Friday, 30 October 2015

Chai Cider Tea

Here is a very simple little thing; more of a trick than a recipe, definitely a treat.  Since there are a number of chai flavoured teas around, both black and herbal, use your favourite, and be prepared to adjust proportions and brewing times according to their differences and  your taste.

A commenter on one of my favourite sites, The Toast, mentioned this as an idea, and I went off and bought the cider at once. Another reason to regard it as one of my favourite internet places to visit.

per 1 or 2 servings
10 minutes prep time

2 cups apple cider,
OR 2 cups apple cider and water mixed
1 chai flavoured tea bag, black or herbal

For a stronger flavoured, sweeter drink, use straight apple cider, but if you prefer the tea flavour to predominate, use up to half water - a little experimentation will determine the correct proportions for you. Bring the cider, or cider and water, to a boil. Turn off the heat, throw in the teabag at once, cover and let steep for 4 to 7 minutes, until brewed to your liking. Remove the teabag and serve.

Last year at this time I made Wheat Crepes.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Crazy About Watermelons

If you are not Crazy About Watermelon, prepare to have your pants bored off.

This was a very good year for growing watermelon in the open, without much use of row covers or irrigation. It could have been hotter, and therefore better, but it was still better than average. This is also, I think, the 3rd year from our deciding to let all (or rather most) of our watermelons cross, and growing out the seed to see what we get. We are now at the point where a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn; so this will be a post about watermelon seed-saving, selection, and breeding as well as a look at my best results of the year.

Watermelon seed saving is easy: eat your melon, putting your seeds aside in a small bowl and discarding any you have bitten. Fill the bowl with water, swish them around, then let them sit a minute. Decant off anything that's floating, then wash the remaining seeds with a little dish detergent. Rinse and drain well. Spread them out on a (labelled) piece of paper towel and dry well for about a week. If you want pure seed, you must plant just one variety, or keep varieties apart by 1/4 to 1/2 mile. Ha ha! Good luck with that. (About 100 feet actually worked passably well for me - but there was a little crossing.)

However, I mostly have not, up until now, wanted to keep my watermelons isolated. In fact, I wanted them to cross. I have had 3 main goals: to just let everything cross with everything else ad lib, and select the results for size, flavour, earliness, and keeping qualities, amongst others; to create an early melon with the golden ripening gene but larger and tastier than Golden Midget; and to cross Sweet Siberian with Orangeglo to produce a larger, tastier melon than Sweet Siberian but one that is adapted to northern growing unlike Orangeglo. This last project required a separate bed, as noted about 100 feet from the mass-cross bed. The mass cross bed contains lots of Golden Midget and Golden Midget crosses, and therefore it has been where I have been looking for my improved Golden Midget offspring to show up. Now that it has, I need to find a way to keep it isolated from here on too.

One of the things that happened this year is we got lots of really fairly small watermelons. Not surprising. I'm looking for the Golden part of Golden Midget, but the Midget part is also well represented. In the next few years I hope to shift melon size up a bit while still pursuing the golden ripening gene. Still, I am not against small watermelons. In a 2-person household, cutting a watermelon in half and eating it all at once has much to be said for it. 

The melon above is MC01-0920. MC refers to our mass cross project, 01 means that it was the first mass cross watermelon we cut open and ate, and 0920 is the date upon which this happened. Unfortunately this is only a general indication of how ripe and how early the melon was. Others may have been just as ripe and ready at the same time but we can only eat so much watermelon at once, and so they may sit and end up much further down the list through no fault of their own. I try to select early watermelon seeds for replanting, but this is a point I must keep in mind.

September 20th is a rather late date for watermelon, at least from the point of view of wanting to eat them. Ideally, ripe watermelon would appear from mid-August until the end of September, and here is our first watermelon perilously close to that end date. This is certainly one of the problems with growing watermelon in this climate. We get a lot of ripe watermelons right through October, but it is not necessarily when one would like to have them.

I think I could likely have picked it up to a week earlier. After a number of sad experiences cutting under ripe watermelon, I do now tend to err on the side of caution. I think I only picked one under ripe watermelon this year, other than a couple that got picked because the season was over and there was no point leaving them longer.

Not only was this watermelon early (for us), it was quite large (for us). In general, larger watermelons are likely to be later ripening watermelons at least comparing them variety to variety. In our patch of mixed-up seeds, large watermelons were just as likely to ripen early as smaller ones, because they were often the first melons produced by a vine and therefore they were large because they got a lot of the plants resources, not because they were a variety that naturally produces large watermelons. None of our watermelons were really massive, because all the varieties that have gone into the mix varied from mid-sized to small (midget, in fact).

This watermelon, being our first, is likely to contribute seed to next years planting. However, flavour was fine but not outstanding, and the texture was a little... tough, almost. It won't be as heavily represented as it might have been otherwise. 

Here is MC03-0921, and one of my champions of the year. Yeah, I know it looks like a runt. It IS a runt, but a very special one. This watermelon turned yellow (apart from the green stripes) when ripe, like its parent Golden Midget. To get this required saving seeds for 2 years, in order to get Golden Midget - Something Else crosses on both the maternal and paternal side in the first year, then a cross between those that passed the golden ripening gene on from both sides. Odds of that happening were approximately 64 to 1, although I brought those odds down to approximately 4 to 1 by planting multiple plants.

Because this melon will almost certainly have been fertilized by something else yet again, I don't expect it to produce nothing but golden ripening offspring. However, I planted plenty of pure Golden Midget plants in the mass cross melon bed this year, and in general my genetic material may be up to 65% Golden Midget in there, given the rate at which I have been planting Golden Midget, so it is not ridiculous to hope for the golden ripening gene to come in from both sides in many of the seeds next year. What I would like to do is to find a spot where I can grow the offspring of this melon in isolation next year, so that they cross only with each other.

It is interesting to me that this melon has such distinct stripes. I have not grown a lot of striped melons; Crimson Sweet, Orangeglo, and Cream of Saskatchewan being the ones I can think of. Those stripes look like Crimson Sweet to me. I hope so. Crimson Sweet is a very popular watermelon in many places including around here, because it produces decently large, early, tasty, trouble resistant, attractive and adaptive melons - all qualities I would like to have in upcoming generations. But are stripes dominant, or could they too have come from hidden genes in some other variety of watermelon? I just don't know.

Here is the flesh from MC03-0921. I forgot to take a cut-in-half photo until too late. However, while the flesh is a little on the pale side, it was sweet and tasty, and the seeds are interestingly small and black. One of the flaws of Golden Midget is that it has large, coarse seeds and lots of them. So this too is good!

MC11-0930 was a melon I was watching from as soon as the plants went out. We had 6 volunteer watermelon plants come up from seeds left in the garden last year. This is the only large melon produced from one of those plants; I lost track of the rest. It was not the world's greatest melon, and if it had not been from a volunteer plant I would have been a lot less interested in it. That splitting is not unusual in large melons (and this was one of our largest melons) but it's not a quality I want to encourage. It also had ridiculous numbers of seeds. However, it tasted really good in spite of possibly being a tad overripe when picked. (Also not a good thing - I'm looking for melons that hold). Still, this has "survivor" qualities I'd like to keep in the gang.

Sweet Siberian was clearly one of the parents of MC12-1002. We had a lot of good orange fleshed melons this year, and this was one of them. Looks like there are hints of red or at least a different orange in the flesh.  Crossed watermelons of different colours can produce almost a marbled effect or so I am told; most of ours were pretty solidly coloured and any internal colour variations were pretty subtle.

Many of our watermelons looked a lot like this one, MC27-1016, and the one below. Pretty small - I didn't weigh these but they were probably just under 3 pounds each - with crisp pale pink or orange flesh, smallish seeds, and very decent keepers. I suspect that many of these had Grover Delaney as a parent. They tended to have that size and configuration, with a fine netted pattern over a more or less green background on the rind.

MC28-1018 wasn't picked on October 18th; that's when we ate it. It was probably picked about 2 weeks earlier. Keeping qualities really tend to show up in the last few watermelons eaten (or not) and so they are just as likely to be selected for seed as earlier melons. This one was great - very small, but nice thin rind, crisp texture not deteriorating in storage, small and few black seeds, and a nice sweet flavour. A winner for sure. Could have had a bit better colour, but life is tough. We'll see what happens with it next year, because it will get planted.

We got quite a lot of melons that looked like this one. From the outside, PJ02-0920 looked a lot like a large Sweet Siberian. That's PJ for project - in addition to the mass cross, I planted a more-or-less separate bed for a planned cross between Sweet Siberian and Orangeglo. I'm pretty sure that's what this is. It's two shades of orange rather than a weak red, and the seeds have the look of Orangeglo - cream with dots on each side of the "pinched" end of the seed, although these are more of a buff, and the dot now extends down around the side of the seed as a stripe. Watermelon seeds are surprisingly diverse, and can be a good clue as to who your parent melons were.

Orangeglo has a reputation as a fantastic watermelon. I obviously grew it out once, but it has problems growing here. Its season is too long, and if the melons are less than 20 pounds, they do not develop their famous good flavour. I got my first grow out of melons ripe enough to save seed, but they were neither large enough nor ripe enough to eat. However, I think it will do good things crossed to Sweet Siberian, a smaller and more northern adapted orange melon.

PJ09-0923 was the best of the Sweet Siberian - Orangeglo crosses. It resembles an Orangeglo more than a Sweet Siberian, but at just over 15 pounds it was not big enough to be a good Orangeglo. Since it wasn't pure Orangeglo, though, it was able to be superb! Five of us tried this watermelon and all of us rated it as fantastic for flavour and texture, including 2 people who don't actually really like watermelon much. I have no trouble describing it as the best watermelon I have ever eaten.

I was worried that my separate Sweet Siberian x Orangeglo bed would not be isolated enough. I did have one red watermelon show up in the patch, but all the rest seemed to be either pure Sweet Siberian, pure Orangeglo, or a cross between the two. So I am concluding it's not great, but good enough to go on with. Now I just have to decide for next year: do I grow a mix of seeds from various successful Sweet Siberian - Orangeglo crosses, or just from this one fab melon?

I'd love to have comments and suggestions from experienced watermelon growers/breeders, if there are any out there reading (and the peanut gallery too, of course).

Monday, 26 October 2015

Tomato & Celery Soup from 1908

About a month ago, when there were still tomatoes, I was browsing an old cookbook and came across the following recipe:
"Three large tomatoes or one can, one bunch celery, one onion, one quart water, salt and pepper to taste. Thicken with one tablespoon of flour and one of butter creamed. - Very good - Mrs. Babbitt."
Of course, by the time I got around to trying it, the tomatoes were gone, so "one can" it had to be.

I also have to say now I have been growing my own celery, I am adjusting to what used to seem like massive quantities of celery called for in old recipes. In fact, I guess all bunches of celery used to be like what I get, compared to modern supermarket bunches - sadly small.

Another recipe on the opposite page called for bay leaves and cayenne, and I thought they sounded like a fine idea. In fact, I thought the recipe needed some more seasoning generally, and when I puréed it and found it rather pale, some paprika solved both those problems. I didn't add it, because I wanted to stick fairly closely to the original, but I think this would be improved by the addition of some garlic.

This is a simple, fairly plain soup, best as a starter to meal rather than a meal in itself, but we did find it "Very good".

6 to 8 servings
40 minutes prep time

Tomato & Celery Soup

4 cups chopped, peeled tomatoes, fresh or canned
6 to 8 stalks of celery (4 cups chopped)
2 medium onions (1 cup chopped)
2 or 3 cloves of garlic OPTIONAL
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups water
1 or 2 bay leaves
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

Prepare the tomatoes, either by blanching them, peeling them, and chopping them; or by opening the can. Wash, trim and chop the celery. Peel and chop the onions.

Heat the butter in the bottom of a large heavy-bottomed soup pot, over medium heat, and add the onions and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until they are quite soft and wilted. Sprinkle them with the flour, salt, and pepper. Mix in well, and cook for a minute or two more, until the flour is well amalgamated. Add the tomatoes, mix well, then add the water, bay leaves and cayenne. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes more, stirring frequently.

You can leave the soup chunky, especially if you have cut everything up nicely, or you can purée it in a food processor or blender to the texture you would like. Return it to the pot, mix in the paprika, and reheat to serve.

I used 4 tablespoons of flour, and although I didn't think it was too thick, I can imagine wanting it a little thinner. Use less flour if you prefer a thinner, more brothy soup. 

Last year at this time I made Creamy Celery & Leeks with Rice and Leek & Squash Soup.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Gill's Golden Pippin Squash

For some strange reason, these are not readily available. The only Canadian source of these seeds that I was able to find is Naramata, a company I was not previously aware of. I bought my seeds from Adaptive Seeds, in the U.S. I say some strange reason, because these are fabulous. FABULOUS.

Lots of people advertise them as the best tasting acorn squash available, and having now had a few, I am not inclined to argue. They are small, but in fact just the right size for 2 servings. The flesh is as golden as the shell, dense and a little on the dry side. This gives them a rich, chestnutty texture and the flavour is lovely. The seed cavity is rather small, and the number of seeds therefor not enormous either. They are excellent cleaned up and roasted with a little oil and salt though; worth doing even if there are only a few tablespoons of them.

The started seedlings went out a little on the late side - early June - into a spot where there were still Brussels sprouts going to seed. This definitely delayed them a bit, but once the Brussels sprouts came out they forged ahead and grew very nicely up our trellis, ripening in plenty of time. I think it would be best to trellis these, if you can, but they could be left to grow on the ground. I'd want to keep the bed well weeded and mulched with something like grass clippings, if I did theat. Easier to just trellis them, I would think. Days to maturity should be about 95.

I presume they have the usual ills that squash are heir to; squash bugs, cucumber beetles, vine borers, mildew, etc, but this was a good year for squash in our garden and they had no particular difficulties. Actually, I have seen a number of people comment that they are rather attractive to pests such as voles and slugs... the best tasting varieties often are; what can I say? They are pepo squash, so they will cross with a lot of other garden squash, unfortunately. Too bad; I will just have to eat those tasty little seeds.

These are not a true heirloom vegetable, since they have not been around long enough, but since they were developed by the Gill Brothers Seed Company, of Portland, Oregon, in the mid 20th century I suppose you could say they are a vintage vegetable. In the 1960's, Gill Brothers was bought out by the Joseph Harris Company. They dropped many of the varieties devoloped by Gill Brothers, as they were locally adapted to Oregon, and the Joseph Harris Company dealt nationally. Not a good decision... many of those varieties have been revived and gone on to good success.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Cooked Oatmeal Waffles

I suppose this is something of a series at this point; things to do with leftover oatmeal. Muffins, cake and scones were my previous efforts; now that I have a good working waffle iron I guess these waffles were bound to be next. 

These were very fine, with a nice smooth soft texture and well-rounded flavour. We froze the leftovers, and they toasted beautifully.

12 waffles
1 hour prep time, not including cooking the oatmeal

2 cups cooked oatmeal
1/4 cup mild vegetable oil OR melted butter
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups soft unbleached or whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, thinned yogurt, or milk
mild vegetable oil to grease waffle iron

Put your waffle iron on to heat. Put the cold cooked oatmeal into a medium mixing bowl, and mash it thoroughly with your mixing spoon. When it is pretty much lump-free, mix in the oil or butter, and the eggs, one at a time.

Measure out the flour and mix the baking powder and salt into it.  Measure the buttermilk as well, and mix the flour and buttermilk alternately into the oatmeal mixture until everything is blended; do not overmix. The mixture should be a thick but flowing batter; depending on how thick your oatmeal was, you may need to adjust the flour or buttermilk quantities slightly.

Brush the hot waffle iron with oil, and spoon in enough batter to fill it, spreading it evenly to all corners. Close the iron and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the waffle is golden brown and easily removed from the waffle iron. They can be kept hot in the oven until the are all done; or let them cool, freeze them, and reheat them in a toaster.

Last year at this time I made Chai-Spiced Roast Squash.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Cauliflower with Mushrooms & Garlic

I do like pan-cooked cauliflower, and mushrooms, and garlic... so here they all are, along with paprika, which I also like very much. Yeah, I liked this, is what I am saying. Why not? It was good.

I used a plain paprika but only because I didn't actually have anything with more of a nip to it in the cupboard. Otherwise I would have used that, and liked it too. Smoked paprika would work well here, I think. 

4 to 6 servings
50 minutes - 30 minutes prep time. 

1 medium (1 kilogram; 2 pounds) cauliflower
250 grams (1/2 pound) oyster or button mushrooms
4 to 6 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon sweet or hot Hungarian or Spanish paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped parsley to garnish

Trim the cauliflower, wash it, and cut it into bite-sized florets. Clean and trim the mushrooms, and slice or chop them into smaller pieces. Peel and mince the garlic.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the cauliflower along with enough water to just cover the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until the cauliflower is about half done and the water has evaporated - add a little more if it is gone before the cauliflower is to your liking.

Once the water has evaporated, add the mushrooms. Continue cooking and stirring, until the mushrooms and cauliflower are starting to brown and break up a bit. Turn down the heat just a little and mix in the garlic, paprika, and salt, and continue cooking and stirring for a minute or two more until everything is nicely cooked. and combined. Turn it out quickly onto a serving plate - don't let the garlic scorch - and garnish it with parsley.

Last year at this time I made Eggplant with Anchovies.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Spiced Maple Poached Pears

So simple! So delicious! It seems like nowadays the hard part is finding the pears, even around here, surrounded as we are by orchards. But persevere - these are well worth while. 

6 to 8 servings
15 minutes prep time - 45 minutes total

6 to 8 small (1 kilogram; 2 pounds) bosc or Bartlett pears
2 cups water
1/2 cup maple syrup
4 to 6 pods green cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
OR 1 6" cinnamon stick
1/4 of a nutmeg, finely grated
2 or 3 tablespoons sherry or rum
OR 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Use ripe but firm pears. Peel them, cut them in half, and remove the cores. (If you want to be fancy, and your pears cooperate, you can leave them whole, excavating the cores from the bottom with a vegetable peeler.) Place them gently in a 2 quart pot, and add all the remaining ingredients except the sherry or rum (or vanilla).

Bring to a simmer and simmer steadily for 20 to 30 minutes,  until the pears are just tender. (But check them after 10 minutes - if they are very ripe they may cook faster.) Add the sherry or rum (or vanilla) and let cool. 

Serve as they are, or over pancakes, waffles, sponge or pound cake, custard, cream, yogurt, or cottage cheese, or whatever else seems good to you.

Last year at this time I made Mushroom & Cauliflower Macaroni & Cheese.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Farmers' Long Beans

Back in the winter of 2014 I mentioned that I planned to order some seeds for this variety from William Dam. I did order them, but they did not actually make it out into the garden last year. This year I made a little room for them, and I'm glad I did.

I planted them very late, around the 1st of July, as they went into one of the beds in which we grew early determinate green peas for freezing, after the peas were over. Just about the time (late August) when the heat was causing our regular green beans to really slow down, they started to produce, and they went right through September producing very well. These are advertised by William Dam as being cold-tolerant, which I believe they are, for this species of bean.

Long beans, also known as yard long beans, and asparagus beans are from a different species (vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis) than are the usual green and yellow beans grown around here (phaseolus vulgaris). They are really a tropical plant and until recently there were not any good northern adapted varieties. That is why their cold tolerance is emphasized by William Dam, but it is equally important to the Ontario grower that they are very heat tolerant as well, and will continue to set beans at temperatures that will leave all your common beans dropping their blossoms in despair. They are fast growing, and the beans are indeed much longer than common beans, although half-yard long beans would be a more accurate description.

Long beans are related to other southern beans; cow peas, black eyed peas, crowder peas, and less closely to mung and azuki beans. As the references to peas suggests, these are generally smaller beans than most common beans, sometimes much smaller. I am growing an Italian member of this family, Fagiolini di Trasimeno, and have had a fair bit of trouble to get them adapted to our long summer days. The Farmers Long beans don't seem to have this trouble, which is excellent. I grew a variety called Red Noodle a few years back, and it too had difficulties with the day length. I persisted with it for a few years, and it seemed to be improving, but eventually I gave up because I didn't love the flavour and the beans, while a beautiful purple when raw, turned so dark as to be almost black when cooked and did not look very appealing to me.

These ones seem to have no difficulty with day-length, and the flavour is excellent. Many people think long beans are better tasting than regular green beans, and I have to admit, I could be convinced. They are a bit different in flavour from regular beans, but probably not much more difference than you get between varieties of regular beans. Their length and delicate width make them very nice for working with in the kitchen.

I can't seem to find any reference to these other than the William Dam site. The name is sufficiently bland and generic as to make internet searching difficult, but while there are no doubt many other strains of long bean out there, only William Dam seeds to have this specific variety. The describe it as having been bred in Taiwan.  Agro Haitai have 5 different long beans, including Red Noodle, but none that seem to be the same as this one. They have a bush version if you wish to avoid trellising, but I suspect for best quality beans trellising is very desirable, and at any rate Farmers Long is long not only in the beans but in the plant - they will need very good support.

I did not have enough of these to freeze, so I cannot say how they will do if frozen.

Plant these, preferably not as late as I did, but with other heat lovers such as tomatoes, peppers and melons - June 1st would be the ideal date around here. As noted, good trellising will be required. The beans seem quite easy and disease resistant, in particular they have shown no signs of the anthracnose I have had in the garden the last few seasons (none of my vigna have). Like most beans, fertilizing should not be required. Steady amounts of water can do nothing but good, although they seemed moderately tolerant to intermittent water once they were growing well. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

An Organic Potato Seed Production and Potato Breeding Day at Duane Falk`s Farm

On Tuesday, Mr Ferdzy and I went to an afternoon workshop on potato breeding and potato seed production sponsored by the Ecological Farmers of Ontario and The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. It was held at the farm of Duane Falk, near Hillsburgh. About 10 enthusiastic and waterproof people attended.

As a "backyard breeder" I was interested to see that this major project in developing new varieties of potatoes suitable for medium to large scale (mechanized) organic growing actually requires a relatively small amount of space. The garden above is where Duane grows the parents of his seed lines, and the potatoes being grown out from their seeds. Parents are in one row (originally two rows but one came up when his grain projects in the next section were harvested) on the right hand side.

Duane Falk (centre, holding the white umbrella) is a very interesting fellow. Originally from a farm in Montana, he acquired a PhD at the University of Guelph on the subject of wheat breeding. He began his career in New Zealand, where he spent 4 years working with barley breeding. Ultimately his career brought him back to Guelph, where he continued working with barley and wheat. In 1999 he bought this farm, and 4 years ago he retired to it. The farm consists of 85 acres, some of it in bush, much of it now in hay. He knew when he bought the farm that it would be good for potatoes, as he found an old horse-drawn potato harvester in a fencerow. When he pulled it out, he found it was still working, and he used it for several years. Currently, he has 4 small field plots he uses for his work with potatoes, with a fifth being developed this year.

Through his work at Guelph, Duane came to know Gary Johnston, the man who developed the Yukon Gold potato, amongst a number of others, including the excellent but never fully commercialized Ruby Gold. Today Yukon Gold is the second most popular potato in the world, only after the Russet Burbank. Gary Johnston continued to breed potatoes in his backyard after he retired from Agriculture Canada, and eventually Duane inherited his personal breeding collection. For a few years, Duane continued to work with this material on a hobby basis.

In 2014, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security asked him if he knew anyone who could start a potato breeding program. The person he knew... was himself (I should think so!) They pay him a much more modest salary than the University of Guelph, and make sure he can attend all the potato breeding events that he needs. Anything released by this project will belong to the organic growers who will be doing the actual selection and evaluation, and likely be in the public domain, unlike most potato breeding efforts.

Mind you, Duane compared potato breeding to buying lottery tickets. At what point, he mused, do probabilities become so small that they are effectively zero? Both lottery ticket purchases and potato breeding efforts fall into that category, he concluded. I conclude that he doesn't buy lottery tickets but he does breed potatoes... well human beings just aren't completely rational, it's true.

Here he is holding a few lottery tickets, I mean potato seed balls, which contain true seed. As I've noted before, they look like miniature unripe tomatoes or maybe eggplants, to both of which potatoes are related. Duane commented that a good clump of large seed balls are probably self-fertilized, while when a plant produces few and small seed balls, the odds that it has been out crossed go up. Both are likely to be useful, as even self-fertilized potatoes may contain quite a lot of diversity. Duane doesn't usually attempt to make manual crosses, although in some special circumstances this may be necessary. He lets the bees do it and takes pot luck. The first trait Duane is looking for is fertility. You can`t breed plants if your parent material is infertile, and that is currently the case with a lot of potato varieties.

Duane prepares his potato seed by whizzing a few preferably rather soft and squishy seed balls in a bullet blender with some water and a pinch of dirt, the bacteria from which help break down the gelatinous seed coatings which may inhibit germination. The mixture is left to ferment for a week or so, then rinsed clean and dried on paper coffee filters, then stored in paper envelopes. He soaks them for an hour before planting them.

A note for anyone wanting to try this at home - now is the time to collect your seed balls and get planting. Duane says that the mini tubers resulting from the first planting need 4 to 6 months cold treatment before being planted out again, so if you want them to be going out next June you will need to get going as soon as possible so they can spend late winter and spring in the fridge.

The prepared seed looks much like tomato seeds, but is smaller. Duane's is also much browner than mine has ever turned out; I think because he treats his rougher with a pinch of dirt in the processing and a longish ferment.

Seeds are grown out in flats of 32 cells, in a mixture of sterile seed starter and turface. A major local potato grower is going to allow him to store these flats overwinter in his facility for cold treatment, which will reduce the work of managing them quite a bit.

Here, Duane is talking about some of the things that make a good potato. This one is already showing some problems. The tubers are attached to the plant by rather long stolons, which will make hilling and harvesting the potatoes difficult. Conversely, if the stolons are too short, the resulting potatoes will be jammed together at the base of the stem, and are likely to be misshapen.

The list of requirements in a new potato is very long: plant growth habit both above and below ground specifically to be amenable to mechanized farming, resistance to pests and diseases, high tuber production, size and shape of tubers including eye conformation (they need to be neither deep nor with protruberant "eyebrows"), tuber quality (different uses do have different requirements) and storage qualities. Flavour? Yes, that's on the list somewhere.

It is also important that the potatoes be edible. Duane told us a hair-raising story of a variety developed in the U.S. in the 1960s, Lenape. It was a fine chipper with excellent pest resistance. Gary Johnston grew some at the University of Guelph, and one day he took a few home and ate them for dinner (and nothing else - his wife was away and he was batching it). He got very sick, although he made it in to work the next day where he complained about how ill he had been the night before. The thing about working at a university is that you get to complain to some very educated people. One of his listeners was a toxicologist, who asked some pertinent questions and determined that the potatoes were the problem. They were sent for testing, and found to be very high in glycoalkaloids. Potato plants generally are high in them, but usually they are confined to the leaves and stems and other green portions of the plant. (This is why you should not eat potatoes that have been exposed to the light and turned green.)  Through this unlikely but ultimately fortunate set of circumstances, Lenape was withdrawn from circulation - after certainly having killed some of it's unlucky consumers - and now all potatoes must be tested for glycoalkaloids before being registered as new varieties.

New varieties are generally developed by growing out seeds, but there are other possibilities. Here Duane holds three potatoes; the first being Ruby Gold. At one point he found a Ruby Gold with a section that had mutated, and had a light pink skin with red eyes. He saved that section and planted it out. It too threw out another sport, mildly different again. Oddly, this last one is up to 20% more productive than the original Ruby Gold.  While these potatoes are distinctly different from Ruby Gold, they cannot be registered (by Duane) as new varieties, as they are too closely derived from Ruby Gold, the intellectual property rights to which are held by the University of Guelph. There is, however, no reason he cannot collect seeds from these plants and  use them in his breeding work.

On the table you see the progression of growing potatoes from seed. From right to left, you see the (usually) single mini-tuber produced by growing out a true potato seed. When that tuber is planted, it produces a certain amount of tubers, which are stored in red net bags to keep them together. Four of these are planted out the next year, and the results stored in a yellow net bag. Next, 20 of those tubers are planted out, and the year after that a full row 30 metres in length. Selection against defects is practiced at each step and only the best are saved for further evaluation. Assuming that a potato has not been discarded for one reason or another during this process - with each step taking a year - the results will be distributed for multi-location trials. Only a small percentage of the potatoes will make it that far.

Next, we went out into the field and Duane dug up some plants - this one looks rather nice: numerous tubers and clean, even though blight killed the leaves. Many of them have been visited by potato late blight, resistance to which is one of the most important things any breeding program will be looking for. It's not as easy to identify as you might think; just because a potato plant does not die when exposed to it does not mean it has the kind of resistance breeders want. All potatoes are moderately resistant to it until they reach the stage where the plant is flowering and tubers are forming. A plant that is still green now is more likely to be late in breaking dormancy and/or forming tubers than to be resistant to blight.

While complete resistance to blight would be ideal, even partial resistance can be helpful. Blight may just kill the leaves, leaving the stems still relatively healthy. This is useful resistance, as the potatoes may still finish ripening and the potatoes may stay sound. Less resistant plants will have the stems die too, and completely unresistant plants will have the potatoes rot in storage as the tubers are also affected by the fungus. This was the case for most of the potatoes grown in Ireland at the time of the famines of the 1840s. 

Duane says the above plant is the kind of plant that many organic farmers tell him they want, because it is low and spreading and will suppress weeds. The problem though, is that it is very unsuited to mechanical hilling and harvesting, because that spreading foliage will be hacked to bits. Duane is looking for short, upright but densely foliated plants.

These rows of seedling potatoes were planted out quite closely, with the tubers about 8 to 10 inches apart. Many have already died down, others are just coming up now. Those ones are essentially selecting themselves out of the project, needless to say.

These are some plants from crosses with a northern Chilean variety. In theory, they offer some valuable genetic material, but in practise, potatoes are very day-length sensitive plants. These ones have only just started to flower and form tubers in response to the recent equinox. That's far too late here in Canada, and few flowers and no seeds were produced. Also, they are throwing out numerous very long stolons and just starting to form tubers; as noted, not a trait commercial potato breeders are looking for. Unless Duane can induce these to produce seed, and that seed shows some amenity to adapting to long northern summer days, this will be a genetic dead end for him. He suspects that although potatoes originated in northern Chile and Peru, most European (and now North American) varieties came out of southern Chile and Argentina, where they had already adapted to long day growing seasons.

Duane examines another potato. He has quite a number of Latvian varieties, and in fact he handed out some seed balls from one of them, called Imanta. (Yessss! Score!) Other varieties specifically mentioned include Agria, Island Sunshine, Chieftan, Dark Red Chieftan (apparently no resemblance to Chieftan) Atlantic, a Texas bred russet variety, Kennebec, and a traditional purple skinned variety from the Madeleine Islands, which I coveted something awful. Duane has had access through his professional contacts with a wide range of potato growers both professional and amateur, and has collected some amazing material. He mentioned a wild potato with hairy leaves and stems, which have resistance to leaf hoppers and other insects. I was a bit surprised to hear how much of a problem leaf-hoppers can be, and that much of the insecticides used on potatoes are directed against them specifically. Potato bugs are the other big one; them I know about. My neighbours breeding project is pesticide-resistant potato bugs. Duane deals with potato bugs the same way I do: regular hand picking. That won`t work for commercial growers though, so he is also looking for plants with resistance to potato bugs, possibly ones that don't taste as good to the bugs so they go elsewhere for lunch. There are differences among varieties for this trait.

When we were finished in the primary seed grow-out garden, Duane hauled us off to the field representing one of the next stages, where the full rows of potatoes were being grown.

Here his girlfriend, Vita Gaike, had started a fire and roasted some potatoes for us, in the Latvian harvest tradition (she`s a Latvian barley breeder herself). The potatoes were from his Ruby Gold mutations (Ruby Gold White A, to be precise), and they were delicious and just the thing on a cool rainy afternoon.

Once we were done, Duane fielded some questions. Someone asked about low-glycemic potatoes, and I was interested to hear that it depends more on how potatoes are cooked and served than on the variety. Cold potatoes are lower on the index, as are larger pieces. So potato salad is low on the glycemic index while hot fluffy mashed potatoes are (alas) very high.

Here`s a view of the second potato field, with the bonfire, his harvester, and his storage shed in the distance.

The potatoes harvested here will go on to the 7 or 8 organic farm participants across Canada (half of them in the Prairies) who have agreed to trial them. Duane is hoping that as the project progresses they will find more people willing and able to trial potatoes.

Thanks very much to Duane and Vita for an excellent and informative afternoon. We really enjoyed it, and learned some very helpful ideas for our potato grow-outs. For further information, Duane recommended two books, The Complete Book of Potatoes (de Jong, Sieczka, and de Jong), and The Lost Art of Potato Breeding by my hero, Rebsie Fairholm. I think I shall have to get them.