Monday, June 13, 2011

Those mid-winter smellies

Although we have been having a very mild winter thus far and temperatures have been very benign, we are rapidly approaching the shortest day.  It is horrible leaving for work in the gloom and arriving home again in the dark, but the light will start flooding in with more power again and we will be back on the road to spring.
Those of you who are new to vegetable gardening are probably thinking there will not be too much to do at this time of the year – perhaps a bit of tidying up and some turning of the compost pile – but there are a couple of worthwhile crops that need to be planted at this time of the year , both members of the large onion tribe.
The first of these is garlic, the bulbs of which are now in your local garden centre.  Their culinary use has increased tremendously over my lifetime – I can well remember a time when someone who used garlic in cooking was looked at askance, as being more than a little eccentric.  That has all changed of course, and we use it more or less liberally in lots of cuisine.
Apparently it is an ancient vegetable, and is mentioned as being provided to the men building the pyramids.  It has been used as a medicine for a long time too, and there are all sorts of alternative medicines that contain it.
I have not grown garlic for a few years, but this weekend I was working at weeding last year’s new garden, and it came to me that the soil is so friable at the moment, and just perfect for planting, so I raced down to my local nursery and got some garlic and shallots.
Garlic must be one of the easiest crops to raise.  All you have to do is prise the bulb apart and plant the individual cloves, discarding the smallest ones to one side as the bigger cloves will grow bigger bulbs.  Each clove needs to be planted about 5cm deep, and they should be about 15 cm apart.  Ideally they should be in good fertile soil, well drained and in a very sunny location. My soil is a very compost-rich mix so I did not need to add any humus, but if your soil is thin it would pay to do so.  A light sprinkling of general fertiliser would not go amiss either.
As long as you keep the weeds down there should not be too much trouble growing these plants – they seem to be almost disease free, and most insects seem to leave them alone as well.  During the drier months you might want to keep an eye on them to make sure they are kept well enough watered, but apart from that, there is nothing much else to worry about.
Shallots are similarly easy to grow, and require somewhat similar growing conditions.  Even though they are closely related to onions – having a similar but more complex, milder and sweeter flavour – they grow much more like garlic, forming a head with multiple cloves.  At midwinter – the traditional time for planting both shallots and garlic – the heads are pulled apart and the bulbs planted in a similar manner to garlic, but don’t expect the same number of cloves as you will get from the garlic as there are not so many.  This also explains why shallots are quite expensive to buy – all the more reason to grow your own.
There are a number of different types of shallot available for cooking with, but not all of them are grown in New Zealand – the reddish-browned skin type seems to be the most common.
Shallots ( I suspect this applies to garlic too) are sometimes imported into New Zealand after being treated with anti-sprout chemicals, which is fabulous for the cooks, but bad news for the gardener.  Make sure you buy your bulbs from a reputable garden supplier.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Breeding and seeding

I took advantage of this weekend’s fine weather to spend a bit of time in the glasshouse, pricking out some of this season’s iris seedlings.  Each year I troll through my Pacific Coast Iris plants and try to work out which ones present opportunities to further the way I want my irises to look, and then cross pollinate these flowers.
With irises this is not too difficult a task as the flower’s sexual reproduction organs are easily found and crossing them is not too tricky.  All the breeder has to do is gather the pollen from the ‘father’  flower while it is nice and fresh and the bees and bumble bees have  not found it, then transfer it to the stigmatic lip of the selected mother flower.  Again, it is important to do this before the bees find the intended mother and pollinate her with rogue pollen, so we usually take the falls off the flower, removing the bee’s landing pad.  If all goes to plan we should have the selected pollen reaching the selected stigma, resulting in a new hybrid.
Trouble is, my mouth is bigger than my stomach when it comes to breeding Pacific Coast Irises, and I have far many more seedlings than I could ever hope to plant out.  I have germinated seedlings in nearly fifty pots, each one a different cross, and up to a hundred plants in some pots.  Absolute madness!
It is this sort of passion on the part of breeders that has lead to the many changes obvious in many garden flowers.  Even highly bred plants, like roses and bearded irises, are still being improved, by very controlled breeding and a thorough understanding of the genes that influence their eventual display.  In order to be a successful breeder with these plants it is almost a necessity to be raising and selling plants fulltime, very difficult in a country like New Zealand.  The best rose breeders, for example, raise tens of thousands of seedlings each year, expecting to introduce perhaps five of them to the market. 
Under these conditions most seedlings do not survive their first flowering – they are ruthlessly culled and only the very best make it through for a second flowering season.
Most florists’ flowers are now produced by professional breeders, usually based in the United States, Japan or Europe.  Carnations are a good example, as the only people working with these plants are now cut flower breeders, and they are not producing varieties that are well suited for the garden.  As a result, gardeners find it harder and harder to find varieties that suit them, and the plants gradually go out of favour.
Some plants are still largely produced by keen amateurs but they tend to be those that do not have a large cut flower demand.  Across the paddocks from the back of my house (all built on now unfortunately) live a couple of the world’s most successful dahlia breeders, their varieties being voted as among the most popular in the United States.  I was once treated to a look around their garden at the height of the flowering season, and was intrigued to see they did not practise the sort of hand pollinating techniques I am more familiar with.  Instead, they grew the two varieties they were keen to cross alongside each other and left the bees to do the job.
Partly that is because the technical issues around desexing compound flowers like dahlias – it is a very tricky and time consuming method, and in reality, results are generally disappointing with successful pollination rates being low.
I have found similar troubles when trying to breed hebes – it is just too finicky to try and desex all the various flowers on the raceme – and they do not all open at the same time of course – so it is once again best left to the bees.