Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Plant Breeding: That Lettuce Plant

So, on 4/30, I planted some seeds, including some Red Sails, Little Gem, and Four Seasons lettuce. The Little Gem and Red Sails took a good long time to sprout, but when they sprouted, after about fourteen days, they did so fairly evenly--most of the little plants were within a couple of days of each other. All very nice and normal.

The Four Seasons was more interesting. One seed sprouted earlier than any other seed in two flats - I think; I  really must keep better records and stop expecting myself to remember things. But I don't need memory to see that that one plant is larger than any other lettuce seedling in the greenhouse, and that it's one of only two Four Seasons seeds to sprout at all.

So what does that mean? It could just mean that I somehow planted it differently. It could mean that most of that packet was bad seed. It could mean that I have one seed of an inherently superior Four Seasons--inherently superior for sprouting in the microclimate of my own tiny greenhouse, anyway. It could mean that I have one seed of either an accidental cross, or some other lettuce that was caught up in the sorting machine. I can't compare the plant with other Four Seasons plants, because the only other Four Seasons seed to sprout has barely broken ground. It does have somewhat mottled red and green coloring that seems like a reasonable fit with Four Seasons.

Whatever it means, it's potentially interesting, and if all goes well, I'm planning to save its seed for next year. Maybe it'll sprout earlier than standard Four Seasons. Maybe it'll grow out to a variety of plants, suggesting that it is an accidental hybrid. Or maybe it won't do anything interesting at all. But I'll be growing lettuce anyway, so why not?

This is all assuming, of course, that the rabbits don't eat the plant first

Photo: Mine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gardening: The Bloom List

I've decided to maintain a weekly list of blooms. Why? I'm really not sure. How? Every Sunday I'll drift around the garden and list everything that's blooming. Not when it started or when it stopped, just whether it's blooming or not. And I'll blog about it.

So what's blooming this week?

  • Wisteria.
  • Parrot tulips. There are just three, conveniently placed so that they block the entrance to the path to the greenhouse shed in a self-satisfied sort of way. Like cats. They've returned for several years, and I'm increasingly fond of  them.
  • Princess Victoria Louise oriental poppies.
  • Er... one of the shrubs in the shrub border. The one that isn't photinia or lilacs or... yeah, that one.
  • Last year's onions.
  • Sweet bay. Is sweet bay supposed to bloom? According to Google, apparently it is, but I've never seen it do this before.
  • Those low white hardy geraniums that make such a perfect bed edging. Except for their eagerness to march right across the path.
  • Veronica. The low perennial kind.
  • David viburnum. Himself hates David viburnum with a fiery passion. I think it's looking lovely.
  • The variegated vinca that crawls under the fence from next door.
  • The bishop's weed that rampages under the fence from next door.
  • That pink stuff. With the name that I can't remember. It's becoming embarrassing, how many plants there are growing in my garden, that I can't identify. Ha! Jupiter's Beard! That's it!
  • Columbine. I haven't planted columbine for years; I love the way that they just reappear anyway.
  • Prostrate rosemary.
  • Upright rosemary.
  • Those... er... OK, more shrubs whose name I don't know.
  • Lilacs.
  • That white-flowered shrub under the Italian cypress. The one with the little caps of tiny white flowers. 
  • Raspberries.
  • Violets, but only the ones with the smaller darker leaves. They might be Labrador violets. Or they might not.
  • Culinary thyme.
  • Creeping thyme.
  • That blue-flowered stuff that looks like bits of creeping rosemary but isn't. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and mock me.
  • Dogwood.
  • Grapes. At least, there's a tiny something that looks rather as if it might eventually turn into a bunch of grapes.
  • Chives.
  • The rose on the shed. The white one. I know it's a hybrid musk. It's probably either Bubbles or Moonlight.
  • The freakish two-tone purple irises. They're all over a bed that's supposed to contain only a specific blue iris. After repeated attempts to thin them out, they're more numerous than ever.
  • The first blue iris. Woohoo!
  • Sweet woodruff.
  • Candytuft.
  • The tall blue hardy geranium. Possibly Johnson's Blue.
  • Pheasant eye daffodils.
  • Bluebells. At least, we call them bluebells. 
  • The white azalea.
  • The magenta azalea.
  • California poppies.
  • Lenten rose.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vignette: Recap

(Will I like it in six weeks? I have my doubts. But a resolve is a resolve.)

"I'm worried about the chicken."

"What chicken?"

"Last night. Dinner with your aunt. The chicken."

"The chicken was great. Maybe a little more salt. But it's not like she's Julia Child."

"I'm afraid it was raw. You know, salmonella."

"She didn't say anything."

"She might not have noticed."

"Then it can't have been that raw."

"Maybe she wasn't paying attention."

"Serves her right, then."

"That's not funny."

"Look on the bright side. Maybe I'll inherit."

"That's really not funny."

"You know, this could work out for us. We could invite your cousin next. You know how he's always bragging about his 401K."

"Stop it!"

"Salmonella isn't really reliable, though."

"I'm not talking to you any more."

"How about those tall flowers next to the garage? Aren't they foxgloves? Digitalis and all that?"

"They're hollyhocks."

"Hollyhocks might be poisonous."

"I'm still not talking to you."

"Do you have any relatives with peanut allergies?"

Image: By Andrew pmk. Wikimedia Commons.

Rambling: Vignettes, and the lack thereof

I need to start writing fiction again. Starting with vignettes. Here.

And I need to keep on writing them, without long breaks. Because I've discovered something about myself: As my fiction ages, I like it better--I fail to see the flaws that were so obvious when I first wrote the piece. This means that nothing that I write today will equal, in my mind, anything that I wrote six weeks ago, or even six days ago. I need the blog to have something that I wrote this week, so that I can tell myself, I posted that piece of junk, I can post this one, too!

It's not a sunny philosophy, but it works.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gardening: It's aliiiiiive!

Carol Deppe's book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties is back on my nightstand, for the fifth or eighth or perhaps tenth reading. I have an earlier edition, full of fun stories and genetics and how-tos, and a later edition, with a lot more of the politics of plant patenting and other depressing things. I focus on the earlier edition. I'm shallow.

I feel a mad-scientist glee at the idea of breeding my own plants. I must confess that I have to do a lot of thinking to conjure up "something new" that I want, because I haven't come anywhere near exhausting the possibilities of plants already commercially available. For example, I want a particular mellow meaty yellow-orange tomato that I once tasted, but I know that I just need to discover it, not breed it, because I've already eaten it.

But now that we have more space, my fantasies of breeding are coming to new life, and I'm reading the book again and searching, again, for ideas. In fact, I'm making a list of things I could work on.

My first thought is podding radishes. You know those seed pods that radishes put out after they bolt and bloom? They're edible. There's already at least one variety of radish out there that's sold specifically for its edible pods, but surely the market could use more, right? Right? In any case, this scheme has the advantage of providing discovery in the very first year, because I can start by sending off for a bunch of different radishes and just eating their pods, without ever having done any breeding work. Then I can cross some and grow something new next year. Or, considering the relatively short life cycle of some radishes, could I even grow out the result of this year's cross this year? I need to do some research.

Then there's squash blossoms. Rather like the radishes and the radish pods, I have little use for squash, but I love to eat the blossoms. Fried. I know that there's already a squash variety bred specifically for its tendency to produce lots of male blossoms and few female fruits, but maybe there's more to be done here? Or maybe my squash blossom preferences are different? The variety in question is Butter Blossom, but I can't seem to find seeds, so I'm thinking of experimenting with Costata Romanesco, since Johnny's says good things about its blossoms.

Except, hey! Aren't there climbing squash? Tromboncino, and others? And wouldn't that be a particularly good characteristic for a squash grown primarily for blossoms? Without the weight of a bunch of fruits to pull a trellis down, you could get your squash flowers in a minimum of space. It appears that Butter Blossom (pepo) and Tromboncino (moschata) aren't candidates for a cross, so that obvious path toward combining the two target characteristics (climbing and a high percentage of male blossoms) is closed. I'll do some more thinking.

What else? My favorite vegetable is onions, and my main onion goal is an onion that will have maximum knock-you-down flavor, both hot and sweet, when slowly caramelized. But I already suspect that Copra may be the onion for me.

And just to expose my ignorance (and perhaps my need to read the book again) I'm not at all clear on how one evaluates onions, the kind from seed, when doing breeding work on them. If you do a tomato cross and grow out the results, you can taste a tomato on a plant, and if it's transcendent, you can then let another one on the same plant ripen and rot and make seeds. But tasting an onion kills the onion, so there's no getting seeds out of it later. Do you wait another full generation and keep track of each individual onion's seeds, and evaluate each group of progeny separately? But how can you be sure that the glorious onion that you just tasted wasn't the only one with that particular group of genes? Am I missing something obvious here?

Now, there are the vegetatively propagated onions. Potato onions, multiplier onions, shallots, Egyptian walking onions, bunching onions, chives, garlic chives, garlic, elephant garlic, perennial leeks. And some of them reproduce from seed. I suppose those are the ones to work on--once you have something you like, you could just keep on propagating it.

Actually, that's another area that interests me--perennial vegetables. There are the obvious ones--garlic and potatoes and asparagus and artichokes and so on. But there are some less obvious choices that I haven't experienced. For example, according to Carol Deppe, salsify not only produces edible roots, but also edible green shoots and salad greens. Daylily blossoms are supposed to be edible, though you shouldn't take my word for it. I've never tasted a sunchoke; I'd like to.

Well, this is interesting--I see on a website that unopened sunflower buds, steamed, taste like artichokes.  Is that something worth some breeding work?


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rambling: Garden Space

I've rarely had a lot of space for vegetable gardening. When I was very small, I remember trying to grow carrots in a flowerpot. When I was a bit older, a friend and I started a small garden in my back yard, but I remember each bed being perhaps the footprint of a laundry basket, and I think that there were only four beds. I don't recall whether we stayed interested long enough to see anything sprout; the friend seemed most interested in digging the watering trenches.

In adulthood, Himself and I had a twelve by twenty-five foot plot in a community garden, and while that was enjoyable, it was our only garden, and therefore I promptly filled the ends with roses and rosemary and a bay tree, all of which grew enthusiastically. This left us, after paths, with perhaps 150 square feet of space for annual vegetables. Fun, but not really enough room for a big block of corn, much less corn plus pumpkins plus tomatoes plus beans plus... well, you get the idea. Then we moved into The Best House Ever, but Himself has a great fondness for lawn, so the vegetable area is both smallish and limited in sunlight.

But this year, and likely next year, and not inconceivably for a few years after that, I'll have access to a fair-sized back yard's worth of garden space, more than I've ever dreamed of before. Enough that I worry that halfway through the summer we may need to declare failure and plant half of it with a cover crop and just mow. But I'm not spending much time worrying; I'm spending a lot more plotting what to plant. For the first time in my gardening history I can seriously consider pumpkins, and melons, and winter squash, and more than three tomato plants, and enough strawberries for more than a token taste now and then.

Since my access to this garden is for a limited time, I'm taking it as my opportunity to find my favorite varieties. When the time returns that I have room for only one pepper plant, or one tomato, or a dozen heads of lettuce, or I have to decide whether any melon or squash at all is worth the space, I'd like to know what my very favorites are.

And that means starting seeds--also something that I can do this year for the first time. We've added a tiny greenhouse, roughly the size of a double closet, and I'm already well on my way to filling all of the space available with plants in progress.

It's exciting. Assuming that it happens, there will be Pictures.