Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties

I got this for Xmas and have already read it cover to cover!

I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to save their own seed or even anyone who wants to be good at trying out and evaluating different varieties, even if you don't plan on saving seed, since these are all necessary activities to do if you breed plants, so they're well-covered in the book.

As Carol Deppe says, seed saving IS plant breeding, because you're always selecting when you do that, whether consciously or not. This makes a lot of sense, since if you were doing the same thing with animals they would call it "breeding" and not "puppy saving" or something like that, even if you are just trying to maintain a breed of animal rather than create a new one. Maintaining the breed or variety uses the same techniques, after all.

I do have a Master's degree in biology, so I could skim over a lot of the stuff about genetics, since I've heard it all many times before. Don't know how easy that would be for someone with no scientific background, but it seemed to be written in pretty plain language. I noticed she talks about experimental design in the chapter on variety trials without using that term or any of the other technical terms for what she was describing.

But even though I already know about genetics and experimental design, I'm glad to have a book that puts it into the practical context of home vegetable growing. I already had Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, and this book compliments it well. I have the older edition of StS, so I'm not sure what the newer one added, but the version I have is really just a reference book of all the species of plants grown as vegetables with technical information on how to save seed from them.

Deppe's book is a nice compliment to that because it's much more anecdotal, talking about how this information translates to actual, less-than-perfect home breeding situations. I like the stories she tells about her own adventures in plant breeding and that of other people she knows. Ashworth's book is like a list of the rules, and then Deppe tells you how to break the rules if you don't have an ideal situation, with encouraging stories of people who have done that and still succeeded.

I wish there was a little more to Appendix A, which goes into detail on a few selected vegetable species: tomatoes, peas, beans, brassicas, squash, and corn. I wish it also had peppers and melons. I know you're supposed to generalize from there and suppose that plants from the same family as these behave the same way, but I'm not sure that's always true. Might be for squash and melons, but what about tomatoes compared to peppers? As I understand it, other nightshades are a lot more outbreeding than tomatoes.

Oh well, I guess that's what Seed to Seed is supposed to be for. If Appendix A was expanded to include lots of vegetables, it would turn into a whole book in itself.

My head is already swimming with wild ideas and dreams of how I can contribute to plant diversity, so I'm going to have to rein that in a bit and remember that most of that is just dreams and wild ideas.

After all, I only just got a garden again after years of not having one, so not much seed saving has really been going on. And she does make the good point that before you start breeding the next great variety, you should probably grow a bunch of what's already out there to make sure what you want doesn't already exist.

I haven't had time to grow a whole lot of different varieties yet.

Also, now I'm starting to think of the seed saving/breeding projects I've already started since I got a garden again, and wondering if I've been doing them right.

Here's what I've done so far in the world of seed-saving.

Last year I saved seed from almost all the tomato varieties I planted: Red Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Pink Ponderosa, Hawkins Plum, and Black Cherry. I didn't save seed from Yellow Pear because they weren't very tasty, and everyone who grows them seems to agree. I almost didn't save Hawkins Plum, because it had lousy yield, but I'm going to give them another chance.

Tomatoes are very inbreeding, so they're easy to save. They hardly ever cross, and don't suffer from inbreeding depression, so I don't have to worry about either isolation or minimum population sizes. I'm sure the tomato seeds I saved are all fine. There's also so many varieties of tomatoes out there, that I'm not interested in breeding any new ones. My main tomato goal is to trial the varieties that already exist to find ones that work in my climate. It would be nice to find a favorite variety for various purposes, like one for sauce, one for sandwiches, one cherry, etc., but I'm sure I won't be able to limit myself that much.

However, I would like to do a paste tomato trial some time, though probably not next year. I already have seeds for Hawkins Plum, Rio Grande (which I'm growing next year), and Big Month. I could get some more varieties and trial them all together in one year to see which one is the best. That would require devoting a lot of room to just paste tomatoes, but it would let me know if Hawkins Plum was just unlucky last year or if it really isn't that good of a tomato.

This year, due to a late frost, the only peppers I ended up with were jalapenos I bought from a nursery at the last minute. I went ahead and saved seeds from them, even though about 30 feet away is a wild chile pequin.

Is that far enough away? I don't know. It's hard to tell with peppers. I can't even remember if the chile pequin was blooming at the same time (the late frost killed it back a bit and we thought it was dead for a while, until it finally regrew). I also had lots of squash growing, which might have distracted the bees enough.

So maybe my seed isn't crossed after all.

Or maybe it is and I should throw it away.

Or maybe it is, but I SHOULDN'T throw it away, because maybe I got something good from the crossing. Deppe does mention some of the advantages of crossing things back with their wild relatives from time to time. And it's not like jalapeno is a rare variety in need of preserving.

It's complicated. I was planning on growing different varieties of peppers this year, but maybe I should grow out my saved jalapenos too and see if they've crossed. It also might be important to know if that chile pequin can cross with my garden peppers, because this year I'm growing three more varieties of that same pepper species that I want to save seeds from (since I got them in trades where I received only a small amount of seed). I don't want them crossing with each other or with the chile pequin, but I really am not looking forward to putting up screens or bags to isolate them.

Collard Greens
I might have messed up my collards, because I saved the seed from only 6 plants (those were all the plants I had), and brassicas exhibit inbreeding depression. Deppe says I should have at least 10 brassica plants to save seed from, and 20+ is better. Maybe I need to get some new collard seeds. This may also be a good opportunity to trial some different collard varieties. The variety I'm growing is Vates, but there are a few others. Luckily there aren't very many, maybe two or three at most in any given seed catalog. Nothing like the tomato situation with thousands of varieties. I could easily trial all the commercially available varieties of collards in one year. Maybe next winter I can try that.

Squash is a promiscuous plant, so I've decided that I'll grow only one variety of each of the four species each year. That way I don't have to hand-pollinate to get pure seed. None of my immediate neighbors have vegetable gardens (what is wrong with people, anyway?), so I think the possibility of crossing with plants outside my garden is slim.

This past year I grew one variety of each species, and all of them were killed by squash vine borers except the cushaws. So when people said that cushaws were especially SVB-resistant, they were telling the truth. I already showed you my bountiful harvest of Chihuahua Landrace Cushaws. I'm saving seed from them as I eat them, and I'm eating them in order of how ripe they are, which will probably yield good seed.

One thing to take into consideration is this is a "landrace". That means it has more genetic diversity than a standard variety. Strangely, all my squashes ended up cream with green stripes, and only one gave fruit that was a different shape than the others (didn't have necks). I emailed Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds about this, and they thought it was weird too. Their catalog description said they have variable colors, and I grew 9 plants, which should have been enough. They ended up sending me another packet of seed, so now I have the potential for more genetic diversity.

The thing is, I probably can't keep all the genetic diversity of this landrace in my backyard. After reading Deppe's book, I'm sure I don't have the space or resources (or desire) to do that. That would require saving equal numbers of seeds from each of the individuals in the seed packets I received from Baker Creek. No, I'm going to end up selecting them, whether I like it or not. I just need to make sure I select them in a good way, so that they adapt to my growing conditions and yield good fruit. So far the only really obvious difference in the plants I've grown so far is the one plant that had fruits with no necks. Should I save seed from the neckless fruits? Not having a neck might be a bad thing, though. The neck seems to have better meat than the rest of the squash. So I might only save seed from necked squash.

Next time I grow this variety, I will grow a mixture of my saved seed and some of the original seeds from Baker Creek. This is a trick from the Deppe book for keeping your variety genetically diverse, especially if you can't grow dozens of plants at a time. I'll probably do that every time I grow it until I run out of the original seed, so that they all get a chance to contribute some genes to my squash population. Maybe I'll finally get some of those white or orange fruits I was supposed to have had!

Also, I should try some other cushaws, because it's not like Chihuahua is the best, it's just the first one I've tried. I have some seeds for Green Striped Cushaw I haven't tried out yet. Maybe I will in 2011. Maybe one year I'll even plant a whole bunch of different cushaws to compare them. The problem is squash plants are so huge, that it limits what I can do in my backyard. Doing trials is a scientific experiment, after all, so you need an adequete sample size to get meaningful results. An adequete sample size of a plant that takes up only one square foot of space isn't so bad. It's a different story with a plant that grows to ten feet across or more.

I still obviously have much to do and to learn. That's one of the problems with gardening. All the time scales are in months and years. There is NO instant gratification.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Winter Solstice and a Cold Moon Eclipse

This year's Full Cold Moon, which also happened to fall on the Winter Solstice, was also a total eclipse. Too bad I didn't get to see most of it because of clouds. What's the deal? We get all this dry weather, with not a cloud in the sky, until the one night where I don't want there to be clouds.

I heard on the weather report the other day that this has been the driest October through December since 1950. We haven't gotten significant rainfall since September. However, the weather gods might pull through for me a give me a bit of moisture this Christmas week. That would be a great gift.

This morning the sidewalks and street were all wet, so we got some rain overnight, but it wasn't enough to refill the rain barrels, so it must have not been much (I ought to get a rain gage). Still, I guess it's better than nothing, and we have more in the forecast this week.

Here's a shot of the nice and damp garden, along with my garden helper, Basil. As you can see, I'm still working on the paths and borders, but all the planting beds are all laid out.

The fava beans and lettuce are both doing well. The lettuce is almost big enough to start picking leaves. I've never grown fava beans before, so I'm not sure how long it will be before they start flowering. In the background you can see my Big Pile of Rocks. I thought it would be better to pile them up as I dig them, rather than leaving them lying around the garden and tripping on them.
I went ahead and planted my tiny onion seedlings. I thought they might do better in the garden than in the flats, but I've had trouble keeping them watered. They're so tiny that they dry out fast. I think next year I'll try direct seeding the onions rather than bothering with the hassle of transplanting them.
The peas are starting to flower and set pods even though they aren't very tall yet. I hope that's not because of water stress. I gave them a good watering with the soaker hose the other day. This is a freebie nameless pea variety I got from R.H. Shumway's after spending a certain amount on an order, so I don't know much about them, besides that they're a regular green shelling pea. I'm also growing Dwarf Grey Sugar peas I got in an online trade. This is a variety I used to grow years ago, but I somehow lost my stock of seeds, which I had been saving from year to year. I'm glad to have them back. They're an heirloom variety of snow pea with purple flowers that do very well for me.
Here's Basil saying I'm paying too much attention to these stupid plants and should be paying attention to him.
My poor broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage are still trying to recover after being munched by snails when I first planted them. I hope I can still get a decent crop after this setback.
I planted the collard greens later, and the snails didn't get them. Maybe because by then it was colder and drier. Sadly, it looks like I won't have home grown collards for New Year's this year. They're still way too small. I'll have to buy some from the Farmer's Market. I need to try planting them earlier next year.
The garlic's doing great. I may have gone overboard with planting so many. I'm still getting a feel for how much garlic I need to plant to have enough to last me all year. I still have some Chet's Italian Red and Broadleaf Czech in the kitchen, but it's starting to sprout. I should probably dry or freeze it before it all sprouts.
The turnips and rutabagas are growing slowly too. I've never grown rutabagas before, but turnips are a great winter crop. I've heard they have very deep roots which help improve the soil. They taste like a cross between a potato and a radish, and do well as a potato substitute, or mixed half and half with potatoes in recipes like mashed potatoes and scalloped potatoes.
I've got some little beets coming up to. This variety is Crapaudine, which is a strange, primitive variety of beet I got in a trade. I only got a few seeds, so I might have to just let all these go to seed to get enough seeds to plant a good crop next year. I also planted some Bull's Blood beets, which I do have enough seeds for, so they'll be my eating beets this year.
And I have some carrots, which I keep trying to grow even though I never have good luck with them. I have heavy soil, which doesn't help, but I wonder if there's more to it than that. I'm going to keep trying with different varieties until I find one that works. This year I'm trying Scarlet Nantes, Sunrise Red, and Purple Dragon, which are all varieties I got in trade.
Yes, these are live jalapeno plants in December! They lost some of their leaves, and the rest are kind of yellow, but the plants are still alive. I went ahead and watered them and maybe they will survive the winter after all. I went ahead and pulled up the okra even though it wasn't quite dead yet either. It just looked so sickly and aphid-infested I thought I should put it out of its misery.
The leeks are doing well too, but I wish they'd grow faster. Leeks seem easier to grow than onions, and I'm really looking forward to eating some.
I've already started my peppers indoors since 2010 was such a lousy pepper year. I want these guys to have more of a head start in case more disasters happen. I have them on a heating mat so they'll grow better in the cool garage. My 2011 varieties are Golden Cayenne, Fish, Habanero, Lemon Drop, and Soroksari. I think that should be a good assortment, but I have a lot more varieties, so it's hard to resist the temptation to start more seeds. Next I'll need to start the tomatoes, which means deciding with tomato varieties I'll grow for 2011.
I've got more winter crops waiting to go in the garden too, like arugula, celery, kale, and chard. I had to start over with my winter crops, so I'm still planting while other gardeners and farmers in the area are already harvesting their winter greens. It would help if I had somewhere in the house to start my plants in August so they'll be in air conditioning rather than 100 degree heat, but I have such a small house that I have no idea where I could fit that in. I didn't get some seedlings going until the weather finally cooled down, which is why they're still so small.
Finally, my sweet potato cuttings are hanging on, but they don't look so good. I've been having trouble keeping them moist in the clay pots I planted them in. Maybe I should have stuck with plastic. They're growing roots, though, so they are making some progress.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

So Many Jalapenos

I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do with all the jalapenos I harvested right before our first frost. I've made two batches of jalapeno jelly and one batch of pickled jalapenos and still have a couple of pounds left. I made my second batch of jelly with only red jalapenos, and I think it turned out prettier than the green jelly. This is the batch I'll use for gifts. I'm becoming more interested in savory jellies. I just found a recipe for garlic jelly and may make a batch of that too. I still have plenty of garlic to use up, and I've heard garlic jelly is good on steak. I also just made hamburgers for dinner last night and put some of my tomato jam on it that I made with my yellow pear tomatoes. Tomato jam is like ketchup in jam form (and much easier to make that true ketchup).
For the pickled jalapenos I cut three pounds into slices and soaked them in Pickle Crunch overnight, then canned them in a pretty simple brine of vinegar, water, and salt. The recipe called for a few spices too, but I left them out because I wanted just plain jalapeno flavor.
As usual, I ended up with more jars than the recipe stated, cramming nine pints full. I had to can them in two batches since my canner fits seven pints at most. They turned out pretty with a mix of red and green slices, like Christmas jalapenos.
I still have over two pounds of jalapenos left, and only a couple of canning jars left. They need to be used up soon. They're already starting to look a little less than fresh. I could freeze them, or I could go ahead and break down and buy another dozen canning jars and can another half-batch of jalapenos, then freeze what's left over.

Strangely enough, my jalapeno plants are still alive after several freezes. They don't look well, but they're hanging on. I guess so far the freezes have been light. I haven't done anything to help them, either. I haven't even been watering them, and we haven't had significant rainfall since September. If I was actually taking care of them, I wonder if they'd survive the winter.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Free Range Fruitcake

I am a big fan of Alton Brown, who hosts the show Good Eats on the Food Network. He's like if Bill Nye the Science Guy had a cooking show. A few years ago I saw the episode It's a Wonderful Cake and decided I had to try his fruitcake recipe, even though I had never had fruitcake before, and of course had heard all the jokes about how disgusting and inedible fruitcake is.

Fruitcake is an ancient confection, originally a way to preserve fruit and nuts over the winter. It's supposed to symbolize wealth and luck and abundance with all those rich ingredients. I wondered how anyone could not like something that's basically dried fruit and nuts glued together in a matrix of sugar, spices, and alcohol, so I went ahead and gave it a try, and it was delicious! I've made it every year since. Yule is just not the same without it.

This year my boyfriend (now fiancee) got me Alton's baking cookbook, I'm Just Here for More Food, and in it I found what he claimed to be an improved recipe for the fruitcake from the show. It has a few minor changes, like using some whole wheat flour, hard apple cider instead of apple juice, no currants, and some black pepper in the spice mixture. I decided this year I'd base my fruitcake off the book recipe instead of the show's (which you can find on the Food Network site).

However, I don't always follow the recipe exactly anyway. It's actually a very forgiving recipe, and I vary which fruits, nuts, and booze I use depending on what I have around and what I can find at the store. I just keep the same total amounts and it turns out fine.

One important thing is this cake takes a couple of days to make and is best when cured for about a month, two weeks at the very least, so you have to plan ahead. After it's baked, you let it sit in a closed container and room temperature and baste it with more booze every few days. This greatly improves its flavor, texture, and potency!

I usually make mine some time in November, but this year I was a little late and made it the first week of December. That should still give it enough time.

The first step is to soak your dried fruit, citrus zest, and candied ginger in a cup of rum overnight. Here's mine after they have soaked and are very plumped up and happy. This year I used dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries, figs, peaches, and cantaloupe. I hope that's not too weird a combination. The figs were left over from another recipe that I wanted to use up. The peaches and cantaloupe were dried from this year's harvest. I was a little worried about using cantaloupe since it has such a distinctive flavor, but I have all this dried cantaloupe that I have no idea what to do with, so I went ahead and used half a cup of it. With so many other flavors going on, I doubt anyone will be able to tell there's cantaloupe in this. Then I added the cranberries, cherries, and blueberries to make the total amount of fruit the three and a half cups called for in the original recipe.

It also calls for the zest of one orange and one lemon, but instead I used the zest from the three Meyer lemons I harvested from my potted tree this winter. I don't get a lot of lemons from my little potted tree, but the ones I do get sure are good. Meyer lemons are a hybrid of a lemon and orange, so I figured they'd work as a substitute for orange and lemon zest.
Then you cook the fruit with the sugar, butter, and apple cider to make sort of a compote, and then this has to cool to room temperature. At this point you can even stash it in the fridge overnight.
The cooled cooked fruit mixture is then blended with the eggs, dry ingredients and nuts (I've used pecans and walnuts in this recipe before and either one's good), and mixed up like any other muffin or quick bread.
I have found this to be a very sticky recipe where you really need to grease and flour that pan well and probably add a bit of parchment or wax paper too, so you won't end up having to cut the cake out of the pan with a knife (as I admit I've done before). I've always made this in a loaf pan, but Alton said on the show you can use a round cake pan. I keep meaning to try that and then keep forgetting.
Of course since I was planning on blogging this, I had to mess up somehow. This time I set the oven too high and burnt it a little, or at least the outside got a lot darker than it should.

I panicked a little but then tore off a corner to inspect it, and it didn't seem too bad. Besides the over-brown outside, the inside seemed a bit dry, but that's nothing a few weeks soaking in brandy won't fix!

This cake is actually pretty forgiving. I've had other "disasters" in the past, including baking it at too low a temperature (due to a faulty oven), so I had to put it back in the oven and cook it longer (after de-panning it, then noticing the bottom was still gooey, then re-panning it!), and then once I put it in my smaller loaf pan and it overflowed, but I kept the part that stayed in the pan. Each time I still ended up with a decent fruitcake after the cure, so I've concluded that it's really hard to actually ruin this recipe.

Once the cake is cooled, I usually poke holes through it with a wooden skewer to help the booze soak in better, and then baste it with either rum or brandy. Alton uses a spray bottle to spritz it on, which sounds to me like it would better than basting, if I had a spray bottle I felt was clean enough for culinary use. I keep my cake in a plastic cake holder with an airtight snapping lid and check it every three days or so to see if it can handle some more booze.

I'm really not sure why people hate fruitcake so much. Granted, this is the only fruitcake I've ever eaten, but it's become a Yule tradition for me. Maybe it's because other fruitcakes use these gross, candied fruits instead of dried fruits. Or maybe Daniel is right, and people aren't expecting the dense, heavy texture when they want "cake". You may have noticed that this cake is a lot more like a banana bread or other quickbread than the light, fluffy cake most Americans think of when they think of cake. With all the fruit and nuts, you can even tell yourself it's healthy! I've been known to eat some for breakfast during Yuletide.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winter Birds

As a kid I was always told that birds fly south for the winter. The thing is, for a lot of birds, this is the south they fly to. Though we do have some year-round residents and some birds that fly even further south as well. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Texas is such a mecca for birdwatching. There's always something to see. Yesterday I managed to snap a few photos of a couple of the birds that spend the winter here. They had come for suet, which is a great food to put out to get a wide variety of birds. Both seed eaters and insect eaters like it.

This is an Orange-crowned Warbler. Most warblers spend the winter in South America, but this species has its winter range as far north as Texas. We get one other winter warbler here called the Yellow-rumped Warbler, which is more vibrantly colored, but I didn't see any yesterday.

The orange crown isn't always visible, but I have seen a glimpse of it a few times before. It does seem odd to me how many birds are named after a marking or other part of their anatomy that's really hard to see in the field. You'd think they would pick something more obvious. (Though, the yellow rump on a Yellow-rumped Warbler is pretty obvious, so they did a good job there.)
This is one of my favorites, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. They're one of the smallest songbirds around, but they're also very feisty! They're not shy at all. I've had them get practically right up in my face before. Again, the ruby crown is not always visible, but I've seen them raise it a couple of times when the bird was getting excited or something. I've been told that the song of the RCK is really beautiful, but unfortunately they only sing it during breeding season, when they're not here. Still, I look forward to the RCK's arrival in winter because they just so cute.
Here's the Orange-Crowned Warbler enjoying some suet with a Carolina Chickadee. The chickadees stay here all year, and they really love sunflower seeds, but they'll take suet too.

And then it seems like whenever a flock of songbirds are gathered around the suet, that somehow signals the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers that it's safe to show up. Then they scare away the smaller birds from the suet. This is Mr. Woodpecker. You can tell from the red on top of his head. His wife joined him right after, but I didn't get a good picture of her. She looks the same but without the red, just yellow on her head. I occasionally see the smaller Ladderbacked Woodpeckers, and once I saw a Downy Woodpecker, but I see Golden-fronteds just about every day. They're also a year-round resident.

While I'm on the subject of winter bird behavior, there's something I've noticed that's been puzzling me, but I think I've figured it out. All year there are Great-tailed Grackles here. You know grackles, largish, long-tailed, long thin-billed birds. The males are iridescent black while the females are brown, and their "song" is a bunch of loud, mechanical sounding noises. Even though they're here all year, the winter is the only time I see these huge flocks of them descending upon the parking lots and shopping centers like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The rest of the year you only see some of them here and there.

I think what's going on is there are actually two populations of grackles. Some of them stay here year-round, while others migrate away and only come back in the winter. Therefore, here we get a sudden increase in the grackle population in winter, when the migratory grackles arrive to spend the winter with their more sedentary relatives.

What I don't understand is how they "decide" which ones are staying and which are going. Do the same birds migrate every year? Do the baby birds learn whether to migrate or not from their parents? Do migratory birds mate with non-migratory birds, or do they stay separate? And if they do stay separate, does that mean they're on their way to speciation here?

Just curious. I doubt I'll ever find out. Oh well, I still like the huge flocks of grackles. I know most people hate them, but for some reason I find them kind of exciting. It's part of the whole holiday shopping experience to me, because they like shopping mall parking lots so much. It's like Christmas shopping wouldn't be Christmas shopping without all the wreaths and lights everywhere, the sound of Salvation Army bell-ringers at the front entrance, and your car covered in grackles when you come out.