The author in her geodesic greenhouse
Beyond seed catalogues: growing sweet potatoes, Wonderberries and White Alpine Strawberries
Avante-gardener, Emma Cooper, shares her top tips, trials and tribulations, and great sources for unusual growing experiments
Delving into seed catalogues is a great way to pass the time until spring arrives and we can all get back to planting. They have a tendency to arrive all at once, and there are so many of them these days that they can be overwhelming. Personally I pitch all the mainstream catalogues straight into the recycling bin and concentrate on the companies offering something more unusual instead.
Jungle Seeds Sweet Potato
This time last year I was already nursing a sweet potato. I ordered it from Jungle Seeds in October without really thinking about it. It arrived with instructions for making sweet potato slips (essentially cuttings) in the spring, and when I asked what to do with it until then I was told it wouldn't store and I should plant it up and keep it alive until it was time to take the cuttings. That did not sound like a good idea in a house that is rarely warm enough for a human, let alone a tropical plant, and which doesn't have good light conditions. Instead I left the tuber in its plastic bag, in a box under my desk – just about the warmest place in the house.
I checked on it from time to time, to make sure it wasn't shrivelling up, and in January it took matters into its own hands when it started to sprout. I potted it up in some gritty compost and put it in an unheated propagator, which it then gamely tried to escape by growing like a triffid. By February I had taken off half a dozen rooted slips and potted them up separately; in the end they were quite happy indoors until it was warm enough to plant them outside in the greenhouse. (When I dug them up this November, they had hardly cropped at all. I suspect this was due to them not getting enough water – a problem a lot of the plants in my garden had to contend with this year, as I just never got on top of the watering.)
(Editor's note: Jungle Seeds cannot confirm that their seeds are not GM-free or heirloom seeds. Readers need to consider this before purchase.)
I had far more success with another Jungle Seeds purchase – a packet of Wonderberry (Solanum burbankii) seeds. Wonderberries don't like growing in containers, it transpires, but plants growing in the ground are pretty much trouble-free and give you a sizeable harvest of small black berries that aren't much to write home about raw, but are quite nice cooked.
Seeds of Italy
Another seed company that offers rich pickings for people interested in more unusual plants is Seeds of Italy. I am intrigued by their courgette variety that is grown only for its flowers, their jam pumpkin and their seed ranges that allow you to grow your own pet food – they have packs for everything from cats to iguanas, but not yet one for my chickens.
Last year I chose their risotto rice, which I attempted to grow in mini rice paddy containers on the patio. It was not a success. Firstly, I would not recommend using homemade compost – there's far too much organic material in there to go nasty when it's underwater. And don't put your paddies next to the back door – stagnant water encourages nasty, biting insects. I moved mine further away from the house and inadvertently left them in a shady spot all summer, which may be why I didn't get a harvest despite the mild autumn.
When you're growing something unusual there are no guarantees that it will work at all, let alone the first time you try, but if you're short on space and want a more guaranteed return on your invest-ment then I can thoroughly recommend anything in the Real Seeds catalogue. Ben and Kate grow and eat all the varieties they feature, and they've all been chosen to crop well in the UK. Some may benefit from the added protection of a greenhouse or a sunny spot, but you won't be crossing your fingers and hoping your crops ripen before the first frost arrives.
The Heritage Seed Library
If you're happy with the familiar range of vegetable plants, but want to move beyond mainstream varieties, then you really should consider becoming a member of Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library. The European Union seed regulations mean that it's illegal to sell seeds of plant varieties that aren't on the 'master list' – and keeping a variety on the list costs money, so only the most profitable ones are maintained.
This leads to a loss of crop bio-diversity as heritage and heirloom varieties are dropped from the list and become unavailable. The HSL steps in to conserve them, and gives away packets of seeds free to members. They have uncommon varieties of all the common vegetables, plus a couple of more unusual things like achocha and kiwano. One of the great successes in my 2009 garden was their sorrel, which grew endlessly without any effort from me and made great piles of leafy greens that the chickens loved to eat.
White Alpine Strawberries
One of my favourite new plants last year didn't come from a seed catalogue at all. I was sent seed for white alpine strawberries via the Blogger Seed Net-work – an online group of gardeners who passionately believe in saving and sharing seeds and who are willing to ex-change their seeds free of charge with like minded people. The strawberries are amazing, packing a phenomenal flavour into tiny berries, although learning to judge when they're ripe is an art form. I saved some seeds last year and will grow more plants this year, so hopefully I will have spare seeds to offer other gardeners in the future.
Blogger Seed Network
Heritage Seed Library
Tel: 024 7630 3517
PO Box 45, Watlington SPDO, Oxfordshire OX49 5YR
Tel: 01491 614 765
PO Box 18, Newport, nr. Fishguard, Pembrokeshire SA65 0AA
Tel: 01239 821 107
Seeds of Italy
A1 Phoenix Industrial Estate, Rosslyn Crescent, London Borough of Harrow, Middlesex HA1 2SP
Tel: 020 8427 5020
Is the "sweet potato" you are speaking of, Ipomoea batatas, or are you using it loosely as often happens, referring to some other root vegetable? Here is the US, this is the common vegetable that sweet potato and yam refer. I have done it a couple of times, bought supermarket sweet potato varieties and nurtured them to slips suitable for planting. There are some varieties that will ripen in 90-100 days but since you almost never know the provenance of what you buy, you will need a growing of 120-130 days of warm weather to get any tubers of decent size.