Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Book Review: Gardening Myths and Misconceptions

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Professor Walsh: So, the Slayer.

Buffy: Yeah, that’s me.

Professor Walsh: We thought you were a myth.

Buffy: Well, you were myth-taken.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A New Man

Gardening myths and misconceptions

Anyone who has an interest in organic vegetable gardening, or No Dig techniques, is likely to have a book by Charles Dowding on their shelf – he is considered to be an expert on those subjects. His latest book, just published by Green Books, is a bit different. In Gardening Myths and Misconceptions he’s doesn’t aim to tell you how to garden, but rather identifies pieces of gardening lore that we could perhaps do without.

It’s a topic I’ve touched on here before. Although some of the traditional gardening ‘wisdom’ handed down (possibly through generations) is helpful, some needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. There aren’t many gardening axioms that are appropriate for all gardens, at all times.

In his introduction, Dowding affirms himself to be a person with a questioning nature, and most of the advice in the book to be based on his own years of experience. He would like to free us all to garden in our own way, less stifled by the rules that are handed down.

The book is then divided into chapters that cover different aspects of gardening, and the myths and misconceptions that pertain to them. Chapter 2 is on sowing and planting and, among other things, reminds us that not all seeds need to be sown in spring. There’s also a section on transplanting root vegetables.

Chapter 3 is on watering, and recaps some scientific evidence that putting shards in the bottom of your containers and that watering in the middle of the day doesn’t burn plant leaves.

Moving through vegetable garden planning and design (chapter 4) to annual vegetables (chapter 5), Dowding tells us that – according to his own experiments – grafted vegetable plants (e.g. tomatoes) aren’t actually worth the extra investment in terms of the resulting increase in yields (something that flies in the face of anecdotal evidence – I haven’t heard anyone else say anything less than positive about them, but they are the latest thing and so very new).

Chapter 6 covers trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables, and there are some interesting snippets here about whether perennial vegetables can be as productive as conventional annual and biennial ones. Dowding recommends ditching the forcing pots for an easier life, a sentiment unlikely to go down well with anyone who has invested money in one of those lovely Victorian-style terracotta forcing pots.

Chapter 7 (manuring and fertilizing) admits that making liquid feeds is a lot less smelly if you don’t drown your source plants (something I have been saying for years) and is followed by a chapter on making and using compost.

Chapter 9 is on soil structure and care (one of Dowding’s specialities) and chapter 10 talks about pests, diseases and weeds.

Reading the book brought to mind the Telegraph’s recent article that tried to divide the gardening world into “young hort” gardeners, into recycling, guerrilla gardening and unusual edibles and “trad hort” gardeners – stuck in a world of double-digging, spraying the roses for black spot and splashing out on fancy compost bins. The suggestion has caused outrage in the less traditional, but not young gardeners, (including me!) who identified more with “young hort”. I am declaring us “young at hort” and moving on.

Gardeners firmly in the “young at hort” camp, who have been keeping pace with developments in horticulture may not find much new information in this book. “Trad hort” gardeners may not wish to be convinced that their way of doing things is unnecessarily hard work. The audience for this book would therefore seem to be the middle ground. Gardeners, perhaps new gardeners, taught in the traditional horticultural style but who have an inkling that there might be a better way. It’s a nicely produced book, a small hardback with an attractive cover design, and would make a nice gift. But for whom? I’m sure you know better than I. As I’m sure Mr Dowding would agree, we need to trust our own judgment more :)

Gardening Myths and Misconceptions
by Charles Dowding
Hardback, 96 pages, RRP £9.99
ISBN 9780857842046
Publisher: Green Books

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy by the publisher, but my words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Apr 7, 2014 ·

Tag: books

The Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs Tour

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On the fence

It’s only a month until the publication of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, and in true plant hunter style I am donning my pith helmet and setting off on an adventure, exploring the digital world oin my virtual book tour.

I don’t have to go too far today, as I’m hosting a special edition of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show, including a reading from the book. Here’s the tentative schedule for the rest of the tour, which will shape up as the month continues (shout if you’d like to fill an empty slot):

I’m also tweeting and updating the Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs Facebook page with related content.

You can preview the book over at Smashwords, and it’s available to pre-order on NOOK.

If you’re writing about the book, you can find cover images and photos of me that you can link to or download on the book homepage.

Posted in Blog on Apr 1, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 22, 2014

Tags: books & unusual.

March Berry-go-round: Unusual edible plants

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Welcome to the March edition of the Berry-go-round, a blog carnival devoted to all that’s wonderful and intriguing about Earth’s flora. This month I set a theme of “Unusual Edible Plants”, and bloggers from far and wide duly rose to the challenge.

Tamarisk Tree
Tamarisk Tree, by Robert Wallace, on Flickr

Gravity’s Rainbow took the opportunity to bring our attention to a post from the archives. Invasive species – making the best of a bad situation raises an important issue. What do we do about introduced species that turn out to be invasive in their new environment? Control of these species is often a costly, and largely impossible, task. Perhaps putting them to good use would be a better use of our resources?

Licorice seedlings, from tangent ramblings

The licorice seedlings Jeanette from tangent ramblings is growing with Aspirations of a licorice harvest are unlikely to cause any weed problems – the roots will be far too tasty to leave in the ground. And what is Jeanette planning on doing with the resulting bounty? Brewing licorice beer!

Quercus agrifolia
Coast Live Oak, by Eric Hunt, on Flickr

If brewing your own licorice beer from scratch sounds like hard work, then you’re going to be exhausted just reading about how to make acorn atole, over at In the Company of Plants and Rocks. The title spells it out: Acorn atole – not a convenience food. But acorn flour was a staple food of Native Americans in California, when they had no option but to grind, leech and bake their acorn harvest by hand. The result was a highly nutritious, and long-storing food. These days it’s only made for special occasions, even though modern technology makes the process much easier.

Ackee fruit by Loren Sztajer (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It’s the presence of tannins that makes the process of processing acorns so laborious. The ackee fruit brings food preparation to a whole new level – as Nature’s Poisons points out, ackee fruit are both deadly and delicious. A native of West Africa, ackee was brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century, and now forms one half of Jamaica’s famous ackee and saltfish dish.

Only the fleshy arilli are eaten, with the rest of the fruit discarded. Even then, you’re not entirely safe – the flesh is poisonous unless completely ripe, and the US bans importation of fresh ackee in the hope of avoiding poisoning cases.

Muskatnuss / nutmeg / noix de muscade /
Nutmeg, by Carmen Eisbär, on Flickr

You may be wondering why people go to such lengths to eat potentially poisonous foods, but in all likelihood you have one or two kicking around in your kitchen at home. Compound Interest has done a lovely article on the hallucinogen in your kitchen – the chemistry of nutmeg this month. Although nutmeg does get some attention as a possible “legal high”, ingesting more than a couple of muffin’s worth in one go is probably a bad idea, and Compound Interest tells us why.

Andean Roots, from Radix

As this month’s Berry-go-round has largely been a round-up of the time consuming and terrifying aspects of unusual plants, I’m going to end on a happier note :)

The wondrous Radix blog, home of the internet’s resident expert on all aspects of edible buried treasure, has recently celebrated its fifth birthday. As a special treat for us, Rhizowen wrote up a summary of everything his root crop research and ruminations have produced so far, in Radix: Alive at Five. Oca, mauka, ulluco and ahipa are just some of the unusual underground edibles he covers.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s round-up of planty goodness. Keep an eye on the Berry-go-round blog to find out where we’re headed next month :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 31, 2014 ·

Tags: ethnobotany & unusual.

Carl Legge's Oca pizza recipe

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As promised, an exclusive new oca pizza recipe from Carl Legge. I also have instructions on how to grow oca, if you’re giving it a go this year.

oca tubers

Oca is a very tasty and useful vegetable tuber. It grows well for me in North Wales. It’s good ground cover and polycrops well with taller partners such as tomatoes. Fresh picked and raw, many varieties have a lemony (oxalic acid) taste which goes after exposure to the sun. The cooked taste is sweet. The texture ranges from that of a slightly less crunchy water chestnut to a soft puree which depends on the variety and how much you’ve cooked them.

Cooked they can be steamed, boiled, roasted, fried or sauteed. They can be used in sweet or savoury dishes and preserved or frozen.

When we first started to grow them in 2011, I tried to find traditional recipes for them, without much success. Lost Crops of the Incas says that: “In Mexico, oca is commonly sprinkled with salt, lemon, and hot pepper, and eaten raw.” The other recipes for them I could find were for roasted oca, or oca used in meat stews.

So I thought I’d have a go at producing a set of new recipes for oca in its new home. I’ve already written about Oca Homity Pie and Warm Oca Salad.

Here I give you oca used as a pizza topping. I think this is a first on the internet, although I’m very happy to be proved wrong.

This is delicious! The oca are sweet and they have a little bite still. I think the oca look like jewels: the colour variation with fresh coriander garnish certainly makes a visually striking pizza.

oca pizza

Oca Pizza Recipe

This makes one pizza of about 23cm (9 inches) circumference.

Pizza is best cooked in an oven as hot as you can get it, with the oven shelf in the top half. So preheat your oven to at least 230°C, higher if you can. I cook my pizzas on baking paper on a granite baking stone. If you’re not lucky enough to have a baking stone or a pizza stone, make the pizza up on oiled greaseproof paper or tinfoil and then place on a pre-heated oven tray to cook. This will give you a nice crisp bottom.

This pizza is great at room temperature too.


For the topping

350g of oca, cleaned and any damage cut away
Some pesto (any of basil, wild garlic, rocket will do) or parsley persillade or similar (there are recipes in The Permaculture Kitchen for these)
200g mozzarella
1-2tsp ground coriander (best if freshly done with coriander seed)
1/3-1/2 nutmeg, finely grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olilve oil
Fresh coriander to garnish

For the pizza

This quantity of dough makes enough for two 23cm (9 inch) pizzas. It’s not really worth doing any less. So make a second pizza with another topping, or cover and pop in the fridge to make a pizza or garlic bread the next day.

500g of strong white bread flour (or Typo ’00 flour)
5g (1tsp) fast action yeast
5g (tsp) finely ground sea salt
30g (1tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
350g warm water (it’s best to weigh for accuracy)


Make the pizza dough first.

Pop all the ingredients together in a bowl. You can use your hands, a food processor, or a stand mixer with dough hook. Mix the ingredients together until all the flour is wet and the ingredients are well incorporated. The dough will be sticky, don’t worry. The wetter dough helps you get a thinner base. Cover and leave in a warm place for 10 minutes.

Then do a quick knead of the dough like this. Bring the top (North) of the dough to the middle. Then do the same with East, South and West parts. Then do North-East, South-East, South-West and North-West. I call this a ‘Compass Knead’. Cover again and leave in a warm place for 10 minutes.

Then do another Compass Knead and leave, covered in a warm place for 10 minutes. Do one final Compass Knead and leave in a warm place for 30-50 minutes until the dough has risen by 50-100%.

The dough is now ready to use. You can keep it in the fridge, covered until you need to use it.

While the dough is proving you can prepare the oca.

Steam the oca for 5 minutes and allow to cool. If you don’t have a steamer improvise with a sieve or colander over a saucepan, or just put 5mm of boiling water into a pan and pop the oca in there, cook covered and then drain & cool. The vibrance of the colours fades a little, so don’t worry.

Cut the oca lengthways in half.

Now assemble the pizza (your oven is preheated isn’t it? And if you need a heated oven tray, you’ve got that in too?).

Get your oiled greaseproof paper or tinfoil ready. You may find that it’s easier to handle the dough if you oil your hands.

Divide the dough in two. Make one of the parts of the dough into a rough flat disc with your hands and pop the other in the fridge, covered.

pizza dough

Place the dough disc in the middle of your paper or tinfoil and then gently press and the dough into the shape you want. Coax it, you want to gently stretch it into shape and size, not tear it. You can make a little border round the edge to keep everything in place.

Then take your pesto or similar (I used wild garlic pesto) and spread it thinly over the pizza base, but not the edges.

Arrange your oca halves prettily over the base with the cut side down. Press the oca in slightly to fix.

Tear the mozzarella into small walnut sized pieces and arrange these between the oca, overlapping them slightly.

Sprinkle the ground coriander and grate the nutmeg over the oca and mozzarella. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Drizzle a little extra virgin oilve oil over the pizza.

raw pizza

Pop the pizza onto your hot oven tray or baking stone and bake until the dough is brown and crisp and the mozzarella is nicely melted and has some colour.

oca pizza

Sprinkle over some fresh coriander leaves to garnish and lift the flavours and tuck in.

Simple and delicious, I hope you enjoy it.

There are recipes for delicious pizzas and much more in The Permaculture Kitchen.

Carl is launching his new book, The Permaculture Kitchen at the Edible Garden Show today, so if you’re going then make sure to seek him! If, like me, you can’t make it to the show this year then you can buy a signed copy direct from Carl, and there are details on his website.

Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation
Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation, Board on Science and Technology for
International Development, National Research Council
ISBN: 0-309-54691-5, 428 pages, 6 × 9, (1989)

Posted in Blog on Mar 29, 2014 ·

Tags: food & unusual.

How to grow oca

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Oca seed tubers

For my Masters dissertation last year I did some research into gardeners who choose to grow unusual edible crops. I settled on two species to investigate, achocha and oca. In the past I’ve written about how to grow achocha – it’s a nice, easy plant and in a temperate climate you should have no problems getting a significant yield. You may have more of a problem dealing with the glut….

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa ) isn’t quite as simple. It’s increasingly easy to get hold of tubers in the UK, with them being marketed as very similar to potatoes – but without the risk of your plants being devastated by blight. But my research showed that many of the people who do try oca find their yields to be very disappointing. So how do you grow oca for the best results?

In its homeland, the Andes, oca is known only as a cultivated plant; it’s closest wild relative is still a bit of a mystery. There are lots of different varieties planted there; they come in different colours, and they’re used for different purposes*. Some have been bred to be eaten raw, some are best when cooked and still others are bitter and have to be processed into a dried starch product before they can be consumed. Some varieties are used more like a fruit than a vegetable. Oca is quite popular in New Zealand, where it’s known as the ‘New Zealand Yam’. Here in the UK you’re likely to have a choice of perhaps three or four varieties, sold by their colour. Who knows what they might have been used for traditionally? We’re not off to a flying start.

The problem is that oca is sensitive to day length. In the UK they only begin to produce tubers when the days begin to get shorter, and they’re frost sensitive. Selecting varieties that might crop here at all is a problem, although there are some amateur breeding efforts underway (and I’m looking at Radix when I say that) to develop a day neutral variety that will find life here easier.

Oca tubers chitting

So, given that this isn’t currently a plant that’s ideally suited to life in the UK, how do you get the best out of it? Essentially, oca is grown in the same way as potatoes. You can store tubers in breathable bags until it’s time to plant them out in spring, and if they start to sprout too soon you can leave them on the windowsill to chit in the light. When the risk of frost has passed, plant them out about 30 cm apart, under the soil like potatoes.

Since the tubers on oca form in a similar way to those on potatoes, it’s thought that earthing them up (piling extra soil on top of the plant once the foliage starts breaking through) will help to increase yields. However, you don’t have to worry about sunlight causing inedible green patches on oca tubers – they don’t have the toxins you’d find in green potatoes.

You can also eat oca leaves; they’ll have a similar flavour to sorrel, due to the presence of oxalic acid. Removing too many will affect your tuber yield; you might want to set aside some plants for leaf production and some for tuber production, if you want good harvests of both.

In the event of a heat wave, or a drought, you will find your oca suffer. They don’t like hot weather, and will sulk. Provide some shade, and plenty of water, to keep them happy. If blight strikes down your potatoes, the oca will be just fine. Traditional cultivation systems intercrop oca with other plants. Other tubers are a common choice, including mashua, ulluco and even potatoes. Sweetcorn is another option (and would provide some shade). In the Andes, oca is often grown with alliums to ward off pests, but they’re not bothered by much in the UK. Oca should thrive in a cottage garden style arrangement, mixed in with both ornamentals and herbs.

Research has shown that there’s a positive correlation between leaf size and tuber harvest, so it’s worth feeding your oca to promote leafy growth (or ensuring they are planted in hearty soil). Feeding will also affect their nutritional value, mainly their protein content. Oca tubers are known to contain twice as much vitamin C and calcium as potatoes, with a similar carbohydrate content. Oxalic acid levels are lower in the tubers than in the leaves, and the highest levels found in tubers are 7 times lower than the lowest levels found in spinach – so they won’t cause any problems at all in a varied diet.

Frosty oca

The difference between oca and potatoes becomes apparent at harvest time. Whereas you can dig some varieties of potato early in the season, and maincrops from late summer into early autumn, oca tubers don’t start to form until the nights get longer. And so you wait until the first frosts have killed off the foliage. And then you wait another couple of weeks, and then you dig up your harvest. If early frosts are forecast you can protect your plants with fleece. If you grow them in containers (and, like potatoes, they are reasonably happy in containers if well-fed) you can move them indoors.

Oca container

Eat the best tubers from your harvest and keep the smaller ones for replanting. Some of the varieties in the Andes are left out in the sun for a few days after harvesting to make them sweeter. Will that work in the UK? We don’t know – there’s rarely enough sun at that time of year, and we don’t know which varieties we have ;) You could try it. Oca can be used in all the same ways as potatoes, and also eaten raw. Their oxalic acid content gives them a slightly sharp flavour, often referred to as ‘lemony’. Carl Legge has developed an exclusive oca recipe for us, to promote his new book (The Permaculture Kitchen), and that’s coming up in the next few days, so keep your eyes peeled.

Oca flowers

Breeding efforts rely on the production of seed, not tubers. Oca isn’t known for flowering and setting seed easily – in fact, you will need two or more compatible varieties for pollination to take place. If you do get seed then collecting it can be tricky – the pods tend to shatter and scatter seed on the ground. However, seedlings will grow from self-sown seed, and can be transplanted. If you collect seed then germination takes around 19 days. You can also root stems in water as another means of propagation. If you develop a variety you like, you can of course then propagate it via tubers from year to year.

So… growing oca is exactly like growing potatoes. Except, it’s not really. But they’re pretty plants, with lovely tubers and who doesn’t like trying new things? If you need oca tubers, the two main suppliers in the UK are Real Seeds (with several different varieties) and T&M. You may also find them via smaller suppliers, local seed swaps or your internet gardening pals. And if you’re interested in unusual edibles in general, have a look at my forthcoming book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, which will be right up your street.

If you’ve grown oca, and got a good crop, what’s your top tip for growing them?

*That’s also true of potatoes, by the way. The Andes are a very interesting place if you’re a fan of tubers and unusual root crops.

King, S. R. (1988). Economic botany of the Andean tuber crop complex Lepidium meyenii, Oxalis tuberosa, Tropaeolum tuberosum and Ullucus tuberosus (Doctoral dissertation, City University of New York).

Posted in Blog on Mar 25, 2014 ·

Tags: unusual & veg.

First day of spring

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Devil's claw

If you haven’t already seen it, check out Google’s doodle for today. To celebrate the spring equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, they’ve got a little cartoon human watering the plants. They grow pretty fast – must be weeds ;)

It’s a work day, so I won’t be celebrating the first day of spring by doing any gardening, but I did get out to the allotment at the weekend to make some progress there. Ryan helped me to set up my water butt in a new (but still temporary) location. It doesn’t have a downpipe feeding into it as I don’t have a shed, but it will collect some water when it rains. Ryan also helped me to dig out some unwanted rootballs; I inherited a thriving population of thornless blackberries when I took on the plot, and if I don’t thin them down I won’t have any room to grow anything else!

I brought home some potting compost in which to sow some seeds – three varieties of sweet pepper (F1 Sunshine, Tequila Sunrise and Corno di Toro Rosso) plus Garnet, which is bred for drying and grinding into paprika. The white sprouting broccoli and flower sprouts I sowed on Sunday have already germinated and are pushing up little seedlings on my office windowsill (brassicas being the speed freaks of the seed world). Like the peppers, my final sowing will take a little longer. Ibicella lutea syn Proboscidea lutea is a variety of Devil’s Claw or martynia. These plants grow hard, spiny seed pods that are shaped like caltrops and stick into the feet of animals. It’s their means of seed dispersal. That would be enough to make them interesting, but those same seed pods are edible when immature, and can be turned into pickles.

I don’t know of anyone who has tried growing Devil’s Claws, so if you have then do let me know in the comments. You can read more about my adventures in growing unusual edible plants (and the characters I’ve met along the way) in my new ebook, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs. The official release date is 1st May 2014 and you can preview the book at Smashwords. It’s also now available for pre-order from the NOOK book store!

Posted in Blog on Mar 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Mar 20, 2014

Tags: allotment & unusual.

Tree pollen

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Tree pollen

Hayfever sufferers might be wondering why they were snuffly when the sun came out last weekend – this photo answers that question. The catkins were shedding luminous pollen by the bucketload. I’m not quite sure what species this is – it was on the floor when I found it. The plant is hoping that its pollen will float on the wind to a suitable female flower, which in human terms will probably be almost invisible.

For example, this is a female flower on my cobnut:


Posted in Blog on Mar 15, 2014 ·

Tag: flowers

Potatoes, tomatoes, pomatoes, tomtatoes

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If you get déjà-vu when reading this article, it’s because I recorded it for the latest edition of The Alternative Kitchen Garden Show :)

Tomato flowers

It looks as though spring might be on its way in the northern hemisphere, and gardeners’ thoughts are turning towards tomatoes and potatoes. You may have already sown your first tomato seeds; your seed potatoes may be chitting on the windowsill. But what if you could get both potatoes and tomatoes from the same plant?

Last autumn, the T&M seed company here in the UK announced, with great fanfare, a world exclusive. Their new “Tom Tato” plants grow both cherry tomatoes and white potatoes – happy in a large pot, the idea is that gardeners who are short on room can get two crops from the same space. It’s not even GM technology; Tom Tato plants are chimeras, two plants grafted together so that they grow as one. It’s no more high tech than than the grafting used to produce fruit tree varieties on different root stocks.

But it’s not a cheap option – a Tom Tato plant will set you back £15, although that does include a pack of tomato fertiliser. It sounds like an intriguing plant to grow, but before you open your wallets and splash the cash let me tell you that the Tom Tato is really nothing new, that similar plants are available at cheaper prices, and that if you’re handy you could splice one together yourself.

The pomato was first developed in the 1930s. Because potatoes and tomatoes are so closely related, it’s a simple matter to graft them together. They have been mostly thought of as novelties, although according to James Wong they are now being seriously considered as a way to increase the yields of subsistence farmers in developing nations like Kenya and Vietnam.

Stephen Shirley of Victoriana Nursery Gardens says that they have been growing and selling tomtato plants since 1975. You can order online from him with a single plant costing just £2.70 and delivery expected to start in mid April.

As a bona-fide expert on the subject, I asked Stephen to answer some questions I had on the subject of tomtatoes. His website description mentions planting the tomato in the pot in which it is supplied, and then lifting the whole pot at the end of the season. Stephen confirms that it’s a regular plastic pot, which easily splits as the potatoes develop, and allows them to break out into the surrounding soil. Planting the whole pot in this manner protects the potato roots, and makes life very easy for the gardener. You then just need to remove the remains of the pot when you dig up your potatoes at the end of the season, and recycle it.

If you grow a tomtato you can expect to see both tomato and potato foliage, but the tomato top growth will take over and the potato foliage won’t be as vigorous as it would be if it was on its own.

Stephen usually uses indeterminate tomato varieties, which means you’ll need to pinch out the side shoots to promote a good crop, as you would for a regular tomato plant.

If you remember that you’re expecting two crops from your tomtato, and keep feeding and watering it appropriately, then Stephen reckons your tomato crop should be of a good size. You can’t expect as large a potato harvest, though – perhaps 50% of what you’d get if it was solely a potato plant.

And there’s a big problem in that both tomatoes and potatoes are susceptible to a disease called late blight, which is caused by a fungus-like organism that tends to strike in warm, humid weather. If there’s blight around, a tomtato is going to catch it – you may be better off trying to grow them under cover.

Blighted potatoes

As Dr David Shaw of the Savari Trust points out, grafting tomatoes onto disease-resistant rootstocks (even aubergine roots) is a routine procedure, very common in South East Asia. He points out that a tomtato or a pomato is only likely to thrive and be productive if it’s made from two blight-resistant varieties. You can’t buy such a plant at the moment, but you could try making your own. Garden Organic have some instructions for making pomatoes on their website, which begin with sowing seeds and planting seed potatoes for blight resistant varieties. Once you have two plants at a similar stage of growth, the technique really only involves carefully wounding both stems and binding them together. Once the joined plant starts to grow, you can remove the tomato roots and the potato haulm. So if you really want to grow tomtatoes this year, you have the choice of buying a plant, or creating your own.

This neatly brings us round to an item of science news that has been much discussed in the media recently. Scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory, here in the UK, announced that they had successfully used GM techniques to insert a gene from a wild potato relative into a popular variety of potato (Desiree), which had given it blight resistance.

GM crops aren’t licensed for sale in the EU, and so these spuds won’t be appearing on supermarket shelves any time soon. GM is a hotly debated technology, and in this particular case some of the opposition stems from the fact that we already have blight-resistant potato varieties that have been conventionally bred. With Sárpo varieties on offer, do we need GM blight-resistant potatoes?

The scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory think we do, as Sárpo varieties aren’t a mainstream crop. They think it’s better to make the varieties we grow blight-resistant than to change the varieties we grow. The Savari Trust beg to differ; they are currently raising money via crowd-funding to bring Sárpo varieties to a wider audience. Their campaign is in its last few hours, and if you want to help you can donate, or lend them money (with interest payable in seed potatoes!). You can also make sure you buy their seed potatoes if you’re growing spuds this year, and let your local supermarket know you’d like to see these varieties on shelves. Thompson & Morgan are the main supplier via mail order; you may also find Sárpo seed potatoes on sale in your local garden centre or on offer at a potato day event.

Sárpo Mira potatoes

I grew Sárpo Mira on my allotment last year. Despite being horribly neglected as I finished my degree and moved out of my house, they thrived. It was fun to watch them stay healthy as the varieties my fellow allotmenteers had chosen to plant got cut down by blight. And we enjoyed eating the harvest! I will be growing Sárpo potatoes again this year – in fact, I have invested some money with them, so I will be planting my interest for the next few years.

As far as I’m aware, Sárpo varieties are currently only available in the UK. The Savari Trust would like to make them more globally available – it’s on their To Do list when they have the funding. If you’ve already bought your seed potatoes this year then you might be able to help the project in a different way. Last summer they were collecting samples of blight from all over the country. If you suspect your spuds have been hit, later in the year, you can send them a leaf or two for their collection. They are investigating which strains of blight are present in the UK, how they are evolving and, of course, whether the new Sárpo varieties under development are maintaining their resistance.

Posted in Blog on Mar 13, 2014 ·

Tags: veg & unusual.

How to make every seed count

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Germination testing at the Millennium Seed Bank

Seeds can be one of the biggest expenses in a garden, and if you spend time tracking down heirloom or unusual varieties then they may also be very precious. Many gardeners sow seeds indoors, or in pots and trays, to ensure a higher rate of germination than you would expect in the open soil, but even doing this does not always ensure successful germination.

If you have had a germination failure already, or your seeds are just too precious to risk, how can you give your seeds the best possible chance at life? One possible answer is to pre-germinate (or pre-sprout) your seeds. Pre-germinated seeds are kept in very controlled conditions for the first stage of their life – away from pests and diseases and the uncertainties of the weather. Only once they have germinated are they planted out. This technique is commonly used by farmers, but it’s easily done by gardeners as well.

Some of the easiest seeds to pre-germinate are peas and beans – large seeds that are easy to handle. Simply pour your seeds into the bottom of a tumbler or jar and cover them in clean water. Leave them to soak overnight, then drain them in the morning. Each morning, rinse the seeds with fresh water and drain them again – exactly as if you were sprouting seeds for salads and sandwiches. Keep the seeds at the right temperature (for peas and beans, room temperature is usually fine) and after a few days you should see them start to sprout.

The first sign of germination is the emergence of the radicle, the first root. Once most of the seeds have started to germinate then you need to plant them out – but be very careful not to damage the radicle, because the seeds cannot re-grow it if it gets broken. Sow the seeds carefully, but otherwise exactly as you normally would. You’ve given your precious seeds a head start in life – away from the hungry mice and cold, damp soil that might cause them to rot before they can germinate.

For smaller seeds a different technique is needed. Sprinkle seeds onto damp tissue, cover them over and place the tissue inside a plastic bag to keep the moisture in, and then put the bag somewhere warm. The important thing now is not to forget about your seeds. You need to check on them every day, and plant them out once they start to germinate. This is a useful way to test the germination rate of seeds that may be suspect, as well as ensuring germination of precious seeds*.

Again, you need to be careful with the pre-germinated seeds. If they’re spaced out on the tissue then you can snip it up and plant each seed without removing the tissue. Or you could use the whole sheet of tissue as a seed mat, sow it in a tray of compost and transplant the resulting seedlings when they’re large enough.

A useful technique for sowing pre-germinated (or simply very small seeds) is fluid sowing. Here the seeds are suspended in a gel and then ‘piped’ out into their planting rows. It’s easier to get an even spacing this way, and very gentle on pre-germinated seeds. You can make a gel for fluid sowing at home by making up wallpaper paste – but make sure that you use one without added fungicides and chemicals. An icing bag or syringe makes an excellent fluid sowing device.

*If you have older seeds and are not sure whether they will germinate well or not, learn more about seed viability and germination testing in The Peat-Free Diet.

Posted in Blog on Mar 10, 2014 ·

Tag: Basics

Fairtrade terracotta plant pot

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Fairtrade elephant pot

This might look like an exhibit from the British Museum, but in actual fact it’s a modern, fairtrade terracotta plant pot from Traidcraft. Made in Bangladesh, it costs £8 and would certainly liven up the kitchen window sill. I’m going to plant mine up with my new Cha Cha Chive. What would you plant in yours?

This is just one of the lovely items in the Spring 2014 Traidcraft catalogue, which you can view online. We’re coming to the end of Fairtrade Fortnight, so it seems like the perfect time to remind you that fair trade goes beyond bananas and coffee beans and that you can buy some pretty, ethically-sourced items for your home and garden.

I mentioned the coir compost and garden gloves a couple of years ago, and they’re still available. There’s plenty more too, from plant pots and colourful watering cans, to woven bird houses and even disposable barbecues. There’s even a nice big tub made from a recycled tyre.

Traidcraft has been creating opportunities in developing countries for 35 years now, and build long-term supportive relationships with their suppliers. Buy something nice, and help them make a difference :)

Disclosure: the elephant pot was given to me by Traidcraft for review purposes. My opinions are my own!

Posted in Blog on Mar 7, 2014 ·

Last modified on Mar 7, 2014

Tag: reviews

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