If you are interested in growing rare, endangered, heritage, heirloom and ex-commercial varieties of vegetables then I would recommend highly you join the national charity Garden Organic http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk and the Heritage Seed Library. As a member you will have access to their wonderful seed list. Of course, you can always check out the list of seeds I make available – many of them Heritage Seed Library varieties so feel free to check out the latest seed list on my website.
Earlier this year I gave a talk about seed saving in Hereford at a brilliant seed swap. I had lots of my own seeds to share and the event organiser Suzanne Noble took some Angry beans home to grow herself. I sowed a few in late May in a large tub and grew them up canes. I wanted to see if I could harvest anything from such a late sowing. Normally I would sow this bean in April in pots in the greenhouse and plant out in a warm, sunny spot in May. They beans have not ripened,due I am sure to the shortened growing season but I have still got enough for a good meal. I shelled the green pods and then spent a happy half-hour skinning them.
I will boil them for about fifteen minutes until they are nice and tender and then stir-fry them with some garlic, a little Burmese chilli, a good splash of soy sauce and a sprinkle of fresh parsley – a sort of Anglo-Burmese food fusion!
I have started to update my seed lost for 2017. Check it out. there will be more new varieties I have yet to finish saving to be added this winter. I am happy to send seeds when I have them and the seeds are free. However, I really appreciate a donation of £1 a packet towards the cost of the envelope and keeping my seed library. You can just include some stamps with your S.A.E. or make a donation using PayPal account email@example.com Please do email me before placing an order so I can confirm availability.
It’s been a good year for peas and I have enjoyed growing a number of familiar as well as new additions to my library for culinary pleasure, to return to the Heritage Seed Library and share with fellow vegaholics. My absolute favourite new addition is Jeaune de Madras. An old French variety given to me by Gerrit Oshan from the Dutch Gene Bank in Utrecht, I am told this gorgeous and most decorative mange tout is the source of a breeding effort in the USA to develop an improved variety – not that I think this beauty needs any improving.
I have had good crops of old English stalwarts of the HSL. Robinson, unimpeachably one of the most delicious peas you will ever eat. Considerd by the RHS at the end of the nineteenth century as one of the top ten peas in the world, Champion of England is another stately and yummy variety. But you have to grow this one yourself if you want to savour its special qualities.
Peas come in all colours and I have grown three purple varieties this year. Two are from the HSL and well worth growing for their delicious, pale, small peas. Sutton’s Purple Podded is a tall pea with delightful flowers and easily picked pods.
Betony Blue has shorter and rounder pods with larger peas than Sutton’s Purple Podded. Like all tall peas, they grow well in large pots or tubs and can grace a flower border too.
Often fellow growers offer me vegetables with unusual stories. Liam Gaffney who grows in Inverness-shire sent me Daniel O’Rourke. It grows to up to 2 metres with a heavy crop of small pods filled with sweet little peas. It is dual purpose so the dried peas can be used as a soup pea in winter. Daniel O’Rourke is an Irish heritage seed that comes from the Irish Seed Savers’ Exchange. However, the provenance of the pea is mysterious. It was originally saved in the Russian seed bank in St. Petersburg that was founded by Vavilov at the start of the 20th century. Vavilov travelled the world collecting seed to put in the world’s first proper seed library. So, did Vavilov ever visit Ireland and bring this pea back to his library or did Daniel O’Rourke get the seed from Vavilov? If so, what is the origin of this pea which has double flowers and is the result of selective breeding.
The Belgians also bred peas and another HSL variety I have had very good, heavy crops from is Espoir de Gembloux. it grows to about 1.2 metres and is a very heavy cropper with a abundant well filled pods.
The third purple-podded pea I have grown this year has a great name but I cannot remember where I got it from! Hangman’s Door grows to about 1.2 metres. I had a disaster because of the eight peas I had to grow, my hens escaped one day and ate six of them. So with just two plants I have ten precious pods – after I ate the peas from a couple of pods to see just how nice they are – enough seed to grow on for a proper crop in 2017 maybe.
One can grow peas all year round. I was given a very special pea by my friend Jesus Vargas who lives in northern Catalonia. Pesol Negre del Belgarda is a very rare local variety of winter-sown tall pea that is grown for its black seeds which form a staple as a dried pea. It has the most gorgeous flowers and fat pods with a rough skin.
And finally a pea I sow in late autumn to harvest in May, a French stalwart that is commercially available, Douce Provence is prolific, tasty and hardy. I grow it in a polytunnel but the pea is quite happy sown outside in October and given some cloche protection through the worst weather until it starts to grow on in March.
I am fortunate to be benefiting from a very productive year – so far – growing a range of beans to enjoy on the plate and also for seed to save, return to the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organic and to share with other gardeners. This year I am growing a runner bean called Montacute. Because runner beans cross-pollinate easily due to bee activity I have my neighbours grow the same variety. I also grow a few in a distant part of the garden further isolated from neighbours.
It is an heirloom from the Somerset estate of the same name. The flowering and pod set has been quite exceptional, due I think to a wetter than normal summer.
As a Seed Guardian I receive small numbers of seeds every year from from the HSL. I like to grow these few seeds out to give me enough seed to grow sufficient quantities to return to the library the following year. Container growing can be very effective. So this year I have a very pretty – and tasty – purple bean, Viola di Cornetti growing in a large tub.
With nearly 500 varieties of vegetables in my library I need to refresh seed regularly and try to work on a seven-year cycle. This year I found myself with a few seed of a lovely HSL variety called Mrs Fortune’s that were last saved in 2009. Again, they are doing quite well in a large tub on a sunny veranda.
Another bean that was in the HSL catalogue this year is Madeira Maroon, a flat-podded French bean that can grow to 30 centimetres, but is best eaten when no more than about 20 centimetres in my opinion. Very tasty and quite prolific.
One of my jobs as a seed detective is to identify varieties that have been lost in their country of origin, to propagate and return them. A fine example of this is another French bean that is in the HSL, Ray’s Butter Bean which hails from Australia. On a recent trip to Victoria I met with the man who is at the forefront of growing heirlooms, Clive Blazey founder of The Diggers Club who told me he had never heard of it! As well as returning seed to the HSL I shall send him enough to start a re-introduction programme.
And then there are the dwarf beans. Val’s Bean is a delicious, if somewhat unruly bean that has been in my library for years. Now I am growing a quantity to return to the HSL after not having grown them in the last seven years.
My favourite French bean is Emperor of Russia. Finding myself very short of fresh seed this is another one I am propagating this year. From a March sowing the crop is now ripening and drying in a polytunnel ready soon to be harvested.
Many of the beans I grow are cropped for use as a dry bean. An American variety, Vermont Cranberry, is one such. Easy to grow yielding beautiful cranberry-coloured beans, this HSL stalwart is well worth adding to your vegetable plot. I grow them in a cold frame on a raised bed to help growth from an early sowing and to protect the crop from rain as the pods dry.
I love my peas and this year I have so many on the go, some new and some to replenish my stocks of seed as well as to eat! This little darling is Betany Blue, an HSL variety of which i had just eight seeds so a precious cargo. None will be eaten, all will be saved for a proper harvest next year maybe.
My most decorative and also delicious delight so far this summer is Jeaune de Madras, given to me by a fellow vegaholic in Holland. Peas are native to India so the name is no surprise. the colour is. My first yellow mange tout and as yummy as she is lovely to look at. I shall be saving seed and growing them in the future as a border climber as the lovely bi-colour purple and pink flowers, yellow/green stems and young leaves and verdant habit will make them an essential edible addition to the garden.
Next up is an old favourite which is currently setting pods and will be ready to harvest in a week or so. Robinson,, a Heritage Seed Library ex-commercial variety is, for me the prince of peas. Deliciously sweet, great long pods with ten or more peas that are hard to resist once picked. There are some seedsmen selling Robinson but I have no idea if theirs is the same as the HSL variety which has proven provenance as the original Robinson pea as bred by a certain Mr Robinson.
A very rare Catalan heirloom is the drying pea fesol Negre de Belgarda, which was given to me by Jesus Vargas. I grew it last year but some peas shed their harvest behind my back and I have some more growing in a polytunnel which are most decorative. The flowers are lovely and the peas small. They turn almost black when dry and were a staple of the region.
Harvested already have been a French variety, Douce de Provence, which I grew over winter in a polytunnel. A very hardy variety which does especially well under cover.
This photo was taken in mid-April as the first flowers were showing themselves and setting had just started.
I have made recent sowings of a number of other varieties, mostly in large tubs and the garden border; Champion of England, regarded by many at the time it was popular a hundred years ago, as being one of the ten best peas in the world. I’ve had a disaster with a variety given to me by an HSL member whose name I have forgotten sadly called Hangman’s Doors. I could only get three peas to germinate so they are precious little seedlings right now. Another very fine French variety that grows to about a meter, Espoir de Gremboux, again an HSL variety along with Suttons Purple Podded I am growing especially for the HSL this year. Last but not least, an Irish heirloom, Daniel O”Rourke. Named after the man who grew them originally and that was in the Vavilov collection in St. Petersburg but was given to me by a fellow member of the HSL in Scotland.
The winter of 2015/16 has been great for salad crops. The mild weather has meant that even a summer lettuce like Little Gem has survived through the winter and makes a tasty addition to the hungry gap. This little darling was harvested over the weekend.There are a trinity of rather lovely winter lettuce that are now almost at end in my garden.. Sown between September and October last year, they have provided me with a delicious and varied crop until now.
First up is Latuccino, an Italian variety that was given to me by the gardener who looks after my old school’s two-acre bio-dynamic walled garden. Grown as cut-and-come-again, I start thinning them in early January to 30cm apart and allow them to heart up. This is a truly delicious variety – sharp and tangy; one of my absolute favourites and well worth growing. I save seed of Latuccino and it does have a habit of self-seeding!
The trinity of lettuce includes two that come from Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. First up a wonderful French loose cos type, Rouge D’Hiver that has a taste that is quite unimpeachable; crunchy, sweet and colourful too. And finally, an English variety, Bloody Warrior. The blood-red spots on these super-sweet green leaves tell it all. I plan to grow this variety for seed for 2017.
The other day I met a lovely local horticulturist who is growing and selling vegetables just outside Abergavenny. Claudia was keen to save some of her Italian heirloom tomatoes – her dad is Italian – and although I explain how to save tomato seed on the website I thought it might help to go through the process briefly with some illustrations. First harvest your ripe tomatoes and then let them ripen a little more somewhere warm and sunny. I then blanche large fruit and skin them before cutting them in half and scooping out the pulp with the seed in it. Using a spatula press as much of the pulp as you can through a fine sieve. This pulp and the skinned tomatoes can then be used for cooking or to make passata. When your seeds looks a bit like this put them into a jar filled with cold water. It is important to do this as the seeds are covered in a membrane which inhibits germination. Leaving the seeds in water for two or three days causes the membrane to ferment and break down so that when you empty the contents into a sieve and rinse thoroughly you have nice clean seeds to dry. Now spread your seeds out thinly onto grease-proof paper – not tissue paper – and put somewhere warm and dry like a window sill but not in direct sunlight. The seeds must not need to be warmed up! They will dry perfectly well at room temperature. After a day scrape the seeds around a bit to turn them over and leave to dry for at least a week.Scrape the seeds off the grease-proof paper, rub them between your fingers to separate them and when they feel completely dry put them in an airtight jar or container and keep somewhere cool – ideally a fridge – until you are ready to sow them. To get your seeds really dry so they will keep for years it is worth putting them in a container with some silica gel which changes colour when it has taken up moisture. You can also use dry rice as a means to further dry your seeds but, again, it helps to includes some silica gel as an indicator.
The war in Syria has been devastating for farmers and the country’s position as the bread basket of the middle east. Fortunately the Syrian seed bank has been safely smuggled out of the country and the vast gene pool is now in deep-frozen security in neighbouring countries and the seed bank in Svalbard, Norway. However, I believe it is important to conserve as much as we can of Syria’s food heritage by growing their vegetables and sharing the seed with others who appreciate their special eating qualities. This year I am growing fava beans, courgettes and cucumbers from my small collection of seed I hunted down during a visit to the country at the start of the civil war in 2011.This basket of blackened pods, when shelled becomes a basket of delicious fava beans.
A total of 1.2 kilos from just 24 plants. This bean came from a farmer near Aleppo. Fava beans are man’s first cultivated crop and have been grown in Syria since the dawn of civilisation in the Tigris Euphrates valley some 10,000 years ago. This bean is a direct descendant – not forgetting, it is delicious too. This what the plant looks like as the pods swell and ripen.
As well as beans I am growing two wonderful Syrian courgettes. This dark green variety is from seed I found on a market stall in ancient Damascus. I am growing on a fruit for seed having hand pollinated to ensure it is true. It will get even larger and is not for eating!
I hand-pollinated the female flower on the right with the male flower on the left to grow on my second Syrian courgette which is a truly delicious pale green variety that was grown commercially in Syria. The seed company Al Shibli based in Aleppo and now I fear no longer functioning.
This is the result. I am hopeful that the variety is open pollinated and not a hybrid as it has both sexes of flower. Next year I shall grow again to check and if so will include them in my library to share.
I also bought some commercial cucumber seed from Syria Future Seed, again a company no longer in existence. This variety is open pollinated and the crop this year from seed I saved in 2014 is prolific and utterly delicious. Sweet and tender small tear-drop shaped cucumbers that I hope to have more seed of in 2016.
Stenner is a wonderful old English variety which produces an abundant crop of very long – often prize-winning – delicious beans. However, runner beans cross-pollinate for a pastime so growing them for seed means they need to be isolated from other runner beans; not an easy thing to do if you have neighbours who also grow beans… unless of course you persuade them to grow the same one, which is exactly what is happening on my lane. Yesterday I delivered every household around me a packet of my own Stenner seed that my son had grown in isolation in Switzerland. No one on his allotment in Zurich grew any runner beans so I knew they were pure. I had also grown a few last year to see how they performed, (see photo). Now, knowing there will be only Stenner being grown within a kilometre of my garden I am confident the fresh seed I have been given by the HSL can be grown outside without fear of being impregnated by a bee carrying alien pollen! I plan to document the experiment. It will be interesting to see who can grow the longest bean for the flower show, who gets the best crop and what variations in cultivation techniques are employed by my neighbours. Watch this space!