Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Early spring musings - 2016

Time for the early spring musings - 2016 edition, also known as my Utopian elaborations on the coming season's gardening projects. As last year, early spring can here be interpreted rather euphemistically, seeing that the weather for the moment is still decisively wintery. But it's March, and March equals hope times plenty of ambition in my book. Without further ado, and in no particular order of appearance, here's a few of the projects that I intend to pursue in and around the garden this year:

 C. maxima landrace

Sweet Mama seed
Last year, I confessed to a 'slight' obsession with growing winter squash and elaborated on my intention of creating my own c. maxima landrace variety. I've eaten my way through most of the maxima stash by now and there's a definite pattern to be discerned. Sweet Mama is by far the most reliable and consistently delicious variety. Sweet Meat OH and Marina di Chioggia were a disappointment last year, which was surprising since Sweet Meat OH gets lavish comments all over the internet and Marina di Chioggia was one of my absolute favourite squashes the year before. The weather can probably be blamed here, since Sweet Mama is a short-season squash while the other two require a long growing season, which the chilly summer of 2015 failed to provide. As a result, those heavenly squashes that I ended up saving seed from were for the most part Sweet Mama's, with a couple of decent Green Hokkaido's and Burgess Buttercups making up the balance. Since this is the whole point of a landrace project, I'm proceeding as planned and will be growing out the F1's this year. In parallel though, I'll be making some controlled crosses as well, mostly to try and dehybridize Sweet Mama and to cross Sweet Mama with Marina di Chioggia, the idea here being that I wouldn't mind a shorter-season version of the latter. I also couldn't really restrain myself and I've bought a few (or, well, quite a lot...) new varieties to try out: Blue Kuri, Sibley, Blue Guatemala Banana, Bon Bon, Crown Prince, Buen Gusto de Horno, Blue de Hongarie.... Hmmm. I guess I'll never run out of new winter squash varieties to try...

The C. moschata project will be put on hold for the time being. I grew three moschata's last year: Longue de Nice, Long Island Cheese, and Waltham Butternut and I quite disliked the taste and texture of the first two varieties, though I'm not entirely sure they managed to mature fully. The butternuts were certainly not fully ripe when I picked them in early October, but after a few months on my attic they turned out to be a lot more tasty than I had expected. I think it would be worth pursuing a moschata breeding project here, but I simply don't have the space to do it this year. Something for the future...

Sweet potato

Nothing like starting sweet potato slips to indicate
the (imminent) arrival of spring!
Of the 37 sweet potato varieties that I trialed in 2015, most didn't produce anything worth keeping. A few did, however, so the sweet potato adventure continues into 2016. I'll attempt to be a bit more serious about producing seed this year, while also continuing to scour the planet in search of those more cold-tolerant varieties that simply have to be out there somewhere (Papua New Guinea, are you reading this?). The sweet potato gods were kind enough to provide me with some Georgia Jet (amongst others), so it will be exciting to see if it finally lives up to its reputation in my garden. I recently inspected the tubers that I had saved, and most of the larger ones made it through the winter fairly unscathed, despite extensive cutworm damage. Some of them already had tiny sprouts forming, so I've put them in water now, where they will sit happily for a few months and hopefully produce a good amount of slips by May or so. At the moment I'm counting on growing 10 different varieties this year, though knowing myself this number is likely to increase somewhat... More on this as sweet potato planting time is drawing near!


Skirret. The roots get much more impressive
than depicted here though (img source)
Last year marked my first attempt at growing skirret (Sium sisarum), a perennial root vegetable in the Apiaceae family and one of the 'Lost Crops of the Europeans'. Introduced in Europe by the Romans from its Chinese homeland, skirret appears to have been quite popular in these regions until the 18th century or so, after which the potato's march across the continent pushed it into botanical oblivion. Having grown and tasted it, I would say it's high time for a skirret renaissance. The plants are hardy and form clusters of fairly thin white roots just below the surface, which can become quite large over the years (the root clusters that is, not the individual root 'fingers'). These can be left in the ground over the winter and harvested whenever the skirret cravings hit you. Essentially, you just dig up the plant when you need it, break off the most seductively looking roots, and replant the rest. Easy like skirret pie! The Dutch (suikerwortel) and Swedish (sockerrot) naming of the plant attests to its taste, which is sweet and very pleasant. In fact, skirret has soared rapidly in my vegetable hall of fame and became one of my absolute favourite vegetables last year, and I'm sure I haven't even begun to explore the full extent of its culinary delights. Peeling the pencil-sized roots can be a bit of a pain, but it's actually completely unnecessary since the peel does not interfere with the taste at all. Just scrub, cut and cook! Some reports mention that the roots can have woody cores, but I have not noticed this in any of the skirret I tasted last year.

There are some budding attempts underway to breed skirret varieties with fewer but thicker roots, which I'm hoping to make a modest contribution to. I've been getting seed from different places and also saved some of my own (skirret flowers every year and readily produces seed), so I will be growing out a lot of that and then start doing some selection. Of last year's plants I kept the ones that looked most promising, so it will be interesting to see how they do in their second year.


Another first for me last year was growing oca, a favourite amongst Andean tuber enthusiasts. Despite a fairly early frost I was quite happy with the result and I hope I can reproduce or improve upon the yield in 2016. I've been eating quite a lot of different oca's this winter and I must say they now rank quite highly in the aforementioned hall of fame. They're particularly good when baked in the oven. At some point it might be worth doing a more organized taste test to identify the tastiest and most starchy varieties, which definitely would be a criteria worth considering in any future breeding attempts. Anyway, I thought I already had quite a few different varieties last year, but then I went to visit Frank van Keirsbilck some time ago and I somehow - entirely inadvertedly, honestly! - came away with an additional 10 varieties. Together with the GOB trial that I will be participating in this year as well, and the grow-out of my own oca seeds, 2016 is promising to be a pretty oca-esque year. No complaints there!

The Great Legume Project

Some cute beans I'll be growing
Beans beans beans... With all the roots, tubers and winter squash that I am growing, I'm not usually at risk of suffering from carbohydrate shortage. I could definitely grow a bit more protein crops though, so for a while now I've been playing with the idea of upscaling my legume cultivation. Enter the 2016 Great Legume Project. This year's garden will have a large section dedicated to testing different legumes for dry seed consumption. Last year I already grew a Swedish lentil variety called 'Gotlandslins', but it mostly ended up feeding the local rabbit population and in the end I barely got more seed out of it than I had planted in the first place. Not entirely successful, in other words. I'll give this lentil variety another go this year, and I'm adding a bunch of different chickpea varieties (mostly from store-bought chickpeas, but also a black and orange variety from Adaptive Seeds in the US), different fava beans, dry bush beans, and a couple of Swedish heirloom 'gråärter' (grey peas), which apparently are called black peas or maple peas over yonder in Britain. I'm particularly excited about the chickpeas and the maple peas. The latter apparently were a northern European staple in the days of yore and are currently being promoted by some enthusiastic agriculturalists here as Sweden's answer to the chickpea. I'm quite fond of dried peas and they tend to feel comfy in somewhat colder climates, so I'm anticipating a bit of magic to happen between me and the peas this year. Chickpeas apparently are more cold-tolerant than I had thought (at least based on Carol Deppe's account in Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties) so perhaps the prospect of a homegrown hummus is not as far-off as I had feared. As to the dry beans, the plan is to grow a classical Swedish brown bean, a couple of other heirlooms, and a few colourful short-season US varieties. More on this trial as it happens!

The Modest Melon Project

Last autumn I received a small treasure in the mail, containing the seeds from a cross between 6 early watermelon varieties and the offspring of one early muskmelon (Blenheim orange). As far as melons go, I've only ever grown a 'babymelon' variety before, on plastic mulch, and though they did quite well the taste wasn't all that exciting so I never really bothered continuing with it. The arrival of these early, and actually good-tasting varieties is about to change all that. Since I don't have access to a greenhouse on my allotment, growing melons is definitely a challenge which means that my aims with this year's melon project are very modest. I'll be growing a few plants of each variety/cross and hopefully get at least a melon or two out of it. In fact I'll probably be ecstatic if I manage to haul as much as one ripe melon to safety before someone ends up stealing it. Then I'll save seed and repeat ad infinitum. I suppose you know where this is going..

Residual trials

And then, of course, there's everything else. Before this post turns into a monster, let me just finish by mentioning some of the new arrivals that I'm fairly enthusiastic about. Detailed descriptions to follow later!

- Hopniss (Apios americana): Also known as the American groundnut, Indian potato, or potato bean, however you like to call it. This a tuber-forming legume that was highly valued by native Americans, who knew a thing or two about valuable food crops. It's a perennial that apparently takes a few years to really give a worthwhile yield, so I'm not exactly expecting bumper harvests. Nevertheless, as you might have figured by now I find the prospect of growing new root crops pretty impossible to resist.

- Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius): New root crop no. 2, this is another Andean native, relative of the sunflower and the Jerusalem artichoke. It's high-yielding and supposedly fairly easy to grow. Produces large, inulin-rich tubers that are crunchy and sweet and can be eaten like a fruit.

- Quamash (Camassia quamash): New root crop no.3, a perennial, native of North America, also highly valued by the continent's pre-Columbian inhabitants. Quamash needs a couple of years to bulk up as well, so expect plenty of pictures of microscopic tubers.

- Crosne (Stachys affinis): Alright, I admit it, I'm mostly growing root crops, or at least those seem to the plants that made it onto this not very random shortlist. Perhaps I should work on countering that bias... I do like my greens, really. Anyway, crosne or Chinese artichoke is a perennial of the Lamiaceae, or mint family. It forms masses of small, worm-like tubers that are supposed to be delicious but a bit of a pain to clean. Worm-like tubers, anyone?

- Potato (S. tuberosum Group Phureja): I fear I might be becoming a potato snob. I recently caught myself ranting about the qualities of Arran Victory, which was one of last year's potato revelations for me and as I recently discovered is described by William Woys Weaver (in 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From) as the ultimate potato. Is this treading the potato equivalent of microbrew hipsterdom and coffee snobbism? Please stop me if at my next restaurant visit you find me complaining about the inferior potato variety that I was served. In any case, no, this won't be my first year growing potatoes, but it will be my first to grow Inca Bella, which is a potato variety of a completely different subgroup from the S. tuberosum group that the vast majority of European potato varieties derive from. It's supposed to be really, really delicious, so take note fellow potato heads.

- Turnip-rooted chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum): I don't know what it is with me and this plant, but I've yet to succeed in getting it to sprout for me at all. This will be the third year that I'm trying to grow it. I sowed the seeds in autumn and they have been outside the whole winter (they need stratification), so if I don't get anything now I'm _so_ blaming the seed company (again). Root chervil is supposed to be very delicate in taste, and sounds well worth the painstaking effort required in growing it (painstaking for me, at least). Just checked the pot, nothing sprouting yet...

A baby pig nut... hopefully!
- Pig nut (Bunium bulbocastanum): In Dutch this is called aardkastanje, and in Swedish jordkastanj, both of which literally translate as 'earth chestnut', since the taste of the tuber supposedly resembles that of sweet chestnuts. This is another perennial in the Apiaceae family, and another plant that would probably benefit from some selection (or more correctly, we would benefit from that..) since yields are purportedly very small. Pig nut is a pretty rare plant (at least in Belgium and the Netherlands) so I'm not entirely sure that the seed I have is actually B. bulbocastanum. Time will tell, at least I've got something sprouting in the pot I sowed with this.

Right, that's not all of it, but a big part at least. I know, I know: next time, more greens!