Chilly and Chilli

The first germinating seeds of the year are always special, in particular when their toasty conditions in the propagator are in such stark contrast to the outside (poor garlic under that net tunnel):

Apparently spring is coming!

Three Things Thursday: 9 February 2017

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy*

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain here are my Three Things Thursday…

Before I get started, though, I have to say that I could probably have listed thirty things this week, but here is just a tiny selection.

First, a mend by Alfred. One of the things we don’t have skills for Chez Snail is metalwork. However, we know a man who does. So, on Saturday, whilst I was crocheting, Alfred, who I was staying with, mended our Kelly Kettle. This much-mended item had finally got to a point where we could do no more – the rivets had failed so that water poured out and the anchor for the chain that allows you to tilt the kettle without getting burnt was detached completely. Cue, Alfred, who braised it for me and now it’s back in use.

In days gone-by this is the sort of thing tinkers did – travelling round the country mending pots and pans – now that’s a profession that could do with resurrecting.

Second, germination. Only tomatoes so far, but what a delight it is to see the first shoots emerging from the soil. Plus the potatoes are starting to sprout.

Third, the kindness of people. I know that I wrote a whole post on the get-together in Manchester over the weekend, but I’m still smiling about the fact that 31 people came together to craft for charity – between them, they covered all the costs and raised some money too. They laughed, they chatted and they created. And then they went home and shared the love on social media.

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crafting a better world

 

So, those are 3 things making me smile this week – what about you?

The big chill

Many seeds need to be free of flesh before they will germinate

Many seeds need to be free of flesh before they will germinate

As part of my PhD research, I studied the germination of various seeds – both herbaceous plants and tree species. One thing that I learned was how many species have build-in dormancy. The fleshy parts of the fruit may have to rot away before germination can take place, or be digested within the gut of a bird or mammal; the hard outer coat may need to be physically broken down (scarification); or the seed may need to have been exposed to cold (cold stratification). These are all ways to ensure that germination takes place away from the parent plant and/or at the right time of year. In temperate regions, the latter is particularly common – guaranteeing that the seed germinates after the winter rather than before. Some seeds employ multiple mechanisms and some are particularly fussy (I never managed to get a bluebell seed to germinate, for example).

In damp compost in the bottom of the fridge

In damp compost in the bottom of the fridge

All my experience means that I knew that the sludge left over from my peach scrap vinegar contains the ingredients I need to grow peach trees… namely, peach pits free from any fruit flesh. The key thing now is that they need to be exposed to cold conditions for a few weeks. So, the other day, after I had strained off the liquid that will turn into vinegar, I fished out some of the stones, washed off the last vestiges of flesh, placed them in damp compost and transferred them to the refrigerator (making use of a plastic box that had previously contained slices of tortilla from our wonderful local Spanish deli… yes, I know I should have taken my own box, but it was an impulse buy because the smell was so good). Here they will stay for at least six weeks before being brought out and placed in the limery. Even then, it could take many months before any of them germinate.

On the same subject, I received some Sarracenia seeds as a free gift when I ordered my new carnivorous plants. I checked their germination requirements and discovered that they too require chilling, so they have joined the peach pits in damp compost in the bottom of the fridge (this time in a plastic box that had contained strawberries from our local organic farm).

Sarracenia seeds

Sarracenia seeds

Whether these seeds will germinate successfully remains to be seen, but I love the optimism associated with sowing them… especially since each was a bonus as a result of another action.

The first green shoots

It may still be winter outside, but indoors there are the first signs of spring.

On the windowsill in my office I have my seed potatoes chitting. There are two varieties: Colleen (an early) and Sarpo Mira (a blight-resistant maincrop). I love to see the signs of life bursting forth:

Sarpo Mira

Sarpo Mira

And in the propagator there are tiny seedlings – they weren’t there yesterday so this is their birthday! First to germinate are a couple of ‘Pyramid’ Rainbow chilli peppers. These seeds were bought from Real Seeds, who have this to say about them:

Pyramid rainbow chilli

Pyramid rainbow chilli

[They] make a bush about 20″ tall, covered in incredibly purple little peppers. They then ripen to a whole range of pinks, oranges and reds, so you get all the colours at the same time. It is ideal as a patio or conservatory pot plant, and is very hot, too!

Can you see it?

Can you see it?

I bought them mainly because I thought they would look pretty, but I’m sure that we will enjoy the chilli peppers in cooking. Second to appear is a tiny shoot of Bartlett’s Bonnet chilli, again from Real Seeds and selected because the fruit are such an interesting shape, described as a “winged bell”. Apparently the plants can grow up to four feet tall… at the moment only the tiniest loop of stem is peaking out from the compost and you might not even be able to spot it, but trust me it’s there. So, we have ‘chilli futures’ and ‘potato futures’, fingers crossed we’ll start to see some sweet peppers germinating soon too.

The pots, by the way, are hand made in Sri Lanka  from coir fibre and latex (read about them here), the compost is made commercially using wool and bracken (details here) and I made the plant labels from strips of plastic cut from the lids of some old takeaway boxes.

 

And we have Lithops…

My Lithops have started to germinate:

Two little Lithops seedlings

Two little Lithops seedlings

They are tiny (about half a millimetre across at the moment) and I can only see three in total, but it looks like I’ve got my very own living stones!

They don't look very exciting at the moment

They probably don’t look very exciting to anyone but me

Woohoo! Sometimes you should grow things for the pure joy of it.

 

Green shoots

For the past four days we have had sunshine and no rain! It’s cloudy now, but the forecast is for more sunshine over the next few days. This is great news because the winter of 2012/13 has, so far, been very gloomy. Every day we record the amount of electricity that our solar panels generate, so we have a ready means of comparing sunshine between years. These past few months have been rather darker than the equivalent periods in the past two years, so the recent weather has been particularly welcome.

Some rather puny leeks!

It’s not just us people who have been suffering from the dark – the winter vegetables have been struggling. Our leeks, purple and white sprouting broccoli and oriental greens are much smaller than we had hoped and I don’t even want to think about the kale. Fingers crossed that they will put on a spurt of growth as a result of all the recent photosynthesis. To be fair, the white sprouting broccoli is supposed to be a very late variety, so I wouldn’t expect much from it yet, but the purple is described as ‘early’. The sunshine does seem to have encouraged some growth from the garlic and onion sets that were planted some time ago… I was beginning to think that they might have drowned!

Sweet peppers

However, there is a whole growing season to look forward to in 2013. The first batch of seeds that I planted earlier this month have started to germinate, and this is always a good feeling. I use an electric propagator to get peppers and chillies started early in the year. In my experience, they need a long growing season and do best if sown in January or February. Most capsicums germinate best in the UK if they have some gentle heat applied, otherwise they simply don’t do anything or even just rot. I gather that the optimum temperature is in the range 20-30°C (68-86°F), but my experience is to aim for the upper end of this. The only things I have sown so far are the capsicums (hot and sweet), basil (for an early crop grown indoors) and tomato and tomatillo.

One year I sowed courgettes and squashes in February, but I just ended up with leggy plants that I couldn’t transplant outside because there was still a risk of frost. In the end my crop was relatively poor because by the time I could put them in to soil they were too tender and thus prone to slug attack. Mind you, that was in the days before the chickens when our slug problem was much worse. Anyhow, the curcurbits will wait a while before sowing… I will just have to enjoy watching the things I have up and running and getting some “Wizard” field beans in soon now it appears they won’t either rot or float away!

Sheds

I had always understood that the place to go for a bit of peace and quiet was the shed… where, in 1970s sitcoms, a man might escape from a nagging wife (marriage being obligatory and involving two genders in those days) and enjoy… well, I’m not sure what exactly, on account of being (1) female and (2) aged three at the beginning of the 1970s. Anyway, it was always the shed: sometimes as far away as an allotment, but often in the garden.

We don’t have a very big garden and consequently, we don’t have a very big shed. So, once the plant pots, shredder, potatoes, spades, fork, spare netting, canes, and lawn mower** are in there, there is standing room only. In addition, when we bought our shed, we chose to have one without windows (the weak point in the old shed), so once the door is closed it’s both claustrophobic and dark. Call me picky, but I don’t find that combination particularly relaxing.

My greenhouse... hoping it will breed with next-door's

In the theory of 1970s sitcoms, I guess that I should be the one in the house doing the nagging and Mr Snail-of-happiness should be seeking refuge in some garden structure. However, he has his studio/workshop (formerly the spare bedroom) and I seek my respite (from scientific editing, not from Mr S-o-h) in the garden. It would be lovely simply to sit out on the bench and chat to the chickens (they always come over to see what’s going on), but this is west Wales and we are considering buying a dinghy and trading the chickens in for some ducks, so shelter is often required. And so, I often find myself spending a happy ten minutes pottering in the greenhouse, examining what has germinated, watering and generally enjoying being with growing plants. This seems to me, so much better than a shed – it’s light, there may be things to eat and when there is a little sunshine it’s lovely and warm in there. My long-term plan is to make sure that there is always something growing in my greenhouse, whatever the time of year. In this respect I have been inspired by the home-made geodesic dome up at Blaeneinion, where there seem to be salad leaves, at least, always available.

My trip out there earlier today revealed lots of bean germination – both runner and pea-beans (featured in the Guardian last weekend). None had made a bid for freedom today, but my ‘jumping bean’has not germinated, so I suspect a mouse was responsible for the earlier migration and that it might have consumed the embryo… resowing probably required. Nevertheless, the greenhouse has restorative properties for me… I think I need to put a chair out there… and possibly some gin and tonic.

Germinating beans

** A complete white elephant, since we no longer have a lawn… the chickens ate it!

Varieties in the veg patch

Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.
William Cowper, 1785

When I started writing my post ‘Variety is the spice of life’ last weekend, my intention was to write about ‘varieties’  and somehow ended up at a slightly higher taxonomic level writing a bit about the range of vegetables/fruit that I grow. Today, however, my thoughts are turning to all the choice of varieties there are… or aren’t… available to us.

To be able to sell vegetable seeds in the UK, they must appear on the ‘National List’. Until recently this was a very costly process, but last year the regulations changed and now, I understand, it is possible to list an ‘Amateur Vegetable Variety’** for a fee of £100. Such varieties are those grown by gardeners and deemed to have ‘no intrinsic value for commercial production‘.  This has helped us ‘amateurs’ to access a variety of seeds without breaking the law, but I would still encourage you to support the Heritage Seed Library run by Garden Organic (formerly the Henry Doubleday Research Association), who have done a fantastic job for many years acting as guardians of varieties that would otherwise have been lost.

So, why should we be interested in different varieties of seed? What’s wrong with the ones that the big seed houses sell?

Well, first of all, listing seeds used to be a very expensive business, so the only varieties that were on the list were the ones that made money commercially… because they were valuable crops in one way or another. Something that’s good as a large-scale crop isn’t necessarily the best thing for your garden. It might be, for example, that the farmer wants a crop that is uniform in appearance or that isn’t readily damaged during transportation. But as a gardener, these are likely to be irrelevant – it’s likely to be more important that our variety tastes good or has a long season. The latter may be really inconvenient for a farmer who wants a single harvest.

The second key point is that seed houses want you to buy seed from them every year. What better, then, than the expensive F1 hybrids, which do not breed true? You can’t save the seeds from these and know what you will get next year, so you are tied into a never-ending relationship with the seed seller. The Real Seeds folk, in contrast, send seed-saving instructions with your seeds in a deliberate attempt to do themselves out of business!!

And then. there is the joy of supporting a small business that sells seeds produced on a small-scale – why shouldn’t it be possible to produce just a little seed each year and make a little money on it without being a criminal?

I have loved some of the varieties that I have grown over the years… crimson flowered broad beans are a particular favourite that only used to be available from the HSL, along with Greek squash, Salt Spring Sunrise tomato, bronze arrow lettuce, asparagus kale… I could go on. I’m on the lookout for new friends… perennial kale has promise according to Esculent et cetera.

In many cases, we have had wonderful flavours from our less usual varieties (as promised by the quote at the top!) as well as beauty… from beans, squashes and mangetout, in particular. We’ve also seen our crops attract large numbers of pollinating insects because traditional varieties tend to be more accessible to them.

So, why not try some of the less commercial varieties? Another little step on the path to sustainability.

** I’m amused by the concept of an ‘amateur vegetable’… does it have a day-job and is it just a vegetable in its spare time?

Jumping bean

Today I have a mystery…

I did not visit my greenhouse yesterday because I was away attending a tutorial (more about that in later posts), so when I got up to let the chickens out this morning I thought that I would just go and say hello to the seedlings. All is well with chillies, peppers, courgettes, squashes, leeks, tomatoes and melons, but what about the beans? There are some signs of life from the runner beans, a couple of green shoots appearing and the tops of some seeds emerging at the surface, pushed up by the roots that must be growing below.

And then there are the French pea beans (a gift from Mr Snail’s eldest brother), which are so full of energy they have started jumping out of the soil! They are planted in root trainers to give them a chance to develop lovely long roots before I plant them outside. So, why was one of the beans lying on the surface of the potting compost? Not only that, but on the top of a module three spaces away from where it was planted; I know this because there is a hole in the compost of the module from which it originated. It hadn’t germinated, so we can’t blame an extra-exuberant root. It was hydrated, but I don’t think swelling is likely to have happened so rapidly that it forced it out of the soil and into the air. I can only think to blame a mouse… but why didn’t it eat the bean? There is a slight bit of damage, which could be a tiny nibble. Do pea beans taste disgusting to mice? And if they do why didn’t it move on and sample the runner beans or graze on the tender leek shoots? Either I have very pernickerty mice or the seed packet is wrong and they are actually jumping beans. I will report on further developments…

Variety is the spice of life

Perhaps it’s a bit late in the year to be thinking about what edibles to plant, but as the seedlings and shoots start to emerge I have been thinking about what I am growing, as well as what I don’t grow and what I’d like to grow…

I suppose that my starting point always has to be what we like to eat or, more importantly don’t like to eat… for example, Mr Snail-of-happiness can’t stand cucumber so I don’t bother to grow it. We did get given a plant a couple of years ago, which I couldn’t bear just to compost and I did discover that the chickens LOVE cucumber, but even so I don’t think that it’s worth the trouble (after all, there are lots of other things they LOVE… apple cores, lettuce leaves, scrapings from the porridge pot, slugs…).

Another question is what is expensive to buy or is associated with lots of food miles? I like to grow chillies and peppers because, when locally produced, these are quite expensive. I also like early potatoes (the first ones of the season are always costly), which can be planted in the greenhouse in containers to get a head start on the season. I don’t have room to grow lots of potatoes and anyway blight is endemic in this area so maincrop are not worth the effort, but the joy of new potatoes straight out of the ground cannot be overemphasised!

On this note, I think about what is good straight out of the garden. A crop of salad leaves is always worthwhile. I grow ‘cut-and-come-again’ varieties, so that we only need to pick as much as we  are going to eat immediately – perhaps just a few leaves for a sandwich. Other straight from the garden hits are purple sprouting broccoli, kale (so good to have fresh greens through the winter) and mangetout.

As well as things for immediate consumption, I like to grow some things that store well… pumpkins and squashes are popular because they require no processing prior to storage and they taste great even after months in the loft.

Then, there are things that I simply can’t find in the shops… salsify, oca, different varieties of chilli. This year I am planting root parsley on the recommendation of someone else who grows it very successfully locally. Vegetables that are unusual are less likely to have a large native ‘predator’ population and there may be fewer diseases locally to which they are susceptible, which is an additional benefit. Sourcing the more unusual seed or tubers (like you need for oca) may be tricky, but we are very lucky to be near the home of The Real Seed Catalogue… a valuable resource and quite inspirational. I bought my oca tubers from them last year and have been able to plant saved tubers this year, so avoiding additional expense. In fact, the Real Seed folks encourage seed saving, so are trying to put themselves out of business in the long run! Another great seed resource is Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library… become a member and you have access to some very interesting varieties and are supporting the preservation of varieties that would otherwise be lost.

So, what do you grow and where do you get your seeds from? I’m always looking for inspiration.

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