Monday, 30 June 2014

Fun with strawberry phyllody

My little boy Nanuq grew some strawberries.  At first they were normal strawberries, then they changed.  Just like Nanuq these strawberries are a little odd, kind of complicated, and more than a little bit crazy.   I think that they (both Nanuq and the strawberries) are a bit cute.

I like the look of these strawberries, they are all covered in tiny little bracts instead of tiny flowers and fruits (the part people refer to as seeds).  This condition is known as "phyllody".  I hope that they keep doing this.  We have taken the following pictures.

I am certainly no expert in strawberries so asked a few people who breed them.  I have tried to find out what has caused this and if it is a bad thing, there seem to be three different possibilities that have not been completely ruled out at this stage.

First is "green petal disease".  This is caused by a mycoplasma like organism (often confused with a virus) which is spread by leaf hoppers.  It is a disease which can infect clover.  It can cause phyllody to be expressed in the flowers/fruit.  If this is the cause then the plants should be removed and burned as they will not recover and may infect other plants.  I certainly don't want to infect other plants as I like to eat regular strawberries.  I doubt green petal disease is the cause as the petals are white and it is not showing some of the other symptoms.

The second is a genetic weakness.  This is often seen in varieties such as "malwina" or in some varieties when the runners have been cold stored.  From what I have read they sometimes recover, sometimes don't.  There is a variety of strawberry called the "plymouth strawberry" which showed this trait many years ago and has never recovered.  It only reproduces via runners as it can produce no seeds as it forms no true flowers.  There is a chance that this is part of the cause even though I don't believe that phyllody has been observed in this particular variety before.

The third possibility is the weather.  The plants grew through the hottest and longest summer I have ever experienced, somehow missed out on Autumn, and are now in a weird winter with mostly warm/hot days and cool/cold nights.  If this is the case the plants should recover and produce normal strawberries.

My best guess is a combination of the last two, weird weather combined with a genetic weakness.  If this is the case then we may see some normal strawberries soon or it may keep doing this. I kind of hope they continue to make these crazy strawberries but do not infect any other strawberry plants.  If this is the case then I will try to distribute the plants to interested people.

I do sell some heirloom and perennial vegetables as well as herbs on my for sale page, at this stage I do not sell strawberries but may do so in the future.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Duck potato or arrowhead

I became interested in aquatic vegetables when watering plants in the morning and afternoon over summer was not enough.  The soil gets so dry here that no amount of water seems to be enough.

Planting in pots and sitting the pot in water works, but growing in the soil is difficult as the water gets sucked away from the plants into the subsoil.  Deep rooted plants such as comfrey are meant to be drought proof but they do poorly here as most of the soil moisture is in the upper layers of the soil and deep down is very dry. That is kind of the opposite of how things should be, but the climate here is semi-arid so all the rules are different.

Aquaponics sounds like a good idea, my small scale proof of concept tanks both work rather well, but the set up costs for a proper system are prohibitive.  Growing things in a bucket of soil covered in water sounded like a feasible idea so I decided to try some aquatic vegetables.  I have tried a few water vegetables and they have all worked well.

One of the best things about duck potatoes is that they look amazing.  They have cool leaves with arrow shapes.  People grow them on the edges of ponds purely for ornamental purposes.  I wish I had taken pictures of the leaves.  Next year hopefully I will remember to take more pictures while they are growing.

Duck potatoes in Australia
Duck potato tuber straight out of the mud, they are good looking little guys

How I heard of duck potatoes

I first heard of something similar to these when I was in the Arctic.  I stayed in a small village and the elders spoke of a water vegetable they traditionally used to eat but the young people have all but forgotten about, the english name was "Eskimo potato".  They said it grew in the mud under the water in a certain place, they described it to me and I did my best to understand.  As they did not speak much english and I did not understand much Inuktitut we did our best.

The next day I went out to the spot that was described to me.  It was a spot that was reputedly good fishing but some people said to never go to as large bears live there and they would kill and eat me.  I had a few close calls with angry bears earlier so knew they were not telling tall tales.  I went out and was followed by one of the town dogs who decided to follow me and protect me, he had protected me from a bear before so I figured I would be safe enough.  When I got there I saw lots of bear prints and bear poo, some of the bear prints were huge so I knew that large bears were around.  I wore board shorts and waded into the frigid arctic water and started to dig in the mud for something which I hoped was the word for 'tuber' and not the word for 'musk rat' or anything else that would bite me.  After a short time I found what I hoped was the correct thing, it looked a bit small but it is the arctic after all, then I found hundreds more.  I dug them up and threw them to shore.  I had planned on getting more but was too cold so took what I had back to the village and dried off and got dressed.

I was told never to eat these raw and did not know how to cook them so I did not try any of them, instead I divided them up and distributed them to several houses of the elders.  I figured if I did this without telling anyone the next time I saw an elder they would smile at me, something they only did rarely with me and never to any other outsider that I had seen.  The next day I was given some baked tubers, they were delicious.  I collected these tubers several times, most times the dog followed me and made me feel safe.  Each time I divided them between the elders and occasionally they gave me some cooked ones in return.

I have been searching for these "Eskimo Potatoes' in Australia but can not find them, the nearest thing I can find are these duck potato. If eskimo potatoes exist in Australia I would love to grow them and eat them.
Perennial duck potatoes
Duck potatoes growing in a bucket

How I grow duck potatoes or arrowhead in a bucket

I grew these duck potatoes in a similar way to water chestnuts.  I planted each duck potato at the beginning of spring about 5cm deep in a punnet of moist soil, it was no damper than any seed raising soil.  The plants then sprouted nicely.  When the plants grew a leaf I put the punnets in a container with some water, kind of like how you grow carnivorous plants.  The water level was kept below the tubers at this stage to prevent them from rotting.  When the plants were 10cm or more tall and the roots were coming out of the bottom of the punnet I planted each of them into a separate bucket where it would spend the season. 

The bucket had manure, clay and subsoil mixed into it and had been filled to 5cm from the rim.  This bucket had been filled with water for a few weeks so the nitrogen cycle could work its magic as fresh manure would burn and kill plants.  I had duckweed growing over the surface of the water.  From here I pretty much just kept the buckets topped up with water.

The little duck potatoes grew very well at the start, each getting several new leaves and looking great.  We had a few late frosts, the duck potato is meant to be ok with this but mine fared worse than the water chestnuts and had all of their leaves burned off, but they grew back.  They grew well until the heat of summer hit, so I moved the buckets into the shade of a tree and they picked up.  I let them grow there in the shade until winter came, doing nothing other than topping up the water when I was out watering the other vegetables.  It really was rather simple, there are no weed issues as the weeds can not survive being submerged all the time.

Duck potatoes growing in a 10L bucket with duckweed starting to cover the surface

The yield

Harvesting duck potatoes is simple.  The plants are allowed to grow Spring, Summer and Autumn, when the leaves die off they are ready to be harvested.  Growing in soft mud makes it simple enough to feel around and pull them out by hand.

The yield when grown in a pond or a bathtub is meant to be rather high.  I do not have a pond and wanted to know if I could grow them in a 10L bucket like I did with the water chestnuts.  I planted one tuber per bucket and the first bucket returned 17 tubers, most of which were edible sized.  There may well have been a few more large tubers in there too but my hands got too cold searching through the mud for them and the kids were bugging me so I stopped.  I could have tipped the bucket out and searched through which would have made things easier but I was trying not to lose all of the duckweed.  The other buckets yield should be about the same, if not I will try to write a comment or blog post about it.
Duck potato tuber yield
Yield from one 10L bucket, there may have been more but my hands got too cold looking for them
Using a larger container would have provided a larger yield.  Having the water deeper would have also been better for them too.  I think ideally the water needs to be 15 to 30 cm deep as the leaves get kind of tall and use the water to help support their weight.  They are a beautiful looking plant, one that could easily be grown in an ornamental pond.

Where to buy duck potatoes or arrowhead in Australia

I plan to grow these again.  Being perennial all I have to do is keep a few tubers each year to keep my little population going.  Next time I may try to find a larger bucket to see if that helps increase yield as much as I think it will.  I may also try to put a few fish into the water and see how they go.  I do sometimes sell duck potato tubers on my for sale page.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Reisetomate tomatoes in Australia

A while ago I heard of an ancient Peruvian heirloom tomato that did not grow round or oblong like most tomatoes, but grew segments that one could separate like a mandarin or an orange.  This tomato could be eaten one segment at a time without the use for a knife.  This sounded intriguing, I wanted to see a tomato like this.

After some research I found that it was called "Reisetomate".  I saw some pictures of it and it did indeed have segments like an orange.  The fruit looked amazing but I was concerned it may be just a novelty tomato.  I have no time for novelty vegetables so I wanted to know more.

Reisetomate tomato segments
Reisetomate tomato with some segments removed
Apparently it is an incredibly rare and ancient heirloom variety.  This variety may actually predate the Spanish conquistadors going to South America.  There are unsubstantiated stories of this variety being used by the Incas when they were traveling and tearing off a segment at a time to eat.  The name Reisetomate is apparently German and means "traveler tomato" eluding to the fact that this variety is carried on trips to be eaten without the use of a knife.  I also hear that this is one of the varieties of tomato that the Amish grow, if this is true then this variety is a no-nonsense productive variety.  I became more curious and wanted to grow one.

I wanted to try this variety, but they are so rare that it is difficult to find anyone who has seeds.  Tomato seeds can not be imported into Australia without huge trouble and expense so I had to find somewhere local to purchase seed.  After searching I found only one place which had Reisetomate seeds for sale in Australia.  There were not even any dodgy ebay sellers which I had hoped to see as they can drive the price down a little.  The one company that sold them was demanding an outrageous price for a small number of seeds and was a company which I have had a lot of trouble with in the past.  I rarely buy seeds anymore so there is a chance that company has lifted its game.  I did not know if the risk was worth it and was about to give up on trying to grow Reisetomate tomatoes.  

Luckily a friend of mine kindly bought me the seeds as he knew how excited I was about this variety.  I waited for weeks and the seeds never arrived.  Several weeks later my friend contacted the company and they then sent out the seeds.  I planted some seeds and kept some in case things went wrong.  Tomatoes are simple to grow from cuttings so I figured planting a small number of seeds would be ok as I could still get a large number of plants by taking cuttings.

The plants were growing well and were about to flower, then the heat of summer hit.  The flowers are not like an ordinary tomato flower, they an odd and multiply fasciated flower, some with exposed stamens and pistils.  Like many heirloom tomatoes this variety will cross pollinate with other tomatoes.  Apparently this variety is notorious for cross pollinating with other tomatoes so I was careful to plant it in a separate vegetable garden to my yellow pear tomatoes.  This is one of the positives to having two vegetable gardens spaced so far apart.

Reisetomate flowers
Reisetomate flowers

The plants all flowered and grew well, but the temperature was too high and the flowers withered and died.  Apparently temperatures in the mid 40's denatures tomato pollen and prevents fruit set.  Cooler nights may have helped overcome this, but the nights don't always cool down out here over summer.

The plants grew about 5 or 6 feet tall and probably would have grown a lot taller if they had more water, protection from the heat, and better soil.  Many of the stems are covered in small roots searching for soil and anywhere the stems touched the ground they firmly rooted.  After a little over 9 weeks of daytime temps in the 40's the weather cooled down (to the high 30's) and the plants started setting a lot of fruit.  The tiny green fruits looked very odd, kind of like weird little green brains, and gave me a good idea of what the fruit would look like when it ripened.

unripe Reisetomate tomato fruits
Unripe Reisetomate tomatoes - very productive plants
ripening Reisetomate fruits
More unripe Reisetomate tomatoes
When the first fruits began to ripen I was perplexed.  Each fruit is like a cluster of small tomatoes fused together with many odd lobes.  The first set had one or two lobes on each fruit that looked like it was rotten so I did not know what to do.  After picking them I found out that the rotten looking lobes had been infected by fruit fly.  It was simple to remove and discard the infected lobes, then the rest of the fruit was unharmed and fine to eat.  After the first few I got on top of the fruit fly and all of the tomatoes were fine after that.

permaculture tomatoes
Ripe Reisetomate tomatoes
These tomatoes have provided large yields, far larger than any other variety I have grown.  I can not imagine how productive they would be in a more mild climate.  I have read some seed sellers claim they produce 1.1kg per plant and others claim over 25kg per plant, mine produced somewhere in the middle.  They are the highest yielding variety of tomato I have ever grown.  Perhaps next year I will weigh all the fruit from one plant to find out for sure.  They seem to survive through some light frosts with no issues but I am guessing the heavy frosts will kill them.  I am told in climates without frost they can be a short lived perennial which survive and produce for half a dozen years.  I am also told that without frost the stems can get as thick as your wrist after a few years and can only be cut down with a chainsaw.  After growing these under difficult circumstances and seeing how strong and determined they are I believe this is entirely possible. 
Reisetomate tomato
Reisetomate tomato, simple to pull apart segments

After tasting these tomatoes I want to grow them each year from here on.  The taste is amazing, they are by far the best tasting tomato I have ever eaten.  They have a deep and strong taste, they are not sweet or insipid like some cherry tomatoes. Sometimes they can be a bit too sour, a little salt reduces that and brings out their full flavour.  I love their intensity, just thinking about it makes my mouth water... 

We use these tomatoes fresh pulled apart in segments.  I love them like this and it is my favourite way to eat them.  We also use them cooked in any dish that requires tomato, they seem well suited to this and bring a depth of flavour and complexity to a dish that many tomatoes lack.  We slice them for sandwiches and the like, they taste amazing but their odd shape makes them less than ideal for this purpose.  They can be pulled apart and put into salads like a cherry tomato.  Being so intense and full of flavour I assume that they would make a decent sauce or paste but I have not tried this myself so can't be certain.

The question I keep asking myself is why these are so rare.  Many things are rare because they are not worth having or are too new.  Reisetomate tomatoes are older than any other variety of domesticated tomato that I know of, they taste amazing, yield tremendously high, apparently have disease resistance (I do not have tomato diseases so can only go off what I have read), and look great.  I can only assume their rarity is due to being unfit for mechanical harvest.

These plants show a lot of diversity of their fruit.  On one branch of a plant you will have some fruit that split into perfect segments as well as some fruit which does not split as perfectly.  Apparently this is mostly due to growing conditions rather than genetics.  I only save seed from the plants which have most of its fruit which splits cleanly and evenly into segments, I only save seed from the best fruits from those plants, I figure this is worth doing even though I don't know how heritable this trait is.

I do sell Reisetomate tomato seeds, I have them listed on my for sale page.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Everlasting Onions

Everlasting onions (Allium cepa perutile) are a rare perennial onion which is extremely productive and undemanding.  They do not appear to suffer pests or diseases, frost does not bother them, and if it gets too hot and dry they die down to bulbs.  I do not know why but I do not know of anyone else who has everlasting onions for sale in Australia.  They are one of the easiest and most productive vegetables to grow, just like all perennial vegetables you plant once and harvest forever.

I first heard about everlasting onions from someone who lives overseas.  They told me how great they were and said that they were extremely rare for some reason.  Importing onion plants/bulbs is more trouble/expense than I can deal with.  Importing onion seed is less difficult but everlasting onions never really set seed so this was also out of the question.  I then started to search for them in Australia.  No one seemed to sell them, it took me years to track them down in Australia.  Eventually I found someone who sold me some small plants.  She had these plants for well over 30 years and said that they flowered each year but had never set seed.  This sounded right so was worth a try.

Everlasting onions
Everlasting onion bulbs sprouting - normally they are far larger than these

At first I was skeptical that I had in fact got the right thing.  They looked like any spring onion or young onion plant before it bulbs up, but the plants were extremely uniform in size.  I planted them somewhere safe and waited.  In a few weeks most had split in half so I dug them up and divided them.  A few weeks later the rest had split in half so I divided again.  In another month or so they all divided again at least once, some of them divided a few times.  By this stage they were no longer uniform in size and I grew tired of digging them up and dividing them.  I now had a few dozen plants and was convinced that they were better than regular spring onions. 

Once winter hit these plants were not at all bothered by frost.  The growth slowed somewhat but other than that they looked happy and continued to divide.  Spring was great, they grew faster, divided faster and began to flower.  The flowers did not look complete and they did not even try to set seed.  They looked like Allium cepa flowers rather than Allium fistulosum, so I was then convinced that they were not ordinary spring onions and were most likely true everlasting onions. 

When summer rolled around some kept growing but most I let dry down to see if they produced bulbs.  They ended up growing small purple bulbs, a bit larger than a french shallot.  Being new to everlasting onions I decided not to eat the bulbs, instead I replanted them.  Each bulb divided into a dozen or more plants when it resprouted!  Over the past few years I have let some die to bulbs each year, if they are crowded they produce small bulbs, if they are given space the bulbs are much larger.

How everlasting onions are used

Once you grow everlasting onions you will never need to buy spring onions or shallot bulbs ever again.

We eat the green tops year round in place of spring onions.  Unlike spring onions they never get too thick and fibrous.  I have some spring onions that I planted as seed when we moved here, they are large and thick and a bit too fibrous to eat.  I do not have the heart to kill them, but do not know how to make them small and delicate again.  Cutting them to the ground helps but it does not take them long to turn into monsters again.

If we keep watering the everlasting onions over summer they keep growing, if we don't water they die down to nice little bulbs.  The bulbs can be used as salad onions, they are good for this purpose.  The bulbs seem to store forever, I don't know how long but it is at least several months.  We have fried the onion bulbs, they are nice but become very crunchy.  I think they must be reasonably high in sugars as they caramelise rather quickly.  Everlasting onion bulbs can be used in any recipe that calls for onion bulbs or french shallots.
Everlasting onion bulbs - they can be larger or smaller than this

How to increase your stock

Everlasting onions know what they are doing as far as reproduction goes.  They split in half numerous times throughout the year.  If they are divided each division will also multiply.  Neither heat nor frost bothers them.  It does not take long for a few to become a decent patch.  Like any other onion, if you plan to eat the bulb you do not have to kill the plant.  If you cut off the roots with a few mm of the base of the bulb this can be sprouted and replanted.  I have only done this once as I now have enough plants that they quickly replace any that we eat.

Everlasting onions are hardy, I planted one under a tree when I got them.  I do not water or weed this one after it was established, I had actually forgotten all about it.  This summer it was so hot and dry that we had no grass and I saw that it has divided into a substantial clump and is still hanging in there.  They are not as large or numerous as the ones that are well watered and weeded, but they are surviving and reproducing.  Planting an extra plant in an out of the way like this is a great way to increase your stock as you tend to forget about them for a while and when you find them again they tend to be rather numerous and in need of digging up and dividing.

The lady who I got the everlasting onions from had them flower each year for 30 odd years and had never seen any seed produced ever, the first few years I had similar results.  This year after they flowered I had a small number of seeds produced.  From several hundred flower heads I ended up with about 30 seeds.  I planted some of them and have a few seedlings appear.  I have no idea what they will turn into, perhaps exactly like their parent or perhaps something entirely different.

I have heard of someone who grew potato onion seeds and ending up with something very similar to my everlasting onions.  That makes me wonder if everlasting onions are another type of potato onion that was seed grown many years ago.  If so the results from the seed grown plants should be extremely interesting.

Where to find everlasting onions in Australia

To the best of my knowledge no one else is selling these other than me.  I am happy to be wrong on this as they are a great vegetable and more people should grow them.  I have everlasting onions for sale all year, they are listed on my for sale page along with some other perennial vegetables and heirloom vegetable seeds.