Monday, July 26, 2010

Sorting vegie seeds

Today I had my favourite visit from the postman. It was this year's order from Phoenix Seeds. The joy of mail order, little presents arriving in the post! And then another truck rumbled up the driveway with two ENORMOUS hessian sacks of seed potatoes. Unpacking these two deliveries was like entering a wonderland. The seeds, oh my, did I get carried away? 68 packets, when I already have a seed cupboard (a dead fridge, a great, insulated seed storage unit, just add mouse proof ventilation) full of saved seed. But I always need more, there are many little treasures that I haven't tried yet, and some seeds it takes skill to save like my Cucurbits. I grow them in shared beds and they are a free loving bunch and if you don't use techniques to prevent cross pollination you end up with a mish-mash of progeny that may be nothing like their parents. So I cheat, and buy fresh seed each year so I know that my squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchinis and melons will all behave as they should. One day I'll pick some favourites, do the hard yards to ensure purity of pollination and save some seed.

Sapphire, Cranberry Red and Purple Congo potatoes 
Then the potatoes! I found a supplier of certified seed from the North of the state who grows a big range of new and heritage varieties. I ordered two purple fleshed varieties, Purple Congo and Sapphire, and a tasty, red skinned, pink fleshed variety called Cranberry Red, Kipflers, Pink Fir Apple (my favourite even if it is odd roasting something that looks so much like a little baby!), and a variety I'd never heard of that is supposed to taste fabulous, Banana. Keep an eye out for these on my stall at the Farm Gate market from late December onwards. I'll be planting these using low carbon emission equipment, ie my own hands, so supply will be limited but exciting!

A wonderful thing about seeds is learning of the plant's origins and uses. A new one for me this year is Camas Camassia quamash. It will be a couple of years at least before I can harvest any, and even then I've read that the traditional cooking method takes two days! It is a North American plant, and its story echoes that of  a South Eastern Australian plant, Murnong, Microceris scapigera. The Murnong was once a staple food for the indigenous population of Victoria, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Tasmania. The roasted tubers were sweet and were a valuable source of carbohydrate and, according to one report, a woman could gather enough to feed her family for a whole day in under an hour. But with the introduction of grazing animals, especially sheep and rabbits, the once abundant food source was disastrously reduced. The story of Camas is disturbingly similar with indigenous Americans also losing a once valuable food with the introduction of European agriculture. The seeds of Camas need to be chilled for a period to trick them  into thinking they have been through a hard Winter, so right now I have a little piece of North America in my fridge. But I am yet to find  source of seed for its southern equivalent the Murnong (from a Tassie provenance collection of course). But I day....

As for the other 67 new packets of seed, and the 60 odd other varieties I already had (not to mention my unwieldy collection of Tasmanian plants), the question arose as to how I would organise such a cornucopia! Alphabetically? And if so, do I use common or Latin names, both of which can be confusing? Pumpkin and squash are really the same thing, shiso is also called beefsteak plant or perilla, and Latin names are notorious for being constantly revised. Or should I organise them with the part of the plant that is used? But with beetroot the leaves are as important in the kitchen as the root, and there are others, like coriander, where the entire plant is used, foliage, root and seeds. In the end I have chosen the major plant families to organise the packets. This should work for me, because many plants from the same family groups have similar propagation and cultivation requirements.

Singing children and 'George' tomato seeds.
Solonaceae, is the potato, tomato and nightshade family. It also includes cape gooseberries, tomatillos and another of their kin the cossack pineapple along with the Capsicum group, capsicums and chillies. The ones I grow for food are all frost tender so need to be started off in a warm place and planted outside when frosts are mostly finished for the year. As the fruit is the desirable part of the plant a lower nitrogen level is important for these. You don't want huge, leafy plants at the expense of good fruit. This picture is of my saved seed. I let my finest tomato ripen until it's almost rotten, then rinse the pulp in a sieve and let it dry on newspaper that I fold up, label and store as is.

'Freckles' cos lettuce.

The daisy family, Asteraceae, includes chicory, globe and Jerusalem artichokes, lettuce, salsify, radicchio, Calendula and sunflowers. Many species in this family have winged seeds that are designed to disperse in the wind and germinate where they fall. To germinate them successfully they are best only covered thinly after sowing as they seem to germinate better when exposed to light.

Scarlet runner, Borlotti, Roi de Caraboi snow pea,
and Aquadulche broad bean
Fabaceae is the bean and pea family. Members of this family are wonderful to have in the garden as they have a relationship with a bacteria that grows on their roots that can fix nitrogen, which is bread and butter for plants, from the air and make it available to your plants. I often pioneer a no dig bed with broad beans and cut the finished crop off at ground level leaving the roots covered in little white nodules of nitrogen in the soil to feed my next crop, usually some leafy greens that love the extra tucker.


If I had to pick a favourite family, it might be Apiaceae. This family is distinguished by its fabulous umbelliferous flowers, yes I know, a big botanical word but it's a big, intricate, beautiful flower. This family includes carrots, dill, coriander, fennel, parsnip, angelica, sweet cicely, cumin, caraway, chervil, mitsuba, celery, celeriac and Mexican coriander.

Osaka giant purple-leaf mustard.

Brassicaceae is a really diverse and important family. Delicious, nutritious and ever so varied. The sweet, crisp swollen stems of kohl rabi, the meaty, satisfying greens of the kales. Piquant rocket, and its punchy cousin wild rocket, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and wasabi. Broccoli in all its colourful manifestations, birthday-balloon-bright radishes, and the textural divinity of Asian greens.

Pineapple sage

It's almost impossible to imagine cooking without the aromatic gifts of Lamiaceae. This family is rich in aromatic oils that provide us with so many distinctive flavours. Mints, thyme, rosemary, sage, shiso, oregano, marjoram, basil in all its forms, savoury, and many, many others. Some species such as shiso and chia have large amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in their seeds, others like thyme have great antibacterial properties and make a wonderful tea to help heal a sore throat.

Purple orach

Chenopodiaceae is a family of plants that we should see more of. I have a self sustaining patch of purple orach in my garden. Like others of its kin, my orach is a drought tolerant, nutritious green (or purple!). Many plants in this family have the ability to store water in their leaves and the young tips of my first harvest of orach each year sparkle with cells full of water. This group of plants provides leaves and stems for salad and cooking, protein rich grains, and roots for food and a source of sugar. Quinoa, amaranth, beetroot, chard, huazontle, epazote and spinach. What a feast!

I've already touched on Cucurbitaceae.  Melons, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers. Little squash for eating in one bite, mammoth pumpkins that get sweeter as they're stored through the winter, another diverse and delicious group. This year I steamed the tips of pumpkin runners complete with tiny, baby pumpkins and curly tendrils. A pretty and tasty use for garden trimmings! I also saw, on a cooking show, people growing pumpkins with the aim of using the foliage as a vegetable. Another experiment coming up in our kitchen this Summer!

Sugar baby watermelon, Thelma Sanders sweet potato Winter squash, Parisian pickling cucumber and Kakai pumpkin, a variety grown for its hull-less seeds.

There are a lot more seeds in my collection that have been piled in a random box as there are only one or two representatives of their family in my collection, like sweetcorn, miners lettuce, borage and purslane. This Spring and Summer many of these seed grown delights  will be available for you at the Tas Farm Gate market, either as plants for you to grow your own treats, or as produce to have fun with in your kitchen.  I'll also have many others, plants that are produced from cuttings or division and some locally collected Hobart native plants to bring the bush into your garden, but that's a story for another day!

I'll be at Tas Farm Gate this Sunday the 1st of August and the 15th of August from 9am till 1pm. Please come and have a chat about your kitchen or garden!


  1. Wow, quite a collection. I'm a retired nurseryman in northern california. I've got a huge collection of seeds I've grow out over the years. I'm particularly interested in the origin of the 'Kakai pumpkin. I seen nothing but mixed information as to it's heritage. If you have any information I'd greatly appreciate it.
    I too like to know the history and orgin of my progeny. I can tell you that the 'Kakai' pumpkin is an old open pollinated variety. Probably not from Japan, definetly not a hybrid. Waiting anxiously for any info you may have. Best in your endevours, Glenn Fryer

  2. Where do 'Kakai' pumpkins come from? Who named this specific variety coming from
    Curcurbita pepo.subsp. var. 'Styriaca ? Very very difficult to find and definitive information. Any help would be appreciated and perhaps clear the origins up once and for all? My thanks in advance for any help on the subject. Best, Glenn Fryer