Wednesday 7 July 2010
Is there anything more beautiful than poppies at this time of year? This is one of my Somme poppies (see below) but with white flecks.
My last couple of posts have been pretty demanding in terms of time and research, so I feel the need just to blather about more casual stuff today.
Tomatoes ... what can I tell you about tomatoes?
I have a greenhouse full of 'em, laden with flowers and green fruits. I've been doing a few crosses, in a half-arsed kind of way, but I consider them very much a sideline. For one thing, I get fed up with hand-pollinating tomatoes very quickly. In principle they are exactly the same as potatoes and all the instructions I gave in my potato-hybridising post should translate conveniently to tomatoes, which are of course from the Solanum family and have the same basic flower type, except that they're small and yellow. But I find tomato pollination much more frustrating. The small flowers are very fiddly to work with, and the anthers tend to be tightly fused into a cone, so you have to separate them with a careful incision ... they can't be succulently and individually plucked like potato anthers. They are quite a bugger to get off, in fact - which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for the fact that they are snugly clamped against a ridiculously fragile pistil. There's none of the "green bendy bit" as described in my pea video ... with tomatoes it's an unyielding green brittle bit. I've destroyed flower after flower by accidentally clonking the pistil off as I attempt to wrench at recalcitrant anthers. Some varieties have a pistil so fine and spindly you can barely see it. And when you do find it, the pollen has to be applied so lightly and delicately, because the tiniest shove in the wrong direction and the pistil is cast aside like a green splinter. Grrrr.
Before I put you off tomato breeding forever, I should mention that I have a preference for small tomatoes, which tend to come from small flowers. Many of the larger-fruited varieties have much sturdier blossoms which are relatively easy to work with. Ever wondered why large-fruited tomatoes are so popular among hobbyist breeders? Now you know.
Just to show that I can and do get successful hand-pollinations though, here is a product of my own fair wobbly hand.
It's an F1 hybrid of Banana Legs x Green Tiger, a cross I made in 2008. Let me admit now that I know very little about tomato genetics, and made this cross very much on a whim just to see what would happen. Banana Legs is an American variety derived from the breeding work of Tom Wagner, though it wasn't raised by Tom himself but selected from a batch of mixed seed bought from his TaterMater company in the 1980s. It's a long plum tomato with a bright banana yellow skin with silver-green stripes, and yellow flesh, and attractive lacy foliage. Green Tiger is something of an enigma, as I obtained it from a packet of Marks & Spencer's eating-tomatoes, and they claim it's exclusive to them (or it was, until me and dozens of other gardeners started saving and sharing its seeds). It has a dark olive green and red striped skin, dark red flesh, and is as round and shiny as a snooker ball, but with a better flavour. Intriguingly, the F1 is producing egg-shaped fruits, which are pretty much intermediate between the two parent fruit shapes.
My tomato experiments are always going to be limited though by the fact that I don't have the space to do it properly. It's all very well having this solitary F1 plant, as you don't need to grow many plants at the F1 stage. Next year when I come to plant the F2 I will have a problem, as I won't be able to grow more than three or four plants ... so it's pot luck whether I'll get any interesting phenotypes. That's fine though ... I have enough on my plate with the peas and potatoes, and can do without too many extra projects. I'd rather give away the F2 seed, if I can find anyone who wants some, so that those with more space and more tomato passion can make use of it.
Here's another tomato curiosity: variegated Green Zebra.
Variegated leaves on a Green Zebra tomato.
It would be nice if this was a heritable feature, but no such luck. It's a spontaneous somatic mutation - which is the posh way of saying that nature freaked out and made a cockup in the cell division, and the cockup then replicated itself, resulting in two different types of leaf tissue within the same leaf. As the cockup is in the cells of the leaf, and not encoded in the DNA, it won't be passed on to the plant's offspring. In fact this tomato is already reverting to normal fully green growth.
And funnily enough, there is a similar thing going on in one of my peas. This is a variegated form of the already lovely Buerre Cosse Rouge. Again, I'm pretty sure it's a somatic mutation and won't be passed on in the seeds.
Then there's my Wilfred Owen poppies, which were pretty much the first thing I wrote about when I started this blog in February 2006, and you can read the story of them if you're interested. The gist is that I collected wild poppy seeds from plants growing in a relic of a first world war trench on the Somme. The trench was, I believe, occupied by Wilfred Owen in January 1917 and his poem The Sentry was written about his experience in it. I've been growing the Somme poppies for many years in my garden, and they are rather lovely ... deep silky bright red with a distinctive black cross at the base, though they vary in how strongly the black cross is expressed.
Somme poppy, with a partial black cross.
The native wild poppies of northern France probably haven't changed much since WW1, but during its tenure in my garden the Somme poppy has taken the opportunity to hybridise with some Mother of Pearl poppies I had growing elsewhere at one time. There's not a lot you can do about this; poppies are sluttily promiscuous and will cross over large distances. And I can't say it bothers me. I'm of the view that genes are the important thing, and outer appearance is secondary. I still get plenty of "true" Somme phenotypes every year, and additionally I get some beautiful variants like this.
Natural hybrid between a Somme poppy and a garden variety. It has the perfect black basal cross of the Somme type with the pink radial stripes of Mother of Pearl.
And finally, a whinge.
When I moved into this house/garden, there was a trellis fence along the western boundary adjoining my main vegetable plot. The previous owner, who was also a keen vegetable gardener, had made a point of having a fence there which let full sunlight through to his vegetable plot. Well, my next door neighbours just took it upon themselves, without consulting me, to remove the trellis fence and replace it with solid 6ft panels. I can see why they didn't consult me. They knew very well I would object, on the grounds that I now have a permanent shadow along a sizeable strip of my vegetable plot. They didn't even do a tidy job ... I'm sure it looks immaculate on their side but they've lumbered me with scrappy bits of wooden battens with sharp nails sticking out of the wood. As they just went ahead and did it, the only recourse I have would be to try to force them legally to remove it. Do I want to get into legal shenanigans with people I have to live next to? No, not really. But all the same, I am well pissed off.
I get on fine with the neighbours and haven't had any dispute with them before, although our garden ideals are polar opposites. Their garden is polished and scrubbed with lawns as sterile as astroturf, and mine is a voluptuous muddle. That, it seems, is the reason for the fence - the missus got fed up with untidy things from my garden growing through the trellis. They have no knowledge of the work I do with my scruffbag plot; they just find it baffling that I grow vegetables for seed and don't eat them. Why save seeds when you can get them for 99p down B&Q? The concept of breeding new varieties and conserving heritage ones meets with blank incomprehension. It's just a different outlook on gardening, and neither of us appreciates the other's aesthetic or way of doing things. At least now they won't have to worry about my dandelion seeds contaminating their garden, and I won't have to worry about their chemical sprays contaminating mine. The privacy is also a blessing. But I'm still pissed off.
Yes I know it's extremely childish, but it makes me feel better.