The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Variety portrait’ category

How to eat more kale – really!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I got excited a few years ago when I started seeing the slogan “Eat more kale” on t-shirts and bumper stickers. I thought, “How cool is that? There are people out there promoting this amazing brassica.” Anyway, the slogan went from a farmers market promotion to becoming a fashion statement (as much as we do fashion statements in Vermont). But, I don’t think most gardeners are aware of how much this denizen of the frozen wastes has to offer for nearly year round sustenance.

early spring kale

Over-wintered volunteer Siberian-type kale in early May

Kale is superbly well adapted for serious food production in a cold climate garden. I have a naturalized population of Siberian-types and Russian Red-types that originally came from Peters Seeds’ breeding program, over ten years ago (Peters’ The Gulag 95 and Winter Red). By naturalized, I mean that I don’t have to sow it (though I sometimes do) because the plants are allowed to bolt, and reseed themselves. They are very hardy. Only plants that survive the winter here totally unprotected become seed parents for me: no winter mulch, no plastic, no cold frames. I have nothing against the use of season extension devices; but, for breeding purposes, and because of a lazy and miserly streak, I don’t use them. Yes, it’s brutal, but it’s my garden and I don’t want wimps for seed parents.

Kale is biennial, so the plants that survive the winter are a great source of spring salad greens. The new growth in the cool spring weather is tender and sweet. Above is a winter survivor of the Gulag 95 strain, in early May, only a few weeks after it emerged from deep snow.

early spring kale

August 2, volunteers in the path.

I stagger the bloom time to keep the two strains separate for seed production. When the type that I want to get seed from starts blooming, we pick and eat the buds of the other type (think broccoli raab) until the first is done blooming. Depending on the conditions and numbers of plants, I can usually get decent seed from both strains in the same season. There needs to be a good population, so that you can harvest what greens you need without denuding and weakening parent plants, and also to have enough parents for pollination. I find I can get good pollination with a minumum of six parent plants, but closer to twelve is better. The bolting plants do take up a fair amount of garden space, and need to be staked – the Gulag strain has seed stalks 5-6 feet tall, and lots of them.

early spring kale

Same plants October 20, ready for winter.

The problem with garden volunteers is that they frequently pop up in inconvenient places, like the middle of a walkway. Kale volunteers can be easily transplanted, but some of my best plants have been those that popped up vigorously at the very edge of a bed, and for various reasons, I chose to leave them there and work around them, even though it’s a nuisance to have them blocking a walkway.

In the photos above and at right, you can see some fine specimens that popped up between two beds. They did bully the peas on the right somewhat, but not too badly – the peas had a good head start on them.

I digress, so, back to seed harvesting. I don’t like to leave the seed pods too long in the garden, as they are very apt to get moldy and/or shatter. Some shattering is inevitable, and OK, after all, that’s where all those spontaneous little kale plants come from. I have found that I can harvest the best quality seed by cutting the seed stalks when they are still green, as soon as the top pods have filled out, see photo below.

kale seed pods

I cut the stalks and lay them onto an old bed sheet to dry on a rack in our breezeway. This is where those crappy polyester bed linens are really great – I watch for them at garage sales. Once the pods are crunchy dry, I thresh them in the bed sheet, and bottle them.

The process of saving kale seed produces an embarassment of riches if all you want is seed to plant, assuming you have good vigorous seed parents. Some years ago when broccoli seed started to be touted for sprouts as a super-health food, I found myself staring at pint and quart canning jars full of kale and pak choi seed, and the light bulb flashed in my brain. So I’m here to tell you, yes, kale seed makes excellent, delicious sprouts. I have no doubt that they have a nutritional analysis equal to or better than broccoli sprouts, and they’re easy for a home gardener to grow and process. Last time I checked, broccoli seed for sprouting was going for $38 a pound at our local co-op. There’s definitely potential for a local commercial crop here!

kale seedskale sprouts

Ground Cherry – Cossack Pineapple

Friday, February 27th, 2009

OK, here’s another installment about my issues with plant names. Did I hear somebody say “Get a life!”?

The ground cherry Cossack Pineapple came to me through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1987 from Bill Ellis (PA EL B). It was put into the SSE by seed-saver super-hero Will Bonsall (ME BO W), who has the god-like power (in my eyes) to get seed directly out of the USDA National Plant Germplasm System. This particular Cossack Pineapple is the USDA’s PI285705, and came to them from Warsaw, Poland.

Cossack Pineapple Groundcherry

I can say for sure it is a member of the genus Physalis, which makes it a close relative of tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) and the ornamental Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi). All of these plants have calyxes that form a papery envelope around each fruit, and are members of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

There is a lot of confusion about Physalis species. My Cossack Pineapple is either P. peruviana (aka P. edulis) or P. pruinosa (aka P. pubescens). The USDA lists this accession as P. peruviana, and calls it an annual. However, Taylor’s Gardening Encyclopedia calls P. peruviana a tender perennial, and P. pruinosa a hardy annual. In his booklet Ground Cherries, Husk Tomatoes and Tomatillos Craig Dremann has wisely avoided the annual/perennial issue, except to say that the genus includes annuals and perennials. I have been growing this plant for more than 20 years, and I don’t know. Doesn’t make much difference to me – even if it is a tender perennial, in my climate I have to treat it as an annual. Google Cossack Pineapple and you’ll find this cultivar name attributed to either species. Some of the photos and descriptions match my plants, some don’t.

Cultivation is the same as for tomatoes: start them early inside, transplant after frost danger, feed well. I usually have volunteers, but they bear a lot less fruit than the transplants. The plants are upright (2-3 feet) and spreading. The fruit ripens and forms sugars well even in cool temperatures, which is probably why it became quite popular as a commercial crop in the Ukraine and Poland. This strain has really delicious, sweet subacid fruit with none of the off-flavors often associated with ground cherries. We eat them raw out-of-hand, in salads, and they make fantastic salsa. I love the combination of Cossack Pineapple with cilantro and fresh hot peppers. The trick is to be sure they are completely ripe, which is easy to discern because the husk turns brown and the fruit falls to the ground. They also keep really well. The plants will survive a light frost, so at first frost, I pick all the fruit into a basket, hulls and all, and keep them in the pantry (65 degrees F). Most of the unripe will ripen in the basket, and if you aren’t keeping up with eating them as they ripen, they will dry very nicely. We ate the last of ours this year in early February, but if the harvest had been bigger, we would still be eating them out of the basket.

I think the name Cossack Pineapple may be one of those very generic variety names, which frequently happens with off-the-beaten track species. I do wonder if this plant’s wild origins were in the Andes (if it is P. peruviana), or in eastern Europe. Could it have been collected on a Vavilov expedition to South America, and introduced into the agriculture of the USSR in the twentieth century? I’d love to know more.

Littleton bean – one of our own Three Sisters

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Littleton pole bean, dried

Here’s yet another horticultural bean from my neck of the woods. Thankfully, I have not heard or seen it referred to as a Cranberry bean. This is one I acquired in 1985 by participating in Seed Savers Exchange growers’ network. BN-17, as it is also known, was originally put into SSE by Ernest Dana of Etna, New Hampshire.

The name refers to Littleton NH. Plant breeders extraordinaire Elwin Meader and Albert Yeager referred to it as an “old New Hampshire heirloom” in Breeding New Vegetable Varieties (1957, NH Agriculture Experiment Station). They chose it to cross with their own Flash in a quest to breed a bush horticultural bean with bright red color, not only on the pods but also on the seeds at the green shell stage. They also wanted pods that would pop open easily. At that time, horticultural beans typically went to market in the pod when the seed was mature, but not dry, and the seed color at that stage is usually off white with only a hint of the streaking and color that becomes pronounced when the bean seeds are dry. The characteristics sought from Littleton were the large seed size, earliness and prolific production. From Littleton x Flash they created Shelleasy.

Littleton bean in bloom

Littleton is not a bush bean – it won’t stand up on its own; but, it’s not a typical pole bean either – the vines only grow to about 4′ long. Beans with this kind of plant architecture are sometimes referred to as twiners or half-runners. Like full sized pole beans, half runners have fallen out of favor. They’re not suited for mechanized harvest, and most home gardeners don’t want to be bothered with the extra work of providing support. But those whose make the extra effort discover that these types of bean give higher yields in a given amount of garden space than bush varieties.

I was always intrigued by the concept of the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) grown together in hills, with the beans climbing the cornstalks. I tried this several times with various pole bean varieties only to have the beans strangle and smother the corn. When I finally tried half-runners on the corn, it worked…

You may notice in the photo below, there is no corn. In the past few years we have had a severe raccoon problem, and I can’t chance growing these rare beans where they’re likely to get ripped and trampled.

The beans growing in a bed with squashBean pods at the green shell stage

Littleton growing on short poles in a bed with squash.

The same season I got Littleton through the SSE grower’s network, I also grew out another half-runner, Mohawk Horticultural, SSE BN-220. Very little information came with either Littleton or Mohawk. For Mohawk it was simply “80-105 days, Indian, 1825 ” and that the original source was ME/HO/L (ME = Maine). After growing both for several years, I have to say that they are identical as far as I can tell.

I have an educated guess and a strong gut-level feeling about Littleton’s origins. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont was Abenaki territory. West of Lake Champlain was Mohawk territory. The Abenaki engaged in trade with the Mohawks, so I think it is reasonable to assume that Abenakis were growing this bean and calling it Mohawk in some cases. The area around Littleton NH was in the heart of the territory of the Cowas Abenakis, my ancestors. I cannot prove the connection between the Cowas and this bean, but I feel it.

Unfortunately, my grandparents’ generation was pretty phobic about anything that might be perceived as indian-ness. At the time they were starting a family racial prejudice reached a real crescendo with Vermont’s eugenics program. So, there was a major erasure of culture, and I can only piece random fragments together and guess…

Dolloff pole bean – a northern Vermont heirloom

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Dollof pole bean, dried

And now, I’m proud to present my favorite bean of all, Dolloff pole bean. I “discovered” this one in 1985 in West Burke, Vermont, just a few miles from where I grew up. I guess I could have named it Gray, after Hattie Gray, who grew it for 60 years and gave it to me, but I like to go back as far as possible with names, and Hattie’s mother got it from a Roy Dolloff in Burke Hollow sometime in the 1920s. Hattie remembered walking with her mother to Burke Hollow and back to get the seed when she was a girl.

Dolloff is for green shell and dry bean use, and is excellent either way. To illustrate, Hattie was locally famous for her baked beans served at church suppers. She laughed when she told me about how people kept asking her for her recipe. She gave the recipe out freely, but people were usually disappointed because they inevitably tried it with some other bean, and the recipe was nothing special in itself. It was all in Hattie’s beans.

Actually, Hattie called them Cranberry pole beans, but that term was widely used around here for any bean with horticultural type markings (see this post about Cranberry beans). Dolloff, however, does not have the usual horticultural bean shape. As you can see, it’s more disk-shaped, like a lima bean. Therein lies another tale. I am 99% certain that they are descendants of Horticultural Lima, as described in Beans of New York c.1931, page 72 (oops, have I revealed what a geek I am… ?). Anyway, here’s the entry:

Horticultural Lima Syn. Giant Horticultural. This variety is an anomaly among beans, and showed certain characters that led to the name and gave support to the belief that that the variety came from an accidental, or field cross, between Dreer Improved Pole Lima (Challenger) and Horticultural Pole (Speckled Cranberry) or Dwarf Horticultural which stood near each other on the place of J.H. (Alex J.-Tracy) Hodges, Pepton [sic, Ripton], Addison Co., VT. In 1885, Mr. Hodges found a pod of six beans, from which Horticultural Lima resulted. He grew it two years and placed most of the stock in the hands of O.H. Alexander, of Charlotte, Vt. The latter sold the variety to Childs, who introduced it in 1891. Ferry listed it in 1893 and after two years tests commended it highly, as did Gregory in 1894. It was said to be as early as Dwarf Horticultural and to yield good crops of fine quality green-shell beans. Gregory could not recognize any of the lima flavor with which others credited it. It was listed by 20 seedsmen in 1901.

The possibility of a cross between beans of the two species Phaseolus vulgaris and Phaseolus lunatis is denied by botanists and plant breeders, all evidence is lacking in the case of Gregory’s Curious Pole, and nothing definite supports Burbank’s claim of a similar cross. We are forced to conclude that certain peculiarities, possibly due to “sporting” of one of the horticultural varieties, or to a cross between tall and dwarf varieties in that group, misled Hodges and others into believing that a cross had taken place with Challenger as the male parent. Somewhat similar beans have arisen from inter-varietal crosses between tall horticultural varieties, like Boston Favorite (Goddard) and Crimson Beauty, which have seeds similarly marked, but long, kidney-shaped or oblong.

Plants of Horticultural Lima were rather small for pole type, not much branched, moderately vigorous; leaflets large, coarse, wrinkled like those of Dwarf Horticultural; flowers starting near ground, of medium size, white. Pods in clusters, 4 to 6 inches long, almost straight (gently curved in Gregory’s figure), with long-rounded ends and short, curved, almost central tips, flat type but quite plump, swollen over beans and constricted between them, dark green, occasionally marked purple. Seeds 3 to 6, about shape and size of Dreer Lima (Ferry), shape between kidney and lima, that is, very broad oval with straight eye-line, about 1/2 inch long, 3/4 as wide, quite plump, marked like Dwarf Horticultural, but ground color slightly darker.

There is a variety offered by the Seeds Saver’s Exchange called Golden Lima which is probably also descended from Horticultural Lima. I have not grown it, but the photos and description look very similar to Dolloff. Dolloff however, has been through more than 60 years of evolution in the extreme rigors of growing in Burke Hollow and West Burke, two of the coldest cold hollows in Vermont (USDA zone 3). Hattie used to can most of them at the green shell stage, I think perhaps because she had trouble getting them to all mature to the dry stage reliably in her cold and frost-prone location. I generally don’t have that problem. We’re only about 10 miles from West Burke as the crow flies, but we probably have a week longer season between frosts.

Dolloff has vines that will grow to more than 8 feet,
so it needs serious support.

Dolloff is a vigorous grower and bearer, so adequate support is needed. When we cut ash for firewood in the late winter, I lop off the long, more or less straight branches to an appropriate length for this purpose. I can get 2 seasons out of a pole, but after that they’re not trustworthy for anything but kindling, and believe me, you don’t want your poles collapsing in August. I use a long iron bar to make the holes to set the poles. The row shown above yielded about a gallon of dried beans.

Culinary-wise, they are great just about anyway you want to prepare them, but we especially like them for chili, baked beans, and in the green shell stage, they’re dynamite to saute and simmer a bit with whatever fresh veg you have in late August and September. Oh, and did I mention they’re low-gas? What more could you ask for from a bean!

Stumbling into plant breeding – cucumber Damascus

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

My Damascus cucumber is not an heirloom, but it certainly can be called “rare”. I purchased the original seed in 1978 from Nichols Garden Nursery. This variety disappeared from trade shortly thereafter. I had saved seed from it for a few seasons before I noticed that it had been listed as a hybrid. Funny, it has always been pretty stable for me – I guess after 30 years I can safely say it’s been true-lined (meaning it’s now open-pollinated).

Looking back I’m really glad I didn’t notice that it was listed as a hybrid, because I would have missed out on this variety entirely. In the first place, I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it wasn’t open-pollinated, nor would I have tried to save seed from a hybrid at that time. Now I know better.

Cucumber DamascusCucumber Damascus

Cucumber Damascus

Anyhow, this is a Middle-Eastern type, intended for salads (a “slicing” cuke). Damascus is smooth and thin skinned (no peeling necessary), and crisp with a nice clean cuke flavor (no bitterness or muskiness). I have never grown a better tasting salad cucumber.

It’s about 57 days to first harvest. Obviously it does well for us here, or we wouldn’t have kept it 30 years. However, I shared seed with a gardener in a warmer clime who had disease problems with it. This has led me to wonder, if this variety is particularly susceptible:

1. Could it be that disease is present here, but since our growing season is so short, the disease is not expressed before the foliage is hit by frost anyway;

2. Or, perhaps the disease is not present here, again because of the short, cool growing season.

I dunno. I do think it’s a good example of how a variety can be great in one location, and quite unsuited to another – an argument for being skeptical about increasingly centralized “one size fits all” plant breeding. Unfortunately, that’s where the most money is for commercial breeding, not with maintaining or developing oddball local varieties.

Will the real Vermont Cranberry bean please stand up?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

My first exposure to the miasma that is vegetable variety names was in the 80s, and had to do with some fine baked beans grown and cooked up by a couple of roommates of mine nearly ten years earlier, in Lyndonville, VT. They called them “Vermont Cranberry” beans. When I began to grok seed saving and heirloom plants, one of the first plants I was looking for was this bean. I figured they were called “Cranberry” due to the bean’s predominately cranberry/maroon color.

My quest was not as simple as I expected. I first tried “Vermont Cranberry” pole beans purchased from the Vermont Bean Seed Company, but these were nothing like what I remembered – the beans were not as elongated, and they had a bright pink cast with maroon streaking. I grew them out, but was not impressed.

Then, there’s also the “True Red Cranberry” bean which actually looks like a cranberry both in form and color, and has northern New England origins, with some sources saying Vermont. I haven’t grown this one, but it’s definitely not the bean I remembered.

Through Seed Saver’s Exchange Grower’s Network, I grew out “Vermont Cranberry” BN-269, which is yer basic horticultural bush bean. The next year, through SSE, I got “Vermont Cranberry Bush” from a grower in Oregon, very like in form to BN-269, but with beans that had the bright pink cast of the “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans from Vermont Bean Seed Company. Still no joy…

Smith's is very productiveThis a really tall pole bean that needs good support

Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole beans

About that time I went out in earnest in search of heirlooms in my neighborhood, and found plenty. In 1985, I discovered that one of Lyndonville’s most colorful characters was a great gardener. The embodiment of extreme Vermont thrift, Alfred Smith saved his own seed, much of which was handed down from his parents. Alfred was known to most everybody who traveled though town regularly due to his annoying habit of driving his very old tractor, with wagon and chain saw, slowly through the main thoroughfares, constantly scavenging firewood all around town. Anyway, he had what he called “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans that had been in his family for as long as he could remember.

Smith's flowers

Flowers of
Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole bean

These are some excellent beans. Alfred used them as a dry bean, as we do. The plants and the beans are large, the vigor is very good, it’s prolific, and early enough to mature here – about 95 days to harvest for dry beans. Perhaps the color of the mature pods is the reason for “cranberry” in its name. After my experiences, though, I was hesitant to put this bean into the SSE network as “Vermont Cranberry Pole” so I dubbed it “Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole,” now aka BEAN 4315 in the Seed Savers Exchange.

These were still not the beans I remembered, but a year later I did find what I was looking for, not much more than a mile away from our home in Wheelock, at one of the last dairy farms left in our town, and going by a different name – “the Johnson” bean. Pat Wiley’s mother had been growing it nearby in Barnet VT when Pat was growing up, and Pat continued to grow it here in Wheelock.

Two heirloom beans from my neighborhood

Left, Smith’s Vermont Cranberry; right, the Johnson

Pat didn’t know what “Johnson” referred to, just that her mother always called them “the Johnson Bean.” For years I have wondered whether Johnson was a family name, or was Johnson VT, but I recently came across this seed listing from Victory Seeds, which makes me strongly suspect that Pat’s beans had to do with Johnson VT, about 40 miles west of us. Here’s Victory’s catalog description for “Gross Brothers Cranberry” bean:

65 to 85 days — An heirloom variety that was sent to us several years back by a gardening friend. She rescued it from an older gardener who has since passed away but who had grown it for many years in the short gardening season of the Cold Hollow Mountain region near Enosburgh, Vermont. Introduced commercial by us in 2007. We have been growing out limited quantities and are making them available to home gardeners. The seeds are buff and heavily mottled with cranberry coloring. They are used as green beans when young or dried. There are four to five seeds per five inch pod. The plants are upright and do not require support.

Victory’s bean photo for “Gross Brother’s Cranberry” looks exactly like “the Johnson”, the plant description matches, and Johnson VT is just a few miles from Enosburg. Best of all, “the Johnson” is the bean I remember from the 70s in Lyndonville (as “Vermont Cranberry”). Sorry I don’t have photos of the plants themselves. They’re scheduled for grow-out this next season, and I’ll be doing more thorough photo documentation at that time.

After a few years of exploring for heirlooms in northeastern Vermont, I came to the conclusion that the terms “cranberry” and “Vermont cranberry” were liberally applied to nearly any old horticultural-type bean – or should I say any bean with horticultural-type markings… and there were and are lots of them. Yes, it can all be pretty confusing, but that is the nature of heirloom plant names… and you never know what amazing plants you’ll find along the way if you set out on a quest like this one.

Vegetables of Interest

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

I was doing some deep googling for a project I’m working on involving an esoteric bit of potato history when I stumbled on this blog. I haven’t seen any reference to it in this little corner of the gardening blogosphere, so I thought I’d share it. Craig’s posts are fascinating, richly detailed portraits of heirloom varieties that he grows in California. I am amazed by the scholarship involved…. not to mention jealous of his peach trees…

Sugarloaf chicory – Blanc de Milan

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

This is the time of year for one of my favorite greens, sugarloaf-type chicory (chicorium intybus). There is no lettuce that can compare to a sugarloaf’s crunchy, very sweet and faintly bitter taste, in my humble opinion. Best of all, it’s early December and we are still harvesting sugarloaves right out of the garden, no greenhouse or coldframe.

Snow covers a bed of sugarloaf chicoryBeneath the snow and leaved are delicious greens

We’ve had a few nights down to about 10 degrees F, but a thick covering of maple leaves is keeping the sugarloaves in good shape, and a pea fence laid over the top prevents the deer (who are especially fond of these chicories) from getting them all before we do. There is now some damage to the heads from freezing, but with a little trimming, there are still plenty of crisp, sweet leaves. What’s in the colander below is one untrimmed head, which is plenty for a two person salad.

Ready to trim

I have been working on establishing a naturalised population of sugarloaves in our gardens, with good success, though I’m still trying to understand their cycles better. My limited understanding is not a hindrance, though, because they seem to like it here and do just fine on their own.

We have about 4 different patches, corresponding to 4 different parent varieties: Greenlof, Cornet D’Anjou, Sugarhat, and Blanc de Milan. There is, of course, crossing going on, which is fine – I’m not maintaining a particular variety. I want to develop a hardy strain for our garden.

Blanc de Milan

Blanc de Milan, featured in all the photos here, is the latest strain to be added to the mix, and I am very impressed with it. Above is a cheesecake photo of a primo specimen harvested several weeks ago. Notice the curving, wide leaf veins, the curling leaf edges, the nice thick cylindrical form, and the shear size of it – now that’s what I like in a chicory!

Purchased seed was sown in 2006, and the plants that survived the winter unprotected bolted in 2007. I pushed the tall seed stalks over towards another part of the bed, collected some seed and allowed some seed to fall on to the soil in the bed. The plants here are from the seed that fell, so I guess you could call them volunteers, except that I aimed the mother plants.

Another tomato for winter storage

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

This past season we tried Ruby Treasure, another winner from Peters Seed and Research.

Now, if you’ve read many of my posts, it may seem like I’m in the business of promoting Peters Seeds, so a disclaimer is in order. I have no affiliation with Peter’s except that I’m an unabashed fan of their breeding work. What can I say – some people idolize rock stars, I idolize plant breeders.

Ruby Treasure tomato

Anyway, this tomato is for short term storage, 2-3 months. They were picked in September. We still have a few left, and they look like they would probably at least make it to Winter Solstice, except that we will eat them all up very soon because they are too hard to resist, even in the name of scientific inquiry.

The culinary quality is way superior to Golden Treasure, but of course, this one won’t last through the winter like GT. Both of these storage tomatoes suffered severe damage from disease this past season, which was abominably wet, the worst I’ve ever seen. It didn’t help that I mostly don’t stake tomatoes, and leave them sprawling on the raised beds. Usually I get away with it, but I’m sorry to say our harvest this year of both storage tomatoe varieties was pathetically small.

There’s always next year, and we’ll definitely be growing both of these Treasures, and maybe another storage variety or two to trial. I can’t say enough good things about storage (aka keeper) tomatoes for cold climates. Talk about a tiny carbon footprint – all you have to do is pick them carefully into a shallow box and stash them in a cool place out of direct sunlight, then put a few at a time on a sunny window sill a couple of days before you plan to eat them. No greenhouse, no canning jars, no stove, no freezer nor fridge burning up kilowatts – and very few ergs of energy required from me to prep them and keep them in storage.

Through the long cold months, there’s something about a side of fresh tomato with homegrown sprouts (alfalfa, kale, whatever) that keeps the winter larder satisfying to the palate.

Two sibling potatoes from seed

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

In 1994, I grew out some true seed taken from Blue Shetland potatoes in our garden. Of the 24 seedlings, we selected six to grow a second season, and of those six, we have kept two over the years.

The Blue Shetlands, the parent, came originally from Will Bonsal in Maine via the Seed Saver’s Exchange, and have dark violet skin, yellow flesh, and a tendency to have a violet ring. Seed was collected from the plants in 1987. Blue Shetlands have some of what I call “primitive” potato characteristics, compared to the modern potato varieties most people grow. The more primitive potatoes tend to have smaller tubers, the leaves are a bit smaller in proportion to the stalks, and eyes deeper. They also may send the tubers out through the soil further away from the above ground part of the plant, so finding them all can be a challenge, especially the dark blue skinned types.

So, here’s our Purple Gold, a bit lighter and redder skinned than the parent’s dark violet, but the same yellow flesh, and tendency to have a purple ring.

Purple Gold potatoesPurple Gold potato foliage

…and Rose Gold, a reddish version. I love the rose star in the flesh. They both have that rich yellow-flesh potato flavor – our favorite for skillet fries and potato salad.

Rose Gold potatoesRose Gold potato foliage

If you do grow potatoes from true seed, when you judge the offspring, first look for culinary characteristics that you like, even if the tubers are smaller than you want. It can take a few seasons of growing out for a potato variety to really show its full potential for tuber size and yield.