I'd post up a few pictures of the diversity you can get in different varieties of the same vegetable. Starting off with tomatoes.

I'm sure there aren't many people who grow tomatoes for the beauty of their flowers ... they only come in shades of yellow and there are much more aesthetic florescences to be found on other vegetables. But in their gawky yellow cone-ness there is a definite charm. I also love the way the flowering branches unfurl in a spiral pattern.

Another reason tomato flowers often go unnoticed is that they face downwards, and don't raise their faces to the sun as so many plants do. There's a good reason for that. It's because they self-pollinate, and rely on gravity rather than bees to get the pollen in the right place. The cone part of the flower is actually a set of anthers (pollen sacs) all fused together, and the receptive female part is on the end of a little stalk hidden inside the cone. Pollen is shed on the inside and drops down into the tip of the cone, where the stigma gets smothered in it. A bit like dipping a stick of liquorice into a Sherbert Fountain, if you remember those.

Tomatoes are quite efficient at self-pollinating but if you have problems with the fruit not setting the solution is to give the plant or the flower truss a gentle wiggle. They don't need bees, and generally bees aren't attracted to them.

Another tomato Patrick gave me is Yellow Taxi which I believe is an American heirloom. I rather like its flowers, they have a rounded cone so they're kind of chunky and the petals are pleasantly ruffled. The fruits, when they appear, will be bright yellow globes.

Yellow Taxi

The most extravagant-flowered tomato I grow is undoubtedly Copia. An American variety, I ordered it from a supplier in the US in 2006 but planted it too late to get any fruits off it, and then in 2007 I lost my entire tomato crop to blight. So I haven't yet had the pleasure to see or taste its fruits (which are supposed to be a spectacular marbled red and yellow bicolour with a pink inner flush). But I have enjoyed its flowers instead.

The flowers are very large and double, so they have a lot of petals, and the anthers are too numerous to form themselves into a cone. The female stigma is also "double", so there's a right old cluster of flower parts all crammed together in sun-like glory. It's important to be aware though that when the stigma is as exposed as this, the risk of cross-pollination with other tomatoes is high. Normally tomatoes don't cross much, but that's because the stigma is hidden away. Here, as you can see (the green blobby bits in the middle), it's waving itself in full exposure.

Although I had to go to some lengths to get hold of my Copia seeds, I see a few other European bloggers are growing it so it may be more "available" than I thought.


By way of contrast, these are the tiny tiddly flowers of Green Tiger, a fraction of the size of Copia and sporting a dark flush on the petals. This variety is a bit of an experiment, because the seeds are not available for gardeners to buy ... I saved them from a punnet of fruit I bought in Marks & Spencer's and they claim the variety is exclusive to them. The original fruits were very distinctive, deep burgundy red inside with a dark green stripey skin, and tasted pretty good for a commercially grown variety. I've no idea whether or not it's an F1 hybrid, so it may not come true from seed. But the plants I have do look very uniform so far, so here's hoping.

Green Tiger

Everyone has heard of Brandywine, the classic "beefsteak" tomato with an acclaimed flavour. It has a huge number of variants and sub-strains. I got Apricot Brandywine in a seed swap (thanks Pam). It's a potato-leaved variety and the flowers, like the fruits, are pretty big. It's another one with an exposed stigma, so the risk of cross-pollination is high.

Apricot Brandywine

At the other end of the size and shape spectrum is the delightfully named Banana Legs. It's called that because the fruits are banana coloured and shaped a bit like a leg. Obviously. This unique variety was selected by John Swenson from a tomato seed mixture called Mixed Long Toms developed in the 1980s by Tom Wagner of Tater Mater Seeds. Tom is a truly great tomato breeder but I feel a bit sorry for him because many of his creations are now being sold without him even getting any credit for them let alone any cash. Green Zebra is one of his, as is the Green Sausage recently offered in the UK by T&M. He still does his breeding work though and also runs a fascinating forum for people interested in tomato and potato breeding. Banana Legs is fairly easy to find in the US, but less so in Europe ... I got mine from Association Kokopelli.

Banana Legs

Going even further into the realms of strange coloured tomatoes, I'm trying a white-fruited variety for the first time this year. When I say white, it's probably more of a pale yellow. I'm not sure white tomatoes taste that great ... most catalogue descriptions tend to say "mild flavour", which is generally a euphemism for "bland". But worth a try out of curiosity. I'm growing Douce de Picardie, a rare French heirloom from Association Kokopelli. The plants are monstrously large and a bit weird-smelling. Flowers are a pale whitish yellow. The photo shows a flower which has just shed its petals and has a tiny fruit in the middle. Notice the long thin sepals (the green sticky-outy bits).

Douce de Picardie

Also from Association Kokopelli (I buy most of my tomatoes from them because their range is phenomenal) we have the bright-orange fruited Caro Rich. I suspect it's related to the British heirloom Tangella which it greatly resembles, but it's specifically been bred for its nutritional value ... it has around 10 times as much beta-carotene as most other tomatoes. The sepals of the flowers have a tendency to fuse together, so it has three wide sepals instead of the usual five or seven thin ones.

Caro Rich

Another one I imported from America because I don't know of anywhere you can get it over here, although it supposedly originates in Eastern Europe, a cherry-sized yellow and red marbled tomato called Isis Candy. The flower in the picture is very decorative, but I should point out it's a slight abberation. The normal flower type is more like the one in the lower right of the picture. Tomatoes often produce these spontaneous double or composite flowers.

Isis Candy

And last but not least, the lovely Peacevine Cherry with its broad-petalled star-shaped flowers. This variety is an open-pollinated version of the popular F1 hybrid variety Sweet 100, with the additional advantage of having a very high vitamin C content. It was bred by Alan Kapuler, who has for many years been de-hybridising commercial hybrids to bring them into the public domain. I grew this one last year and it was one of only two varieties which resisted the blight long enough to produce a few fruits (the other being a San Marzano from Franchi). Peacevine Cherry is available from Association Kokopelli.

Peacevine Cherry

Friday 27 June 2008

Yellow Sugarsnap Project: all podded out

Outtakes from my yellow sugarsnap pea breeding project.

Now that the yellow sugarsnap project F2 generation has reached full maturity I'm having to decide which lines I want to keep seed from. 63 plants to choose from, each one unique. I could just keep seed from all of them, but that's a lot of work and cataloguing for seeds I will probably never use. So I'm just keeping the most interesting looking phenotypes. The yellow sugarsnap, obviously, and the ones with pink and white flowers. And a few others which had really good flavours or other interesting traits.

I have to be careful though, because they will all have hidden recessives which might turn out to be useful in future generations. When I choose not to save seed from an F2 plant, its unique genotype is gone forever. It's a bit daunting to make these choices because it feels like I'm playing God, or playing Darwin at least. But it's gotta be done, and the inevitable manifestation of evolution is that the weakest get eaten.


Eating F2 hybrid vegetables is a curious experience. F2 plants show a lot of diversity, and that includes flavour, texture and cooking qualities. They look weird on the plate: big ones and small ones, greyish or bright green or dark green, compactly wrinkled or smooth and fat. If you're used to homogenised supermarket peas it's really difficult to imagine what it's like to have a mouthful of diverse peas. It's a sensory overload, like your brain doesn't know which sensation to register first.

Green and yellow sugarsnaps side by side

A yellow mangetout with bulging peas and curly pods (this seems to happen when the pod wall is porcelain-thin)

I did taste tests on as many of the plants as possible and collected the data. The first plant to flower, whose photo I triumphantly posted a few weeks ago, was beautiful to look at but when its peas matured they were hard, mealy, starchy and bitter. By contrast there were some sugarsnaps with ambrosial sweetness.

There was a lot of diversity in the pods too. As the top photo shows, I picked and ate a lot of the green mangetouts, along with some green sugarsnaps and yellow mangetouts, as they were surplus to requirements. Most of them were pleasantly enjoyable, except for one of the yellow mangetouts which turned out to have an inedible inner lining of fibre. So inedible, in fact, it required to be spat out on the side of the plate. I hadn't been expecting that. Diversity is one thing, but both the original parent varieties were mangetout types, so how does an inedible-podded variant suddenly show up in the cross? Well it's a longish story.

Normal peas have a fibrous membrane on the inner surface of the pod, and it is not a nice thing to chew on. What makes a mangetout a mangetout is that they don't have this membrane. Or if they do, it's thin and soft enough to be edible while the pod is young. The mangetout trait is recessive, and just to make it complicated it's controlled by two different genes which function independently.

On an individual basis, gene p on chromosome 6 and gene v on chromosome 4 both seem to fulfil pretty much the same function: reducing the fibre content, to produce mangetouts which are edible-podded when young but may get fibrous later. When you get both these genes together they combine forces in a harmonious way, and fully edible fibreless pods result.

When I selected the mangetout varieties to use as parents, I had no idea which of these two genes were present and in what combination. A mangetout variety could be ppVV (expressing the recessive p gene) or PPvv (expressing the recessive v gene). Or it might have the ideal mangetout genotype ppvv (expressing both recessive genes).

IF one parent is ppVV and the other PPvv, crossing those two varieties will produce offspring with fibrous inedible pods. That's because they create F1 offspring which is PpVv. The two recessive mangetout genes are still there, but overshadowed by two dominant non-mangetout genes. Only in the next (F2) generation can the mangetout trait reassert itself, and only as part of a diverse mixture of mangetouts, semi-mangetouts and inedible fibrous pods.

Or, if you want to look at it in terms of possible gene combinations:
ppVV + P_vv + P_V_ + ppv_

To be honest I didn't think to check whether my F1 plants were mangetouts or not. I saved all of them for seed and didn't notice what sort of pods they had. In the F2 generation though, I have a large number of inedible pods. Especially among the sugarsnap types. If I'd done my homework properly I should have anticipated this, but I didn't. So I have a lot of sweet juicy pods and sweet juicy peas separated by a layer of chewy gristle.

And the bad news ... this includes my coveted and one and only yellow sugarsnap. It has a gristly fibre layer. Can I just say: arse!

All is not lost though. Depending on its exact genotype, I may be able to get some pure yellow sugarsnaps from its offspring. If the recessive mangetout genes are still in there, they will express themselves next time round. I sowed the seeds this morning and will have to wait and see. If not though, I will have to grow out another crop of F2 seeds in the hope of finding another yellow sugarsnap with a more promising genotype.

Ah well, it's all part of the fun. I can't be getting instant exciting results like the red-podder on every project.

Beautiful sunlit colours and a mix of yellow and green pods

Of the six plants which had beautiful pinky-white flowers, five are gristly sugarsnaps but one has perfect edible pods. I will save and sow seeds from all of them, for the reasons outlined above ... some will most likely produce fibre-free offspring. Meanwhile they're showing some beautiful colours as the seeds dry out, as they've all inherited a gene from Golden Sweet which produces dark purple speckles on the seed coat.

Monday 23 June 2008

A setback

I thought maybe it's time I explained why my pace of blogging has slowed recently, and why I've got so behind with commenting on other blogs, and responding to emails and everything else. There's been a bit of a setback with the music which has distracted my attention away from the garden.

The small independent record label who released my album Mind The Gap has gone tits-up, and I haven't been paid for my sales. The most immediate impact of this is that my album no longer exists as a going concern, at least until I can get it re-issued. I'm not impressed, because CD sales are one of my few sources of income, and the album (which only came out last August) represents two years' work.

It's not just me either. I've spoken to a number of artists from the same label and it seems none of us have been paid, nor even told our sales figures. As if it isn't difficult enough for musicians to earn an honest crust without having somebody else pocket our hard-earned cash. For some of the artists the sales figures matter more than the money ... how can they make a decision about whether it's worth re-issuing their albums when they've no idea how many they've sold? We've all been treated very shoddily.

I must admit my first instinct was to curl up under the table with my thumb in my mouth, but after a few weeks of being very depressed I'm ready to get on and sort things out. One thing I have in my favour is that my album has been getting good reviews - really brilliant reviews in fact - so I know I have something worth pushing. It's just a case of what to do with it next. Rather than throw myself on the mercy of another indie label, I'm planning to set up my own tiny label and release the album myself. It will mean scraping together a few hundred pounds upfront to get the CD pressed and printed, and a lot of work promoting it, but at least I'll be in control of things and will have a sporting chance of hanging on to any future income.

Sunday 22 June 2008

Midsummer gallery

Merry is the summertime when you're a pea. This is Sugar Magnolia strutting its stuff with industrial-strength tendrils.

All the pea breeding projects are a delight at the moment, and this is just one of the attractive new phenotypes. It's an F2 from a cross between Mr Bethell's Purple Podded and Alderman. In all my purple pod experiments, the offspring separate out into pure purples, pure greens, and mixed up semi-purples like this. The purple flash is different on either side of the pod, which gives a very alluring glow when the sun shines through it.

The new camera has made a good impression so far. It focused perfectly on this bee grappling with an Allium christophii flower in all its fluffy stripey guinea-pig shaped detail.

I can't take any credit for this lovely clematis, it belongs to my next-door-neighbour and grows along our adjoining fence.

I'm lucky to have this rare Red Miracle sweetcorn to try out this year (thanks Graham), an open-pollinated variety bred in the US by Alan Kapuler and sporting beautiful deep red kernels when it's mature. Fingers crossed that it won't take offence at the British climate.

A rare appearance from our agoraphobic Norwegian Forest Cat, bravely venturing as far as the edge of the patio. Yes she does always have that facial expression.

Last month we had a red damselfly, but the turquoisey ones are now out and about. This one has a nice smiley face as well as beautiful colour.

Round the other side of the colour wheel, you can't beat California poppies.

A moth takes a breather on one of the pea leaves

Friday 20 June 2008

The tenacity of seeds

Seeds are survivors. This one has germinated in the old drainpipe above my water butt.

As my post of out-of-date seeds seems to have gone down well I thought it was worth pointing out this story from The Guardian earlier this week. A new record has been set for the world's oldest viable seed ... a date palm from the edge of the Judean desert, which germinated in a research facility in Jerusalem. The seed surfaced in an archaeological dig and has been dated at around 2000 years old.

What's interesting is how different it is from current cultivars. "The ancient date palm differs from modern Moroccan, Egyptian and Iraqi varieties at around half of the 399 genetic markers the researchers looked at."

Friday 6 June 2008

What do you get when you cross a purple-podded pea with a yellow-podded pea?

Well the answer is mostly GREEN podded peas, actually. That's something I hadn't predicted and I don't quite know why it's happening.

You also of course get some yellow podders and purple podders as the genes segregate out. The photo above shows some Golden Sweet x Desiree F2 plants ... these are siblings from the same batch of seeds and have segregated into yellows and purples (as well as greens).

And then this suddenly shows up:

This is one of my Golden Sweet x Carruthers' Purple Podded F2 plants. I noticed it had slightly different colouring from the others when the flower buds appeared. The sepals were cream-coloured which is a sure sign that yellow pods will follow, but they were also liberally flushed with pinky red.

When the first flower died off and the pod emerged, it was indeed yellow. But when it was a day or two old it started to develop a peachy blush down one edge. The colour seemed to be darkening by the hour and I wondered how far it would go. Would it stay peachy and localised, or fill in the whole pod?

The next day it had turned fiery orange.

I mentioned in my Yellow Sugarsnap post (below) that one of the joys of home plant breeding is the unexpected new phenotypes, unique traits created by the great gene lottery. But this is not just a new phenotype, it appears to be a completely new colour break. I don't know of any other peas this colour anywhere in the world. How exciting is that?!

It may be a colour I've never seen before, but it's easy enough to explain how it came about. Purple podded peas start off green, with the purple developing gradually after a few days. Sometimes the purple fills the whole pod, sometimes it retains a bit of the green. But essentially you don't get true purple pods, they're always green pods with a purple overlay. The purple colour is made by a common and naturally occurring plant pigment, anthocyanin. It can create pinks, reds, violets, purples, blues and blacks, in various parts of the plant.

All that's happened here is that the gene for yellow pods has met up and made a harmonious partnership with the gene for anthocyanin-in-the-pods. In other words, it's a normal purple podded pea but instead of having the usual green base, it has a yellow base. And the yellow shines through from underneath and makes it go red instead of purple.

And when I say RED ...

I bloody mean it. No Photoshopping here. These pods are deep, rich, blood red!

I hope this illustrates how incredibly worthwhile garden plant breeding really is. I was put off plant breeding for years because I'd always read that you need to grow thousands of plants to be in with a chance of getting anything useful out of it, and that it takes years and years and years of work. But that's bollocks, as you can see. Carol Deppe changed all that with her radical claim that you can do plant breeding on any scale and it really isn't difficult. She's absolutely right. This amazing pod colour has emerged spontaneously from a project which I started barely 12 months ago. All I did was a single round of hand-pollinations, and saved and grew the seed for two generations (all in the space of a year). And I didn't have to grow thousands of plants ... in fact I only have sixteen.

I've made two previous posts with instructions for hand-pollinating peas, if anyone wants to give it a go ... here and here.

If this doesn't get you reaching for your pollinating scalpel I dunno what will ... !

(Oh, and this pic was taken with the new Nikon.)

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Garden gallery for the merry month of May

First rose of the season. No idea what variety it is, I inherited it when I moved here.

Here's a few shots from around the garden over the last month.

And with a bit of luck my pictures might get better from this month onward. My husband just won a merit award for his excellent teaching (he's a psychology lecturer at the University of Bath) and the award came with a modest cash bonus. As he didn't have anything particular he wanted to spend the money on himself, he very generously offered to get me a digital SLR camera. Then I can give him my existing camera, a Fujifilm digital compact, which has served my needs very well but frustrates me with its limitations.

Notwithstanding a lot of farcical arsing around at Jessops, I should within a few days have a nice shiny Nikon D40, which I mainly chose because I still have a bagful of old Nikon lenses from when I was a photography nerd in the 80s and 90s, and they might come in handy. When I say I used to be a nerd ... photography was my big hobby in the days when I didn't have a garden, and I took it very seriously. I'm astonished when I look back at what a spectacular amount of money I used to spend on film and processing during my youth. I was completely off my trolley. I would only use colour slide film because colour print film wasn't good enough, and that cost quite a bit. I'd also use black and white, which I developed and printed myself, crawling inside a kitchen cupboard to load film onto the developing reel in total darkness and then sloshing trays of chemicals around in the bottom of my shower cubicle. And just to illustrate that I really was completely mad, I got fed up with always having slide film in the camera when I wanted to take a black and white picture and vice versa, so I bought two identical cameras and carried them everywhere with me, loaded with different films. Two big chunky camera bodies and three lenses, in a bloody great bag which gave me backache everywhere I went.

And what was it all for? I have a huge collection of photographs of old gravestones, having had a lifelong fascination for them, especially the 18th century ones with chubby cheeked cherubs and skulls and crossbones. So many, in fact, that I've always intended to have "1/60th at f8" engraved on mine for the benefit of future churchyard snappers. I used to enter competitions, but the only time I came close (second prize) was with a print I made by mistake when I leaned against the wall in the darkroom and accidentally hit the light switch, fogging the light-sensitive paper in the developing tray and creating a weird arty effect in the half-developed image.

What a marvel it is in this digital age, to be able to photograph something in the garden and share it with people all over the world the same day, without it even costing anything and without sticking my fingers in disgusting chemicals. It was all immensely satisfying and fun at the time but these days I really can't be arsed. I take more photographs now than I did in my nerd days (there's over 7600 images in my iPhoto library, mostly of vegetables) but I now take for granted the convenience of plugging the camera straight into the computer and doing the 'processing' in Photoshop. There's just one thing digital cameras can't compete with, and that's the magic of watching a black and white print slowly developing out of the blank nothingness.

Allium christophii just coming into bloom

A view of the garden, with the new greenhouse (which I still haven't had time to blog about) in the far corner, shamelessly unmown lawn, and a Cheltenham Borough Council "green bag" for municipal garden waste collection ... what a godsend that is.

I've had mauve-flowered potatoes before, but I've never seen anything this purple. This is Mayan Gold. The flowers are smallish but abundant and delightful.

Plantain flower. Yes I know it's a weed, but isn't it beautiful?