Thursday, 31 July 2014

Non-flowering Sorrel in Australia

Sorrel is a perennial leaf vegetable that I always considered growing, but was not sure how good it is or if I would like it.  It is reasonably difficult to find so I never bothered tracking it down.  Living in such an extreme climate I do not have space or water to waste on novelty vegetables, I need hardy and productive plants.  We also don't have the money to throw away if it turned out not to be worth growing.  

Every source of sorrel I can find only had seeds, no one seemed to offer plants and the seeds were seemingly from poorly maintained stock and never from improved plants.  I considered buying some seeds, but don't want to waste money on inferior plants or start another breeding project.  One day someone kindly offered me a sorrel plant in a trade.  They offered it as well as something that I really wanted so I figured I had nothing to lose.

Sorrel plant

When the sorrel turned up it was a small red green stump with no leaves and very few roots.  Apparently that is how they are best posted and it is how they settle in the fastest.  I planted it and figured it would be a few weeks before I saw any real growth or got to try a leaf.  The next day it had a new leaf and a few days later it had grown several leaves!  I tried a tiny piece of a leaf to see what it tastes like.  It was like any leaf vegetable really but also lemony.  My kids love lemony things and often eat anything sour that they can find so I was happy.

It did not take long before I was able to divide the plant.  I divided it several times by digging it up, ripping it into pieces each with a growing point, removing the leaves, and replanting.  Winter came and the growth slowed, frosts did not seem to worry it.  Some people say that it goes a bit dormant over winter, this may be the case but my winters can be mild and it did have some protection so it kept growing.  Over spring it grew like crazy, I should have divided it into a bunch of plants but kind of forgot about it.  Summer hit pretty hard, the leaves got burned by the heat a few times (as did the leaves of every fruit and vegetable I grew this year) but they kept on growing.  When the weather cooled down the sorrel took off again, this time I dug it up and divided it a little.  When dividing sorrel they do best if you cut off all of the leaves, it seems harsh but it will grow new leaves soon enough.
Sorrel leaves ready for cooking/eating
I have read that sorrel usually has separate male and female plants, sometimes it has a plant that has male and female on the same plant, rarely the highly sort after non-flowering plants turn up.  Flowering stops leaf growth for a while and also makes the leaves bitter so growers often talk of removing flower heads to extend the leaf harvest.

This plant was seed grown by its previous owner so it could have been anything.  After growing it for a while this appears to be a non-flowering (or at least very reluctant to flower) individual.  This means that instead of putting energy into flowers and seeds it puts all of its energy into leaf growth and dividing itself.  It also means that there is no chance of it becoming a weed or crossing with anything else.  When regular sorrel flowers the leaves become coarse and inedible for a while, by not flowering this plant has a much extended harvest period each year. 
Sorrel leaf - non flowering means more leaves

As far as I am concerned, this plant is exhibiting every trait that I would have tried to breed for, this is an improved variety!  There is apparently a variety of sorrel sold overseas known as "Profusion" which sounds similar to mine.  As profusion does not flower (so it does not set seed) and importing the plants is next to impossible my variety is the closest thing we have in Australia.

Growing sorrel is simple.  It likes water, good soil and full sun but grows happily enough if it is a little dry or in the shade or with poor dodgy soil or with competition from other plants.  I have yet to see any pest or disease issues of any kind but am told that a leaf miner bothers it in some gardens.  They say if a leaf has leaf miner to remove that leaf, destroy it, and the problem is solved.  Apparently if the plant gets a lot of leaf miner before you notice you can remove all the leaves and destroy them, sorrel will grow new leaves soon enough.

Sorrel has deep roots so mines nutrients from the subsoil and brings them to the surface in its leaves.  The soil life under sorrel is amazing and healthy.  Permaculturalists grow sorrel as a dynamic accumulator and a compost activator.  It out yields comfrey tremendously on my property, lacks the irritating hairs of comfrey, and unlike comfrey seems to be readily eaten by poultry.  I consider all of this a win.
Small sorrel plants a few weeks after being transplanted and having all the leaves removed
Being perennial means it is low maintenance, I plant once and then can forget about it and know that it will still be there if I want to harvest it, I do not need to collect seeds or remove flowers or anything like that.  Sorrel is nutritious, like many leaf vegetables it is very high in vitamin C.  Many people say that they do not let sorrel flower so that leaf growth is encouraged, with my sorrel this is unnecessary as it does not flower most years.

There are a lot of old (pre-1900) recipes that include sorrel as an integral component of the dish.  Some dishes contain sorrel and very few other things, this is not just a nice herb or a garnish, it is a decent vegetable.  Today sorrel features as a garnish, is often used when cooking fish to impart a lemon taste, is occasionally made into a fancy French soup, and is one of the main ingredients of green borscht.  You can eat sorrel raw but it is high in oxalic acid (like many other vegetables) so it is best not to eat too much.  Oxalic acid is water soluble and cooking removes most of it so you can eat cooked sorrel to your heat's content.

Sorrel was commonly grown in every vegetable garden all over the world for hundreds of years then it pretty much disappeared overnight.  I know of very few people who have ever grown or tasted or even know of this productive plant.  The reason for this is that sorrel can not be harvested and stored and shipped to consumers, it must be harvested and used pretty much immediately.  For a reliable supply you must grow your own, but that is very simple to do.  For many years now people have stopped growing vegetables because they have no land, as such they miss out on tasting treasures such as sorrel.  

I hope that more people grow sorrel, I especially hope that more people grow improved non-flowering forms such as this one.  I would hate for this to disappear if I happen to lose my stock.  I am planning on building up my sorrel in Spring, until then I can sell it in small numbers through my for sale page.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Purple tomatillo

Tomatillo flowers and fruit beginning to ripen

Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) are another vegetable which comes out of South America.  Just like a tomato, eggplant or pumpkin technically speaking it is the fruit of the tomatillo that we eat.  The fruits of the tomatillo are enclosed in a papery husk which I think is part of their charm.  Sometimes people call the tomatillo a "husk tomato".

Apparently the Aztecs domesticated the tomatillo prior to the year 800 BC.  After the Spanish conquistadors went to South America they returned with most of the vegetables we eat today.  Both tomatoes and tomatilloes were brought with them, they are similar looking fruits with similar sounding names that were commonly shortened by Europeans.  Due to this there is a lot of confusion regarding historical manuscripts if they were referring to tomatoes, tomatilloes or some other vegetable.  Regardless we know that they were one of the first vegetables brought back by the Spanish in the 1500's.
Skeletonised tomatillo husk - I don't know what causes this but it is beautiful

For some reason the tomatillo never really took off outside of its home range.  Other vegetables which were discovered at the same time such as tomato, potato, beans, corn, pumpkin, squash, chilli etc now form the mainstay of our vegetable diet.  I honestly do not know why the tomatillo never gained favor as tomatilloes grow like crazy suffering no real pests or diseases, they produce huge amounts of fruit that is simple to harvest, it is simple to save seeds from tomatilloes, and they look kind of cool.  The paper husk (technically a calyx) that surrounds each fruit seems to prevent fruit fly, slugs and most other pests from damaging any fruit.  They are so productive that I have even heard and read in many places that 2 or 3 plants will provide more than enough tomatilloes for a family!

The texture is difficult to describe, kind of like an under ripe spongy tomato, perhaps that is not a great description, it is pretty cool.  They kind of taste similar to a tomato in some ways, but have a kind of citrus taste in there too.  When cooked they take on more of a citrus taste.  They are difficult to describe.  I am told that they are the main ingredient in salsa verde.  They can also be cut and put into salds, salsas or pureed into guacamole or gazpacho or used to flavor rice.  I have also heard of them being used to tenderise red meat.

 I have grown some green and yellow/green tomatilloes in the past and they were good but this time I wanted to grow some nice looking purple tomatilloes.  The plants grew well for me and flowered like crazy.  Each plant was covered in masses of yellow flowers but none of them were setting fruit.  I don't know why this is but some people say that their plants flower well but nothing ever comes of it, perhaps they remove the plant too soon and are not patient enough.  I have also heard that you need at least two plants to cross pollinate each other, I have never grown less than that so can't really comment.  These plants will cross pollinate with other varieties of tomatillo pretty easily so if you grow more than one type please take care if saving seeds.

After weeks of nice yellow flowers that did nothing I started to consider puling out the plants and then the first fruit began to form, then seemingly overnight I had hundreds of fruits forming!  The size of the fruit ranged quite dramatically on each plant, small ones in the beginning of the season and larger ones as the season progressed.  I have seen people on ebay selling seeds of "giant tomailloes", mine were reaching that size towards the end of their run.  They produced a huge amount of fruit in the end but they were not as dark purple as I had hoped.  Some were green, some were light purple, some were only purple where the sun hit the fruit, some had a mix of both on the one plant.  They all look really cool.  They kept on producing lots of fruit right until the frost killed them.

Tomatillo fruit, the paper husks are beginning to split open and show the fruit inside

I usually harvest the fruit after it falls from the plant by itself, the husk protects the fruit from damage so they can stay on the ground for a few days before I get to them if need be.  Some people harvest them earlier and I am told it does not affect the taste at all.  The one thing I have been warned is not to pick them before the fruit finishes filling out the husk otherwise it wont be ripe and apparently does not taste terrific.  

They store best when left in their husk, most people store them in the fridge but they can last a while on the bench or in the pantry.  When it is time to eat them the husk needs to be removed and the fruit will be a little sticky, I find that it is simple to wash this off.

Being closely related to tomatoes and potatoes and considering how simple it is to take cuttings from those I wondered how easy it would be to take a cutting from a tomatillo.  I cut a small branch off and put it in a cup of water on the kitchen windowsil.  In two days that small cutting had sprouted roots and a few days later I was able to plant it. This plant is still slowly growing, flowering and setting fruit as it is in a pot out of the frost.

I do sell seeds of the "purple"  tomatilloes on my for sale page.  If you do grow them please grow more than one plant so that you will have adequate pollination but resist the temptation to grow too many.  They are so productive that 2 or 3 plants easily provides more than enough tomatilloes for the family.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Mini blue popcorn

Mini blue popcorn is heaps of fun to grow.  The plants take up little room, produce cute little cobs, and the popcorn from them is fantastic.

I first grew mini blue popcorn when I was a teenager as an ornamental corn that was also fed to the chickens and things.  At that time I don't think we ever popped it, I am not sure if I had even eaten pop corn back then.  After I moved out of home no vegetables were grown and what was left of the seed disappeared over the years.

After moving here I decided to track some mini blue popcorn down again and grow it with my kids.  My littlest boy Nanuq is particularly fond of corn and likes the colour blue.  He was very excited to help me plant some blue popcorn to grow.

I started with a good number of seed, then carefully picked through it to select the best seeds both in colour and conformation to plant.  I ended up planting a decent number of seeds, being a mini corn allows it to be fit into small spaces so I was able to grow more plants in the area.
mini blue popcorn starting to form tassels, stalks are shorter on the right hand side

The plants grew well, most germinated and those that didn't (or were eaten by birds and things) were replanted with extra seeds.  Being a small variety of corn they only reached below chest height.  Completely different to the 12 foot tall Giant Inca white corn which was grown in the same vegetable garden.  Only a few of the mini blue popcorn plants were multi stemmed which is unfortunate as multi stemmed plants tend to produce more cobs.  The plants had to contend with grass and other weeds as well as QLD arrowroot and fruit tree roots, the stalks were noticeably shorter as they got closer to the tree.

Notice the brown silk forming on the cobs from the left hand plant
As the season progressed it was noticeable that almost every stalk produced several cobs.  Some produced more than others, these are the plants that were worth saving seed from as more cobs means more popcorn per plant.  Some plants only produces 2 or 3 cobs, I did not save seeds from these.

When the season was over I got Nanuq to help me collect the little cobs, it was a bunch of fun.  All of the kids helped me to remove the sheaths in a process that we call "pass the parcel" then the little cobs were hung up to dry completely.  The cobs looked great, most were well filled out and the colour was good.
mini blue popcorn cob, almost dry enough to shuck

After the cobs were dry Nanuq and I shucked the cobs.  He worked for a long time shucking quite a lot of cobs with his little hands, he asked that I payed him.  When I asked what he wanted to be payed (I meant "how much") he told me he wanted corn seeds.  That little guy sure loves his corn seeds.
mini blue popcorn cobs

When all was said and done we ended up with a decent number of cobs from multi stemmed plants or plants that produced many cobs.  We decided to pop some and see what they were like.  To make the results mean a bit more we also popped some popcorn from the shops as a comparison.
Regular popcorn on the left, mini blue popcorn on the right.  Note how white it is

The mini blue popcorn has small seeds, these seeds pop smaller than regular popcorn as can be seen in the picture above.  Regular yellow popcorn pops white, the mini blue popcorn pops extra white.  I don't know what is expected in popcorn but I like the little super white popcorn.

With the store bough popcorn between 85 - 90% of the kernels popped, my glass bead corn is almost popping that well.  Every time we have popped the mini blue popcorn 100% of the kernels have popped.  We are yet to have a single seed from the mini blue popcorn that has not popped.  Clearly this variety has been bred well and whoever owned it before me had maintained and selected it well.

The mini blue popcorn tastes just like regular popcorn but feels different in your mouth.  It feels less dense, perhaps fluffier, it is difficult to explain.  I do not particularly enjoy eating popcorn very often, I really grow it for the kids, but I do like this popcorn.  I think I dislike the density of regular popcorn and the fact that little bits get stuck between my teeth.  I find this mini blue popcorn is nicer to eat.

I do sell seeds from the mini blue popcorn, they are listed on my for sale page along with the other seeds and perennial vegetables that I have for sale.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Another corn update

This is a follow up from my previous corn post.  These are just some of the more unusual varieties I grew this year.  At this stage I don't know if I will be able to grow corn next year, but we will see what happens.  I will have the seeds to plant the following year so if I do end up missing a year or two it is not the end of the world.

The argent white corn ended up doing a lot better than I thought it would.  Very few of the super sweet corns cope with extreme heat, most died off completely.  I love this variety, it is the most delicious variety of corn I have ever eaten.  Most of the cobs were not completely filled out due to the heat and some of it was crossed with another variety of corn (this was deliberate, it is simple to tell which seeds are which) and I ended up with what looks like a good amount of pure seed.

I expected less seeds to form than I ended up getting so am pretty happy.  I have had a severe genetic bottleneck here by starting with so few parent plants so plan to grow out as many seeds as possible next time.  If possible I would love to track down someone who is also growing argent and swap some seeds.

I deliberately crossed the argent with another variety of corn.  The F1 seed is coloured and the pure seed is white so can easily be separated.  I would love to grow out the F1 seed and produce a stable strain, but I may not have time or space so we will have to wait and see what happens.  I may even ask for someone to do a growout of some of this seed.

Some of the poorly filled out Argent cobs, white seeds are pure and coloured seeds are deliberate crosses

Giant Incan White corn
Watching this corn grow was amazing, it was different from every variety I have ever seen.  From a distance it is easy to tell this apart from every other variety.  It grew huge, then the heat damaged a lot of the plants.  Most varieties of corn will not shed pollen if the tops are damaged (making F1 seed simple to produce) but this variety decides to sprout and grow new tassels.  It is very resilient.  Each plant grew a cob, then they grew half a dozen more cobs from the same point!  I have never seen this trait in any other variety of corn.  Unfortunately I got very few cobs with any seeds due to the weather and wildlife.  These cobs are drying at the moment, it looks like I will get a small amount of seed from these.

One cob, you can see more cobs starting to form underneath

Cobs forming 7 feet up the stalk, the leaves all have damage from the heat

The cob was just starting to produce silk
Giant Inca white corn next to mini blue popcorn
Giant Inca white corn next to mini blue popcorn

Glass Bead corn
What can I say, these guys know what they are doing.  Nothing particularly bothers glass bead corn.  It is now a good popcorn, in another year or two if things keep going the way they are going it will be a great popcorn variety.

Mini blue popcorn
This was damaged by the heat badly but still provided a decent yield.  The plants grew well, the cobs look great and are mostly well filled out and the seeds pop extremely well.  The plants had to compete with grass and had a small fruit tree close by with roots under them.  My kids think this popcorn is heaps of fun.  I wrote a separate post on this little guy.

Blue popcorn plants - growing well in less than ideal conditions

mini blue popcorn cobs - not too bad considering the growing conditions

Blue sweetcorn
This is actually a decent variety of corn, I don't know why I have not heard of it anywhere else.  I got a good number of cobs, most were poorly filled out due to the weather.  I like the look of blue corn so plan on growing this again.

Blue sweetcorn, poorly filled out cobs this year but it produced a good number of seed.

I am selling seeds of some corn varieties but not others.  At this stage I can not sell seeds from every variety, hopefully one day I will be able to do that.  Please visit my for sale page if you are interested.