Real Seed Catalogue 2008 Newsletter
Well, here we are in early August, with the gardens well established and growing nicely. As ever there are lots of exciting new vegetables in our trial plots. We’ve written about some of these trials later in the newsletter, including some lovely new salad varieties, pretty multi coloured radishes, and an amazing selection of tomatoes from countries across eastern Europe.
At the moment it isn’t really feeling like summer outside though, with lots of wet and windy weather blowing our plants around. After last summer’s floods across much of the country, we are hoping for a more settled season this year, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that the sun will come out shortly.
Unfortunately it looks as though one of the effects of climate change is going to be an increase in ‘extreme’ weather across all of Britain, not only unseasonal storms and wind, but also very heavy rain in some seasons, as well as more risk of drought. The old saying that ‘Britain doesn’t have a climate, it just has weather’ seems to be becoming truer than ever, and it can make planning the vegetable plot a real challenge.
If our gardens are going to cope with all of this weather, we need to make sure that we are growing a really strong and diverse collection of vegetables. Most of the seed industry is moving ever further towards selling mainly F1 hybrid varieties, where every plant is identical. We think this is a crazy approach for home gardeners – if a problem comes along that affects that plant, you can lose your whole crop.
Traditional open pollinated varieties have more variability – which means that your plants often crop over a longer period, and there is just that bit more resilience to deal with any problems that might come along. Of course if you then save your own seed and develop your own population then you will gradually develop your ‘own’ strain of the variety, which should be ideally suited to your garden and your tastes.
In this newsletter Ben has written a short piece about saving seed from brassicas, including kale, broccoli and all rest of the cabbage tribe. We’d encourage you to have a go – its very easy, and in a few years you could even be supplying all of your neighbours with seed from your own special local variety. If you’d like to find out more about seedsaving, we have some basic seedsaving instructions on the website which you can print out and copy for free.
To us, it is really important that we all return to a wider, more secure base to our food supply. This means lots of people keeping seed, and selecting their own locally-adapted variants of each variety.
Since the year 2000, we've given out 21,000 printed copies of basic vegetable seed-saving instructions. And we know from your letters that lots of you do save your own seed - which is great.
This makes sense for you in the short term (less seed to buy), us in the short term (less seed to grow and pack) , but it also makes sense for all of us in the long term -in a changing climate, and with a shortage of oil for industrial farming, our children will really need a lot of locally-adapted vegetable varieties. This year we're adding a bit more detail to the website as and when we get time, and here is an article to help you with the Brassicas.
We would encourage you to have a go at saving seed from brassica family - that's the cabbages, kales, oriental vegetables, broccoli and turnip family. We know many of you save obvious ones like tomato and lettuce seed, but we've noticed that people shy away from doing the biennials (plants that flower in their second year).
We'd like to encourage you to try it - its incredibly easy, and you get so much seed, you'll have loads to give away. There's really no need for example to buy Kale seed from us every year at all. You just set aside a patch of good kale plants, and let them flower, making sure that you've got a reasonable number, that they are healthy, and that no other sorts are flowering nearby that might cross with them. You'll get lots of seeds in August.
One question is when exactly is the time to harvest the seed? If you pick too early then the seed will not have filled out properly, having too little stored energy to give healthy baby plants. But on the other hand if you leave it too late, then the seed pods will shatter as you touch them - dropping your precious seed on the ground.
A helpful thing to know is that all the brassica seed is green when immature, and then gets a black surface once it has filled with starch and started to dry out.
You can use this to judge when to harvest the seed - look at this picture.
So, one trick is to harvest the seed when most pods are like the middle one. They are as good as they will get, energetically speaking, and will ripen nice and brown once you cut the plant.
To decide when to harvest:
You'll probably also notice that the pods at the bottom of each flower spike ripen first, with the ones further up (later flowers) ripening later. Of course, you'll cut the whole lot at once, so you need to look at the pods in the middle and top too.
Usually if you judge by the seeds in the middle pods, you'll be ok - the ones at the bottom will be a bit riper, and the ones at the top a bit under-ripe, but this is the best compromise.
You'll need to check every couple of days as they get close to being ready. They can all ripen suddenly & fall out without warning if you're not careful.
Remember you need to take seedheads from each plant - these are the plant equivalent of herd animals; they live in groups and you need seed from them all to avoid inbreeding. If you collected seed from just one or two plants, after a few seasons all your kale would be very poor.
Once dry, jump all over them and you'll get lots of seed mixed with broken up stem & pods. Shake it and the seeds will fall to the bottom - you can just pull off most of the pods now.
Then to get the rest out, pour the seed and bits from one bucket to another in a breeze - the bits will blow away, and the seed will remain.
Drying & Storage
Also, you can't put it in a sealed container as it is still breathing - it would suffocate. And without a sealed container, it will soon reabsorb water from the air on the first humid day, and start getting ready to germinate.
We'll use dry rice to suck the water out of the seed & get it really dry. Then it will hibernate completely.
You need a big jam-jar, an old pair of tights, a rubber band, and some rice - at least twice as much rice as you have seed. It doesn't matter if you have too much rice, but too little won't work.
Bake the rice in the oven for 45 minutes until it is bone dry. While it is still hot, put it in the jam-jar , about half full, and screw the lid on .
Wait patiently until the rice is cool. (If you rush this you'll cook your seeds.) So you now have a jam jar 1/2 full of very dry rice.
Put your seed in a bag made by cutting off the foot of the tights, and tie it in with a rubber band. Put it in with the cool dry rice. Put the lid on tightly, so damp air can't get in.
Leave your seed sealed in the jar with the dry rice for a fortnight, and the dampness in the seed will be drawn out into the rice.
You now have bone-dry seed that you can safely seal in a plastic bag, and it will keep for several years.
Passing it Round
You will get about two and a half kilos of seed from a 20-foot-long bed of 30 plants. Now that's actually three-quarters of a million seeds - and if every one of those was given away or swapped, and then grown, you will have created more than 500,000 kilograms of kale! More than enough to feed all your friends and neighbours, and their families.
So you can see that even one person, on a small scale, can make a real contribution to local food security. Take your spare seed to a local seed swap, or even better, organise your own. Get to gether with your friends or family and set up a seed-circle: one person can grow kale seed, another parsnips, another cucumber, etc etc. You'll all have bags of seed - you can all just swap with each other, so no-one has to save seed from more than a couple of things, yet you all get seed of everything.
It will save you a fortune, and you'll get great, locally-adapted varieties. Just remember, all this is only possible because you are growing real, open-pollinated seed. You can't do this with hybrid (F1) varieties. Funny how the seed companies are so keen on selling you hybrid seed, isn't it?
2008 Breeding Projects
As well as the Oca and Ulluco, we always have quite a few new varieties under way that we are breeding for future release.
For a bit of interest, this year we grew a bit of True Siberian next to an extra patch of our Sutherland Kale to see if they would cross. Both are great strains, and we think that a diverse breeding pool with them as parents could have some very tasty & useful offspring.
The Siberian will bring cold resistance and hardiness to the mix, and the Sutherland will provide sweetness and big leaves. We'll sow that crossed seed next year and see what we get - more news in the next newsletter.
Both these new varieties were originally noticed as off-types in a production bed - tomatoes do cross a little bit sometimes, but that's ok - it's where new varieties come from.
Normally we would just pull up any wrong-type plants, but these were just as early as Latah, and were vines rather than bushes (which would be great if only we could stabilise it). So we kept a few seed from each plant, having first tasted the fruit to make sure it was good flavoured too.
Well, that was last year. This year we grew out some of that seed - these are now F2 plants, and as such are all the plants are different. Looking at them you can see that one lot is a cross between Latah and Super Sweet Gardeners Delight, and the other lot is a cross between Latah & Costoluto Fiorentino.
Well, they were all pretty early. But many of them just didn't taste particularly special. However, some were delicious, and a couple of plants are really promising:
and we have chosen to continue with these. Each year we will save seed from the best plant of each type, and as tomatoes are self-pollinating, each year they will have half as much variability as the previous year.
By the time we get to the F6 generation in 2012, we should have really stable new varieties.
So, you see, with self-pollinating plants like tomatoes, developing your own variety isn't hard: you need to keep an eye out for lucky accidents, and then just save the seed from one particularly good plant each year for several years until it is stable. It usually takes 6 -8 generations for this to happen.
Yellow Courgette Breeding
Our courgette project is going along nicely, we now have plants that are stable for size, shape and vigour, and we just need a few more years to stabilise the nice bright yellow colour.
These are from a cross between White Volunteer, and the original Burpees Golden Zucchini , giving very productive, lemon-yellow, Cousa-style courgettes.
We think it will be another 2 to 4 years before it is ready for final release; but in the meantime we might put on the web a few packets of mixed seed from the latest breeding lines - you'll get a mix of yellow and green courgettes, but all will be really good.
Bijou Peas - a new project
We're really excited about this. Years ago we were given seed of an old pea called Bijou, which makes just HUGE mange-tout pods.
We liked it, and really wanted to get it back in public use - but the problem is that we just don't have the space or drying facilities to grow enough to offer it to lots of people. On the other hand, we can't get it grown for us because what is 'a lot' of seed to us (a sackful) is too little for commercial growers to be interested in.
But with the help of Seed Savers Exchange, we have arranged to have it produced for us by a specialist seed grower in Holland. By going in on the back of Seed Savers Exchange's work, we were able to add our pea to the end of their patch, and just pay the extra cost for the extra row.
It's quite a long process. Two years ago we started multiplying up the original handful of peas, and by the second harvest last year we had a kilo of seed from a double row across our gardens. We had to do some reselection work as a few weren't all the right type, but we did get it cleaned up in the end.
This spring we sent this very precious kilo of 'foundation' seed off to the growers for a row of 'trial production'. Its a bit of a risk - we have to pay a flat fee for this, regardless of whether we get anything or not in the harvest.
But so far so good. Right now the peas are growing very well - they send us email pictures and reports - and will be harvested in autumn. Here it is, it's the row on its own on the right of the picture. The row is 160 feet long, and its protected from birds with netting. (All organically grown, of course.)
The grower will then look at how much seed they got, and give us a quote for growing it in future years. So whatever we get from this trial will be on the web in 2009, and then if they can grow it economically for us in the future, maybe it will be in the printed catalogue in 2010. Of course, mange-tout peas are quite low yielding in terms of seed, so after all this, it might just not work out.
But even if its fairly expensive, we'd like to give it a go, at least for one year. We think this is a risk worth while - and a good use for spare income from the less rare varieties in the catalogue. Your requests of other seed allows us to make experiments like this, even if you don't always see the results in the catalogue.
Champion of England - another rescued variety
We are hoping to do the same with another old pea we have, called Champion of England. This is a well known, really good tall climbing pea, but pretty much extinct now. Worldwide, only we and Rebsie Fairholm seem to be maintaining seed.
This is a shame because its a great pea, and climbing peas give you so much more than dwarf ones.
You can't harvest climbers mechanically, so industrial farmers don't have any need for them, which is why commercial seed suppliers don't offer many climbing peas any more. But for home gardeners, they're a great use of space.
So we are doing the same thing - we have a garden-row of foundation seed Champion of England growing here right now. If the partnership with SSE works for the Bijou, then the Champion of England seed will go off for trial multiplication in 2009, and you should see it in the 2011 catalogue.
We're very happy to have figured out a way to get some of these old varieties back into circulation in small batches. And its really helpful of SSE to let us go in on their production run. Many thanks are due to Aaron Whaley for making it happen.
Overall, it feels like we’ve had quite a cool spring this year. So far the conditions have been better than last spring, when a very warm April got things going, only for everything to be washed out and blown away in May. But we have noticed that germination has been a bit slower and more tricky than some years, and we’ve had quite a few reports of similar problems from other gardeners, particularly with the more tender vegetables.
With this in mind, we thought it would be helpful to put together a few hints and tips on getting the best germination from your seeds.
All seeds need warmth and moisture to germinate and grow on well. How much warmth varies by type of vegetable – for example broad beans will grow fine in soil temperatures over 8 degrees C, whereas aubergines need much more heat; ideally over 24C.
The table at the bottom of this section shows the minimum temperatures that different types of seed need to germinate, but also the preferred temperature, which is often quite a bit warmer. While the seeds will germinate in the cooler conditions, they will tend to come on more slowly over a longer period, and will be much more inclined to rot, damping off and other ills.
So, you can see that french beans will start to germinate from 8-10C, but ideally need much warmer temperatures – between 16-30C is ideal.
You also need to remember that the soil temperature is not the same as the air temperature; the soil warms up more slowly in the springtime. At the Rothamsted research centre in Hertfordshire, average soil temperatures over the last 30 years have only risen over 10C from the 2nd week in May, and over 15C from the 3rd week in June.
There are a few crops which seem to to be the most troublesome here in the UK
Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines
Early in the season, greenhouses are also often much colder than people imagine. We get a lot of calls in March and April from people who have sown tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in their greenhouses or on a windowsill, and are wondering why they haven’t come up.
So, does this mean that you can only grow these tender crops if you have an electric propagator and a heated greenhouse? No – definitely not. But you do have to be a bit creative, and think about the ways in which you can give them the warmth that they need.
Luckily, all three of these crops will grow on at cooler temperatures once they have germinated. So, if you can keep them warm and damp until they get started, you should be fine. If you have an airing cupboard, this is ideal. Sow your seeds in small pots, and wrap them loosely in a plastic bag. You want to keep them damp (and keep the compost off your washing), but not airtight. Put them in the airing cupboard, but do remember to check them every day. It is very important to get them out into the light as soon as they start to appear.
Cucumbers and melons are also ideal candidates for starting in the airing cupboard, and again they will grow on fine at cooler temperatures on a windowsill or a greenhouse once they have got going.
Courgettes, squashes and french/runner beans
Lots of gardening books suggest that these crops can be started direct outside in the garden. This may be the case in a good year, if temperatures stay warm and if you don’t have any problems with mice on your plot. We find we get much better results if we start them off indoors and don’t put them out until they’ve got going – bigger plants are also more likely to survive any slug attacks.
We soak our beans for a few hours in warm water (around 25-30C), then either plant them in standard seed trays, with 24 seeds to a tray or in larger sized modules. They can either go in the greenhouse, if you have one, or alternatively they’ll germinate fine on a sunny windowsill. As soon as they come up, put them outside to harden off in the daytime, just bringing the trays in at night, then plant them out in the garden as soon as the first true leaves are full size.
Squashes and courgettes need warmer temperatures than french or runner beans to get going. Again, you can put the pots in the airing cupboard, and then bring them out into the light as soon as they start to germinate. Start hardening the plants off as soon as the second true leaf has opened, and then plant them out once they have two full sized true leaves, and the third one is just starting to open.
Peas & broad beans
If you have a problem with mice, you may find peas and broad beans are difficult to get going, simply because the seeds get eaten before they have a chance to germinate. Fortunately, the mice don’t seem to be interested in seeds that have started to sprout. Rather than start all of our peas and broad beans in trays, we find that we can get away with simply pre-sprouting the seed on a thick layer of damp kitchen towel, then carefully planting them out as soon as the root starts to show. Ideally they should go into the ground before the roothairs have started to develop. This works best for us once the soil has started to warm up a bit in spring, say from around mid April.
Mice also like french bean, squash, courgette and cucumber seeds, so unless you are certain that your greenhouse or polytunnel is rodent free, these crops are also best started off safely inside the house.
Don't think you can get away with the 'minimum': At even a bit below 'preferred' temperatures, germination will take much longer and you are far more likely to lose your seedlings to slugs and other beasties.
Note that if the seed goes below the 'minimum' for even a few hours, germination will often stop. So cold at night can be a real problem.
If you’re new to vegetable growing, you’ll find out very quickly that its easy to have a garden bursting with different good things to eat from July through to late autumn. And with a bit of careful planning in spring, and by storing some of your summer produce you can carry on eating a pretty wide selection of your own vegetables through the winter.
The tricky bit is having things to eat at other times. By late spring the winter veggies are finished, the stored crops have gone soft (if they haven’t all been eaten), and we are into the alarming sounding Hungry Gap. The sprouting broccoli keeps things going for a while, but by late May, just as the weather is warming up you can be in the frustrating position of having seedlings all over the place, but nothing actually ready to eat. So, how to beat the Hungry Gap?
The first place that I would always start is the salad bed. If nothing else, I like to be sure that we can pick a fresh salad from the garden on any day of the year, and with a bit of planning and a little help in the way of protection this isn’t too difficult to achieve.
If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse or polytunnel, regular sowings of a mix of salad crops will keep you going throughout the winter and into the spring.
If you don’t have any protected area, the ideal if you can afford it is to invest in some cloches or one of the new plastic mini-tunnels. For around £30 you can find tunnels that will cover a 3m bed – plenty of space to keep most families in salad over the winter. Otherwise stick to the hardiest salads like mizuna, mispoona and komatsuna greens, give them a nice sheltered spot, and you will still find that you can grow a good crop.
We usually make a first sowing of winter salads in trays in September, ready to be planted into gaps as soon as the summer crops finish. We then carry on sowing once a month right throughout the winter., mainly sowing oriental salad greens; as well as the extra hardy ones mentioned above pak choi and chinese cabbage are particular favourites, plus some winter lettuces like the Reine des Glace.
From February onwards we start to sow a much wider variety of lettuces, as well as endives and further sowings of the orientals. By early March we’ve moved over pretty much to summer salads as most of the hardy winter varieties will bolt as temperatures warm up.
Keeping a good supply of cooked greens is even easier than the salads. Overwintered chard and leaf beet sown any time up to August will keep going until late May or even early June, especially if the plants have been well spaced (around a foot apart) and are in a well manured bed.
Don’t pull it out as soon as it starts to bolt – the leaves are still good to eat for a long while, until they get to be too small and fiddly to be worth bothering with.
There are also lots of hardy oriental greens that are delicious cooked. Mustard greens are very hot and spicy raw, but very tasty and not at all hot when stir fried or added to a curry. Komatsuna greens are also very hardy and easy to grow right through into the springtime.
If you’re lucky enough to have a polytunnel, try sowing kale very early in the spring – it will come on beautifully and provide lots of meals before you need to pull it out to make way for summer crops.
And its worth knowing that all of the brassica family have delicious flowerheads - its not just sprouting broccoli that you can eat. Kale, cabbage, oriental veg, even the mustards can all have their flower shoots picked and cooked or added to salads.
Beans and peas and others
In milder areas of the UK, broad beans and peas can be sown in late September or October to overwinter and give an early crop. As with the salads, a little protection in the way of a mini plastic or fleece tunnel can make a very big difference to survival rates. We also find that a very early sowing of mange tout peas in the spring (started indoors in the last week of February, then planted out under fleece) is generally very successful and gives us one of the earliest returns in the garden.
Perennial crops are also very helpful in giving an early return; rhubarb, asparagus and perennial salads like sorrel may take a bit more effort to get established, but they are really useful crops to have available in late spring and early summer.
Our summer sowing page has more ideas to keep your plot going through the winter and on into next spring.
Negative Results last year
Most organisations don't tell you what they did that didn't work, but we think its important to do so.
Bulls Blood Beetroot Trial
But it grew so slowly, and made such tiny roots compared to our other beets! So we'll stick with the ones we have already, thank you very much.
The great Coco Sophie disaster
So we're really sorry about that. We hope we did replace seed for everyone who wanted it - if we missed you please let us know. We think, reading people's replies, that the seed was susceptible to some sort of bacterial infection, but only in waterlogged conditions, which was why results varied so much. Anyways, you won't find it in the next catalogue, so if you liked it , we hope you saved your own seed.
Steel Green Kale
(However, the other kale they gave us - True Siberian, was fantastic and you will be seeing it in the catalogue.)
New Things in the Garden this Year
It wasn't until we sat down to write this that we really realised just how many trials we were doing. There are four main trials going on in the garden right now - salads, tomatoes, peppers, and swedes.
They were all traditional varieties collected from old gardeners in his village, and we were determined to find space to grow out most of them. We also have a few tomatoes we have been waiting to try out ourselves, so most of the tomato-growing space in the tunnel was put aside for trials this summer.
We grow about 3 plants of each type. Its enough for us to see what they are like and how they grow, and to collect some known-good seed for future use.
Once we have grown and tasted all the varieties, then next year we will choose a couple that were particularly good and tasty for production and you'll get them offered in the 2010 catalogue. However, sometimes even 3 plants can make a fair few seeds, so you'll find small batches (say 100 packets or so) of some of these trial varieties on the website this autumn.
Some of the Tomatoes under Trial
We have also gone back to our original seed of the Kaibi pepper that has been such a hit. It was quite variable 'landrace' of different pepper types (see image, right) , and we are growing out some more of the original seed to see if there are any other great strains hiding in there.
We have the 'No3 Round' which is what you have all been growing, and a thinner 'Wedge' one, but we are waiting to see what else we get. Anything good will be stabilised and offerred in a few years' time.
We are trying several promising new chillies, big and small, including a yellow cayenne which if early enough should be really pretty. And we have a production run of 'Nigels Outdoor Chilli' which was sent to us by Nigel Green of Halesworth, Suffolk.
This great chilli (pictured) really does grow happily outdoors, although this year we are producing it under cover to be sure of getting really fat and vigorous seed for you to grow.
But as soon as we put insect-proof cages over them to stop the different varieties crossing, then they get all sorts of nasties trying to eat them, mostly put there by the ants. Its a great demonstration of how much benefit you get from the wild insects that live round the edge of your garden, and why spraying with pesticides (which kills good and bad alike) is such a foolish idea.
Some of the peppers in the tunnel this year:
Outdoors - salad Trials
And then there were a couple of other things to try as well in the Oriental Greens group, plus Ben had found some interesting chicories, and the Frank sent us some seed of his amazing new greens to try out . . .
.. all of sudden we were doing a 2-bed salad trial. However, more than half of what we tried was absolutely fantastic & will make it into the catalogue next year, so it was really rewarding.
New Salads and Greens in the garden this year:
In particular, some of the new varieties from Frank & Karen are really impressive. On their family farm they breed such good seed, of really nice varieties - all designed for the needs of home gardeners. We're so pleased to have made contact with them.
We have added four new lettuces, a chicory, and an amazing salad-mustard (not hot) called Ho-Mi-Zee that they have created.
We have also found two new Pak Choi varieties from Japan, which were noticably more bolt-resistant than all the others.
As you may all know, pak choi is a great green & really easy to grow, but most types are designed to be sown after midsummer, and just bolt straight to seed if sown in spring.
So finding a couple of varieties that you can sow in spring is really cheering. 'Santoh' and 'Green Boy' both did very well from a normal spring sowing, making nice heads in about 40 days. It was an obvious difference - the others in the trial just ran straight to seed.
This will really help us all have greens to cook (and for salads) early in the year, and these will be in the new catalogue this autumn.
Help for Beginning Gardeners
We have added a page of "Tips for Beginners" to the website.
We've also carried on going through the website, adding sowing calendars to more things,
Genetically Modified Crops - Ben says don't believe the spin!
I was talking to someone at DEFRA, and they happened to mention in passing
Now, this is complete and utter rubbish.
We must all resist this cynical sales push.
And this briefing to the government is simply not true.
Why GM Crops will have Lower Yields
It's pretty obvious, looking at this diagram:
Here's a plant , making food from sunlight, as it ought to. It sits there, soaking up sunlight all summer, making grain or corn or whatever.
You can see that you are putting the same energy in, but of course some of that is diverted into making the toxin. Leaving LESS food for us to eat.
So there you are. Don't believe it, GM crops won't solve any crisis - they just want our money, and they don't care if they poison us & destroy the eco-system (all that toxin might not be so great, you know) in the process.
GM crops pose a huge risk to the food chain. GM foods have not been safety-tested, and should be resisted at all costs.
(note: Ben studied genetic engineering at the Department of Plant Sciences in Cambridge.)
2008 Report - Our Unusual Tubers
Our Oca and Ulluco were really popular last year. We tried to grow lots more oca and ulluco than previously, but we still ran out pretty much as soon as we listed them on the internet. People keep asking whether they can pre-order for next year, but we really don’t want to risk doing this as we’re never certain how much we will have until the harvest is in.
We can’t grow much more than we are now, as we don’t have the space to sort and dry it all (and our fingers get cold digging them up in December when they’re ready!) but we have at least come up with a way to let people know when they are ready and listed on the web.
If you’d like to get a notification email when they are harvested, go to the ' Unusual Tubers' page on the website, and fill in your email address next to the tuber that you are interested in. We’ll let you know as soon as they’re available.
Oca Breeding from seed
We now have a really good collection of many different oca varieties, and last summer, very excitingly, some of our oca set seed. (This is exciting because the last time anyone found this happening was in 1978!)
Oca normally reproduces by tubers, and only in rare conditions does it set seed. There are three different types of flowers, and the right combination must be present in order for them to pollinate - we think we finally had enough different varieties for it to happen. So over an allotment-sized area, about 20 tiny seedheads formed.
These were really difficult to see, but we did find & collect them. Inside were 6 or 7 little seeds, which were very carefully dried and saved. (see magnified picture of seedpod here, the whole thing is 4mm long)
We sowed about 50 seeds ourselves, and we sent the others to people we know to be good at oca across the globe. We didn't have great hopes - plants that rarely make seed aren't very good at it, & it often won't grow. But in the end one of our seeds germinated, and one other in Belgium.
These 2 plants will of course be a totally new variety of oca, which we hope will be good. The real goal is to end up with a variety that is not so sensitive to daylength, and so will grow better in the UK, forming tubers early in the summer like potatoes do. (This is possible - the first potatoes brought back from South America were also very late to make tubers, and our modern varieties were bred from potato seed in the same way.)
Oca Breeding from tubers
This is due to a natural mutation in a cell early on in the growth of the tuber - all subsequent cells descended from it are the same, so you get a patch of tissue all the same, but different from the parent plant. (Technically its called a 'somaclonal mutation', but that doesn't matter.)
What we did was rub off all the eyes from the rest of the tuber, and let only the eye in the mutant patch sprout. Once fairly long, we snapped it off and rooted it in water.
And there you go - an entire oca plant that is all made of the new mutant tissue. Once it makes tubers, they will all be stably the same, and all different from the original mother plant. So this is another way of getting a new variety too. We have two new varieties that we generated this way - a orangey one, and a yellow one.
They won't be available for a year or two yet, because we only have a few plants of each at the moment. Again, your support when you request the Oca & Ulluco allows us to spend time doing things like this.
We had a few bags available this spring – and got a shock when they all sold out in one morning after the BBC featured yacon on their programme Gardeners’ World!
Hopefully we’ll have rather more tubers this season, as it seems as though lots of people are keen to try it. Although we don’t find it the most useful of our unusual tubers, it is quite tasty, and makes an interesting change in a winter stir fry or salad.
We've seen a large variance in yield from the different varieties, ranging from pretty pathetic to quite impressive. So we dig up each oca and ulluco plant individually, and keeping only the very highest-yielding ones for replanting.
One of our ulluco lines from Cusco in Peru gave over 2kg of tubers per plant, and we are now bulking it up to release as a named variety, as well as the mix of smaller tubers we offered last year. It should, with luck, be available in November or December.
That's it for this year!
Now the newsletter is done, we're starting to process all the seed in the gardens and type up the new catalogue. At the same time we're taking photos and making notes from the trials, and getting ready to put the descriptions of the new things on the website.
The catalogue will come out some time at the end of September if all goes according to plan - there are some really great new varieties in it, and we hope you'll enjoy it. (You'll get a copy automatically if you bought seed in the past year, so no need to request one.)
Once they're all mailed out, we will get to work finishing the harvest and sending out seed. Over winter we're planning next years' trials and production in the garden, and of course sending out your requests. Already we've got a list for next year - black oats, magic chard again, new tomatoes, plus those lettuces that didn't get tried . . . .
We hope you have a really good gardening year and that you manage to save some of your own seed at home.
Ben, Kate & Catherine, August 2008
About the CollectionThis is a private collection of rare, heirloom, and unusual vegetables selected particularly for the home grower. All have been chosen from our personal experience, for their excellence in both the garden and the kitchen. All are non-hybrid, interesting and easy to grow, and will add new possibilities to your gardening and cooking. Our seed comes with detailed sowing instructions, recipes, and seed saving notes. Our new Real Seed Catalogue will be available in early autumn. Everyone who ordered from the last catalogue will be sent a copy of the new version when it becomes available.