Sunday, 28 December 2014

How to grow Babington's Leek

Babington's Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii) are amazing little plants, I wrote another post on them and thought I should describe how to grow them.  They are edible and perennial and a bit more interesting than a regular leek.  Unfortunately they are on the brink of extinction in Australia and many other parts of the world.  I am selling small bulbils of Babington's leeks in the hope that other people will grow and enjoy them and help them to become less rare.

Here are some notes on how to grow them, please note that I am no expert on Babington's leeks, if something I say does not work feel free to try something else.  If you find some other way to grow them that works better please let me know and I will gladly pass this information on to anyone who wishes to grow them.

This is only a brief description of how to grow Babington's leeks that has worked for me.  For information on how to grow any other perennial vegetables please go to my growing notes page.  To buy Babington's leeks or other perennial vegetables, herbs, heirloom vegetable seeds, water kefir grains or milk kefir grains etc please go to my for sale page.

Babington's Leek bulbs - should flower next year

Growing Babington's Leek from from Bulbs
At this stage I do not have enough plants to sell mature bulbs but figured I would mention it for when your plants are larger or if I ever have enough to sell them too.  This is simple, plant the bulb a few cm deep and give it 15cm to 20cm or so from its nearest neighbour.  Plant it about the depth of the bulb's width, if it is too shallow it will drag itself deeper with the use of contractile roots.  Give it plenty of water, sunlight and mulch.  You should be able to harvest the leek by cutting it near the soil and have it re-sprout, if you get the timing right and the bulb was large enough it should still send up a flower stalk.  Each year if all goes well the underground bulb should divide into 2 or 3 mature bulbs for you and they may grow a few other smaller bulbs too

Babington's Leek will die down to a bulb in summer, it may be possible to convince them to grow through but I have not tried that yet so can not comment.  If storing the bulbs be careful not to leave the bulbs out somewhere to dry out too much, also be careful not to leave them in soil that is too wet as they may rot.

Babington's Leek plant almost ready to flower
Growing Babington's Leek from Plants
If I have too many bulbils left over that sprout I plan to sell them as small plants.  Much like any other variety of leek, plant it reasonably deep to encourage a long white shank.  As above, plant 15cm to 20cm from its nearest neighbour, any closer than this will stunt the plant a little.  Plenty of sun, water and mulch will ensure the fastest growth rate.  During the first year they will be small and may not put on much growth above ground, this is normal.  They will mostly take 2 or 3 years until mature enough to flower.

Babington's leek bulbils - note the small size

Growing Babington's Leek from Bulbils
I mostly sell bulbils of the Babington's leek, these are tiny leek bulbs that have formed on top of the flower stalk.  For this reason I will go into a little more detail in this section.

Each bulbil will most likely be genetically identical to the parent (although slight mutations may occur from time to time).  The bulbils are tiny, probably around the size of a pea but sometimes even smaller.  Bulbils are produced in early Summer but will not grow or do anything until Autumn or Winter.  They are ready when they fall from the flower stalk, I sell them when they are ready and will store and grow anything that is not sold.  If you buy bulbils as soon as they are ready you have two options: you can plant straight away or you can store them for later.  Each method has its merits and dangers, I will try to do a little of each to work out what is best.
Babington's leek bulbils
Storing the bulbils gives you the peace of mind that they will not be eaten by anything or rot in the soil but runs the risk that they will dry out and die.  You also run the risk that they will not be in the soil when they are ready to grow or that they may not receive whatever signal they need in order to resume growth.  Some bulbils will look green, others will develop a brown outer skin.  I assume that the green ones will not cope with storage as well as the brown ones.  I also assume that the brown ones will be less likely to wake up when it is time to grow.

Planting the bulbils immediately runs the risk of rotting or being eaten by earwigs or whatever but also ensures that they will not dry too much and they are ready to grow when they need to grow.  I plant the bulbils a little under the soil surface or sometimes directly on top of the soil in the light.  I have heard that a grower overseas normally plants them 2 inches deep.  I urr on the side of caution, if they are not deep enough they will work it out or I could dig them and replant them when they are larger, if they are too deep they may not have enough energy to reach the sunlight.  It is best to plant them with the growing tip pointing up, quite often it is difficult to tell which way is up and in these instances it is best to plant them on their side.  Planted on their side they will work it out, planted upside down they may die.

No matter what you chose to do the bulbils will not do a great deal of anything until Autumn or even Winter/Spring.  Occasionally they may begin to grow in late Summer but only if the weather is cool.   Babington's leeks are often rather small looking plants in their first year and the next season are far larger.  The bulbils will often take 2 to 3 years to be mature enough to flower, that being said if they are very happy they can flower in their first year.
Babbington's leek, bulbils developing on the flower head

Growing Babington's leeks is simple
While it sounds like a lot of work it isn't, most people who grow Babington's leeks have a patch of them and pretty much ignore them other than to harvest them and to marvel at their amazing flower head.  Often overseas growers (I do not know any other Australian growers) tell me that Babington's leeks thrive on neglect.  I figured I would go into a bit of detail so that you have the best chances of harvesting leeks as soon as possible.  I also want to make sure that if someone buys Babington's leeks from me that they know what to expect and do not rip the plants out when they have not flowered in the first year from bulbils.  The pictures of the bulbils next to the measuring tape will help to ensure that if anyone buys bulbils from me that they know exactly what they are buying.

If you have any questions please feel free to ask, while I may not know the answer I will do my best to tell you what works and does not work for me.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Crimson Flowered Broad Beans

I wrote a post on Broad Beans (Vicia faba) last year.  This year I grew a different variety of broad bean which I have wanted to grow for some time.  At first things seemed promising, they grew well, produced heaps of flowers and started to form many pods.

Then the ducks flew over the fence and ate most of the pods, broke most of the plants, ate most of the leaves, trampled everything that their little ducky feet could trample and generally destroyed things.  I was not overly impressed but some of the damaged plants went on to produce a small number of pods and seeds.  I still ended up with a lot more seeds than I planted so I count that as a win.
Crimson flowered broadbean starting to flower

I grew this particular type because someone sent me some seeds of a broad bean called 'crimson flowered' broadbean.  I had wanted to grow this type of broadbean for a while and was trying to decide between growing it and another one so it worked out well.  They did not send many seeds and I was not sure if we would move before the seeds were ripe so I only planted three.  These three seeds germinated and the plants grew strong.

History of Crimson Flowered Broadbeans

Crimson flowered broad beans are a very old variety of broadbean.  They were widely grown in the 1700s (it is mentioned in books from 1778 but probably grown prior that that) then almost went extinct as some of the newer varieties with longer pods became available.  Apparently they were thought to be extinct until 1978 when a lady called Rhoda Cutbush donated three or four of her precious seeds to the Heritage Seed Library.

Apparently Rhoda's father had received the original heirloom seeds from a cottage garden in 1912.  Rhoda grew up growing and eating these broadbeans, probably not realising that she was one of the last people to grow them.  Then in 1978 a crop failure wiped out all of Rhoda's plants.  She could not find anywhere to get new seeds from so she searched through her shed until she found an old tin which contained 3 or 4 seeds (there are discrepancies over the number).  Instead of planting the seeds Rhoda realised how important they were and decided to donate them.

What an amazing story of survival!  From there this crimson flowered broad bean has been saved from extinction and has been sent to seed savers and breeders across the world.
Crimson Flowered Broad Beans

What are crimson flowered broad beans like

They are a short and compact plant which rarely reaches over a meter tall, as they age they send up multiple stalks all with many flowers.  They grow and look much like any other broad bead plant, until the flowers begin to open.  The flowers are what sets this variety apart from many others.  They range from deep red to red/purple and look great, but it is their scent that is amazing.  I don't know if their flowers have a stronger scent than regular broad beans or if it is because they grow so many flowers, but I could smell them from outside the vegetable garden.  Considering that I only had three plants that is pretty impressive.

The pods, of which I did not get many as the ducks sabotaged them, were slightly smaller than the Aquadulce ones we grow.  I assume had the plants been allowed to produce a crop unharmed would have produced many small pods.  The pods have less seeds in them than the Aquadulce variety, only about 3 seeds per pod.  The seeds are slightly smaller and more green than Aquadulce.

I am told that they taste better than regular broad beans but certainly didn't get a chance to try these, as I don't really eat broadbeans this is purely academic and I have to use other people's advice.  People who grow them as a food crop tell me that their taste and productivity more than makes up for the smaller size of the pods.

As a green manure all broad beans are great, these are no exception.  Even though they do not grow too large they do sequester nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it available in the soil.  As they get older they grow more stems and become bushier, this ads to their use as green manure, compost activator or mulch.

Due to the flowers on this plant they can fit into an ornamental garden rather well.  The flowers not only look great and smell amazing but they are flowering intensely at a time when little else is colourful in the garden.  The flowers attract bees and feed them when little else is flowering.  I consider broad beans to be a great all round permaculture crop because they have so many uses.  Even though we don't eat them I grow them for their other uses.

Young Broad Bean starting to flower

Saving Seeds

If you plan to grow this type of broadbean please keep in mind that broad beans readily cross pollinate with other varieties of broad bean.  Clearly they will not cross pollinate with any other variety of bean, pea or anything else.  If you plan to grow and preserve this variety care must be taken to prevent crossing as they can and will cross at a large distance.  If your neighbour or even someone in the next block grows broad beans then it may well cross pollinate your plants so bagging or caging plants is the only real way to keep seed pure.  You must save a few more more pods from this plant as they produce so few seeds, this is simple enough to do.  I plan to do a larger growout next year and only save seeds from the largest pods to try and select for more seeds per pod.

If you plan to create your own new variety of broadbean this plant carries a few genes which no other varieties carry.  If I liked broad beans more and had time/space I would cross them with a long pod broad bean  and/or a purple seeded type and create a longer podded red flowered purple seeded broadbean.

A few places in Australia sell crimson flowered broad bean seed.  When I have enough seeds they are offered on my for sale page with a few other heirloom vegetable seeds or perennial vegetables.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Kids and gardening

My kids love gardening, it is something that they are born with.  I don't know if it is just fun to get dirty, or if digging holes makes it fun or if they just enjoy being outside, but whatever it is they have always loved it.

My kids have helped me plant seeds, tubers, rhizomes etc, water plants, harvest vegetables, save seeds and all other parts of gardening since before they knew it.  They know where their food comes from and understand the work that goes into producing food.  I am coming to the realisation that they have a better idea of food and growing vegetables than many adults, they certainly seem to be more capable at seed saving than a lot of people I know.

I tend to get a bit caught up in growing food plants and often forget that I should make gardening a bit more fun for the kids.  The kids certainly enjoy growing/eating things like strawberries or yacon, but sometimes they want a bit more fun so we have a few more novel plants for them to grow with me.  Many of these are still edible or useful, but they are fun for the kids too.

Rampion (Campanula rapunculus)

Who hasn't heard of the fairy tale called Rapunzel?  My kids haven't, but that is beside the point.  Rampion is the vegetable that the mother stole from the witch's garden and caused all the trouble.  Apparently Rapunzel is another name for the vegetable Rampion.
Rampion beginning to flower
Rampion is a very ancient vegetable, the leaves and roots are eaten.  I have eaten some leaves and to be honest probably wouldn't sneak into anyone's garden for it, let alone the garden of a grudge harboring witch.  The roots are meant to be delicious but I have not eaten any yet as I only have a few plants.  Some of the rampion has started to flower, the flowers are beautiful but are difficult to take pictures as most of the plants are hidden among other plants.
Rampion growing in a tiny pot
Rampion seed is tiny, so tiny that when I bought seed I could hardly see it and wondered if I had actually been sold anything other than dust.  The seed seems to have a reasonably low germination rate, but that may be my climate or the way in which I have tried to grow it.  It seems to have a lot of seed so having low germination is not that big a problem.

Rampion tends to do better if it is not transplanted, for this reason I am letting my plants go to seed and hope to sprinkle the flower heads where I would like the plants to grow.  The flowers on rampion are beautiful.  It ends up with a handful of long spikes of little blue flowers on each plant.  It would easily look good in an ornamental garden or a little girl's fairy garden.

I should write another post on rampion some day.  Unfortunately I do not really have any pictures as it is mostly growing in amongst other plants and can not be seen.

World's hottest chilli

The kids tried some chilli a few months ago and thought that it would be fun to grow some.  I figured it would be fun to grow something that they could not get in the shops so I bought some Trinidad Scorpion Butch T (Capsicum chinese) seed and planted it with them.  These were the world's hottest chilli a few years ago (apparently some hybrid has recently surpassed them) so I figured it would be great.

We then surrounded the tiny seedlings with crushed egg shell to help protect against slugs and snails.  So far they are tiny but I have high hopes as they are growing new leaves.  I plan to keep them in pots so that when winter comes we can try to protect them and hopefully get a second year out of them.

Trinidad Scorpion Butch T seedlings starting to grow

Immali Corn (Zea Mays)

I am breeding this variety myself and know of no one else that has created anything even remotely similar.  I have been working on this for a few years now and it is almost a stable variety.  I am now working on intensifying the colour and making this variety a bit more stable.

Immali corn is completely non GM and has been bred using nature to do much of the work.  If all goes well the Immali corn will produce a blue and white bicoloured cob of super sweet corn.  Being blue means that Immali Corn is high in anthocyanins and other cancer fighting antioxidants. 

Immali corn seedlings
I don't like starting corn and transplanting it, but this year I had little choice for a number of reasons.  I prefer to plant the seeds where they are to grow.  The seedlings were planted out the day I took the above picture and are now almost a foot tall.

I have high hopes for this corn and hope that once it is a stable variety I can distribute it for people to enjoy.  Perhaps distributing it before it is stable as a diverse landrace would be good too, we will see what happens. 

Venus fly traps (Dionaea muscipula)

Venus fly traps are the most well known of all the carnivorous plants.  They are fun, other than that they are pretty useless.  I had them when I was a child and loved them.  I started with one and ended up dividing it and multiplying it into a couple of dozen.  I don't know if they can grow here as the humidity is so low and it gets so hot, but it is worth a try.  I kind of miss growing carnivorous plants, perhaps I will get back into it properly after we move.

Venus Fly Traps - notice the bee stealing water from the lower pot
We now have three venus fly traps for the kids, or are they for me and I am just using the kids as an excuse?  Either way it doesn't really matter.  They do not catch many insects so are not useful for insect control.  A venus flytrap may have up to a dozen leaves and each leaf will only hold one insect at a time, so that is only a dozen insects per plant.  Something like a Drosera or a Sarracenia can catch many more insects.  A large pitcher plant can hold several hundred insects per leaf, a large sundew can catch a few dozen.  These can be used to successfully control some types of insect in some situations, unfortunately venus fly traps can not.  Even though the venus flytraps are virtually useless they can be a lot of fun.

People often comment that venus fly traps do not flower, that is absolute garbage spread by people who desperately want to appear intelligent and knowledgeable.  What they probably mean is that the traps are made of leaf and not made of flower.  This is kind of obvious, I can not think of any carnivorous plant that traps food with their flowers.  Not one.  Some plants will kill insects in their flowers, but I don't know of any that obtain any nutrients in that way.

Other people insist that the flowers must be removed from venus fly traps or they will weaken and die.  When I was a kid mine flowered most years and it never harmed them.  Quite often after flowering they would divide into several new plants.  I often collected their seed and grew it into more plants, each one genetically different from the rest.  Growing venus fly traps from seed is heaps of fun, if you ever get a chance I say give it a go.

If they can grow here in this arid climate I don't think flowering or not flowering will have any noticeable effect on their health. The plants have already divided and have several distinct growing points.

Venus Fly Trap flowers


Nanuq has a little dinosaur garden, in it he has planted some flowers and herbs.  Strong growing herbs such as mint are great for kids.  Interesting looking herbs and odd smelling herbs seem to be enjoyed by kids.  Things which are sweet such as stevia are adored by kids.

Here are some pictures of the herbs that Nanuq has planted in his little dinosaur garden.  He has a lot of other plants in there too, some are ornamental and others like the tree onions are edible.
Chocolate mint
Variegated apple mint in with some variegated thyme

Stevia - very sweet

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Tree onion true seeds

Tree onions, also known as Egyptian onions, Walking onions, Topsetting onions etc (Allium × proliferum, formerly Allium cepa var proliferum) are a very productive perennial onion that grows small onions on top of the flower stalk.  It is meant to be the most hardy of all the edible onions and is not bothered by heat, drought or cold.  I wrote an earlier post about them here.

One remarkable thing about the tree onion is that they do not really grow flowers.  They send up a flower stalk and grow small onions instead of flowers.  In this way they are simple to propagate, just break off a small top onion and plant it somewhere.  If left alone they will do this by themselves and constantly increase the size of their patch for you.  It is this bizarre habit that makes them so interesting to grow, sometimes they will plant their own topsets and 'walk' across your garden leaving an edible onion forest in their wake.

Tree onions can also divide under ground.  The main bulb, if left alone, will split into a handful of plants each year.  The plants have to compete with each other and the resultant plants will never be overly large.  If divided these plants can produce many plants in a year or two.  By dividing the plants you eliminate competition and end up with more robust and stronger plants.
Tree onion clump - this was a single plant 2 or 3 years ago.  It has grown from bulb division only as I removed all topsets

What is wrong with tree onions

When being grown by topsets all of the tree onion plants are said to be genetically identical.  This poses problems if the tree onion is not well suited to your climate or if there is some problem that only genetic diversity can overcome.  Tree onion bulbs are not very large, the largest I have seen is about golf ball sized, it would be nice if they were even a little larger.  In some climates they may not produce bulbs at all.

Perennial onions often accumulate a virus load, this virus load does not stop the plant from being edible but often reduces the size of the bulbs.  Potato onions that are seed grown are three times the size (or larger) of regular potato onions.  This is due to shedding the virus load through growing from seed.  I have started to wonder if something similar to this will happen with tree onions if they are seed grown.  Or perhaps tree onions do not have a virus load when grown from bulbils, I just don't know.

At present there is only one clone of tree onion in Australia that I am aware of.  I am happy to be wrong about this, if you have a different tree onion I would love to hear from you.  Overseas they seem to have a handful of types but we don't appear to be so lucky here.

Tree onions are good, but if the bulbs were larger they would be far more useful for the cook.  Perhaps shedding of virus load would increase the size of the bulbs, perhaps better genetics would achieve larger bulb size, regardless larger bulbs would be better and make tree onions more worth while to grow.

Having a few different colours of tree onions would also make people a lot happier as people tend to pick onions based on colour rather than any other trait.  I must admit, I see some pictures of the different varieties of tree onion that are overseas and would prefer to grow them than the variety that we have.

In some climates tree onions may not produce true bulbs ever, instead they will start to grow a bulb by thickening the base of the stalk but never die down properly even if water is withheld.  They just keep on growing.  This basal swelling is eaten the same way as an onion bulb and tastes the same, but it can not be dug and stored like a bulb and does not look as good as a bulb.  This may be a day length sensitivity issue or something else, either way it would be better if they died to bulbs in every climate.
Tree onions starting to flower as well as send up bulbils

Breeding better tree onions

All of these desirable traits (size, colour etc) could be bred into tree onions by home gardeners, at present I know of no one who is doing any tree onion breeding anywhere in the world.  I find this odd, but then again perhaps people have better things to do with their time than trying to improve an ancient onion when there are so many great onions already around.  Breeding tree onions for something better is problematic in a plant that does not readily produce seed.  Luckily tree onions can produce seed, it just takes a bit of work.

In my climate the tree onions sometimes grows a few flowers in amongst the bulbils on the flower stalk.  Not every plant does this, and they don't do it every year, but they have the ability to produce flowers when conditions are just right.  As the bulbils grow they drain all the energy from the flowers causing them to wither and drop.  If left alone to do their own thing they can not produce seed.

I have heard of a few people carefully removing all the bulbils to allow the flowers to develop and then trying to obtain seed.  This process works with garlic to obtain true garlic seed so there is no reason that it would not work with tree onions.  I know that at least one person who was successful in this and had some of the resultant seed germinate but am not aware of the outcome.  I have a feeling that this project was abandoned as more pressing matters arose.

I also know of one type of tree onion known as Finnish air onions that regularly produces viable seed as well as topsets.  Unfortunately these are not yet present in Australia and I have not been able to track down anyone who can send me some seed.  Perhaps some day we will have access to these amazing plants, but for now we have to work with what we have.
Tree onions starting to flower, the one on the left also sent up a flower stalk from the bulbils

My tree onion seeds

I have had some strange and amazing things happen with my perennial onions over the past few years, I assume that the extreme weather here and me not dividing them often enough has stressed them somewhat and made them reconsider their stance on not flowering.  This year, just like last year, something odd has happened in my garden.

In among my tree onions I have a few plants which sent up flower stalks that had a lot of flowers.  Some of these flower heads had a few tiny bulbils (which I have since removed) and others had no bulbils at all.  I have grown tree onions for years and never seen this before, I have asked around and no one else seems to have seen this either.  I normally see a few flowers here and there, but this year some heads are pretty much completely covered in flowers and have no bulbils.  Interestingly the flowers seem to be covered in their own separate paper covering to any bulbils that are present.  Sometimes there are a few separately covered flower sets on the same stalk.
Tree onion flowers, strangely no bulbils at all!
Initially I wondered if these were tree onions or if somehow a stray seed of a bulb onion blew in with the wind or something.  There is absolutely no question, these are tree onions flowering.  Some plants are flowering and they have a base bulb connected to another bulb (ie the underground bulb split into several bulbs) that is sending up bulbils as normal.  Some plants sent up a flower stalk which grew normal bulbils, some of these bulbils sent up another flower stalk which only has flowers.

The flowers appear to be complete and should have the ability to set viable seed.  Some of these flowers have formed immature fruits that appear to be ripening and look as though they will produce good seed.  I plan to protect these flower heads, if they produce viable seed I plan to collect it and try to grow it.  At this stage I do not know how this will go but have a good feeling that I should at least get a handful of viable seed to grow.
Tree onion flowers with the bulbils removed
Tree onions are a spontaneous hybrid between Allium cepa (bulb onion) and Allium fistulosum (spring onions), being an interspecific hydrid I do not know what pollen they would require in order to produce viable seed.  Perhaps they will pollinate themselves, perhaps they need something else to pollinate them, I will never know for sure.

I have about a dozen small flower heads on the tree onions at the moment, these are at different stages of development.  Assuming that tree onions can pollinate themselves some flowers should shed pollen at the right time for the others to be receptive to it.  There are plenty of pollinators around here ranging from honey bees, over a dozen species of native bee, various wasps, tachinid flies etc so pollination should not be an issue.

There are plenty of other alliums flowering at the moment which may be able to donate pollen if the tree onion flowers prove to be self incompatible.  Currently I have tree onions, everlasting onions, potato onions, a few bulb onions and spring onions all flowering.  There are probably a few other alliums flowering now but it is doubtful that anything else would be compatible with tree onions.
More tree onion flowers
If any seeds grow I do not know what the resultant plants will be like.  They may be similar to the parent tree onion, they may have poor traits of each parent and not be worth growing, or they may be superior to the parent plants in some way.  Considering that the tree onion is an interspecific hybrid each seed grown plant should be genetically different from each other, given that seed grown plants may have pollen from some other allium increases the chances of the seed grown plants being very variable.  Only time will tell on this one but it is all very exciting.

Where to buy tree onions in Australia

I sell tree onions as well as other perennial vegetables and a few other things on my for sale page.  If I end up growing one of these tree onion seeds and it turns out to be something remarkable I may also sell them, but that is probably a few years off.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Babington's Leek - another rare perennial allium in Australia

Babington's Leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii) is an extremely rare perennial leek that is unlike any other leek I have ever seen or heard of.  When this leek flowers it generally does not produce seed, instead it grows tiny leek bulbs on the flower head, kind of like the leek version of tree onions.  This topsetting habit makes it unique among leeks and makes it interesting to grow and draws attention to itself from everyone who sees it.

Babington's leek is rare in the world, so rare that it is almost extinct.  It is one of the rarest edible leeks that are in Australia.  Very few people grow them and almost no one has heard of them.  

There is little information on the internet about Babington's leek and much of what I did read seems to contradict each other.  Most of what I have read was either written in the old days, or (like most gardening books) was written by someone who has never grown or even seen a Babington's leek.  I find that kind of frustrating and would prefer to get information that has been obtained by personal experience or just go and work it out myself.  The person who I got these leeks from had not grown them for long so did not know much about them either.
Perennial Babington's leek
Babington's leek flowering - note the bulbils starting to enlarge

It grows wild in Ireland, England and a few other little countries over there and is only semi-domestcated.  Like so many other alliums the origins of this plant have been lost in history.  Perhaps it was deliberately bred by some dedicated people, perhaps it happened on a roadside from spilled seed with just the right combination of genetics, perhaps it happened in the wild away from people completely and was discovered by chance.  Many people theorise that the Babington's leek is a relic from some ancient monastery, unfortunately we will never know for sure.  What we do know is that it has been around for a long time and there is not much of it anymore.

Babington's leek, much like any other allium, benefits from moisture and nutrients early in the season, the more the better.  That being said it can perform remarkably well in rocky or sandy soil and with minimal soil moisture, this productivity under harsh conditions is one of the benefits of being a semi-domesticated perennial vegetable.  From what I am told it does not cope with poorly drained soils, my garden does not suffer from this so I do not know about this from observation. 

Just like any other perennial leek, the Babington's leek tends to be dormant over summer and will die down to odd little bulbs.  I assume that in more mild climates and with more soil moisture that the Babington's leek could be convinced to grow through summer, but I am yet to try this myself.  I know that the perennial leeks I grow can be kept growing all year if provided with adequate soil moisture.

Perennial Babington's leek
Babington's leek, another exceptional perennial vegetable
People in countries where Babington's leek are more common often eat the bulbils, they say that the bulbils taste like garlic.  They also eat the young flower scape in a similar way to garlic scapes and say that they taste similar.  I have never tried either of them and doubt I will get a chance any time soon as I am trying to increase the numbers of this rare plant.

What does Babington's leek taste like
I love the taste of leek, it is a very underrated vegetable in my opinion.  Babington's leek tastes much like every other leek.  I have eaten a few varieties of leek over the past few years and to be honest can not tell the difference between them.  I have read that Babington's leek may be more fibrous but from my limited experience this is not the case.  Over summer it will die down to bulbs, I am told that these bulbs taste much like garlic.  I have not tried them yet as I am trying to increase my stock but it does stand to reason as Giant Russian Garlic is another variety of perennial leek.

Babington's leek is extremely rare, in Australia it is almost unheard of.  For this reason, if you grow them, please do not kill the plants when you harvest the leeks.  Like every other variety of leek, you can harvest by cutting them off and leaving the roots in the soil to regrow.  Another method is to pull up the plant, cut off the roots with a few mm of shank attacked and put this in a jar with a tiny amount of water to sprout.  They only need a tiny amount of water, just touching the roots is enough, too much water will cause the whole thing to rot.  After this has sprouted it can be replanted into the garden to grow.  In this way you can have your leek and eat it too.

Babington's leek starting to flower, the bulbils will grow and the flowers will fall off as it grows

 How to reproduce Babington's leek

Your stock of Babington's leek can be increased in a few ways.  By not killing the plants when you harvest them stops you from losing plants but does not stop you from eating them.  This does not increase the number of plants you have and usually prevents the plant from flowering that year, but it does stop you from having any less which is a good first step with something as rare as these.

The plant will die down to a bulb each summer, many times this bulb will divide in a similar way to garlic (but into less cloves) and can be dug up, split apart and replanted.  This is a slow and steady way to increase your stock.  Quite often this will result in a few extra large plants, most of which will flower the following season.

The larger plants will send up a flower stalk each year.  This flower stalk will produce some flowers as well as some bulbils.  Please do not remove the flower stalk, it is kind of the whole point behind growing Babington's leek.  While removing the flower head may result in larger underground bulb or a larger leek plant you could simply grow regular perennial leeks if this is what you are after.  When it is ready the bulbils may fall off the plant and start to grow all by themselves, but a better way is to remove them and plant them somewhere safe.  Every bulbil should sprout and grow for you, if left to their own devices anything could happen and the bulbils may be lost

It may take 2 or 3 years for these bulbils to send up flower stalks of their own, or if you treat them well they may flower in their first year, but once you have a flowering sized Babington's leek plant it will provide you with many bulbils each year.  I am lead to believe that each year the number of bulbils increases significantly.  It would not be difficult to have a small patch of Babington's leek where one plant is left to produce bulbils each year and the rest are harvested and eaten.

It may be possible to obtain some seed from Babington's leek, in order to do this you would probably have to remove most/all of the bulbils so that the plant can put energy into the seeds rather than the bulbils.  I have not yet done this as I wanted the bulbils, but when I do I will grow the seeds and if anything remarkable comes of them I will try to distribute them.  I assume that seed grown plants will display a lot of variation, some will invariably be less exciting than the parent stock, but there is a chance that something remarkable may come out as well.  We need people to breed these things and enrich our country with them.

Where to buy Babington's leek in Australia

I sell Babington's leek bulbils and small plants on my for sale page as soon as they are ready.  Before you buy them please read about how to grow Babington's leekI have a range of other perennial vegetables, some herbs, some heirloom vegetable seeds, and a few other things listed on that page too.  Unfortunately I can not rush the Babington's leek, when they are ready they are ready and when I sell out then I have to wait until the following summer for more to grow.  Bulbils should be ready in Summer but they will not start to grow until Autumn/Winter.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

How to grow Water Cress

People always tell me how much they love watercress (Nasturtium officinale) yet I don't know anyone who grows it, they are all too scared that it would be too difficult.  Everywhere I read says that water cress is difficult to grow.  Many places claim that water cress requires crystal clear water and that without flowing water it will not grow.  This is simply not the case, water cress is easy to grow if you have water, sunlight and soil.

I have wanted to grow water cress for years but was scared that it would not go well.  Having no one to ask adds to the fear that it would be difficult to grow.  Having never grown watercress meant that I had also never eaten it.  I was very curios about eating watercress so decided to bite the bullet and grow some.  One day I ordered some water cress seeds from ebay (something I never like to do as there is no guarantee with seeds, but it was so cheap it was worth the risk) and decided to give it a go.  I tried to grow it in a few ways and surprisingly all of them grew well.  It grew so well and was so simple that I thought I should write a post about it and explain what I did so that hopefully some other people will also give it a go.

Watercress starting to flower

Watercress is meant to be a perennial semi-aquatic vegetable.  Mine appears to be perennial, but then it self seeds so well that I am not certain that this is the case or if it forms a self sustaining population of annuals.  Regardless I always have some growing with minimal effort on my behalf, which is what I want.  Watercress is one of the oldest known vegetables, many of the older vegetables are semi-domesticated and can be a hassle to grow or harvest or eat or even have issues with edibility due to toxins.  While watercress could benefit from some serious breeding work to increase the size of the leaves, other than that it seem pretty good.  It is probably not great to eat in huge amounts, but I dare say one would eat a ridiculous amount before any problems would be noticed.  I don't think any brassica is fantastic to eat in huge amounts so it is certainly no worse than any of the others that people eat every day.  It handles cold weather, hot weather and does not appear to have any noticeable daylength sensitivity issues.

One place I grew watercress was in a fish tank as part of a mini aquaponics tank at work.  Water cress is clearly well suited to such life and performed well.  It appears that the only limiting factor here was sunlight, unfortunately my tank does not get quite enough light for it to perform as well as it should.  That being said it did well and cleaned the water well due to its rapid growth rate.  It did not take over the way mint does which is another bonus.  Unfortunately I did not take any pictures of this, it really does get very lush very fast with aquaponics.

Watercress getting leggy producing seed pods

Another way I grew it was in punnets.  I planted some seeds into a punnet of soil and kept this punnet in an icecream container with shallow water.  This was the simplest way to grow it that I could think of but I had doubts that it would grow using this method as the water is far from running.  I also grew some duck weed on top of the water (I like duckweed), this would lower the dissolved oxygen in the water so added to my doubts.  This grew incredibly well, these plants have since flowered and produced seed which I now need to collect and clean.  If I had limited space I would grow watercress in this way as it is so simple and productive.  The pot could be sized up or down to meet your needs and the ice cream container could be replaced with any container that holds water that is an appropriate size.

Watercress growing in a punnet, the duckweed is also growing well
I have taken cuttings from the plants I was growing and put them in a glass of water.  In a few days they all grew roots at each node.  I tried to float a plant in some water in a fish tank and see if it would grow without soil.  Short term this went very well but eventually it all died off.  The lack of adequate sunlight was certainly a factor here but I think that water cress probably needs soil.

I am currently trying to grow some watercress in a bucket of soil that has a few cm of water on top of it in a similar way to water chestnuts and duck potatoes.  I took a cutting from the existing plants and have planted it in the bucket.  It is still early days but so far it appears to be growing well.  It has survived some frost as well as a few days with temperatures in the low 40's so is proving to be far more hardy that I would have expected.  I will try to remember to update this after they have been growing for a few months, if they do grow in this way it is even easier than the ice cream method above.

At this stage I do not sell watercress seeds but I may do so in the future if I ever get around to collecting enough seed.  If I do they will be listed on my for sale page with all the other perennial vegetables, heirloom vegetable seed and herbs that I sell.  Once you have some growing it is simple to keep it growing and propagate by taking cuttings.

UPDATE: the original plants were eaten out by slugs/snails/something in one night.  It seems odd they have grown for so long with no problems at all but then are completely gone in one night, but there is not much that can be done now.  I think it may have been water snails, but do not know for sure.  The cuttings growing in the bucket are so far untouched and are continuing to grow well.  This bucket has no water snails.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Purple asparagus

I bought and planted some seeds of purple asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) before we moved here.  I think I got about 10 seeds in all, which is not many but at that time purple asparagus could only be bought from one place so I didn't have a great deal of choice if I wanted to grow it.

The seeds were small, black and unremarkable.  I soaked them in water overnight and planted them, then waited for something to happen.  From those seeds only 3 germinated, it was very exciting.  At that time I knew of no one who had ever grown asparagus from seed so was pretty much on my own to figure how to grow them.  I have grown many things over the years which people have told me are impossible to grow, so this didn't daunt me.

Out of those 3 tiny seedlings grew, then slugs or snails killed 2 of them one night.  After noticing the loss I quickly put crushed eggshell all around the last survivor to help protect it.  That one seedling was not killed but did sustain some snail damage from time to time and needed the crushed egg shell placed around it pretty often.

This one tiny seedling grew slowly, it died down each winter as asparagus must, and grew back larger each Spring.  Each Spring the snails would hammer it and I would protect it with egg shells.

Then it was dug up and moved here with us.  Considering that we moved in the height of summer the plant did not enjoy this move and its growth was slowed but it did not die.  I planted it into the soil at the edge of the vegetable garden near the 'fence'.  Asparagus dies each winter and sprouts again each spring.  I am told it takes 3 years from seed to get a crop, but this plant had such a difficult start that it took a bit longer.
Purple asparagus spear emerging in early spring
Asparagus plants are either male or female.  Female asparagus tends to be a bit thinner than the male plants as they put energy into seeds and fruit, male plants grow thick and fat spears.  Most people kill off the female plants and only grow the male ones.  I had no idea if this plant was a male or a female, I didn't particularly care as I planned on keeping it regardless.

Purple asparagus spear
Last year (or the year before, I can't remember) this plant flowered for the first time, it is a female plant.  It grew a handful of red berries, most of which were eaten by birds and the seeds deposited who knows where.  I kept some berries and extracted the seeds.  I am yet to grow them, if I do they will most likely not grow true to type as many wild asparagus plants grow here and would have donated pollen to my plant.

What purple asparagus looks like

One question that I had when buying purple asparagus seed is what the plants would look like.  After searching the internet I found many pictures of purple asparagus spears, which looked amazing, but no pictures of the plant once the spears matured.  I wondered if they stayed purple or if they grew green like normal asparagus.

As it turns out, the spears are nice deep purple, then they turn green as the fronds emerge more.  The fronds of purple asparagus look much like regular asparagus, green and fluffy and beautiful.

While I am disappointed that it is not purple for its entire life it is still a beautiful plant.  Tiny birds like to hide in the fronds, some of them make nests in some of the other green asparagus plants that grow here and I hope that they decide to nest in the purple one some day too.
Purple asparagus starting to frond up, note the immature female flowers

What purple asparagus tastes like

Home grown asparagus, like many home grown vegetables, tastes far superior to store bought asparagus.  This is probably due to the freshness, it can be picked minutes before being eaten instead of being picked weeks earlier and stored/transported/stored again before being eaten.  We have a lot of green asparagus growing here, most of it is from seed that birds have kindly deposited under apple trees, along fence lines, and under electrical wires.  While it often grows in unsuitable places this does not stop it from being delicious.

Strangely I have only eaten purple asparagus a few times over these years.  I like this plant so find it difficult to eat it, I would hate to eat too many spears and leave the plant depleted of energy.  I find that it tastes much like the green asparagus that is growing on this property, only sweeter.  If you like fresh asparagus you will love purple asparagus.

I find it disappointing that I can not buy this in the shops as it is nicer than the green type.  Hopefully one day someone will remedy this and grow purple asparagus commercially.  Unfortunately that someone wont be me.  Due to health issues any form of large scale farming is not in my future.

One can cover the spears as they grow to produce white asparagus, these white spear are more tender and sweeter again. 
Purple asparagus, each frond gets green as it grows

Why grow asparagus from seed

Most people think asparagus can not be grown from seed.  I have even had people try to argue with me over this point.  The fact that asparagus are flowering plants that produces seed, and that I have planted seeds and grown asparagus from those seeds, seems almost to be moot points as they have their minds already made up and no amount of logic and evidence will convince them otherwise.

Very few people grow asparagus from seed due to the time it takes to obtain a crop.  I can understand that, it takes a few years to get a large enough plant and by then you may be too attached to it to be able to eat much of it.  Asparagus is a long lived perennial so the effort will be payed off by years of asparagus crops.  You need to be aware that growing from seed has disadvantages, but there are a few reasons that may make you consider growing asparagus from seed.

Asparagus can accumulate virus load and not grow as well.  There are currently no certified virus free sellers in Australia so growing from seed to remove the virus load is currently the only way around this.  Virus load is probably not a huge problem for asparagus around here though. 

Growing from seed would also ensure an amount of genetic diversity which, assuming that you grew several seeds, would make your crop a bit better able to cope with problems that arise. Some seed grown plants will out perform others in your garden even if they came from the same parent.

Some varieties are not for sale as plants anywhere and only available as seed.  You will not be able to grow these unless you grow from seed.  Some of these are excellent varieties and I don't know why they are rare, others are rare because they are not all that great.

I grew purple asparagus from seed as I could not find crowns or plants.  Some places sell purple asparagus plants now.  To be honest I would not bother to grow asparagus from seed if plants or crowns are available.  That being said I would NOT buy tiny seedlings in a punnet though, growing from seed would result in healthier plants than buying these stunted plants that have grown in less than ideal conditions and not being repotted for who knows how long.

Where to get purple asparagus

If you want to eat purple asparagus you will have to grow it yourself.  A few places sell seeds and plants these days.  I may grow some of the seeds from my plant, if any of them are purple I may offer crowns or plants on my for sale page.  If you are keen to grow out some of my seed I may be able to send you some but be aware that it may not grow true to type.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

True potato onion seeds and other perennial alliums

True Potato Onion Seed

In 2013 some of my potato onions flowered.  It is the first time I have ever seen a potato onion flower so I was very excited, I wrote a little about it on a blog post called Potato onion seeds.  I planted about half of those seeds in Autumn and nothing germinated, I was more than a little disappointed but there was nothing I could do.

I planted the rest of the seeds in Spring and some of them have just begun to germinate.  I don't know how many will grow but at this stage it looks like only a small number.  I could not be more excited about this.  To make things even better, some of my original potato onions have begun to flower again this year!  This should hopefully give me some more seed to try and grow next year.  Hopefully they will flower more often so I can have seed grown potato onions to begin selecting for traits I want to see in them.

Perennial onion seedlings
Tiny Potato Onion seedlings germinating
Once these seedlings grow a bit I will separate them and see what they turn into.  Apparently potato onions that are grown from seed exhibit a lot of variation.  I had many types of onion flower at the same time as these potato onions (potato onions, spring onions, everlasting onion, tree onions, several types of bulb onions) so whatever these seeds grow into each of them should be different from each other.  Fingers crossed something truly remarkable comes out of this lot.

True potato onion seeds
Potato onion seedlings growing larger

potato onions flowering
Potato Onions flowering again
Potato onion seedlings - only the strong survived

Everlasting Onion Seed and Bulbils

Another perennial onion I grow are the amazing Everlasting onions.  They flower each year but never produce seeds.  They have been grown by many different people in many different climates for well over 30 years and have not set seed and do not produce top sets.  They rapidly split in half many times throughout the year so are simple to multiply without the need for seeds.
Everlasting onions flowering happily as usual
Last year one everlasting flower produced a bulbil, I planted this in a small 10cm pot and kind of forgot about it.  That one bulbil has split into 7 small plants over the year and they are now flowering.  That is pretty remarkable considering how little space is in that small pot.  Time will tell if this will be more inclined to produce topsets or if it was just a once off.  Topsets are fun so I would like this to happen more often.  If not the tree onions are flowering at the moment and they produce a lot of topsets.
Everlasting onions grown from one bulbil - starting to flower

Last year from several hundred flower heads my everlasting onions actually produced some viable seeds.  I planted most of the seeds and ended up with 7 seedlings.  So far I can not see a lot of variation between the seedlings which I find rather odd.  Some are slightly larger than others, some are slightly brown whereas others are slightly red, but this happens throughout the year with regular everlasting onions so is nothing different.  They are still very small so perhaps I will notice differences as they grow, or perhaps they will be very similar to the parent, only time will tell.  As mentioned above a lot of alliums were flowering at the same time so I would have expected them to cross a little and result in some unique perennial onions.
Everlasting onion seedlings, I have since planted them into separate pots

Babington's Leek (Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii)

One of the perennial leeks I grow is Babington's leek, I should write a blog post about them but probably wont for a while.  I am not aware of anyhere in Australia that currently sells Babington's leek so if I ever have enough I plan to sell them so that more people can grow and experience these amazing plants.  They are a kind of wild leek that has been semi-domesticated, when it flowers it grows tiny bulbils on the flower head instead of flowers, kind of like the leek version of tree onions.

I heard of Babington's leek years ago and tried to track down some to grow.  One place had them for sale for more than I was willing to pay, but I contacted them anyway and they had sold out.  That place stopped selling plants altogether shortly after.  I emailed them and asked if I could get in touch with their supplier and was told no.  They believed that this variety of leek had died out in Australia completely and they wished me luck in finding any.
Perennial Babington's leek
Babington's leek
As luck would have it some kind person traded some of my things for a few tiny Babington's leek plants.  I planted them in 3 different places to help protect against disaster.  They grew slowly for me, then died down over the heat of summer.  I hoped they had died down to bulbs but was not overly confident that they were coming back as they were posted at an inconvenient time for them.

When the weather cooled and the plants began to grow I had increased my stock from 5 tiny plants to 6 plants which ranged in size from tiny to reasonably large.  I had hoped that more would have grown from the roots, but that was not to be this year.  I am told that they will divide a bit each time they die down and many people increase their numbers in this way.  I am assuming that mine did not increase in number much as they were posted late in their season so they put their energy into establishing rather than dividing.

This year one of the plants is beginning to send up a flower stalk.  I have told the kids not to go near this plant and am concerned that they may remove it or damage it and I will have to wait another year to see what happens next.  Regardless, I have at least one plant of flowering size and it should flower each year from here on.  I am guessing that if all goes well the other plants will be flowering size next year as each of them is now larger than the ones I started with.
Not a great picture of Babington's leek starting to flower
I do not know how many bulbils to expect from one flower stalk.  I know of no one here who has grown these and have to rely on the internet for information.  Some internet sites say three of four large bulbils will be produced, others say a few dozen, while others say several hundred tiny bulbils.  I have no option but to wait and see.  I find all of this to be very exciting.  Judging by the size of the flower I am guessing not many bulbils will be produced this year, next year the plant may be larger and produce more.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

I don't have a lot to say about these little guys.  They are nothing special, they are not even a special type of chives, but I like them.  They die down to tiny bulbs each winter and grow again when the weather warms up a little.  Apparently they are the smallest species of edible onions.  I would like more of them so am letting some of them flower in the hope of either collecting the seeds or just letting the seeds fall and grow by themselves.

Chives starting to flower

Spring onions (Allium fistulosum)

Spring onions are, in my opinion, the poor cousin of the everlasting onion.  They are edible, useful, hardy and perennial so are not without their charm.  I had some plants at our previous house that were 3 or so years old.  Prior to moving here I saved their seed to bring with us.  I planted them during the first few weeks after we moved in and they have been growing ever since.  I do not have the heart to kill them as they are perennial and require very little looking after, so they have stayed where they are not doing too much.  They produce viable seed each year, I used to collect the seed but recently have not bothered as everlasting onions are far superior.

Spring onions are perennial onions, we used to eat their leaves and white shanks.  The problem is that their leaves get too thick and coarse after their first year and I do not know how to fix that other than planting new seed each year and killing the parent stock.  I have cut some to the ground, when they sprout they are think again.

Everlasting onions have far thinner foliage and it is never course.  Spring onions do not have the ability to produce bulbs whereas everlasting onions die to bulbs each year if I want them to and will keep growing if I water them a lot over summer.

Tree onions are an interspecific hybrid between spring onions and bulb onions that was made accidentally hundreds of years ago.  I have often thought of trying to recreate tree onions with better parents but I doubt I will ever try to do that as I have a lot of other, more deserving things going on in the vegetable garden.

Spring Onions flowering - these are almost 4 years old now

Giant Russian Garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum)

This is great stuff.  Botanically it is a type of perennial leek, but for everyone else it is a massive garlic that is mild in taste.  Apparently this can grow in more tropical places where regular garlic can not.

Many people say that they can not produce seed but this is not true, each year mine produce a tiny amount of seed which grows into new plants.  The seed seems to grow true to type even when there are other types of leek flowering at the same time.
Russian Garlic almost ready to flower and die down
At the moment my plants are looking shabby as they are almost ready to flower, after they have done so they will die down to bulbs.  This normally happens around Christmas/New Year.  I will dig them up after this and have them for sale again, digging them up now does not go so well for them.

Some people complain that Giant Russian garlic is too mild.  I have found that if I plant them early and they grow through some frost the taste is a lot more intense.  Apparently putting them in the fridge a few weeks prior to planting can have the same result if they are grown in frost free areas.

I have successfully (and accidentally) stored the bulbs for over 18 months before we moved here.  I stored the cloves somewhere and forgot about them, by the time I noticed them it was too late to plant and I had no more garden space so I waited for the following year.  From those, 100% grew and the plants were indistinguishable from the fresh ones.  While this is far from ideal, it shows how easy these things are to grow.
One single giant Russian garlic clove, they do get a lot larger than this in good years

Perennial vegetables for sale in Australia

If you are interested in growing some of these I do sell everlasting onions, tree onions, perennial leeks, giant Russian garlic, garlic chives, two types of potato onions and a bunch of other perennial vegetables (and some heirloom vegetable seed) on my for sale page.  When I have enough I plan to also offer Babington's leeks but that will have to wait for at least a few months to see what happens with this flower.  If the potato onion seedlings or the everlasting onion seedlings end up as anything remarkable I will sell them too, but I dare say that is a while off as I would like to grow them out for a few seasons to see how they perform and evaluate if they are worth keeping.