Saturday, 21 March 2015

Early spring musings...

My windowsills are filling up with pots and seed potatoes, seed packets are scattered all over my table and the balcony is slowly being colonized by obscure roots. It must be that time of the year again! It’s starting to look a lot like spring here, or at least it feels close enough to get carried away dreaming about the coming growing season. Here’s a brief rundown of this year’s projects:

Sweet potato galore

    I’ve collected different sweet potato varieties over the past months, including quite a few that reportedly grow at 2000+ meters. My hope is that I will stumble across a few varieties that could (potentially) produce a worthwhile crop here in Sweden or, failing that, that I can get some plants to set seed with which to breed. Sweet potatoes don’t produce seeds easily, and the key (apart from some very un-Swedish climatic conditions, needless to say), seems to be genetic diversity, which I should be able to provide. There were 40+ varieties stored in my apartment at some point but quite a few of them succumbed to dry rot while I was out of the country, probably because storage temperatures dropped lower than I had anticipated, and sweet potatoes really hate cold storage. I guess I’ll just consider this as a first evolutionary pressure selecting for cold-tolerance! It’s yet to be seen how many of them I will get sprout successfully, but so far it’s 18. Whether I can make it warm and cozy enough for them long enough is an entirely different matter of course…

Mauka take two

    Last year’s mauka crop was not much to write home about. I’m not one to give up easily, especially after seeing what Frank Van Keirsbilck’s maukas look like, so I’ll be replanting the overwintered roots as well as some of the cuttings I took in November. The roots already started sprouting so if anything I’ll struggle to keep them under control until they can go into my garden. I’ve also got my hands on some rare mauka seeds, so if all goes well I’ll soon have some new varieties to play with! To be continued.

 Invasion of the Inca crops

This year will also mark my first year growing oca, mashua, ulluco and quinoa. If you think trying this many new crops all at once is pushing my luck a bit, you are probably correct. I am most excited about oca (Oxalis tuberosa), which in the Andes is second in importance only to potatoes and which amateur growers here in Europe generally seem to lavish with praise. As with most Andean crops, oca unfortunately needs short daylight hours and at higher latitudes therefore only starts producing tubers after the autumn equinox. People like Frank van Keirsbilck and Rhizowen are trying to rectify this injustice by breeding a daylight-neutral variety and if I manage to cajole my future crop into producing seed for me I will gladly join this guild of oca growers. Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) and ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus) have received slightly less ravenous reviews but I’ll judge them when I’ve tried them. Most people these days are familiar with quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), that Andean staple food-gone-global that has become the darling of hipsters and foodies. Prices for quinoa have in recent years risen to such astronomical heights that those in the Andes who used to rely on the crop can no longer afford it, so what better thing to do than grow your own!  Quinoa is one of the few (pseudo-)grain crops that yields acceptably even on smaller scale, and I’ve collected some varieties that have been selected for northern, wet climates so as to minimize the (considerable) chances of end-of-season disappointments and depressions.

Oca in close up, it started sprouting spontaneously
Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus) - this must be one of the most beautiful root vegetables out there
Landracing my wintersquash

In past years I’ve been on a quest to grow and sample the world’s variety of wintersquash. Honestly, this must be one of the most underappreciated crops out there. Incredibly easy to store, nutritious and delicious, it’s simply mind-boggling that the main purpose we’ve come up with for this amazing food crop is as a Halloween decoration! A staggering 95% of all pumpkins grown in the UK are used for carving and hollowing each year, amounting to enormous amounts of food waste. The humble pumpkin deserves so much more! It matters enormously which variety you grow though, and many do taste bland and uninteresting and frankly are of little culinary interest. But there's so many truly fantastic varieties that we could be growing instead.

Essentially the squash family is made up of three commonly eaten species: Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita maxima, and Cucurbita moschata. C. pepo includes most of the varieties that we eat in the form of summersquash as well as what are traditionally referred to as pumpkins. It is these that are usually carved up for Halloween lanterns. C. maxima includes winter squash of various colours and sizes. They usually do quite well in temperate climates and are completely underutilized here in Europe. C. Moschata includes the well-known butternut varieties and is very productive but it tends to require more warmth than C. Maxima and is therefore more difficult to grow here in the north. After three years of squash growing I’ve come to realize that I’m a C. maxima kind of guy. The best maximas are smooth, incredibly rich in flavour, nutty and sweet and in my opinion far outshine even such C. pepo favourites as 'sweet dumpling' and 'delicata squash'. This is why this year I’m abandoning my C. pepo (except the summersquash varieties) and launching an attempt to create my own C. maxima landrace variety that should bring together the best of ones I've sampled.. I will be selecting for a medium-sized, dry-fleshed variety that is nutty and rich in taste, has edible skin and stores forever. More details soon! I’ve never really tried to grow C. moschata, so that’s on this year’s list as well.

Expansion of the perennial patch

A small section of my garden is currently dedicated to perennials and this area will be expanded/filled in more densely this year. For example, I’m once again trying to pre-grow cicily (Myrrhis odorata). In past years I’ve tried seeds from three different seed companies and for some reason I haven’t gotten a single seedling yet, despite scrupulously following stratification instructions. This year’s seeds have been outside the whole winter but no signs of life yet. I’ve also started various other perennial greens and herbs, including bunias orientalis, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum) and mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica), and I will be planting some perennial kale (Daubenton) and some yams!

And then, of course, there’s also a host of smaller projects, such as trialing a host of new greens and testing a variety of new potatoes, but I’ll spare the details of that for now.

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