The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Variety portrait’ category

TPS – How To Have Lots of Fun with a Few Potatoes, part 3

Monday, January 5th, 2015

I’ve not written much of late about our potatoes, but there’s a lot going on in that area. This past season (2014) I realized that my ongoing mucking about with TPS (true potato seed) potatoes has resulted in… feral potatoes!

For a couple of years there have been some odd spuds popping up in places where I knew I had not planted potatoes, but initially I thought that they were the work of absent-minded voles and chipmunks. Most of the “wanderers” closely resembled some of the Blue Shetland lines I’ve been working with – sprawly purple stemmed plants with many quarter-sized dark purple skinned tubers with varying purple, white and ivory flesh. When harvesting them, I’m very apt to miss some because they are hard to see in the black soil, and the plants are sprawly both above and below ground, so tubers can be flung far from the main stem. (Shetlands were developed in shallow soil conditions.)

Volunteers. Small potatoes, but they bake fast, and are delicious (even cold) for a quick snack, cut in half, with a bit of salt.

I have a confession to make. I’m one of those evil gardeners who allows potatoes to over-winter in the ground. Furthermore I have been doing this (partially) on purpose for many (25 or so) years, and I have been selecting varieties for over-wintering, among other traits. I know that conventional gardening wisdom is that this is a big no-no, but I don’t really care. (Let’s hope the neighbors don’t come after us with pitch-forks when late blight hits next year). I will not claim that any of our spuds have achieved LB immunity, but I’m pretty sure they’re not harboring this disease. For us, LB shows up in the tomatoes first, and is usually pretty devastating; but the TPS spuds aren’t nearly as affected.

Anyway, this past season the evidence was unmistakable. Potatoes are growing on their own from seed in our gardens! They’re not escaped clones!

Among the plants that convinced me was a volunteer who popped up a couple of feet from where a very healthy Carola (yellow flesh) plant had grown the year before. I had no clue that it was a seedling. I just thought I had missed digging up a Carola tuber, and the foliage looked like Carola. So, I welcomed it and tended it through the summer. But, when I dug them up (photos at right and below), the occasional purple blush on the skin, and purple ring in the flesh told me that most likely our own Extreme Purple had fathered this seedling from an adjacent bed. (Extreme Purple (aka #4) is a seedling of Hurley’s Purple Gold x Fenton. ) The Carola had a really strong seed-set the year before, and I harvested the fruits, but evidently missed at least one. Those seeds will be very interesting to grow out, I think. Haven’t got a name yet for this Carola x (?)Extreme Purple, but it’s keeper – a lot like Carola culinary-wise, and good vigor and tuber yields.

2014 seedling of Carola (mother), probable father Extreme Purple, below.

Another “obviously-not-a-clone” volunteer was a lovely we’ve dubbed Extreme Pleasure. This one had to duke it out in between a passion-flower vine and some rampant mirabilis multiflora, and it certainly held its own.

Extreme Pleasure, above, and its probable parent Extreme Red, below.

Fruits from one plant – Extreme Pleasure

I have never seen so many viable seed-balls on a single potato plant, see photo at left. The tuber yield was very good, culinary quality also very good. I also love the deep red flesh color.

These volunteers are very exciting, but I’ve also been intentionally growing out TPS from my Blue Shetland lines in a more normal fashion. One seedling offspring of Extreme Purple is very promising – it has the intensely dark purple flesh and skin of Extreme Purple, but with big elongated, flattened tubers, and almost scary vigor. (See below.) The first year seedling yielded over 10 pounds of spuds, and the foliage was nearly 5 feet high. We’ve been calling it Son of Extreme Purple, but probably a better name is called for…

Seedling of Extreme Purple

So, I have been pondering about how this all came about, because I mucked about for many years, totally thrilled to get even one viable seed ball. Then, suddenly, about three or four years ago, the new TPS seedlings were blooming and setting seed like crazy.

Fenton blooming

I believe that the most commonly grown potato varieties may have been bred to not set seed, or maybe that characteristic was just overlooked. For more than 20 years we have been maintaining three varieties (clones) with exceptionally good blooming characteristics: Blossom (red skin/pink flesh), Fenton (purple skin, purple and white flesh), and Ontario (white and white). All three are also reliable over-winterers. However, I only got a couple of viable seed balls in all that time from Ontario and Fenton, and nary a fruit from Blossom (which was bred for flowering).

Above, what happens after blooming with most potatoes;
below, fruit set in our Shetland seedlings.

The Shetland potatoes, as I have mentioned elsewhere, are notorious for not fruiting, so I was very lucky to get the one fruit that started all this business. I think that pollen from Fenton and Blossom may have worked some genetic magic with the Shetland seedlings. The Shetland TPS seedlings are now fruiting copiously, so much so that they are self-sowing and have gotten into the compost piles. (Potato seed actually likes a certain amount of abuse, so they are apt to survive our compost process.)

The Shetland Islands are 50 miles north of the northen tip of Scotland, at about 60 degrees N latitude, so the climate issues for growing spuds there are pretty much the same that we deal with here – cold, wet and a short frost-free season – very different than conditions in the northern Andes, the probable original home of most potatoes. So, the Shetland potatoes have had hundred and fifty years or so of acclimating to those Shetland conditions, and they were not bred for mechanical harvest, which is another reason I find them so interesting.

A potato patch in bloom

Two Remarkable Tomatoes

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Dan and Val McMurray, or Grunt and Grungy as they were known on the Homegrown Goodness Forum, were fellow extreme gardeners in British Columbia. Their presence is sorely missed, but many of us were gifted with seed and good gardening advice from them, and they live on in our gardens and memories.

Tomatoes were a particular passion with them. When I realized the extent of their tomato endeavours (I believe they grew hundreds of varieties) I had two questions to ask: Of all the varieties you have grown, which are the best tasting early tomatoes, and which are the longest keeping tomatoes?

Burztyn

I promptly received seed for several varieties of each category in the mail. In trialing them, two real stars emerged that adapted well to our climate and have become “must-grow-every-year” tomatoes for us.

Burztyn was aquired by Dan and Val in 2004 in a trade with someone named Jetta in Denmark. There may be another variety in the Seed Savers Exchange that goes by the same name, but is indeterminate. Our Burztyn is determinate. To add to the confusion, the word “burztyn” means amber-colored in Polish, and there are a few varieties floating around from eastern Europe and the former USSR called Amber or Amber-Colored. I may have to try to get a few seeds of the SSE’s accession to grow out to see if they are the same variety.

Burztyn a few weeks after picking

Here’s Dan and Val’s description: “60 – 70 days, det., regular leaf, blemish free amber colored fruit, 2-4 oz. Very good tomato taste, more sweet than acid. A must regrow here. 9 lbs/plant.”

We found it to be nicely early, and the flavor is such that when it’s ripe there is a tendency to ignore other ripe tomatoes. Burztyn seems to have a certain amount of disease resistance – it can stand up to late blight a little longer than some, though it’s certainly not immune. It also keeps a month or so after picking, which is very handy in our climate where frosts can strike any time after September. Burztyn can be purchased at Tatiana’s Tomato Base

Giraffe Abricot has very tall vines

The second tomato is not a luscious tomato by any stretch of the imagination, but no other tomato I know of stores as well. It’s called Giraffe Abricot (or just Giraffe), giraffe because the plants are very tall and elongated (it requires about 6 feet of vertical support), and abricot because of the apricot color (yellow blushing orange) of the ripe fruits. I don’t know exactly who Dan and Val got it from, but it is a Russian commercial variety bred at the VI Edelstein Vegetable Experimental Station.

Giraffe Abricot picked in early September
for winter storage.

Here’s more about storage tomatoes.

Now, as I write this at the end of January 2013, I still have 3 Giraffe Abricots left that were picked in September of 2011. I wouldn’t seriously plan on keeping them into a second winter as part of our food scheme, but I am amazed by their shelf longevity. Nothing was done except to pick them carefully into a flat lined with newspaper (as seen in the photo above), and put the flat on a shelf in our cold room. In all honesty, after 16 months in storage, they are not really palatable – at this point they completely lack acidity and they are rather pallid. You can see the color difference in the two photos.

Giraffe Abricot in first winter of storage.

Through the first winter, they do have enough flavor to make a positive contribution to such culinary endeavors as omelettes, sandwiches, quiches, etc., if they are thinly sliced, but forget about salads, sauces or salsa.

This tomato is about storage, not flavor. It has better disease resistance than the other long-term storage tomatoes I’ve grown. Those others have better flavor, but when it comes right down to it, the better flavor doesn’t do me any good if they are going to promptly rot out. We’ve been dealing with late blight for the past few years, and I’ve found that for Giraffe, if I pick the fruit at the first signs of LB on the plant’s foliage, the fruits escape infection. That’s how it was when I harvested this batch in September 2011. I was not paying close enough attention this past fall, and the blight got into the fruits, so I lost the entire crop.

Giraffe Abricot in second winter of storage.

So, of course it has occurred to me that maybe a cross of these two gifts from Dan and Val would result in an improved storage tomato. I think I’ll have to try it this coming season. A Burstin’ Giraffe perhaps?

Passumpsic Jerusalem artichokes

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Passumpsic blooming

I brake for Jerusalem artichokes (and you should, too).

I don’t recommend car window botanizing for drivers, but it’s a fine sport for passengers, and can yield treasure. That’s what I was up to in the early 1980s when one day, on RT 5 as we passed a local burger and fries place, I spotted a small patch of Jerusalem artichokes just off the edge of the big gravel parking lot. I later returned under cover of darkness with folding shovel and bucket to pilfer a few for planting.
I now have a big fine patch of them, which is a good thing because the burger joint parking lot became a used car dealership, totally paved over, and there’s nary a sunchoke to be seen on the banks of the Passumpsic River. RT 5 between St. Johnsbury and St. Johnsbury Center has been heavily strip developed.

Jerusalem artichokes

So, how did they get to the banks of the Passumpsic River? Jerusalem artichokes, helianthus tuberosus, are closely related to the common sunflower, and were originally domesticated by Native Americans in the Midwest of the USA, where they grow “wild”. The thing is, here in our short growing season, they barely have a chance to flower before hard frosts, so they never set seed. Thus, my conclusion is, any plants found in our area were originally planted from tubers by humans, especially as far up in the watershed as we are.

The odd name “Jerusalem artichoke” is a corruption of the Italian “girasol” which means “turns toward the sun.” Jerusalem artichokes were brought to Europe and appreciated there both as livestock fodder (pigs adore them) and as famine food. They saved many people in France from starvation during World War II.

However, the Europeans who came to this country had little respect for this plant. They much preferred potatoes. There was also a cultural issue, especially in our area, because this plant was associated with Native Americans. In living memory, even Abenaki descendents here would shun anything that might betray “indian-ness”, and for good reason. They were targets of a state eugenics program in the 1930s, which itself was a crescendo of strong racial prejudice that came with the English-dominated European settlement of northern Vermont.

I seriously doubt that the patch I found above St. J. was planted by anyone in the last hundred and fifty years or so. I believe it was a remnant of a Cowas (the local Abenaki band) river bank garden. I have named this variety Passumpsic after the river, whose name means “clear flowing water.”

The tubers of Passumpsic

The tubers of Passumpsic Jerusalem artichoke.

Passumpsic is a very good quality Jerusalem artichoke. It is long and smooth, and easy to clean, unlike the knobby types that are more common. My favorite culinary use for them is in kimchee – they are really delicious lacto-fermented: nice and crisp. They are perennial and can be left in place and dug up as needed whenever the ground is not frozen, and they’re at their best in the late fall and early spring. If given a good sunny position and decent soil, they will thrive. However, I do not allow them in the garden proper. They have their own area off to the side, with recyled metal roofing mulch between them and the garden beds. They are definitely invasive in a garden situation. They need to be managed ruthlessly once established if you want to continue to grow other plants as well, although I’ve heard that if you put pigs on them, the pigs will devour every last one.

Jerusalem artichokes in their own patch

Note the metal mulch. It’s too narrow and is being replaced with wider sheets to be more effective at keeping them in their place.

So, if you happen to be in any of Vermont or New Hampshire’s river valleys, keep an eye out for the tell-tale tall yellow fall flowers, or the clusters of tall dry grey stalks from the previous year’s growth. You just might be able to rescue a Native American heirloom plant.

TPS Potatoes: Who’s Yer Daddy?

Monday, December 20th, 2010

I previously posted about two potato varieties grown in 1994 from TPS (true potato seed) I collected from a potato called Blue Shetland (SSE 1184). I am fascinated by Shetland potatoes, which come from the Islands of Shetland, off the Scottish coast. They are colorful inside and out, and their rich flavor is superior as far as I’m concerned, though folks who are used to the usual insipid tasting commercial potato varieties might find the flavor “strong”. My Shetland spuds tend to be small, but the flavor makes up for the size. They also keep very well.

Hurley's Purple Gold potatoes

Hurley’s Purple Gold, the mother plant. It very closely resembles its mother, Blue Shetland.

One of my two Blue Shetland offsprings, Hurley’s Purple Gold, very closely resembles its parent, and I was fortunate enough to collect a viable seed ball from it in 1996. But, after my initial experience growing potatoes from TPS, I was a bit leary of the time and space required, at least the way I went about it the first time. However, last winter I was inspired to try it again by the videos of Tom Wagner’s TPS workshop at Bifurcated Carrots.

Tom has a genius growing method for TPS that speeds up the process, and requires very little space. I don’t have a greenhouse, so all my seedlings are started on windowsills, which makes me very picky about starting seedlings early. Initially, I was going to get some TPS from Tom but I came across the old seed from Hurley’s Purple Gold and decided to go with that.

seedlings from true potato seed

All the seeds went into a little 2″ pot; about 30 germinated; emergent seedlings were exposed to direct outdoor sunlight; and later the eight strongest seedlings were transplanted to a 4″ pot, buried up to their top leaves. The close planting keeps the seedlings leggy, which is desirable in this case. The idea is to have long stems, since the tubers form on buried stems.

This method is so cool – I could easily see and compare color variations in the seedlings very early on (I’m looking and selecting for strong color), and the individual seedlings’ vigor is also quite apparent when they are grown in such competitive conditions. You can rogue out weaklings early on, and not waste energy and space with them.

TPS seedlings in the garden bed

As you can see, I spaced them rather closely in the garden bed. In hindsight, I wish I had given them more room – after my first TPS growout many years ago, I was not expecting full sized plants in the first year. I heaped compost on the plants several times during the growing season, burying as much stem as possible. This is how the plants looked just before I cut them down.

Purple Gold potatoes

Late blight struck the gardens about the second week of September 2010, so I cut all the foliage off at ground level much sooner than I normally would have. It was somewhat tempting to leave them to see how much late blight resistance they had, but I have no more TPS from the Shetland potatoes (they rarely set seed) so I really didn’t want to risk losing them. When I cut them, there was no sign of late blight on them. All our other potatoes had had their normal end of season foliage die-back, but these were still going strong. I assume that’s because they were first year seedlings, and not because they’re all very late maturing.

Digging up the spuds

Here’s an overview of the harvest. For me, digging up seedling potatoes feels like being a young child on Christmas morning. The TPS I used was not hand pollinated, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I grew about 8 other non-Shetland potato varieties the year I got the seed ball. I was hoping for more Shetland-y spuds, with darker yellow flesh, bigger tubers and red and purple skins. Initially when I dug them up, I was a little disappointed not to get more strong yellow flesh. I couldn’t really see the flesh colors very well, because I didn’t have time to cut into them, do photos and maybe cook some up. I just knicked the skin of one each to get a rough idea, and tucked them away until I could evaluate them better.

So, finally, here’s what I got when I properly opened my presents, and I’m not disappointed any more.

Tuber portraits

#4 and Fenton

#4 left, Fenton (probable parent), right

One seedling (#4) was a monster, producing 5# of spuds, some of which weighed 10oz. We haven’t yet taste tested #4, but so far I am very impressed, and I like the really dark skin and flesh color. My guess is that the father was Fenton, an heirloom potato from Mercer ME I got from Will Bonsall via Seed Saver’s Exchange. Fenton’s one of those Congo, All-Blue, etc. blue/blue potatoes, and it’s a variety that we’ve kept over the years because it’s very rugged, productive, blooms profusely, and tastes really good – a nice baking potato. The other parental possibility would be Peruvian Purple, but I think it’s more likely Fenton.

#4 and Fenton

#5 right and parent Blossom, left

The other real stand-out was #5, which obviously was a cross with Blossom. Blossom was bred in Minnesota by Ewald Eliason with an eye for flowering, among other things, and is mentioned in Carol Deppe’s book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Blossom is a beautiful plant and has very good tasting all purpose pink fleshed potatoes. It’s also very rugged, another of our “old reliable” varieties. Blossom does bloom fairly strongly here, but I have never gotten a viable seed ball from it, whereas Fenton is a more reliable seed producer.

Anyway, #5 is REALLY tasty, and I like the strong red flesh color. The seedling made over 3# of tubers, a very respectable showing, I think. All in all, I’m pretty excited about this venture, though I think I will wait another year before I grow out more TPS, so that I can be sure to give the 2011 growout of 2010’s seedlings its due.

If you’re interested in Shetland potatoes and other TPS projects, Rebsie at Daughter of the Soil has a great post about the Shetland potatoes she’s working with.

My sugarloaf chicory greges*

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

*(from Wikipedia) The term grex (pl. greges), derived from the Latin noun grex, gregis meaning flock…
When a hybrid cross is made, all of the seedlings grown from the resulting seed pod are considered to be in the same grex. Any additional plants produced from the hybridization of the same two parental greges also belong to the grex. All of the members of a specific grex may be loosely thought of as “sister plants”, and just like the brothers and sisters of any family, may share many traits in common or look quite different from one another. This is due to the randomization of genes passed on to progeny during sexual reproduction.

chicory in the lawn

The sugarloaf chicories are absolutely my favorite green. I tried saving seed for them quite some time ago, in the 80s, and didn’t have great success at first – chicory seed is not easy to harvest and process. They are mostly biennial, so I thought at first that I needed to choose my seed parents in the first year and over winter them in the root cellar. However, one May as I was walking across the lawn, my eyes beheld a sight very like the photo above. Somehow a sugarloaf seed had managed to escape into the lawn, germinate, grow and survive the winter. I can take a hint, so I dug it up, gave it a proper place in a garden bed, and decided to pretty much just let it do its chicory thing with a few other stray sugarloafs I found in the garden proper. We have no wild chicories in the neighborhood, so I didn’t have to worry about isolation (they’re insect pollinated). And, I gave up trying to figure out the optimum sowing time (too early, it bolts; too late, not big enough). Now they just sow themselves. I weed them, toss them some compost, yank out whatever doesn’t please me… and eat them all.

The original one plant was probably from Greenlof (Sugarhat) which I got from William Dam Seeds, so it’s likely of Dutch origin. I soon added more varieties of this type of chicory including Cornet d’Anjou, Snowflake, Sugarloaf/Pain de Sucre and most recently Blanc de Milan, in three different parts of the gardens.

A chicory patch just after the snow has gone

Just after the winter snow had gone (early April 2010), a patch of naturalized sugarloaf chicories, 15 years on. The plants in this area are descended from the original plant I found in the lawn. You can see the remains of the seed stalks fom last year.

Only plants that survive the winter in the garden become seed parents. I sometimes give them a leaf mulch for winter, but this is tricky. It does allow harvesting the greens right out of the garden well into December, but it also attracts voles who will pull whole plants down into their underground lairs and eat them roots, leaves and all. I hate voles.

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings

Second year plant surrounded by seedlings.

I make selections for seed parents mainly in the late fall and early spring, just by roguing out (removing) any plants that don’t have the characteristics I’m looking for. At these times of the year the plants express their more subtle differences the best – in the summer when they are seedlings and when the second year plants begin to bolt, they more closely resemble each other. At first, making the choices was pretty easy, because there were a lot of hairy, limp leafed plants and I knew I wanted hairless, crisp leaves. Now there are very few hairy chicories showing up, but, what is fascinating to me is that even after all these years of selecting, if anything, there seems to be MORE diversity in the population. Check out the photo below – I have never had any radicchios or red chicories bolt here, yet in the last couple of years, I have color showing up more and more.

Diversity in the chicory population

Spring 2010 – the diversity in this group blows me away!

Bolting chicory

I have been favoring curling leaves and wavy edges. The result has been more plants like the seed parent in the photo at left which bolted last summer. It reminds me of a many-armed flamenco dancer.

I have also been watching out for anything that shows perennial tendencies, and letting it propagate. Color pleases me, too. As I walk into the chicory areas, I often feel like a guest at a huge banquet table, presented with more enticing possibilities than I can possibly pursue…

And speaking of banquets, you will never find salad greens better than these:

early April salad greens

Early April salad greens, straight from the garden. From top left, clockwise: hesperis, lovage, peppermint buds, sugarloaf chicory, and parsley.

2009 Melon Torture Test

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

OK, I had my rant about how hard it is to grow a decent melon here. Despite the difficulties, and all my whining, I keep trying very early ripening melons.

Last winter I discovered the Homegrown Goodness forum, an amazing little nook on the internet populated by gardeners as extreme as I am, and even more so! There, I was seduced into trialing way more melons than I usually do by CanadaMike, who gardens in Ontario in a similar (zone 4) climate and is also melon compulsive… He sent me seed for some very interesting varieties from the former Soviet Union, and a French one he has been growing with some success.

Alas, the constant wet and cold we had here for June, July and August was pretty much a disaster for melons, the second very bad season in a row. It was impossible to evaluate flavor for the varieties trialed: no sun equals no sugar. Still, it was possible to observe and compare how the different varieties responded to bad conditions, the Extreme Gardener Melon Torture Test.

All varieties were started in paper pots inside and moved on May 14 to a shelf outside along a sunny wall of the house. (That is to say, where, if the sun ever were to shine, it might shine there… theoretically…).

The first challenge was a night that dipped into the low 30s. There was no frost, and no signs of frost damage, but over the course of the next few days that followed, a large number of the seedlings seemed to faint away, collapsing at the soil level and expiring. I suspect some kind of fungal disease, perhaps, or maybe it was simply the cold.

    The varieties sown and their status on June 10, the last day of transplanting into the garden:

  • 12 Piel de Sapo – survived with some damage
  • 3 Apelsinnaja (Russia) – 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 CUM 304 (Russia) – 1 pot survived
  • 3 Luneville – 1 plant in 1 pot barely survived
  • 3 Altajskaja Ulucsennaja (USSR) – survived well
  • 4 Sary-Guljabi – wiped out
  • 6 Gnadenfeld – 2 pots survived
  • 6 Zatta – robust, survived well

As soon as the female blossoms were ready, I tried hand pollinating, but they all aborted, probably because I was molesting them in cold wet conditions, which is asking for rot. I don’t like to touch plants at all when they’re wet, but last summer everything was always wet, so I had no choice. Anyway, none of my hand pollination of melons was successful, and I was kind of surprised that any set fruit at all. Possibly if I had left them alone, they would have set more fruit.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja, first week of October

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was quite impressive. It started blooming (males) on July 11, with females starting 2 days later, and it bloomed heavily compared to the others. Zatta and CUM 304 were soon to follow a few days later, followed by Gnadenfeld, and Piel de Sapo at the beginning of August.

Left, Gnadenfeld, September 13; and Zatta, October 10, right

Gnadenfeld is a Manitoba heirloom variety. It managed to set several fruit, and was the first to ripen, slipping on September 11. Near the end of September I threw clear plastic over the melons that were still out there for a little frost protection, though by then the vines were pretty well gone. In a warmer garden, the other melons probably would have ripened much sooner after Gnadenfeld – when the cool weather sets in, heat lovers like melons slow down, and are prone to rot, as you can see in Zatta.

Altajskaja Ulucsennaja was next to ripen on October 5. It set 3 fruits, and 2 of those, brought inside to ripen, kept fairly well (a couple of weeks). I want to try this one again – it seems very cold tolerant and disease resistant, and the fruit is quite large, even though the vines are not rangy. The plant seems to put a lot of its energy into the fruit. Texture is nice – medium firm, and no rot.

Zatta set 3 fruit, with the first ripe on October 7. It had some rot, but the flesh is firm and dense with a very dark reddish orange color, and a nice melon fragrance.

The one lone vine of Luneville set one fruit, which I cut up on October 29 when it showed some rot. The rot was easily cut away. The fruit weighed about 1#, and had a very dense, smooth texture and nice fragrance.

This last one was a surprise. No name, only an accession number, CUM304, from the former Soviet Union. There was only one little vine, but it set two small round fruits. They were not ripe when I picked them and brought them insde in mid October, and I was skeptical that they would do anything. However, they sat on a warm windowsill, and actually ripened at the end of December. They got a blush of yellow on the skin, and when I cut into them, the seed was matured. Now, as with the rest of the melons in this trial, there was no sugar to speak of, but at the end of December they looked to me like exotic cucumbers. Cabin fever can do that to you, but hey, it works for me. I made them into salsa and they were REALLY good with chili. In fact, I think I’ve discovered another good winter storage vegetable that I can grow. And who knows, maybe if they got a little sun…

Growing melons in Vermont

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

I have no business trying to grow melons “au natural” here on a high hill side in northeastern Vermont. This is what I keep telling myself, and yet every year I’m at it again. I can’t rationally justify the amount of effort it takes in proportion to the actual harvest. It’s a compulsion, like gambling I guess. It would definitely be cheaper to buy a melon at the supermarket, and I’d have a good chance of getting a nice sweet one there since I know what to look for.

Besides, I crave sweet ripe melons in hot weather, the week or so of it we sometimes get in July here. There will never be ripe melons found in our garden in July. The thing is, by the time a melon is mature enough to ripen, we are into September and nights with threats of frost. Sugars just don’t form well (or at all) in melons at such cool temperatures, and somehow the crisp cold mornings of September and October just don’t have that “Wow, a slice of melon would taste just perfect right now…” quality.

A hoop house, plastic mulch, anything to provide a temperature increase would help a lot, but I don’t like to use stuff that I have to buy and then send to the landfill after a few seasons. Hence my stubborn insistance on trying to grow melons “au natural”. The concessions I do make are starting the seedlings early (about May 1, no greenhouse or grow lights) and then protecting them when they are transplanted in June with some plastic cloches recycled from translucent 5 gallon vegetable oil containers.

I have had just enough success to keep me tantalized, but not enough to keep me from grumbling. We do sometimes have adequate sunny warm weather in the summer to get nice results from some very early varieties. Two that have done well here in the past are muskmelons Melba (a Polish variety), and Sweet Granite, bred for northen New England by Elwyn Meader (UNH).

Autumn equinox. Piel de Sapo ready to be picked for storage.

However, there is a whole class of melons that seem to be able to ripen off the vine, and I’m finding that this is a quality I like very much in our short growing season. These are “keeping” or winter melons and are better known in Europe than this side of the Atlantic. Anyway, a few years ago I thought I’d try my luck with a winter melon called Piel de Sapo, aka Toadskin, from the Valencia region of Spain. I thought it was a long shot since Spain has a considerably warmer climate than northern Vermont, but I was pleasantly surprised, and am now a devotee.

November 30. Nicely ripe and fragrant.

Piel de Sapo grows vigorously and quickly sets a good amount of fruit, each the size of a football, even here. I have grown it the past three seasons, the last two of which were totally the worst conditions for melons – cold, wet and no sun. In such lousy conditions, the typical early melons that slip from the vine when ripe have no flavor to speak of, and are extremely prone to rot. Whatever you’ve got for flavor when they slip is all you’re going to get. Although winter melons also need sun and heat on the vines to develop sugars and bouquet, if picked slightly immature they can continue to form sugars in storage. I still have one last Piel de Sapo left from this year’s harvest, and it is mid-January. It’s sitting in the kitchen on a sunny (theoretically sunny) window sill and I’m waiting for the tell-tale melon fragrance the fruits exude when ripe.

Right, slightly underripe; left, slightly overripe. Both tasty.

I hope my wait is not in vain. Even if it ends up being not quite ambrosial on its own, some raspberries from the freezer and homemade yogurt will make it a nice winter treat. Here’s one that ripened in late September, and was very delicious paired with some of our Swenson’s Red grapes:

Next, the results of my 2009 melon trials…

Kelley’s Pixie tomato

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

LB hits

Late blight on Pixie, August 18

The summer of 2009 was a disaster for our tomato crop. It was consistently wet and cold until the end of August, and late blight showed up the first week of August. We had over 70 tomato plants, comprised of 16 different varieties. I always try a “new” variety or two, but this year I had decided to run more extensive trials for tomatoes with storage potential. (More about that another time.) Once late blight hit, I spent a lot of time “grooming” – picking off affected tomato and potato foliage, and burning the trimmings with the flame weeder. I was hoping to stave off the disease long enough to get a few tomatoes ripe of each variety to at least collect seed, and maybe get some sense of the new varieties’ storage potential. Seed for many of the varieties is not readily available.

I don’t know if my grooming efforts were really worth it. It was a lot of work. Late blight is very deadly, but we were able to get ripe fruit and therefore at least some seed from all but two varieties. On the bright side, I got to see how all these responded to every tomato and potato grower’s worst nightmare.

colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes

Colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes

The two varieties that held out the longest and were able to mature a decent amount of fruit (considering) were old friends, Kelley’s Pixie and Red Currant. Both have been evolving in our gardens for more than 15 years. Pixie produced enough, combined with the odds and ends of more heavily afflicted tomatoes, for us to can about 12 pints of thin tomato sauce, which is better than nothing. There were also enough Pixies and Red Currants for us to have a daily fresh tomato ration into November, without getting into the real storage tomatoes.

Pixie was originally a very popular hybrid released by Burpee in 1971. Burpee no longer produces it. I got the seed in 1993 from SR Kelley, a market gardener in Derby VT, on the Canadian border. He “true-lined” the Pixie hybrid, meaning he saved seed from it, and grew out successive generations so that it became a stable open pollinated variety.

colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes

There are gardeners who think hybrids are evil, but that’s a simplistic view of the issues around creating and maintaining genetic diversity in the garden. I avoid buying hybrid seed for many reasons, but I can appreciate hybrids as works of art, not to mention potential genetic material to play with.

Kelley’s Pixie has larger fruit than the catalog descriptions of the Burpee hybrid, but the same rugose leaves, and very heavy stemmed, compact plant architecture, which makes it a good candidate for container and greenhouse growing. It is determinate, cold tolerant, among the earliest, and is the best tasting very early full sized OP tomato we’ve grown. It has a nice sweet complex flavor, and tastes pretty good even in years when our lack of sun and warmth causes other tomatoes with ambrosial flavor potential to taste like cardboard.

LB hitsLB hits

Both the plants and the fruits are very uniform, and quite bullet-proof, late blight not withstanding (NOTHING is immune to late blight). Pixie has no cracking, cat-facing, or other fruiting vices. I break all the rules with them, and get away with it. I don’t stake them. I grow them in the same place year after year. (They do each go into a big hole filled with compost).

Some years I mulch Pixie with grass clippings if we have enough, but it’s a trade off because an organic mulch makes the soil cooler, and here growing tomatoes is mostly about beating the cold. But, with no staking, the fruit lies on the ground, which can be really asking for trouble in a wet year, so a cushion of mulch insures a crop of nearly 100% unblemished fruit. I no longer use plastic mulch for growing. Plastic does work well for tomatoes, but I’m always trying not to buy stuff, especially petroleum stuff that will soon end up in the landfill. I do still use black plastic in the compost area on the large pile of weedy things that need to be killed before going into the compost pile.

Pixie’s fruit is moderately firm and moderately juicy. It’s great fresh, and it also keeps well short term, say 6-8 weeks after picking; and we can them. This is an all-purpose tomato, an “old reliable” in our garden, and I’m quite grateful to SR Kelley, who knew a good tomato when he grew it.

Plant fetish of the moment – hand pollinating cucurbits, part 1

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Actually I don’t crave this seed saving task, but it is an obsession right now. We finally got some warm and dryer weather and the melons, squashes and cukes are suddenly taking off after hanging around not blooming and vining in the cold wet weather. The window of opportunity for the fruits to mature is really narrow up here, and there’s no telling if the decent weather will hold, so I’m spending a lot of time crawling around out amongst the cucurbits.

They're off!

…and they’re off!

Hand pollinating is a bit tedious and requires perfect timing. I did it for several years, but then life became too busy outside the garden for such activities, so I simply confined myself each growing season to one variety each of cucurbita pepo, maxima, and moschata, one cuke, one watermelon and one melo melon. I got away with this because for years we had no near neighbors who gardened. This is no longer the case, and rather than knocking on doors and asking “Um, could you please not grow those Red Kuris or those big orange pumpkins? They’re messing up my Honeyboats and my rare Hungarian Winter Squash,” I decided to go back to hand pollinating.

Below is a photo of two supposedly Honeyboat squashes harvested in the fall of 2008, revealing that a neighbor had a big pumpkin patch in 2007, and there was some c. pepo hanky-panky.

mutt squash

Honeyboat Delicata, right,
Honeyboat X mutt, left

Fortunately I hoard seed, so I was able to go back to pre-2007 pure seed for 2009 planting. We really like Honeyboat. It’s the best delicata I’ve ever tasted. The mutts were actually quite good, too, culinary-wise, but not as good as Honeyboat. They were cute, and kept very well. I did save seed from them, but I’m not psyched enough to spend a few years and garden space to sort them out…

This year most of the melons started blooming well before the squashes and pumpkins. I’ve been able to do some melon hand pollination, but so far no pumpkins or squashes. They’re now just barely putting out female blossoms. To hand pollinate, late in the day, I have to find both male and female flowers that are just about to open. I tape them shut to prevent insects from getting in and contaminating the flowers with pollen from a different variety. Then, the following morning, with some luck it will not be raining and the male flower gets picked and rubbed into the female flower. The female is then bagged to keep the bugs out. After a few days the bag is removed and the forming fruit is tagged with a bit of red yarn.

garden wristwear

The latest trend
in garden wristwear.

So, I’m doing daily rounds with my trusty masking tape on my wrist, little pieces of red yarn dangling out of my dirty jeans pockets and a lot of butt-in-the-air groping around in the pumpkins and squash and melons. Melons to be continued….

Perennial vegetables: Scott Nearing’s onions

Friday, July 17th, 2009

I never met Scott Nearing, though Helen used to stop by my first place of employment, Hatch’s, with boxes of books for sale. Hatch’s was one of the very first natural foods stores in the US, founded in the 1950s in St. Johnsbury VT, of all places. Hatch’s is a novel-length story in itself, and yes, we’re talking about the “Living the Good Life” Nearings.

bed of egyptian onions

Nearing’s Egyptian Onions, first of June

These perennial Egyptian onions came to me in the 80s, second-hand from Scott via Claire Van Vliet of Newark VT. They’re great plants with a great provenance. They are totally winter hardy without cover here and are right out there with green garlic, pushing out green shoots through the retreating snow in the spring.

egyptian onion bulbils

I snap individual green onions off the cluster at the base for very nice scallions through mid June. At that point the stalks get tough as they form top-sets, and start "walking," hence the other name this type of onion is known by – walking onions. Bulbils form at the top of the stalk and their weight pulls them down to the ground a couple of feet away from the parent plant. The bulbils even form bulbils, which in turn take another step away. The sprouting bulbils are fine mini scallions, so we can actually get green onions from these nearly any time of the year. The greens stand up well to freezing and thawing outside.

bulbilsbulbils

Are you ready bulbs? Start walking!

Egyptian Onions are the same species (allium cepa) as the common onion, and further classified in the group proliferum (multiplier or topset). The flowers are few and inconspicuous, and I’ve never seen them form seed, just bulbils. The bulbs at the base divide rather than bulking up to form a bulb of any culinary interest. They are all about green onions, and they do that very well. They survive harsh winters here with no protection, and even years of gardener neglect.

I have read about drying the bulbils to take indoors and force for scallions during the winter. The little in-ground bulbs don’t keep well if dug up, but supposedly the bulbils do. I’ve not done this yet, but it sounds like a good idea and I’ll try a few this year. I’ve found it difficult to catch the bulbil clusters before they start sprouting/walking. These guys are fast out of the gate! Sprinting onions?

downy mildew strikes

A couple of years ago, the patch was being strangled by witch grass. I very thoroughly cleaned out and fortified the bed with some sand for better drainage, and the usual laying on of well finished compost. They responded very well, and were looking and tasting gorgeous in June 2008. Then, seemingly, disaster struck. At the beginning of July 2008 the stalks started to mold, downy mildew to be exact. I decided not to panic and did nothing. The mildew seems to mainly attack the scapes, and it does really wipe them out – not a pretty sight; but, the scapes are at the end of their life cycle anyway, which is probably why they are so susceptible. The new bulbils aren’t as much affected. Even though the tops of the older plants died to the ground last year, they divided and sent up healthy new scallions for the fall and winter.

Downly mildew thrives in cold and wet conditions. Summer 2008 was ridiculously cold and wet here, and so far summer 2009 has been about the same, with a reprise of the fungus attack.

downy mildew strikes

I could dust with sulfur, or try to trim off affected foliage, but this would be a large task. I have an ongoing onion trial/breeding project and there are about 12 different varieties out in the gardens right now. None are as severely affected as the Egyptians, but the fungus is present everywhere. I guess this is a good opportunity to observe and cull the experimental onions for fungus resistance. Anyway, I won’t give up Scott Nearing’s onions, even if they may be fungus vectors for the others. They really are an excellent source of green onions for home gardeners. We’ll just call my project “the Extreme Gardener Onion Torture Test.”