Preserving our Heritage

For many years now I have been a member of the Heritage Seed Library, part of the organisation Garden Organic, which…

… aims to conserve vegetable varieties that are not widely available… The collection consists of mainly European varieties, including:

  • rare landrace varieties, which are adapted to specific growing conditions.
  • heirloom varieties that have been saved over many generations. These are unique to the Heritage Seed Library catalogue.
  • varieties that have been dropped from popular seed catalogues over the past decade. This occurs for a number of reasons; their lack of popularity with customers, their unsuitability for commercial scale production or simply the prohibitive cost of trialling and National Listing.

Each year, as a member, you get to chose six packets of seeds. This year I have had success with several of their varieties:

Sheep’s Nose Pepper – once it has ripened up, this is the sweetest pepper I have ever grown. The fruit aren’t huge, but the flesh is thick and, when ripe the taste is excellent. In their green state, I don’t think they are particularly special, although they are fine for cooking; once red, however, they are ideal for using raw and are truly delicious. Some of the fruit are quite dull-skinned and these seem to have the best flavour!

Theyer’s Kale – I’ve grown this successfully several times, but this year it seems to be especially exuberant. When I think of kale in my childhood, it was the curly stuff, which required very thorough washing to get all the grit out. This variety is completely different: with large divided leaves, it does not collect debris and is easy to harvest, process and cook. Plus, it’s very hardy and it has attractive purple stems.

Green Nutmeg Melon – I first grew these a few years ago, but they didn’t do well in my old greenhouse, so I passed the plants on to a friend. He harvested lovely sweet melons, but was unable to share them with me, so I’ve never tasted them. This year, with the wonderful conditions in the limery, I have three fruits growing well and the possibility of several more. I’ve supported them with mesh so they don’t pull the vine down. Fingers crossed that they will taste as good as reports suggest. As a bonus, the flowers have been lovely too.

Blue Coco Climbing French Bean – I usually only grow runner beans, but the lovely purple flowers and dark pods of these beans really appealed to me. Sadly, like all purple beans I have encountered, they turn green when you cook them, but they do look great on the plant and they taste good. I also like the fact that you can let them grow on to produce beans for drying… so it really doesn’t matter if you get a glut as you can just ignore them until the seeds have developed.

Czar Tomato – a bush variety that produces plum tomatoes highly recommended for cooking. I’ve already turned some of these into passata and they were very good – lots of flesh and hardly any seeds. I’ve also used them to make  salsa, which worked well, but I find them a bit dry just for eating raw on their own.

So, that’s this year’s excursion into HSL varieties. There should have been a Caribbean squash to report on, but sadly a compost disaster earlier in the year meant that none of the seeds germinated… well, maybe I’ll manage some of those in 2017.

Heritage seeds are really great for gardeners – often the flavours are better than commercial varieties, or they are specifically suited to local conditions. In addition, by helping to maintain heritage varieties, we are helping to maintain maximum genetic diversity and thus to provide a more secure future for our crops in terms of adaptation to a changing climate and resistance to pests and diseases.

So, if you are in the UK, I encourage you to support HSL, and if you are in another country there are almost certainly similar organisations doing an equally great job… if you know of one, please share the information in the comments below.

Long-term investments

When you plant seeds, you know that you are making a deposit that will not show a yield immediately. Plant radishes and you will see a return in a few weeks, plant purple sprouting broccoli and it will be months before you get anything back (although it is always most welcome to see those tasty shoots start to appear in the depths of winter). Plant winter squashes and you are making a real long-term investment over the year.

It has been such a mild autumn, that we only got round to harvesting the final four of our shark’s fin melons today now that we’ve had a couple of frosts and the leaves have died back. We braved the rain to collect these fruits. The tough stems have been put onto one of the raised beds to rot down and return nutrients to the soil, whilst the fruits with their hard skins can be stored in a cool place indoors to be used as required.

One of them had a little rotten patch on the base, so that has been cut up and stewed in a little sunflower oil and its own juice. Once cool, I will freeze it in portions to be added to soups, stews and curries as required. It turns out to be a good addition to a winter vegetable soup, with onion, carrot, parsnip, leek, potato and kale. The less mature fruits do not need to have the seeds removed, which saves a lot of messing around, but I’m not sure about the biggest specimens. The largest one from today’s haul weighed over 4.5kg, which amounts to a lot of eating and well worth the effort to grow this unusual crop.

The seeds came from Garden Organic’s heritage seed library and I’m planning to save some seeds to plant again next year. This species does not hybridise with courgettes or other winter squash, so should breed true, but only time will tell.

It wasn’t really a high-risk investment even though I wasn’t sure what the return would be, and certainly it’s worth another shot next year… especially if it means you can be harvesting such good things in the middle of December.

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