18 March 2015

Potato Onions - a strange seedling

Spud onions reproduce vegetatively - plant one bulb, it divides, and produces multiple bulbs at the end of the season. They aren't supposed to flower, but Kelly Winterton got them to, and distributed seed.
One of my seedlings this year has produced a quite unusual reproductive strategy - it has divided at the base, flowered in its first year and produced seeds,  and also produced topsets!
The plant in question is just above the blades of the secateurs in this picture. note thick wrappers, and divided bulb.
 But I noticed a seedhead on the top - unusual since I didn't get this from one season old seedlings last year. A closer look revealed small topset onions forming - lower left below.
 And in the seedhead, maturing capsules, and some mature seed. Not sure how to deal with this baby...

Potato Onions - second season progress

I posted earlier about potato onions, and my progress with the seedlings.
Last April, austral autumn, I replanted all the cluster or 'nests' of each onion that grew from each individual seedling, and that had survived the storage over winter - ten siblings in all, some from spring sown, and some from autumn sown seeds. I planted them 'nest to row', that is, each original seedling's secondary bulbs were planted in a separate row, so all the production out of that row was the result of two seasons of growth from the individual seedling. The Autumn seedlings and spring seedlings were planted in separate patches, but after a whole season's growth, this didn't seem to have much affect on overall production, although the autumn sown 'parents' did seem to flower a couple of weeks earlier.
These were planted at garden number 2, where for a variety of reasons they got little in the way of care - water was infrequent, and virtually stopped mid-summer.

The pictures below show the results of harvest of each row - that is, each pile or bag of onions represents all the production from 2 growing years of one seedling. Colours, shapes, and productivity varied markedly, but every plant flowered producing copious seeds, most of which got collected and has been forwarded to a number of growers to try.

Some varieties were way more susceptible to rots - although how rot set in in this driest of summers is beyond me.
Nice producer on left, diseased underperformer right

marked differences in productivity

Different colours

Left, my first selection - if it's got long storage

Left, another selected keeper, but right is the result of growing out one huge, single bulb seedling. this is special, and will be nurtured
Just for comparison, a picture of the growout of one-season seedlings - again, considerable diversity. Each cluster or single bulb is the result of one year of growth.

There are also some of these misbehaving - some are still growing madly, and some have reverted to what look like clusters of perpetual onions.

And one big flat brown single bulb, that doesn't seem to want to stop growing, that might hold great potential.
And one strange individual, worthy of separate post...

Autumn 2015 projects - resetting priorities

It has been a shocking summer for vegetable growing - and breeding. Very hot start to spring with little or no rain, then cool early summer, a single rain event, and a coolish end to summer. Tomatoes - which have been on the backburner breeding wise since my forays into dwarf Jaune Flammee - have been very unproductive. I've been wanting to cross OSU Blue to Japanese Black Trifele, looking for a better blue tomato, but the two adequate tomatoes this year were Black and Brown Boar and Brads Black Heart, suggesting they might be good parents.

left to right - Black and Brown Boar, Brads Black Heart, Japanese Black Trifele, and OSU Blue. All abit under-ripe
Since the tomato season is almost over, and flowers relatively few, I'd better get onto it soon if I'm going to get a ripe fruit by early winter. Plan would then be to grow out an F1 single fruit over winter, and start looking through the F2s next summer. OSU is still flowering, but the rest have finished, so i might need to go and get some pollen from some other plants I've got growing at my second, soon to be eliminated, garden. The owner needs the room for drainage works, so a salvage operation over the next couple of weeks is in order. Roots, onions and tubers including my saffron patch will need to be dug up and stored.

The parsnip project is looking hard. With only a small suburban garden, growing out sufficient roots for assessment then selection means lots of overcrowding and chances of genetic bottlenecking. One big patch of seeding snips were collected, but circumstances prevented timely processing, and most have rotted. I put the root in the bags with the seed so i could cull the off types, but ended up making everything so damp it all went mouldy. There are a few patches of other selections still with green seed, so if i can find space they might go in. By chance, a volunteer parsnip I dug up while cleaning up a bed had a lovely short stubby form, so has been transplanted into a corner hoping for seed sometime...

The purple round carrot project is also stalled. Root selection was delayed in winter, replantings of survivors went into an isolated corner with low survival, and the three that did seed where mauve skinned, but white fleshed, although mostly stumpy in form. A second patch has produced a little seed from half a dozen plants, but the deep purple carrots I got hoping to cross back to my breeding crosses were grown in a foam box in the shade to survive my late summer absence,and don't look like flowering this autumn. There isn't much seed of this left, so I'm relying on some seed to keep some of the genetics. A few volunteers in odd beds seem to have dark shoulders, but are also reluctant to flower, so not sure where this project will go.
But the search for a better potato onion will continue - post to follow soon...

08 March 2015

Review of 'The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: cultivating tomatoes ,greens, peas, beans, squash, joy and serenity'

At the outset let me state I am a fan of Carol Deppe’s gardening books, but haven't met, corresponded, or received any benefit from Carol or her publishers for this review. 
Her first gardening book, “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving” transformed my approach to vegetable gardening, and indeed took it to a level and in directions I couldn’t have conceived of.

I don’t make my living from food growing or seed collecting. I garden on a modest backyard plot, in dry central Victoria, Australia. I sell a few heritage tomato plants every spring, but probably give away as many as I sell. I still buy most of my food. This is partly Carol’s fault, but more of that later.

Carol’s first book has a clear, evidence based approach, illuminated with detailed, entertaining examplesand  systematically makes a great introduction to vegetable breeding, and why it might be a good idea for us to do so. It’s not driven by any overt philosophical position, but outlines pragmatic reasons why a reasonable gardener might wish to do something about the sorts of plants they grow. The discussions of the examples are extended and sufficiently detailed and situated to enable a clear understanding of the underlying principles, allowing those of us who live and garden in quite different climates to apply her ideas to our own situations.

Her second gardening book, “The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times extends the principles of “Breed your own…” with more details on the essentials of growing staples. It includes - what are to a Southern Hemisphere gardener - some idiosyncratic problems and ideas and novel resources – frozen ground, cucumber beetles and gophers, thousands of indigenous crop varieties – but continues the clear explanations of her first publication grounded in her specific situations that allow the principles to be analysed and applied to new locations. I was a bit bemused by some of the manual gardening techniques, and culinary suggestions, some of which haven’t translated particularly well to an Antipodean cuisine, but this is after all a gardening rather than a cooking book. And it does offer novel approaches to produce preparation that are stimulating, even if they have not yet entered my kitchen repertoire.

If forced to one-liner descriptions the first book is a ‘what to grow’ book (finding and or breeding varieties that work for your situation), the second is a ‘how to grow’ book (here’s how Carol makes a living on her land, now go figure out how it might work for you), and the third is a ‘why to grow’ book, although each is so much more. And so to “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy, and Serenity”. This is perhaps her most personal of the three.

Carol begins each chapter with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, and a short story from Taoist Stories: a window to the Tao through the tales of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu. I’m usually not a fan of aphorisms, quotes and historical anecdotes prefacing chapters – I often find them self-indulgent, obscure or irrelevant – I’m usually keen to get on with what this author has got to say to me, not some exposition of their Classical education or erudition on obscure Sumerian texts. Perhaps I’m mellowing in my maturity, or, more likely, Carol has selected vignettes that clearly point to the nature of the forthcoming chapter – preparing the ground, as it were for the ideas about to be sown. Or perhaps it’s canny cross-promotion for her books on Tao – none the less, they work.

Gardening is distinct from and more than just growing plants. Only the most superficial gardener or industrial farmer would fail to recognise that it is a contract, a symbiosis, an emotional link between three things – earth, plants and people. The first three chapters of TTOVG cover these, but not in an other-worldly way. Carol’s writing is, if nothing else, firmly rooted in practice. These chapters are not prosaic dry treatises on soil chemistry, plant biology or psychology. Good, brief foundational material, peppered with examples, stories of success, failure, and the suprises of the natural world - a good basis to move on from, but with enough detail to allow us to make sense of the following chapters.

The next three chapters outline practical approaches to vegetable gardening with universal application – Flexibility, Balance, and Non-doing. (These chapters are perhaps striking a particular chord with me at the moment – my breeding projects - inspired several years ago by “Breed your own… “ are coming to late summer fruition, while I lie inside recovering from a frustrating but thankfully temporary incapacity.) They are not about busy-work, but about doing less, attending, backing off from our intended outcomes and letting garden ecosystems surprise us. My early readings on gardening, springing from post-war can-do approaches, emphasised double digging, order, pest and weed control, stringlines and spacing tools, strict schedules and fertiliser regimes. The let-it-flow no-dig, flowers-in-hair nature knows best approaches of the 70’s and 80’s may have led to greater harmony, but also often led to ravaged crops and failed harvests. The approach of TTOVG transcends these, and has, and will, take my gardening to another level.

I’m not sure this is a book for the beginning gardener. While the philosophy would have struck a chord, I’m fairly certain in my early gardening days I would have had neither the maturity nor the depth of gardening and life experience to see the clear wisdom in these pages.

The middle chapters cover tomatoes, weeding, squash, greens, and peas and beans, again, with a somewhat North American bias, but with sufficient clarity, examples and explanations that the more experienced gardener could easily transpose to alternative settings.
The book concludes with chapters on Joy and Seeds – it’s a trite comment, but these bring us full circle – the start of all plants, and why we might garden in the first place.

This book has re-invigorated me. My serious every-waking-moment gardening obsession has been slowed. I’m prioritising the joyful bits, delaying the more time-consuming and cumbersome, finally realising that I’m not going to answer all my gardening questions in this lifetime. And this is good. I’ve put a few space-and-water consuming (Deppe-inspired) breeding projects on hold, I’ll be making more room to grow the things I like to eat, and spend more time savouring them. The three quarters of my vegetable garden devoted to breeding growouts might now yield a bit more food, and the additional garden 4 kilometres away may return to horse pasture. My quest for an Antipodean purple snow pea is too close to fruition, and will, however continue.

The dominating theme through this and Carol’s other gardening books is the grounding of advice in evidence, the lack of prescriptive practices, the flexibility, and common sense. Many books, no doubt full of good advice for their situations, I often find prescriptive, unadaptable, wrong, or so tight in their methodologies that I would need to undo years of my existing practice based on the pontifications of distant experts who know little of my situation. My brain couldn’t garden in square-foot arrays, I haven’t got room for livestock, hedgerows or food forests, 3 cubic metres of compost bins or biochar incinerators. I don’t like eating kale.

I commend this book to thoughtful gardeners, who want to grow some food, already know a bit about how their garden works, and want to do it a bit better – and with more joy. But do yourself a favour, and buy all three of Deppe’s books.