Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Cotton and collards - troubleshooting

Problem:  Aphids on my cotton

Observation:  This year is my third year successfully growing cotton.  Well, I say successfully as in it didn't die right away.  It looks like I'll get a harvest (second year in a row!).  The thing with cotton is that it does not grow north of the 47th, end of story, full stop.  Of course, I'm at 48 and a little bit North, so it's completely impossible to grow cotton here.  This is probably why I'm doing it.

Last year I got the bright idea to grow the cotton in the greenhouse.  It worked!  The cotton didn't grow as big or as vigorous as it does in pictures, but I got a harvest which was a fantastic victory.

This year, there are these little black aphid-like creatures being put on the cotton by ants.  Since it's in the greenhouse, it's kind of difficult for the predators to get in, so I tried this spray made of garlic and chili pepper tea with a bit of biodegradable dish soap.  It seems to have no effect.  Next step is to try blasting them off with the hose.

Last year we had no bugs bothering the cotton.  Last year they were in the same greenhouse with the hot peppers.  When I go in the greenhouse with the hot peppers, I have trouble breathing because the air is so spicy.  Peppers and cotton seem to have similar timing, water requirements and temperature likes.

Solution?:  Planting peppers and cotton in the same greenhouse to prevent bugs.

Problem: collard crop fail

total harvest of cauliflower so far this year

Observation: Last winter, we were lucky to find cauliflower in the shops and when we did, they were $10 a head (instead of $2).  Is this a sign of things to come?  The thing is, these cauliflower were being imported from far away when it was the usual time of year for local cauliflower harvest.  How rich I could be, I thought to myself, if I had a cauliflower harvest to sell.

I'm sure everyone thought that, and most local farmers are growing cauliflower this fall.  Which is fine, I'll just grow enough for myself and friends.

The thing is, I've never grown cauliflower before.  We decided to grow lots of different collards, from kale to brussels sprouts.  We planted them in flats in the spring, sifting garden soil and topping it off with seed starting soil from the shop.  This worked well.  Then we planted out the collards.  This went okay.  A lot of work so far, but it would be worth it to get my very own cauliflower.

With a major bug attack and me not understanding their water needs, the only real benefit that came from this early planting of collards was that it attracted bug eating birds to our garden.  What did come to a head bolted really quickly.

I'm thinking the big problem is we got the time of year wrong.  Up goes the spring crop and feed it to the goats.  I hope to plant a bunch of seeds this week and when they go out in the garden, they will have some protection from bugs.  Maybe we can have a winter harvest of delicious brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

Solution?:  Plant main collard crop after summer solstice.  Only plant cabbages and kale for spring.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dragon tongue bean

This year's Dragon Tongue bean is the most prolific ever!  Lovely lush greens, beautiful flowers and an amazing harvest that is ready to pick every day.

Last year we grew a big section and really bulked up on seed.  Most of it went to the GVPL Seed Library but we also kept enough for ourselves for a few years.  Last year it grew in the back garden with zero irrigation so the beans had a really tough texture.  This year they are in the kitchen garden and get a bit of water every few days.  They don't seem to mind.

I've read that these also make decent dry beans, but I haven't tried it yet.  To me, they are too much effort to thresh or shell to be a pulse.  Still, it might be worth cooking a handful to see if they taste good.

Seed origin: West Coast Seeds

Saturday, 23 July 2016


Second squash harvest.  Some of these still maintain their Sweet Meat shape.  I hope the inside looks as delicious as the outside.  I added a kuri squash to the mix this year, so I hope we get more colour.  I'm also hoping to reclaim the glorious buttercup shape so there are some turban squash (not ready yet) adding pollen to the batch.  

These will sit for a few weeks to mature then become dinner.  The dark green one is about the size I like, so I'm thinking of selecting for size in the next year or so.  One of the things I really want in this landrace is to have vigorous growing vines that can germinate in cold weather (thus the sweat meat as the base of the landrace - also the cinderella shaped squash which in the past could grow over a meter a day).  I hope to have lots of different colours but similar shape and size by the time I'm finished stabilizing this landrace.

We also had our first cucumber harvest today.  Not saving seeds from this batch as they don't have the upright growth habit I'm looking for.  The tendrils don't hold on to anything, so the cucumber vines just flop and fall on the vine.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Black Kabuli Chick-pea - harvest time!

This is our first year growing Black Kabuli Chickpeas.  The seed is from Salt Spring Seeds, and I chose this one because they "create a hummus like no other!"

Salt Spring Seed's description:
The seed coat of this beautiful, medium sized, rounded garbanzo is charcoal black rather than the typical tan/brown colour of other chickpeas. They have a delicious earthy, nutty flavour, and create a hummus like no other! Originally from Afghanistan via India.
I have a theory that the food of our  ancestors are the foodstuff we are 'selected' for.  Before we had modern medicine, people who couldn't easily digest regional foods seldom lasted long enough to reproduce.  Just like plants adapt to regional variations over time, I think it makes sense that people are also this way.  I notice that Old World foods like chickpeas and grains are much easier for me to digest than many New World foods like squash and tomatoes.  

Chickpeas are common medieval fair in the Middle East, Europe and North Africa, it grows well in our climate and more importantly, it does most of it's growing in the rainy season.  Wonderful.  A staple food that doesn't need watering.  

black kabuli flower
The dry seeds really are stunning.

I should have enough from this harvest to cook up a bunch for a taste, as well as save enough seed for the next few years.  These were the by far our best-producing chickpeas yet.  I had a feeling that might be the case, so I grew them separate from the others to prevent promiscuous pollination.

Next year (if they taste any good, that is) I'll plant a larger patch, but I also think I'll try to give them more space.  Somewhere someone said that chickpeas like to be at least a foot apart and can produce up to 300 seeds per plant.  Wow!

Mongolian Giant Sunflowers - stacking functions and cooking fuel

This is our second year growing Mongolian Giant Sunflowers from Heritage Harvest Seed.  Last year they grew about 12 foot high, with no irrigation, in a drought year.  Of course, they were in the back valley which gets a fair amount of morning dew.

Mongolian Giant
(Helianthus annuus)
Wow! The striped seeds of this heirloom Mongolian variety are gigantic, reaching 1 ½” long! One of the largest seeded sunflowers available. The heads of the sunflowers can reach 18” across and the plants grow 12-14’ tall. Excellent eating variety.

All these sunflowers grew tall and had lovely thick stems; however, there was variation in the number and size of the flowers that they had.  Some had several flowers, other one big happy huge flower.

I like the single flower best as these are too tall to harvest.  Either we need to chop them down (with a hatchet) or get a ladder.  This means, that with several heads, some might come ready before the others, which means we loose seed to the jay that stops by our place that time of year.  

As an example of how tall these get, here's a photo of a stand of sunflowers we planted next to the chicken run to provide shade for them.  In the middle of the sunflowers, there is an orange ribbon.  Can you see it?  

I tied a ribbon on the first four plants to flower so I can be sure to save seeds from them.  That ribbon is up as high as I can reach. 

Last year I saved seed from a dozen of the tallest, single flower sunflowers and fed the rest of the seeds to the chickens.  This gave me lots of lovely seed.  I planted some in just about every soil condition we had from soggy to my zero irrigation field.  The ones next to the chicken yard are growing best.  They are in well-drained soil, not very rich, except for any runoff from the hen yard.   They have very light irrigation, about once a week, and squash growing at their base.

In another sunflower description, Heritage Harvest seeds says, "The large stalks were also used as fuel in areas that did not have many trees."  It is little comments like this that I find fascinating.  These sunflower stems certainly are dense and dry down very well.  Maybe it is possible to burn them.  But I suspect they wouldn't be the kind of thing to burn in a Western fireplace or wood stove as they are very sappy.  I also think they are going to be fast burning when compared to something like applewood.  So what could it mean as a fuel?  Perhaps it is a cooking fuel?  Open fire cooking does best with slow burning wood, but maybe a stove of some sort?

 This is a rocket stove I made earlier in the year. It has a cob inside and is designed to work with twigs to get the most heat from the smallest amount of fuel.  It's super fast and works like a charm.  This is the kind of stove I think would work well with sunflower stocks.  As it only takes a handful of sticks to cook a meal, I'm guessing one sunflower may provide enough fuel to boil pasta for two and cook a sauce, or a small stirfry.  I won't know for certain until I try it.

These days the catch phrase is 'stacking functions', which basically means one thing has many uses. Sunflowers seem to be very good at stacking functions.  Here's what I've discovered so far:

The many uses of Sunflowers

  • beauty
  • shade
  • wind break
  • shelter for newly planted trees during the first year
  • privacy
  • high energy food
  • oil crop (perhaps with a Piteba oil press?)
  • food for livestock
  • possibly cooking fuel

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Too much fruit

We always seem to get a lot of fruit here.  If the weather was bad for the pears, then it will be a bumper crop of apples.  No apples?  Then it will be plums.  What I haven't seen before is a bumper crop of just about every fruit we have.  Thankfully we did a hard prune on the peach tree or it too would be overwhelmingly full.  But as it stands, cherries, plums, apples, and pears are all loaded to the point where the weight of the fruit breaks the branch.  

late Italian prune plums

These little lizards are everywhere

We've spent a lot of time lately putting up (preserving) fruit for winter.  Plenty of dry plums.  Some Mango chutney, no mangos, and our first attempt at lactofermented plums (delicious).  

Sunday, 10 July 2016

seed saving in full swing - first squash for dinner

First maxima squash of the year.
4 - kilograms
The flavour wasn't as sweet as one would expect from a max-squash.  It would have been sweeter if it had been stored for a few more weeks.  The texture was pretty good and I hope to make soup with the leftovers.

nice balance of seed cavity and flesh

Big fat seeds, will be good for roasting
 This squash earns the right to have it's seeds saved for next year.  

Future goals for my maxima squash landrace will include a higher ratio of flesh to seeds, but keep as large a seeds as possible.  Early harvest and drought tolerance is a must of course. I think I would like smaller squash, maybe about 2 kilo.

also harvested a cabbage for dinner

some seeds drying
favas, squash, blue pod peas

landrace soup peas
Favas grow so well here, even in moderately poor soil, that I feel obligated to keep growing it.  The thing is, I don't eat them.  I should, as the fibre in favas is very soluble and it is, in theory, the easiest pulse to digest.  The problem is, the skin is so bitter, hard to chew, and just makes things difficult on the gut.  Seeking a way to remove the skin and then I can make delicious fava falafels.

Maybe this winter, I should take some of the space I give to favas and try overwintering peas and chickpeas - two pulses I love to see in the kitchen.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

szechuan pepper ( zanthoxylum) cuttings

According to Plants for the Future, Szechuan Pepper ( Zanthoxylum) trees can be propagated by seeds, semi-hardwood cuttings, and root cuttings.

Seed - best sown in a greenhouse as soon as it is ripe in the autumn. Stored seed may requires up to 3 months cold stratification, though scarification may also help. Sow stored seed in a cold frame as early in the year as possible. Germination should take place in late spring, though it might take another 12 months. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and grow them on in a cold frame for their first winter. Plant them out in early summer. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, July/August in a frame. Root cuttings, 3cm long, planted horizontally in pots in a greenhouse. Good percentage. Suckers, removed in late winter and planted into their permanent positions.

Plants for the Future is one of my favourite go-to sites these days.  There is so much exciting information there on unusual and useful plants.  

I have two Szechuan pepper trees I got about three years ago from eco-sense.  It looks like this year I will finally get a harvest.  I like eco-sense a great deal and I especially like how active they are in the community; however, their nursery products can be a bit pricey for someone with my sort of income. I really liked these trees, so I got a couple and now I'm trying to make more.  They grow lovely and tall and seem oblivious to the summer drought.  The leaves smell amazing and are quite successful at diminishing tooth ache.  

So of course, I want more of these trees.  L came over and helped prepare some soil (2 part sand, 4 parts garden soil, 4 parts llama berries, 1 part wood ash and small bits of charcoal from the smoker) then we cut some softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings from the pepper tree and voilà, we put them in the soil, watered them in, and with luck, there should be some new pepper trees this spring.

We did the same with the olive tree.

L took home kale, chard, green onions, raspberries, and that's about it.

Prepared some flats for seeding fall & winter veg.

6 of the meanest hens sold.  These are egg eaters and general trouble makers.  The flock is much calmer without them and we got a few extra eggs.  

Saturday, 2 July 2016

dry-land squash project

Sad looking squash, I know.  But believe it or not, that's deliberate.  These are my water-less squash, growing without irrigation in my 'dryland' field.  A max-squash mix, year two of my landrace project.  The goal for this is to direct seed early and hopefully withstand a light frost at the seedling stage.  To grow with zero or minimal irrigation.  To have a large flesh to seed ratio, with lovely large seeds.  To smother the compost pile to make it look beautiful.

So far they are doing brilliantly well.  A lovely selection of colours, but more or less the same shape.  Next year, I'll start separating for size - maybe adding some smaller commercial Max squash into the mix to get the size down to about 2 kilo not the 20+ kilo we got last year.  

The sad leaves perk up again at night.

Opel plums are delicious.  We had 8 today.  The branches are overloaded with fruit.

Harvested Blue Pod Desiree and Japanese snow peas seed today.

Also harvested some chard for dinner.

dehybridizating hybrids

Here's a challenge for you: Save seeds from a hybridized vegetable variety, then use the power of selection to create your very own new cultivar.  It's way easier than it sounds as the commercial plant breeders have done the hard part for you.  I first posted the challenge on  You can join in there, or if you like, feel free to tell me about your project in the comments below.

Dehybridizing the hybrids - saving seeds from hybrid varieties, with a view to creating a new cultivar.

Amateur seed savers so often forget that every seed saved is an act of plant breeding. We are taught the myth of preserving the varieties we are growing. Not realizing that living things cannot be preserved from one generation to the next, but they can be maintained. And that's what we do when we save seeds. We select qualities that we value (be it big seeds, tall plants, short plants, purple leaves, early/late harvest) and we also unintentionally select for qualities depending on our location (bug tolerance in an organic setting, thriving with our planting schedule, weather patterns, &c). When we look at seed saving this way, it only takes a tiny nudge to arrive at international plant breeding.

As seed savers, we are also taught to avoid hybrid seeds (labeled F1 on seed packets). Instead, we must always grow Open Pollinated (OP) seeds as these are the only ones that will grow 'true' to type. A hybrid is a cross between two different cultivars/varieties. The first generation of hybrids has predictable characteristics, which for us gardeners means that just about every plant looks and acts the same in this first generation, or F1 generation. The second generation after the cross (F2) has a lot of variation. Some are tall, some early, some plants slow to develop, some may be more drought tolerant, some less... F2 generation expresses all sorts of possibilities. It is from these expressions of the genes that the plant breeder selects the traits they like best and begins the journey to creating a new variety.

A plant breeder can choose two OP varieties, and make the cross themselves, or they could start with a commercial hybrid variety and save a year's work. It is for that reason, that I suspect starting with hybrid seeds is the perfect introduction to plant breeding. Quicker results from a cross that we know has good genetics.

In Breed Your Own Vegetables, Deppe writes about dehybridizing the hybrids. I've gotten into the habit of growing OP or landrace plants, but the other day I saw this beautiful hybrid komatsuna(mustard green) that I instantly fell in love with.

I'm going to plant some this week and eat the smallest plants that grow, leaving about 2 dozen widely spaced plants. Then I'll take out the first 3rd that bolt. The rest I'll save seed from and plant next spring to see what variation I can get.

It is possible these are not a true hybrid - seed companies sometimes label OP varieties as F1 to discourage seed savers. In that case, my F2 generation will already be stable.

If they are a hybrid, then my F2 generation will have plenty of variation to choose from. My garden will do a lot of selecting for me, including bug and drought tolerance. I can also choose if I want green or coloured leaves, or leaf shape, or last to bolt, &c. I can also choose how I select: do I mass select, or backcross, or something else? I have so many choices. What's more, a different person, growing the same seeds in different conditions could create a whole different variety. There are so many possibilities.

The great thing about komatsuna is that I can grow and save seeds from at least two generations in a year. This will speed things up tremendously.

Would anyone else like to embark on a journey of dehybridizing a hybrid? It doesn't have to be komatsuna. Any hybrid seed will do.

Here's my proposed method:

  • Tell us which hybrid you are starting with and where you got it.
  • Find out how many plants you need for seed saving (this first generation isn't that many)
  • Grow the plants and tell us how it goes
  • Save the seeds
  • Grow F2 generation and tell us how it goes
  • Observe and interact - look, smell, and taste your plants, then choose the qualities you like best and we can brainstorm how best to select for them.
  • Keep growing. Keep selecting. Keep saving seeds.
  • When happy with the variety, maybe we can set up a dehybridization seed exchange?

 According to Deppe, depending on the characteristics we are breeding for, the selection method and the breeding method (self pollinating with squash, back breeding, &c), we can have a stable variety by the third generation, but sometimes it takes longer.

Anyone up for the challenge?

Friday, 1 July 2016

petrichor (/ˈpɛtrᵻkɔər/); the smell of dust after rain

Light drizzle this morning.  It's a lovely change from the hot days we've had earlier in the week.  

Cleaned out the greenhouse and planted the cucumber plants.  Have some 42-day tomatoes that will be ready to plant out soon, so I prepared a place for them as well.   

Y & family came for a visit.  She harvested some kale, potatoes, peas, carrots, chard, komatsuna, raspberries and some other goodies I can't remember.  

Purple of Sicily cauliflower seems to be the best collard this year for resisting aphids and cabbage moth.  My harvest are pitifully small, but I am growing these in the back garden without irrigation, in a very bug and weed heavy situation, with moderately fertile soil.  So far this is the most delicious one as well.  

I like this so much, I'm going to grow a bunch and save the seeds.  Now, to get the timing right and not to get it too mixed up with other collards I hope to save the seeds from.  Seed to Seed suggests that I keep at least 6 plants, but better with 20.  I think I'll plant some now and put them in the kitchen garden.  I'll eat the inferior ones, then keep the best ones for seed.  

Today I planted

  • Rougette de Montpellier lettuce
  • carrots
  • Fagiolo Rampicante climbing beans
  • Japenese Snow Peas

  • red onions
  • walking onions bulblets

Dad mowed the lawn

Even with this morning's drizzle, the soil wasn't very wet, so I had to water in the seeds pretty well.  I put the barley straw around the peas seeds for mulch.  In theory, this will keep the soil cooler which peas like.  I'll probably end up with loads of volunteer barley there, but that's fine too.  I can note when they start growing and use it to influence my planting times next year.

seed saving rotation

I seem to be saving a lot of seeds these days.  What with regular garden seed saving and on top of that all these fascinating plant breeding projects.  There's a lot of different kinds of plants.

However, some plants cross-pollinate more easily than others.  Sometimes I want this, but sometimes I don't.  For example, chard, beet, and mangelwurzels can exchange pollen.  So when I plan my garden, I need to take this into account - what plants am I saving seeds from and where?  What isolation distances do I  need?

Isolation distance is a tricky thing.  Take a dedicated selfer like peas.  They have an official cross-pollination chance of 1% and a recommended isolation distance of 4 feet.  This is, however, in an industrial setting with pesticides.  An organic farm like ours has lots of bees on the peas.  What's more, in some parts of the world, cross-pollination chance is as high as 60% (numbers from Carol Deppe's book How to Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving).

Isolation distance isn't just distance in space, it is also distance in time.  So if I don't want my chard to cross with my mangelwurzels, then I can save seeds from chard this year and mangels the next.  Here are some ideas of how I can manage different seed saving rotations.

The big tall thing tied up with rope is chard going to seed.

  1. chard 
  2. mangelwurzels 
  3. beet

  1. kale breeding project
  2. cabbage
  3. broccoli
  4. cauliflower
  5. brussels sprouts
  6. collard breeding experiment

  1. mustard
  2. komatsuna
  3. komatsuna breeding project

I can't remember where turnips fit in this, and if mustards and kales are going to be a problem if they are in the same garden.  This needs more research and will be expanded on as I learn more.