Tolly’s Rambles on varieties and … weather

What a difference a year makes

This time last year we were desperately waiting for summer to happen, continuous rain from early April had scuppered our best made plans for planting and sowing. The land was sodden and cold with few opportunities to get out and do the jobs we need to do to get crops in the ground. And where we had managed to squeeze them in between the deluges, they were looking miserable and yellow due to lack of sunshine and the inevitable loss of soil nutrients that such conditions bring. The dry early spring was an ominous sign of a poor summer and we ended up having the wettest drought on memory. (see my article on the website, written last July -“Weather we like it or not”) It was without doubt our worst growing season ever in our 37 year history with many crop failures and poor yields, overall we were around 50% down on produce, a painful reminder of our vulnerability to extreme weather.

This year is the complete opposite, a cold winter and spring set us up for a sunny and warm summer so far at least. It was the latest spring on record with unusually low soil temperatures, but it was sunny which really helps. Our crops started late, you cannot plant and sow when soil temperatures are low; so we took our time and waited. Waiting is something you get used to in this job, you wait for crops to mature, weather to improve, customers to return from their summer holidays and beneficial insects to emerge to control the pests. It was beginning to look  as if summer would never arrive but at least it was dry and sunny which meant we could prepare land and get everything ready for when the soil did warm up, which it eventually did in June. Then the heat came in, and with the sun things really took off. Rarely have we seen such spectacular growth in so few weeks. Everything took off and our early potatoes which at one point looked like being a month late, raced ahead to produce a harvestable crop by the normal date of mid-June. Our stony soil which I sometimes curse has one real virtue and that is it warms up rapidly and this really does push crops forward.

Excessive heat and no rain inevitably led to dry soils and the need to irrigate almost daily, this is a lot of extra work but at least it is controllable unlike the incessant rain of 2012. So we pile the water on and everything grows, we can plant, sow and harvest when we like, no need to wait for soils to dry up. Last year we had five weeks of digging potatoes by hand with forks as it was too wet to take the tractor and harvester in, this was a lot of extra work. Nature is a canny thing, one poor season is compensated by the next good one and things generally even out overall. We are blessed with a good borehole and the equipment to move the water around to where we need it, the job requires a lot of work; some days it has to run for 18 hours and means my sleep patterns are a bit messy but at least we are back on control.

Varieties of vegetables occupy our growing system; actually they tend to dominate it as we grow over 300 different varieties in the season. Some of these varieties have been around some time. Our winter cabbage January King was bred in Victorian times and we have many varieties over 50 years old still offering good service. Then we have new varieties, some bred within the last decade which have particular disease resistance, these reduce the threat of some disease problems. We have a range of criteria for choosing varieties, good flavour is important but so is disease resistance, harvest period and many other characteristics, a decent yield is still very important. We try to avoid hybrid varieties, these are specially raised by seed companies, by artificially crossing two parents, the result is that there is more control over the characteristics such as harvest dates than with “open pollinated varieties” (OP). The problem with hybrids is you are unable to save your own seed as it will revert back to all sorts of odd characteristics and it is very expensive, for example hybrid cucumbers seed will cost around 60p each whereas OP will be 10 seeds for 60p. The other problem is one of control as the seed companies tend to breed for their own agendas which often means crops that respond to large amounts of chemical input. All multi-national seed companies are also chemical companies so they have vested interest. We save a few varieties of seed of our own but buy most in from small family companies, we are lucky to have some of these left still in UK. OP seed is easy to obtain for most crops although the seed breeders want to concentrate on hybrids as you have to buy from them each year and for them there is a better profit. So the choice of OP varieties is becoming limited with some vegetable types and the maintainers of these varieties are faced with increasing EU regulations to conform to which is making it difficult for small scale seed producers to stay in business.

So this year we are running some seed variety trials with The Soil Association to compare some traditional and new OP varieties against our standard ones. We have trials of three tomatoes against our standard three, one of which is a hybrid. Three leek varieties against our usual three; and three Brussels sprouts against our usual two hybrids. The latter are dominated by hybrids we had to give up OPs years ago as they had not been maintained as healthy types and were not worth growing. We look forward to seeing the results later in the season. Out of around 300 different varieties we now grow only around six hybrid types.

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