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.