Saturday, 26 November 2016

Seed!, Seed!, Seed!, Or: A bright beginning to batata breeding (for beginners)

So. Things have been a bit mad around here for the last few months, what with defending a dissertation and all, which means a lot of things became hopelessly delayed, including harvesting things, and writing blog updates about harvesting things. I'm slowly getting there though, even though I will abstain from making promises of more regular future updates. It is what it is, my tiny cohort of somewhat-loyal followers!

The sweet potato plot in late August - with bagged pods
First up, this year's great I. batatas success. Damnit.. now I already gave it away. To recap, I had 13 different sweet potato varieties at the start of this growing season. Burgundy never made it out of the house, so only 12 of them ended up happily populating the batata plot, together with some 20 seedlings derived from seed originating in the Papua New Guinean highlands (don't ask...). Of these 12, the two Papuan tubers I had (unsurprisingly) proved somewhat too exotic for these latitudes (the fact that they were late to produce slips probably didn't help) and didn't yield any offspring that I could keep for next year. This left me with 10 varieties that all considering did rather well I think. The table below gives the yields, and my rough attempt to evaluate how much space I allocated to each variety, in order to give an estimate of the relative yields. I should underline that the space allocations are estimates that probably have a significant error margin, since, well, I completely failed to measure them properly prior to harvesting. Still, it should give a general idea of what varieties did best this year. At least the general direction of these numbers corresponds to my (very unbiased, naturally) subjective impressions of the harvest.

Sweet potato harvest table - 2016

As you can see, the most productive variety in my garden this year was not T65 (surprisingly, given its reputation as one of the most cool climate-tolerant, and given its indisputed domination in previous years), but Nordic White, followed by an unnamed variety originating from Telsing (and that might, in fact, be T65 - you didn't think this was going to be easy or straightforward, did you?). Georgia Jet and its clone, Mystery - those sweet potato superstars of the temperate Americas - again failed to live up to its promises here in Sweden. I suspect that even though GJ is a short-season variety, it requires fairly high temperatures to produce decent-sized tubers, and we certainly have cooler summers here than in much of the northern US and southern Canada. That being said, this was in many ways a dream year (in relative Swedish terms) for sweet potatoes here, with a very warm spring followed by a fairly decent summer, followed again by an unseasonally warm September. I've added a temperature analysis below: overall this growing season was about 1.2°C warmer than the same period in 2015. As for a bit more details on my cultivation practices, all of the listed varieties were grown outside, on ridges, without ground cover. Plants were covered with row covers for the first half of the season, until around the end of July, when the first flower buds appeared.

This is most of the harvest except for Bonita, Nordic White and Nordic Purple

As expected, the PNG seedlings didn't produce all that much. Nevertheless, it was an interesting little experiment. There was large variety in terms of growth habbit, leaf shape and colour, tuber morphology and skin and flesh colour among the seedlings. White, cream, purple-ish and various shades of copper-coloured roots were all present. One plant yielded three medium-sized white tubers, which I will attempt to keep for next year. The rest will be discarded. All of this gives me little reason for sorrow because, my friends, I now also have more promising seeds to play with! The (F) behind Georgia Jet, Bonita, Nordic White and (Nordic) Purple indicates that these varieties flowered and set seed this year, which, as the internet might have told you, is somewhat of an anomaly in batataland. Georgia Jet produced only one pod (I believe), but might have contributed pollen to the others. Bonita and Nordic White were earliest  to flower and put out quite a lot of pods in the end, though the absolute flowering and seed-producing champion was Purple, which flowered some two weeks later but when it did made the others pale in comparison. I should note that Bonita and Nordic White, which I obtained from different sources, appear very similar and I'm not entirely sure anymore that they are in fact distinct varieties. For the time being, however, I will treat them as such. None of the seeds fully matured on the plants before I needed to harvest the tubers in the first week of October, so I cut off all of the stems with pods on them and put them in water indoors, until they had fully dried. I've tallied up the totals last week, and in total I now have 104 sweet potato seeds to play with next season. Excuse me while I make a little victory dance. I also got my hands on seed from three other varieties, produced by a fellow batata enthusiast in the US, so there should be a bit of diversity here to start working from. Now it's just a matter of upscaling seed production and growing out tens of thousands of seedlings in order to start selecting for adaptation to northern Europe. Easy! Maybe someone wants to contribute with some land and some long-term research funding?

Sweet potato seed pod
Malmö weather - 2016
2016 compared to 2015: avg temp between June and October 2016 was about 1.2°C higher than 2015

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A leguminous verdict

Wolverines's orca bean
Summer's over, though it took a while before I could say that with some confidence this year. 26 degrees Celsius in the middle of September is certainly out of the ordinary for this part of the world... If it wouldn't be an indication of a rather ominous trend, I wouldn't have minded so much. As it stands, I can't help but think that I'd rather have my sweet potatoes adapt to the Scanian climate than the other way around.

 In any case, it's time for some harvest updates. I'll start with the legumes, since these are all in, fully dried, shelled, sorted and weighed. As you might remember, I had a few different legumes on the trial table this year: favas beans, peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas and some lupines. As in any good story, this turned out to be a tale of heroic successes (well, kind of), epic failures, and everything in between.

Chickpea pods
Chickpea flower
If we start with the epic failures: I've discovered that something or someone inhabiting my allotment likes chickpeas at least as much as I do. My chickpea plants did fabulous in the beginning. They germinated without much of a problem in fairly cold soil, happily grew on during the warm spring, and were soon filled with cute-looking pods. Quite a few of these pods appeared to be empty, which I had read could be due to bad pollination (in turn due to low temperatures perhaps), but a lot of them seemed to have good-sized chickpeas in them. But then the disappearances started occuring. Somehow a lot of the pods just vanished before they fully matured. I didn't make much of it at first, as I've learned to accept that the various non-humans I share the garden with demand some form of tribute from me, but when the empty pods started piling up between the plants I realized I was dealing with more than your average chickpea thief. Soon I had no pods left. I'm absolutely clueless as to who or what the culprit is. I covered the plants with netting for a while with the idea that the finches might be to blame, but the chickpeas kept disappearing. Since even the pods at the top of the plants were stolen, it feels like it can't have been a mouse or vole either. Whoever it was ate a decent-sized hole in the pods, ate both the immature and the nearly-mature seeds, and then left the empty pods in provocative-looking little piles at the foot of the plants, as well as in the adjacent pea row... Any help with identifying the rascal responsible for this greedy injustice would be much appreciated! The result of all this is that the entire chickpea harvest this year consists of half a handful of tiny seeds. Not exactly hummus material, sadly. But don't you think that I'm giving up yet!

Chickpea massacre
This year's lentil story unfolded in rather similar ways. One way or another, the lentils pods developed and then just vanished in thin air. I didn't even bother looking for survivors, since I had already decided that lentils are a bit too finicky to work with anyway. I dug them all into the soil, may the lentil project rest in peace.

The fava beans did well and I enjoyed a decent amount of them fresh. I left plenty on the plants to dry as well, though here too I had to sacrifice some to the local fauna. The bigger problem manifested itself when I starting shelling the dried beans. The majority of the pods had been invaded by what I surmise is the broad bean weevil (Bruchus rufimanus), whose larvae eat their way into the bean and then emerge from the dried seed as an adult (and rather confused-looking) beetle. The result in my case was a majority of seed with beetles or beetle-sized holes in them... While probably still edible, they're a bit of pain to sort and clean that way. I'll probably stick to eating my fava beans fresh.

On to happier news then. Dried peas are susceptible to weevils as well (Bruchus pisorum to be precise), but luckily this species is a bit less common in these regions (for the moment) and I haven't had any problems with it in my garden the past year. The different pea varieties did very well, even though the cursed pigeons decimated everything that grew out above the trellis that I had constructed. Luckily, since the trellis was pretty high anyway, the damage was fairly limited. Some of the peas had larvae of the pea moth in them (Cydia nigricana, - one certainly learns a lot about insects and their insecty habbits as a gardener), basically a small white larva that eats its way through some of the peas and then leaves a trail of web and excrement behind. Thank you very much! Overall it wasn't too bad, I think I eventually had to throw out between 5 and 10% of the peas. What was left was the following, in brackets is the approximate (and I want to underline approximate) space I had for each variety:

- Govorov - 45g (I only had a few plants of this)
- Klosterärt - 600g (a 2 meter row)
- Biskopens gråärt - 340g (1-1.5 meter row)
- Bjurholms småärt - 840g (2 meter row)
- Gotländs blåärt - 710g (1.5-2 meter row)
- Solleröns gråärt - 300g (1 meter row)

Biskopens gråärt
Bjurholms småärt
Gotländsk blåärt

That's a total 1790g seeds for some 8 meters of peas, or a space of 3 to 4 m2. I'm pretty happy with that, and I look forward to the taste test.

And then, of course, for the beans. Not many problems to report here, the beans were pretty much pest-free and due to a dry and warm late August and September they dried well on the plants. The results, again with an estimate of the growing space for each variety in brackets:

- Huttiternas soup bean: 280g (1.5m)
- Borlotti: 1500g (6.5m)
- Brightstone: 910g (2.5-3m)
- Stella/Bruna bönor: 760g (3.5m - these were supposed to be 2 distinct varieties but they are almost identical and ended up together.. woops)
- Wolverine's orca: 310g (2m)

Stella/Brown bean

Summed up, that's a grand total of 3760g of dried beans for 4 rows of 4 meters, or about 6 to 8 m2.

Lupin bean (L. albus)
The lupine, finally, is still out there braving the current autumn spell we're having. I only have a couple of plants and my objective is just to see if the seed is at all edible. No big expectations there.

The final verdict of The Great Legume Project? I'll be growing more peas and beans next year, drop the lentils and stick with fava beans as a summer crop. I'm definitely trying chickpeas again, against all ods, simply because I'm biased towards chickpeas, but I'll probably be guarding them closely. Think the batata garden, annex chickpea fortress.. something along those lines. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Mixing up the maximas

You might remember that I threw all cucurbit seed-saving advice in the wind this year in embarking on something of a C. maxima landrace adventure. I've let the bees do their pollen dance and then saved and planted whatever crosses they've come up with. Since I garden in an allotment, and some of my neighbours grow winter squash as well, there's bound to be some cross-pollination with varieties that I've not selected myself. As I'm fairly picky about my winter squash, I should confess that this instilled some doubt in me at first. If I've understood the science behind this correctly, however, cucurbits are mostly pollinated by themselves or by neighbouring plants, so most of the genetic material should in fact come from within my own winter squash patch. And anyway, it's fun to try and mess things up a bit to see what happens.

 The squash are starting to mature now, which makes this an appropriate time for a first evaluation of what the bees have been up to last year. My main selection criteria, of course, will be taste, but based on growth habbit and appearance I think I can already draw some preliminary conclusions. Without further ado, here's this year's winter squashes. Let's start with the crosses:

Both of the above are a cross of Sweet Mama (F1) and an unknown paternal line. Because of the salmon-coloured spots on the squash on the left I would speculate that there's some Galeux d'Eysines genes involved (which is a pity since I didn't think it was very good, but that's the name of the game of course). Since it's a fairly round squash however, which is unlike either Sweet Mama or Galeux d'Eysines, there might be something else going on here as well. The squash on the right looks like it might be cross with Sweet Meat (because of the colour) and/or Marina di Chioggia (because of the pronounced ribbed structure).

This is another Sweet Mama (F1) cross. I'm not sure if you can tell from the picture but this is one big squash, at least half a meter in diameter. This poses a bit of a mystery since I didn't grow anything this big last year. The only variety that comes close is Galeux d'Eysines, which can, apparently, get quite large. Now genetics isn't quite as straightforward as that; you could very well cross two medium squashes and up with a larger one, but still, there's a likelihood that this is actually a cross with something from one of my neighbours. It's also definitely more yellow/orange than the Galeux d'Eysines I grew last year, though apparently there's a bit of colour variation in the latter as well. The stripes are probably from Sweet Mama (it shows up in quite a few of the crosses, could be a dominant allele?). I'm selecting for small to medium-sized squash, and I've yet to come across an orange-skinned squash that rivals the green or blue ones in taste, so it's unlikely I'll be saving seed from this monster. It looks impressive though.

This Burgess Buttercup cross more clearly includes some Galeux d'Eysines genes. It has the stripes and shape of Burgess Buttercup, and the skin colour, size and some of the warts of Galeux d'Eysines. I hope it inherited its eating quality from its mother...

More Sweet Mama offspring. This squash has a slight teardrop-shape, which makes me suspect that it might have crossed with a hubbard squash. I only grew Blue Ballet last year, which is a scaled-down hubbard, and this is one is quite a bit larger than that, but still, that would be my best guess.

Then there's also some less exciting crosses:

This looks pretty much like a Sweet Mama squash, but it's more vining in its growth habbit and perhaps a bit more squared than your average Sweet Mama, so it might actually have crossed with Burgess Buttercup. 

A Burgess Buttercup cross that looks exactly like a Burgess Buttercup, if perhaps slightly less block-ish. It probably crossed with itself.

This is a Green Hokkaido cross. Again, I fail to see the difference with the original Green Hokkaido at this point.

Finally, I'm also growing a bunch of named varieties this year, mostly to add some more (supposedly) excellent squashes to the maxima mix, and also simply because I seem to have an unquenchable thirst for trying new winter squash varieties. I've only got one plant of each of these:

To the left is Sibley, to the right Guatemalan Blue. Both are banana-type squashes with supposedly excellent eating quality. Guatemalan Blue is significantly larger than Sibley (it's probably about 40-50 cm long), but not nearly as productive (I've counted 4 medium-sized Sibley squash on the one vine that I have, which is quite good for a Maxima squash, at least in my garden)


Ah, Marina di Chioggia (left), one of my absolute favourite maximas so far (taste-wise) but frustratingly late to set fruit and mature. I can't give it up though, so I'm hoping to transfer some of its genes into my proto-landrace. To the right is Bon Bon (F1), a Buttercup-type that I'm quite impressed with so far. I'm not sure if it just happened to get the best and most fertile spot in the garden, or if this is really just a superior variety, but this is one healthy-looking and vigorous plant. If I'm not mistaken I've counted 7 decent-sized fruits on this one vine, which would make it by far the most productive maxima I've grown so far.

Hokkaido, from Real Seeds. This seems like a pretty standard orange Kabocha squash, though it was probably one of the earliest to vine and set fruit. The leaves on this plant have a silvery appearance to them, which is a bit unusual.

Sweet Meat Oregon Homestead or Blue Kuri. I'm growing both, and they seem similar enough for me to have forgotten taking a picture of the other squash. At least Sweet Meat, whichever of the two it turns out to be, seems to be doing much better than last year, so hopefully I'll have the opportunity to evaluate the fully-matured squash this time.    

Crown Prince, a squash with a royal reputation.

Blue de Hongrie. Not so much Blue as white though...

Buen Gusto de Horno. I'm not terribly impressed with this one so far, though I had read a lot of good things about it. This plant isn't particularly vigorous and it has only put out one fairly small squash. The taste better be out of this world!


And last, and perhaps also least, Uchiki Kuri, which put out two tiny squash and then decided to just sit there and enjoy the sun. I'm not sure things will work out between us. 

So far so good, perhaps I've inherited a bit more Galeux d'Eysines genetic material than I had bargained for, but all in all there's some interesting material here to work with. Needless to say I already look forward to the taste testing. I've also become intrigued with the genetics involved in all of this, so next season I'll probably try to make some controlled crosses just to play around a bit. Sweet Mama x Marina di Chioggia seems like an obvious choice; I was already planning on doing that this year but I didn't get around to it.

The winter squash patch, with some reluctant watermelons in front.
The dark green plant in the front row is Bon Bon.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Peas on my mind

Well not just peas, really, but several representatives of the Fabacaea, that is, the legume family. This year I've embarked on a small legume trial that I've somewhat bombastically titled The Great Legume Project. My aim is mostly to try some new things and have some good fun in the process, but I'm also interested in discovering which legumes I could adopt as reliable food staples, that is, for drying and using throughout the winter. Ideally of course, I would just grow all of them, all the time, and indulge in the incredible diversity that the legume family has too offer. There's probably a risk that I would do exactly that if I had hectares of land at my disposal. In the real world, however, my growing space is limited (and seems to come under increasing pressure every year), and so is my patience for plants that demand a lot of pampering without giving much in return. Selection there will be! Anyway, this post is a brief overview of the different legumes that I'm growing this year, and how they're doing so far. I already have half-developed plans for trialling mung beans and cow peas next year, so this project is unlikely to end here...

Fava beans

Ah, good old fava beans. Hardly a newcomer in the garden, but I've only ever used them in their immature form. I know you can eat the dried seeds like any other bean, but I've never done so, so I don't know if they're very good. I'm about to find out. There's five varieties currently inhabiting the fava bean patch: Aquadulce, Solberga, Express, Green Longpod and Göteryd. The favas have suffered a bit from the abundant growth in the neighbouring pea patch however, which has overshadowed them more than I had reckoned with. If you think this implies a certain bias in favour of the peas on my part, you're probably right to some extent... To be very frank, I'm mostly interested in the immature favas, which I know are great. But I promise I'll try to contain myself and give the dried seeds a chance as well.


Whereas I'm yet to fully fall for the fava, I'm already a complete pea convert. I'll have peas in all their forms and shapes, please. The fresh peas I grow never make it to the kitchen though, I usually just munch on them in the garden, if the d*mned pigeons don't get to them first, that is. This year, however, I'm particularly focused on the dry/soup peas. I'm growing six varieties: Govorov, Klosterärt, Bjurholms småärt, Sollerön gråärt, Biskopens gråärt, and Gotländsk blåärt. The Govorov and Bjurholms småärt (Swedish for 'little pea from Bjurholm) are green peas, the Klosterärt is a yellow pea, and the other three are 'grey peas', aka black or maple peas. The maple peas are supposed to make a good substitute for chickpeas, so I'm really, really (really!) curious about them, I've never tried them. Sollerön and Biskopens have pink flowers, green pods and brown/red seeds, while the Gotländsk blåärt has purple flowers, purple pods and red/brown seeds. They're very ornamental, and all seem to be extremely prolific, particularly perhaps Klosterärt and Bjurhölms småärt. Sollerön and Biskopens were the last to flower, but all are coming along nicely now. I can't wait to dig my hands into a jar of homegrown dried peas! So yes, I suppose I should admit to a certain bias towards the peas, they've already earned their permanent residence in my garden. If only I could grow a lot more of them, somehow...
A wall of peas: Klosterärt and Bjurholms småärt

The peas are vying with the chickpeas for the title of most favoured legume crop. As anyone who has grown them will have to agree, there's just something incredibly loveable about chickpea plants, with their feathery leaves, their wavy growth habbits and their cute little flowers and seed pods. So yes, these are coming back next year as well, and in fact I've already ordered a couple of heirloom varieties from the US to seriously expand my chickpea trials next year. This year I'm growing three batches: Black Sicily, a black chickpea; Golden Dragon, an orange/yellowish variety; and a blend of standard tan chickpeas from various grocery stores. I sowed all of them at the end of March, together with the peas and the fava beans. The Black Sicily and Golden Dragon were quick to emerge, but cutworms got most of the seedlings. I therefore had to resow, after which more were cut down, and in the end I was left with only 15 plants or so in total. The grocery store mix never emerged, so then, a few weeks later, I decided to sow the entire jar, which must have been several hundreds of seeds. Only two plants finally came up. I suppose this is largely due to environmental conditions. The Black Sicily and Golden Dragon apparently were selected for emergence in cooler soils, which makes them valuable in my conditions, seeing that it's unlikely I would get mature chickpeas if I would wait until the soil has warmed before sowing. The plants seem to have enjoyed the warm spring. They are growing well and are bearing an abundance of pods. I suppose I'll need to save most of the seeds for next year's expansion, but perhaps a modest homegrown hummus is within the range of possibilities. Patience, patience. 


Lentil 'Gotlandslins',
with potato onions in between
Last year I grew 'Gotlandslins', a lentil variety that derives from Gotland, Sweden's largest island. The rabbits got most of them however, and what was left resulted in a pretty meagre yield. I wasn't all that impressed but couldn't resist sowing them again this year. This time I've managed to keep the rodents out, and the plants generally seem to be doing much better than last year. There's plenty of pods on the plant, so I might actually be able to eat some of the lentils this year. Overall, these are quite fun to grow, and they're definitely cute, but as a potential staple crop I can't help but feel that they're a bit too much bother. If only the seeds would be five times as large, and grow together in long pods. A bit like a pea, say... Now there's a plant breeding challenge.

Dry bush beans

Dry beans are perhaps the centrepiece of any legume collection, if only because of the vast variety of different colours and patterns that are out there. I had to seriously restrain myself when ordering bean seed, and even then I still ended up with an dry bean patch twice the size of any of the other legumes. I'm growing a bush variety of Borlotti beans, some store-bought Swedish 'bruna bönor' ('Brown beans'), Stella (another brown bean), Hutteriternas Soppböna (a pale, greenish, and very plump round bean that I received through Sesam, the Swedish society for the preservation of heirloom vegetable varieties), Brightstone (a brown bean with dark blue speckles) and Wolverine's Orca (a black&white bean that indeed looks a bit like an orca whale). The plants are flowering at the moment.


And finally, a bit of a outsider: lupin beans. The species that I'm growing (L. albus) is far from appropriate as a staple food (it's supposedly quite bitter and requires extensive preparation before it's palatable), but I nevertheless look forward to trying it as a novelty food. Lupin beans, soaked for extensive periods in order to leach out the alkaloids, are a popular snack in some Mediterranean countries. Supposedly there are a number of 'sweet' lupin varieties around that have been bred for lower alkaloid content and therefore require no soaking (particularly some strains of L. angustifolius), but these seem a bit hard to get a hold of. I've yet to get my hands on them at least, but they are definitely on the wishlist. The L. albus, meanwhile, has been treated somewhat unfairly the past few months; I all but neglected it during most of the spring and early summer. Despite the lack of watering and the dry spring it has done well and is now flowering quite happily.

That's about it for the (dry) legumes this year. So far so good.