Spring in Southern Australia is definitely the perfect season and the perfect place to be in the world. We are fortunate to be out of lockdown, with easing restrictions and minimal COVID-19 cases in our State. The weather is perfect. I want to be outside all day, everyday.
I do have to work, but as I am a freelancer, I have the gift of mostly setting my own hours. This means I can try to spend at least some time outside each day. Right now I am sitting under the pergola, eating a curry and feeling the warm air. I did try to concentrate on work this morning, but I kept looking outside, feet jiggling under my desk, and finally I gave up. The work will still be there tomorrow!!
This weekend I cleaned up the blind spot in the garden that annoys my neighbour more than it does me, because I can’t see it, and he can. He doesn’t complain about it, but he has mildly mentioned once that he would like the weeds to be removed before they flower so the seeds don’t blow into his yard.
I have struggled to deal with this spot. It gets mostly shade, and it is right by our large covered pergola. I don’t want to grow a lot here, but I will have to grow something to out-compete the annoying thistles and other weeds that have taken up residence. The last owners of the house also planted some bloody annoying bamboo, that continually re-seeds, and the back neighbours have ivy that climbs from their place over the fence. And finally, because our house is 2.5 storeys, the fence line is sunk about two metres from ground level and slopes down to the front yard, meaning that if I want to remove other weeds near the fence line, I have to climb down into what could be a haven for snakes. It’s not a fun time. This is why I leave the whole stinkin’ lot until I know John is cursing the sight of it.
Cleaning up thistles, ivy, and bamboo is a boring and hard job. However, I have a plan in place to minimise this task in the future. Some would say to spray the whole lot with glyphosate and be done with it, but I don’t use any poisons in my garden, so I need to be more creative than that. Part the first of my plan is chooks. They are allowed to free-range back there. I figure that once the giant weeds are gone, they will be able to quickly manage any newbies that pop up their heads. Part the second is to plant ground covers, such as violets, calendula, nasturtiums and others that will quickly take over and prevent such rampant weed growth. I have done this in other parts of the garden and it is successful. And part the third, as mentioned last week, is to plant shallow-rooted fruiting vines such as berries, to take over from the ivy. While also potentially annoying, at least it will fruit and be useful for both us and the chickens.
I am also planting climbers against the chicken coop to provide shade in Summer. After some thought, I chose a climbing jasmine for one side. If that does well in that spot, I will plant another. I originally planned a passionfruit vine, but I think it will not receive enough sun there.
After the boring work, I got to have some fun. The garden is producing a lot of late Winter/early Spring veggies, including this stunning Romanesco broccoli. It weighed in at 760 grams, which is not too shabby. I roasted half of it in a baked chicken and sweet potato dish with smoked paprika and oregano that all declared delicious. Roasted broccoli is yummo. Romanesco in particular lends itself well to roasting, as it has nice strong florets that roast nicely.
I also picked the remaining kale, and made kale and parsley pesto. As we cannot eat nuts in our house, I use pepitas (pumpkin seeds) as the ‘nutty’ element. Basil pesto is nicer, but the kale pesto is still good. And that is the last of the kale for the year: it was a pretty nice crop this time around.
The dud for the Winter season was the purple kohlrabi, which has not put on any nice bulbs, and the regular broccoli, which bolted straight to seed the first sunny day.
On the plus side, the tomato and chilli seeds I planted two weeks ago are popping up their heads in this warm weather. I planted:
Tomato Moneymaker, which the Heirloom Tomato book tells me is one of the most prolific tomatoes you can grow, but not the tastiest 😦
Tomato Sweet 100;
Chilli Anaheim – second time around for this one, hopefully it grows;
Watermelon Golden Midget – every year I say ‘this is the last time I try growing watermelons’ – and every year I give them another crack. Gardening is the triumph of optimism over experience.
This afternoon I am going digging through my saved seeds to pull out the best chillies I have ever grown (Devil’s Tongue – both spicy hot and prolific) and the best tomato (Jaune Flamme – bright orange and delicious). Hopefully the seed is still viable. I am going to plant them out in seed trays and see what happens. Fingers crossed!
After a week of record heatwave conditions in our region, this weekend was about repair work, mostly. About half the tomato bushes were pretty much dead, so we picked off the tomatoes that were left on them, and pulled the bushes up. I pruned the dead leaves off the other bushes, and we watered them well.
Half my potted plants died, including all of our window boxes on the balcony. We watered the poor darlings twice a day, but the hottest day in half a century did them in. We also lost some of the plants under the fully shaded patio; this gives you an idea of the intensity of the heat.
My baby avocado tree may still die. It’s previously chirpy new leaves now resemble pot pourri, making for one very sad gardener and an even sadder tree. I am hoping that ongoing watering will bring it back. It is shaded, but alas – see above re hottest day in half a century.
Our two mornings in the garden weren’t all doom and gloom. We had a gorgeous garden helper on one day, my three year old niece, who helped me pick corn and started digging out our potato crop. She informed me that she “doesn’t like eating ‘tatoes, but I do like gardening ‘tatoes.” We spend an enjoyable half an hour digging spuds until she announced that it was very hard work and she had had enough. We went inside and ate freshly picked sweet corn for lunch, followed by cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles as a reward for all our hard work.
The following day, my husband and I continued our spud harvesting. We planted RedOtway potatoes in October 2018. We do the traditional trench planting method, hilling up the plants with soil and sugar cane mulch as they grow. We stop hilling up once we have run out of soil and have calculated the cost of the mulch is not worth the amount of spuds we can possibly get.
Digging up spuds is a dicey affair. You have to be careful not to cut them with your spade. Our method is to dig around the base of the plant carefully (see above), exposing the tuberous treasure below. My niece was quite delighted to find tiny potatoes still clinging to the roots of the plants after I dug up the large potatoes, and made me pull off and keep every tiny spud.
This was our second year growing potatoes. In 2017 we harvested the week before Christmas, and our potato crop was prolific, but small in size. This year we waited another five weeks and were rewarded with much larger potatoes (similar weight crop). We planted only one variety this year, choosing the RedOtway variety because it had performed the best for us in 2017. From 1 kilogram of certified seed potatoes, we harvested 10 kilograms of potatoes.
A former colleague informed me that growing potatoes is a waste of time and money, given they are so cheap to buy. I probably can’t argue with his overall economic assessment, as he is much smarter and definitely richer than me. Potatoes certainly could not be described are as a cheap crop for the home gardener. They require an investment in certified seed potatoes, mulch, fertiliser, a lot of space in your garden, and water during warmer months. But I still enjoy growing them. It is almost impossible to buy really fresh potatoes in the shops, and new potatoes taste wonderful. Growing your own also enables you to grow varieties you might not be able to find in the shops. RedOtway is a lovely potato, that is not commonly found. Lastly, it’s fun. Sitting outside in the sunshine with a three year old as she sits in a big pile of dirt searching for hidden treasures is just a great time, even if she doesn’t like eating ‘tatoes (she refuses to believe chips are ‘tatoes).
This brings me to my second harvest of the weekend, PaintedMountainCorn. This ancient variety is hundreds of years old, and is grown for maize and for popping. I grew it for fun and interest, and because I like to help continue endangered heirloom varieties.
I picked the corn once the husks had dried on the stalks, and dried it in the oven on a low temperature. I was stripping the kernels from the cobs and showing my youngest child, a teenager of 14, and explaining that we will be able to pop it on the weekend. I was telling them the history of this corn, and how continuing to grow corn like this contributes to the genetic diversity of the planet.
They stared at me for a long moment, listening to the ‘plink plink’ go the kernels falling into the tray.
“You are such a hipster. Even worse. You’re a nerd hipster.”
Correction: a nerd hipster with a jar of rainbow popcorn.
The Svalbard Seed Vault achieved a milestone in February when it reached one million species stored in its arctic vault in Norway. The Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday or Apocalypse Vault, stores seeds to protect the genetic diversity of the world’s agricultural crops. It is one of several seed vaults around the world, and saves the seeds that humanity relies on to feed itself, in case of war, environmental catastrophe, famine, or other global crises.
My seed vault is not hidden inside a sandstone tunnel in the Arctic, like a Bond villain’s hideout (although I wish). It’s my pantry, which is a cellar in our house. It is nice and cool, but not Norwegian ice fortress or Bond villain hideout cool. I also don’t have one million species. At the moment I probably have about twenty, saved over the past three years as our garden has grown and produced plants that have been worth saving.
Like one of my heroes, agricultural activist Vandana Shiva, I regard saving seeds as a political act. Many of the plants and seeds we have available to us are developed and owned by large agricultural companies, which are in turn owned by larger companies. Seeds are our heritage, not just because as humans we have selected and saved them and passed them down through generations, but because as beings that share this planet with all the other species that live on it, we owe a debt that requires we help ensure the genetic diversity of plants. A seed is a gift from the plant that came before it, and a promise of a new life. For millennia, plants have reproduced using this effective system, and plants, humans and animals have been the beneficiaries in a symbiotic relationship that has enabled all of us to survive and thrive.
Previously, gardeners and farmers would select the strongest or most productive varieties, and save the seeds of those plants for the following season. This would result in strong and productive plants being retained over generations. This practice also developed genetic diversity of plants over generations, as farmers and gardeners would select for plants that grew well in their local conditions. A tomato variety that grew well in one region would be saved and passed down, while a different tomato variety would be saved and passed down in another. Sometimes, a plant would mutate and a new variety was born. If that plant was stronger, tastier, or more productive, the seed would be saved and passed on. This is one way that we have ended up with such an interesting variety of plant species. A good example of this in Australia is the Granny Smith apple, which was an unexpected seedling that grew in the backyard of a lady called Maria Smith. The apple was so delicious and useful, she propagated the plant and it became one of the most popular apple varieties in the world, valued for its usefulness as a cooking apple. The Granny Smith Apples we eat today are all propagated clones of the original tree from Maria Smith’s garden.
In my small way, I contribute to this sustainable process. Last year, I grew a chilli plant I purchased from a gardener’s market. Labelled Devil’s Tongue, it grew more prolifically than any chilli I have grown. The plant itself was the largest chilli plant I have ever grown, and produced more chillies than I have ever seen one plant produce. It was also the hottest chilli I have ever tasted. That is fine by us, as we love hot chillies (particularly my husband, who will put hot sauce on anything). However for many people, it was just too hot! I couldn’t give many of these chillies away.
We loved it though, and at the end of the Summer, I saved the seed and planted it again this year. The chillies are just beginning to form, rather later than last year, but I am hoping for another bumper crop. The Devil’s Tongue is an heirloom, or open-pollinated plant. This means that its seeds have produced another plant the same as its parent. If it does well again, I will know that this is a reliable plant and I can feel confident to share my Devil’s Tongue seeds with other gardeners – if they dare (insert crazed Bond villain laugh here, mwah ha hahhhhhhhh).
Since the 1930s, large seed companies have been developing plants called ‘hybrids.’ These plants grow “true to type” (that is, as the packet says it will) for the first season. However, any seeds the plant then produces, if planted, will not grow true to type, if at all, the following season. As such, if you want to grow the same plant again, you will have to buy fresh seed.
For example, this year I grew a sweetcorn, Jubilee, a hybrid. It was fantastic: sweet, juicy, high yielding, and pest free. I’d love to grow it again. But if I want to grow it again, I will have to find the seeds from the same company. It’s a relatively large seed company, so that should be easily done.
Sometimes there are good reasons to hybridise plants. Plant breeders do it to breed stronger plants, or plants with certain characteristics, such as a high yield, good storing capability, or uniformity. Many of the common agricultural crops, as well as the seeds and seedlings we buy at large nurseries are hybrids. Farmers know that they can rely on the result if they plant them.
So what’s the problem? The corn I grew was great!
Reliance on hybrid plants reduces crop and plant diversity.
Heirloom, or non-hybridised, plants reproduce themselves year on year. Over time they may also throw up an occasional “sport” or genetic mutation. This can happen if they are cross-pollinated by wind or a bee, or can occur spontaneously. If this mutation is a better yielding plant, tastes better, or has better disease resistance, a new plant is born and the biodiversity of our foodchain and our planet is increased. As hybrid plants don’t produce new productive plants (they will still grow, but not reproduce reliably or at all), there is no opportunity for anything new from my hybrid sweetcorn. At best I may end up with a plant that is a weakened version of one of the parents that was used to create the original plant. I won’t get back my Jubilee corn – if I want the exact corn, I have to buy new seeds. This leads me to the next point:
2. Hybrid plants are more expensive.
These plants were created by companies for commercial purposes. They don’t reproduce reliably, so farmers and gardeners have no choice but to buy new seed each year. In the past, farmers saved seed for the following year. This saved money for farmers, and also contributed to genetic diversity as farmers in different regions saved seeds that did the best in their environmental conditions.When we plant hybrid seeds instead of growing open-pollinated or ‘heirloom’ plants, gardeners must rely on seed companies and nurseries for plants. Farmers must buy seeds from companies that produce seeds for their corporate conditions. This is of particular concern in developing countries, where farmers have been convinced to buy hybrid seeds on a promise that it will be higher yielding or pest resistant, only to find that they are trapped in a cycle of buying seeds annually. I can afford to buy a fresh $2 packet of sweetcorn seeds each year if I want to. A farmer in a developing country may not be able to afford to buy canola seeds for his farm each year. Purchasing seeds each year is a cost that poorer farmers could do without – and they have done for thousands of years until the late twentieth century.
3. Health, taste, and experience.
Many heirloom plants are not grown commercially because they do not travel well or store well in cold storage. We do not see them on our supermarket shelves. We grow used to seeing one kind of apricot, two kinds of nectarines, one variety of carrot, the black zucchini, the green broccoli, the white cauliflower. We think that this is the only kind of fruit and vegetables that exist because these are the varieties grown commercially and sold to us. By limiting the plant foods that are grown to only those that can travel in planes and trucks, and stored in the fridge, we are also limited in our understanding of what food tastes and looks like. For example, there are more than 7,500 apple varieties and 400 varieties of bananas, but in Australia we are able to buy about six varieties of apples and three varieties of bananas commercially.
Why is this a problem?
To me, it is a problem because our food choices, preferences, and health are being dictated not by what is healthiest or tastiest, but by what is commercially most viable. The Red Delicious is in my view, a pretty average apple (it looks like a cartoon apple, and tastes like cotton), but it is still sold commercially over other, tastier apples because it travels and stores well. The standard supermarket tomato does not taste anything like the Jaune Flamme I grew this year, but that tomato would not stand up to the rigours of the modern commercial supermarket; it’s too soft and ripens too quickly. Yet this gorgeous heirloom tomato is not only high in Vitamin C, but is also high in beta-carotene, is highly productive, and delicious. A hybrid tomato will tolerate being transported long distances and will put up with being handled by fussy supermarket shoppers.
An article in Scientific American , citing a paper published in the American Journal of Nutrition, reported that many of the fruits and vegetables we buy today are less nutritious than those available several decades ago. The paper found that this is because vegetables have been developed with a focus on certain characteristics to meet commercial requirements (size, uniformity, pest resistance). This has resulted in vegetables that are unable to take up nutrition from the soil because they grow too large, too quickly. The article did warn that fruit and vegetables are still nutritious – just not as nutritious as they used to be, because the focus was on breeding plants that grow to a certain size and appearance, rather than on nutrition.
So now what? Do we all stop growing hybrid plants?
I can’t say that – it would be hypocritical, for one thing. I grow some ornamental and edible hybrid plants, and I will into the future. I do think that hybrids have a place in the world. I think that hybrid plants can be better plants under certain environmental conditions, and in many instances offer plants that are uniform and high yielding for the home gardener. As a home gardener that can afford to replace seeds annually, there will be certain types of seeds that I will buy that I know are hybrids.
I also am not self-sufficient. I buy supermarket and produce market fruits and vegetables when I need to, and I understand that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to be able to have a patch of dirt to grow the food that I do. Growing my own heirloom carrots is a time-consuming luxury, and I still have to buy the commercially grown carrots most of the time.
However, as my mini-seed vault grows, the number of hybrid plants I do grow and rely upon will be fewer. I want to be able to be mostly self-sustaining, particularly for the annual food plants I grow. I also want my children to grow up knowing that a zucchini can be golden or spherical, a pumpkin can look like a turban, and an apple doesn’t have to look like it came from a witch’s basket.
In my next post on Seed Saving I will go through some easy ways you can start saving seeds, and some simple plants you can try to grow if you want to save seeds.
*Please note that hybrid seeds and GMO – Genetically Modified Organisms – are not the same thing. A hybrid seed is created when two varieties of plants are crossbred. A good explanation of the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and GMO seeds can be found here.