Friday, 21 March 2008

Purple pleasures

More sprouts ?
No, it’s not Christmas already. I refer instead to one of the great staples of the allotment or vegetable garden grower, the purple sprouting broccoli. Often shortened to purple sprouting, it is closely related to the more popular green broccoli. The obvious difference being the colour, a rich warm pinky purple tone. The first cut from the plant is a medium to large head, or to give it it’s correct name, a curd. Exactly like a cauliflower or any other broccoli relative, it is in fact a tightly packed collection of tiny flower buds. Incidentally, if left to flower they produce small simple flower with four butter yellow petals. Pretty, but not that tasty by comparison. The actual sprouting refers to the secondary crop, the smaller side shoots. With green broccoli, they are sold as broccoli spears but for this crop, we use the term, purple sprouting. Again, like most of the family, they take a while to produce anything edible, apart from the leaves. To this point, I sowed a tray of early purple sprouting seed and also a row outside at the same time. The tray I popped into a plastic cover frame inside my little shed and both sowings emerged fresh and green in less than a week. I had tried both options with the anticipation that if the weather was too cold outside, then the protection of the indoor cloche would help the tray. The tray of seedlings now need to start to slow down or harden of before they can risk the great outdoors as the warm start means a sudden drop in temperature would stop them in their tracks if not kill them altogether. Imagine growing up in a sauna then one day being plunged in an ice bath. The effect is similar. Gradual acclimatisation is the order of the day. To that end I have knocked together a temporary structure to give a little protection outdoors when I move the little darlings from the relative comfort of the little blue cabin they now call home.
The seedlings from last year are being cropped now, meaning that it takes about 12 months to go from seed to stomach. That’s a long time in the ground but it also means they are available at a time when not a lot else is. The glory boys of summer, the salad crops, are still just a dream and the warm hues of autumn are a distant memory so anything filling and flavoursome is welcome during the biting cold of early spring.
Most early crops that are available right now are generally things that are ready quite late in winter but are capable of withstanding the weather to last until the new crops start to establish themselves. Things like parsnips and swede, hardy roots or leeks and stored onions.
Hmm. Onions. That reminds me of something , so I’ll get back to that later.
The second sowing of early peas are now poking through the soil, so I will still have a good crop, but in two stages instead of all at once. That is a kind of enforced successional sowing, something you should practice anyway. It just means sowing smaller amount but in regular repetition. That way, you get smaller amounts but when you have finished cropping them, the next batch is ready. It helps to keep your supply fresh and stops the need to store all your needs in one fell swoop. We can either buy a months supply of groceries once a month or visit the local shops weekly, or daily if we wish. Succession gives you the same choices with your crops.
Now that the weather has improved, honestly it has, the alliums are starting to break into life. The Allium family on my plot includes garlic, red and white onions and shallots. All of those are now bursting with life, the garlic having been showing tall slim leaves since before Christmas after a planting in late autumn.
Right, back to that onion reminder.
About now, we should be looking at seeds.
Runner beans, French beans, peas, carrots, beetroot, lettuce or cabbage, all sorts of vegetables and some fruits start out in our soils as seeds but what are seeds and why do plants start as seeds anyway?
Plants can reproduce in a number of ways, division, cuttings, layering or seeds, but why do we choose seeds so often?
Seeds are a direct result of sexual reproduction the same as animal offspring and as such carry genetic characteristics from both parents. That can be a plus point or a minus, depending on which characteristics they carry. By careful breeding, growers usually manage to separate the good attributes from the bad. That could be , good flowering stamina, a strong beautiful scent or a heavier root or fruit. It can also mean stronger resistance to disease or a lack of bitterness , a shorter stem for windy positions or an ability to tolerate colder climates.
It’s most practical to store seeds rather than keeping cuttings or divisions in storage, so for things that need to be held back until we want to restart their growth, seeds fit the bill.
A seed is just a storage organ, like a small pocket of energy that contains just enough fuel to allow the plant to establish a supply line to feed itself.
The food it holds within that tiny capsule can stay fresh and available for months even years in the right conditions. It also has a built in regulator to ensure the seed is only woken into activation at precisely the right time, when growing conditions are perfect.
To that end, most vegetable seeds just need the right temperature and amount of moisture whereas some specialist flower species need extreme conditions to break them from their slumber.
The most famous of these is probably the Flanders poppy. Lying dormant in the soil of Flanders field in France for several seasons, the seeds were shaken into life when the huge number of bombs, bullets and fires ripped open the ground and let the rains penetrate deep into the blood soaked soil. The blood red petals now represent those who fell in battle as a result of the sight of those red flowers waving in the wake of such horrors.
In countries of extremes such as the Australian outback, plants have become accustomed to seasonal forest fires or floods so the seeds have adapted and do not burst into growth until those conditions have passed.
When we gardeners try to germinate seeds from such regions, we sometimes have to reproduce those same conditions before the seeds will cooperate.
Now, back to onions. They are not seeds but bulbs. As such they are fully grown plants but because they need to survive winter without exposing themselves to the weather, they store energy in the swollen stem below the soil level, the bulb. Like wise with garden bulbs, daffodils and tulips, crocuses and more.
Once again, they know when to start growing in the spring.
So, energy storage like a battery, a timer, a moisture detector and a temperature gauge all in a tiny little package that we, ultimately ,just want to eat.
Not bad for just a seed.

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