Confessions of an Ocaholic

gob-1356-2Meet GOB (Guild of Oca Breeders) 1356, harvested in early December. It’s a cheeky little number with attractively flushed red/pink skin and creamy white eyes. My chief tasters were pleasantly surprised by its sweet taste and refreshingly delicate, yet acidic endnote. They were also impressed with the soft, buttery texture and bite-sized proportions of these diminutive rosy tubers which can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted. They did, however, request baked beans with them next time!

I first detected my leaning towards ocaholism (a technical term!) a few years ago when I bought five tubers of Oxalis tuberosa from Real Seeds because they looked interesting and different. I was attracted by their being unaffected by blight (as they aren’t related to potatoes) and their edible leaves (a bonus in a small garden containing even smaller children with a penchant for eating anything they came across). What I didn’t realise was how they would brighten up my autumn days, introduce me to a plethora of other South American tubers, lead me to join The Guild of Oca Breeders and participate in a fascinating study of the habits of this lesser-known member of the oxalis family.

A Little Oca History

Oca originates from the Andean mountain regions around Peru and Bolivia, where it is still widely grown. It has been grown a little in the UK over the past 150 years, but has never been commercially viable due to limited yields. Its common name, ‘New Zealand yam’ (although it’s not a true yam from the genus Dioscorea), comes from its popularity as a vegetable in New Zealand where it was introduced around 1860.

The Guild of Oca Breeders

This dedicated group of breeders are passionate about breeding oca varieties selected for early tuberisation, thus creating a crop which will be less affected by declining light levels, falling temperatures and early frosts. Oca starts to form tubers around the Autumn equinox, which this year was 22 September. If frosts occur too soon after this date the foliage withers and the tubers stop growing, or even rot. In the same way that decades of selection is believed to have bred potatoes which thrive in the UK, the Guild of Oca Breeders hopes to use people power to select oca varieties which will give higher yields.

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Tubers in pots to encourage early growth

My GOB oca went in at the allotment in June and has been growing away happily, unaffected by pests or disease, until I harvested it this week. Even the foliage and stems are interesting, with different habits and different colours ranging from light green, through dark green and pinks, to reds and purples. It really is a low maintenance crop, needing only occasional watering and protection from nibbling by deer on the allotment.

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The different colours and growing habits of my GOB Oca

The last couple of days have been spent happily washing, sorting, weighing and tasting the different varieties to ascertain which might be worth cross-pollinating when the cycle starts all over again next year. In the meantime, we’ve had fun exploring this Andean treasure in all its sensory beauty.

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Some of the washed and sorted December Oca harvest

A Fun Family Crop

Oca has a number of attractions as an allotment or garden vegetable…

1. When chitted (not necessary, but ours sometimes chit of their own volition) they look like little aliens. Once I planted some out with my son and one of his friends (both aged about 5) and they were most intrigued. His friend came round for tea last week and still remembered planting the odd red tubers from two years ago.

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Chitted Oca is a vegetable with personality

2. They come in a range of shiny rainbow colours – I’ve added ‘Bicolor’ to ‘Helen’s All Red’ this year as well as my 14 GOB varieties. Other varieties have delightful names like ‘Raspberry Ripple’, ‘Strawberries and Cream’ and ‘Occidental Gems’.

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My favourite Guild of Oca Breeders varieties this year

3. They are a versatile, nutritious and tasty vegetable. Unlike potatoes, oca can be eaten raw (with a taste like a lemony cooking apple), although I prefer them cooked (good in stir-fry, mashed with or without potato or roasted.) With a Sunday roast, they add a delicious lemony note to other roasted vegetables, taking 20-30 minutes in the oven with a tiny drizzle of oil.

If you like Oca…

You might also like to have a go with some of these other interesting Andean tubers. I’ll be trialling some next year, so look out for more tuber-related posts coming soon…

  1. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. I currently have two yacon plants waiting in pots in the house, ready to go outside next spring.
  2. Mashua or Peruvian Ground Apple (Tropaeolum tuberosum) – another tender Andean tuber related to garden nasturtiums with a peppery flavour
  3. Ulluco or Papalisa (Ullucus tuberosus) – vivid coloured tubers with succulent, edible foliage. Another beautiful crop to harvest in winter and brighten any cold December day.

I’d love to hear from anyone who enjoys growing tubers – what do you grow and how has it been this year? If you’d like to read more about my adventures with more unusual and delightful plants, you can subscribe to the blog below:

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Allotment 96B: The Unusual, the Innovative and the Just Plain Weird…

Five months into allotment life and we’re hooked and starting to plan for next year. I’ve really enjoyed having more space to experiment, especially with some more unusual crops, and now it’s time to take stock. Here’s my conclusions so far on which have impressed and definitely made it into the seed list for next year and which are all show and no substance…

Fat Baby Achocha

My fat baby achocha (Cyclanthera pedata or possibly Cyclanthera brachyastacha – see Real Seeds website for further information) has been slow to start this year. Having grown other achocha before, I expected the allotment to be covered with rampaging vines, but until a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t that much growth and only a few fruit. Some other UK growers seemed to having similar experiences, so I guess the weather might have been to blame. However, my fat babies have been making up for lost time recently and I don’t think I’m going to need to buy green peppers for the foreseeable future.

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A snuggle of fat babies (or any other appropriate collective noun)

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This is where my fat babies live, next to my black-eyed susans

If you haven’t grown achocha, I would classify them in the ‘unusual’ category. They haven’t revolutionised the way I grow or cook, but they are easier to grow in bulk than standard peppers and can be used in much the same way. They work well when small as a raw addition to salads and are great in stir fried or on pizza when they get bigger.

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Mushroom and achocha pizza for tea

 

Trombocino

This climbing courgette (Cucurbita pepo) is a sweet tasting variety of butternut squash which can be eaten fresh or ripened and stored as a winter squash. This little baby trombocino is destined for courgette and chilli cornbread, but the daddy trombocino is still lurking in the undergrowth ready for harvest and measuring for the end of September for the Sutton’s Cup. I’m sure it won’t be the winning specimen, but it’ll be fun finding out.

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Ta da da da da da daaaaaa….

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Big Daddy trombocino

I like trombocinos for their versatility, ornamental value and productivity. I’d definitely grow them again and they fall into my ‘unusual’ category.

Oca

Oca or New Zealand yam (Oxalis tuberosa) originates from the Andes. I first grew it several years ago because, unlike potatoes, the foliage isn’t poisonous and is not susceptible to blight. Now the children are a little older it’s not so important to avoid poisonous plants, but the oca has thrived and become a family favourite.

Who could resist planting these little aliens?

Here’s my top 5 reasons why I’d place oca in the ‘innovative’ category…

  1. It is harvested around November when there is little else of interest in the vegetable garden. My kids and I love winter forays into the frosty garden (oca is best harvested after a hard frost has killed the foliage), returning with piles of red and yellow jewels – enough to brighten everyone’s day.
  2. They are very easy to grow, require no specialist knowledge and can be used in a range of ways – mashed, roasted or even raw in salads.
  3. You can save large tubers in paper bags in a dark place over winter and bring into the light to chit in early spring, which means unless you want to try new varieties, this is a very cheap crop to grow.
  4. The foliage is edible – with a lemony tang rather like sorrel. As with rhubarb, spinach and sorrel, oca leaves and tubers contain oxalic acid and therefore should only be eaten in small amounts and avoided by people who suffer from arthritis, gout and certain other ailments (for further information see the Plants For a Future Database). Tubers can be left in the light for a week or two after harvest to reduce the oxalic acid context and sweeten the taste.
  5. They are at the forefront of a movement to democratise the plant breeding process by the Guild of Oca Breeders – a group of gardeners, farmers and horticulturalists who are working to create an ‘open source and genetically diverse, day neutral oca’. This should help to improve yields, making the crop more successful in northern latitudes. I’m enjoying being part of this experiment, trying different varieties, studying growth habits and dissecting the beautiful yellow flowers to learn about how they are structured.

Planting and labelling duties

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Hoping we get another harvest like this in November…

 

Fuchsiaberry

My husband loves fuchsias and we’ve amassed a small collection of hardy fuchsias in pots and in the front garden. I can’t resist anything which purports to be edible, so I’ve tried the berries of our fuchsias with increasing reluctance as I encountered increasingly watery, insipid fruits with a most unpleasant astringency in the mouth afterwards. So when I read about the new Fuchsiaberry fuchsia from Thompson and Morgan, bred to be a heavy cropper and to have ‘large sweet fruits packed with vitamin C and nutrients’, I was intrigued.

Beautiful flowers and large berries

I planted the 5 plugs in pots, grew them on and then planted them in the allotment earlier in the season. They have grown moderately well, although a couple are suffering from the hot conditions and they have some dieback. The remaining 3 plants have plenty of attractive flowers and this week the fruits started to appear. They are a rich burgundy and promise juicy pickings, so I was disappointed when the taste was reminiscent of my hardy fuchsia berries, but with perhaps a slightly less astringent after effect. Maybe it’s something about the growing conditions or when I harvested them (they were plump and juicy), but I can’t see the Fuchsiaberry fulfilling its promise to ‘change allotments and flower borders in the UK’ if everyone else’s berries taste like mine do. I’m afraid, in my allotment at least, this experiment has been relegated to the ‘just plain weird’ category!

Some other unusual favourites

That’s it for the more unusual in the allotment this year, but I’m still experimenting in the garden with cucamelons, lemon grass, tree chillies, honeyberries, inca berries, Chilean guava, coffee and tea. Now I have the allotment space, my plans for next year include earth chestnuts, yacon, ulluco (two more South American tubers), perennial kale – possibly sea kale and/or Daubenton’s kale and my tomatillos will be reappearing after failing to germinate twice this year. I’ll still be growing beetroot, sprouts, tomatoes, potatoes, raspberries, carrots and many more ordinary staples, but I wouldn’t be without the wacky, weird and wonderful for all the tubers in the Andes.

Have unusual crops done well in your allotments this year? I’d love to hear about what you’re growing and how it’s going (especially if anyone’s had good experiences with Fuchsiaberry and can convince me to give it another go!) Thanks.

If you’d like to know how my unusual and more regular crops are getting on throughout the year, do follow my blog:

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

 

 

10 Exciting Crops to Grow in a Modern Kitchen Garden

When we first arrived at Chelsea we made a beeline for the Great Pavilion and my favourite kind of display – those which combine beauty and productivity. I really enjoy the Pennard Plants gardens and always come away with ideas for new crops to grow the following year.

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Allotment gardens to let…

This year was no different. The gold medal winning display covered 90 years of growing, exploring how allotments have developed since 1926 and the birth of Queen Elizabeth II. The first allotment plot included a greenhouse from the 1870s and was planted with fruit and vegetables of the period. There was a regimented air to the planting with all the crops standing to attention in military rows. The plot was packed with vibrant, healthy plants and focused largely on producing as many essential vegetables as possible to supply the demand for food after WW1. The allotment contained examples of vegetables grown from Pennard Plants’ heritage seed range and also included a compost area and beehive – valuable resources then as now.

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Neat and productive 1926 allotment plot

The middle plot was a Chelsea Pensioners Allotment and emulated some of the allotment cultivation going on in the Royal Hospital every year. This time the planting was more mixed, with flowers, fruit and vegetables growing together in cheerful harmony. Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’ and ‘Alaska’ provide peppery leaves and petals for salads and young seed pods can be pickled as an alternative to capers. Borage and calendula attract the pollinators and their petals can also be used in salads, whilst in the foreground Moroccan Mint and Creeping Red Thyme provide leaves for tea and add flavour to all manner of soups, stews and salads.

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The Chelsea Pensioners Allotment is both productive and beautiful

The third plot brought the story up to date with the Modern Allotment. Many of the planting was container-based in galvanised troughs allowing plot holders to move their crops between sites and enabling people to grow in the smallest of spaces. This modular and moveable approach to growing works well in rented properties. The ability to maximise growing space by adding extra soil depth to raised beds also allows gardeners with small outdoor spaces the opportunity

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My reflective shed selfie

The mirrored shed designed to merge into the background was a modern take on allotment storage and the plot also housed chickens and bees, suggesting the role of animals in modern self-sufficiency. However, it was the more unusual fruit and vegetables which lured me in – resulting in my spending a long time taking pictures, asking questions and swapping advice.

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The exciting modern allotment – with spiral trained apple tree

Some of these 10 unusual crops I’ve grown before and are now family favourites, some I’ve heard about and wanted to try, and others are exciting new discoveries. Read on to try something new or add your comments to the blog post and let me know what has worked for you, what hasn’t and any tips you’d give the novice grower:

1. Ground nut (Apios americana) – climbing herbaceous vine with edible tubers and seed pods. Mild flavour and 3 times the amount of protein of modern potatoes. Likes moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Would work well in forest gardens as it can be left to climb through shrubs or trees.

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The ground nut vine

2. Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum) – beautiful umbellifer which would be at home as much in the flower garden as the allotment. Tubers taste of chestnuts and both leaves and seeds can be used as a flavouring or garnish. Easy to grow and hardy. I’ll be trying this one out next year…

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Beautiful earth chestnut flowers

3. Red perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) – a cut and come again salad leaf from Southeast Asia. This half-hardy annual looks stunning for those who like colour in the vegetable plot or who aspire to create a potager garden as an ornamental as well as productive feature. Can be used to give a scarlet colour to pickled dishes and flower buds and seeds can also be eaten. Mild aniseed-mint flavour, milder than green varieties. Grow from seed each year.

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Striking red perilla

4. Chinese celery (Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’) – beautiful variegated leaves with a pink tinge to the outer edge. Distant relative to parsley, the leaves are best steamed or used as a garnish and have a celery-like taste. Needs a moist, semi-shaded spot in the garden. Vigorous grower, hardy down to about -10.

Warning – many members of this genus are extremely poisonous, so if you intend to harvest the plant, ensure it comes clearly labelled with the correct Latin name.

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Chinese celery looks attractive and delicate

5. Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) – the Japanese horseradish root has a spicy heat which livens up all manner of dishes, such as mashed potato, salads (good in salad dressing) and marinades. The plant takes 2 years to reach maturity and needs acid soil with moist, shady conditions. It can be grown in pots of aquatic compost placed in a tray of water or in boggy ground.

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Spicy wasabi

6. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – a tuber from Peru, closely related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. They look rather like potatoes and have a taste rather like a pear crossed with mild celery – in Peru they are eaten more as a fruit than a vegetable. The plants are perennial – dig the tubers up to harvest and select several large tubers to overwinter in a frost free place. These can then be planted out the following spring.

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Yacan is another tuber worth trying…

7. Callaloo (Amarathus spp.) – this attractive plant is also known as amaranth or love lies bleeding and is often used as an ornamental specimen. The seeds can be sown direct from late May to early August and will grow into plants for cropping within 6 weeks. Leaves can be used as a cut and come again salad crop and also fried in curries or cooked in soups – basically used in the same way as spinach. My confession is that I sowed two packets of callaloo seed last year at two different times and not a single seed germinated. Any thoughts on what I was doing wrong would be gratefully received!

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Vibrant callaloo – clearly doesn’t like my garden

8. Mexican tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) – an annual which will self-seed and is a relative of quinoa and the weed fat hen (Chenopodium album) which is also edible. The young leaves and tips can be harvested continually and used as a leafy green in the same way as spinach and with a similar taste.

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Galvanised troughs with an interesting range of salad leaves – like mexican tree spinach

9. Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) – a frost tender perennial herb with a lemony coriander taste. It can be grown in a pot and overwintered indoors or simply transplanted from the ground to a pot for overwintering. Grow in a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade, in rich, fertile soil. Can be eaten fresh in salads and used in soups and stews.

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Vietnamese coriander with its striking leaf patterns

10. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – a favourite tuber in our family, we’ve been growing this Andean tuber crop for several years now and this year I’m also growing 14 trial plants as part of the Guild of Oca Breeders study to develop a genetically diverse, day neutral oca which will crop more heavily in the UK than current varieties. Oca can be a range of bright colours from yellows to whites, reds and pinks. They are harvested around November and nothing makes me happier in the rather drab autumn vegetable garden than digging up a treasure trove of little red gems to roast for tea. The tubers are sweeter if left for a fortnight or so on a sunny windowsill. They have a lemony taste and can also be eaten raw. Leaves can also be eaten, provided they are taken in moderation so as not to disturb the plant’s growth and eaten in moderation as they contain oxalic acid like sorrel, spinach and rhubarb. Leaves should not be consumed if you suffer from rheumatism or arthritis.

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Oca – a family favourite

I also got a lovely collection of new chillies to grow from seed next year, recommended by Chris Smith at Pennard Plants. The rest of my family would probably say I already grow enough different chillies, but I love experimenting with new plants. If you would like to try something new, you can get more information on the Pennard Plants website. Follow my blog for more ideas on growing something a bit different and let me know how you get on…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.