Letting Go With Open Arms

As I get this blog going I will be alternating reposting older articles and current events. This piece is about a recent small decision but it is a good example of my overall growing philosophy.

Every crop I grow has to pass through a number of hurdles. Firstly the seed need to germinate (or if I bought it as a plant it needs to establish). A significant amount of commercial seed is simply dead or so weak at the point of purchase that no grower, no matter how experienced, could coax it to life. Seed needs to be even stronger, both in terms of quality and genetic potential, to cope with direct sowing. Nowadays I normally sow my own saved seed directly since the quantity and quality is higher. The amount of seed I buy in is rapidly diminishing, normally for limited variety trials. This purchased seed is more commonly sowed in pots for transplantation, but some species like carrots and lettuce resent transplantation so much I still direct sow and take my chances. Most gardeners respond to failing this hurdle by first blaming themselves, then trying to prepare the seed bed with ever more inputs to try and meet the needs of the seed. When seed doesn’t germinate I just shrug my shoulders and move on. If it fails to germinate in a well prepared bed and I miss my planting window for the year then I am much more annoyed than when it fails to germinate in a pot. I usually direct sow my own seed as early as possible since I usually have plenty to resow as needed, while bought seed is too expensive and scarce to do so.

The second hurdle is being able to grow out successfully. Sometimes seed germinates well and then simply sits there doing nothing. This might be due to being sowed at the wrong time of year, or simply a bad season. More often it is due to its needs being incompatible with our particular soil. Most gardeners respond to failing this hurdle by adding more water and fertility to the plant. Usually I will simply plant something else over the top of it to balance giving the first plant more time while making sure the space gets used for something. I do this with trees as well since I can always thin out the less desirable tree in time.

The third hurdle is being able to flower and reproduce. Kale is a great example of a crop that failed at this hurdle. Despite growing well through our mild winters they failed to adapt to our latitude and day length patterns, making them unable to flower convincingly. Most gardeners respond to failure at this hurdle by resigning themselves to buying seed from catalogs forever. I decided I didn’t want to rely on buying expensive and unreliable seed. Luckily I stumbled upon leaf broccoli (spegariello) that flowers well here and even tastes better than other kales. Other crops like true broccoli can flower here but require much bigger breeding populations to maintain quality, so they fail by this criteria (plus others I will discuss in later posts).

The final growing hurdle is the ability for seed to be stored until the next growing season. Parsnips are an example of a crop that fails here for me since their seed has a very short period of viability even with careful drying and refrigeration. Without these artificial supports they aren’t worth growing in the subtropics. Some seed like maize is highly susceptible to weevils and mould in storage as well, but surprisingly easy to store still attached to the cobs if they are hung in an airy place. Most gardeners who make it this far in the growing cycle will improve their seed storage techniques, or fall back on store bought.

Another bonus hurdle not related to cultivation is being useful and palatable, and not having a competing crop that provides a similar product at the same time of year. Daikon nearly failed this criteria since it is such an uninspiring vegetable. Luckily I discovered it is great for fermenting into kim chi and substitutes for winter brassicas like wong bok or cabbage that don’t grow reliably here. I also nearly gave up on taro and cocoyam since the oxalate crystals in them upset my digestion no matter how long I boiled or presoaked them. Putting them through a pressure cooker fixes this issue, reinstating them as a minor crop.

A crop that has been on the borderline of rejection for some time now is snow peas. They already had several strikes against them. Firstly the only good varieties are climbers, so that meant extra work building trellises. Secondly they have the annoying property of demanding regular harvest every day or so, otherwise the pods get tough and drain the plant of resources. Crops that have a long and flexible harvest period are much more valuable to me. Third, their cropping period is quite brief, but it does come in late winter/early spring when other autumn crops are finishing off. If I try to extend their season further into spring mildew becomes an issue. This year I planted a whole 15 m row of them and had a nice enough if somewhat brief harvest. I left a large number of pods to mature to save for next year. Unfortunately our local king parrots discovered them and have eaten just about every pod. For me this was the final straw. Snowpeas are a weak inbred mutation of field peas so were already marginal for many reasons. The return on invested time, energy and resources is nowhere near positive. If their seed can’t be saved then they are finished for me. Enjoy your last meal you feathery clods!

The standard gardening circles would reflexively launch into a long list of things you can add and do to save those precious plants, such as plastic nets, plastic tape and plastic CDs flapping on plastic string, or even easier just keep buying seeds from a catalog forever. This is the instinct I have fought to overcome in my garden, believing there is always a better way. In traditional agricultural societies many crops were simply not grown in many locations due to the plants failing one of the many hurdles necessary to make it possible and worthwhile to grow. Interestingly the scale the crop is grown on can have a big influence on viability. A few isolated plants will often go unnoticed by local herbivores or undiscovered by insect pests. At the other extreme a huge crop that ripens simultaneously can overwhelm the pests. Sometimes the intermediate scale fails to achieve either desired outcomes.

Interestingly this issue of king parrots isn’t a problem for all my legumes. I did a variety trial on lab lab beans recently, growing out a few strains used as a cooked green bean in South East Asia. The mature seeds can also be eaten with careful detoxification. I was hoping these would pod over the summer to act as a complement to snake beans but was initially dismayed that they only flowered and podded in late autumn and early winter. The pods are mature now and set for processing and saving. Their timing might in fact be perfect to substitute for snowpeas but they need to pass the final hurdle of being adaptable to our diets. The seed I saved from the lab lab beans will give me a bigger crop next year that will allow me to experiment with them in the kitchen, and to share with other growers in the area.

Shattered snowpeas after the king parrots visited
Lab lab bean variety trial reaching maturity
Harvested lab lab beans with second year spegariello plants in background
Processed lab lab beans ready to be spread out to dry

2 thoughts on “Letting Go With Open Arms

  1. Interesting. Love the concept. Do you just leave everything to go to seed. I think this is what i will do this Summer as water supply is a problem here. I guess it won’t look very nice!


    1. Leaving a plant go to seed in the garden sometimes works for some species but the results are much more consistent when they are collected and stored carefully. Even the species that do self sow well often fail now and then, presumably due to an unusual weather cycle. I nearly lost a wonderful strain of lettuce this way and now save seed every year to be sure.


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