Thursday 30 December 2010

End of the big freeze

At least, I hope it's not coming back! I've sorted out some of my compost bins ready for when I start clearing ground again, and checked the hives. Everything's still alive. Meanwhile, here are some snow pics.

A couple of the local reservoir.

Wednesday 1 December 2010


I haven't posted for a while; I haven't been fit to do anything on the plot, which is in a sorry mess, and now I'm feeling well enough to try - even if I can't guarantee that I'd get very far - eveything's frozen solid. My soil freezes very solid indeed, and after a few days of sub-zero temperatures I can't get a spade or fork into it. Not that I'd want to; digging frozen material in deep just makes the soil slower to warm up when the thaw finally comes.

So I'm sitting at home feeling frustrated, and dreaming about what I'm growing next year. Multiple wigwams of some of the better pea varieties, for a start, with one kept exclusively for seed, and masses of dangling CD's strung between them to fruighten the pigeons. One thing I'm not going to do is allow them to make off with half my seed crop!

Thursday 21 October 2010


There's a piece in the Guardian today, arguing against planting daffs: . I partly agree, partly disagree. It all depends on context.

I wouldn't plant them where all the rather drab foliage is going to show up after they've finished flowering. In many situations, I prefer the miniature version, as full-sized daffs can be overpowering. But in the right place, they're superb. I plant them in the lane outside my plot, where they brighten it up no end, and then the leaves are buried in vegetation for the rest of their short season.

I have trouble with crown imperials, the other bulb the article mentions. I agree they're superior to daffs, but I've only got one spot where they condescend to grow at all, and they suffer badly in wet summers. At bottom, I think they need drier conditions than I can offer.

It's been a while since I posted, due to illness. I've been able to do nothing on the plot for a while, and it's in a truly disgraceful state as a result.

Thursday 9 September 2010

No progress

My ME's been troubling me all year, and I haven't been able to cope with the work on the plot, which is in a right mess. The last couple of weeks it's been so bad I haven't even got there, let alone done any work. If that wasn't bad enough, it also affects my ability to concentrate. I've been struggling to write anything at all recently. I think - I hope - I might be getting a little better, so hopefully I'll be back soon.

Wednesday 18 August 2010


Our annual vegetable show, which I organise, was on Sunday. It's taken me this long to recover! The person doing the teas had to drop out on Friday due to work, and then we had a thunderstorm in the middle of setting up on Saturday. It all worked out on the day, though. We had 18 people enter - not a lot out of 80 plots, but we get a couple more every year - and as you see, we filled the benches. There were a few minor glitches, and I really must get myself organised and get coloured card for the certificates well in advance. This year I couldn't get any locally, had to print them off myself, and they ended up curling. I didn't get the thirds really brown either, more a brownish pink. I could do with putting the date on them somewhere as well. As long as I can get it a bit better organised every year, and get a few more entrants each time, everyone's happy.
It's not competitive at all, more a bit of fun and an excuse to get people together, and anyone can win something. I entered eight classes, and got a first for my onions, plus a second and two thirds. That proves it's not competitive!

Friday 6 August 2010


Hive 6 is back in a good mood, which is a great relief! Something must have upset it last week, as I didn't get a single sting today. There's still no sign of drone brood. I wish I understood more about the reasons why they do or don't produce it. I didn't have my camera unfortunately, but I potted patches of brood which were being uncapped, with the pupae sitting there looking at me. that's a good sign. It's known as 'hygienic behaviour', and suggests that this particular colony is good at detecting larvae with something wrong with them. If we can breed strains which detect varroa mites in cells and deal with them, we'll be well on the way to breeding a bee that can handle them without chemical assistance.

Hive 4 has a good patch of drone brood coming as long, but not as much as I thought. I'm always optimistic about these things. I need them to have a good big patch or patches capped over by the end of the month so I can raise a couple of queens. I didn't see any evidence of hygienic behaviour, but that could be because they haven't yet got enough bees to spare any for the job of removing sick larvae. Time will tell.

I repotted a Trillium recurvatum which I planted in 2005. It started germinating in the spring of 2007 - they tend to come up over several years - and it now has fat little rhizomes up to two inches long. They need a lot of patience, but it's worth it in the long run. My interest goes back about ten years; I was given several bin liners full of unwanted plants from someone's garden. They were a treasure, mainly Trillium kurabayashii, Cyclamen hederifolium and snowdrops. Some other species were stolen by a neighbour, but I still have those.

Monday 2 August 2010


Both those hives seem to have settled down. The first swarm to arrive - now Hive 6 - has a broodbox brimming with bees, and has reached the stage where its temper is beginning to show. The bigger the colony, the more older bees there are going to be in the hive, and these are the ones that sting. Yesterday they got up my arms and under my veil - a habit I loathe - and stung, so I won't be raising queens off that one unless it turns out to be a one-off. They don't have any drone cells that I can find; swarms often don't produce many in their first year for some reason.

The other one - Hive 4 - hasn't had so much time to build up, but it does have drone cells appearing. It's got a slightly bigger broodnest; 8 frames as opposed to 7. In a couple of weeks I should be able to start raising queens.

The wren's bringing beakfuls of insects into the shed, so the eggs have to have hatched.

Friday 30 July 2010

Round the Plot

This is a Kent Blue pod, at about the stage when I pick them. It's very sweet-tasting, while bijou, the other mangetout I grow, is massive but less sweet. Unfortunately I couldn't get to the plot for a few days over the weekend, and meanwhile the dangling CD's I use as pigeon scarers got tangle up. The result was that the flying rats completely stripped Kent Blue and Lancashire Lad, and partially stripped several other varieties. Kent Blue is hard to find, but fortunately I have a source in the US.
This morning I had a newsletter from the HSL saying that Lancashire Lad isn't what it pretends to be, as it was originally a green-podded variety. It's still a nice purple podded pea, even if it is now nameless.

Bijou and Robinson side by side. Robinson is a very good-looking pea with large, well-filled pods, but it's dwarfed by the five-inch Bijou pods. If I can time them right, I should do well with one or the other in next year's show!

Carlin pea, the oldest known variety. It was recorded in 1562, four years after Elizabeth I became queen. It's probably a lot older than that. It has small, green pods, but plenty of them, and as you'd expect, it's not particularly sweet.

The roses have done well this year. This is the Jacobite Rose, known by many other names as well. It's a very old Alba, possibly the original White Rose of York. It was definitely used by the Stuarts as their emblem, hence the name. Their motto was 'Rosa Sine Spina', a Rose without Thorns. The young stems are almost thornless, but the old stems develop vicious spines. Whoever thought this one up was no gardener! I had cuttings of Rosa alba Semi-Plena, the other candidate for the White rose of York, but they perished in the drought. I'll have to try again.

Rosa Mundi, an ancient sport from the Apothecary's Rose. It may be named after Rosamund Clifford, Henry II's mistress, or that may be mere romantic nonsense.

I acquired this nameless rose as a neglected plant in a pot a few years ago, along with my Jacobite Rose. I could see it was a climber, so I put it under a lilac; it's now grown right up through, and started putting on a show. The question now is whether it'll carry on up through the hawthorn beside it.

Lastly, I have a wren nesting in my shed. The male builds several nests, and the female picks one to lay in. I've had them build there before, but not lay, so I wasn't too hopeful. They're definitely on eggs this time though.

Monday 19 July 2010

I apologise for not posting for so long. I've been feeling really under the weather, but I'll manage something properly in the next day ot two. Meanwhile, I've started a new, theological, blog over at .

Thursday 24 June 2010


I had another look at that hive yesterday, and they now have brood on three frames, and they're into comb drawing mode. For the first couple of weeks, they were tearing down comb, and I'm not sure why. Bees often tear down old, black combs which the beekeeper ought to have removed long before, but these had only been drawn a couple of years ago, and there was nothing obviously wrong with them. Other combs of the same age or older have been accepted without problems.

Rebsie said she's found two different varieties circulating as 'Kent Blue'. That's not unique; there seem to be several King Tut's. Here are a couple of not very good pics of mine. The small, dimpled, olive-green seeds with purple speckles look right; it's about four feet high, and a bit overshadowed by taller peas. As you can see from the second pic, there are splashes of purple at the leaf bases. It remains to be seen whether the pods become sickle-shaped and knobbly.

This is Bijou, a giant sugar pea from Real Seeds. It's an extremely vigorous grower with these hooded, deep purple flowers. It's going to be interesting to see what it turns into!

This one is Ezetha's Krombek Blauschok. I don't know the origin of this one; it could be old, but there are no old records of the name so it could be quite modern. Over there the purple podded varieties are known as Capucijners, after the Capuchin monks who bred improved field peas in the 15th Century.

Wednesday 23 June 2010


The bees now have two frames of brood. I found a queen, unmarked, and distinctly yellower than the one I originally spotted. They've had no chance to raise a new one, so the swarm arrived with at least two. That's not particularly unusual.
This is the Salmon-Flowered Pea, an amazing old variety with a raft of recessive genes. Pink flowers, thickened, fasciated stems, and all the flowers together at the top. They all bloom at once, unfortunately. The peas are small, round and sweet. I don't know how old this particular variety is, but umbellate peas with this general form were popular from the late 17th Century until the early 19th.
Robinson's Purple Podded Pea, from Robinson's Seeds. These are often sold as generic 'Purple Podded Peas', but they're all different varieties of old field peas, grown originally for dried peas and animal fodder. This one reaches around six feet. The type was first bred on the continent by Capuchin monks in the 15th Century.
Champion of England, a tall marrowfat bred in 1843 by William Fairbeard. Darwin grew this one.
Carruthers' Purple Podded, with a young pod.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Round the allotment

Everything's a right mess at the moment, desperately in need of a strim, which I haven't done due to backache. I seem to have got over it though, so it'll get done shortly. Meanwhile, here are some of the things in flower at the moment.
Allium 'Purple Sensation'
An old-fashioned paeony.
Serpette Guilotteau, an old French pea which allegedly reaches five feet or so.
Camassia. these are edible, and they're multiplying so fast I'll be reduced to eating them before long!
Onions growing through grass cutting mulch. You can see what happens to Poundland fleece after a short while. I won't be buying any more!

Saturday 29 May 2010


The hive that was decimated by the cold unfortunately didn't make it, as there were too few bees left for it to pull through. I was wondering why there were still bees in the top boxes in the hive the swarm moved into (No. 6), so I pulled it apart to find out.

I thought I'd shaken all the bees down into the bottom box, below the queen excluder, but there she was at the top. The bees won't desert her! She's marked green (last year's colour), so that was presumably when she was raised. She's quite small, without the distended abdomen I usually see in queens. She's not laying either, so she may still be slimmed down from swarming. I'll have another look in a week or so, and see what's happening then.

Meanwhile I'm still planting tender veg. The germination I've had from my squashes has been vole, and I don't know why. I've had them on a warm windowsill, so they've probably been warmer than in previous years when I had them in the min-greenhouses. Apart from that, everything's come up fine.

Monday 24 May 2010


They've been at my broadies. Serve me right for leaving them on the ground. Never mind, some are still untouched.


Last week, as the temperature warmed up, I found mobs of bees round one of my empty hives. I get this every year, and assumed a swarm was planning to move in. Sure enough, I went down on Saturday, and there they were in residence. They look like Carniolan hybrids, which tend to be swarmy, and can be bad-tempered. They'll be easy enough to requeen if the other hive pulls through. Meanwhile they're more than welcome, and so far they're perfectly well-behaved. This is an annual event, so I think there's someone not too far away who keeps losing swarms!

A patch of comfrey in full sun has wilted in the heat, but no doubt it'll soon recover. I've got a barrel full of comfrey from an unlettable plot at the other end of the site, which will soon rot down and provide evil-smelling liquid manure.

The peas are growing like mad. These are the first I planted. No sign of buds yet, but they'll soon be forming.

The lilac is covered in bloom this year. It varies a lot from one year to the next. A red rose I planted underneath has grown right up through so I'm hoping for a good show this year. I should have moved so as to keep the apple brach on the left out of shot, but it was so bright I couldn't see the image on the camera screen. Should have used the direct vision viewfinder!

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Japanese visit

I had an interesting day helping to show some Japanese visitors round my site, and a second site nearby. Apparently they've only had allotments there since about 1920, and they're still developing. A city plot is about 25 square metres, but in the mountains they have larger plots with huts on them. Unfortunately I forgot the camera (I'm always doing this) so I don't have any pics.

The second site we visited is quite secluded, like mine, but has a completely different atmosphere as there are no hedges. Plots are 2-300 square metres, rather than our 300 or 600. It's more of a standard size, and obviously a lot easier to manage. They've got wide grass verges and communal spaces, with lots of trees. I assumed at first that this originated as plots which were abandoned when allotments were unfashionable, but as far as I could gather, it was actually laid out like that from the beginning. There's a nice communal building with kitchen facilities and toilets; we could do with something similar on my site!

Sunday 16 May 2010


The bees are alive, and the queen looks OK. They're greatly reduced in nimbers, and the brood is dead, so they've been knocked right back. They should recover, but there won't be any honey this year. I'll know for sure when I see eggs.

Saturday 15 May 2010


Today I found my one surviving colony almost dead from isolation starvation. On May 15th!

They had clustered on the brood, as might be expected; bees very rarely abandon it. But they were a couple of inches from the food, and it must have been too cold for them to be able to bridge the gap. I spotted that no bees were flying on a mild afternoon, opened it up, and they were obviously very weak. When I pulled some frames, I found bees that were obviously dying. The queen was still alive though, so I doused them with sugar syrup. That started to wake them up, and by the time I came home, a few were beginning to fly. The weather's getting warmer, so they should be OK now. It will have set them right back though, and I'm not expecting any honey this year.

I've planted out more peas; Latvian Pea, Irish Preans, Lancashire Lad, Victorian Purple Podded, Commander, and Clarke's Beltony Blue, and started a few more in pots. The beans are looking a bit sorry for themselves, but they're OK. Some of the sweet corn was finished off by the frost, but 35 out of the original 60 I planted are alive, with more to come. Not all the seeds germinated, but I'm not complaining. It'll give me some nice early corn, and spread the season a bit.

Thursday 13 May 2010


I'm now the only one in the family who isn't recovering from an accident. Namissa's still off work with a shoulder injury from a fall at the beginning of January, Mina's still got her arm bandaged from putting her arm through a bus window, and now Kumbi's broken her wrist. I had a bad fall in the New Year, so hopefully that's my accident out of the way at least.

I've been planting more peas; Bijou, Champion of England, Kent Blue, Ezethas Krombek Blauwshok, Carlin Pea and Robinson, a marrowfat named after the earliest known grower. Whatever the original name was, it's lost in the mists of time.

The potatoes have been badly frosted, but they'll soon recover. The only ones with significant topgrowth so far are accidentals, and I'm not worrying about those! The ones I've planted are all well behind, showing how cold the soil still is. I've had to replant the Cosse Violette climbing beans, and I lost a lot of the Breja, which is embarassing since I'm growing them for the HSL. I have enough left to get a crop though. They were hit by a cold, but not frosty, night just after being moved to a mini-greenhouse from a nice warm windowsill, and obviously hadn't acclimatised. The toms were frost damaged as well, but it's just patches on the leaves, and the growing points are OK. They'll soon grow past it.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Bees and Peas

My one remaining colony has had brood on two frames for a couple of weeks now. It's not as much as I'd have hoped for at the beginning of May, but at least the area on each frame is getting bigger each week.

I've been planting out peas; Bijou and Champion of England, both from Real Seeds. Bijou is a Giant Sugar Pea, a Victorian type which long since went out of fashion, and Champion is an early marrowfat from 1843. Both are tall.

It's been a bit of a hectic week since my daughter put her arm through a bus window on Tuesday night. She's OK, fortunately the injury is on the back of her arm where the bone is just under the skin, so there's no permananent damage. She's got eight stitches and a very impressive bandage, but it'll heal.

I let someone persuade me to go on Facebook, rather reluctantly since I don't like chat sites, and as a result I'm now in touch with some of my nieces and nephews. We're the ultimate non-family, and my sister went off years ago to run a shop on one of the out-islands on Orkney.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Himalayan Balsam

When I was a kid I found this growing along the Wye in Herefordshire (, and got really frustrated as being an introduction it wasn't in my wild flower book. It's only since I got the allotment that I've realised what a dreadful weed it is; it spreads like mad in damp ground.

The one good thing is that the seeds are short-lived. It either comes up the following spring or not at all. I've been trying to exterminate up on the railway embankment above the site. There's definitely less than last year, but still far too much. A good frost would have exterminated it once it was up, but we didn't get one, and it doesn't look too likely at the moment. A dry summer could do it, as the embankment is far from being a good habitat for it. Otherwise, I'll be grubbing about again pulling out every one I can find, and this year I'll bag them so they can't set seed as they lie dying.


The daffodils were flowering all round the site while I was off-line, but they're fading a bit now. These are some of the peas I'm growing this year; you can see the variation in colour.

Salmon-Flowered Pea. The reddish tinge is due to anthocyanin, and it's controlled, firstly, by a gene enabling the plant to produce it. Many peas lack this gene altogether. Then more genes are needed, each one controlling its expression in a specific part of the plant. So more peas have the first gene, but we don't see the red pigment because they lack the genes enabling its expression.

Purple-Flowered Russian. This one has red borders to the leaves.

Robinson's Purple Podded. Like many old peas, it lacks a 'proper' name, but this one comes from Robinson's Seeds. The red pigment appears in the flowers and the pods, but is lacking in the leaves.

Hatif d'Annonay, 'Early Annonay'. This is a short pea; the growth habit is far more compact than the others, due to a much shorter internodal length, from one leaf to the next along the stem.

Carruther's Purple Podded. Saved by the family of a Patrick Carruthers, hence the name. Again, no red to be seen.

Kool's Langstro Rosyn, 'Mr Kool's Lang Straw (ie tall) Raisin Pea. The raisin capucijners are improved field peas bred in the first half of the 20th Century. They have distinctive very large seeds, the size of small beans.

Serpette Guilotteau; a 'guilotteau' is apparently an old French type of pruning knife, which the sickle-shaped pods are supposed to resemble. In the second pic you can see that the lower leaves are losing their colour and dying off. I've seen this in seedling peas shortly after planting out before, and I imagine it's due to stress. the growing tips look quite healthy, and I imagine they'll soon recover.

Meanwhile, we have a rabbit on the site. I saw prints in the snow; they come up the railway line or the canal in snowy weather. It's still around, and raiding roots. It's been at my Chinese artichokes and tuberous peas repeatedly, and now it's started on the oca and the spuds.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Sky broadband problems

I've been unable to post due to Sky messing us about again. It all started at the beginning of February, when the phone bill mysteriously appeared on their account. We tried them for a month last year, found they were more expensive than BT, and that the salesman hadn't been exactly honest with us, and went back to BT. Then Sky slammed the line - ie tranferred it without authorisation. We complained, and found our letters being ignored, so we went to OFCOM.

As soon as we complained, they started messing us about over the TV channels. They cut off most of them on the pretext that we won't give them a Direct Debit. We've now complained to Trading Standards about this. In the end, they gave the phone back to BT, but they're still demanding payment for the phone for the couple of months or so they had it. We're not paying, as they had no contract, and have no right to enforce payment. So they cut off the broadband, whic has now gone to BT. All in all, it's the worst experience I've ever had with a utility. Not recommended!

Saturday 27 March 2010

Seed guardian seeds

I should have posted on this days ago but was feeling too dreadful at the time. After sending the HSL a reminder, I got my Seed guardian info, followed a few days later by my seeds. I've taken on three varieties.

There's Mummy's Pea, one of several that the ancient Egyptian myth attaches to. I already have a few seeds of King Tut, which seems to be another of these.Egypt came under British domination after the Napoleonic Wars, and the first modern Egyptologists followed shortly afterwards. In no time, people were cashing in on all the publicity for ancient Egypt. Credulous tourists were sold peas which had been 'discovered' inside mummies, and seed merchants back home were soon offering peas with similar claims.

The remains of peas actually were discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb when it was excavated in 1922, and the myth transferred itself to this, with peas from the tomb supposedly having germinated. In fact, as you might expect, conditions in Egyptian tombs are not satisfactory for long-term seed storage. No seed from such a tomb has ever been found in a viable state, though a 2000-year-old Judean date palm from a dig in Palestine has been germinated, and found to be genetically quite different from any known date palm.

I suspect - though I don't know - that the various 'mummy peas' go back to the pre-Tutankhamun period, and those with variations on the Pharaoh's name come after. King Tut, AKA Prew's Pea (a name which has attached itself to several of these varieties) is grown in the US, and hasn't any history attached that I know of. Mummy's Pea, (also AKA Prew's Pea) comes from Durweston, near Blandford Forum, Dorset. The local gentry are the Portmans, who were friends of Lord Caernavon, who financed the Tutankhamun dig. Peas from Caernavon's kitchen garden may well have been passed on to their head gardener.

Then there's a climbing bean, Brejo, apparently a Native American heirloom. It's supposed to do well in wet springs, so it may turn out to be a winner. Finally there's an Estonian ridge cucumber, Izjastsnoi (I've no idea how to pronounce that!), which is said to be tolerant of poor treatment and cool temperatures, which is what I like to hear. Cucumbers are outbreeders which need to be isolated to prevent unwanted crosses, so it's going to be a bit more of a challenge.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Black Potatoes and Rare Peas

I've just acquired a few tubers of another old black spud called Negresse (yes I know, the name makes me cringe as much as anyone!). It's a 19th-Century French variety; the name should come adorned with accents, only I've no idea how to add them. It may well be another strain of the same variety. I'm going to grow both and see how they compare. If they survive the blight long enough to do anything that is, since they're extremely late maincrops. Many thanks to Ian for the parcel.

Supposedly, Vitelotte originated as an import from Peru. If so, then it's quite possible that there may be some genetic stability in it, or that several slightly different versions were brought over. It would be interesting to try hand-pollinating flowers, and see what grows from the seed.

Another parcel which arrived this morning, from Grunt, in Canada, contained Kent Blue Peas, the variety which launched my search for rarities, Carruthers' Purple Podded, supposed to be particularly tasty, and Ezethas Krombek Blauwshok. Kent Blue seeds are small, slightly dimpled, and adorned with purple speckles, which appear again on Carruthers, but not to the same extent. Krombek is a farm in Western Cape, South Africa, so was the variety bred, or preserved there, I wonder?

Meanwhile I'm planting peas like mad, but I've got the worst cold I've had in years, and that's about all I'm managing to do.

Friday 19 March 2010

Black Potatoes and Pink Onions

I've already posted about the probable Vitelotte I found in the market. I've now discovered a page here: which suggests that this and several other old black potatoes are strains of the same variety. It's going to be a question of growing them out and comparing them. If I can get a crop despite the blight, that is, since it seems to be endemic on the site now, and they're all late maincrops.

Not long ago I found some pink shallot type alliums in the market, which I planted to see what they did. I got the Plants of Distinction catalogue yesterday, and spotted a variety called Pink Torpedo ( , partway down the page), which looks just like it. If so they'll give me seed this year, and I'm definitely not complaining at that. From what they say, it's mild-tasting European variety.

Sunday 28 February 2010

Signs of spring

There are a few! The snowdrops are steadily increasing from year to year, and are beginning to form sheets of white. Some of the garlic is beginning to sprout, or was before I mulched it all with a load of autumn leaves. It's still down there somewhere, and no doubt it will reappear. Oca, Chinese artichokes and tuberous peas are all in.

The latter two are new to me. Chinese artichokes are familiar in name, at least. It's a mint relative with small tubers which have a bit of a reputation for being difficult to clean. We'll see; it's easy enough to sluice most things off in the stream. I hadn't heard of tuberous peas until someone offered me some; apparently, they were Linnaeus' favourite root vegetable. He was an 18th century Swedish botanist who invented the modern form of scientific nomenclature for living things. The peas look like everlasting sweet peas, and have small tubers; they're said to be very low-yielding. they must have been grown quite widely at one time, as they're naturalised in various places.

I'm holding off on planting anything else. The soil is nowhere near warm enough to sit on with my bare bum, so I certainly can't plant seed direct. I could start the tomatoes, but then they could easily get too big before they can be planted out. I'm feeling rather half-hearted about them since I've lost them all to blight three years running. Similarly, I could start the peas, but I want a good choice of varieties for the show in August, so I'm going to wait. Leeks and some of the brassicas can be started as soon as I'm confident about the weather, but there's plenty of time yet.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Types of Pea

All our modern peas are descended from the wild pea, Pisum sativum, which is still found in the Middle East, though the subspecies which gave rise to the garden pea, probably in Afghanistan or nearby, is apparently extinct. The remains of seeds of this species have been found in Stone Age sites from Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. Around 3000 BC, they show up in European sites, showing that they were being cultivated outside their original range. Later the Field Pea was developed, an improved type with larger seeds, which became a medieval staple.

All peas were originally round-seeded. When dried, they are, as the name implies, round, with little or no wrinkling. They're full of starch, which feeds the seedling while it establishes itself. They're filling, but not so sweet as Tesco's frozen peas. So they're not what you really want for that little green pile on the side of your plate. Originally, they were grown in the fields to provide dried peas for pea soup, mushy peas, pease pudding and the like, providing an important part of the diet. Namissa's West African, none of us like English cooking much, and they're ideal for the type of food we do like, curries, African dishes, and the like. So they suit us. In the garden, they're as tough as old boots, and can safely be planted in autumn for a spring harvest.

Until the 19th Century, the rich used to eat sweet young peas when they were in season, and leave the mature version for the hoi polloi as far as they practically could. Around 1820, a wrinkled pea appeared as a chance mutation in a field of peas. There seem to have been earlier wrinkled varieties, but it was from then on that the great 19th Century advances in pea breeding took place, so it has to be seen as significant. It has far more sugar than the older types, as it's not metabolised into starch so efficiently. This made it possible to breed the sweet-tasting, large seeded marrowfats which are so familiar today. They're tender plants which have to be planted in warm soil, as the seeds rot easily. Their appearance, combined with the development of glasshouses which made it possible for those with money to extend the season, led to the continuing popularity of the green pea, a crop which has never been particularly high-yielding.

Yields are greatly reduced by the virtual disappearance of the tall varieties which were the mainstay up till the middle of last century. Tall peasticks became ever harder to find, and as a result the tall varieties, which often reach six or seven feet, started to disappear. This was exacerbated by stupid laws which forbid the sale of seed of unregistered varieties, the cost of registration, and seed companies which develop crops with farmers in mind, then flog them to gardeners. Farmers, of course, want something which can be harvested by machine, and that means one which is short enough not to need support. So the average seed catalogue nowadays has about half a dozen short peas, where a Victorian one would have pages of peas, many of them tall.

Tall varieties are still around if you look. Alderman is still commercially available, and is one of the best. Other varieties are available from smaller suppliers like Robinson's, Real Seeds and Brown Envelope Seeds. Real Seeds charges 1p for membership, so they're not selling to the general public, others ignore the law. apart from those, a lot more are available from sources like the HSL or seed swaps.

Purple-Podded Peas are old-fashioned field peas. They're not as sweet as the green-podded ones, though many have wrinkled seeds. I suspect most go back to the 19th or early 20th Century. On the whole, they don't have fancy names, either because they've been lost, or because they were bred by farmers and gardeners rather than by seed companies.

Umbellate peas are a curiosity. Sweeter varieties appeared in Italy in the 17th Century, and became popular on the continent. Charles II took a fancy to them when he was in exile, and brought them with him when General Monck invited him to become king. The umbellate peas date to this era. They have wide, flattened stems (the technical name for this is fasciation), branch at right angles to the main stem, and have all the flowers at the top. The only one I've come across is the Salmon-Flowered Pea.

Mangetout peas lack the hard membrane lining the pod, and have been bred for sweet pods which can be eaten whole when the peas are small. There are two types; snow peas, with flat pods, and sugarsnaps, with round pods.

Petit Pois are bred to provide very small peas. I find it hard to see the point when large varieties like Magnum Bonum are as sweet as anything!

Friday 19 February 2010

Black potato

I found these in the market the other week, and got some small ones to grow on. The stallholder had no idea what the variety is. The tubers are deep purple-black, with violet flesh. From what I can make out, the two most likely varieties are Vitelotte, 19th-Century French, supposedly imported originally from Peru, and Congo, 19th-Century British. Both are late maincrops from what I've been able to discover, though someone suggested that Vitelotte may be a bit earlier than that. Congo seems to be very late indeed. I don't know what the chance of it surviving trhe blight is, but I'l try.

Anyone got any ideas?

PS. I've added a pic of the inside. It's not much good but I couldn't see what I was doing. Namissa just said it looks just like black pudding.


I planted two varieties of this obscure South American root crop last spring; one white and the other red. They went in a foot apart, in rows two feet apart. It didn't do much till around midsummer, when it started spreading out. It's frost-sensitive, and the tubers don't form till the top growth is dying back. I fleeced it, and meant to harvest it for Christmas. Thanks to the weather and a bad fall, I only got it up a couple of weeks ago.
Yield was very variable, from a pound or so to nothing. I'm not sure why, but some of the tubers I put in were very small. The red hadn't suffered from the frost at all, while white tubers on the surface had gone soggy. There was very little slug damage, and I found none underground. They taste lemony; allegedly they turn sweet if they're left in the sun, but I didn't try this. I'll be planting again shortly. This time I'll use larger tubers, and hopefully I'll do better.


As you can see, it snowed all night. It's been mild and sunny today, and it's been melting fast. It's now clouded over, so hopefully it won't freeze tonight. Namissa insisted on driving to the mosque for prayers. She injured her shoulder in a fall over a month ago, and I was quite worried as it's been giving her hell. She says it hurts, but it's not as bad as when she did the same thing last week.

I'm going totally mad this year; nineteen varieties already, and another on the way. I've got enough seed of half to expect crops off them. I only have a few seeds of the others, many of them from the HSL, and I'll be growing them to bulk up. Then there are the climbing beans on top, but I'm not going quite so crazy there, and I won't be trying to grow all the dozen or so I have this year. I'm going to have wigwams all over the plot, but it should be interesting!

The varieties are:

Purple-Podded varities:

Robinson's Purple Podded
(From Robinson's Seeds, hence the name)
Lancashire Lad

Victorian Purple Podded

Clarke's Beltony Blue

Ezethas Krombek Blauwschok
(Old Dutch variety)

Green Podded Marrowfat Types:

Champion of England


Early Onward

Hugh's Huge



Magnum Bonum
(My favourite so far)

Hatif d'Annonay

Mangetout Varieties:

Golden Sweet
(Yellow pods, purple flowers)

Carouby de Mausanne
(Large pods)

(Very rare, described by Real Seeds as a 'Giant sugar pea'. Very large flat pods)


Irish Preans
(Large seeds which look a bit like small broad beans. Allegedly a cross, but I don't believe it! Purple flowers)

Serpette Guilotteau
(From Real Seeds. Small peas, curved pods. The latter is a primitive characteristic, so it may be interesting)

Salmon Flowered
(Pink flowers in a mass at the top of the flattened stems. It seems to be a survival of the umbellate type which was popular in the 17th Century)

Purple Flowered Russian
(According to the HSL, this has purple flowers, and small round peas in thin pods. It sounds interesting)

Some I've grown before, some I haven't. I'll post reports on the ones I get a crop from later. The marrowfat types are often well recorded, with dates and breeders available. These were in the old seed catalogues, for sale to those who could afford to keep buying pea seeds. The purple podded types seem to have been grown by farmers, who habitually saved their own. As a result, there's no history attached to them. They're not so sweet, and were dried for pease pudding, mushy peas, soup, and similar dishes. Most of the varieties I've come across have peas the size of marrowfats, so I suspect they're 19th Century 'improved' varieties, rather than anything older.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Heritage Seed Library

I've been meaning to join this for a couple of years, but held off till I was more confident about my seed saving skills. For your membership, you get a few seeds of each of six rare varieties; I also got some Hughes Huge peas as a new member. By sheer coincidence, this was one I already fancied, as I like tall peas, which crop more heavily, and it's ever so easy to save pea seed. If you volunteer as a Seed guardian - I have - you get a list of 'orphans' in March, and choose up to three. You grow them and return seed to HSL for distribution. So I should get eleven varieties (with a lucky dip bonus variety) for my £20, which isn't bad going.

They distribute a catalogue containing about 200 varieties to pick from. the emphasis is on peas, French beans and tomatoes; these are all self pollinated, and really easy for seed saving. I haven't yet experimented with saving seed from cross-pollinated species, but I'm going to have a try. The trick is to stop them crossing with other varieties grown nearby.

Meanwhile, however cold it is, the days are lengthening noticeably, and the first snowdrops are blooming. Spring is at hand!

Friday 5 February 2010


I lifted these yesterday, from two plants. As you can see, the red
oca didn't produce much. I don't know whether it's typical, though; I couldn't see any more of the same variety with tubers on the surface, which would give me a comparison. Some of the tubers I put in were very small, and I'm planning to plant the biggest next time. I don't know whether that makes a difference. It showed no frost damage at all, having come sailing through with nothing but fleece and snow above some of the tubers. The white variety had a more satisfactory yield, but all the tubers on the surface had gone soft from being frosted. There was next to no slug damage, and what there was, was all on the surface.
The second pic shows some alliums like long shallotts whic I found on a Chinese stall at the Bull Ring market in town. Many of them are shallott size, and at first I assumed that was whaqt they were. Some were much bigger though; for comparison, they're sitting on an A4 sheet. When I got them, there were very few of that size, and I picked them out for growing on. Today, though, I saw they had more in, and a lot were this size. Obviously the customers prefer the big ones! I'll try them and see what they turn into.