Thursday, 2 July 2015

From Amandine to Zillifera; an Andean summer update

It's high time for a brief update on this year's experiment with the Andean family of exciting tubers. Spring has been chilly here, with temperatures not much higher than 15°C for most of May and June, and the Andeans seem to have loved it. It must be that the wind and the cold reminds them of home. So far I have managed to keep all of them in reasonably good health with few if any casualties (that I recall..). I'm not sure how that rates as an indicator of gardening success but on a personal level it feels pretty satisfying.

Prematurely bereft of their identity, my blend of oca tubers has been growing steadily. Of the 30 or so that I planted I believe only four did not come up. The four plants that I had potted up in March have sized up considerably and over the past two weeks actually started flowering. Some days ago I noticed two other varieties doing the same, so I had a first go at oca pollination. Oca has a tristylous flower morphology which basically means that not all flowers are compatible (here is a more detailed decription) and you need flowers of two different types in order for succesful pollination to occur. I've yet to see if the flowers I pollinated are setting seed... The weather has actually gotten a lot warmer the past week, and oca seems to require fairly cool temperatures in order to flower, so I will probably have to wait until later this summer for more pollination opportunities. Pest-wise, oca has been fairly troublefree for me so far, the slugs don't seem too fond of it (they have decided to decimate my root parsley seedlings instead..) and not much else does either it seems. Some of the plants have some black aphid colonies but really nothing majorly worrisome. Oh, and after planting my first batch, I've received some more varieties courtesy of Rhizowen and his newfound Guild of Oca growers. These are 'brand new' varieties so it will be exciting to see what comes of them. Reassuringly also, I've managed to get these in the ground unshaken and correctly labelled. I might have a scientific career ahead of me after all.

If I can conclude one thing from my first year attempt at growing ulluco so far, it must be that it is really, really, really slow-growing. I thought I would lose these to the slugs at some point, since there seemed no way they could possibly outpace this year's onslaught of Arion vulgaris. Yet with a little help of some plastic bottles and my murderous garden scissors, they seem to have pulled through and are now... well, just standing there, really. I assume their growth will speed up at some point and who knows, they might even flower, which I will be eagerly looking out for (viable ulluco seed is very rare).


Mashua must be something of the polar opposite of ulluco. It is growing faster than anything else in my garden and has already filled the space that I had intended for it. In fact, I found three of the mashua plants invading the oca patch the other day, and one of them was happily strangling one of the oca's. Safe to say I seem to have significantly underestimated mashua's territorial requirements... It's also remarkably pest free, I have yet to see a slug, snail or aphid show any interest in it. The only creature that did fall for mashua's undisputable charms was a rabbit, which promply munched down half of the 'white' variety but left the 'zilifera' untouched. It must have been on to something there.. Both plants recovered swiftly. Mashua is related to the garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) and seems to have equally interesting flowers, so I'm looking forward to seeing those. I will have to wait until September though, since mashua normally only flowers with short daylengths.

Mashua, just before it got a bit out of control

There's so much mystery surrounding mauka that this is easily one of my favourite plants at the moment. I've got two varieties growing, one red-leaved (which is either 'roja' or a red cipotato variety) and one that I grew from seed and is in all likelihood a direct descendant of the 'blanca' variety. These seem to be the only three varieties grown outside of the Andes at the moment. My objectives with it this year are first, to be finally able to taste it, which should be possible with the two plants that are in their second year now, and second, to somehow get it to produce seed. The latter will be tricky, since mauka apparently only starts flowering long into the European winter and is therefore very unlikely to produce mature seed before the frost kills it. I am planning to overwinter two plants indoors and hopefully can pursuade it to flower that way.

Mauka is fast-growing though not nearly as much as mashua. It has attracked a lot of aphids in my garden, with the result that all the growing tips have curled up. I assume this is slowing down the plant somewhat but it's still growing strongly so I see no immediate reason to start despairing. With the warmer weather of the past week, I'm also counting on increased predator activity to bring the aphid population back under control. Bring on the ladybugs!

Mauka blanca (?)
Aphid infestation in mauka growing tips

Ok, yes, so this is not exactly a tuber crop. It's all the more Andean though, so I propose that its inclusion here is fully justified. I'm trialling three kinds of quinoa this year, though I've had very poor germination with one and am yet to see if I will have any viable plants from that variety. I am also yet to be convinved that I'm actually growing quinoa and not the common garden weed lambsquarters (Chenopodium album). The two are closely related and plants look similar enough that I really can't tell them apart at the moment. I direct-sowed the quinoa in a place with plenty of lambsquarters, so the only real way to tell is to wait I suppose. I would be pretty excited to be able to grow quinoa, and going by ongoing attempts to commercialize it as a alternative agricultural crop in different European countries, this should not at all be impossible.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)

For good measure, and to do justice to the humble potato's origins, I'll include an update about this year's potatoes as well. I'm currently growing 7 varieties: Minerva, Juliette, Linzer Delikatesse, Amandine, Asterix, Arran Victory, and Mandel. I'm not exactly expecting a bumper crop since I planted them on a newly-dug piece of land that I didn't have time to prepare properly, but they should last for some months at least. I've since also read up on growing potatoes from seed ('commonly' known as TPS or True Potato Seed, as opposed to potatoes grown from seed potatoes, i.e. from tubers) and became sufficiently fascinated to put this on my (ever expanding) list of garden projects for next year. The idea is that, rather than relying on (disease-prone) tubers, you save the berries that (sometimes) form on potato plants and then grow those out to create your own locally adapted potato varieties. Incidentally, when I was thinning out the beets the other day I found one potato volunteer that must have come from one of last year's 'Sallad Blue' potatoes. Any potato that sows itself is a good potato in my opinion, so I'll consider that a humble start for next year's potato project!

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