The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘cold climate’

Three ayurvedic herbs for cold climates

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

For many years I tended to ignore the tropics as a source of plant material for our gardens, and cast my eyes towards cold places like northern Europe and Siberia with climates like ours. Plants that can acclimate and be naturalized here have long been my primary fascination; but, let’s face it, what would a gardener’s life be without melons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and so on – all of which require (here, at least) the hand of a gardener to grow and to propagate.

The question becomes how much energy, space, time and treasure does any particular plant require, and is what you get out of it worth the input? I am quite willing to start peppers and tomatoes early on a kitchen window sill and hand-pollinate squashes. They’re definitely worth that much to me, but, for instance, I wouldn’t go so far as to buy plastic mulch, build hoop houses, etc, at least not at this point in time. This is all to say that I am quite delineated about how much space, time, energy and treasure I am willing to allocate for a given plant.

Tomatoes and peppers were originally perennials from the lower latitudes, but we have adapted them to grow as annuals and be productive nearly all over the globe. So, from that perspective, there are no doubt other valuable tropical plants that can acclimate to our gardens, even in northern Vermont, without too much fuss.

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)

Ashwaganda roots

A few years back I started hearing about gardeners in similarly cool climates growing herbs from India, particularly ashwaganda and tulsi, so we cautiously trialed some. We’ve had significant success with three of the primary ingredients for chyawanprash, which is now part of our daily diet, and consider these permanent members of our plant menagerie.

Ashwaganda is a perennial nightshade, a relative of peppers and tomatoes, and is grown pretty much on the same schedule – here it must be started early indoors and transplanted out after danger of frost is past. It is more frost tolerant, likes drier conditions and requires less fertility compared to tomatoes and peppers.

We use the root dried and in chyawanprash, and were thrilled last season when, out of the 18 plants we had growing, one set fruit, and viable seed. None of the others showed any sign of even flowering, so this was exciting and promising for it to adapt as an annual here, maybe even to naturalize (though I do not know how freeze tolerant the seeds are). Now we are growing out the seed from this very early individual, and expect to develop our own short season strain. On trial for this season we also have a strain from Africa purported to have high vigor, so maybe it will throw some early fruits, too.

A young tulsi plant

Tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is simply a lovely plant to have around, never mind that, like ashwaganda, it is an adaptogenic herb. In its native India, it is perennial and grows big enough for the stalks to be made into mala beads. It is ubiquitous at the entrances of homes and temples. Its fragrance is strong and uplifting.

A tulsi mala. (Tail of Arjuna the cat in the background.)

Although I have long grown numerous types of culinary basils, I never was able to get a good seed set from any of them, and I assumed that basils in general were all as cold sensitive as Ocimum basilicum, which is even more cold sensitive than melons. I had resigned to having to buy seed for basil, and I never tried tulsi, figuring it would be even less cold tolerant than its cousins.

A visitor gifted us with a plant one season, and I was pleasantly surprised. When the more familiar annual basils bloom and go to seed, which they are apt to do here prematurely from cold stress, it’s all over. The energy withdraws from the foliage, and the plants decline quickly, becoming an illustration of the term “gone to seed” used as a negative description. Tulsi sustains blooming and seed set, and continues to make new leaves and stalks. It dosn’t blacken at the slightest touch of frost either.

Tulsi actually sets seed well,
despite our short growing season.

Since we can get seed reliably from it, and grow it as an annual, it’s actually a sustainable plant here. I sow it about 4 weeks before the last frost, the same as the other basils, and set them out into warm soil. Because we don’t have a greenhouse or cold frame, window sill space for growing transplants is at a premium. I discovered that all the basils do very well sowing fairly thickly into 2 inch pots, and leaving a dozen or so seedlings in each pot. While it’s not as ideal as sowing into plugs or something like that, the seedlings do fine as long as they are transplanted fairly promptly when the time is right.

i

Brahmi in its winter quarters.

Our third import from India is brahmi, Bacopa monnieri. It is similar in some ways to another herb from India that I have had a great interest in, gotu kola (Centella asiatica). They both have been used medicinally to support healthy brain function, and both are swamp plants. I didn’t know of brahmi until recently, but had tried several times to grow gotu kola without success. I like using gotu kola enough that I was willing to pamper it as a houseplant, but it was impossible to keep the surrounding air humid enough for it, even in a terrarium.

Brahmi, on the other hand, is perfectly happy as long as its feet are wet. It summers in a pot set into a wet garden bed, where it spreads rampantly. In the fall, a piece can be put in a 4 inch pot to winter over on a kitchen window sill, as long as the pot is kept wet. Just that much is quite adequate for two people to nibble off daily sprigs throughout the winter, and have a good sized plant to set out in the warm weather. Brahmi is perennial in India. We have gotten some flowering but I’m not sure about seed set – the seed capsules are tiny, and while some capsules formed, I could not tell if they any had viable seed, and I haven’t yet noticed any volunteers. That’s OK, though – it roots so easily there’s no need to bother with seed.

Pruning grapes

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

grapes on the rocks

If you are looking for good advice from me about pruning grapes, forget about it. I don’t know what I’m doing. When we originally planted our Swenson’s Red grapes, we provided a fairly normal kind of wood and wire trellis, which served its purpose for a while. However, there were a few chaotic years which included graduate school and heavy equipment to install a modern septic system. A large pile of very large stones, salvaged from the foundation of what was once a barn, ended up next to Swenson’s Red.

With the combination of my neglect and its exuberance for the extra heat held by the rocks, it covered the rock pile; and it started bearing quantities of grapes that would actually get ripe, and are nice to eat.

Grape blossoms

So, I hack away at it a few times a year as time allows to try to keep it in bounds, and to get more sun on the fruits as they ripen. Recently I was clipping away at the new growth, lost in my recurring grape pruning fantasy.

Kemosabe in ginseng

Kemosabe in the Siberian ginseng

My recurring fantasy is this: I am wantonly snipping away at the vines, when suddenly a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gerard Depardieu yells “MERDE!!! Stoopeed woman! Zat ees no way to treat a grape!!” and he whisks me off to the south of France to show me how it should be done…

Lost in this revery, I was working my way around the grape behemoth. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I noticed Kemosabe, one of our loyal and trusty cats, who likes to spy on me from the shrubbery. Black and white fur, right?

Kemosabe in grapes?

Kemosabe in the grapes???
NOT Kemosabe in grapes

NOT Kemosabe in grapes. Time to go, folks!!!

Bergeron Fava Bean

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Here’s quite an unusual heirloom for northern New England – vica fava, also known as broad bean and horse bean. This is a different species than our more familiar snap and dry beans, phaseolus vulgaris, which have their origins here in the western hemisphere.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Favas are one of the oldest domesticated food plants, with origins in the Mediterranean region. They are quite widely grown and eaten elsewhere in the world, but are not very well known here.

I received this in the 1980s from Annette Bergeron, who, with her sister, left their family farm in Quebec to marry two brothers in West Burke, Vermont probably in the 1940s. Hence, I gave it her maiden name. She said in Quebec they called them “Monkey Beans” and in some years, when they could not afford to buy coffee, they would roast the favas and grind them up for a coffee substitute.

As an aside, I used to have a bean (phaseolus vulgaris – it was a bush dry bean) called Quebec Coffee (aka Canada Dot Eye), which makes me wonder if it was a common practice in Quebec to roast and grind various beans to make their hot beverages. If anyone knows anything about this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, most likely these favas were brought over from France to Quebec.

It took me quite a while to get what they were all about. For years, I gave them prime real estate for phaseolus vulgaris – sunny, sandy well drained soil – and I was barely able to keep them alive. They would get totally covered with aphids, and have very few flowers, and hence very few beans. They were miserable, but I stubbornly kept them going, motivated by sentiment alone.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Finally, I got decent information about their cultivation (Thankyou Alan LePage – see “Radio Talk Show for Gardeners” at right). Favas, unlike phaseolus vulgaris beans, like cool and moist conditions (they are grown in the winter in the Mediterranean). This makes them quite valuable to me, because a large portion of my gardens are on the wet and clay-ey end of the spectrum. Heavy wet soil is no good for ants, so the aphid problem is nearly eliminated by growing favas in the wetter spots.

Bergeron fava blossoms

Here on the edge of zone 3 and 4, favas need to be sown absolutely as early as the ground can be worked so that they can set pods before summer’s heat (we sometimes do actually have hot weather in the summer, though sometimes not). I haven’t tried fall planting them yet, but that’s a possibility when I get to a point where I have plenty of seed to fool around with. Overwintering’s risky with our voracious mice and voles.

Bergeron is not a particulary early-maturing fava, and I can’t really say how it compares in other ways to other fava varieties. It’s the only fava I have any significant experience with. Favas self pollinate but are also insect pollinated, and very attractive to pollinators; so isolation is required to maintain the variety.

green shell stage

And so, what can you do with them, you may well be wondering. Check out Wikipedia and you’ll find all kinds of culinary suggestions. Favas are very delicious at the green shell stage braised, steamed or sauteed. I haven’t yet tried them as a substitute for chick peas in hummus, but that’s another way folks use them. As a dried bean, they have a tough skin, some varieties more so than others, so sometimes it is necessary to remove the skins before cooking or serving. I’ve used Bergeron either way – at the green shell stage the skin is usually tender enough to leave on.

Favas sprouts

I learned about sprouting the dried beans before cooking from an Egyptian garden blogger, and I really like them that way, braised with onion or garlic and simmered until tender. The skins come off the sprouted beans easily. In Egypt they are evidently widely eaten for breakfast.

Also, the young leaves are very good as braised greens, so I plant the favas thickly and harvest the thinnings, which are very welcome in early spring. Note the sticks in the photo below laid out to keep the vole patrol (2 cats) from digging up the newly planted bed…

Favas for greens

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.

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.

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.

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.