Sunday 21 December 2008

Welcome home, little peas

Twelve British peas which are either extinct or rarely seen outside gene banks in the UK, now here on my windowsill awaiting trial in 2009. You can already see the diversity in this little lot.

Christmas came early in the Soil household. This collection of peas was generously sent to me this week by Dave "American Gardener" Thompson at Worldwide Seed Trader. Dave is in the process of setting up a seed order business with the largest range of varieties offered by anyone, anywhere. An ambitious goal, you might think. But he's already well on the way to achieving it, because I can honestly say he has the largest collection of vegetable varieties I've ever seen. It's mind-boggling. He reckons he has "1000 varieties of peppers, 1000 of beans, and hundreds of everything else". Pop along to the Homegrown Goodness forum and have a look. Dave has been looking for volunteers to take seeds and grow them, and give him feedback and/or seed increases. You can even choose what you want to trial, if you don't pass out from lack of oxygen while reading the list.

I nearly had to reach for the smelling salts myself when I saw his pea list. Not just because there were so many of them, but because half-familiar names kept jumping out. Names of peas I'd read about in Victorian and early 20th century gardening books, but which have long since vanished without trace. May Queen, Battleship, Webb's Stourbridge Marrow.

I immediately picked out 17 or so varieties which I either knew to be of British origin or which I thought likely to be and which are difficult or impossible to obtain in the UK. I suspect there are many more, when I get a chance to research them. Some stood out because they include British placenames, while others preserve the names of well known nurseries and pea breeders of the 19th century. Veitch's of Devon, Carter's of Raynes Park, Sharpe's of Sleaford and Webb's of Stourbridge. Creations by Thomas Knight, Thomas Laxton, William Hurst and William Fairbeard.

Fairbeard created the much esteemed Champion of England in 1843, and most of his other varieties I assumed were lost. Fairbeard's Nonpareil was one I'd heard of but didn't know it still existed. Laxton bred some of the best tasting peas (Alderman) and earliest (Alaska). The Heritage Seed Library and Irish Seed Savers Association are maintaining some of his varieties but Laxton's Omega is one I've never seen outside 1870s gardening manuals.

After making my list of peas for trial, I scuttled over to the Pisum database at the John Innes Centre and looked them up. And lo, only four of these 17 varieties are held in the JIC collection. If the JIC don't have it, not many other people will either. This is very, very rare and precious stuff indeed.

Should we be surprised that a whole bunch of heritage peas which are all but extinct in their country of origin should turn up in a private collection in the US? Probably not. There was a huge market for British pea varieties in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All the popular varieties favoured by gardeners and market growers over here were shipped out to the states and sold widely. Sometimes their names were changed for the US-market, such as the super-early pea (still popular in the US) known as Alaska which is a selection of Laxton's Earliest of All, introduced in the UK in 1881 and no longer available here. But most still carry their original names.

Over the years they've dropped out of the mainstream catalogues on both sides of the Atlantic and become scarce. Here in the UK, we were clobbered by the most dunderheaded EU legislation which not only failed to recognise the value of heritage varieties but made it illegal to distribute them. From the 1970s onward, our vegetable biodiversity has haemorrhaged. It's not surprising that so many of the varieties familiar to British gardeners a century ago have disappeared. In the US, however, the heirloom seed movement has always thrived. Marginalised by market forces, it chugs along beneath the radar of mainstream gardening but carries on its important work through small businesses and various formal and informal networks. All those old British peas, thoughtlessly discarded by the British ministries who didn't understand their cultural and genetic value, have been carefully maintained from year to year by gardeners in America.

I'm immensely grateful to Dave for sending me these peas for trial. And to all those people who cared enough to keep them from total extinction.

The first step is to grow them and evaluate them and find out exactly what they are. I will collect information and pictures to send back to Dave, which will help him in developing accurate and meaningful descriptions of them for his seed business. But a longer term benefit (once Dave has had a chance to distribute them through his seed company) will be the repatriation of some of Britain's long lost genetic heritage, because I'll take whatever steps I can to ensure their continued survival here.

The British stuff is just the tip of Dave's pea iceberg. He's sent me a number of other rare and special things, including some purple-podded breeding lines with unusual genetic traits to make use of in my own breeding projects. Look at the lovely seedcoat markings on this one, Musus. The markings suggest it's probably a field-pea but it supposedly has red-splashed pods. Just don't try googling for it because Google rather unhelpfully assumes that you meant to type "mucus" and comes up with all sorts of hits you really didn't want to see.

Another treasure I'm looking forward to growing next year is the umbellatum type, sometimes known as the Mummy pea on the basis of a common 19th century scam where gardeners paid a small fortune for seeds falsely claimed to have come from Egyptian tombs. (This claim is still doing the rounds and ironically the myth has survived more robustly than the "mummy vegetables" themselves.) This type of pea has a weird top-heavy shape, producing very wide thick stems and bearing all the flowers and pods in a crown-like clump at the top. At one time they were given their own species name, Pisum umbellatum. But this has now been dropped as it turns out that they are botanically the same as normal Pisum sativum peas, and their radically weird appearance is simply down to fasciation (broadening) of the stem, which is a recessive genetic trait. Umbellatum-type peas are now almost unknown outside gene banks, although I unwittingly picked one up from the Heritage Seed Library a couple of years ago (Salmon-Flowered) which whetted my appetite for them.

Two umbellatum types, Mummy White which I assume is white flowered, and Umbellata which I have no information about but from the speckling of the seedcoat it looks to have the genetic wherewithal to make purple colouring. Below those, Nigro-Umbilicatum whose name presumably refers to the fact that it has a black hilum, an unusual trait in peas.

Meanwhile, if you think you can help Dave with his seed increases or future trials, then hie thee to his blog at Worldwide Seed Trader.

Monday 15 December 2008

Here from the Heritage Seed Library Catalogue 2009?

Climbing beans from the HSL ... Poletschka (mauve beans in green pods) and Purple Giant (white beans in purple pods)

I just wanted to say hello and welcome to anyone who's arrived here after seeing me in the new Heritage Seed Library catalogue. This blog is about heritage vegetables and seed saving (which kind of go together anyway because most heritage veg seeds can't be bought commercially) biodiversity and breeding new vegetables using the rich heritage veg genepool ... not to make profit but to create new varieties for the public domain. And I have a companion website at which includes reviews of heritage vegetables and other useful information.

Like a lot of HSL members I'm concerned by the control big business has over the food chain and the resulting loss of biodiversity. But there is a lot that individual gardeners can do to help which make a real difference. You'll find information on the blog about saving seeds, and also about how to breed your own new vegetables, which you can do even in a small garden, with no specialist knowledge or experience.

First up, I'm not anybody special or an expert in anything. I'm just a gardener who enjoys growing things. I have no qualifications whatsoever as a plant breeder, I don't even have an O-level in biology. I learned everything I know from a book and from experimenting in the garden.

I started growing vegetables in 1998 and began keeping notes about my garden in 2004 purely for my own use. I never thought for a moment anybody else would be interested. Then in 2006 I bought some rare local apple trees from a specialist grower, and although he was very knowledgeable the grower wasn't able to tell me very much about the varieties I'd selected. Nobody else knew much about them either, he said, and that wouldn't change until somebody grew them and shared the information. That was the revelatory moment when I realised that even the most ordinary of gardeners can make a genuinely useful contribution to the available knowledge. Instead of sitting here waiting for the "experts" to tell us stuff, we can try things for ourselves and share the results. I set up Daughter of the Soil as a first step towards that.

Slice of Caro Rich tomato, which is very tasty and contains many times more pro-vitamin A than the average tomato

And the lack of available information was certainly a yawning gap. When I joined the Heritage Seed Library the first thing they did was send me a freebie packet of seeds. It was a bean called Kew Blue. I sowed the seeds and they grew into very pretty purple-flushed seedlings. I posted a picture of them on my blog. But I wanted to know more about them. Were they meant for eating as fresh beans, or for shelling out? How tall do they get? What do they taste like? What colour are the pods? I wanted to see pictures. So I did the obvious thing and googled it. To my astonishment, Google came up with only three hits, one of which was my own blog! None of the hits gave me the answers I wanted. And the photo on my blog was apparently the only photograph of Kew Blue on the whole of the internet!

Things are improving at a rapid rate with more and more people sharing info online, but it can still be frustrating. Sometimes there's no information at all. Other times it appears at first that there IS lots of information, but when you click on the link you find the descriptions on different websites are word-for-word identical. It's not independent information, it's cribbed from a sales catalogue. While that may be better than nothing, catalogue descriptions are of limited use because they just bang on about how great the variety is. They won't tell you the useful things you want to know like how it differs from other varieties or whether it will suit your own personal tastes or growing conditions. They won't tell you about any limitations or disadvantages it has. I found this information vacuum incredibly frustrating.

So that gave me the idea to write reviews of heritage vegetables. Every time I grew a variety I would take notes and photographs and write up a review with as much information and detail as possible. My reviews are not authoritative and they may not always agree with the experiences of others, but they are independent. I don't sell seeds and I'm not sponsored by anyone who does, so I can present a completely unbiased evaluation of each variety, describing its strengths and weaknesses with honesty. This, I hope, is far more useful than a regurgitated sales pitch.

In just a couple of years things have changed enormously. Many people (including many Heritage Seed Library members and members of other seed saving organisations around the world) are now blogging about their experiences with different varieties, and the amount of available USEFUL information is booming. Power to the bloggers! This is an important and very positive revolution in gardening.

I would encourage anyone to start up their own gardening blog. Don't be put off (as I was initially) by a modest assumption that nobody will be interested in what you have to say. Whatever you're growing and however you're growing it, somebody out there is interested. Even your failures are worth sharing. When my runner beans did very badly in 2006 I assumed I'd done something wrong, until I discovered from other blogs that people across the UK were having the same problems and it was just a bad year for runners. Blogging is easy too. All the major host sites such as Blogger and WordPress provide easy-to-use templates. So publishing your words and pictures on the internet doesn't require any knowledge of web design, and it doesn't cost anything.

The number of gardeners who now have blogs has grown steadily over the last couple of years, and a natural thing to evolve from this is a global online seed swap. With the support of Patrick in Amsterdam who hosts and maintains the website, the Blogger Seed Network is a fantastic source of seeds (and tubers) for just about anything, many of which are incredibly hard to find anywhere else. You don't have to have a blog to take part in trades ... it's open to everyone. This network is already proving to be special and important, hugely increasing the flow of seed material and diversity around the world. It supplements the work of the HSL and other seed saving organisations, bringing members into direct contact with each other.

One of my home-made pea hybrids with bicolour pink and white flowers

Heritage vegetables are only one side of what I do in my garden and write about on this blog. My other little crusade is to reinvigorate the lost art of amateur plant breeding.

100 years ago, pretty much every gardener did a bit of plant breeding ... even if it was only by selecting the best plants to save seed from each year. Our ancestors didn't have any understanding of genetics, but that didn't stop them achieving great things through trial and error and a bit of observation. The British nurseryman T.A. Knight is most likely the person we have to thank for our modern peas. Until the 1820s all peas were starchy and bitter. Knight spotted a single wrinkled seed among his crop of smooth, round seeds. He was curious about this oddity, and planted it. Knight noticed that the wrinkled peas tasted sweeter than smooth ones, and began selecting them as a basis for new varieties. He had no idea that sugars shrink more than starches do and that the wrinkliness is a result of a higher sugar content. There was also very little understanding in his day about the laws of inheritance, and it was well over a century before the discovery and naming of the two recessive genes responsible for wrinkly sweetness in peas. He was simply an observer whose sharp eye and enquiring mind helped change the course of culinary history.

Knight's story is an important illustration of why you don't actually need a degree in genetics to be a plant breeder. You can do it on any scale and it can be as simple as observing and selecting. It can be as simple as allowing an accidental cross to grow to maturity instead of roguing it out, or saving and sowing seed from a commercial F1 hybrid to get a galaxy of segregating variations, whose pedigree you may never know but they will still be lovely. Armed with a very basic understanding of genes, however, you can get stuck into more precise experiments. The notion that new varieties can only be developed by crop scientists and requires field-scale trials is nonsense. Anybody can do it.

Which leads to the question, why would you want to? Aren't there enough varieties already out there? Actually no. Despite the proliferation of new releases in the gardening catalogues each year, genetic diversity in food crops is dwindling at a scary rate. "New" varieties are often little more than marketing. And as most of the seed companies' business comes from commercial growers and not gardeners, the number of new varieties being developed for gardeners is close to zero. That's why gardeners are lumbered with nearly all dwarf peas (designed for ease of mechanical harvesting) when tall ones give much better yields, crops which ripen all at once when we'd prefer a steady supply over several weeks (again, for mechanical harvesting), and thick-skinned fruits (to withstand packing and transport). The rapid move towards F1 hybrids is another harmful trend, giving seed companies increasing control over what we grow. F1 seed is overpriced, overhyped, and doesn't come true from seed the following year ... so if you want to grow the same thing again you're obliged to go back and buy it again instead of saving your own seed. (Call the companies' bluff by sowing the seeds from hybrids and select the best plants each year to make an open-pollinated version.)

Add to that the problems caused in Europe by the short-sighted legislation in the 1960s, when in an attempt to thwart rogue traders the Common Catalogue was introduced across Europe to standardise vegetable seeds. It's illegal to sell seeds of varieties which are not listed in the Common Catalogue and inclusion on the list requires an outlay of hundreds of pounds for each variety. The result, over the last 40 years, has been a disastrous loss of biodiversity in every food crop across the entire continent. This is of course why the Heritage Seed Library exists (along with its many sister organisations across Europe) and why its work continues to be so important.

Purple and green sploshed and speckled peas, an unexpected result from a cross between a heritage pea and a modern one.

Back garden plant breeding is not just a rewarding hobby, it's an urgent imperative for the survival of our biodiversity. I hope that by sharing some of the basic information on how to do it, I might inspire others to give it a go. The varieties you order from the HSL each year make great candidates for home breeding projects, as they have a rich and varied genepool and often have traits which you'd never find in a modern commercial variety. Breeding from heritage varieties can produce spectacular results and it doesn't harm the variety in any way, as it's "as well as" not "instead of" maintaining the original strain as a pure variety.

Nature's way is abundance, she likes to mix things up, and there are plenty of genes to go around. Have some fun!

Friday 12 December 2008

Jean Charles de Menezes: a carnival of perjury

A gardening blog is not the place for a political commentary but I'm making this exception in the light of the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest which concluded today. I think the jury did their best to return the fairest verdict available to them, but the inquest, and the coroner who oversaw it, are a national disgrace.

I'm sickened and appalled by this corruption of justice and feel it's important to say so publicly.

I don't know how widely reported this incident has been outside the UK, so in case anyone doesn't know what it's about, it concerns a young Brazilian electrician in London who was shot in the head several times at point blank range by police officers who mistook him for a terror suspect.

Three years on, the coroner at his inquest barred the jury from returning a verdict of unlawful killing ... denying them their legal right to make their own minds up and effectively giving the police immunity from being held accountable.

What's more, the police appear to have told fibs to the court. All the civilian witnesses agreed that the police didn't give Jean any warning at all before executing him. But the officers saw fit to perjure themselves by claiming they did. The jury made it clear they didn't believe the police, but they were powerless to indict them for manslaughter.

So this poor man was killed by the state without so much as a by your leave and it's not manslaughter? Well I dunno what the hell else you call it. If the trigger had been pulled by anyone other than a serving police officer then they'd be on trial for murder. And you can't defend a murder charge by saying you meant to kill someone else.

I remember at the time of the shooting they initially justified their "mistake" by claiming that Jean vaulted over the barriers into the tube station and that he was wearing a bulky jacket which might have had a bomb under it - contrary to the accounts by other witnesses. Well, now that the CCTV images have been made public it's clear that neither of those things was true. The police have been lying about this case from day one.

The government have been whittling away at our rights and freedoms for years on the pretext of making us all safer, and somehow the anti-terror powers only seem to get used on the wrong people and for the wrong reasons (like the anti-war protesters here in Gloucestershire who had their collars felt under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act). You can now be arrested for making peaceful protests anywhere near the Houses of Parliament. Personally I believe the terrorism threat has been exaggerated as an excuse to pass bad laws, but that's another issue. I have nothing but contempt for the current British government and the illiberal intolerant ideology of Jacqui Smith, our po-faced hag of a home secretary.

So the de Menezes family have not had closure or justice. I hope they'll find the strength to keep fighting for it.

For now, the message being sent out by this blighted coroner is that it's acceptable for the police to blow someone's head off in a public place on the off chance that they might be a terrorist.

Well it isn't.