Thursday, 23 February 2012

Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum)

Tomatoes are the basis of many raw food recipes and home grown fruits have an amazing flavour. Now is the time to think about growing them and to get organised. If drying them, as well as eating them fresh, try and grow as many as possible. We usually grow over 40 plants each year but there still never seems to be enough to keep us going all year round.

Heirloom beefsteak tomatoes (dried)

What to grow
Tomatoes are mostly grown as a cordon (straight up a cane) but can also be grown as a bush or in a hanging basket. Tumbling Tom is the one for the hanging basket. For indoor or winter growing try Red Robin which is a tiny plant and can set fruit in low light conditions. San Marzano has a relatively low water content and is used for sauces so is one to use for drying (but they can all be dried). There are white ones (White Beauty), pink ones (Pink Wonder), black ones (Black Krim), yellow ones (Golden Sunrise and Yellow Perfection), small ones (Gardeners Delight), long ones (Incas), pear shaped ones (Yellow Pear) and stripey ones (Tigerella). The Organic Gardening Catalogue has a wide range to choose from including some we've mentioned here.

Sow the seeds in March in pots in a polytunnel, greenhouse or a cold frame. If possible use homemade (seed free) compost for this. However, a selection of animal-free composts can be obtained from The Organic Gardening Catalogue. Station sow two seeds per pot and water in. Keep the pots under cover and don't let them dry out. Remove the weakest seedling when the plants come up. They should take about 8-10 weeks to grow large enough to plant out. If plants get too big for the pot, they can be potted on to larger containers. If planting outside, wait until the frosts have finished first. Plant out with a spadeful or two of homemade compost. Firm the soil down and water using rainwater if available.

If growing cordons, stake the plants with a cane and string as they grow because they cannot support themselves. Depending on the variety the side shoots on the main side branches may need to be pinched out. Some varieties e.g. bush or hanging basket, can just be allowed to grow how they want. Tomatoes can be mulched to keep the moisture in around the shallow roots. They also like a regular liquid feed e.g. comfrey.

Dried tomatoes stored in a sweet jar
Tomatoes can be stored fresh for a certain amount of time. If doing this try to keep them on the vine and hang them in a dry cool place. All tomatoes will ripen eventually although we've found that the beefsteak varieties ripen really well indoors (on or off the vine). Tomatoes can be stored long term by drying using a dehydrator. Slice the tomatoes (including the skins) no thicker than 6mm. Place in a dehydrator and dry for 7-10 hours until brittle. No Teflex type non-stick sheets are required for this. Store in an airtight container until required.

Saving seed
Most modern varieties of tomato seeds are self pollinating and will not cross. If in doubt grow them in seclusion in a polytunnel or greenhouse and exclude any insects that might be carrying pollen from other tomato plants. We highly recommend using Real Seeds method of seed saving. They also have a great selection of seeds.

Raw edible parts
The raw edible parts include the fruit (tomatoes) and oil which is extracted from the seed. The oil contains anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids including a high proportion (54%) of linoleic acid. Seeds are a major waste product from tomato processing industry. However, home growers probably won't have the quantity of seed or equipment required for oil extraction. No other parts of this plant are edible.

Using dried tomatoes
Drying home grown tomatoes extends the tomato season all year round. Dried tomatoes can be eaten as they are or re-hydrated by soaking in water. We often grind them down to a fine powder in a coffee grinder and use them as a flavouring for raw crackers, soups and pasta sauces. Dried tomatoes are really useful as they have a concentrated flavour and add a real depth to any dish.

Perennial alternatives
Tomatoes are perennials but grown as annuals in the British Isles. A similar but much hardier plant is the Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa). They are easy to grow and suffer from few pests and diseases. The best thing about these is that they do not succumb to blight but they can be susceptable to slug damage. As an added bonus each tangy fruit is encased in a lovely green or orange paper case.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)

Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is a biennial/perennial plant. It is also known as Sea Cabbage or Wild Sea Cabbage. It is very useful producing greens all year round particularly in the winter months when other plants are not available. As a wild plant, it will be far more beneficial healthwise than some of the modern hybrids currently available so is really worth growing. The photo below was taken recently and is our Wild Cabbage growing in heavy clay soil in our average back garden. It didn't mind the snow or frozen ground at all.

Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)
Growing Wild Cabbage
Seeds can be purchased but they are not easy to find. Check out Ebay because they are sometimes available here. Wild Cabbage can be grown like any other cabbage. Sow the seeds in the spring in pots or directly in the ground. These plants don't have to be grown half way up a cliff to thrive and actually do well in most garden soils. They are biennial and so flower and set seed in the second year. Thereafter they can more or less be left to their own devices and treated as a hardy perennial.

Raw Edible Parts
Wild Cabbage can be used as a cut-and-come-again plant. The leaves and stems are edible raw but only use the younger stems as the older ones become very tough. The leaves and stems are really good for sauerkraut. The flowering heads, which look like broccoli, are also edible raw and are good for salads. The seeds, like any other cabbage, can be used for sprouting.

Wild Cabbage has grown in the British Isles for hundreds of years and is considered a native British plant. It still grows wild in some areas, particularly on the English coastline. The first evidence of the domestication of Wild Cabbage is taken from the Greeks and Romans, although it is likely to have been domesticated earlier than this. It has been suggested that the Romans or Saxons brought them to Britain. Unfortunately, crops like Brassicas with their soft leaves and stems often leave very little archaeological evidence so it is difficult to be precise about their origins. Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Kale, Kohlrabi and the many different modern Cabbages available today have all been bred from the Wild Cabbage.

Crop Wild Relatives
All of the crop plants grown today for food, energy and other purposes have their origin as wild plants. These wild plants are also known a Crop Wild Relatives. One of the largest families of flowering plants in the UK, which contain Crop Wild Relatives, is the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae). Others include the Grass family (Poaceae), the Legume family (Fabaceae), the Rose family (Rosaceae) and the Carrot family (Apiaceae). The high-yielding modern crop varieties have a limited genetic variability so the Crop Wild Relatives are becoming increasingly important to increase the genetic diversity of domesticated crops.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Nine Star Perennial Broccoli (Brassica oleracea botrytis asparagoides)

These are one of our favourite perennial plants. They are very easy to grow and are much less work than the annual broccoli which has to be sown and grown again and again each year.

Growing perennial broccoli
These plants can be grown from seed in the spring in much the same way as annual broccoli plants. Once the plants are large enough they can be planted outside into a permanent position. They grow to about 50cm - 100cm high and can have a spread up to 100cm so leave enough room for them to grow. Be aware, they won't produce any broccoli (immature flower heads) in the first year because they flower the following spring/early summer.

The wood pigeons loved them, an occasional Cabbage White butterfly paid a visit and the very cold winter of 2010-11 killed them off. On the face of it, this doesn't sound very promising. However, temperatures at that time often reached -8°C and snow laid on the ground for a very long time.

We must have thought these plants were worth growing as we replaced them last spring. These new plants are very healthy with plenty of leaves. They seem to be quite happy with the recent snowfall (see photo) although the temperature in the garden this year has only reached -4°C on odd nights.

The wood pigeons are getting wild bird seed so are less interested in these new plants. For anyone interested in home grown bird seed we buy ours from Vinehouse Farm who grow most of their own seed in the UK. 95% of the seed in the 'Mixed Seed Bird Food' is grown on their own farm in Spalding, Lincolnshire.

The only other thing we would say is make sure that all the flowering heads are picked off before the flowers fully open so that the plant doesn't put its energy into making flowers and seed heads. Also stake any plants that are leaning over as they won't be at their best if they are not given some support. The plants that grew straight didn't seem to need staking even in very windy weather conditions.

Edible parts
The flowering broccoli heads, stems and the leaves are edible raw. The seed can also be sprouted. The flowering heads form in the spring and have a really good flavour. There is one main head in the centre and then lots of smaller heads arranged around the edge of the plant which are really useful for salads. The stems might need peeling as the outer skin tends to get a bit tough. The leaves taste like cabbage and can be picked all year round which makes this really useful plant for winter greens. The broccoli heads and the leaves can be picked as a cut-and-come-again crop.

Benefits of perennial plants
Perennials save the gardener time and money with a one time only purchase and planting. Once plants are established they usually involve very little work to look after them. Perennials are usually far more resilient than annual plants and become adapted to their local environment. They build and protect the soil, providing a permanent (untilled) area encouraging beneficial insects and mycorrhizae. The leaves provide a canopy to prevent soil erosion and suppress unwanted plant growth. The roots and leaves decompose naturally providing a regular stream of organic material for the soil. The roots hold and store water and other nutrients which might otherwise be washed away. Perennials are also often available as a food source when annual short season crops have died down.

There are more perennial plants on the planet than any others. They live longer, storing more carbon than annual plants. Because they live longer, they produce more extensive root systems which are good at adding carbon to the soil. Research at Rothamsted shows that perennial vegetation contains 10-20 tonnes more C per hectare in the subsoil than arable crops (DEFRA, 2010).

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis)

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis or Aloe vera)

Aloe Vera is also known as the Barbados Aloe, Burn Plant, Medicine Plant, Miracle Plant and Wand of Heaven. This is an evergreen perennial and as such will have leaves ready to harvest all year round. It can be grown outside in a sheltered sunny spot but must be brought in during the winter months or during a frost. It also makes a really good house plant and this is probably where most people in the British Isles keep their Aloe Vera plants.

Edible parts
The raw edible parts of this plant are the leaves and the seed. Whilst this plant is easily grown, it doesn't flower freely in the British Isles so seed production may be a bit thin on the ground. We don't have any other information on the seed apart from the fact that they are edible. The leaves consist of three parts. The first is the outer rind or skin. Next comes a layer of aloe latex which is a bitter, yellowy brown substance containing anthraquinones. These are usually filtered out in commercial products and they have strong laxative properties. Last is the centre of the leaf which consists of copious quantities of a tasteless clear gel. This inner gel is not laxative, is safe to eat and this is the bit we normally use.

The International Aloe Science Council explains how aloe is obtained commercially:
"To get to the inner leaf juice (aka aloe gel) without the latex and thus without the laxative effect, the plant is stripped of the outer rind either by hand or by machine (known as "filleting," because the inner leaf without its outer plant shell looks like a fish), and the latex is rinsed away. The remaining material is then ground or crushed into juice. The fibrous pulp is usually discarded. This process leads to aloe that is "decolorized" because removing the yellow latex leaves the juice clear.
Whole-leaf aloe is obtained by grinding the entire aloe leaf, then removing the rind material (usually using an enzyme treatment such as cellulose) and aloe latex via filtration (charcoal is a popular filtration form). A good filtration process removes the aloe latex down to 10 ppm or less in orally administered finished products and 50 ppm or less in cosmetic applications." 

Obtaining the gel for home use
Take a sharp knife and slice off a leaf from the bottom of the plant close to the base. New leaves grow up from the middle so try to avoid taking those. Be careful of the edges of the leaves because they are serrated and quite prickly. Plop the base of the leaf straight into a mug or glass temporarily otherwise gel will ooze everywhere. When ready, take the leaf and place it flat on a chopping board and slice it in half lengthwise with a chef's knife. Scrape out the gel with the flattened knife and tip the gel into straight into a bowl or blender. Use immediately otherwise the gel will oxidise and lose its beneficial properties. It would probably be OK in the fridge for a couple of hours but don't keep it for long. This gel is good added to smoothies or used on the skin as a wound healer. It is particularly good for burns and is very soothing. Aloe Vera has long been used as a home remedy and has many other medicinal applications.

Growing Aloe Vera
Aloe Vera can be grown from seed but the seeds may take months to germinate. Sow during the spring in a free draining compost. Keep in a warm sunny spot like a greenhouse until the seedlings have grown and then pot on. It is probably quicker and easier to propagate this plant by taking cuttings or by removing the little offset plants or pups which are produced around the edge of the mother plant. These come with their own root and can be gently prised away from the mother plant. Use a knife if need be to cut the little plants free. Let the cut dry out or scab over and then pot them up.

If growing from cuttings, slice off a bottom leaf from the mother plant and leave it to dry so that the bottom scabs over. It may take a few days. Then place in a pot of free draining compost making sure a third of the plant is below the soil. Keep the soil moist for the first few weeks. The stalk may shrivel a bit but don't worry and don't over water. It should root quite quickly.

General care
Water the plants about once a month but let the soil dry out in between watering. Aloe Vera can be grown in most soils but prefers a free draining soil suitable for a cactus. We don't feed ours with anything in particular except leftover herbal tea. We do, however, refresh most of the soil every year preferring to use our own home made vegan organic compost for this.

We tried growing the Aloe outside but ended up faffing about worrying about it being too cold or frosty. Beware if dark shrivelled leaves appear as they are a sign of frost damage. We thought it would like a hot sunny spot but found that it didn't like direct sunlight at all. In fact the leaves turned an orangey/brown colour and become very stressed. Ours do much better inside than out and the plants are much easier to use especially during the winter.