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

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
Cultivation techniques Seed saving and breeding Variety portrait

My sugarloaf chicory greges*

*(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.

Cultivation techniques Heirloom plants

Wild salsify knocking on the garden door

Last July, in a cluster of kale, parsnip, chamomile and beetberry volunteers I had left growing in the compost area, I was suddenly confronted with a familiar and unmistakeable seed head – salsify! Now I have not grown (nor seen) salsify in the gardens in more than 20 years, and never noticed it “in the wild” here in northern Vermont. I thought that this must have been the result of getting rid of some of the really old stuff in our seed collection, hence the plant’s proximity to the compost pile. However, that didn’t really make sense because salsify seed is supposed to be very short-lived, and I tend to hang on to seed way too long. I dutifully collected the seed last summer, and never got around to planting it.

summer 2008

Mysterious salsify volunteers rescued from the compost staging area.

I wasn’t very knocked out by salsify root when we grew it in the past, and after a few seasons didn’t bother with it. I never thought to try eating the greens, though I should have guessed that they might be worth while. The deer seemed to prefer salsify to all of the other bounties of our garden, and would consistently eat the plants to the ground.

Several weeks ago, in the spot in the compost area where I had collected seed last year, I was scorching the earth with the flame weeder and just in time recognized the foliage of a handful of salsify plants. I certainly would not have recognized them if I hadn’t known they might be there, because the leaves look like some kind of thick grass. Anyway, I can take a hint, so I dug them up and gave them their own spot in a proper garden bed.

summer 2008

Shortly after that, Mr. H at Subsistence Pattern did a great post about salsify and scorzonera, which got me more enthusiastic about giving salsify another try, and raised the question of what sort of salsify this might indeed be.

Then, last week, I was scything one of our little meadows, getting to the end of a big patch of buttercups in bloom, and buttercup, buttercup, bu..?!? Once again, I was brought up short on one of my (almost) ruthless missions of herbicide by… salsify. It just happened to be flowering and open, which was very fortuitous for it, because the flowers are only open a couple of hours each day and most likely I would have mowed it down if I hadn’t been piqued by the weird buttercups.

So, part of the mystery is solved. It’s a case of tragopogon pratensis, meadow salsify, and not t. porrifolius, the more common garden salsify (what I had grown before), which has purple flowers. All the "wild" salsifies in North America are originally from Europe and Asia, and are escapees from cultivation. Now, I have been a student of the local flora for more than 40 years, and have never come across salsify in the wild. I am wondering whether it’s a new-comer to the neighborhood, or whether I just didn’t notice it before. It would be easy to miss.

summer 2008

At any rate, we’ll have another go. Any early spring greens are valuable to us, and I may not have given the roots a fair culinary trial in the first go-round. I’m reading now that the roots should be cooked with their skins on for flavor, then the skins removed before eating. Any body know about this?

Heirloom plants

In praise of an outlaw, hesperis matronalis; or, if you can’t beat it, eat it

hesperis in the garden

Dame’s Rocket is considered invasive and is illegal to cultivate in three states. Fortunately, Vermont is not one of them, because hesperis matronalis is, in my humble opinion, a very useful and important plant in a cold climate permaculture scheme. Rocket is fairly well known as an ornamental, and is a survivor (and, yes, escapee) of long abandoned flower gardens. It is a crucifer, a member of the mustard family, but few gardeners realize that it is an edible cousin of those nutritional powerhouses kale, broccoli, and cabbage.

Over wintered hesperisSpring greens

Rocket is reputed to sometimes be a short-lived perennial, but is mainly biennial. What I really like about it is that its foliage survives winter well with no protection, lots better than kale leaves do for me. This makes it one of the very first sources of spring greens available to us. As soon as the snow melts, you can push aside the tattered old leaves and find tender green shoots hiding beneath. All through spring, we pinch off tender new leaves, shoots, and unopened flower buds for salad; and in June the blooms are fine garnishes as well, not to mention fragrant cut flowers.

Rocket blooming

Herbal authority Maude Grieve lists it as antiscorbutic, which implies that it is very high in vitamin C. The leaves have a slightly acrid after taste, that may be off putting for some, but I find it pleasant. It mixes well with other salad greens, but I think the trick is, as with so many greens, to harvest only tender new growth.

Rocket is a managed volunteer in our gardens. Its growth cycle is easy to integrate with vegetable plantings. We leave a few first year seedlings growing here and there around the garden when weeding. They take very little space the first year, and in the spring occupy what would otherwise be empty space. (The tender weedlings are also good in salad.) Rocket begins flowering just as we get past any likelihood of frost, and when the space is needed for frost tender plants. By that time it not as useful for greens, so a few very robust plants are chosen for seed and staked up. The photo at left shows the nearly mature seed pods on a staked plant. The rest of the plants throughout the gardens are pulled as the space they occupy is readied for planting other things, though some plants get to linger past blooming to ensure maximum pollination of the plants that will be left to bear seed.

And why, you may wonder, would anyone fuss about seed from an invasive weedy plant? Well, copious seed production is what makes hesperis matronalis a pest, but the seed happens to be fine for sprouting. It is a little sharp in flavor, but mixes well with milder sprouts, and other salad elements. For sprouting, you don’t even have to bother to clean the seed thoroughly, you can just float off the trash as you make the sprouts.

Outlaw, maybe, but I think she’s a classy dame nonetheless!

Culinary Cultivation techniques Variety portrait

How to eat more kale – really!

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
Culinary Cultivation techniques Seed saving organizations Variety portrait

Sugarloaf chicory – Blanc de Milan

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.

Seed saving organizations

Dangerous parsnips

Parsnip flowersParsnip leaves

I finally unravelled a mystery that had me baffled for 20 years.

Our winters are very long, and in general, we don’t get a lot of sun. This makes me crave the feeling of the sun shining on my bare skin. When it wasn’t winter or “bug season” (which comes fairly soon after “mud season”) I’d often work outside in shorts. I had to abandon this habit, though, when one season I started getting mysterious small burns on my legs that would leave scars for at least a year. I knew it was not poison ivy nor stinging nettles, but could not figure out what it could be. The best guess I could come up with was that it was from handling hot grass clippings when making compost. Since I was not really sure exactly what the cause was, I resigned myself to always wearing long jeans and socks for any kind of yardwork.

Parsnip plants in situ

Yesterday a local newsite had a blurb about “nasty plants,” and of course, how could I not click on that? And there it was – beware wild parsnips, with an exact description of my mysterious burns. The thing is, contrary to this article and all the further info I found on the web, I know that “wild” parsnips and “garden” parsnips are the same creatures, pastinaca sativa. I had been growing parsnips and parsnip seed, and there were escapees from the gardens proper, which was fine with me, as long as they didn’t get too rowdy.

The plants are not a threat unless you cut into the green parts and get the juice on your skin. Beyond our lawn and garden area, we have little meadows that I scythe once or twice a year, and use the cuttings for making compost. The parsnips have a healthy colony in one of them, though I have generally made it a point to mow them down when they’re in flower… and this is how I was getting burned.

Parsnip burn

The reason it was so hard to figure this out is that there is no immediate effect when you get the juice on your skin. But, if the skin is exposed to the sun, the burning starts to happen about a day later, and the skin will actually blister. If you got a lot of the stuff on your skin, you could have some pretty serious and painful burns. The scars can last 2 years.

We have occasionally also eaten very small quantities of parsnip greens in spring, but we’re rethinking that in light of this new information. Parsnip’s appeal as a green is not all that great, anyway. The root is nice for the winter larder, but I will be handling these volunteers far more carefully in their green state.

Here’s a good article about “wild” parsnips.

Variety portrait


Spinach is such a prima donna in my garden. We tend to go from winter to summer weather abruptly, and even when fall planted, spinach is likely to bolt before we get much out of it. Some years we have a great planting or two, but more often I find myself wondering why I bothered to plant it.

There are plenty of greens that can be substituted for spinach, both raw and cooked, but over the years, nothing we’ve tried has particularly knocked me out in terms of culinary quality combined with ease of culture. That is, until getting to know chenopodium capitatum, aka beetberry, or strawberry blite.

Let’s call it “beetberry.” “Strawberry blite” certainly does not do it justice. It volunteers very freely, meaning it grows like a weed. I like that, and haven’t sown it since we first got it quite a few years ago. It pops up everywhere, and any time of the season, so when weeding, I just leave some plants here and there, and also eat the “weedings”. It has both annual and biennial tendencies.

Last fall I left a few that had managed to colonize the more finished cooled-down compost piles, and when the snow retreated in April, there they were, growing like crazy. I am pretty fastidious about keeping a clear zone around the compost area (the flame weeder’s great for that), but I’m a sucker for uber healthy volunteers. Fortunately we had enough compost so that I could work around them.

Chenopodium capitatum in leafy stage

Here they are. That’s just 3 plants, and they’d had a lot of leaves picked from them daily for about 3 weeks when the photo was taken. They certainly responded to the 100% compost! Some of the leaves are the size of my hand, and even though the plants are bolting, they are still making large tender leaves.

The beetberry fruit

And here is the fruit, the beetberry. The color alone is wonderful in the garden, but the fruits are also quite delicious when well grown. Structurally, they are a bit like a raspberry’s cluster of drupelets. The fleshy part is juicy and tender, so delicate that if you touch the ripe beet berry you will get beet red juice on your fingers. The flavor has more than a hint of beet (they’re cousins, after all), and when fully sun ripened they are quite sweet, and a really nice salad component. This is one of those vegetables that you really have to grow yourself. The berries are probably too delicate for a farmer’s market.

Later this season I’ll sow a variety of beetberry called “Sweeter”, to see how the seedlings overwinter. It was bred by Peters Seed and Research to be sweeter and more biennial. Of course, I’ll also take some seed from the compost giants, and see if I can get a repeat performance in a generously fed garden bed.