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.