Posts from the ‘Heirloom plants’ category

Mashua: AKA Perennial Nasturtium

Nasturtiums are my favourite plant ever – one of my earliest memories is of drinking rain drops out of their leaves (cause that’s how the fairies did it) and they’ve really stuck with me ever since. As I grew older I loved the fact the you can eat the leaves, flowers and make ‘poor man capers’ out of the seed pods, plus they’re a great living mulch in the garden, attract beneficial insects and easy on the eye.

Over the years I’ve planted them in pretty much every house I’ve lived in and these days I have a giant mural of them on our bathroom wall. I even took it to the next level and requested that Anton (my now husband) sew my wedding dress so it depicted a nasturtium patch… And he did – it’s amazing, as is he. So when I found out that there’s a perennial nasturtium (called mashua) only less than a year ago – well, I got excited.

Mashua-PhotosImage from here

It’s official name is Mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) and it was traditionally grown in South America as a root crop. That’s right people, you can eat the leaves, flower AND TUBERS. I know, amazing.

While it is a perennial, it’s sensitive to frost and cold so will die back in winter and grow fresh plants from new tubers in spring. So late winter is the time to pull it up, subdivide all those tubers for eating and/or growing.

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It grows rampantly as a climber or ground cover and the flowers and leaves are similar to the common nasturtium plant, but have their own twist.

mashua-Pilifera-plant-1024x767Image from here

IMG_3939The leaves die back as the cold sets in with winter

As this was the first time we grew the plant, we just watched to see what would happen. They spread out under our fruit trees, had a half hearted go at flowering (it was a bit cold) and then slowly started to shut down and go ‘green/brown’ as winter set in.

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In recent weeks we started weeding the orchard and noticed a plethora of tubers at the base of each plant. Up until then, we didn’t realise that (a) they had such prolific tuber production and, (b) you could eat them. It was a happy day of discoveries that one. So far we’ve only tried eating them roasted (just like potatoes), sadly we weren’t in love with their taste, but will keep trying different recipes until we are.

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And they’re beautiful, don’t you think? We’ve currently got a big bowl of them in our house and each friend who comes through leaves with at least one in their pocket to have a go in their own gardens. Plus we’ve sent some over to the Hobart City Farm to grow in their perennial beds. Gotta spread the love round.

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We’re feeling a bit ‘mashua rich’ at the moment – all this loot came  from one plant.

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From what we can gather, mashua generally grows in a temperate climate and, like seed potatoes you can cut each one into smaller bits, with each one becoming its own plant. If you do this, just make sure each piece has at least two eyes (the dimply depressions) on it and that you harden them off so the cut can dry out and form a callus.

Where can you get your own mashua plant?

If you’re lucky enough to be in Tasmania, visit Provenance Growers at the Hobart Farm Gate Market and they’ll sort you out. If you’re in the US, I found this fantastic mob called Cultivariable who stock it, plus a million other great, lesser known food plants.

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Soil Blocking

While we don’t actually own any (yet), we’re quite taken with the wonderfully efficient soil blockers. Recently I got to use them while helping plant a couple of thousand tomato seeds with some of our mates. When I say I ‘helped’ do this, I really mean I mostly played with my 1 year old niece while my mates planted them. I did actually do some work, for at least 15 minutes – but I’m not sure that really counts. But hey, I was there, did some blocking and I liked it, really liked it. Here’s the low down on why.

Soil blocking is exactly what it says it is, where you make blocks of soil of varying sizes. To do so you use the very cool contraptions shown below. The smallest on the left if the one you usually start with (depending on the plants you’re growing) where you’re providing the seeds with just enough soil, space and nutrients to get started.

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Once they’ve poked their heads up and have two or more leaves the blocks are ready to be upgraded to the next size block. But unlike the usual transplanting methods which can be a bit (or a lot) disruptive to the seedling’s root system this technique is seamless. You simply pop the whole block into the next size block as you can see below. This means there’s no stress caused to the seedling and the root system can continue on it’s own merry way, expanding into the additional space provided.

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The blocks are like babushka dolls, where one fits within another which then fits within another…. Image from here.

Another cool thing about this method (there are quite a few) is that there is no chance of the roots getting ‘root bound’ which is a common occurrence when seedlings are left in containers too long. Instead, the roots are ‘air pruned’ which means once they reach the boundary of their soil block, air prunes them from going any further, so they can develop a healthy, naturally shaped root system.

root_bound_vs._root_prunedA root bound seedling on the left – a common ailment of leaving them too long in containers and seed blocking showing a healthy root system forming which has been air pruned. Image from here.

But lets backtrack a bit to the very start. To make sure your blocks have good ‘form’ and don’t crumble, you have to get the soil mix bang on.   We made a mix up with the rough ratios of 3 parts worm castings (you can also use good compost), 1 part sand (river sand) and 1 part coco peat (coconut fibre). The worm castings are the ‘glue’ to the mix making sure the whole thing holds its shape, the sand provides drainage and air pockets while the coco peat does a brilliant job at holding moisture and nutrients in the block.

3Mr James Da Costa working hard

The mix needs to looks crumbly and when you squeeze it tightly there should only be around one drop of water coming out of it, no more. We use this great sieve do screen the mix, removing any bulky items and making sure there’s good ‘fluff’ factor. It’s made from timber lying around the garden and vermin mesh.

4Once the mix is ready to go you can get going on your blocking. We used the smallest blockers as we were planting out a whole bunch of tomato seeds (which are tiny and don’t need much space). Other plants may be best to start in some of the larger blocks.

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There’s a bit of technique involved to make a good ‘block’, it requires a firm, yet gentle hand and a bit of caution. But after a few goes you’ll have you method sorted and pump them out.

5You can plant your blocks directly into a standard tray or make your own. James whipped up a whole bunch of these great planting flats made from timber and corflute which are super easy to stack to transport around. The downside to this design is the lack of airflow which means you can have some fungus growing on the timber. As a result we’ll be transferring the blocks into standard trays to increase the air flow factor shortly.

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Fin rocking the blocking!

A little trick to be mindful of is to dunk your soil blocker into a bucket of water in between each ‘blocking’. This ensures that the blocks can slide out easily without getting caught on soil bits left behind from last time.

Once your blocks are all laid out you can plant your seeds. If you look closely you’ll notice that each block has a little hole in the middle – this is created automatically when you do the blocking and is designed for the seed to be placed perfectly in there. Once you’ve done so you can come back with a dusting of soil mix to cover them up and water them in using a spray bottle/mister thing.

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A couple of weeks later and they’re now ready to be upgraded to the next size block – yay! However, due to having some older seed, some of them aren’t quite ready to move up a size yet, but that’s ok we’ll just have them at varied stages which isn’t the end of the world.

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Soil blockers are one of those life changing tools which can save you bucket-loads on time and provide you with a superior product. We love their low-tech style and the results you get, so many wins with these gadgets!

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 *Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

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The beauty of heirlooms

There is a lot of beauty in food, especially in the heirloom (aka heritage) department. These days we expect carrots to be orange, tomatoes to be red and bananas and corn to be yellow. But once upon a time it was normal for all of these to be most colours of the rainbow. Due to the industrialisation of food, crops are no longer chosen based on their taste, nutritious qualities and ability to suit local conditions. They are now selected and grown based on how well they can travel vast distances and how good they look for the supermarket shelves.

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This chart is a bit of a wake up call as to how the mainstream food system determines the food we are exposed to at the local supermarket.

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Did you know that the carrot used to mostly be purple and that the orange carrot is relatively new thing which was cultivated around 400 years ago. You can learn more, so much more, through the UK’s Carrot museum. Image from here.

Without trying very hard at all, we mostly source heirloom seeds through our local networks, our own seed saving and through businesses like The Diggers Club, Phoenix Seeds and Southern Harvest. Initially our key attraction to heirloom is the fact that you get soooo much more diversity, interesting tastes and really strange/fun looking crops. But the more we grow them, the more we’re addicted to the fact they taste so much better than non heirloom varieties and we also love being part of preserving age-old plant varieties.

So what exactly does heirloom mean? “Heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re non-hybrid and pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. How experts define heirlooms can vary, but typically they are at least 50 years old, and often are pre-WWII varieties. In addition, they tend to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next.”

Some people are very strict on ensuring their heirloom seeds are pre-WWII, this is because a lot of the left-over chemicals used for warfare were directed into conventional agriculture as fertilisers and pesticides – forever altering our food scape. Other people aren’t so strict about this timeline, but it’s something to be aware of.

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Baby blue pop corn which we’ve recently harvest from our own garden. We were gifted this seed from a friend last year and simply couldn’t resist it. We’re in the process of waiting for it to dry out properly so we can make blue pop corn with it. Apparently this seed was originally sourced from The Lost Seed, however last time I checked it was no longer in stock. I passed on some seed to the Southern Harvest mob in Tasmania who will be growing it up for selling.

purple-cauliflowerPurple broccoli, image from here

variedades_nativas_500Potato heaven, image form here

ahNzfnJlYWx0aW1lZmFybXMtaHJkcgwLEgNQaWMYuN-yBAwRainbow beetroots, image from here 

Are there any downsides to growing heirlooms? They are more irregular in that you can get a mixed bag of shapes and sizes which is hard to market to the supermarket who are looking for ‘perfect looking’ foods only. Because of these irregularities it can also be more challenging to design efficient harvesting and processing systems. But really, these are the concerns of the large-scale, monoculture focused farmers. Small-hold family farmers don’t have these same problems to the same degree, but there is so much politics wrapped up in this discussion which I’ll leave for another day.

heirloom-tomatoes  Tomatoes, image from here

88_1ROMANESCORomanesco broccoli, spirals within spirals within spirals, image from here

glass-gem-corn-photo-500x375Glass gem corn, image from here

If you’re wondering how to actually get started in growing your own food and save seed, you can join us this November for our Real Skills for Growing Food workshop – it’s going to be a very hands-on, jam packed weekend!

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*Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

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