The Year Of The Bean!

In Europe, this year is – wait for it – The Year Of The Bean! Yes, really!

Each year a flower and a vegetable are chosen for special attention by The Home Garden Association, a European industry organization that promotes seed-raised flowers and vegetables. So 2017 is The Year Of The Bean – as well as The Year Of The Zinnia (we’ll get to zinnias another time).

But, when I remembered that it was The Year Of The Bean - actually, it’s hard to forget, don't you think? – the first bean that came to mind was one that’s never grown for its beans.

Well, just take a look at this crimson flowered broad/fava bean (above) - it’s called, well, ‘Crimson Flowered’! Isn’t it lovely?

What we grow today is a descendant of the 'Red Blossomed' bean that was first mentioned in England in 1778, and discussed in a report from the Horticultural Society of London in 1831. The report says: “Stem about four and a half feet high. Blossoms varying, sometimes of a light red, at others of a dark crimson color. Pods short and much pointed, seldom containing more than three Beans, which are small, short, and thick, of a rusty white color when ripe. This is only fit for ornament; it is but a moderate bearer, and will not keep long after gathering, as it soon turns black.” So, the flowers were the thing, and they still are.

So here's the story: The only reason that we can grow it today is that a gardener from Kent, Miss Rhoda Cutbush, donated four seeds to Britain's Heritage Seed Library exactly two hundred years after its first mention in print. It had been handed down to her many years previously by her father, who’d been given it before the First World War, and she’d saved seed every year and kept it going. The Heritage Seed Library increased stock and passed it around.

But I’m sure that today’s ‘Crimson Flowered’ is a different plant from the one that the Horticultural Society of London reported on in 1831. Selection, conscious or not, will have taken place by a number of gardeners over the decades and things change.

Today, it grows to about 90cm/3ft, instead of the 1.4m/4.5ft noted back then. Also, the British catalogue from Mr Fothergill's describes the beans as “flavourful” and Chiltern Seeds describe it as “very tasty”. I have to say that the last time I grew it I seem to remember that “unremarkable” was a better description.

In North America The Sustainable Seed Company describes them as “much shorter” than most other fava beans (Not in my experience) and Heritage Harvest describe them as “tasty”.

But there’s no doubt that this is a lovely thing and I’ll be growing it again this year – and will report on the flavor of the beans, and the height of the plants. And be prepared for more occasional bean-related (and zinnia-related) Year Of posts later this year.

Order seed of 'Crimson Flowered' broad bean in Britain from Chiltern Seeds and from Mr Fothergill's.

Order seed of 'Crimson Flowered' fava bean in North America from Heritage Harvest and from The Sustainable Seed Company.

Supermarket surprises


DandelionsSupermarketMore unexpected things are happening in the produce aisle at the local Pennsylvania supermarkets – and not just the abominable blue and lilac poinsettias.

First of all, I spotted a much derided, invasive alien species on sale next to the kale – dandelions. Nice, fresh, bundles at $2.99/£1.90 a pound. They vanished and never returned.

And that’s another thing. Local supermarkets have started selling lettuce by weight. $1.99/£1.27 a pound I paid yesterday which is great: small heads no longer cost the same as large ones. Except that you end up paying for all the water they spray on the produce – complete with atmospheric thunderstorm sound effects – presumably attempting to keep it fresh. Of course, when you get it home and put it in the fridge it rots more quickly because it’s so wet – so you have dry it.

This is also the supermarket – Weis Markets, let’s not be coy – that uses large orange “Organic” labels to cover the blemishes on its apples and which failed to mention its Tuesday discount for seniors for a whole year of weekly Tuesday visits. If you spend enough, they also offer a discount when you go to get gas – but you have to drive more than thirty miles to find a gas station that participates. “Our gas rewards program offers up to twice the savings of other grocery stores,” they say. Maybe – but you have to drive ten times as far to get them.

But - on the plus side - recently they’ve had a really superb little lettuce that I’d not seen before. Small and fat, with soft slender stems, it’s pale green with a bold crimson zone covering about a third to a half of each leaf – it looks like a cross between a ‘Little Gem’ baby Romaine and a Boston/Butterhead type, it’s like a red-tipped, soft, ‘Little Gem’. It really is excellent so I'm trying to find out exactly whch variety it is.


Transatlantic tomato taste tests 2014

Tomato 'Sweet-Aperitif' was top in the UK taste testA year or two back I did a pairing of posts here on the annual tomato taste tests at Morningsun Herb Farm in California and the tomato taste testing at Ball Colegrave in Oxfordshire. Now the results from this year’s tomato taste tests at these two locations are in – so what’s the news?

At Morningsun Herb Farm the top three varieties this year, out of eighty six tasted, were ‘Sungold’ at number 3, ‘Italian Sweet Beefsteak’ at number 2 and ‘Sun Sugar’ (below, click to enlarge) at number 1.

Rose Loveall at Morningsun reports that because of problems with water pumps, the tomato field was kept drier this year and, as a result, flavor was generally better but the skins were tougher. This led to fewer cherry tomatoes, with their high skin-to-flesh ratio, towards the top of the ratings. ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’, which we’d enjoyed enormously this year when I bought it from our local farmers’ market, has especially small fruits and sank down the ratings compared with previous years. Tomato 'Sun Sugar' was top in the American taste test

Older British readers will remember Clay Jones, a much loved host of Gardeners’ World TV show thirty years ago, and the author of a book on tomatoes. He told me exactly the same thing: less water, better flavor – but, he pointed out, a lower yield.

You can see the full results for 2014, as well as for 2010 to 2013 plus the five year average on the Morningsun Herb Farm 2014 Taste Test Results page.

The results from Ball Colegrave are less comprehensive and they concentrate on cherry tomatoes. They list the top ten for 2014 and also for 2011, 2012, and 2013. The winner this year was ‘Sweet Aperitif’ (top, click to enlarge), with ‘Nectar’ second and ‘Sungold’ third. Last year’s winner was ‘Sungold’, ‘Sweet Aperitif’ won in 2012 but the 2011 winner, ‘Sweet Million’ slipped to number six this year. Find out more on the Ball Colegrave 2014 results page.

‘Sungold’ is the only variety to be highly rated in both tests this year and I’m not sure if the absence of other varieties in both top tens is down to different conditions and growing methods or tasters’ different preferences. But ‘Sungold’ is clearly adaptable and much appreciated – it’s also naturally resistant to two races of fusarium wilt as well as verticillium – a big plus.

British gardeners might like to take another look at my piece from last year on American tomatoes for British gardeners. In reverse, well… There are so many varieties available in North America that American gardeners don't need to look to Britain. Sweet peas, on the other hand, is the exact opposite.

American tomatoes for British gardeners

The Tomato Growers Supply Company will send seed of a vast range of heirloom tomatoes to British gardeners. Image ©
The number of different varieties of tomato available in the US is enormous. Just one supplier, the Tomato Growers Supply Company lists nearly 300 varieties (as well as over 150 peppers and nearly 30 aubergines (egg plants) – and they will send seed to Britain, in fact they’ll send it anywhere. So this is a great opportunity for British tomato lovers to try something completely different. American gardeners will find some tasty surprises too.

Of course, some of the varieties they list are available from the big British seed companies and some from specialists like Simpsons Seeds (who do not send seeds to North America). But the range of American heirlooms available from the Tomato Growers Supply Company is impressive, and includes ‘Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom’ (“one of the finest tasting yellow heirlooms”), ‘Mexico’ (“huge dark pink fruit with outstanding taste… brought into the U.S. by a Mexican family”) and the more modern ‘Copia’ (“a stunning combination of fine-lined golden yellow and red stripes… the real treat comes when you cut them open. Their gold flesh is streaked with red and is very juicy, flavorful, and sweet.”

You get the picture, a vast variety of intriguing new tomatoes to try.

One really useful feature of the Tomato Growers Supply Company listings is that each variety is rated as early, midseason or late and they give the actual number of days after planting that you can expect your first ripe fruit: around 60 days for the earlies, to about 90 days for lates. British seed suppliers don’t seem to do this.

Hardly anyone grows tomatoes in greenhouses in North America, so these are all outdoor timings. In areas of Britain where the first frosts come late you can probably grow them all; in chillier areas, you might want to forget the late varieties.

The Tomato Growers Supply Company will charge British customers a flat rate of just $12.00 (c£7.50) per shipment ($5.25 for North American customers). You can check out the terms here.

For the benefit of North American readers, sweet peas are the opposite. British suppliers list a large range of varieties, and some will send seed to North America. I’ll be looking at transatlantic sweet pea opportunities for North American readers soon.

Be smart when choosing Dill, Cilantro and Chervil

Delightfully Piqant Dill by Gladys J. Richter in The American Gardener. ©ANS

There’s a very useful article in the July/August issue of The American Gardener (the members’ magazine of the American Horticultural Society) about Dill. OK, Dill is not the most exciting herb on the planet but the key point is that, in her piece, Gladys J. Richter emphasizes that all Dill is not the same.

Many gardeners and cooks fail to realize that like, so many other edibles, annual herbs like Dill come in a range of different varieties – with different qualities and different uses.

The main point is that some varieties of annual herbs are specially developed to provide leaves, and continue to make more foliage without running up to seed, while others are specially developed to provide as much seed as possible as quickly as possible. Some are also more attractive than others, and so better suited to growing with flowers.

In Dill the varieties ‘Diana’, ‘Dukat’, ‘Fernleaf’, ‘Herkules’ and ‘Tetra’ are best for leaves, ‘Bouquet’ and ‘Mammoth’ are good for seeds, while ‘Vierling’, with its gray-blue leaves is the most attractive and looks best with flowers.

There are similar distinctions in Chervil while Cilantro, grown for its leaves, and Coriander, grown for its seeds, actually different forms of the same plant.

So you can see, it really does pay to be smart about choosing the right varieties according to the use you have in mind. You may not find seed of them all in your local store, but they easy to find in mail order catalogs.

North American gardeners will find a good range of these annual herbs at The Cook’s Garden and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

British gardeners and cooks will find a good range of these herbs at Chiltern Seeds and Suffolk Herbs.

Join the American Horticultural Society

And here’s a field of Dill being grown for seed that I spotted in Surrey, south of London, eariler this summer.

UPDATE (a few days later): The current issue of Which? Gardening, published by Britain's Consumers' Association (the equivalent of the US Consumer Reports) includes a resport on their trial of nine different varieties of Cilantro/Coriander. One variety, 'Calypso', stood out for producing four or even five cuts of leaves and not bolting.

Black Tuscan kale in the garden (and the oven)

Tuscan Kale set against Weigela French Lace (‘Brigela’) also known as Moulin Rouge. Image ©
I still get skeptical looks when I point out that this Tuscan kale is a great ornamental plant. I think many people are still worried even about eating kale – which they still think of some sort of punishment – let alone growing it as an ornamental.

So here’s the kale variously known as ‘Nero di Toscano’, Tuscan kale, ‘Lacinato’ and cavolo nero (and also known, according to Wikipedia, as Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, Dinosaur kale, black kale, flat back cabbage, palm tree kale, and black Tuscan palm)… here it is growing in our Pennsylvania garden. Looks great, doesn’t it?

Behind it is one of the more recent variegated weigela introductions French Lace (‘Brigela’) also known as Moulin Rouge whose splendid variegations ensure that the structure and colour of the kale really stands out. A little ‘Bright Yellow’ chard and variegated Masquerade ('Notbud') buddleia peep into the picture.

‘Nero di Toscano’ kale, or whatever you like to call it, has been grown for centuries. This not only makes clear its resilience and its lasting value, but over the years it has also become rather variable; sometimes, when you grow it, no two plants are quite the same.

Now, a new selection from Britain called ‘Black Magic’ (below, click to enlarge) is becoming available which is much more dependably uniform, and also comes with shorter stems so it's less likely to fall over. As I said when I wrote it up for my Royal Horticultural Society New Plans blog: “As well being uniform in colour, the foliage of ‘Black Magic’ is darker than earlier forms and with more intense puckering. The leaves are a little narrower, it’s much less likely to bolt, and its frost resistance is even better than before.” So why not try it?

And if you’re still skeptical about eating it, try homemade baked kale chips – The Huff Post will tell you how to make them.

In North America, kale ‘Black Magic’ is available from Veseys.

In Britain, kale ‘Black Magic’ is available from Suttons.

Kale 'Black Magic': more uniform, shorter stems, and even tougher. Image ©Tozer Seeds

Grafted tomatoes beat diseases

Tomato 'Sweetheart': Grafted and Non-Grafted. Image ©Log House Plants
So why would you want to graft a tomato plant? After all, tomatoes are easy enough to grow from seed. Well, firstly, you don’t want to do it – you want to get someone who knows what they’re doing, and has done thousands, to do it and then just buy the plant.

But why bother at all? One big big reason: resistance to disease. If your plants die of disease you get no crop at all. Grafted plants are resistant to soil diseases.

The problem is that it’s impossible to find varieties that look good, taste good, crop well and don’t suffer from diseases. Most of the worst diseases are soil borne and, if you grow tomatoes in the same soil every year, outside or in the greenhouse – and often if you grow them in fresh soil every year – soil borne diseases will often bring them down or weaken them.

So here’s the thing. Instead of growing from seed, buy a plant that’s grafted on to a rootstock that’s disease resistant. To make clear how valuable disease resistance in a rootstock is, one of the most popular tomato rootstocks is resistant to: crown rot, root rot, corky root rot and stem rot, plus two kinds of Fusarium plus Verticillium and Cladosporium plus root eelworm. That’s impressive.

Even in conditions where disease is not suspected to be a problem, grafted plants do well. Grafted plants of Tomato 'Elegance': Grafted and Non-Grafted. Image ©Suttons Seedsthe variety ‘Elegance’, a well-flavored traditional style tomato, produced an average of 50% heavier crop across a range of conditions than non-grafted plants. You can see in the pictures how obvious it is. Cherry tomato ‘Sweetheart’ (at the top, grafted plant on the right, obviously) is growing in Oregon, traditional tomato ‘Elegance’ (right, grafted on the left) is growing in Devon, England. And look at the difference in the roots of 'Brandwine' (below, grafted plant on the right) (Click the pictures to enlarge.)

And it’s not just tomatoes. You can also buy grafted plants of egg plants (aubergine), chili and sweet peppers, cucumbers, melons, watermelons and squash.

In Britain, Suttons were the pioneers and now offer plants both mail order and in garden centers and list more varieties than anyone. In North America Log House Plants have led the way and have gone from not grafting veggies at all in 2006, to perhaps hitting a million plants this year. They do not sell direct to gardeners.

Check out my recent piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph for more on grafted vegetables.

In Britain you can buy grafted vegetables from Suttons, from Mr Fothergill’s, from Marshalls, and from Simply Seeds and Plants amongst others.

In North America you can buy grafted vegetables and from Garden Life and from The Territorial Seed Company, and from Burpee. For retail outlets in the west, check out the Log House Plants retail outlets page.

UPDATE: Harris Seeds has trial pro discounted packs of grafted heirloom tomato plants, but you have to purchase by March 8th, 2013. Use coupon code 3PRP046 to get free shipping too. They want feedback on how well they grow. Varieties include 'Brandywine', 'Cherokee Purple', 'Mr. Stripey', 'Old German', and 'San Marzano'. They are available only in packs of fifteen or thirty six. Full details at:
Roots of Tomato 'Brandywine': Grafted and Non Grafted. Image ©Log House Plants.

Thank you to Log House Plants for the images of 'Sweetheart and 'Brandywine', and to Suttons Seeds for the image of 'Elegance'.

Tomato taste test - American style

'Sungold', one of the top tasting tomatoes in both the US and UK taste tests. Image ©Jacquie Gray/RHS
In my last post here, I looked at a British tomato taste test featuring tomatoes grown in the glasshouse of a large seed company in Oxfordshire in England. This time, we cross the Atlantic to Morningsun Herb Farm, a retail and mail order herb and vegetable nursery about 50 miles north west of San Francisco.

Their annual tomato tasting days began back in 2003 so they have a fascinating record of visitors’ favorites for flavor. For their 10th annual Tomato Day, last year, ninety three varieties were tasted by a large throng of visitors.

The hybrid tomato 'Sweet Chelsea' tasted better than many heirlooms ©Sakata SeedsTop of the tree came ‘Sun Sugar’, with ‘Sungold’ in second place – ‘Sungold’ also came second in the British test. These were followed by ‘Brandywine Sudduth’, ‘Sweet Chelsea’, ‘Rosalita’ and in sixth place ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’. You can check the full list on the Morningsun Herb Farm website. In 2011 the top three were ‘Sun Sugar’, ‘Sungold’ and ‘Isis Candy’ followed by ‘Oaxacan Jewel’ and ‘Blush’ with ‘Snow White Cherry’, ‘Super Sweet 100’ and ‘Yellow Cherokee’ all equal. The voting was very close. But it’s worth mentioning that back in 2007 almost every singe person rated ‘Sun Sugar’ as “superb”. 'Sun Sugar', voted best tasting in the Morninsun Herb  Farm tomato taste test last year. Image ©Morningsun Herb Farm

So, in general, ‘Sun Sugar’ (cherry) and ‘Sungold’ (cherry) both of which scored exceptionally well every year, seem the most dependable tasty.

As with the British results, the varieties that did well were a mixture of modern hybrid varieties and older heirloom types. But, unlike the British taste test, all the voting took place on one day instead of being spread over a number of weeks. This is probably gives a fairer picture.

I should also mention that a couple of years ago New York magazine carried out their own very interesting tomato taste test involving two top New York chefs and an heirloom tomato expert.

Tomato Taste Test - British style

Everywhere you look, there are claims about how tasty are the tomato varieties offered by different seed companies. But, instead of relying on the seed company’s marketing department, isn’t the best way to simply ask people to taste a range of different tomatoes – and give their verdict?

Well, at Ball Colegrave, the British outpost of the Ball Horticultural Company (neither sell retail), that’s exactly what they did – last year, and the previous year as well. All the visitors who toured their summer trials – and who also voted for their Blue Flag awards for ornamentals – were invited to taste twenty five of their tomato varieties. All were grown under glass. The previous year they were offered forty seven varieties - which may be too taste boggling for any tongue.

I suspect that there’s a bias amobgst tasters towards familiar names which are likely to be tasted first and those with unfamiliar, or odd, names would tend to be sampled less often. But still...

The leader of the pack this year was ‘Sweet Aperitif’, with ‘Sungold’ in second place and ‘Chocolate Cherry’ third followed by ‘Suncherry Premium’, ‘Rosada’ and ‘Sweet Million’.

Last year, the top of the tree were ‘Sweet Million’, with ‘Rosada’ second and ‘Suncherry Premium’ third followed by ‘Trilly’ and ‘Sparta’ with ‘Sungold’ in sixth place.

Of course, this could hardly be called a rigorously scientific study. But the results do tend to confirm, over the two years, that gardeners will be very pleased with the flavour of ‘Rosada’ (mini plum), ‘Suncherry Premium’ (cherry), ‘Sungold’ (cherry) and ‘Sweet Million’ (cherry). And all four varieties, I should mention, have been awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Next time, I'll be looking at an American version of this taste test.

T&M splash the cash on world record pumpkin

World record Pumpkin weighing 2009 pounds. Image ©
Remember last year when Thompson & Morgan paid £725 ($1149) - for just one snowdrop bulb? I wrote it up here. Well, they've splashed the cash again. My old friend at T&M, Managing Director Paul Hansord, has paid 200 euros – that’s £168 or $266 – for one pumpkin seed. No, no... Not one packet, not one pound, not one kilo. One seed. But it's one of just five seeds produced by last year's 2009lb (911Kg) record-breaker (above, click to enlarge. Image © which is called "The Freak II".

I thought I’d simply quote you Thompson & Morgan’s press release, in full.

“Growing giant pumpkins is no longer a hobby - to many it has become a competitive sport! So if you want to grow the biggest and the best, you need to start off with the very best genetics.

“At 9pm on Saturday 19th January, the European Giant Vegetable Growers Association held a live auction of pumpkin seed varieties as part of chat room. A total of 23 lots were included in the sale.

“Poised by their computers, 67 enthusiasts logged on to take part in the bidding which went on for almost 4 hours. However, lot 23 was the one everyone was waiting for; it was seed from last year’s world record-breaking pumpkin - a hybrid raised by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, which weighed in at 2009lbs (911Kg) at Topsfield Fair in the USA. Ron’s was the first ever pumpkin to weigh more than 2000lbs. After a frenzied bidding war, a single seed from Ron Wallace’s prize-winner was sold to Thompson & Morgan for €200.00. World record pumpkin seed, and ordinary pumpkin seed. Image ©Thompson & Morgan[You can see how big it is compared to a normal pumpkin seed (right, click to enlarge).]

“Managing director, Paul Hansord said, “When compared to the usual giant pumpkin seed price of around 46p ($0.73), this seems extortionate. But we’re paying for the pedigree. If you want to grow a really huge pumpkin, you need to start with record-breaking, genetically proven, premium seed.”

“Auctions of pumpkin seed have been running since 1997. Trading encourages growers and enthusiasts to raise stronger and more competitive hybrids. The highest price paid for a single pumpkin seed was in 2011 from a previous record-breaker which weighed 1810lbs (821Kg). The price was £1009 ($1600); an exceptionally high price due to the fact that the fruit had only produced 5 seeds.

Thompson & Morgan is now searching for a ‘growing partner’ with specialist knowledge of growing giant vegetables to help raise this precious seed in an attempt to break the record for the world’s heaviest pumpkin.”

T&M’s propagator must be mightily relieved they’re looking for someone else to grow the seed for them. Can you imagine the phone call? “Hello Paul. You remember that pumpkin seed you paid a fortune for? Well, down here at the nursery it’s been a very bad year for slugs…”

You can read more about Ron Wallace and his pumpkin in The Boston Globe.