Among the many sights of Amsterdam, there is the floating flower market, although one is not really aware that the row of large stalls is floating alongside one of the many canals, being so securely fixed in place. Its claim to be the world’s only floating flower market is, then, not nearly as impressive as it might at first appear. January is not the ideal time to visit such an attraction. The great many bulbs and some early flowers were equally matched with tourist tat, but I was pleased to find a wide range of fruit and vegetable seeds for sale and whiled away an hour or so looking for those varieties that are on my ‘list’ as well as one or two new varieties to try.
Two merchants had rather old seed on offer; not past their date, but close. I avoided them entirely. The others, though, offered seed packets with recent packing dates, and a good selection, including some harder to find varieties, such as sweetcorn Golden Bantam, one of the very few open pollinated varieties that can still be found, if somewhat rarely, and swede Champion, also known as Champion Purple Top, a very old sort that again is not easy to find back home. The mainstream seed merchants do not stock either variety, and one must hunt through the offerings of the smaller specialist suppliers that are more interested in preserving the old sorts and our gardening heritage, which mainstream producers seem to care little for.
I must confess that I am not a big fan of the swede, and we grow it mainly for the Finnish Christmas dish, kålrotslåda, which is very popular with the rest of the family. As in previous years, mother-in-law Riitta has been prevailed upon to cook up a large batch for the freezer, which CT will enjoy over the coming months. I have grown two relatively modern non hybrid varieties, the most recent of which, Ruby, produced a good crop of fair sized roots of quite good quality. Having found some seed of Champion Purple Top, though, this will be trialled this year and, provided it gives a reasonable crop and the roots are good for their intended culinary purpose, will replace the more modern sorts.
As has been mentioned in various posts, I am no fan of hybrid varieties. I have some objections in principle, which perhaps may inspire a future article, but also find them dull and uninspiring. I would much rather grow a variety that has stood the test of time, been found to perform well in the kitchen garden, and more importantly offers a fine ingredient for the kitchen. These older sorts often come with an interesting history and their continued cultivation is important not only for maintaining diversity, but because they are part of our horticultural heritage.
I have been somewhat tardy in formulating my seed list for this year. It is a job that must be tackled soon. I did the critical part, by way of selecting pepper, chilli, aubergine, and tomato seeds, which are among the earliest sowings of the new season. The rest of the seeds will be sorted later, but a good many have now been found at the flower market. If I walk past the seeds at one of the local garden centres, I am not likely to find many that I want to grow. I usually have to order most online. I was surprised at the range on offer here, and how many were varieties that I am interested in growing. As well as some old favourites, I picked up a few that I have been curious to try but have not yet grown. These include the very pointy cabbage Filderkraut, more sharply tapered than any other I have come across and ideal for sauerkraut and coleslaw; the winter squash Tonda Padana, one of the more attractive sorts, grey-green heavily ribbed in orange; and leek Bleu de Solaise, an old French variety that is said to stand well through the winter. This leek is not entirely new to me, as I sowed some seed of it last season. I suspect a batch of dead seed, though, as very little germinated. Indeed, I have had several batches of suspect seed from the same supplier, so will not buy from them again. If these perform well, they will find their way onto the regular planting list.
However much I may want to establish a good growing list of sensible sorts, it is just too tempting not to pick up a few new things to try. So, to this year’s sowings will be added the tomatillo and cape gooseberry that I could not resist, both bound for the glasshouse.
Returning to the subject of F1 hybrids, I noted that we grew only seven last year: two tomatoes, Sun Gold and Sweet Million; sweetcorn Lark and Kelvedon Glory; winter squash Crown Prince; and cucumbers Diva and Femspot. Sun Gold and Lark are the only hybrids I will be growing this year. Sweet Million has been dropped from the tomato list; we have grown it for many years, and it is a nice little cherry tomato, but there are just so many superb heirloom sorts that it had no place. Sun Gold is a little more difficult to replace, as it is CT’s favourite for eating straight from the vine. I will continue to grow it until a satisfactory replacement is found. This year we have added Blondkopfchen to the list as a small sweet cherry type so perhaps that will be successful.
I have been rather disappointed with the various hybrid cucumbers we have tried. They have the advantage that they only produce female flowers so one does not have to remove the males, as with an old glasshouse sort such as Telegraph, which can produce bitter fruit if pollinated. However, to my mind, they fall short on flavour. I will only grow two sorts this year: Telegraph in the glasshouse, which produces a good quantity of very large and superbly flavoured cucumbers, and a ridge type, perhaps Marketmore, a fairly modern sort by my standards hailing from the USA in the 1960s. This type of cucumber does not need to have the male flowers removed, and will run around either outdoors or in the polytunnel. Although it seems to take a while to get going, it will go on to produce a good quantity of smaller cucumbers of great flavour later in the year when Telegraph begins to flag a little.
Crown Prince is a good quality winter squash. Under its pale blue grey exterior lies a firm, sweet, orange flesh of fine flavour. It really is a very good squash, but there are a great many open pollinated sorts that could be grown instead, and this year Tonda Padano will replace Crown Prince, alongside our regulars.
An admittedly rather late sowing of sweetcorn Kelvedon Glory was a disappointment last year. Perhaps the conditions were not ideal, but we observed an odd habit of the stems being bent quite markedly at the node where the embryonic cob is forming, putting the male tassels in the wrong place for good pollination and generally resulting in a messy block of plants. Lark, on the other hand, has given us reliable crops of good quality cobs for several years. It produces robust plants, matures early, and fills out the cob well. The only problem is that shared with many hybrids, namely that the crop tends to mature at the same time. Whilst this may be advantageous for the commercial grower wanting to harvest an entire field mechanically, it is not at all desirable in the kitchen garden. Thus the season is rather short, and one needs to make several sowings to provide corn over a reasonable period. Open pollinated varieties of sweetcorn are few and far between, with none of the mainstream seed merchants stocking any. Two varieties can still be found, although rarely: the old yellow sort, Bantam, and the bi-coloured Double Standard. Modern breeding has led to sweetcorn with higher sugar levels and reduced rates of conversion of those sugars to starch, and hence a much better shelf life. Traditional varieties are best cooked and eaten shortly after harvesting. However, some seem to suggest that the flavour of the old varieties may be better. Having now found some seeds of Bantam, we will find out this year whether it is a viable alternative to Lark. We will also grow some of the latter, as we do not want to risk one of our favourite late summer and early autumn treats if Bantam is a disappointment.
It really was great to find so many good traditional varieties at the flower market. At the right time of year, this must be quite a sight, when bursting with fresh cut flowers. For the kitchen garden, though, we were here at just the right time to stock up on our seeds for the coming year. Riitta returned home with a few bags of tulip bulbs as gifts for various friends, being rather appropriate from Amsterdam.