A couple of weeks ago, we took delivery of our annual selection of seed from Garden Organic‘s Heritage Seed Library club. The H.S.L. aims to maintain and distribute heritage, or non-commercially available varieties of vegetables and herbs, encouraging its members to save their own seed and keep these varieties going as long as they can. It’s a great way to get hold of either reliable croppers that for some reason are no longer in favour, or varieties that just aren’t available in the regular seed catalogues.
The seed-requesting process has changed since last year. There’s now an online order form for club members which lets you know which seed varieties are still available. This means you can ask for more of your first-choice varieties, if you’re quick enough. I left it until early January to put my order in and a fair few of the seeds I really liked the sound of had already been divvied-out. Next year I’ll be online within half an hour of the catalogue coming through.
Here’s what I opted for this year, including a bonus ‘lucky dip’ freebie that’s available as an optional extra:
Climbing French Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) ‘Dinah’s Climbing Blue’
I also have three packets of my 2016 selection that I didn’t get around to sowing last year:
Kale (Brassica oleracea) ‘Georgia Southern Collard’
Squash (Cucurbita maxima) ‘Zapallito de Toscana’
Turnip (Brassica rapa) ‘Kaskinauris’ (lucky dip)
Plus, I’ve signed up to be a ‘variety champion’ – with the aim of saving seed and sending stocks back to Garden Organic – for the following:
Dwarf French Bean (P. vulgaris) ‘Black Valentine’
And, because I had a problem with a couple of bean varieties that refused to germinate last year (‘Major Cook’s’ and ‘Peewit’ both completely failed to break dormancy, alas), Garden Organic very kindly sent me a replacement packet of ‘Peewit’ when I mentioned it to them, so I have those to go in as well.
As for the Heritage Seed Library crops I did sow last year, results were generally good. Leek ‘Walton Mammoth’ went in late and so hasn’t yet achieved its ‘Mammoth’ stature, but the young leeks we’ve been eating over winter have been very tasty indeed, with a good, strong flavour. Runner Bean ‘Blackpod’ was superb:
Vigorous growth and a good, heavy cropper. You do have to catch the pods early, when they’re still mostly green, if you want to eat them sliced and steamed, otherwise once they start to darken to their beautiful deep purple colour, they’re a bit too tough. The dried beans store well and are very good in soups and stews. I’ve saved a few seed beans for this year as well, so I’m hoping for a repeat performance.
For more information on joining the Heritage Seed Library and helping to preserve these old varieties, see Garden Organic’s website.
2016 is apparently the International Year of Pulses, so I thought I’d mark the occasion by sowing and growing a quite ridiculous number of beans this year.
Actually, I really didn’t need any encouragement. I love growing beans. They’re easy to germinate, easy to grow on, largely take care of themselves as long as you see to their basic watering and nutrient requirements, they look great when they’re in full flower and they produce masses of edibles: fresh green pods for summer salads and side dishes, soft new beans in late summer and early autumn, then dried, haricot versions to liven up any winter stew. Pick the right variety and they’ll freeze beautifully as well. Honestly, what’s not to love?
This year I’m growing twelve (count ’em: twelve) varieties of bean (including the broad beans already hardening off in the cold frame…) and I’m aiming to have between four (new-to-me varieties, to see how they do) and twelve (reliable favourites) plants of each. I spent a good couple of hours on Monday preparing my planting tubes – recycled toilet roll inners have always done the job for me – and another good couple of hours yesterday sowing around 120 runner and French beans (always a good idea to have a couple of spares of each, in case some of them do fail to germinate) in tubes and small pots.
There’s not a huge amount to tell in terms of method. I did soak the beans overnight in tepid water prior to sowing; I understand that it’s optional, but I have experienced failed germinations before, and I do know that getting water into the bean is always the most important part of the germination process, so soaking occurred. Then it was just a case of 1) add bean to tube, 2) top up with compost, 3) drench in water (albeit gradually, to avoid washing the bean back out of the tube / pot) and 4) leave on a shelf in the greenhouse to get going.
Here’s a full list of the varieties I’m trying this year, and where I sourced them from:
Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘red epicure’ – Suttons
V. faba ‘The Sutton’ – SowSeeds.co.uk
Phaseolus coccineus (runner bean) ‘Scarlet Emperor’ – from my own stock of saved seed.
P. coccineus ‘blackpod’ – Heritage Seed Library.
P. coccineus ‘prizewinner’ – Mr Fothergill’s (free with Grow Your Own).
Phaseolus vulgaris (French bean) ‘fasold’ (climber) – my own saved seed, originally from my Dad-in-law, Guru Glyn’s saved seed.
P. vulgaris ‘cobra’ (climber) – Thompson & Morgan.
P. vulgaris ‘Medwyn’s exhibition’ (climber) – saved seed from Guru Glyn.
P. vulgaris ‘Major Cook’s bean’ (climber) – Heritage Seed Library.
P. vulgaris ‘peewit’ (dwarf) – Heritage Seed Library.
P. vulgaris ‘purple queen’ (dwarf) – Unwins.
P. vulgaris ‘cannellini’ (dwarf) – Unwins.
V. faba ‘aquadulce claudia’ – Thompson & Morgan (to be sown in late Summer / early Autumn for over-wintering).
Those three Heritage Seed Library entries are heirloom varieties, so you won’t find them in any commercial seed catalogues. I highly recommend getting hold of ‘fasold’ if you’re in the market for a climber that’s vigorous, prolific and produces very tasty pods that freeze well, and black beans that you can use in all sorts of dishes. ‘Scarlet Emperor’ is pretty ubiquitous, but a solid performer and my go-to runner bean (so far, at least). The others should be pretty easy to track down as well.
Next bean-related job (potting-on aside): putting up a whole lot of bean support frames down at Plot #59. And when harvest season rolls around, we might have to invest in a new chest freezer…
January is the traditional time to post a year-in-review piece, but for me, the start of the sowing and growing season – with the last of the previous year’s over-wintered veg crops being harvested or cleared away and the first of this year’s plants being sown and planted out – seems a good time to think back on what went well and what wasn’t such a success.
Last year was an odd one: we moved house (eventually) at the end of July, which meant that from March through to October – almost the entire growing season – we were doing a lot more sorting, skipping, packing, moving, unpacking, redecorating and recovering than we’re (hopefully) likely to have to do again for a very long time.
Nevertheless, we still managed a pretty good all-round showing.
Last year we deliberately grew far too many potatoes in order to help condition and turn over a massive, newly-cleared section of the plot; almost an entire quarter of the total space. Our ‘swift’ first earlies were great, as were the ‘saxon’ second earlies – which we actually harvested as main-crop and turned out to be an excellent all-rounder – and ‘pink fir apple’ main-crop. We had so many of these latter two varieties that we were still eating them well into February, until they started shooting like crazy and depleted their starch stores.
Not so Good
Our fourth variety was ‘Golden Wonder’ which grew reasonably well, albeit with smaller yields than the other three, but turned out to be less useful from a culinary point-of-view. Their extreme starchiness meant they were okay as roasties or oven-baked wedges, if you didn’t mind the uber-crunchy exterior and quite dry interior, but rather useless for anything else; you just have to wave them in the general direction of a pot of boiling water and they start to dissolve, so you can’t even par-boil them. I even tried making crisps with them… frankly, not worth the effort. Ah, well.
We had a pretty decent harvest of regular garlic, the elephant garlic was excellent (double the amount is already planted out and growing on for this year), our ‘Musselburgh’ leeks grew well – they’re still going strong and are very tasty with it – and the brown onion ‘sturon’ sets, that one of the old boys donated from his surplus, did well.
I love beans. I love growing them, harvesting them, cooking with them and eating them. Last year we grew broad beans in Spring and then runner beans (scarlet emperor), climbing French beans (borlotti and fasold) and dwarf beans (cannelini) in Summer. All of them did very well indeed and we managed to fill a freezer tray with pods and a couple of tubs with dried beans for the winter.
Not so Good
The one failure was the variety I tried to grow as part of my ‘three sisters’ (squash / sweetcorn / beans) companion planting section. Not wanting to plant anything too vigorous, I went for a dwarfing purple variety, which were almost totally swamped by the masses of squash foliage that I didn’t have time to control. This year: a climber, and more pruning.
Around a quarter of our plot is planted up with soft fruit bushes and rhubarb, many of which were newly-transplanted from home or elsewhere on the plot at the end of year one, so we weren’t expecting anything amazing in their first full year. We were surprised and delighted though by bumper crops of blackcurrants, raspberries and rhubarb, all of which featured heavily in my jam-making. We also had an excellent blueberry harvest from our two potted bushes in the back garden. No jam there though, they barely made it inside the house. Our gooseberries and redcurrants were less impressive but still put in a good effort; the bushes should do better this year. Still to perform (hopefully this year): whitecurrants, Japanese wineberry and loganberry.
Not so Good
It was an awful year for our strawberries. The previous November we planted up three ridges, with a dozen plants on each, and looked forward to the glut to follow. What happened instead was a red-hot April that forced early blossom, followed by a cold, wet May which killed it all off again before it could be pollinated. Net result: three fruits. Not three kilos, or even three fruiting plants. Just three lonely little fruits. Here’s hoping for better growing conditions this year.
The three varieties of cabbage – all pointy-headed types – that we planted did very well and we enjoyed them immensely. Our kale was good as well and over-wintered nicely, until the pigeons worked out that the new shoots were ripe for raiding.
Not so Good
Our sprouts were a big disappointment: small, poorly formed buttons on spindly stems, barely a crop worth the name. I think I know where I went wrong: I kept them covered in enviromesh for too long, so they got a bit cramped as they were growing strongly over the summer. This year I’ll take the covers off sooner and plant them a bit further apart, too, to give them more room to stretch out. Because we couldn’t keep on top of the watering, our Romanesco broccoli bolted. It was still tasty as shoots/spears, but we didn’t get the tight, fractal-pattern heads. We’ll have another go this year and see what happens. And our purple sprouting broccoli was annihilated by the same pigeons (we assume) that did for the kale, back in February.
Cucurbits and Corn
Courgettes! So many lovely courgettes. We grew four varieties and they all did extremely well; we were eating them from late Spring right through to mid Autumn. A superb crop, they pretty much take care of themselves and will keep on producing until the frosts start to bite. Highly recommended. Our sweetcorn did rather well, too. It was the first year that I’d grown it properly so wasn’t sure what to expect. When we ended up harvesting around two-dozen good-sized cobs from a dozen plants I was rather pleased. More of the same this year, I reckon.
Not so Good
The ‘sweet dumpling’ squashes that we planted in the three sisters section didn’t work at all well. Again, it was down to a lack of time to keep on top of the masses of foliage that the vines produce; I didn’t cut them back soon enough or hard enough and they sprawled massively as a result, causing damp, humid conditions that rotted the fruits on the vine. More care and attention needed this year.
We didn’t do all that much on the roots front, except to sow a few rows in a spare patch of ground just to see what happened. As it turned out, the parsnips and salsify did rather well, with the latter a very tasty revelation. We still have the last few parsnips in the ground; they’ll be coming up shortly.
Not so Good
Carrots. Ugh. They didn’t do at all well, we got nothing at all from the row I sowed. But then I didn’t do much soil preparation and didn’t take any precautions against carrot-fly. More and better of both this year. The celeriac was poor as well; sprouted greens but failed to set roots. I’ll have to read up on that one. Likewise, the celery plants that our next-door plot neighbour donated did nowt worth mentioning. To be fair though, I don’t know if they were a trenching or self-blanching variety, so just chucking them in and hoping probably wasn’t the best strategy.
Salads, Misc. Others, etc.
We didn’t grow our usual trays of greenhouse salad leaves last year, due to the uncertainty of the move, but what we did have made a fresh, tasty change from supermarket lettuce. I didn’t go in for peas much either – I usually do pea shoots at home for salads and mange tout in tubs, as well as down the greenhouse – but those will feature more heavily again this year. No exotic or unusual fruit or veg last year (same reason as before), the chillis were a bit of a failure (I blame the wet summer) and the three bush tomatoes that I chucked in at the allotment didn’t do much (except sprawl through the courgette patch and make a nuisance of themselves) before getting blight-struck. So it goes.
This Year’s Changes
Fewer spuds, more elephant garlic and onions, hopefully a better fruit harvest, more (and better spaced) brassicas, even more beans, a new asparagus patch, improved squash-foilage control, more salads, greenhouse and outdoor tomatoes, plenty of chillis, a few exotics, an actual carrot harvest (hopefully), and all sorts of other stuff.