Book Bullet: Just Vegetating – A Memoir by Joy Larkcom

Just Vegetating by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances LincolnI always wondered what was in Joy Larkcom’s filing cabinets. In her house in Suffolk she had a whole row of them - steel, four drawers each – all along one wall of her work room. And then when we visited her in her new home in Cork – there they all were. But without them she would not have been able to produce this extraordinary memoir.

For decades, Britain’s “Queen of vegetable growing” has directly or indirectly influenced just about every home vegetable grower – on both sides of the Atlantic. An influential pioneer of organic growing, she also introduced many heirloom European and Asian and American varieties to a far wider community of growers as a result of her research trips around Europe, China, Japan and North America. She learned Mandarin for her Chinese trip, took her kids out of school for a year to tour Europe in ramshackle caravan, pioneered baby leaf salads, brought seed back from round the world and grew it, and tested and tasted the results. She took copious notes, took copious pictures too, kept decades of old seed catalogs and research reports – that’s what was bursting out of those filing cabinets.

And some of all that has found its way into her new book. Joy has distilled her life’s experience – well, some of it anyway – into this unique memoir which brings us accounts of her on-a-shoestring travels, her discoveries and insights, the best of the articles she’s written over forty years, together with her more recent reflections. It’s an approach which is hugely engaging, consistently revealing and which bursts with proven approaches to growing food.

Just Vegetating – A Memoir by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln

  • A unique presentation of a life’s work helping us all grow better vegetables
  • Fun to read, with great pictures of Joy’s gardens (and family) and veg growing around the world
  • Combines entertainment with top class practical advice

Just Vegetating was published in Britain in June. It becomes available in North America in September but advance orders can be placed now. There’s a review for British readers on my Simply Gardening blog, and a profile of Joy I wrote ten years ago on my website and some thoughts on visiting Joy in Cork on a 2009 Transatlantic Gardener blog post.



Rotten research on tasteless tomatoes

Tomato 'Sweet Million' - rated highly for flavor by Raymond Blanc. Image ©Sakata Inc
This week the New York Times reports a paper in the journal Science which is said to reveal why modern tomatoes have no flavor. Apparently, the mutation that plant breeders bred out in order to prevent greenback (green shoulder) also “plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato”.

Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the research, is quoted in the Times as saying that the discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks.”

What planet are they on? Modern tomatoes don’t “stink”. Some don't taste of much, one or two are pretty much inedible, but there are plenty of modern tomato varieties with both a high sugar content and a wonderful flavor. Why base a serious piece of research on such prejudiced judegement - apart from the fact that it makes good copy?

Tomato 'Apero', rated highl;y for sweetness and flavour by the RHS. Image ©RHSIn 2007 the Royal Horticultural Society grew forty two different cherry tomatoes. You can read their report. Twelve were recommended for gardeners and received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. The sugar level was measured in each and the flavor assessed. Let me quote a few comments on three individual varieties: ‘Apero’ (left, click to enlarge), with a Brix-test result of 9.5% average sugar content, had a “good flavour”. ‘Golden Sweet’, with a Brix-test result of 10%, had a “good flavour and texture”. ‘Rosada’ (below right, click to enlarge) had a Brix-test result of 10.5%, the highest of all, and a “good sweet flavour.” True, it would have been better if they could have given a little more detail on flavor, but still – they rated them highly. All are modern F1 Hybrids. Tomato 'Rosada', rated highly by the RHS for sweetness and flavour. Image ©RHS

‘Sweet Million’ (top, click to enlarge), another modern F1 Hybrid, bred in Japan, also has an AGM but although it has a lower Brix test result of 7.1% the good balance of sweetness and acidity creates a flavour that was praised by renowned chef Raymond Blanc in the RHS magazine The Garden. He said this gave “a good tomato experience… juicy, excellent mouth-feel’”.

In fact Raymond Blanc took part in an extensive tomato taste test reported in The Garden in 2007. A number of varieties had good flavour, many of them modern. As well as ‘Sweet Million’ Raymond Blanc also liked ‘Santa’, another F1 Hybrid bred in Japan, and the opinion on ‘Santa’ was summed up by three judges: “Clean, meaty flavour. Well-balanced acid/sugar. Juicy fleshy texture.” ‘Santa’ is probably the most widely grown supermarket cherry tomato.

Another of Raymond Blanc’s favourites in the taste test was ‘Floridity’: "This is the best so far, good texture, excellent tomato experience," he said. The collective view of all the tasters was: “Outstanding flavour. Fleshy and juicy. Perfect acid/sugar balance”. This is a British-bred F1 Hybrid plum type.

Modern tomato varieties have no flavor? Nonsense.

So. Firstly. It’s simply not true that modern tomatoes have no sweetness and no flavor. Secondly, some modern varieties taste better than others; same as potatoes, carrots, apples and other vegetables. Choosing the right variety, modern or heirloom, is crucial. Thirdly, how you grow tomatoes makes a huge difference to the way they taste. Fourthly, if the researchers kept their tomatoes in the fridge all bets are off anyway – that’s a great way to ruin the flavor.

Transatlantic award winners: Hollyhock and chili pepper

Finally, in my last look at award-winning seed-raised plants for 2012, from both sides of the Atlantic, a Fleuroselect Gold Medal winning hollyhock and All-America Selection chili pepper, developed in Britain. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.

Hollyhock 'Spring Celebrities Crimson' - Fleuroselect Gold Medal Winner 2012. Image © Fleroselect
Hollyhock ‘Spring Celebrities Crimson’

The Spring Celebrities Series of hollyhocks has been developed in Holland, and represents the latest in dwarf, annual hollyhocks. OK, for many (most?) of us that’s a problem in itself: hollyhocks should be tall and elegant, and so they should be biennial – sow seed one year, flower the next. Right?

The point about their being short, and flowering from a spring sowing, is that they fit better into the growing regimes that growers already have established and so the plants are more likely to find their way into garden centres.

‘Spring Celebrities Crimson’ reaches just 2ft/60cm in height and those rich red, 3-4in/8-10cm double flowers are very pretty. It flowers from a spring sowing because, unlike most hollyhocks, it doesn’t need a period of cold to initiate flowering. Other colours in the series are soft pink, lilac, lemon, carmine rose, purple, and white.

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Chili Pepper 'Cayennetta' - All-America Selection 2012, Image © VegetalisChili pepper ‘Cayennetta’

This is a chili pepper, developed by a British company, that’s an All-America Selection – how’s that for Transatlantic success. And with a plant that until recently hardly anyone in Britain grew.

‘Cayennetta’ produces bright red fruits, green at first, about 3-4in/7.5-10cm long on bushy and well branched, rather upright plants that fill out well and don’t usually need any support. It’s ideal in a container. The fruits are relatively mild, slightly spicy, with an SHU rating of 10-20,000,

What’s more, ‘Cayennetta’ not only thrives at cooler temperatures than most chilies but it’s also good in heat; the dense foliage helps protect the fruits from sun scorch.

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Amazing crop from one cucumber plant

Cucumber 'Socrates' - 129 cucumbers from one plant. Image ©Enza ZadenJust a quick one to tell you about Mrs Anne Byas, a gardener from West Molesey in Surrey on the southern edge of London (and only a few miles from where I grew up).

It's just come to light that last year she had an amazing crop of cucumbers - 129 from one plant. The variety was 'Socrates'. One hundred and twenty nine! The previous year she thought she was doing well with forty but last year...

'Socrates' is a mini-cucumber for the greenhouse with fruits about 7in/17.5cm long, in a very attractive dark green shade. It comes with built-in resistance to the dreaded powdery mildew and also some other cucumber diseases. It thrives in cooler conditions, and produces seedless fruits without pollination. Ideal if you only have space for one plant. 

Anne sowed just three seeds, they all came up, so she gave two away to friends. The first fruits from her remaining plant started cropping in early June and continued until 29 November and she didn't know what to do with them all. "There's a only a certain amount of cucumbers my neighbours and I can eat," she said.

It's also worth mentioning that 'Socrates' is highly rated in the US. In organic trials run by Colorado State University 'Socrates' came out top for yield. "'Socrates' by far, produced the most cucumbers per plant," said their report. Need I say more?

Cucumber 'Socrates' was developed by the independent Dutch company Enza Zaden. 'Socrates' is available in Britain from Johnsons Seeds and in North America from Johnny's Selected Seeds.



It's worth mention

Transatlantic award winners – Viola and watermelon

Continuing my occasional look at this year’s award winning seed varieties – from each side of the Atlantic – a watermelon and a viola. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.


Watermelon 'Faerie'

All-America Selections Watermelon 'Faerie' is unusual in watermelons in combining pink flesh with yellow skin – most varieties with pink flesh have dark green skin. And that attractive skin also develops faint pink stripes. The flesh is sweet, with a crisp texture and a high sugar content.

Although growing strongly, the plant spreads less than many varieties, reaching about 10-12ft/3-6.m across and it produces fruits which are a great family size – about 7-8in/18-20cm across and weighing about 4-6lb/1-8-2.7kg. Plants are resilient, and pest and disease tolerant.

Sow seeds in individual pots about four weeks before the last frost date in your area at about 75F/24C. Germination takes 7-14 days, harden off before planting out.

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Viola ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’

Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Viola ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’ is the latest in a long series of excellent Sorbet varieties; the Sorbet XP Series, with nineteen colours, is an upgrade on the Sorbet Series with twenty three colours.

The colouring in ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’ is delightful, that cheekyViolaSorbetXPDelftBlueFleuro blue and white face (right, click to enlarge) always appeals. The plants are neat and bushy – reaching about 8in/20cm high and the same across - and ideal in window boxes or small containers with dwarf daffodils. What’s also important is that all the plants will be same size and flower at the same time – no tall stragglers and no late flowering plants to spoil the effect.

These are mainly plants for winter and spring, though they can also thrive in summer in cool climates. Sow at 68F/20C, grow on at 60C/15C and harden off before planting out.

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Book Bullet: Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando

HeirloomBeanGrowersguide-9781604691023lOK. The return of the Book Bullets. Now that growing food is becoming so popular, we’re getting away from books about growing edibles in general and seeing more books on growing individual crops. And this is vital because it ensures that food growers appreciate the often dramatic differences between individual varieties of the same crop. And just one quick look at this book reveals the vast variety of edible beans. And this is just Steve Sando’s top fifty.

There’s excellent advice on how to grow beans, written in an infectiously enthusiastic style - but frankly, as Steve says, they’re pretty easy to grow. Then the heart of the book is the bean-by-bean guide.

British gardeners will be surprised to see runner beans grown for their seeds, indeed the book tends to pass the European enthusiasm for fresh beans on one side, but everyone will be taken by the variety of colors and flavors and uses.

Although focused on heirlooms, and New World heirlooms in particular, there’s plenty to tempt the gardener – and the cook.

The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando is by published by Timber Press.

  • Reveals the humble bean as a delicious and attractive, yet easy to grow, gourmet food.
  • Passionately written, elegantly illustrated – and with recipes too.


Transatlantic award winners – Ornamental Pepper and Agastache

OK, back to my short series looking at award winning seed-raised plants from both sides of the Atlantic, next up is an ornamental pepper and a first-year-flowering perennial Agastache. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.
Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive': All-America Selection 2012. Image © All-America Selections

Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive'
All-America Selection Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive' is an ornamental variety with three ornamental features and three uses. Firstly, the foliage which opens green but soon turns dark purple and it may be enlivened by green flashes. Then, there are small purple flowers and they mature into small, more or less tubular fruits which stand up from the branches to show themselves off. In colour, they begin green then turn purple and mature to fiery red.

'Black Olive' reaches 10-24in/25-60cm high and can be used as an ornamental container plant, the branches can be cut for indoor arrangements and the hot fruits can be used in the kitchen.

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Agastache 'Astello Indigo': Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner. Image © FlkeuroselectAgastache ‘Astello Indigo’
Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Agastache ‘Astello Indigo’ is a first year flowering hardy perennial with slightly minty flavoured foliage and long spikes of pale blue flowers opening from dark blue buds.

Making bushy and well-branched plants which reach about 20in/50cm high and 14in/35cm across, the result is a slightly rounded, compact plant which never looks unnaturally dumpy and which produces flowers on side shoots and not just at the top.

Flowering from July to October from a spring sowing, plants should come into flower about four months after sowing, depending on the temperature at which they’re grown.

Plants are unusually attractive to bees, and can be used in sunny borders and large containers.

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Transatlantic award winners

All-America trials at Gilroy, California. Image ©All-America Selections
If a plant is tested and trialed in a range of situations across the whole of the United States or the whole of Europe, and gets a top award, there’s a good chance it will do well just about anywhere. That’s what the Fleuroselect and All-America Selections awards do, they highlight very best plants – seed-raised plants - which are not only colorful but adaptable.

While the Fleuroselect awards concentrate on flowers the All-America Selections also include vegetables – but all the award winners, from both schemes, are usually available on both sides of the Atlantic although sometimes only in mixtures or in nurseries. Entries for the All-America Selections are assessed at fifty three locations across the country (Gilroy, CA, above - click to enlarge), Fleuroselect entries are assessed at thirty sites across Europe.

There are five All-America Selections for 2012 – three ornamentals and two vegetables – and five Fleuroselect winners for 2012. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll tell you a little about each one. Some are available to home gardeners, some not yet, but they should all become available over the following months so I’ll add a search link at the bottom.

The Fleuroselect Gold Medal Winners for 2012 are:
Agastache ‘Astelio Indigo' (below, click to enlarge)
Alcea ‘Spring Celebrities Crimson’
Echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (below, click to enlarge)
Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’
Viola ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’ (below, click to enlarge)

The All-America Selections for 2012 are:
Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive'
Pepper 'Cayennetta' (below, click to enlarge)
Salvia 'Summer Jewel Pink '(below, click to enlarge)
Watermelon 'Faerie'
Vinca 'Jams 'N Jellies Blackberry'


Images courtesy of All-America Selections and Fleuroselect. Thank you.

Organic broccoli: is it really better for you?

Broccoli Marathon - more antioxidants when organically grown? Image ©Marshalls SeedsMany of us feel that organically grown food is better for us then food grown by what have become conventional methods but rarely is it actually proved that organically grown food is more nutritious. Perhaps, says he, because it isn’t more nutritious – it's just that it doesn’t have the chemicals.

But the other day I noticed a small piece in the ResearchMatters column of the British trade magazine Horticulture Week (login required) which summarizes research published in the latest issue of The Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology. And this research finds that organically grown broccoli has higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown broccoli.

The variety ‘Marathon’ (above, click to enlarge), popular with both home gardeners and commercial growers, was grown on the same site by both conventional and organic methods. Florets were tested for a range of factors, and organically grown and conventionally grown broccoli showed no difference – except in antioxidant content.

I don’t subscribe to The Journal of Horticultural Science & Biotechnology, perhaps I should, so I’m not able to study the research paper in full but the publically available abstract looks promising. And study reported in Britain’s Guardian newspaper four years ago also shows the promise of organic culture as does a paper on blueberries in The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Of course, I'm not an organic chemist, So I popped downstairs and asked judy, who holds double-major B.S. degree from Rutgers University's College of Agriculture and Environmental Science. She told me: “There is a lot of controversy in the scientific world about how bad most of the studies have been. The broccoli one is not statistically significant. Also, the word “antioxidant” is not even used the same way by different studies; various compounds are given a number of different names and it's not regularized.”

Hmmm… So we have to be a little careful and not get carried away. But whatever proves to be true about the nutritional content, at least we know organically grown food has not been sprayed with chemicals.

Just one other thing… Many years ago, the British organic gardening charity Garden Organic (known back Potato 'Desiree' - more Vitamin C than other varieties. Image ©Marshalls Seedsthen as the Henry Doubleday Research Association) did some studies on the nutritional content of different varieties of potatoes, I think it was, and carrots. They found that varieties varied enormously in their vitamin content.

And I just come across a study from Slovakia which showed that the popular potato variety ‘Desiree’ (right, click to enlarge) can have more than twice the Vitamin C content of other potato varieties.

So the variety you choose to grow may well turn out to be more important, from a nutritional point of view, than anything else.

BTW British gardeners can buy both the varieties mentioned from Marshalls Seeds. In North America Broccoli 'Marathon' is available from Harris Seeds, and potato 'Desiree' is available from Seed Savers Exchange.

Spring in the garden, fall at The Home Depot

Chrysanthemum,Home Depot,spring. Image: ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
Yesterday we saw our first hummingbird of the season, a good looking male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird – the only species we have here on the east coast.

A couple of days before that we saw our first bees, and yesterday we had ten, bright yellow male goldfinches round the feeders - though not in the pink-flowered weeping cherry where they refuse to pose for a picture. Forsythia and hellebores are out, the bloodroot is over, through the woods the amelanchiers (serviceberry) are dusted with white blossom.

And in The Home Depot (Brits: like a vast B&Q) they think it’s autumn. There’s a nice range of chrysanthemums on display… in full flower, ready to plant. In April.

Two things:
* Chrysanthemums are quintessential fall flowers, why do we need them in spring? I suppose we have them because they enables chrysanth growers to generate some off-season income. But just because they’re there, it doesn’t mean we should buy them.
* Will inexperienced gardeners, who are more likely to shop for plants at The Home Depot than a nursery or garden centre, think this is their normal flowering time?

There was an extensive display of vegetable plants, too – enough different tomato varieties to bewilder the inexperienced plus a large range of bell peppers and chili peppers and egg plants (aubergines) and zucchini… all frost tender. Like the dahlias in full flower, also on display. And it’s weeks before final frost date. But no lettuce or chard or kale or cabbage or onions or hardier vegetables that you can safely plant.

Another way to provide a discouraging experience for inexperienced gardeners.

Sweet pea,snap pea,Home Depot. Image: ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) And there, in the middle of the veg display: Sweet Peas. No no… These were actually ‘Sugar Ann’ snap peas. But there are going to be novice gardeners disappointed by the lack of colorful fragrant flowers… In spite of the fact that they’re not mentioned on the tags. What do you think of when I say “sweet peas”, after all?

Exactly the same range of veggies was available a couple of miles away at Lowe’s, The Home Depot’s big competitor.

This all seems to me likely to create disappointment in new or inexperienced gardeners. Shouldn’t these places try harder to create a positive gardening experience?