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Root Crops | New World Seeds & Tubers

Mashua harvested 11-13-2011

We’ve got a few a few late-breaking items listed including a couple of exotic Andean tubers, 5 new potato listings, and 9 new tomato listings. We realize that it’s late for tomatoes for most of you, but we’re glad to get them listed at all after we almost weren’t able to get anything listed at all this year.

We can ship tubers only to US destinations. Seeds worldwide to most destinations.

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In case you don’t recognize it, the picture is of an Oca plant, showing the harvest of tubers underneath it. I’m almost finished transplanting Oca, which is not the usual practice in growing them, but was necessitated by a small disaster earlier in the year. Long story.

We’re not promoting Andean root crops other than potatoes; we grow them mostly for fun and to sell to people who really really want them and have conditions to actually grow them. They’ll be ready in November. Sorry; that’s their schedule; they’re all day-length sensitive and we’re quite far from the tropics!

One we might promote despite the usual problems with Andean crops might be Yacon (aka “Bolivian Sunroot”); I think this one might be worth the trouble. Grow wherever Dahlias are grown; it’s a similar plant with similar climactic adaptability.

Hopefully most of our customers can grow the root crops that we’re more serious about.

I’ve noticed that Rutabagas have gotten hard to find in American produce markets.

I don’t think they were ever popular except among immigrants from Scandinavia, Germany, and Scotland (“neeps”). Most other Europeans won’t touch them. In southern Europe to the extent they’re grown at all, they’re likely to be animal fodder.

Persians eat them. They boil up quantities of them, refrigerate them, and eat them as snacks.

Rutabagas are useful because

  • They store well–better than potatoes in cold climates
  • They are significantly more cold-hardy than potatoes. Grown as a summer crop you are unlikely to lose them to cold as you might potatoes in a late cold-snap. In some climates they can be replanted in August and overwintered in the ground.
  • They’re fairly substantial; you can eat them as a staple.
  • They’re a little less starchy than a potato, and rich in fiber. They score only 5 on the glycemic load scale.
  • They contain some B vitamins and are fairly rich in vitamin C, though I would guess quite a bit of the C is destroyed in cooking.
  • They contain some provitamin A, the yellower their flesh the more they contain

Rutabagas are reputedly a stable hybrid between a Turnip and a Cabbage, but the line between Turnips and Rutabagas is sometimes blurred, probably due to back-crosses. We’ve got a few crops in this category that people argue whether they are rutabagas or turnips.

Generally speaking, Turnips are usually harvested young and tender, and are not as substantial as a Rutabaga. They typically don’t keep as long either. They’re typically white-fleshed, though at least one variety available has yellow flesh. Skin color varies, but is typically white, sometimes with a green or purple top.

Turnips usually have the milder flavor; Rutabagas are usually a bit cabbagey-tasting. Either can be fairly sweet but Rutabagas tend to be a little sweeter, probably because they tend to be harvested more mature.

I’ve always had either one cooked. Rutabagas are probably a bit tough to use as a raw vegetable, but baby turnips would probably work.

One of my quests is for root crops useful for non-leafy salads. The idea is to have something that stores better than leafy crops do, and is therefor available locally over a long season, versus imported greens. It’s also to have raw vegetable dishes that are more substantial than a leafy salad, to go with a lighter and healthier entree.

Some of the bigger, milder, turnip-like radishes might be useful for that purpose. Something like a typical Chinese radish, big and off-white green with green shoulders.

Salad is what I have in mind for Yacons. They’re sweet, but not sugary, and crisp. South Americans already use them in salads, especially fruit salad.

I’ve had a devil of a time finding Rutabagas because Americans rarely eat them anyway. I’m trying to find enough variety so that we can identify varieties with fine-grained, preferably deeply-colored flesh, and good flavors. So far I’ve got about 4 varieties and am working on a 5th. If you know of good ones send us recommendations.

Turnips have been easier to find; we’ve got a good variety of those. I’ve also got some Asian varieties of both turnips and turnip-like radishes.

I’ve got a few odds and ends like Salsify, Scorzonera (some people say the greens on this one make good leafy salad, whereas the root they say is disappointingly bland), and a few other odds and ends including Maca (yet another Andean vegetable–sometimes called “Bolivian Ginseng”). Not sure how coldhardy the Maca is so it will have to wait until spring.

I have been lazy about growing carrots. I would like some coldhardy varieties known to overwinter well. Those tend to be rare in the USA; I’m trying to see what I can import from Europe.

I’ve only got one beet variety, the Lutz, because it’s the one known to overwinter well. The whole point is to grow crops that are easy to store.

We’re a little behind growing out root-crop seed OTHER THAN potatoes (we are one of the few suppliers of True Potato Seed (TPS)), because we’ve been busy with the potatoes and grains this year. We should have a few rutabaga and turnip seeds for sale by late winter, and more varieties coming online for fall planting next year, spring planting in two years. Sorry, folks, most of them are biennials. Luckily we grow our crops in a part of the world where winters are cold enough to vernalize them, but not cold enough to kill them.

I’ve had Skirret for a while but it’s been an orphan looking for a home. I wanted to plant it at our farm, but the ground was not ready and in any case I didn’t have a suitable spot–it’s a perennial though usually grown as an annual. Might work better as a perennial though, because reputedly you get fatter, less fibrous roots that way. Anyway, I can’t sell any until I get a good crop of seed; we’re not licensed as a nursery and in any case it’s easier for me to handle seeds than plants or roots. For lack of better solutions they’re all planted out in my back yard at the moment.

Oca, Mashua, and Ulluco TUBERS (not seed–everything except Oca is sterile!) will show up in small quantities in November for a few folks who need them early; the rest of you can get them late winter. Yacons will start showing up next year.

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Wicked bad critters

Yesterday I answered multiple inquiries about the Green Mountain Multiplier onion that were sent through our contact form.

Several inquiries showed up at once; perhaps someone posted a message in a forum telling folks to try us as a source.

In any case, just to let everyone know the bad news, the deer got them. Most of them, anyway; there were a few survivors.

The problem is that I did not realize that deer ate onions. I always thought they stayed away from strongly-flavored foods like onion, garlic, peppers, ginger, and so on. I suspect that’s partially true but a matter of degree, and the onions were just not strong enough to deter hungry deer.

For that matter, we just learned the hard way that deer eat tomatoes too. They pluck the edible fruit neatly off the toxic greens.

They did leave the garlic alone. Almost every single plant is still in place. Maybe it helps that yours truly like really HOT, potent garlic.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I might as well tell the rest of you what I’m talking about. Let’s start at the beginning.

Kelly Winterton grows vegetables. One of his crops is multiplier onions.

Multiplier onions have gotten rare, so it’s probably worth explaining what those are. They’re onions that divide. Some folks call them “potato onions”.

Not to be confused with top-setting onions, also known as “walking onions” and “Egyptian onions”. These you eat the bulb in the ground, and it’s the bulb in the ground that divides, like a shallot. They’re similar to shallots and probably related to them. Unfortunately, they’re not much bigger than shallots either.

You don’t have to grow them from seed, or for that matter, sets, which start as seed someone else grew out. Mr. Winterton wondered what would happen if he did grow them out from seed.

He got a grab-bag of varied onions. What this probably means is that multiplier onions are probably something like an F1 hybrid between 2 different species, perhaps Allium cepa and A. fistulosum. That’s just a SWAG so no flames from the botanists please. Some of them divided the second year, some did not. Some had big bulbs, some small. SOME HAD BIG BULBS AND DIVIDED.

Seeing a benefit, he grew out the ones that are both big and divide. He also selected for pale-colored bulbs.

The result is “Green Mountain Multiplier”.

This is a great example of how a typical backyard gardener can come up with a great idea for a new crop. He generously shared some with me after I whined about the small size of my multpliers. I did a double-take when I saw these bad-boys.

Now onions vary in size, but these are quite a bit bigger than shallots. They’re roughly on the small-to-mid size of a typical greengrocer onion. Because you need fewer of them, they’re less tedious to peel in the kitchen than the typical multiplier onion.

When will they be on the market? Groan…shuffle… Well, as soon as we can get them grown out. We’re back down to 27–I counted them this morning. Each one divides into about 3-5. Let’s say they average 4. That would be 108 bulbs, and that’s assuming 100% survival which seems optimistic at this point.

Let me see if Tim Peters has any ideas about how to multiply them out faster than that so we can get them to you faster.

In the mean time, I’m growing some out from seed. I got a small batch of seedlings from the seed they set last year. For some reason their flowers are not particularly fertile so I did not get a lot of seed last year, and I got none at all this year. Mr. Winterton warned me that they would not breed true, and he was right, but that’s good news actually as I got some pleasant surprises in terms of colors. The next step is to grow these out for another year to see which ones have big bulbs and divide.

The goal would be to see if I can get the combination to breed true from seed. Unfortunately this too is a painstaking process as I have to wait 2 years to see if the bulbs divide, but once they’ve been grown out enough generations, first of all I’ll have lots of them, but ultimately, I’ll have multipliers that come true to seed, which would remove the propagation bottleneck AND avoid buildup of viruses in the bulbs.

We’ve got some other crops with similar propagation bottlenecks. We’re working on it. Smiley

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This was a challenging year for us. We got hit by the coldest spring on record. Of course, in this part of the country, weather records don’t go back all that far; it was a relatively late area to be settled.

So, for example, we don’t have records dating back to 1816, the “year without a summer” aka “eighteen hundred and froze to death”, when New England was hit by the combination of the Dalton Solar Minimum and the eruption of Mt. Tambora. It snowed several times during the summer that year.

We can guess it was pretty cold here that summer. The weather here is naturally a little more stable than that in New England, but it was probably cold enough that most summer crops would have failed for lack of heat units.

Right now we’re in the middle of a cool, almost autumnal August. Getting tomatoes to ripen will be a challenge.

Conventional hybrid corn-seed dusted with fungucide is performing just fine aside from being late, but something went seriously wrong with all the organic OP corn we’re aware of–possibly fungus in the cold wet soil. Our seed was untreated. To its credit, it’s bearing a small crop anyway, but the plants are severely stunted. We’ve heard from others who noticed the same problem.

The weather was hard on warm-weather beans and squashes too. Squash seed from us will be limited next year. Place your order in early!

On the other hand, potatoes being highly flexible are producing something. Yields might be lower than normal but we have so many potatoes we’ll have plenty for next year.

Our grains performed quite well despite the cool weather. No problem ripening most of them.

Right now I’m shopping for seed for hardy root crops such as beets, carrots, rutabagas, and turnips. Normally we would plant these now, which is what I’m planning despite being a bit slow on the ball, but we do have the option of planting them late winter through early spring. If we can guess which years will be colder and wetter than usual, we have the option of planting them for growing through unusually cool summers, when warm-season crops might fail for lack of enough heat.

The general principle is that you diversify your plantings for similar reasons as diversifying your investments: to mitigate risk of total failure. Within the different crops, it also makes sense to intentionally allow more variability within a variety than is usually the case, so that some individual plants can make a crop when their fellows fail. This is an application of Pareto’s law as applied to crops, whereby 20% of your individual plants may provide 80% of the crop.

In 1816, the corn (maize) and potatoes failed, but wheat and rye were near bumper-crops because they tolerate much cooler temperatures than corn, and their primary diseases and pests were kept in check by the cold.

The weighting of the crop mix could be adjusted for the phase of climate cycles that we’re anticipating, much as a portfolio manager can weigh his investments according to what phase of the credit expansion and contraction cycles (“boom and bust”) the economy is heading into.

In terms of planting, that is likely to mean more rutabagas, less corn. NASA had up until fairly recently been predicting a solar maximum that should have already started (and hasn’t) and was to show up “no later than 2012″ that would be so powerful the northern lights would show up south of the 45th parallel. I haven’t see any of the light shows they’ve been predicting so far. If the solar maximum doesn’t show up by 2012 I suggest preparing for the possibility of more and worse of the same as you’ve been experiencing, which will depend on what part of the world you’re in but is likely to be generally colder, and either wetter or drier than usual depending on how the diminution of the Jet Stream impacts your part of the world. Here, getting air masses off the world’s largest ocean, it gets cold and wet.

The earth’s climate has been relatively warm and stable since about 1850, but it is a matter of historical record you can easily confirm for yourself that during “grand solar minima” such as the Dalton Minimum, the Maunder Minimum, and the Spörer Minimum, winters were significantly colder than they are now, and summers shorter and cooler. I suppose it’s also worth noting that technically we’re in an “interglacial epoch” within the Quaternary Ice Age.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to raise food in warmer and preferably more stable weather. Imagine winters as severe as the one that caused the Great Irish Famine of 1740-1741, not to be confused with the later Potato Famine of the summer of 1845. With current population levels and food stocks stretched as tight as they are, there’s not much room for error. I don’t pretend to be able to predict the weather, but there is a hazard that needs to be prepared for. Are you ready?

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