Any gardener in temperate regions will understand the reference above. As autumn eases into winter we start to think about bringing in the last of the tomato fruit and tucking up more tender perennials to protect them from the cold. For us on Skye it has been rather more of a jolt into winter than normal. Early December is more likely to be the first penetrating frosts, but several times in the last week it has already been freezing hard as I come home from the shop at about half seven in the evening. I have therefore spent an hour or so this afternoon tidying up a bit in the polytunnel.
The Yacon are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves, as are the sharks fin melon vines and achocha. So far the nasturtium and mashua are still looking fairly OK. There were rather more sharks fin melon fruit than I spotted before. I’m thinking I should really bring these fruit in before the frost damages them, but this time my priority were the achocha, which already look a bit the worse for wear.
Some of the achocha fruit is definitely frost damaged, and since it is predominately close to the plastic skin of the tunnel, it will be about the coldest in the tunnel. There was a lot of fruit from the Bolivian giant achocha. Much of the smaller fat baby one is overripe for eating, it turns a more yellow colour, so I have left that for the moment, since I was limited for time. I managed to get a large box of Bolivian giant, and a smallish punnet crammed full of the fat baby achocha. I haven’t decided what to do with the fruit. I don’t think we will get round to eating it all fresh, so I might use it in a chutney at the weekend (it’s lovely to have a glut of something at last!). I have the marrow (that got slightly crushed when the ladder slipped as I was mending the polytunnel roof) and some overripe apples from the shop, as a good basis for some chutney. I also found this post which suggests making jam with it, from an adapted cucumber jam recipe.
The tomatoes were looking a bit mouldery, so I cleared those out as well. They hadn’t got frost damage, but it is too dark and cool for them to ripen off now. Having removed the fruit and separated off the various supports, I could pull the plants out of the soil. It is one case where it is worth removing most of the roots, since there are various soil borne diseases that affect tomatoes. I do try and plant them in a different part of the tunnel each year, so that it is only in a bed for one year in four to give the soil a rest. I’m pretty pleased that the roots of the supersweet 100 plants looked quite healthy. In the past, particularly earlier in my growing in the tunnel, the roots have been stunted and corky, but these were definitely much better. The multiflora tomato plants less so. I’m not inclined to choose them again over ildi. They seem to have been quite late ripening and the set was quite poor too for the number of flowers.
Although there was no sign of damage yet, I was nervous about the frost harming my unknown citrus tree (see previous post), so I wrapped that up in windbreak fabric after giving it a bit of a prune. Hopefully that will keep the worst of the cold at bay. In the photo you can see the tall Yacon is quite burnt by the cold. I will leave it in situ and let the top growth protect the roots, which will still be developing the edible tubers (I hope). The longer they are left the better.
So how are the perennials in my polytunnel fairing?
Five flavour berry (Schisandra chinensis): I have three different varieties of this, but they are all quite young plants. One did have a single flower. but it doesn’t look like it has set any fruit. One is a seedling and the other two are supposed to be self fertile. Normally you need two different plants to get berries.
Olive (Olea europaea): This has survived the winter (it was pretty mild generally). It has lots of new growth, which I have been pinching back so it grows more bushy than leggy. It seems quite happy. I have it growing in the soil in the polytunnel, but haven’t watered it this year. I am assuming that it’s roots will seek out enough water going sideways at the edges of the tunnel. I thought it wasn’t going to flower this year, but this week I spotted a single bunch of flowers. This is a little disappointing, since last year there were lots of flowers (but no fruit). Maybe as it gets older it will be able to flower more. The flowers this year were on last years’ growth, whereas last year they were on same year growth I think.
Apricot: I have given this an early summer prune, according to the RHS website instructions (as best I could). Last year I didn’t prune it hard enough, so the fan frame is a bit leggy. I may have to cut back some of the branches quite hard to rejuvenate it later this summer. The early summer last year was just too nice to be inside! I did get loads of flowers in spring this year, and two green fruit are still there.
Fuchsia berry: This overwintered alright having survived sitting in it’s pot for too long last year. Now it is in the soil it is growing quite well. It has a funny trilobal growth habit. which I don’t know if it will grow out of, although I knocked one of the branches off whilst watering! No sign of flowers this year yet. I stuck the broken branch in the soil, near the parent plant. Maybe it will root.
Asparagus: These confused me by not dying down for the winter! This meant that they didn’t get a rest period when I could mulch them (if I was organised) and watch for the new shoots in spring. I compromised when tidying that part of the tunnel, by cutting back the old shoots, but I didn’t think the subsequent shoots were really fat and prolific enough to take any this year. Some of the new leaves now have flowers. I’ll have to check what sex they are. These plants were grown from seed in about 2015 and have been in position now for two years. I have two varieties: Connovers colossal and Argenteuil early. I think that Connovers colossal is slightly the more robust looking overall, although it is probably too soon to be sure.
Artichoke: The globe artichoke is flowering well again. I thought they were going to be a little small, but the first buds are a fair size now. I am thinking of selling them in the shop, since S. isn’t that fussed about eating them. I could give them a few days and then have them for my lunch if they don’t sell. I’m not sure what to price them at – probably about 80p each. I have also planted two seedlings on the drivebank, and have one ready to plant in the tunnel on the opposite side.
Goldenberry: I thought that I had two plants that survived the winter. They had died back to the base and I covered them with dead plant material to insulate them a bit. In fact it now looks like one of these is actually a weed plant which pops up both in the tunnel and outside. I think it is nipplewort. When they were both smaller they looked very similar, but now the difference in leaf shape and texture is obvious, and the weed is preparing to flower, unlike the golden berry! I think I may have weeded another goldenberry out when preparing to plant the sweetcorn. It was quite small, so may not have done well anyhow. So far I have proved that they will overwinter in a pretty mild winter, it remains to be seen whether I will achieve any sort of harvest from the one plant this year. It is certainly more developed now than seedlings would be.
Akebia: These seem to have overwintered pretty well. Both those in pots and those in the ground in the polytunnel have survived OK. They were grown from seed last year, but it doesn’t look like they die back herbaciously; they remained green despite being very small. I accidently cut back one that was growing next to the apricot, which was probably doing the best previous to that. The foliage is not that easy to spot. I expect it will take a few years before I get flowers or fruit. I planted two little plants outside on the drivebank and they seem to be quite happy there, although not growing quite so fast. It will be interesting to see if they will over winter for me there also.
Apios americana: I thought this would be a bit more robust than it has turned out to be so far. I grew it outside in the dog resistant garden a couple of years ago, but it dissappeared the first winter. I think it may like it a bit warmer, so am trying it in the polytunnel. I am worried however that it may prefer it rather damper than I generally make it in there, since one of its names is “swamp potato”. I wonder whether it would prefer it in a pot in the pond? Anyhow, I have a few tubers from Edulis growing in the bed adjacent to the apricot. They seem to start growing quite late, even in the polytunnel, only emerging at the start of June this year. I have found two shoots so far, I think there is one small tuber that is still to appear.
Grapes: Both grape vines are starting to flower now. The new one seems to have quite big bunches. There was a little scorching from overnight frost on the new growth earlier in the year, but no real damage. I have done an initial pruning: pinching out the spurs a couple of leaves beyond the flowers and taking off a few overcrowded spurs. I haven’t yet thinned out the bunches of grapes. They should be thinned to one bunch every eighteen inches or so. I think that won’t be necessary yet for the new vine, but the old one, Boskoop glory, is quite prolific so could do with a bit of thinning out.
Kiwi: Given a reprieve and being shortened, the vine has flowered beautifully. I do like the blossom; like huge cream apple blossoms that darken to peach as they fade. I’m still not sure it is worth the space, even though I have shortened it quite drastically this year. But the flowers are pretty. It is still a little early to say how good the fruit set will be.
Bramble. The first flowers on this are fully open just now. I could do with a few more training wires near the lower door to tie back the side branches to. Hopefully I won’t have such problems with flies this year, we’ll see.
Strawberries: The first fruits were the biggest! I shared the first two with S., but he doesn’t know about the others that never left the tunnel. Only one of the plants is really doing well. I find it difficult to keep them watered enough over the winter. I have transplanted into the tunnel some more plants that came from this one that have been growing in pots outside. They are blooming well, so may set a few fruit if I’m lucky.
I didn’t manage to overwinter my sharks fin melon two years ago, although potentially it is perennial. I also didn’t get any seed to germinate last year, but this year my saved seed germinated second time trying. I’m wondering whether to try digging up the parent plant after harvest, cutting it back and moving it indoors for the winter. It may mean an earlier start to growth and flowering, although it may be a pain to accommodate the plant frost free in the earlier part of the spring.
I did manage to overwinter three little chilli pepper plants that AC gave me. They had been on the study windowsill, being watered occasionally, since last spring. They gave the tiniest little chillies, that AC says are very hot, so I am rather nervous of using! One plant I cut back quite severely in early spring, the others were left. The one that was cut back seems to be budding up already. This one I repotted into a slightly larger pot with fresh compost as I did one of the others (whilst cutting that one back slightly too). These are in the tunnel now, as is the third which I have planted out into what I am thinking of as my Mediterranean bed. This is the area next to the Olive tree. I have a bench there (although it tends to get used as a dumping ground rather than a seat) and have also planted the three surviving Astragalus crassicarpus plants there. The idea is to plant things that require little water there. I don’t think the chillies will survive in the tunnel over the winter, but I may leave this one in, to see how it does. If the ground is dry it may well survive better. I have grown some less fiery, hopefully larger chillies from seed, which are now planted out. I will try potting these up in the autumn after (hopefully) fruiting to try and over winter these inside.
I never did harvest the mashua in the tunnel. I don’t think it did so well after the hot early summer last year. Although it should have overwintered OK, most of the plants seem to have disappeared over the winter. Just one bed is growing away strongly. I guess that the tubers did not form well on the other plants. I did miss at least one tuber in the tea garden extension. The foliage is very distinctive when it starts to grow! I also have a couple of oca plants growing in the tunnel, so it looks like I missed a couple of those tubers too! One of the dahlias is growing in with the tomatoes; another unharvested plant which has overwintered well. The passion flowers haven’t made it however. I should probably have overwintered them inside until the plants were a bit bigger. Maybe next year I’ll try growing some new plants.
The Yacon(s) I potted up when I harvested the tubers, splitting the crowns slightly, where they naturally wanted to break. I potted them into smallish pots in compost in the tunnel. Some were planted into the polytunnel beds either side of the Apricot, they are still pretty small. The rest are actually still in pots. One of my jobs to do is to plant these outside, although this should probably have been done a while ago, it has been so cool since March I don’t think they would have done very much growing!
One of the last plants to mention are the pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) These are growing quite lush in the lower part of the tunnel. I have been nipping back the tips of the growth to encourage a bushy habit, since I read somewhere they have a tendency to become leggy. There is no sign of flowering this year! The flowers are also supposed to be tasty, even if the fruit doesn’t ripen. I say these are one of the last, since I am hopeful that the tulip bulbs planted adjacent to the pineapple guava will come back again next year. It is not the bulbs of tulips that can be eaten, but the petals. The flowers are toxic for cats, and some people also can have a bad reaction apparently. I did have a munch on some of the petals, and they were fine – a little sweet and quite juicy. It just seems a bit of a pity to pick flowers for eating somehow!
Things seem to have been a bit slow in the polytunnel – It’s been a bit cooler and damper but I haven’t been out there much – just a bit of watering and thinning out the grapes. The main excitement is the number of happy caterpillars I seem to have. There are several large ones that I see in there: A bright green one, a dull browny coloured one, a dotty one with a waist stripe and one with stripes that match the stalks on the fat hen as it goes to seed. I think most of them belong to the silver y moth which I do see in there quite often. They don’t seem to be doing too much damage: They quite like the Yacon, but prefer the fat hen to the olive tree. There are a few holes in the squash leaves but nothing the plants can’t shake off.
Something has eaten part through one of my dahlia stalks – I think it is probably a slug. they don’t tend to be too much a problem these days for established plants, but I do get a few helping themselves to my seedlings in pots by the polytunnel door. The dahlia I grew from seed, which I am quite proud of myself for. They have lovely dark coloured leaves, and are just starting to form buds. The seeds are some of those that came from the Hardy Plant Society annual selection. I had pretty good germination from most of those – probably because they were so fresh. Dahlia tubers are theoretically edible, although apparently they vary a great deal as to tastiness! I’m tempted to get some from Lubera who have selected a range of better tasting ones. You get the flowers and then the tubers to eat, and can replant again for next year. I have tried some raw a while ago now, and wasn’t particularly impressed, but then you wouldn’t eat a potato raw either would you? I’ve mounded up the soil around the stem in the hope that it will re-root like a cutting. There does seem to be another shoot coming from below the damage, but I may lose the flowers of that plant.
My fuchsia berry plant is looking a lot more happy now. It is in the ground and has a fairly respectable shoot. Hopefully it is getting it’s roots down to survive there overwinter. I have pinched off the tip, since in it’s pot last year it grew a bit leggy and tended to droop down with the weight of the fruit – yes they were quite sweet and nice. My outside fuchsia that came with the house also has quite nice berries. You have to get them when they are ripe, or they taste more peppery than sweet. The downside is that they tend to ripen gradually, so there are a few for a nibble but not enough for much of a meal. I should propagate the bush a bit though, since it would be quite good as a boundary shrub. It’s a bit late this year – maybe I’ll take some hardwood cuttings overwinter and see how they get on. The fuchsia berry is supposed to be a bit more tender. I did try taking some softwood cutting last year, but none of them took – I’ll maybe try again next year, assuming it survives the winter again.
The Yacon seem to be doing pretty well. I haven’t fed them barring the initial planting with compost, but have tried to give them plenty of water – probably still not as much as they want. The single plant I put outside in the tea garden extension is also looking pretty good – the warmer start to the summer was probably to it’s liking. I’m growing Oca for the first time this year (thanks Frances!) I’ve put two in the polytunnel and one outside. So far I would say that they don’t like it too hot. The one outside seemed to do much better than the ones in the tunnel initially when we had all that hot weather. More recently it’s been a bit cooler and less sunny, and the ones inside have cheered up a bit – a little leggy perhaps. All three plants look lush and green at the moment. Apparently they don’t make tubers until the days get shorter, which for us will be at the end of September or so. At that point the extra protection of the tunnel may pay off, since it should hold off a light frost or two. I’ve never eaten them so I won’t comment on that yet.
There are flowers starting to develop on my physalis – golden berry, and a few flowers on the courgette. Those really haven’t done so well this year, but then I generally don’t have gluts to complain of! The sharks fin melon is climbing well – almost to the roof with buds forming. The japanese squash has delightful silver splashed leaves which are quite pretty, and again shows promise of buds. The mashua isn’t looking too good still. I think the hot weather was definitely not to it’s liking. They are still really small and hardly starting to climb at all. Some of the other plants will probably be too late to come to anything. For example the achocha, which I said last year needed a longer season didn’t get planted out early enough again. Tomatillo and peppers I sowed for the sake of it, but really didn’t look after them enough to get much from them. The plants are alive, but that’s about all one can say about them. My sweet potato plants seem to be doing well. I hope I’ve given them enough water. When I grew them in our polytunnel in Solihull I think that was the main problem there. They do have lovely dark coloured leaves, a bit like an ornamental bindweed. I’ve just let them scramble over the ground, although they would climb given a framework.
The bramble has not done so well this year as previous years. As I mentioned in a previous post I’ve had a lot of flies eating the berries (Alice outside remains a complete wash out!). The flies get so drunk that you can put your finger right next to them without them all flying off. I’ve still had quite a few berries – enough to make a batch of bramble and apple jelly (clear jelly not jam with bits in), but nowhere as many as previous years. The bramble and kiwi look very precarious also. I had to cut some of the support ties for the kiwi at the start of the year, and haven’t got round to replacing them properly. I had used old tights – the legs make pretty good strong soft bindings. unfortunately the weight of the vine had made them go thin, and they were cutting in to the trunk quite a lot. It was actually difficult to extract them as the kiwi was growing around them. I have started to use strips of pond liner (plenty of that left from around the mice holes!) This seems to stay more ribbon-like so doesn’t cut in. It’s a bit more difficult to tie in a knot (especially when supporting a heavy trunk with your third hand!), but seems to be kind to the plants and lasts pretty well. Tyre inner tubes are also pretty good, but I’m not sure whether they will have the same light resistance as pond liner.
The tomatoes have done really well – lots of lovely trusses have set nicely. None are ripening yet, but I remain hopeful for a reasonable harvest in the end – so far looking like my best yet here. Some of the plants have dark spots developing on the older leaves, which I think is a sign of nutrient deficiency. I probably haven’t fed them enough – just a bucket of comfrey tea between them when I can remember to do it! It’s actually also the same comfrey residue – so there’s probably not much nutrient left in it. I should have some time off later this week so will try and cut some fresh comfrey leaves then.
So much to do so little time! Summertime is here, the daylight and the shop hours are longer…We seemed to skip straight from winter into summer here – usually spring is the nicest time on Skye, drier weather, (often warmest too!) no midgies and fewer tourists (we love them really!) I’ve been helped on my family research by my younger sisters and my mum coming for their holiday on Skye last week. A folder of old family documents and letters shed some fascinating insights into some of the Kent branches of the family. A few seem to have been soldiers and I’ve scanned in some of the documents to transcribe. One letter is from a soldier in Madras, India in 1832 describing the effects of a cholera outbreak and urging his brothers and sisters to stay home and not be tempted abroad. I haven’t placed him yet on the family tree, but he does seem to have survived to a ripe old age despite obviously in fear of his life at the time of his writing.
I thought I’d just review the winter and what has done well or poorly this year. Amongst my losses are my rock samphire plant (grown from seed – first winter), my sea beet (both an established plant that flowered last year but did not set seed and all of my seedlings in pots), some of my Camellia sinensis plants (small plants in the fruit garden – the ones in the tea garden are thriving), the unknown citrus in the polytunnel, my baby yacon seedlings, and a Luma apiculata that never made it out of it’s pot. Considering how cold the winter has been, not so much in intensity as in length, it could have been a lot worse.
A surprising survivor is a mashua plant that appears to have grown from a missed tuber in the fruit garden. I suppose since it can be grown as an ornamental perennial (think Ken Aslet) It shouldn’t be that surprising. I will leave this one and see how it does. I haven’t in the end planted any more mashua outside this year.
The apricot is doing well – I have now trained in seven shoots as described earlier, and they are needing tying in again. Unfortunately I did get one of the shoots slightly wrong – pinched out too many earlier on and was left with one that was growing at the wrong angle. I’m hoping it will straighten out as the plant grows.
I have grown a number of plants from seed this winter including what turned out to be Akebia triloba. This was grown from seed obtained via the facebook edimentals group from someone who ate the fruit in Japan, but we weren’t sure until the leaves appeared whether it was A. quinata or A. triloba. It should be hardy outside here, but will probably do better in the polytunnel. If the plants survive I’ll try both. I have also grown some passion fruit vines (still very tiny) Passiflora edulis and P. mollissima (I think). Some of my other seedlings have struggled in the hot weather we had a couple of weeks ago – the pots dried up very quickly and the tiny plants may not have made it. I had some martagon lily that I think have gone now, and some of my vetch seedlings have also gone. These include, annoyingly, the Astragalus crassicarpus (gound plum) that I was looking forwards to establishing in the tunnel. Luckily the single chilean hazelnut that germinated seems to be doing alright, and is now showing signs of sending up a second pair of leaves. This is better than the seeding I achieved last year which faded out at a single pair.
I was busy outside trying to get on top of the creeping buttercup before it took over everywhere again, but got distracted moving more soil down the hill to landscape the orchard area. This is nearly achieved, but more work to do on the south side of the trackway. Just at the moment the buttercups in the field are making a fine display with the pignuts, and remind me that we’d be poorer if we succeeded in eliminating weeds!
I harvested the kiwi fruit recently. They are a bit small to eat out of hand so I turned them into jam. Because I have only one kiwi – Jenny, the fruit develop parthenogenically so have almost no seeds. That is also why they are a little small. I wonder whether an actinides arguta or kolomitka would cross fertilise with the kiwi (a. deliciousa), or whether it would be worth getting another self fertile kiwi so they could fertilise each other? I did a little bit of research into kiwi jam recipes online, and then made it up. Most of the sites seemed to agree that kiwi fruit are low in pectin, so need some added to obtain a good set. I decided to use lemon and lime eather than apple which I usually use. I had about 2 lb of kiwi fruit, and over did it a bit on the citrus (2 lemon and one lime) which resulted in a jam that was rather more like a marmalade. I had to add more sugar than intended also, to counteract the sourness of the citrus, and have ended up with three jars of rather precious and tasty kiwi and citrus marmalade.
Some people like to be sure to have their own sprouts for xmas dinner. I’m never that organised, but I do like to try and include some home grown produce. This year we had a starter of my own globe artichokes from the polytunnel. They had been blanched and in the freezer since the summer. A bit fiddly to eat, they made a nice change. I also went out in the morning and dug the first mashua tubers from the polytunnel. Roasted with other root veg they went down perfectly pleasantly. Although they do tend to go soft rather than crispy.
I have now dug up all the mashua from outside. I had four tubers planted in the fruit garden, four tubers downhill from the tea garden below the barn, and four tubers in the dog resistant garden. There were two in each location from each of the tubers I grew last year. I knew the ones in the tea garden hadn’t done wonderfully – there was very little visible growth amongst the buttercups. All the upper growth seems to have died back now – including that of the ones in the polytunnel.
Four tubers appear to have completely disappeared. One of the tubers in the fruit garden had more usable tubers than all of the others put together – several had no usable tubers. So I guess I can certainly say that the harvest is variable. I had labelled the tubers from the two supplied last year, however, the ones that did better this year were apparently from the plant that did worse last year. So either last year’s results were down to variability, or I mislabelled all the tubers! Just as well I didn’t name any names!
upper growth vigour
usable tuber weight (Oz)
Dog resistant garden
I must admit I’m a bit disappointed with the yield outside. I haven’t dug the tubers from the tunnel yet, but believe they have done much better. Maybe Mashua just need a bit more warmth than we get on Skye. I would say overall that the weather in 2017 was not bad for Skye, not too wet, not too dry, not too windy. It could have been warmer – the best weather as usual was in May. I suppose the fact that one plant did fairly well gives some encouragement. I’ll dig up the polytunnel plants next – that will give me plenty of tubers to replant for next year. The other thing I noticed is that last year the tubers grown in the tunnel had patches of quite dark maroon markings. These tubers grown outside are all completely white – maybe indicating a lack of maturity?
I’m going to try outside again, hopefully with tubers from each source (I may try to get hold of some other varieties as well). This time I’ll plant some nice ones straight away, as well as in pots to overwinter in comfort to see whether getting an early start makes a difference. My feeling is that the later part of the season is more significant, but we’ll see.
Two nights running we have had a real frost. This came together with snow, which is a little less usual for us. So far the Yacon has sagged, the leaves on the sharks fin melon have flopped and the Achocha has had it! The mashua doesn’t look too bad so far, although some bits are quite sad. I have cleared out the last of the courgettes from the polytunnel. I think the plants had died back some time ago. One of the courgettes has a little frost damage, but the others should be alright. One of them should be classified as a marrow rather than a courgette, but that’s fine – I love stuffed marrow! The snow has mostly all cleared now, but the damage is done.
It’s been a bit cold and wet to work down by the river, so I have made a start clearing the bed that will become my pond/bog garden in the polytunnel. This was much to the dogs’ disgust, since, as I have to tell Dyson quite frequently, ‘dogs aren’t allowed in the polytunnel’ and they do want to help! The soil from this bed was covered in home made compost in the spring, and although I never got round to setting up an irrigation hose for it, it did grow a lovely crop of self seeded poppies, kale, fat hen and honesty. The little row of lettuce leaves I sowed got swamped by everything else. The poppies have probably self seeded again, the fat hen seed I have collected, and the honesty (Lunaria annua) dug up. I was very surprised to see the size of the roots, up to 18 inches long and quite tender, despite having virtually no water.
Intrigued, I did a little research and convinced myself they were edible. Honesty is in the brassica family which includes turnip and swede as well as cabbage and broccoli. A tiny taste raw was quite horrid – really pungent. I’ve not tried horse radish, but I expect that is what it tastes like, several of the references suggested it was a substitute. However I took a few roots anyway and washed them. I found that the skin scraped off easily with a knife like a new potato. Cut into short lengths, I boiled the roots in water for a short time till they became tender. I wondered a bit if I was going to regret it as I added them to my dinner of sausage casserole, but no. Much to my surprise the roots are really quite nice with a mild turnip-like taste. Unfortunately some of the roots are a bit stringy. Either a core, or a skin within the root. I guess if one was interested in this one could try and select for plants with less fibre, but I expect there are already root crops enough. Normally honesty is grown for the flowers, not dug up after six months like these have been. I’m really glad I tried them though, and still have plenty of roots to experiment with.
I grew this for the first time last year. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because I had never, to my knowledge, seen it growing. Usually these things can turn out a little disappointing, but mashua has been an exception for me. First a little about mashua. It is a plant grown as a food crop in the Andes in South America. Although we tend to think of South America as either desert or tropical jungle, in fact much of it has a similar temperature range to the UK. The altitude keeps it cooler and damper, at least in the west. This means, much like those from the Himalayan valleys, many of the plants find themselves quite at home in Britain. Mashua is a tuberous climbing vine closely related to the nasturtium flower, and all parts of it are edible – tubers, leaves and flowers. It can grow quite tall in a single season, but will die back to the tubers over winter. Typically these tubers don’t start growing until the day length is shorter, which can be a problem in our latitudes, since that is not until later in the autumn and it can run out of growing time, so have a reduced cropping potential. This was also the case for potatoes when first introduced, and daylength neutral varieties of mashua are now available, Ken Aslet being the one usually mentioned.
I got tubers from two different sources, the Agroforestry Research Trust, and Pennard Plants. I’m not sure what variety either of them are, but they look similar at a glance. Because I had so few tubers I decided to plant them in the polytunnel, although unless you are exceptionally exposed, they would probably do fine outside. I used my usual slug protection of a cut off pot, although in my experience they don’t suffer too badly from slug damage. The foliage is bronzed, and similar to a nasturtium leaf, but lobed. If you like nasturtium leaves in salads (which we don’t), you would like mashua leaves. They have a similar peppery flavour. The plants climbed happily up netting, sticks and strings. The individual leaf stalks wrap around in a rather endearing way. Towards the end of the season I did get flowers, but this was so late that they were frosted, and I didn’t get to taste them and there was no chance of seed. I couldn’t see when the tubers started developing, the lower part of the plants being obscured by other vegetation. When the tops died back after the first hard frosts at the end of November, I could see that the tubers were formed by the tips of new shoots burying themselves back into the ground, forming a mass quite close to the plant centre. I think that earlier in the year new growth from the ground forms climbing shoots, and later in the year they form tubers.
When dug up the tubers were of various sizes ranging from very small – an inch or so – to maybe six inches and an inch or more broad. I was impressed by the yield considering I had basically neglected them.
I got one pound of good tubers from one tuber and three pound two ounces from the other tuber, not including some smaller tubers that weren’t worth eating. Since I only grew one of each source, I wouldn’t make any conclusions based on this. It may be that one got more or less watering, or more or less of some nutrient in the soil. If the same happens again on a larger sample I will let them know – apparently they can accumulate virus infections. After planting they got no real attention, except trying to get a bit of water to them, but as usual I struggled with my water supply at various times in the tunnel, so they probably got a bit drier than they would like. Even so the yield was more than I usually manage from potatoes outside, not great by good gardener standards, but pretty good for me! In appearance they are a bit like the smoother sorts of jerusalem artichoke you get – pointy ended and a bit scaley. Creamy coloured with pinkish tinges, they are quite attractive. When tried raw – again they have that spicy radish taste of nasturtiums, and are firm with a crunch. We did not like them raw, but if you are a fan of radish, you might like them in a salad, or grated in a coleslaw. Cooked, the spicy flavour and much of the crunchiness disappears and they become quite bland. One of the plants (the lower yielding one) appeared to be more spicy than the other, again this could be a factor of the way it was grown rather than the variety. We didn’t have a huge amount to eat, because I was impressed enough to want to save the best tubers to grow more this year, but we tried them stir fried with spices, in stews, and pot roasted with other vegetables and meat. S. said he’s happy to eat it again, so we’re sorted. I didn’t tell him that the South Americans regard it as an anti-aphrodisiac. Apparently it may have an effect on sperm count rather than testosterone.
I stored the best tubers in pots of compost in the shed. This was intended to keep them cool and frost free, but since some of the scrappy tubers I planted outside did survive and grow this spring, I may experiment a bit more with that this winter – I didn’t risk any of the good tubers, so am not that upset that several disappeared in the ground over winter. They started to sprout of their own accord quite early in the spring (by Skye standards), so they came out of the shed into the polytunnel to save them getting too leggy. Some were planted out around the garden. I have not given them supports to climb up, since I have read they do not do so in South America, rather left them to scramble over the ground to smother weeds. If I was growing closer to other vegetables, I might give them canes like runner beans. Some I have planted in the polytunnel again, since they did so well last year. I have planted them along the outer edges with netting to scramble up.
So far (end of July) the ones in the tunnel are climbing at crop bar level. They are getting watered when I water the rest of those beds (I have a trickle hose system set up), although I also try and give the corner ones a bit more water, since the hose system doesn’t tend to reach that well into the corners.
The ones outside are more variable. I planted some in the tea garden below the barn, where it is quite open. Two out of the four appear to have been eaten by slugs (I didn’t give them any protection), the other two are still very small. Some of the ones in the dog resistant garden have also disppeared, but at least one is doing quite well and is climbing happily with the beans up the poles. I also planted some in the fruit garden. These seem to be doing better – one of those is one that over wintered. I suppose to be fair, I should have pampered some of those more, although the ones inside haven’t been particularly pampered either. At this stage I can’t say which will do better in terms of yeild. The ones in the tunnel have certainly put on more growth above the ground, and are likely to persist later, having a little more protection from frosts and winds. However the ones outside will get more moisture, which may be more significant….
The only pests I’ve seen is a bit of slug damage, although I have read that like nasturtiums they can get affected by cabbage white caterpillars. Apparently in the autumn, voles can eat the tubers in the ground, but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Overall an exiting new crop for me that appears to tolerate a bit of neglect!