Grow your own food

 
Saved seeds – part 2: the practicalities

Although, as per last week's article, the seeds of a named variety of vegetable will be largely genetically uniform, there will still be minor variations. Choose the best fruit (and thus the best seeds) for your seed saving, rather than eating the best and planting the dross. Incidentally, Richard Dawkins said (in The Ancestor's Tale) that his father found this one of the hardest lessons to get across to farmers in Africa in the 1940s.

As also discussed last week, beans and tomatoes are both good plants for seed saving but they are collected rather differently. Tomato seeds grow in moist flesh and require wet cleaning: pick the fruit when it is just over ripe, scoop the seeds out of the flesh, run water over them to remove any flesh remnants, do something (see next sentence) to remove the gel sac around each seed, and then leave to dry for around 10 days before storing. To remove the gel sacs, which can inhibit germination, either wash and physically rub or leave to ferment in water (or their own juices) for around 4 days (Google for more detail). Bean seeds grow in dry receptacles and require dry cleaning: leave on the plant until they are completely dry and then harvest and store. In both cases, store them in dry and dark conditions.

If you want to know more about seed saving, a good book is The Seed Savers' Handbook. Or, if you want a free booklet: A Guide to Seed Saving, Seed Stewardship & Seed Sovereignty.

Saved seeds – part 1: the genetics

First, some genetics 101. Most living organisms are diploid, which means that they have two copies of most of their genes. These two copies can be the same or different. During sexual reproduction, one of these copies will be chosen at random from each of the mother and the father. The child will therefore inherit half of its genes from each of its mother and its father but which genes it inherits is a random process and will differ from child to child. If you think about it, this means that you will have lots of genes in common with your siblings but you will also have some genes which are different. This is why you bear some resemblance to your siblings but are not identical to them.

Most people who grow from saved seed want their vegetable plants to be the same variety as the mother plant from which they saved the seeds. This is called growing true to type. It is equivalent to wanting the seeds to be genetic clones of the mother plant. But fertile seeds are the product of male pollen fertilising female seeds and, as such, the genes of a fertile seed are a random half from the genes of each of the male and the female. For this random combination to have the same genetic composition as the mother plant, two things have to be true. First, the male and female parents have to have identical genes (at least for all the genes that make a material difference). Let's call this condition 1. Second, and perhaps less obviously, for every single gene that matters in both the male parent and the female parent, the two copies have to be identical (this is called homozygosity). Let's call this condition 2. Named varieties of vegetables are effectively those for which condition 2 is true.

Plants can be either self-pollinators (flowers usually pollinate themselves) or cross-pollinators (one flower has to be pollinated by another flower). For self-pollinators, condition 2 being true implies that condition 1 is also true and thus named varieties will grow true to type and their seeds can be saved. Examples are beans, peas and tomatoes. For cross-pollinators, however, condition 1 will only guaranteed to be true if there is only one variety of the plant being grown in the geographic area. Broad beans, capsicums, chillies, eggplants and pumpkins are all cross-pollinators and thus their seed saving is somewhat problematic.

Perhaps most dramatically, cabbage is a cross-pollinator and cauliflower and broccoli are just types of cabbage. So, if you save seeds from your cauliflower, they might well grow into something akin to broccoli (or vice versa). And I know that this can happen because it has happened to me in the past!

Heavy stuff! Here's a web page that covers similar ground using different words.

Capsicums, chillies and eggplants

Different veggies have different lifecycles. Many are annuals, which means that their entire lifecycle, from birth to death, takes less than a year. Examples are beans, pumpkins and tomatoes. Others are biennials, which means that their lifecycle, whilst predictable, takes two years. Examples are beetroot, onions and parsley. For some biennials, we effectively grow them as annuals because we eat the things that they produce in the first year (e.g. onions). Yet others are perennials, which means that their lifespan is more than a year but unpredictable. Some perennials typically live for many years (e.g. asparagus and rhubarb), whilst others we effectively grown as annuals (e.g. potatoes).

That brings me, at last, to capsicums, chillies and eggplants. These are perennial but short-lived, typically living for around three years. But, and here's the main point of this little article, they are frost tender and are typically killed off by the Melbourne Winter. So, if you want to get full value from your capsicum, chilli and eggplant plants, you need to grow them in pots and put those pots in a warm place (e.g. a greenhouse) during Winter. If you have some and they are outside, now (May) is the time to move them to a warmer place.

Grow your own food in pots

Here is a list of veggies that grow well in pots: garlic, leeks, lettuce, pak choy, radish, rocket, silverbeet, spinach and strawberry.

To ease your watering tasks, use pots with water wells.

Use high quality potting mix but also add some fertiliser (or buy a mix which includes fertiliser) as most veggies are heavy feeders. Then add a liquid fertiliser periodically.

Leeks

In horticulture, blanching is a technique used in vegetable growing whereby light is purposively excluded from part of the plant, usually to make it paler in colour and/or less bitter in flavour. If you look at a mature leek, the bottom bit will be white and the top bit will be green. The white bit is that which was grown underground. If, like me, you prefer white leek to green leek, then you want as much of the leek as possible to have been grown under ground. This can be achieved through a combination of two techniques: planting the seedlings deeply (say, up to 5-10cm) and hilling up the soil around the plant as it grows (say, up to another 5-10cm). Watch this video by Lower Plenty leek growing expert Bruno Tigani. He plants his leek seedlings in deep holes and then, with rain and wind, the soil collapses in gradually.

Similar opportunities apply to celery where, for example, white, non-bitter celery can be obtained by wrapping the bottom half off the plant in paper.

If you have any doubt about the impact that an absence of light can have on a plant, compare witloof with other forms of chicory.

Brassicas

Did you know that broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale are all varieties of the same plant (Brassica oleracea)? Together with other closely related veggies, such as pak choy and mustard greens, they are collectively known as brassicas.

Brassicas are more difficult to grow than most other veggies, partly because they attract pests. And their biggest pest is the cabbage moth, which lays its eggs on the plants during Autumn, with the caterpillars then eating large volumes of the plant's leaves.

So, you want to stop the moths laying their eggs on your brassicas. This can be achieved with fine bird netting. You don't want the netting to rest on the plants, because the moths can then lay their eggs through it, so use some sort of wooden or plastic structure upon which to rest the netting. And make sure that the netting goes all the way down to the ground so that the moths can't get underneath it.

If, for some reason, you don't want to use netting, there is another possibility. Cabbage moths are territorial and if they see another cabbage moth in the vicinity, they tend to leave. So, make, or buy, some decoys – just white butterfly shapes on sticks. Many nurseries sell them.

Click here for a more indepth guide to growing brassicas. Click here for an indepth guide to growing cauliflower.

Peas

Peas are one of those veggies which, like sweetcorn, really do taste better when homegrown rather than store-bought. You grow them just like the broad beans discussed last week. The main difference is that most peas are climbing varieties and they need a climbing frame (although you can get bush varieties). The climbing varieties divide into three broad groups: garden/english (your standard pea with non-edible pods); snow (flat, edible pods; used in Chinese cuisine); and snap (pods edible when young). Snap peas are effectively halfway between garden and snow peas and are the ones that I usually grow, eating them like snow peas when young and like garden peas when older.

Broad beans (April)

Broad beans are yum, they are easy to grow and the best time to plant them is now or in May.

Broad beans are a type of legume, like peas, beans, chickpeas, peanuts and soya (all of which can be grown Melbourne). Legumes can fix their own nitrogen, so you shouldn't fertilise the soil. They grow to around 1½ metres tall and, whilst they don't need staking, it is best to avoid them being in a windswept position. My experience is that all the varieties grow similarly and taste the same, so it doesn't matter what varieties you plant. Germination rates from seeds are usually very good, so if you ever want to try and grow veggies from seed, this is a good one to start with. Pre-soak the seeds overnight before planting and plant them directly into your veggie patch rather than into a seed tray. It will take around 6 months before the beans are ready to harvest. Harvest early rather than late and just harvest what you want for the next meal. In principle, you can freeze your excess beans, particularly if you blanch them first, but in practice, it doesn't usually work well for me.

Mushrooms (April)

To grow mushrooms, you don't need any sort of garden because they are grown indoors.

Most mushrooms can be grown at home indoors from mushroom kits. This includes lions mane, oyster and shimeji. But perhaps the easiest one to start with is the common edible mushroom, Agaricus bisporus.

Local food producer The Mushroom Shed, from Montmorency, sell kits for two varieties of the common edible mushroom, namely swiss brown and white button. The kits are $22.50 each, or $40 for two. They usually sell these kits at Eltham Farmers' Market and other markets. But they recognise that not everyone can currently go to markets, so they are now offering both a delivery and a postal option. Delivery is available to people in Eltham, Eltham North, Greensborough, Lower Plenty, Montmorency and Research. To arrange, please contact Helen by email (hsimpson1@optusnet.com.au). They can also deliver veggie seedlings, herbs and seeds for orders over $30 – please talk to Helen for a list of available produce. There is no delivery charge.

Urban Farming Collective, from Heidelberg Heights, have also started selling swiss brown mushroom kits online. And they are also selling oyster mushroom kits online.

Mustard greens (March)

You don't need a veggie patch to grow mustard greens – it grows well in pots or containers.

Some people like eating lettuce as their main leafy green. Others like something more peppery, such as rocket (aka arugula). I'd like to suggest that you try mustard greens. It has a pleasant peppery taste, but not as strong as rocket. It grows easily and quickly, and you can start harvesting leaves within two months of planting. You can plant it at any time over the coming months. The plants should be spaced around 30cm apart. It comes in two main forms, one with thin frilly leaves and the other with wide flat leaves. I prefer the former, with 'golden frills' being my favourite variety.