Friday, October 24, 2014

Breaking seed dormancy in Sacred Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera

I love Sacred Lotus. The flowers are beautiful and have an intoxicating fragrance that will always remind me of swimming in (crocodile free) water holes in the Kimberley region of north-west Australia. I grow several types which I purchased from Blue Lotus Water Garden at Yarra Junction. This nursery-come-water gardens stocks ornamental Lotus with skinner rhizomes than the big fat edible types but I'll find some bigger eating varieties one day. In the meantime, it's worth growing them for the aesthetic value of the leaves and flowers alone.

Sacred Lotus is propagated by division of the sausage-like rhizomes which is extremely easy. Not so easy is propagation by seed. None of the specimens I've grown have ever produced seed, or more precisely, the seeds in the pods are always empty. Last year there were two filled seeds in a specimen purchased from Blue Lotus and I have been saving these up for germinating and growing on. The difficulty with the Lotus propagation from seed is breaking through the hard thick coat of the seed which can prevent germination from occurring in even optimum conditions.

Lotus seeds - about the size of a pea

I looked up ways to break Nelumbo dormancy and have followed instructions from the following website to the letter -

The key points made by the author are as follows (taken directly from the webpage):

"The secret for speeding up the germination process is to remove this protective cover without harming the internal seed. Many methods of doing this have been described in the literature (including soaking in concentrated sulfuric acid for 5 hours), but the method I use is easily available to every one. The primary tool is a pair of pliers which has the usual pipe grip cutout at the business end. The pliers are used to get a firm grip on the seed within the oval pipe grip section of the pliers. The seed is very tough and you do not have to grip the seed so hard as to crack it. The seed is then rubbed along a rough surface to wear away part of the seed coat. The preferred surface is a medium grit sand paper laid flat on a table, although a concrete surface or file can be used. The optimum grit size for the sandpaper is # 80, although a finer grit (higher number) can also do the job. It just takes more rubbing and the sandpaper wears out sooner. You will then appreciate how hard the seedcoat really is.
There are two areas where the seed scouring can take place: on the side or at the dimpled end. I prefer the side because the progress of the rubbing (or sanding) is more uniformly determined. When scouring the side, rub the seed in one area only. This will produce a shiny flat surface as the rubbing proceeds. This surface should be inspected frequently to check the process of the wearing away process. At first, the surface is a uniform black color. As the rubbing proceeds, a thin white line circle or oval will appear, depending on the seed type. This indicates the breaking through of the junction between the two fused seed coats. At this point you can stop the rubbing"

The photos below show my preparation of the seed. In order to maintain a warm temperature for soaking I've placed the seed in a jar in Breville Yoghurt  Maker which has a heated coil running through it to incubate yoghurt. (These are quite handy for germinating seed too but that's another story). We'll see how this goes and I'll post on how these Nelumbo seeds progress. Finger crossed.

Pre-scarification withe sandpaper

Post-scarification with sandpaper

Floating in a jar in the Yoghurt Maker Lid on - good luck seeds!


First Lotus leaves of spring

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Loquats or Nespoli - unsung fruit tree

Loquats (Eriobotrya japonica) are an unappreciated fruit. At the moment they're ripening all over Melbourne. They are widely planted by the Italian and Greek communities across the suburbs but most specimens you see are self-sown. For this reason they are frequently placed on environmental weed lists. Perhaps they're genuinely invasive further north or in some habitats. Whatever the case their "feralness" reflects their indestructibility. If minimising or eliminating inputs (such as water, fertilizer, labour etc) is a hallmark of sustainable food growing then Loquats are some kind of benchmark. The trees in my backyard face blazing western sun in summer, are competing with a 10 metre high Callistemon and an equally tough Casuarina, get periodically attacked by possums, are not irrigated and yet in most years produce an abundant crop of delicious, sweet fruit.

The main complaint about Loquats is that they have large seeds, which is true, but equally the flesh comes off the seeds very easily and doesn't stick to them like plums do with their single seed. Their other outstanding feature is that they are the first fruits of spring to ripen, as early as late September but mostly from the first week or two of October and then into November. My specimens for example are just ripening now but plenty of trees are fully ripe now. This tells us something else about Loquats - they vary quite considerably. Fruit colour ranges from pale yellow through to apricot orange, as does fruit size and flavour. I have found a self-sown tree by a railtrack with large, golf-ball sized fruit with a juicy almost pineappley flavour. I hope to graft this one onto some self-sown root stock this year. There are named varieties too and I have planted one at Burnley called Bessell Brown which I sourced from Daleys Nursery in northern NSW.

Loquats are also quite a striking shrub or small tree with large, evergreen leaves and clusters of off-white flowers in late autumn and early winter. Finally, you can't buy them at the supermarket in Australia so here's a fruit tree which you have plant for yourself or forage for every spring!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Taro leaf nuked by frost looks like Battle Droid in Phantom Menace

Battle Droid Phantom Menace

...well, the head at least. I grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy and thought the 1990s prequels were laughably bad. I liked the droid army soldiers though mainly because I think one of them actually says "stick 'em up" at one stage or something similar. Now one has appeared in my garden.

Battle Droid Phantom Menace

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Random shots of English parks, gardens and countryside

I'm in England at the moment, based in Nottingham but I've been up and down the country from Guildford to the Yorkshire Dales. I've seen two Royal Horticultural Society gardens, Harlow Carr in Harrogate and Wisely (the big HQ) in Surrey. The food growing demonstration and extension to the public by the RHS is very impressive. The English summer is as gentle as ever and the light perfect for annual bedding which seems to have had some kind of comeback here or perhaps it never died off. Looking forward to seeing James Hitchmough's Olympic meadows in London too. England is at once a cramped, crowded country and at the same time its countryside is achingly beautiful - from the trains anyway! (If you want to enter the Matrix of ye olde villages and towns avoid the A1, your illusions will be shattered.) Anyway, here are some random shots.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Harvesting Taro - 'cheeky' or not?

I grow around four varieties of Taro Colocasia esculenta, maybe five if you include Tahitian Spinach. I've discovered these types by accident in that their origin is from tubers bought at the market and then grown on. Once plants are established the variation in leaf shape, colour and overall size of the plant becomes obvious. When I first grew Taro in Melbourne I wasn't confident that the plants would be very productive because of their tropical origin but in fact the tubers, strictly speaking corms, form relatively quickly. Now this does depend on the variety and just how big you expect your tubers to be!

For example, people from Polynesia (it seems) like the really big tubers whereas other cultures prefer the smaller types. One of my students is Samoan and she tells me that her family are "Taro snobs" and really don't like the small Taro tubers available in many markets. And these small tubers are not immature or undersize tubers (as I first thought) but simply different types.

So what does all this mean for productive Taro growing in a temperate zone backyard food garden? In short, the smaller Taro tubers will grow well in one Melbourne growing season (perhaps, we should admit in a climate change induced warmer Melbourne!), while the larger varieties may take a couple of seasons. But what of differences in taste and texture between these Taro types? And what about any variation in their degrees of ''cheekiness'', that is the levels of calcium oxalate crystals which sting your mouth and throat if not cooked properly?

I find that the smaller types are very uncheeky, needing only around 10-15 mins of active boiling to be completely sting free. (Please don't let this stinginess discussion put you off - Taro is delicious!) The bigger ones seem to be a different story. A few weeks ago I prepared one of the tubers from a larger type and to be honest the tuber was a cheeky nightmare. I couldn't get rid of the stinging sensation. I did everything short of nuking this thing but after two lots of hard boiling and baking it was still horrible. I've now written this type off except as an ornamental plant because it is very beautiful.

Last weekend I moved onto my favourite Taro variety. This is one that came from an organic farm in NSW owned and managed by a friend's partner. It has enormous leaves which I have posted on before but I have never tried the tubers. The plant I dug up has had two years in the ground and has been growing steadily under a small self-sown plum tree in clayey soil. The photos below show the whole process of digging up, separating the tubers, cleaning them up as well as some cooked pieces of Taro. The pics also show some market bought Taro for comparison. So what was the cheekiness verdict? On a 15 minute boiling the Taro was yummy but there was a slight stinging sensation left on the lips and front of the mouth (not the throat as I had found in Vanuatu). It wasn't too bad but enough to be frustrating, especially if you imagined trying to convert friends and family to a new form of carbs! So I tried soaking cut pieces overnight, boiling for 10 minutes, changing the water and boiling for another 10-15 minutes. Problem solved.

As for productivity, I didn't weigh the harvest but I was pleased with the amount of tubers, especially from a no-fuss plant that I had left to grow in an obscure part of the garden where 'normal' veggies would struggle.

Tubers removed from plant but with roots still attached
Roots removed
The cooked and the uncooked

Home grown Taro to the left, market purchased to the right

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Oca or New Zealand Yam harvest - how effective were late season cuttings?

Oca tubers start shooting in late October in Melbourne which is springtime. But as I've explained before they are short day plants which means that their tubers don't begin to form until after the autumn equinox, around March 21. It then takes another 6-8 weeks for decent sized tubers to form. This means that from the moment you plant the tubers you are waiting around 9 months for a crop which is quite a long time to have space occupied by a crop doing 'nothing'. You also need a frost free autumn to have a successful crop. That's not a problem where I am, especially with a record breaking mild May at the moment but frustrating for those where frosts come early or unpredictably.

Let's be clear though - New Zealand Yams are delicious, the plant very attractive when healthy and the tubers also visually appealing, glowing pink grubs which look startling emerging from the soil at harvest. So I have worked out a simple but cunning cultural practice to have a good harvest while minimising the space they occupy, well at least the amount of time that they occupy this space.

It goes like this: Oca strikes easily from cuttings. As a result you can devote a small area to "stock'' or "mother" plants in the spring, planting if need be only two or three tubers which form plants that will later become the source of cutting material. These plants can grow if necessary in a fairly obscure parts of your garden, under the eaves of the house in my case.

You now wait for space to become available in your garden from mid to late summer as early crops finish eg. some early beans, potatoes, lettuce, old brassicas etc . Then when this space is cleared you take cuttings from your Oca mother plants and simply plonk them in. The cuttings will strike quickly and these will become robust plants within weeks ready to enjoy the mild autumn weather which Oca adores. I have had great success doing this with cuttings taken from mid January through to mid February (the equivalent of mid-July through mid-August in the northern hemisphere). For two years in a row I have prepared Oca in this way at the Burnley nursery in pots, ready for my students to plant them in their vegetable plots when classes commence in the first week of March. I'll post some pics of some of this year's student crop next week.

spring planted stock plants
This year at home I wanted to see just how late I could strike cuttings and still get some kind of crop. So I took cuttings and planted them on March 15, the middle of the first month of autumn here and only a week before equinox when Oca stems begin forming forming stolons and tubers. This I thought might be pushing the envelope but the photos below show that these late season cuttings have produced decent tubers from very little original plant material and in a small area. This has no doubt been helped by a record breaking warm to mild autumn but I still think it proves the point that you don't need vast areas of spring planted Oca to enjoy this crop - just grow a few initially and take cuttings later. Truthfully, I've also planted tubers in between vigorous tomato plants where they spent months being shaded out and now with the tomato plants gone the Oca have come into their own. In other words, they're quite happy to grow sub-optimally for months while they wait for the good times to arrive.

single cutting planted March 15

cuttings planted out

cuttings by May 24 - 10 weeks on

Tubers on March 15 cuttings, harvested May 24

Stock plants May 24

Stock plant tubers May 24

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Eating perennial nettle

I grow the perennial nettle Urtica dioica. I have one plant sprawling behind one of my Taro groups under a small plum tree and another plant down the side of the house. Both are in shade most of the time. With the heat of summer long gone and with good rain in April, these nettle plants have come alive. Several years ago one of my students told me that annual nettle Urtica urens really was as good as spinach. This species was growing abundantly in the student veggie plots at Burnley's field station and so I took some home for a trial. I was blown away by its texture and flavour - it was as good as or better than spinach.

There are two obvious points to consider when using nettle species. One is that you wear gloves when harvesting, preferably gloves that cover most of your wrist as well as your hand, and second, that you must steam or boil the leaves to eradicate the stings (the fine hairs on the leaves). If you do these two things then nettles are worth growing and are absolutely delicious. The photos below show the big perennial nettle plant under the elephant ear of the Taro, harvesting with gloves, preparation and then the final cooked product (alongside choko, sweet potato, and literally the last fresh beans and zucchini from the garden for the 2013-14 growing season).

Enset(e) Abyssinian Banana - growth over summer

My Abyssinian Banana is enjoying Melbourne's late autumn mildness and warmth. It survived a nightmarish heatwave in January and hasn't looked back. The shots below show its growth since November of last year. I've got hold of three small ones in 20cm pots and may plant one more of these in garden. What I'd really like to do, perhaps in someone else's garden, is grow a grove of Abyssinian Banana and then prepare the corm or stem for eating in a few years' time. Here's two great Youtube videos on how important this plant is in the Gedeo region of Ethiopia -

November 2013


May 14