05 April 2012

The Parsnip and Carrot Projects

Ms Templeton loves a roast parsnip. But I've never really had much luck with root vegetables in the vege garden. In part, this is because Bendigo, where I live has been in the grip of a decade-long drought, and the time for sowing carrot, parsnip and beetroot seed is spring. But this is when I've been devoting my limited water (Bendigo was under intense water restrictions, virtually banning any water use outside the house) to tomatoes and salads for summer consumption, rather than thinking about keeping root crops alive, and thriving, until late autumn.

Root crops present another couple of problems. The can be rather finnicky about germinating, and growing as seedlings in trays and transplanting them can result in misshapen and forked roots - not very attractive to Ms Templeton's delicate sensibilities. So they are best direct sown in the bed they are to grow in - the best advice is to sow them then cover the row with a wide plank, checking periodically for germination. One cunning correspondent then props up either end of the board on a brick, allowing the germinated ones to get light and grow, but also shading the row while the recalcitrant late germinaters appear. Did I mention that germination is patchy, and can extend over a few weeks?

A further complication is that checks to their growth can result in woody or intensely fibrous layers in the root. Not very toothsome on the plate.

And they like soft, yielding soil, not too heavily manured - heavy soil, or too much manure can result in forking or hairy roots. Bendigo's climate, and stony, skeletal sedimentary soils aren't therefore particularly suited to root crop horticulture.

But with a couple of La Nina years filling the tanks and lifting the water restrictions, and a newly vacant bed with lovely soil, I thought - why not have a go at breeding up some heavy soil root crops?

Short-rooted carrots are available - but only come in one colour - orange. On the few occasions I've had success with carrots, sneeking them into a corner of the seasons, I've grown 'Baby' variety. Nice, sweet carrot, but how come there aren't purple, yellow and white short rooted carrots? I already had some purple carrot seed from a few years ago, when i had some success with '3 Colours Purple', and there was a bag of home-collected seed in the door of the beer fridge. And a couple of carrots were going to seed in the asparagus patch - leftovers from a relatively unsuccessful crop a couple of years ago that had dropped some seed and few volunteers had come up, and been ignored.

And there was a grower at the local monthly farmers' market who sold purple, white and yellow long rooted carrots - I could just buy some, replant them, and grow them out for seed.

So, the plan is to sow coloured carrots, and short rooted carrots, let them cross, and then select for short rooted coloured carrots. Easy! (not).

Carrots suffer from inbreeding depression - collecting seed from just a couple of plants doesn't give sufficient genetic diversity, and after a few generations, the quality declines. So a big population of seeding plants is required. No single best plant, individual pollination here - it's mass selection time. This is going to require a bit of growing bed space.

And there is a second complication - some varieties for sale are F1 hybrids. So you ask, how does a seed company get F1 hybrids if they need lots of outcrossing between plants to maintain vigour? they can't go around individually pollinating flowers. Carrots are Umbelifereae - they have huge complex flowerheads, with tiny individual flowers - not the place for individual cross pollination, particullarly if you need to produce masses of seed for sale.

They use a genetic trait that is very useful for them, but nasty for the individual breeder - male sterility (thanks to Joseph over at Homegrown Goodness for this info). Some lines of carrots (and other commercial crops) carry a gene for male sterility - they don't producce pollen. So to get an F1 hybrid, plant lots of male sterile seed next to another variety that produces pollen, and any seed from the male sterile plants will be hybrid - it can't have pollinated itself, since it doesn't produce pollen. Why is this bad for the ameteur breeder? Because the male sterility is confered on the offspring. So unless you want a pollen sterile line, best not to incorporate these into your germplasm.

Pity I didn't realise this before I sowed seed - but not to worry, I'll just eat those ones.
So my seed sowing is
3 Colours Purple - for purple
Chantenay - for short stumpy roots
Baby  - ditto
French Round - for golf ball shape

and my mistakes -
 Harlequin F1 multicolour (which might not be male sterile)
Purple Haze F1 purple over orange centre - which i guess is male sterile.

I've also got some heritage varieties as replacement, 'Belgian White' and 'Lobbericher'- these will probably go in this weekend.

Parsnips need their own post...

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