Saturday, 15 December 2012

More Mashua

Last winter I wrote (here) about the Mashua variety pilifera, and mentioned collecting its true seed. For whatever reason, that seed didn't germinated, but my post did result in a generous offer from Mybighair; wildling tubers seeded from his Ken Aslet, a day-length neutral form, arrived in the mail. Back in April I got tired of waiting for Spring, so between downpours, I planted the tubers in the cold, nutrient depleted mud, then retired indoors for the rest of the year, leaving the mashua to sink or swim. Literally.

Here is the resulting crop from "Son of Ken 1" lifted yesterday:
The four plants have all demonstrated fairly early tuberisation, acceptable flavour (to me), and exhibit varying degrees of the characteristic stripes of the parent. Diversity is good.
The fact they survived this year's hellish weather and waterlogged soil is not just good, it's amazing.

Some tubers are faciated, a condition which can result in larger, albeit strangely shaped tubers, and the genetic disturbance may sometimes be passed to the next generation, so I will replant next year. I don't pretend to understand what's going on with the genetics - I simply plant, observe, and select.

I grew "Son of Ken 1, 2, 3, & 4" right next to the Pilfera, hoping to collect seed from crossing, and I did see some flowers forming in early autumn, but if they survived long enough to be pollinated before being battered to the ground by rain or hail, they were probably ripped away by the regular gales we've suffered this year. So no seed.

Anyway, Pilifera cropped well again, though several young plants vanished during the so called spring, probably raided by desperate rabbits. Here are some of the best tubers from the surviving plants:

Mashua is said to be pest-free, but there is one significant exception; the plants suffered a massive attack from cabbage white caterpillars in August.
I picked about half a bucketful by hand, but the foliage was already badly stripped. Notwithstanding this, the plants made a good recovery. Perhaps Mashua would be a useful decoy crop alongside (or amongst) brassicas.

I've also noticed that many of the harvested tubers are spoiled by these strange brown fringed splits forming round the eyes. I'm guessing this could be caused by over-rapid swelling from high soil moisture levels i.e. growing in mud.
Possibly the staining is the concentration of chemical defences migrating to the vulnerable exposed surfaces.

Another observation is that the underground tubers are ignored, or perhaps more accurately avoided, by voles. There are voles aplenty here, and the oca are taking a bashing, but not a nibble on the Mashua. Maybe the voles are spoiled for choice with all the oca about, or perhaps they agree with a proportion folk who find the taste of mashua to be repulsive. I am not one of them, and when other crops fail, it seems there is mashua to eat.

Love it or loathe it, if you have tasted mashua, you can contribute to an edibility survey over at Radix.

Damn climate change! Next year: build windbreaks, dig drains, collect mashua seed. Wish I hadn't burnt those hydrocarbons now!

Monday, 9 April 2012

Breaking New Ground for Tuber Planting — The Celtic 'Lazy Bed' Adapted

Since the move, I have access to ample land, but none of it has seen recent cultivation. In fact the soil is compacted, stoney, and seems to contain very little organic matter below the top four inches. It would be heavy work for a spade, and the area too great.  Other methods are urgently needed if I'm to catch the planting season.

The 'lazy bed' method was used historically in Ireland and the West Highlands to grow potatoes on unpromising land. Its advantages include minimal disturbance to soil fauna, conservation of soil humus, and most importantly, economy of effort.

I started by mowing the area to be used for the bed. This is not absolutely essential, but the resulting short vegetation will be more reliably killed off by the lazy bed technique. My Simon Fairlie Austrian scythe did the job in a couple of minutes...
Next, mark out the bed with lines. I'm opting for three foot wide.
Rake the grass cuttings onto the bed area, and simply drop the seed tubers in place...
Add any available organic matter (traditionally seaweed, but in this case rotted hay) evenly over the bed area...
Now, make a vertical cut in the turf one foot out from the bed-edge. I used a wooden batten as a straight-edge.
Then the one-foot strip is is turned over onto the bed to bury the tubers. This involves a lot of bending if you use a spade, but is very quick and painless with a digging hoe (Azada)...

Two chops with a digging hoe to undercut the turf...
... and follow through with a deft upward hoik...
... assisting the turf into place with the boot.

It's important to maintain a hinge of turf at the fold point, otherwise weeds will not be smothered.

Repeat the turf-folding on the other side of the bed...
...and finally, add loose soil from the bottom of the trenches to the centre of the bed. A long-handled Irish shovel makes easy work of this...

Whew. All done in two hours.

The second bed is quicker since one edge is already cut.
Some weeds will inevitably grow through, so this technique is most suited  to crops with vigorous foliage giving good smother characteristics — main-crop potatoes, oca, yacon ... I'll see what else I can get away with.  Anything to avoid digging. Any surviving perennial weeds will be forked out at harvest time, leaving clear ground for overwinter crops.

There's more on the use of authentic lazy beds (including demonstrating their advantages in poorly drained soil) over at Connemara croft.

Update (Above) Oca plants in early summer. Extra mowings have been added to the surface of the beds to suppress weeds until the crop canopy closes over.

By late June, blight has finished the potatoes, so I'm lifting some. Turf incorporated in the bed has not fully decayed yet, making it difficult to dig, or prepare for a following crop.
The Oca crop in the shot is now giving full weed suppression...

...and once winter frost has killed back the oca foliage, the few remaining perennial weeds are visible.

When the crops are lifted in early January, the soil is clean and friable with just a few weed roots to pick out, and I'm glad to say, lots of earthworms. 
A quick rake over and this will be ready for planting garlic or early spring crops.

Really, this ground should be double dug at some point, but the lazybed method is very effective as an initial sod breaking technique to get the space productive with a minimum amount of labour.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

I've Moved! New Start, New Land

Well, I've said goodbye to the big smoke, and moved to a small farm on the Isle of Wight.

The place has been neglected for many years...
...but it's a glorious location, and there's seven acres of land. Some is fair quality (here's the view from the front door)...
... while some is wetland. What do you think of my ditch-digging?
I promise myself generously wide paths, and a few new tools to suit the more extensive cultural methods than I can now luxuriate in.

There's just the little problem of voles, rats, rabbits, pigeons, moles... ... to deal with before crops are safe.
Work in progress!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Yacon 'Fiorella' Goes to Market

For the last couple of years I've been lucky enough to obtain pre-release samples of "Fiorella", a recently bred fast-maturing variety of yacon from Paul at
It's the variety that I've used in the 'All-tuber-mound', and 'Not the Three Sisters' planting schemes, and such is the superiority of Fiorella that I've now abandoned the white variety that I grew previously.

Here are a few of the edible tubers...
... and a shot of a typical root crown...
If your garden is prone to early frost, this variety could still work for you; it's said to be able to crop in 160 days. Certainly I've seen it tuberise by early September.

And it makes a very handsome border plant...
Anyway, the good news is that Paul has multiplied up his stock to the point that he can now make propagules available for sale. And if you just want the edible tubers, he sells those too.

This link will take you directly to the on-line ordering:
(not to be confused with which is a yacon syrup importer).

Oca on the Show-Bench

Plant breeding and crop research may have their place in developing more productive edibles, but if you want to see some really big vegetables, what you need is a vegetable show.
Now, it's well known that these peculiarly British events can sometimes lead to 'poisonous rivalries, paranoia and sabotage' amongst participants, but there's no denying that they get results, whether it's by skulduggery, good husbandry, or top-secret fertiliser recipes of superphosphate and goat urine.
The problem is that these events are always held in the Summer; no use to growers of alternative tuber crops.

Never mind, I'll just hold my own show.

Here's my entry for the blue riband class:  "Oca, (5 tubers of a single variety)"...
I'm the only entry in the class, so I should have a good chance of a 'First' on this one. Unless you can upstage me that is.

Feel free to invent another competition class. How about"Biggest Oca", or "Oca, artistic arrangement".
Send in your jpegs and I'll post them here. We don't need the RHS to have a good time!

Oh, and no paranoia, sabotage, Photoshopping, or image morphing please. That just wouldn't be British.

5/2/12. And here is another entry. Again grown in West London, this time from Michael Willcocks, who's entering the 'Oca, Medley' section. Very respectable.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Mashua 'Pilifera' has given me a very encouraging crop this year.

... unlike last year when I grew them 'properly' i.e. on their own. They struggled, probably because they were too exposed to strong sun, and weren't watered enough, but I did get some small tubers before the frost finished things.

This year I bi-cropped them with tall peas. 'Relay-cropping' is probably a more accurate term, as the crops overlapped rather than coincided in time.
My logic was to make shared use of the 7ft high pea supports, and for the Mashua to benefit from the shading and summer watering associated with the peas. After the pea crop was harvested, I just left the Mashua to climb through the dying stems for the remainder of the season, until killed by the frost.

This worked so well that I think I feel a few other Mashua-based polyculture schemes coming on...

Meanwhile here are some of the cleaned up tubers...

Notice that one tuber has resprouted — indicative of the recent mild weather, and demonstrating the plant's perennial intentions.
My single specimen of an unknown gold-coloured variety failed to survive the Summer, and has left no tubers. It's a pity, because I grew the two varieties through each other with the specific aim of facilitating cross-fertilisation.
That didn't work, but as at least the Pilifera has set some seed on its own.
Like Oca most Mashua clones are day-length sensitive, so growing from seed is potentially valuable in creating variation that may include earlier tuberisation.
What  I would like is to obtain the variety 'Ken Aslet' which flowers and crops earlier, and grow the two together with a view to crossing. Anyone got a couple of surplus KA tubers?

Well, if you don't ask, you don't get!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Ulluco — It's How You Sell It

Managing people's expectations can make a big difference when they are introduced to a new crop. If you say to someone "Ulluco, a tuber a bit like a potato", then straight away you are setting up a mismatch between their mental image and the diminutive reality.
Here are the tubers I lifted last week...
... not exactly huge, but better than last year's lot which were hit by early frost.
On the other hand if you say it's a low-growing plant with really nice succulent edible leaves, which can be grown under taller crops (so don't take up space), and which give a bonus harvest of beautiful little brightly-coloured bean-like tubers, then no-one is going to be disappointed.
Well, not unless the plants are frosted before they can tuberise, that is.
So with my expectations well and truly managed, this year I grew them along with fellow 'minor' root crop Chinese artichokes along with garlic and climbing beans (have a look) and I think they benefited from all the extra watering that was lavished on the primary crop.  What they definitely did not benefit from was the smothering effect of various volunteer Oca plants that came up amongst them.

However, they survived, and they did it without any real care or attention during the whole growing season.

Something for nothing—the type of crop I have space for.