Thursday 27 November 2008

Ancestor worship

Door handle on Aldham church in Essex. This is the second of the ancestral churches I visited. I couldn't get too close to the first one at Marks Tey because at the time of my visit it was occupied by a grunting tramp with an inside-out Tesco bag on his head.

I've been visiting my parents in Essex these last few days and took the opportunity to go for a little tour of my ancestral heartlands. With my interests in history and genetics it's probably no surprise to anyone that I also have an interest in genealogy, and have been working on my family tree for just over ten years (all of it – not just the direct male line – because genetically the female lines are equally important, and so the whole thing becomes endless like a jigsaw puzzle without edges).

My dad is from north Essex and all his ancestors came from the same cluster of villages in the Colne Valley near Colchester. In the mid 19th century my great-great-great grandfather was living in this cottage:

This is the Three Horseshoes pub in Fordham. It was originally three separate cottages, and I think my ancestors lived in the small one on the far left. My g-g-g-gf was a shoemaker, but he (and his father before him) were also clerks of the parish, which was quite a prestigious position involving the keeping of parish records and shows that they must have been literate. In Fordham there was also a plot of agricultural land which came with the job but I don't know where that was located. It was probably here in this cottage that my great-great-great grandmother who went by the curious name of Mary Bugg died while giving birth to her twelfth child (my great-great-grandfather). How they got 12 kids into a cottage this size I can't imagine. The right hand cottage was a blacksmith's forge at that time. In the 1860s when agriculture was in serious decline and work scarce, the blacksmith took to brewing his own beer and converted the forge into a pub. Hence the Three Horseshoes.

Fordham is a very pretty place spread over a wide area with a real sense of being in the middle of nowhere (and lots of mud). It's now a strange mixture of modern housing estates and ancient timber-framed cottages but still has a distinctive character. I do feel quite a connection with the place, which surprised me a little bit, because when I visited my mother's ancestral village of Stogumber in Somerset I didn't feel I belonged there at all.

My dad's family lived in Fordham for about 100 years. We know that most of them were buried in the churchyard there. So I spent a freezing cold hour squelching through the mud and brambles looking at all the graves and found absolutely nothing. It didn't help that most of the 19th century gravestones were completely illegible. I have more experience than most at deciphering old tombstones, having had a lifelong passion for cemeteries, but some of them were so worn away I couldn't even tell which side the inscription was on. It's most likely though that my forebears couldn't afford headstones and that I was trampling on their graves as I waded over the swathes of brambly tussocks.

Trundling back into the 18th century, the pre-Fordham generation came from the nearby village of Little Horkesley. However, there isn't quite the same sense of unbroken history here. During World War 2 a passing German aeroplane on its way back from bombing somewhere else jettisoned a leftover bomb which floated down on a parachute and plonked itself in the belfry of Little Horkesley parish church. As it dropped down into the nave it went off and blew the whole thing to buggery. When you look at how rural the area is, miles and miles of open fields, you get a sense of what extraordinarily bad luck it was for the lovely medieval church to take a direct hit. But in one sense it was quite fortunate, because the immensely thick ancient walls contained the blast and probably saved the whole village from oblivion.

Remarkably, a set of 13th century carved wooden effigies in the church survived, albeit rather damaged. And yet the rest of the destruction was so complete there was nothing left standing above 3 feet in height and not a single shard of glass from any of the windows was found.

A treat you occasionally find if you hang out in old churchyards. The Reverend Charles Henry Brocklebank has his name writ in moss as nature traces over the inscription on his wooden cross. Little Horkesley churchyard.

A number of other old gravestones from the original churchyard still survive, but again there was no trace of my ancestors among them.

Anyway, none of this has anything to do with gardening. But there is a connection. This part of Essex has a long history in the seed industry and was a former centre of vegetable breeding. There's still an enormous number of nurseries around the area and acres of old-fashioned glasshouses along the roadsides. Close by is the small town of Kelvedon, which gives its name to several vegetable varieties. Kelvedon Wonder is still one of the most popular and widely available peas, found in pretty much every catalogue since its introduction in the 1920s. A sweetcorn called Kelvedon Glory is also still going strong. At least one of the old seed companies still survives, E.W. King, which will be familiar to many people who buy heritage seeds in the UK as they do great work in maintaining some of the important old varieties on the National List.

I would have liked to pay a visit to the farm where Kings Seeds are produced, but they seem to be solely mail order these days. My parents and I did, however, pay a nostalgic visit to another nursery a mile or so up the road in Coggeshall. This was the place where I remember buying my first packets of vegetable seeds (though I don't remember what they were) in the mid 1970s. It has changed and expanded quite a bit since then, and I was delighted to find they had a couple of racks of Kings Seeds, so I was able to get what I was looking for after all.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Garlic time

Newly harvested Rose de Lautrec bulbs, photographed in August. The unattractive brownish specimen on the right is how it looks when it comes out of the ground, but scrape away the outer wrappers to reveal the candy pink underneath.

2008 was a pretty good year for garlic. There was no repeat of the extreme rust attack of 2007 which completely encrusted and killed the plant tops (although the bulbs underground survived and were remarkably little affected). This year there was barely a speck of rust all season. And it was the same planting stock, i.e. this year's healthy crops grew from the bulbs that had been totally rust-stricken the year before. A lesson to be learned there I think, that no matter how bad the rust gets, garlic is irrepressible.

The robustness of garlic is probably an effect of it having evolved over the centuries to reproduce asexually. Having decided it can't be bothered to make flowers or set seeds any more, it relies completely on vegetative propagation, and that gives it an incentive to sprout for all it's worth and to thrive in a huge range of conditions. Another funny thing about garlic and its mega-adaptability is that it can change its flavour and colour from one garden to another, and even in the same garden from year to year. So you can never be absolutely sure what you're going to get. That and its weird requirement to be planted in the cold damp soggy soils of autumn just as everything else is dying off show it to be a plant which likes to do everything arse-about-face.

As usual I grew a few rows of Music, which is still my favourite garlic, unsurpassed for flavour as far as I'm concerned, and a couple of rows of Persian Star and Solent Wight.

In place of flowers, garlic plants produce bulbils. Heads made up of lots of tiny cloves. Although they look superficially a bit like flowers, the most important difference is at the molecular level. A flower creates seeds by stripping DNA apart and reassembling it (meiosis), which is always going to allow some scope for mutation and change, even if both halves of the DNA came from the same parent. Bulbils, however, are reproduced by the simple cell division (mitosis) which is part of the plant's normal growth. The DNA is left intact, so it doesn't change. Bulbils are therefore genetically identical to the plant they grew on.

Unusually plump and purple bulbil cluster on a Music plant, photographed in the summer

Bulbils on Music are usually quite small, but this year one of my plants produced a very different "head" from its companions. Instead of lots of tiny bulbils it had a weird spiky cluster of much bigger ones, and they were rounded and a darker purple in colour. I allowed that one scape to mature and now I have the bulbils saved and ready to replant. I don't know whether these bulbils are any different from the usual ones or whether the plant just decided on a whim to do something eccentric. They should still be genetically identical to the parent, in theory.

The experimental crop for 2008 was Rose de Lautrec, which I blogged about in February. I bought a 12-bulb manouille last November at a French market in Brighton, sold as eating stock rather than for planting. I wasn't wildly impressed with it at the time; it had a beautiful rosy pink colour but the flavour was OK and not quite the gourmet delight it's cracked up to be.

The problem with growing it at home is the Protected Geographical Indication ... if it's grown outside the Lautrec region in France it's not Rose de Lautrec any more. But I was curious to find out what would happen. After all, a PGI is not a Cinderella spell, the cloves don't suddenly turn to ash if you plant them in the wrong country.

I'm very pleased with how it turned out. The plants were healthy, though they were a bit prone to making double sprouts. The bulbs didn't turn out quite as pink as the original stock, but they still had a nice rosy blush. But most importantly, the flavour was better!

Rose de Lautrec is a hot and spicy garlic but loses the heat when it's cooked. With the original bulbs I bought, the heat was quite coarse and intense and would easily overwhelm a dish. And then when cooked it became a bit bland and it was hard to taste it at all. There was quite an art to using just the right amount and cooking it just enough. None of those problems with my homegrown stock though. The hot and spicy trait is still very much there but it's much more rounded and flavoursome, and when cooked it keeps all the flavour and only loses the intensity of heat. So it's easy to cook with and tastes good in everything.

Presumably the stuff I bought in Brighton was not in its prime, and my fresh and lovingly homegrown version is the "real" Rose de Lautrec tasting just as it should ... but ironically it's not Rose de Lautrec at all because it was grown outside its native region. D'oh!

So, now we're in garlic planting season again, all the same varieties are going back in for a 2009 crop, including Rose de Cheltenham which has earned its place in the garden, and I have three new ones to try.

I'm quite excited about these. They are all hardneck types and I got them from the garlic king himself, Patrick of Bifurcated Carrots, when I met up with him in Oxford a couple of months ago.

Dominic's Rocambole is a very elegant and classy garlic. It has such perfect snow white outer wrappers it seems a shame to break it open. The wrapping is actually made up of multiple layers of very thin fine silky parchment. But underneath them all you find the natural colour of the clove skins (shown above) which are a dusky golden cream, lightly streaked with mid pink and the occasional dark pink fleck. The cloves are so silky you can buff them up to a shine. They're extremely large so you only get about four in the bulb. Rocambole garlic is one of the best flavoured types.

Purple Glazer has around six plump little cloves of varying size. It doesn't look anything special with the bulb wrappers on, as the skins are quite coarse and brittle, but if you peel them away the cloves do have a nice purple colour. The best colour is revealed when you break the bulb open, as the purple is dark and intense on the inner parts of the clove wrappers. It belongs to a family of garlics called Purple Stripe.

Cuban Purple is shaped a bit like a water lily in its bulb form. It's a Creole type, which is probably the most exotically beautiful and deeply coloured garlic type. Its adapted to hot climates and not ideally suited to a British garden, but what the hell. It will probably only produce small bulbs here, but I don't mind that. The clove wrappers are silky and a beautiful rich purple with gentle stripes and streaks. My bulb had nine cloves of varying size. They're thin, curved and wedge shaped, not plump like the other two, though that may be partly due to it being grown in northerly climes.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Sweetcorn 2008

If I had to choose one thing which did better for me in 2008 than anything else, and which was a constant surprise and delight, the prize would have to go to an American sweetcorn called Red Miracle.

I got the seed from my very kind friend Graham in south Wales who shares my love of red vegetables and has a talent for sourcing very rare seeds. It's not a variety you're likely to find in the UK, unfortunately, and there was no guarantee it would even grow properly over here. It was bred by the legendary 'Mushroom' Kapuler in Oregon, USA.

The seeds were translucent ruby red and almost too beautiful to plant. I started them in Rootrainers in the greenhouse and they delighted me by producing pink roots! The Rootrainers have a clear plastic tray so I was able to watch them spreading. Even at the seedling stage the young plants were infused with red which got more and more intense as they grew, some going a dark crimson-black by the time they matured, with a few bright green leaves for contrast. They reached a height of about four feet.

As far as I'm aware, Red Miracle is an open-pollinated variety, which is something of a rarity these days as nearly all commercially available seeds are F1 hybrids. There's a general perception that F1 hybrid sweetcorn is more vigorous and better tasting than open pollinated varieties. Sweetcorn is an extreme outbreeder and is always happiest when it's crossing with something else. But there's no reason why an open-pollinated variety can't be as good as an F1 ... as long as you're prepared to put up with some variability. Diversity in the plants is a reassuring sign of a lively genepool. Variability is a no-no for commercial growers but a pleasure for me, as every Red Miracle was different and uniquely beautiful.

Some plants were green with red stripes, others a much deeper red. Some produced fairly normal looking white silks, others produced bright pink ones! One of them had deep pinky red silks which glowed in the sun. The colour of the corn itself also varied, with a couple of plants producing yellow cobs or two-tone yellow and white, while the rest were deep blood red. There wasn't actually a correlation between these things ... some red plants produced white silks and some green plants produced pink ones, with all combinations showing up. The blackest red plant produced the whitest cobs, and the deepest red cobs came from green plants. There were intermediates too, including a cob where all the kernals were pink with a dark red spot (pictured left) and one where the kernals were yellow and white each with a tiny infusion of pink. What I didn't get is mixed colours showing up on a single cob (apart from the yellow and whites). Whatever colour the cob had was consistent throughout.

Now you may be thinking "yeah, well it looks very pretty, but what does it taste like?" The flavour was another delightful surprise. I wondered if there might be a trade-off between beauty and flavour. How can something that looks this spectacular taste good as well? Well it does. It has a lovely sweet old-fashioned flavour. And the red cobs are packed with beneficial anthocyanins, so they're healthier than normal corn too. The red fades somewhat with cooking, and turns the cooking water deep red instead! Even the core in the middle is red, so it still looks beautiful even after you've eaten it.

Open pollinated sweetcorn loses its sweetness more rapidly than hybrid corn, so I'm informed. But when you grow it in the garden you can cook it within minutes of picking, so that's not an issue.

Red Miracle lived up to its name and produced the biggest and best sweetcorn crop I've ever had, despite this year's crappy weather. It far exceeded the Swift F1 crop which had been my previous best-ever (in a good season). Some plants produced two full sized cobs even as the grey English skies pelted rain on them for weeks on end.

And now I've got some exciting new sweetcorn to try out next year. Take a look at this beautiful multi-coloured seed I've just received from Alan Bishop in Indiana, USA. It's called Astronomy Domine, and it comes in every colour from red, yellow, white, black, purple, blue, pink and maroon to bicolour stripey and speckled ... even green kernals have been showing up in Alan's crop this year. It's not yet a stable variety, it's an ongoing breeding project which has branched out into a worldwide collaboration.

A couple of years ago Alan started Astronomy Domine off with a mass-cross of over twenty different sweetcorn cultivars, open-pollinated and hybrids all mixed up together. The second year he added more varieties into the mix, including some with variously coloured kernals. Now at the F3 stage, there are around 55 varieties in its genepool. The resulting genetic diversity is massive, and Astronomy Domine is segregating for just about every trait imaginable in sweetcorn. As the project gathers momentum he's sending the seeds out to others to do their own work with. The huge diversity in the seed stock means it should be possible for people all over the world to develop locally adapted new strains from it. And also to cross it with yet more different varieties and send some seed back to Alan, to add to the genepool. It's going to be exciting!

Alan describes himself as "just a farmer/gardener with a messageboard", but he's being modest. He's an independent plant breeder who understands the importance of keeping centuries of knowledge and genetic heritage in the public domain, because the long term future of our food supply relies on biodiversity and on plant breeders working for the common good, not the homogenised patented seed controlled by big corporations. And he's making a significant direct contribution to that cause by sharing his own creations freely with other gardeners and plant breeders and by running a forum which has become an international meeting ground for other like-minded people, sharing knowledge, advice, seeds and friendship around the globe.

Alan also founded the Hip-Gnosis Seed Development Project, "a continuing endeavor to re-introduce old Open Pollinated food and flower crops as well as all new unique cultivars and seed mixes to the gardening public. We continuously select (year round) for new adaptations, unique colors, and higher nutritional content as well as taste and performance in our seed crops. We openly encourage everyone to share these special seeds far and wide."

So there you go. If that sounds interesting I suggest you come over to the Homegrown Goodness forum and join in the fun.

Maize trial in St James' Park, 1849

Funnily enough, just as I was writing up the results of this year's successful sweetcorn endeavours I was leafing through the 1849 volume of the Illustrated London News (as you do) and came across some discourse about maize corn in England. The growing of any kind of maize (let alone sweetcorn) in the UK was still a pretty novel idea at the time, with only a handful of people having experimented with it, mostly with a view to using it as cattle fodder or as a cheaper alternative to other grains. The general opinion at the time was that the UK climate was too cold for maize and it would fail to ripen.

In September 1849 the ILN reported that an experimental hybrid maize crop was being grown in St James' Park in London, to establish whether this crop really was possible to cultivate in England. The trial site was an unfavourable spot surrounded by trees and shrubs "in the heart of the metropolis" and no manure had been used. Two other varieties were also trialled with it, an American maize and one from 'The Barbadoes'.

The immediate result of the trial was a disagreement among the ILN's readers:

As it turned out, the experimental maize thrived. The 'Barbadoes' and American corns apparently failed to reach maturity, but the "hybrid maize" (pictured above) did well:

"On Wednesday, the Maize introduced into this country from the Pyrenees, and sown as an experiment in St. James's Park, by Mr Keene, was harvested. It has fully succeeded. The grain is perfectly formed, full and ripe: the cobs are much finer than those grown on the Continent; a result – peculiarly gratifying in a public point of view – of very high importance; because it sets at rest the doubts which, in the first instance, were entertained in some quarters, that the soil and climate of this country were not capable of the product."

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Greenhouse story

I became the owner of a greenhouse this year for the first time in my life. I should have blogged about it in April and never got round to it, but better late than never.

For me, much of the appeal of greenhouses is the smell. And the memories evoked by it. The aroma of warm tomato foliage takes me straight back to my grandparents' garden in Colchester, Essex, where my grandfather (left) had a magnificent greenhouse in the middle of the back garden, a real focal point and centrepiece. He was a passionate gardener who grew flowers and vegetables and was particularly skilled at growing tomatoes. The garden was laid out in the classic English suburban style with what Alan Titchmarsh calls a "centrifugal lawn" with straight flower borders all around it (edged with geometric precision) and vegetables grown in a separate out-of-the-way area at the bottom end. As conventional as the design may have been, it was entirely his garden. He created it when he bought the house as a new-build in 1928 and nurtured it for the next 50 years.

I was 10 when he died but I never really knew him because he didn't talk much. He was a shy person and communicating with kids was not his forte, so I never really had conversations with him. I mainly knew him through his garden. I remember him showing me how to water plants, and how unimpressed I was when he told me to water the soil around the plants rather than just chucking it all over the foliage, which was a lot more fun. His garden was larger than the one we had at home and provided pleasures I'd never experienced before, such as sticking my hands into a big pile of grass cuttings on the compost heap and marvelling at the warmth inside, and the smell of the shed where his tools were kept, immaculately cleaned, oiled, sharpened and cared for (I wish I'd inherited that gene).

But the most intense memory is the smell of that greenhouse. It was an old-fashioned wooden one on a brick base, and it smelled of warm oiled wood mingled with the tang of tomato plants. I love that smell.

And now through the generosity of my parents I have one of these wonderful things in my own garden.

The site I chose for it was a neglected patch at the bottom of the garden. When I moved here in 2004 the garden was full of overgrown fruit trees and bushes which hadn't been pruned for years. I rejuvenated them (mostly successfully) but didn't know what to do with the piles of dead twigs, so they got dumped in a corner. And there they stayed until I got round to clearing them out and bringing the ground back into cultivation.

Clearing the site ...

And here it is.

I dithered for ages over where to go to get a greenhouse. There are lots of big stores around but I don't like the big chains ... I don't want to encourage them in their vile march towards total market domination. I don't shop at B&Q any more since they built a huge superstore a couple of miles outside town. I'm pissed off at the way these big corporations selfishly feck up the greenbelt with their loathsome warehouses and it's now impossible to get there without a car (the previous store was on the edge of town and within modest walking distance). I also find it a truly hateful shopping experience. The new superstore is vast and daunting and it's really hard to find anything. The staff are mostly hapless shelf-stackers unable to offer much help. Fellow shoppers are stressed out and bad-tempered, and the vast line of checkouts is like being shoved through a cattle market. Or a rugby scrum, when it's busy. What's really ironic is that the range of stuff they sell is not much bigger than it was at the previous shop, it's just bigger stocks of the same stuff, piled up higher on the shelves where you can't reach it anyway. I invariably find myself fighting back tears from the horribleness of it all. So I don't go any more.

I turned to the internet, and found what I wanted. Europa Manor make a 10' x 6' greenhouse which had exactly the spec I wanted and very good value for money. Even better, Europa Manor is a division of Eden Greenhouses which happens to be based within 5 miles of where I live. Buying local didn't make the delivery any cheaper but it did mean I got it in 5 days instead of the usual 2-5 weeks. But the difficult part was finding someone to put it up. Nobody advertises themselves as a putter-upper of greenhouses. If you look in the Yellow Pages you find dozens of companies wanting to flog you a greenhouse and install it at extra cost, but nobody offering to put one up which you've bought elsewhere. We tried several garden maintenance firms but it took a while to find one who would take it on, and it was pretty expensive. But we got there in the end.

The first residents moved in ... mostly tomatoes and peppers, plus a few peas waiting to be planted out. Yes that is a watering can you can see in the background with a bit of hosepipe running down from the guttering. It works a treat when there's overnight rain, it's just nicely filled up by the morning.

So I now have an enormous learning curve ahead of me. I already discovered this year the issue of grey mould. Yuk. That was partly because of something else I was experimenting with, which was allowing the tomatoes to grow freely. I had read that unpruned tomatoes are stronger and less vulnerable to blight. The greenhouse was probably not the best place to try it out, because by the beginning of August they were growing out through the roof and I could no longer get into the greenhouse at all. It also didn't seem to make any difference to the blight. All the greenhouse tomatoes were blighted, but it did spread a lot more slowly. And because the indoor fruits were about a month ahead of the outdoor ones, I got a much bigger and better crop from them anyway.

The frustration I have now, of course, is that the greenhouse is not big enough for more than eight or ten tomato plants, so I have to be ruthlessly selective with whatever I grow in there. Not easy when I have a backlog of Lycopersicon goodies I've collected in the last few years and some of my own breeding projects too.

Last dregs of blighted October tomatoes. The big ones are Copia, a variety I ordered from the US which didn't ripen fully in the climate here but fortunately still looks and tastes excellent when it's slightly unripe. The small round ones are my Marks & Sparks escapee, Green Tiger, which tastes fabulous and also takes this year's prize for blight-free abundance.

It was also a great pleasure to try growing chillis for the first time. One of the highlights was the bright yellow and curiously gnarled Lemon Drop, which is supposed to be lemon-flavoured but to me tasted more like peaches. Hot spicy peaches! It was a treat sliced up in a cheese sandwich and I'll definitely grow that one again.

Ripening Lemon Drop chillis. Hot, but in a fruity and flavoursome way rather than just blowing your head off, and better than anything you can buy in the supermarkets.