I am sure I am not alone in feeling like a kid in sweet shop when it comes to browsing seed catalogues and preparing sowing plans for the coming year. Long before we even broke ground here I drew up a ‘shortlist’ of seeds that I thought would make a good starting point. This shortlist was, admittedly, not at all short and I have spent the last few years trying to refine it based on our experiences, trying new sorts and removing others depending on how they perform for us. Despite my best efforts, there are still a great many varieties on my list. I must also confess that I have completely ignored my scientific training and made these choices on rather whimsical grounds, and perhaps I ought to conduct more rigorous trials before making such decisions. Perhaps one day, but in the mean time, preparing this year’s seed list was long overdue.
Whilst I have, in the past, grown a few F1 hybrids, I have removed all but two – tomato Sun Gold and sweetcorn Lark – and am trialling alternatives this year that might see me free of hybrids. Of course, I recognise that many people are quite happy to grow modern hybrid sorts, but, along with some objections in principle to hybrid seed, and a feeling that they are neither necessary nor, for the most part, particularly beneficial to the kitchen garden, I look instead for open pollinated varieties. Old varieties have stood the test of time and have been cultivated, perhaps, with other properties in mind than the economics and logistics of the contemporary food industry. Many also have interesting histories and are highly prized in the local regions from which they originated.
At the moment, many of the varieties on my list are popular garden sorts that kitchen gardeners and allotment holders have been growing for many years. There is, though, a wealth of so called heritage or heirloom varieties, many of which might be considered rare; commercial pressures from large producers and the shortsighted stupidity of seed legislation appears to have resulted in the tragic loss of a shocking number of cultivars. According to various estimates that one can find, this loss appears to number in the thousands in just recent decades, yet seed merchants seem to plough on developing what is often, to my mind, junk, whilst our heritage slips through our fingers, never to be recovered. Even if one did not care for our horticultural heritage, the loss of genetic material and diversity is quite foolish. When we manage to narrow down a sensible seed list, I would like to trial a few heritage sorts each year to see how well they perform.
Different varieties perform differently depending on local conditions, especially those pertaining to soil characteristics and treatment, but perhaps this list might be helpful to some, even if only as a starting point. This first article covers root crops. For root crops it is generally best to use fresh seed each year, although beetroot seeds keep well; germination of parsnip seed is particularly poor.
In previously years we have grown Autumn King as a main crop sort without complaint, but the more interesting James Scarlet Intermediate has taken its place for now. We have also grown the round rooted Paris Market, but found it to be of questionable merit unless, perhaps, one’s soil is not suited to normal roots. New to us this year are Jaune Obtuse du Doubs, a yellow carrot that appears to have been originally grown as a fodder crop but is supposedly very fine for culinary purposes, and Touchon, a Nantes type that might be, perhaps, a little more interesting alternative to the commonly grown Early Nantes. We will probably sow a row or two of the latter as we have seed, but may drop it from the list if Touchon is as good as its descriptions suggest. For the earliest sowings, Amsterdam Forcing produces small, slim roots. Chantenay is well known and usually seen as very small roots, although it can produce large roots that retain good flavour.
- Amsterdam forcing
- Early Nantes
- James Scarlet Intermediate (syn. St Valery)
- Jaune Obtuse du Doubs
Parsnips need a long growing season and I make one sowing, provided germination is reasonable, as soon as the soil conditions are warm enough and sufficiently dry. We have tried various sorts, such as Avon Resistor, which has good resistance to canker, and Hollow Crown, and all have performed reasonably well. Perhaps my favourite so far is Guernsey Half Long, so named because it is supposed to produce somewhat shorter more stumpy roots, although our experience does not really support that, ours growing to an impressive size. Despite the name it is an old variety of French origin. Every year so far we have also grown Tender and True, which produces roots of a nice sweet flavour.
- Guernsey Half Long
- Tender and True
In previous years we have grown various red beets, including Detroit and Cheltenham Green Top, but have not found either to be any better than Boltardy. Boltardy is an old sort, but commonly grown, named for its resistance to bolting and hence ideal for early sowing. The colourful heirlooms di Chioggia and Burpee’s Golden have been on our list from the beginning, but this year I am finally hoping to actually sow some.
- Di Chioggia
- Burpee’s Golden
Salsify and scorzonero
Salsify and scorzonero are very similar, in both cultivation and culinary use. I have added a couple of rows of each at the end of the parsnip bed for the last couple of years, but I am not sure there is much point in growing both in one season. They form narrow roots, a little like a skinny parsnip, and need a long season to achieve a decent size. For the coming season, I seem to have acquired from somewhere a packet of some unnamed Italian variety of salsify, but have previously grown the following sorts that we will no doubt return to.
Salsify Sandwich Island
Scorzonero Russian Giant