Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are sometimes called sunchokes.  They are a perennial vegetable with an odd common name as they are from North America and are not from Jerusalem, they are a type of sunflower and are not an artichoke.  They are a productive perennial vegetable that has a strange history and an interesting reputation.   

Jerusalem artichokes were first grown and eaten by various tribes in North America, apparently there are a number of different varieties up there, one even has red skin and looks amazing.  In Australia we have access to very few varieties, to the best of my knowledge none of them are named.  We do have a few dodgy heirloom vegetable sellers who like to rename things and claim exclusivity, so the few named varieties you see are likely all the same.  

Jerusalem artichokes are one of the foods that helped numerous families to survive the great depression.  They are massively yielding, very undemanding and roughly nutritionally similar to potatoes.  Whenever I have grown them they have easily out produced potatoes and I have cared for them less.  Like pigeons, rabbits, guinea pigs and anything else that helped families to survive the depression we view them scornfully and they are rarely eaten today. 

Jerusalem artichokes do not easily produce viable seeds, and seed grown plants display a great deal of genetic diversity with many producing thin tubers and very few producing thick edible tubers.  I would love to grow them from true seed and breed for larger tubers or other colours, but doubt I will ever have the space or the time to get into this endeavour.  Considering how productive and low maintenance these vegetables already are I am not sure if there is a great need for improved varieties.
Jerusalem Artichoke tuber

Jerusalem artichokes are an extremely productive vegetable that is very simple to grow.  I have heard of people who peel the tubers prior to eating them (much like potatoes or carrots the skin is edible and nutritious so I don’t see why anyone would bother) and placing the peelings in the compost heap only to have Jerusalem artichokes grow from those peelings.  I have heard of people planting them and never being able to get rid of them.  I have never had this issue as they grow reasonably tall so I find them simple to remove, if I don’t want them in a garden bed it is simple enough to pull them up throughout the growing season.  Unlike mint which you can spend years pulling up and never get it all, sooner or later I get them all and there are none left.  I normally don’t bother to plant them as they regrow from tiny tubers I missed when I harvested.  If I do plant them I normally either plant the smallest tubers, or I break large tubers into little pieces and plant them.  Unlike annual vegetables, you are not adding any selective pressure when you plant smaller ones as tuber grown plants are genetically identical to one another.  The fact that they regrow so easily from tubers that have been missed means you never need to spend time deciding which ones to keep and which ones to eat.  It also means that you get to keep all of the crop rather than placing some aside to replant. 

Jerusalem artichokes are said to yield between 2 kg and 6 kg per plant, this seems like a conservative estimate under most situations.  If you were to look after your plants and provide them with excellent soil and mulch I have little doubt that you could easily exceed this amount, if you grow them in poor soil in dry hot conditions the yield can be considerably lower.  If they have reasonable soil moisture during the growing season and you grow them somewhere with cold winters you should expect the crop to be larger.  

I planted three small pieces last year, rarely watered them, did nothing when they were covered in Rutherglen bugs and the tops were getting deformed from constant bug attack, and have already dug up several buckets full of tubers from the edges of the patch.  This summer I will limit my patch to only one plant. 

The leaves are said to be allelopathic, but I am not certain if this is true for all plants or only for specific weeds.  I have heard many people trying to set up a polyculture similar to the three sisters planting method, but have yet to hear of any that actually worked well.  Jerusalem artichokes are said to grow over 12 foot tall, mine have poor soil, I rarely water them, and I often cut off the tops to feed to animals so mine often struggle to reach 5 feet tall.  I tend not to grow many things under them or climbing up them as under crops tend to struggle.  This may be due to allelopathy, or lack of sun light, or simply due to competition from a rapid growing very nutrient hungry crop.
I normally plant Jerusalem artichokes (and everything else I grow) far too close as space and water are limited here.  They tend to crop well enough for me when cramped.  I also tend to grow them in places where other vegetable crops don’t survive rather than using my good soil for them.  For optimum yields give them good soil and as much space as possible, a few feet between plants would do them well.  If conditions are right they spread underground quite far and I have heard of people digging tubers several feet from where they originally planted one.

Jerusalem artichokes do have a few issues though, such as they do not store very well outside of the soil.  This is a big problem if you plan to grow them for market.  For a permaculture garden or home vegetable garden this is not an issue as you just dig them up when you want them.  They are high in inulin, inulin is a prebiotic which humans can’t digest but it feeds beneficial bacteria.  In some people who are not used to eating anything that contains inulin it can give them gas for a while if they eat too much. 

They appear to increase soil biota, I assume this is due to exuding sugars into the soil.  In all of the gardens I have had, plants that are high in inulin always seem to have earth worms near them.

Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten by people raw or cooked in any way that a potato is cooked.  People tell me that Jerusalem artichokes have a subtle and delicate flavour, I struggle to taste them at all.  They can be mixed with potato and mashed, in this way they taste like mash potato but bulk out the meal considerably.

Jerusalem artichokes are great animal feed as they are so productive and many animals like to eat them.  I am told that pigs love to eat Jerusalem artichokes and if planted in a field the pigs will happily plow an entire field and search out every last one.  I feed Jerusalem artichoke leaves and stems to guinea pigs, this doesn’t seem to lower the crop of tubers too much.  After digging the tubers I throw some to the chickens each day, they really love them.  Feeding the tubers to poultry is simple as it requires no preparation plus it lowers the feed bill significantly over winter when there is little growing.  I also give some tubers to guinea pigs, they also love them.  I try not to give the guinea pigs very many as I am worried about them bloating.  Ducks, guinea fowl, quail, rabbits, budgies and many other animals also gladly eat Jerusalem artichoke tubers.  The best part is they don’t need to be grated or cooked, just dig them up, brush off most of the soil, and throw them in - the animals will know what to do. 

Jerusalem artichokes are often difficult to find for sale in Australia, but once you have them you can grow them forever.  Several online places sell them, and I think I have seen them for sale (with inflated prices) in Bunnings.  I sell organically grown Jerusalem artichokes over winter, they are listed with heirloom vegetable seeds, culinary herbs, and other perennial vegetables on my for sale page.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Growing Carrots from tops

I remember when I was a child reading in a book and hearing that you could cut the top off a carrot, put it in some water (they always went into great detail about how to do this) and it would regrow a delicious edible carrot root.  As a child I never believed it.

Now that I am older I have head some distinguished permaculture people, as well as some highly regarded garden writers, claim that you can grow permanent beds of carrot roots by replanting the tops.  I still didn't believe it, so I tested it with my kids.  I also grew a few other things too. 

My thoughts were that the leafy tops would grow but the root would not, or if it did grow it would be forked and worthless.  I dislike eating carrot leaves, so for me this would be a pointless endeavor. Transplanting carrots is never encouraged because if you damage the tap root the resultant crop is often misshapen or forked.  Cutting the mature root and ending up with a decent yield sounded like yet another garden myth to me.

Regrowing Carrots from Tops
I have searched the internet and found many references to regrowing carrots from the discarded tops.  Yet I have seen no pictures to back up the claims.  I have seen a few pictures that shows you can grow carrot leaves in this way, some show flowers, but no pictures of the roots.  I have also read some detailed descriptions of people who do this, but they all refer to growing and eating the leaves or allowing it to flower and collecting seed.  I dislike eating carrot leaves, and the tops can easily be used by feeding to animals or composting, so this does not interest me.

When I grew them the leaves regrew nicely and the root grew some thin side roots, this made me optimistic that perhaps I had been wrong all this time and this could work.  Then the carrot started to flower and died.  The root did not elongate at all, and it rotted away.  I have tried on some removing the flower stalk and they grew more leaves, but the roots didn't grow thick and edible.  I have tried a few times now, always with the same result, the tap root did not grow long or thick.  Not once.

While this is far from definitive proof I saw enough to be convinced that it is unlikely to regrow carrots from tops.  I believe that you can grow more leaves, you can get flowers and seeds, but I am still convinced that if any thick roots ever grew they would be forked and misshapen.  Growing carrots from seed seems to be far simpler and more cost effective.

If am am jumping to conclusions here and you have tried this yourself and can prove me wrong then please let me know!
Regrowing Carrot Tops - didn't work
Regrowing Carrot Tops
Regrowing Celery from discarded bottom
Another thing I have heard about was regrowing celery from the discarded base.  To me this made sense, it is just leaves growing so should be achievable.  Again I searched on the internet, then tried it with my kids.

I grew a few discarded celery bases, some were larger than others.  At first they all grew more leaves, as the stems and young leaves are the main crop here this already proved to have worked.  They all grew roots.  I planted some in the garden, others I kept in the water.

Eventually some grew into normal looking reasonably tall plants, others flowered set seed and died.  The ones planted into soil grew far better than the ones that were not planted in soil.  It was not difficult to get a second crop out of each of them, even if it was far smaller than the first.

Regrowing celery from discarded bases


Celery starting to flower
Growing other crops from discarded parts
We also had some other things such as pak choi and bok choi and a few similar leaf crop brassicas.  Much like the celery I figured they should work as the leaves are the main crop.

Again they all grew leaves fast enough, they grew roots and I planted some.  The planted ones did better than the ones left in water.  Much like the celery this gave us more crops from the same plant.  They were smaller than the initial crop, but that is ok as it cost nothing other than a little water and space.

Some of them grew into multiple plants and were able to be divided and replanted.  Others did not.  Eventually they all flowered and died.  It would have been simple to save seed had I wanted to.

Again, for a leaf crop, it was relatively simple to regrow these.  I don't know if I will bother again as growing from seed is so simple and they produce many thousands of seeds.  The bases can be fed to my animals or composted so are not wasted.
Growing vegetables from discarded bases
I tried the same thing with beetroot.  Much like the carrots the leaves grew well, but the root stubbornly refused to grow.  Unlike carrot I like to eat beetroot leaves, they are essentially the same as silverbeet but are smaller and sweeter, so this was not a huge waste.  I really don't think I will bother doing this again unless I am wanting to save seed as the space needed to grow a discarded beetroot top just for leaves is much the same as the space required to grow a beetroot for root and leaves.  Again, I can compost these discarded parts so nothing goes to waste.

John 6:12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.”

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Purple stripey Basil

Last summer I grew a heap of different basil (Ocimum basilicum) varieties.  They ranged in leaf shape and size, they ranged in taste, they varied in productivity.  A comparison of those basil varieties can be found here.

By far the prettiest variety of basil that I grew was an unnamed striped purple basil that I have been working on for a few years.
Unnamed purple stripey basil, looks nicer in real life
The stems and backs of the leaves are dark purple (the colour in the pictures does not do them justice) the top of each leaf was green with purple veins giving it a striking appearance.  Again, the pictures don't do it justice, the colours in real life were darker and more vivid.  It had purple/pink flowers and dark stems. 

The taste was not as sweet as I would like, but it held up to cooking far better than genovese basil which makes it rather useful.  The leaves were a bit smaller than I would like, but they look amazing and they grow enough leaves that it makes up for them being a bit small.

I plan to grow this variety again this year, I think it is now a stable strain.  If it is stable it will need a name.
Pink/Purple basil flowers, dark stems
Like all basil they grow well as cuttings
Some higher leaves were less striped when the plants began to flower
Dark stems, purple striped leaves, very ornamental (and edible) basil

One of my plants, tall and narrow
Plants get tall and narrow if not pinched and made to branch

Top of leaf green with dark purple stripes
Dark purple stems and backs of leaves
Same plant, same chopping board, same day, but the lighting was somehow different

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Colourful banana seeds

More ebay thieves selling fake seeds, this time they are selling banana seeds.  Below are a bunch of pictures that I found on actual ebay listings, not one of these things exists.  The ebay thieves make thousands of dollars from selling seeds that do not exist, they post seeds to the buyer, and by the time you have worked out that something is wrong it is too late to get your money back.

Blue Bananas
Blue bananas don't exist.  There are heaps of pictures of them on the internet, someone has taken a picture and digitally changes the colour.  Please never buy anything from anyone who sells blue banana seeds as they are thieves and won't give you what you paid for.
Blue banana do NOT exist
Bonsai Bananas
How cute do bonsai banana plants look!  Being tiny means even in a cool climate I could grow them as I could protect them and keep them somewhere warm.  Unfortunately bonsai bananas do NOT exist.  These plants are not real, the picture is of a pretend plant.  It is not alive, it is fake.  Please never fund these ebay thieves, never buy anything that they are selling if they sell bonsai banana seeds.

bonsai banana does NOT exist

Giant bananas
Seriously, people bought fake ebay seeds for these?  I am tempted to say something nasty about the type of person who would be taken in by this kind of lie.  Bananas don't have the genetic potential to ever reach this size, I don't see why anyone would think that they do.  Even with GM technology bananas will NEVER get this big

Giant banana do NOT exist and will NEVER exist

Various coloured bananas
These ebay thieves are not even trying, they got one picture of bananas and have changed its colours digitally.  Other than the unripe green none of these colours exist, please DON'T buy seeds for these!

Multicolour banana - same picture recoloured
Banana melons
At first this add made me wonder if it was an ebay thief, or just a confused seller.  I read through the listing and found they were the former.  This is a picture of a yellow zucchini, nothing terribly rare.  The description talks about sweet melons.  Zucchini are far from sweet, if anything they are very bland.  This seller is selling seeds of several other things that don't exist, which helps show what type of person they are.

Just because these thieves are located in Australia, and they will send you seeds quickly, it doesn't mean that they are not trying to steal from you.  When you leave your house you lock it to keep the thieves out
Banana melon?  This is actually just a normal zucchini

Pink and Blue Bananas
No surprises here, they have done a dodgy job of changing the colours and are selling seeds of bananas that don't exist.  If anyone is selling any seeds that don't exist please never buy anything from them.
Blue and pink bananas don't exist

Rainbow bananas
It is very rare (but certainly not impossible) for anything to have multiple coloured fruit on the same plant.  Sure some chillies do it, but not bananas.  I have never seen that blue on any fruit or vegetable.  These ebay thieves have changed the colours, these bananas look amazing, but they don't exist.  Please don't buy anything from these ebay thieves.
Rainbow bananas do NOT exist
Ebay thieves everywhere
I have written several other posts on ebay seeds that don't exist.  The more I look on ebay the more seeds I see listed for sale (by premium members with 99% or higher ratings) that don't exist.  Just because seeds are cheap, and they have free postage, and that the seller has a great rating, doesn't mean that they are selling you something that even exists, please do some research before buying any seeds from ebay.

All of my posts on fake ebay seeds have been labelled "Things that don't exist" to make them easier to find.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Cape Gooseberry Yield per Plant

I have heard many different reports on how productive Cape Gooseberries (Physalis peruviana) are.  These range from "up to 100 fruits per plant" which seems incredibly low, to "over 2kg per plant" which sounds like an exaggeration.  I have also heard anecdotal reports of them cropping "a cup per day all season" which sounds similar to the 'my chicken lays one egg a day every single day' nonsense.

My Cape gooseberry fruit started ripening 14/01/2017.  At first it had 1 or 2 per day, then a reasonable handful per day.  I have no idea how many fruits I got off it, but it seemed like a lot.  I started to record the number of every fruit harvested from one plant from 06/02/2017 until the end of the season.  We don't pick the fruit, when they are ripe they drop from the plant.  I counted every fruit I picked each day, and kept a tally until the end of the season.

In the first week of recording I harvested over 130 fruits not including any that were stolen by birds, hollowed out by ants, or eaten surreptitiously by my children who absolutely love cape gooseberries.  The plants were suffering from here due to an infestation of spider mites and lost a lot of leaves, so the yield declined but I kept recording the number of fruits that I picked.

After two weeks of recording I had picked over 200 fruits from one plant, again not including any that were stolen.  After three weeks of recording I had picked over 280 fruits.  In one month of recording I had picked 327 fruits from one plant.  Every day the spider mites got worse and the plant lost more leaves.

Over the season I harvested 441 Cape Gooseberry fruits from one plant.  Given that I did not start counting for a few weeks, and that my kids stole a bunch of them before I could count them, I guess that each plant probably produced over 500 fruits.

Each of the tiny and delicious fruits averaged 2 g, some weighed more, some weighed less.  So each plant yielded about 1 kg of fruit this year.

Considering that my soil was not great and my plants were defoliated by spider mites I think it could have yield significantly more fruits.
Cape gooseberry fruits
Cape gooseberries
Cape gooseberries ripening in the sun
Cape gooseberries - they are ripe when they fall from the plant

Friday, 29 September 2017

Basil comparison

Last summer I trialed some different basil (Ocimum basilicum) varieties.  The seeds were all planted on the same day, once they germinated and grew a little the seedlings were all planted out on the same day.  The difference in growth was rather amazing.  I should have put something in the pictures for scale but didn't.

I also grew a few other basils, but they were not part of this comparison, or the seeds were planted at a different time, or they were grown from cuttings, so I have not included them here.

Lettuce Leaf 185
I liked this one, good taste, nice basil smell, nice large leaf, productive.  I should grow this one again.

Good taste, good size leaf, not productive enough for my liking.

Usbekistan 146
The purple splodge looked nice, but they were not very productive and smelled too much like licorice for my liking.

This was ok, slow to produce well

Dwarf Greek Basil
Strangely productive for a little plant, flowered very late, tiny little leaves, great taste.

Lettuce leaf 180
Not very large leaves for a 'lettuce leaf' type.  Flowered too early.

Grand Vert de Genes
Already flowering in this picture.  Too much work trying to remove flowers.

Not productive, look how tiny it was.  I probably won't grow this one again.

Grew larger than greek dwarf.  Very productive with little leaves.  Great taste.

Large plants, very productive, great taste, large leaves.  I like this, it is the benchmark that I compare all other basil to.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Skirret plants Australia

I have had a few questions about skirret lately so thought I would write a post to answer them.  Skirret (Sium sisarum) is a rare perennial root vegetable that should be grown more widely by home gardeners.  I have written a few blog posts on skirret before, you can use the 'search' button at the top right side of the page to find them.

Skirret was once grown and eaten throughout Europe, then fell out of fashion when vegetables such as the potato were brought back from the new world.  Now, especially in Australia, almost no one has ever heard of skirret, let alone eaten it.  It is too bad because skirret tastes amazing.

Skirret can be planted as a seed in spring, it produces a crop, flowers and produces more seed all in one year.  Not many perennial vegetables can produce a crop this quick from seed grown.  Skirret plants also produce offsets, so when the plant dies down over winter the offsets can be divided, the seeds can be planted and you can increase the number of plants that you have.  Skirret seed shows a surprising amount of genetic diversity, that combined with how many seeds it sets, plus its perennial nature, makes breeding improved skirret varieties relatively simple.

Skirret likes water and thrives in cool climates, if in a hot climate it grows well enough if given more water.  It can survive with less water, but does not crop well.  You really can't over water skirret.
organic skirret roots Australia
Skirret roots, it was the end of the season when I had eaten all the large roots that I remembered to take a picture, many were a bit longer than this
Skirret is dormant over winter, no matter how cold it gets here the plants always survive.  We have had frosts below -8C this last winter and my plants were completely undamaged.  Skirret flowers attract beneficial insects to the garden, they seem to be visited often by wasps.  I have never had any pests damage my skirret other than snails and slugs when it is very small.

Young skirret plants
Skirret is very simple to grow, productive, and tastes great, but it is not suited to mechanical harvest and the roots don't store well once dug so will never be a main crop anywhere.  The amazing taste, ease of growth and high yield means that it is well suited to home growers.  Being perennial means it can be left to do its own thing and just dug up at harvest time.  We dig up roots when we need them for a meal, anything we leave behind we will either dig up later, or if we miss it this year it will continue to grow larger for next year.

Skirret is such an amazing vegetable that everyone who I have given some to has loved it.  Kids even love the taste of skirret.  I have never heard of anyone eat some and not love it.

Skirret leaves, stems and seeds can be eaten, and they are not without their charm, but it is the roots that are the main crop here.  The roots can be eaten raw, and they are ok, much like a sweet crunchy carrot, but skirret is far better roasted.  It is easily the best tasting roasted vegetable that I have eaten.  It doesn't need to be peeled, just scrub off the soil and roast away.  Skirret tastes incredibly sweet and rich once roasted.
Skirret plants - crowded but still good
Most people plant skirret about 30 cm apart, or about 9 per square meter, as this gives them plenty of room to grow.  I plant them far closer than that.  I am limited by the amount of space I have, I am not limited by the number of plants.  The yield per plant declines when planted too close like this, but the yield per area is increased. 

perennial skirret vegetable
Skirret starting to flower in late summer
Skirret roots can have a woody core.  This is mostly seen in young plants or plants that have not had enough water over the growing season.  I have culled pretty hard and most of my plants no longer have any woody core at all.  I am hoping to completely eliminate the woody genes from my population and only grow superior plants.  I don't know if I will ever achieve this as I don't know anything about the genes that cause woodiness.

Skirret also seems to be good when planted near leek.  The skirret is the same, but the leeks appear to grow faster and larger.  I should do some little tests to see if this was just a coincidence.

Where to buy skirret in Australia
Not many places in Australia have skirret for sale, hopefully that changes as skirret is a delicious vegetable that is well suited to growing at home.  Skirret needs some breeding work done to make the roots fatter.  I sell skirret offsets over winter, small plants over spring, and seeds all year.  They are listed on my for sale page if you are interested.