Friday, 26 May 2017

Red Salad Bowl Lettuce Days to Maturity

One of the lettuce varieties I grew this past summer was called red salad bowl.  It is a leaf lettuce instead of a head lettuce so ensures that it crops a lot of lettuce over a long period of time.

Below are the days to maturity for red salad bowl lettuce.  Being in Australia they are written in the format of Day/Month/Year.

Days to Maturity Red Salad Bowl Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

Planted                       23/10/2016                  Day 0
Germinated                 28/10/2016                  Day 5
Started harvesting        03/12/2016                  Day 41

For a full list of vegetable days to maturity please click here.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Grow fruit trees from seed

There is an old saying that says "the best time to plant an orchard was twenty years ago, the second best time is now".

But how long does it take for fruit trees to bear fruit when grown from a seed?  Not just how long do books say (often written by people with no personal experience who have just done some brief internet research), but how long does it really take?

I have seen people ask on forums about growing various fruit trees from seed.  Generally, helpful people pipe up and say not to bother as it takes far too long or it is too difficult, or the results are bad tasting.  Not surprisingly very few of these people have ever attempted to grow a fruit tree from a seed and are going off what they have read somewhere that was written by someone who also has no experience.  I have grown various fruit trees from seeds, most didn't take overly long to bear fruit, most were very simple, most tasted great.

I have grown a bunch of fruit trees from seeds over the years, it is far easier than you think.  The results are mostly not the same as the parent plant, sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it is bad, and sometimes they are near enough not to matter.  Many fruit trees for sale are unnamed or the name tags have been mixed up, so creating your own variety from growing from seed is not necessarily a bad thing.  If you plant seed from improved stock the chances are high that any resultant fruit will be decent.

So how long does it really take for fruit trees to bear fruit from seed?  From my experience I can say that it is not as long as you probably think and certainly nowhere near as long as everyone says.

How long the internet says it will take for fruit trees to bear fruit
I did a google search and found a company overseas who gives indicative time frames for fruit trees to bear fruit.  They are not counting from planting a seed, but are counting from planting a one to two year old tree which has been grown from a cutting or grafted.  I have cut and paste the following table from their website and removed their company name.

This company's trees are 1-2 years old when shipped. “Years to Fruit” begins counting after the trees are transplanted into your growing space.
Fruit Tree Type Years to Fruit
Apple Trees 2-5 years
Apricot Trees 2-5 years
Banana Plants 2-3 years
Cherry Trees (sour) 3-5 years
Cherry Trees (sweet) 4-7 years
Citrus Trees 1-2 years
Fig Trees 1-2 years
Mulberry Trees 2-3 years
Nectarine Trees 2-4 years
Olive Trees 2-3 years
Pawpaw Trees 5-7 years
Peach Trees 2-4 years
Pear Trees 4-6 years
Persimmon Trees 3-4 years
Plum Trees 3-6 years

These crazy time frames make no sense if they are from planting a two year old tree, they are far too long.  Please ignore the times listed in the above list.  Let me give you some examples of how long it takes to grow a fruit tree from a seed from my personal experience.

Time for fruit tree to mature when grown from seed

Growing Apricot from seed
My son planted an apricot seed, it has flowered and had some fruit (until it was taken by birds) when it was only in its third year.  If I bought a dormant apricot tree and it did not flower and fruit that same year I would be disappointed!  Three years from planting the seed to seeing the first fruit for an apricot is not unusual, it can be faster, and it can certainly be a lot sower if not looked after, but three years is pretty average for apricots to fruit from seed.
Flowers on Igloo's three year old apricot tree
Growing Peach and Nectarine from seed
I have grown both peach and nectarine from seed many times.  As far as I am concerned peach and nectarine are different varieties of the same tree.  Some of the nectarines were white fleshed, others were yellow fleshed, they were all seeds from un-named seed grown trees and I had no way of knowing where the pollen came from.  For me most flowered and fruited in their third year, some never flowered and some even flowered in their second year!  Due to the good genetics of peach and nectarines in Australia, all of the seed grown fruit tastes good.  From talking to a few other people who have grown them from seed I think three years from seed to fruiting is the average.

Growing Cherries from seed
I have grown many many cherry trees from seed, they all flowered in their second or third year.  Unfortunately the fruit was all dreadful.  Small, sour, lacking any depth of flavour.  The trees never got overly large and were besotted with cherry slug.  I have a feeling the poor quality fruit was not genetic but rather was caused from growing conditions as they had no additional water and not enough sunlight.  Had I bought a named variety the fruit would likely have been just as bad as my conditions were not ideal.

Growing Plums from seed
I have grown many plums from seed, they varied somewhat but generally flowered in year three.  The results were diverse in terms of size and colour of fruit and thorniness of the plants, but the parent stock was all diverse to begin with.  None of them were ever bad to eat.  I have also had plums and cherries growing too close that have naturally grafted to one another with no human intervention, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Growing Citrus from seed
At work I once found a tiny seedling in the garden with cotyledon leaves.  I took a liking to it and put a cage over it to protect it.  It grew into a citrus tree presumably from a seed that someone had dropped.  It was rather thorny and only took 3 years to flower, I have no idea if this is a representative time frame or if this volunteer seedling was just exceptional.  I have had people tell me that they had fruit in the first year and others who claim ten years is normal.  Unfortunately I left the job and moved before I got to see the fruit ripen.  I assume it was either an orange or a lemon.  I am told that key limes (Citrus × aurantiifolia) generally only take 2 years from seed and are always very similar to the parent plant.

Figs from seeds
I have never tried to grow a fig from seeds.  I am told by fig collectors that it usually only takes 2 or 3 years for a fig to fruit from seed.  They also tell me that fig seeds produce 50% inedible caprifigs and 50% edible figs.  Figs from seeds are complex, I don't have enough room here to experiment with them.  If you like figs then I say give it a try, they appear to yield very fast when grown from seed!

Mulberries from cuttings
Just to discount the above table even more, at one of my previous houses I planted a nice mulberry tree.  I wanted to bring it with me when I moved so took a small 10cm cutting.  We moved in January (mid summer here in Australia) with this tiny rooted cutting.  The following January the tiny cutting had grown to about 5 feet tall and had some fruit.

Unfortunately I have not grow mulberries from seed yet.  I have heard that 10+ years is normal but have a feeling I could get it down to about 3 or 4.  I have also heard all kinds of stories about it being difficult and doing odd things such as changing gender several times.  If you have any mulberry seed and are willing to send it to me I would love to try and grow it!

Some frequently asked questions about growing fruit tree from seed and my responses to them:

If I grow a seed from a certain variety of fruit tree will it grow into the same variety of tree?  No.  Many, if not all fruit trees exist in the heterozygous state and most fruit trees are complex hybrids (bred by  crossing hybrids with hybrids of hybrids) which carry genes from several related species.  This is often more evident in older heritage varieties as they have been grown from seed for less generations.  While it sometimes may be possible for a seed grown tree to be similar to its parent it is unlikely.

If I grow a seed and the fruit tree self pollinated will it grow into the same variety.  No, of course not.  As mentioned above many fruit trees carry a wide range of genes, some dominant that you will see, some you can not see as they are recessive, some co-dominant so their expression will only be noticed if you have both genes, etc.  Self pollinating a heterozygous plant simply means that some of these genes that the parent had will be lost in the seed grown tree.  Losing some genes never results in the plant being the same as its parent so while it is possible that the tree may be similar to the parent it will most likely not be the same.
If I grow a seed from an old heritage variety of fruit tree will it grow into that same variety?  No, this seems to be one of those illogical myths spread by people who have no experience in growing from seed, no understanding of basic genetics, and a weak grasp of general horticulture.  Being an older variety makes it far less likely for the seed grown plant to resemble its parents.  Older varieties of fruit tree have been grown from seed less times than the newer varieties, as such they often contain a far more diverse gene pool and are often considered to be unimproved stock.  In colonial America they used to say that one in ten apple seeds would grow for fresh eating, the other nine would grow into "spitters" which were great for cider.  Modern varieties have been bred to reduce undesirable genetic traits, as such they tend to have a lower percentage of seeds grow into undesirable plants and a higher chance of getting something nice.
If I grow a fruit tree from a seed will it be better or worse than the parent?  It could be superior, it could be similar, or it could be far worse and utterly unpleasant to eat.  Professional fruit breeders and research facilities grow out many thousands of seeds before they find one that they think is right, however, their breeding goals are vastly different from yours.  They want a long shelf life, bruise resistant hard fruit, short harvest period, high resistance to spray drift, relatively low productivity (to reduce the need for thinning), uniform fruit size/shape/colour, good response to long term cold storage and subsequent ethylene ripening, and so on.  You want great tasting fruit, long harvest period, soft fruit, and so forth.  Your goals are pretty much the opposite goals of commercial breeders.  
Don’t professional breeders know a great deal more about plant breeding than I do?  Probably, but it doesn’t help much in this situation.  In the end they are usually crossing improved varieties and hoping for the best, just like you.  They may have the resources to grow out many thousands of plants, which is a huge bonus, but as I said previously they are hoping to achieve something very different than you want to grow.  As I said earlier, professional breeders have very different goals to home growers.  It is too bad one of those permaculture research places does not invest in breeding fruit tree varieties designed for the needs and wants of the backyard home grower (hint hint).
Isn’t it difficult to grow fruit trees from seed and will I need special equipment?  No, growing many varieties of fruit tree from seed is simple and requires little equipment.  Some types are difficult (I have no experience with anything tropical) but most temperate fruit trees are simple to grow from seed.  The main things you will need are space, soil, time and water.  If you have a pot of soil and have time to water it then you are well on your way.  Some seeds may need cold stratification, but this is simple to do if you have a fridge or live where it gets frosty.
Should I bother growing a fruit tree from a seed?  I don’t know, it depends on your circumstances.  To be honest it doesn’t affect me greatly either way.  I sell neither fruit trees nor their seeds so I have nothing to gain or lose unless you happen to grow something amazing and share it with the world.  I honestly think if you have space, then growing one fruit tree from a seed in your life is a great thing to do.
Can I reduce the time frame from planting until it bears fruit?  Sure, treat the tree well and it will flower in the minimum of time that it genetically can.  You can also graft a seedling scion onto a branch of a mature tree and then forget about it until it bears fruit.  If doing so the seedling will have the advantage of a mature root system and you won’t have to worry about your seedling potentially not being resistant to soil pests.  Most fruit trees you buy are grafted for this reason.  It will likely still take a few years though.
If I grow a fruit tree from seed and it takes longer to fruit than you said can I complain to you?  No!  Grow the seedling under sub-optimal conditions and it will take many years longer to fruit.  It is possible to grow a fruit tree and never have it flower if its growing needs are not met.  It is also possible to have a mature fruiting tree stop producing fruit if the conditions are wrong.  Growing in too much shade, too much competition from near by plants and/or soil not being fertile enough, not enough water, wrong temperatures (ie growing tropical trees in temperate areas), and restricting root growth by growing in too small a pot are common reasons for your fruit tree not fruiting.  I am in no way responsible for this as I have no control over it.
Where do I get fruit tree seeds?  Chances are you don’t want to select parent varieties with desirable traits and cross pollinate them yourself – you could do this but it is a lot more effort and you need access to parent stock in flower.  You could buy fruit tree seeds from various places online, but why would anyone bother unless it is a fruit that you can not buy from the shops?  It is far more simple, and a lot cheaper, to buy fruit, eat it, and plant the seeds from there that you otherwise would have thrown away.  The chances of growing something spectacular out of that is just as high (if not higher) than buying fruit tree seed from any nursery.

What about polyembryony?  I conveniently ignored the topic.  I have not had enough experience dealing with this to be able to comment properly.  It is common in citrus and mangoes but can be seen in other plants as well.  It can make seed grown plants turn out much like the parent, some people say they are clones.  If you are concerned then do some research.

What about Genetically Modified (GM) varieties?  In Australia you won't have access to these so there is no chance that they will contaminate your new strain.  In other countries you may come across them, but it is pretty unlikely.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mint Varieties

There are many different varieties of mint, I have grown some over the years and currently grow a few.  I plan to increase the varieties I grow as I find nice varieties.  There are also a few herbs that are related to mint (or are completely unrelated to mint but have mint in the common name) that I grow. 
Unless you are attempting to breed a new variety, mint is best grown from cuttings or division as seed grown mint tends to grow variable plants.  When grown from seed some plants may have a strong scent, others weak, and a whole lot of substandard plants in between.  All mint varieties enjoy moisture, they grow best in cool damp climates but still perform ok in hot and dry climates if watered often and given some shade. 
All mint varieties have a tendency to become invasive and spread by underground rhizomes.  Some are far more aggressive than others.  This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you manage it.  I have heard people advise to dig a hole and plant a pot of soil in which to grow mint.  I have seen mint escape from this and take over gardens so I grow mint in pots and keep the pots on pavers or concrete.  For me, mint’s aggressive growth is a good thing.  I am mindful not to allow it to escape, so the gressive growth makes it incredibly forgiving and productive even in a small space.
People grow mint to attract pollinating insects, but I don’t recommend doing this at all.  Some varieties of mint will drop viable seed, sometimes thousands of tiny viable seeds, and seed grown mint is often inferior to the parent.  The seeds are tiny and almost impossible to find.  Mint also tends to change smell and taste when it flowers.  For these reasons I always try to remove the flowers.  Sure the bees like it, but they also like a lot of other things that flower at the same time that won't cause me any problems. 
Some varieties of mint will die down over winter, others will forge through unharmed.  Mints are perennial and so far they all survive winter here and happily grow for me as the weather warms. 
I have heard of people who grow several varieties of mint in the same garden bed, this is a very bad idea.  Normally one variety is stronger and takes over eventually leaving you with only one type of mint growing.  People often get confused and think that the different varieties alter each other by growing close by and they are left with strange smelling plants, which is not the case.  Sometimes the mints flower, they cross pollinate with one another, and drop seed.  Most of these seeds will grow odd smelling plants.  One of these seedlings will eventually take over and all the other mint plants will eventually die off.  Quite often this seed grown plant does not smell great, which is where the confusion comes from.  Either way I grow mint in pots and try to prevent flowering so as to avoid this type of problem.  
Below are some of the mint varieties that I am currently growing and am happy with.  I am still trialing some others, some are looking pretty good so far, others will be composted if they are not nice enough or productive enough or useful enough.

Native River Mint
 Native river mint (Mentha australis) has a bunch of different common names.  It used to grow along much of NSW and VIC and other parts of the country along river banks and flood plains but has become pretty rare in the wild.  I have spent my life living in the natural range of this plant, and spent huge amounts of time in the outdoors for work and uni and fun, but am yet to come across this in its natural habitat.  Like any variety of mint it prefers damp places but can tolerate drier soil.  This plant smells much like regular peppermint and is edible.  I have heard stories that the first Europeans in Australia used this plant in their Sunday roast as well as to ease colds.  Being an unimproved, undomesticated species, seeds grown from this plant will be very similar to the parent but could also be used to breed a superior variety.  Native River mint is not overly invasive and will not try too hard to take over the garden.

Spearmint plant
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) was once the most commonly grown garden mint, it used to be in every garden.  The spearmint lollies that used to be in shops were based on the smell and taste of this plant.  Spearmint is edible and it smells sweet and minty.  This is the mint that people often used to make mint jelly, or to use with a roast, or to have with peas, or in various summer drinks.  It is also used to treat colds and headaches and similar things, I am not sure how effective it actually is in any of its medicinal purposes.  Spearmint is invasive and care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden.
Peppermint plant - runners trying to escape the pot
 Peppermint (Mentha X piperita) has a much stronger smell than spearmint.  It is edible and can be used in all the same ways as spearmint plus it tends to be used more often medicinally as it is stronger and contains more essential oils than spearmint.  Peppermint essential oils certainly clear the nose and can be used in a calming tea, but I am not certain of how effective it is in its other medicinal properties.  It is also used to treat wounds as it has anti-microbial properties.  I have heard that mice dislike it, but have a feeling that this is superstition and may not actually work to effectively repel mice.  Peppermint is a hybrid between two different species of mint (spearmint Mentha spicata and watermint Mentha aquatica), as such seed will produce a mix of a range of mints and none of them will be peppermint.  Please never buy any seeds from any company that sells peppermint seeds as they either know little about the seeds they are selling, or they know they are selling you rubbish and are happy to deceive you.  Peppermint is very invasive and care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden. 
Chocolate Mint Plant
Chocolate mint (Mentha X piperita f. citrata 'Chocolate') is a chocolate smelling variant of peppermint.  It is edible and used in all the ways, culinary and medicinal, that regular peppermint is used.  As it smells like chocolate it is often used is drinks and deserts.  This plant changes how it smells throughout the growing season, sometimes it smells very much like chocolate, others it smells much like peppermint, sometimes when flowering I think it smells bad.  Seed grown chocolate mint are extremely variable and I think that many of them being dreadful.  To this end I do not allow it to flower and cut it to the ground when the first flower buds appear.  This plant is extremely invasive and care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden.  

Lemon mint
Lemon mint (sold to me as Mentha 'lemon' but likely to be some complex Mentha hybrid) is a fresh lemon smelling variety of mint.  It is quite nice.  Some times of the year it smells very strongly of zesty lemon mixed with mint, other times (such as after flowering) it smells like weak mint with just a hint of lemon.  Lemon mint can be used in deserts, drinks, and any meals where lemon and/or mint works well.  I don't know anyone who has grown seed from this but assume the results would be a mix of weak peppermint and other weird things.  This plant is very invasive and care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden. 
Variegated Apple Mint Plant
Variegated apple mint (Mentha suaveolens variegata) my plant actually died during my recent multiple moves as it was growing in a tiny pot that did not get watered for far too long, but I have another one now.  I guess that they smell a bit like mint and a bit like apple and is a lot of fun.  It is used in herbal tea and refreshing drinks and in similar ways to spearmint.  Sometimes this plant will grow a branch with all green leaves, this should be removed as it will out compete the variegated parts and pretty soon you will no longer have a variegated plant.  Sometimes it will grow an all white branch, this can not photosynthesise and weakens the plant.  I don’t often remove the white branches as I like the look of them and they die off by themselves soon enough.  Having some white on the leaves means it is less aggressive than if it was all green.  This plant is invasive and care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden.
Chinese artichoke flowering
Chinese Artichoke tuber sprouting
Chinese artichokes (Stachys affinis) are a rare perennial vegetable that is referred to as a ‘tuberous mint’.  They are not grown for their leaves but are grown for the white edible tubers underground.  This plant looks much like mint but the leaves do not really smell like anything.  It prefers cool climates and can have erratic yields in warmer gardens.  They sometimes flower but are very reluctant to set seed so I don’t bother to remove them.  This plant would benefit from breeding or ploidy manipulation to increase tuber size.  The tubers are crunchy, slightly sweet and look like little grubs so kids enjoy eating them (they call the "sweet grubs").  It is difficult to find this plant anywhere, but it is highly invasive so care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is not a mint, but is related to mint.  It smells like lemon, is edible and used medicinally for a range of things.  We have used it in cooking and I am told it makes a nice herbal tea.  Normally it smells like lemon but when flowering it is not all that nice.  This will happily seed and grow all over your garden if allowed.  I am told it does not grow underground runners, but mine do!  The runners are not as long or as aggressive as mint, but it still grows them.  This plant is invasive and care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden.  
Lime Balm Plant
Lime balm (Melissa officinalis 'lime') is a lime smelling variant of lemon balm.  It is edible and can be used in all the same ways as lemon balm.  I have made a herbal tea from lime balm which is delicious.  Seed grown plants are highly variable and many revert to lemon smelling or even nasty soapy smelling variants.  I have not grown this long but it appears to be slightly less invasive than lemon balm, even so, care must be taken to prevent it taking over the garden. 

Vietnamese Hot Mint
Vietnamese hot mint (Persicaria odorata) is also known as Vietnamese coriander and a heap of other names and is not related to mint in any way whatsoever.  This herb smells delicious and is often used in laksa.  I grow it as an emergent water plant but am told it grows well in the garden if well watered.  It flowers but is reluctant to set seed so I don’t bother to remove them.  This is frost tender and must be protected from extreme cold.  I really like this herb and find it hard to believe how difficult it is to come by and how few people grow it in Australia.  While this plant is super easy to grow and very productive I can’t imagine it being invasive unless you live somewhere tropical in a swamp or a house boat.  I take no care to control it and have had no problems with it being invasive whatsoever. 
Vietnamese Fish Mint
Vietnamese Fish mint (Houttuynia cordata) is reasonably new to me and is not at all related to mint.  It is edible and has a long history of medicinal use and as a remedy for poisoning.  It has a rather distinctive smell and can be used in place of fish sauce and is also used in a medicinal "dokudami" herbal tea.  Mine has white single flowers and I am told that it does not set seed.  I grow the highly productive and edible green form, there is also a variegated form that is prettier and less invasive that I may try to get one day.  Growing fish mint in a pot will contain it nicely due to its inability/reluctance to produce viable seed.  One or two small pots of this herb is meant to supply more than enough for a household and it should never be planted directly in the garden, only ever plant fish mint in potsIf planted in a pot this will not be invasive.  This is meant to be one of the most invasive herbs and great care should be taken to prevent it from taking over the entire garden (ie grow it in a pot of soil, not in the garden).

Where to buy organic mint plants in Australia
As I mentioned, please do not buy any mint seeds ever.  Please never buy anything from anyone who sells peppermint seeds.  Various garden centers and online places sell different varieties of mint.  I have never seen any of them sell organically grown mint.  Sometimes you may find garage sales with one or two types of mint.  I sell small organically grown mint plants, and the rest of the plants mentioned above, on my for sale page.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Days to Maturity Melon Billeberga

The following were the days to maturity for 'Billeberga' melons (Cucumis melo).

Billeberga melons were a small and highly fragrant melon with very thin skin.  I had high hopes that they would do well in a short season but it appears that they are better suited to longer summers.  The plants got covered by rampant pumpkin vines so perhaps could have produced a lot earlier if they had more sunlight.

Being in Australia, all dates are written in the format of Day/Month/Year.

Seeds planted       16/10/2016       Day 0
Germinated           30/10/2016       Day 14
Flowered              30/12/2016       Day 75
Harvest start         14/04/2016       Day 179

For a full list of vegetable days to maturity please click here.

'Billeberga' melons (Cucumis melo)
'Billeberga' melons (Cucumis melo)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Days to Maturity Mexican Sour Gherkin

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabra) is also called mouse melon, cucamelon and has a few other common names.

It is a lovely perennial fruiting vegetable that I have not grown for a few years.  I planted it in less than ideal soil, being shaded by plants that grew over it, so they did not crop nearly as well as they should have.  Below are the days to maturity for this plant in my garden this year.

Days to maturity Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabra)

Planted                       11/10/2016                  Day 0
Germinated                 03/11/2016                  Day 23
Flowered                   28/02/2017                   Day 140 
First fruit ripe              06/04/2017                  Day 177

The flowers kept aborting so it could have set fruit much earlier.  I assume they were aborting due to poor growing conditions, there were plenty of different types of pollinators in the garden this year.  Hopefully they survive over winter and produce a lot earlier next summer.

For a full list of vegetable days to maturity please click here.

Mexican Sour Gherkin fruit - look like cute tiny watermelons