Early Days for Dahlias


My mother grew dahlias in the garden of a house we lived in when I was a teenager; a glowing, island bed of them in a big, green sea of lawn. I admired them (and have a memory of dancing by them at night, alone, by the light from the house windows, suddenly joyful about being alive). They were nearly all of deep, vivid shades but the variety in their shapes brought up another memory of the wallpaper on our bedroom wall when my sisters and I were small. It looked something like this and I would lie in bed studying the different flower patterns very carefully. (Easy to guess in which decade we were born!)

Flowery sixties wall paper

All the same I never thought of growing dahlias myself until recent years when the tubers have been in the news as an edible crop. James Wong promoted them in his book, "Homegrown Revolution" and explains,
"Before you dismiss the idea of eating dahlia yams as some kind of weird, hippy idea, consider this: dahlias were originally brought to our shores as a prized edible crop, while runner beans were ironically first introduced as an ornamental plant. It seems like we just got our horticultural wires crossed. Cultivated for hundreds of years by the Aztecs, and still popular in Mexico today, dahlia’s sweet, starchy tubers are delicious as crisps, chips and roasties – and even in ice cream!"
So this year I bought three, red and yellow, cactus dahlia tubers from the hardware store in the high street and planted them. One failed (presumably a red one), but two yellow ones came up.

Dahlia flower

I dug up some tubers to eat yesterday. (I replanted three straight away figuring that if dahlias are going to be a food item in our perennial vegetable plot they will have to survive the winter in the ground. I'm willing to give them a thick straw mulch but that's all the fuss they're getting.)

Dug dahlia tubers
Easy to dig
Peeled dahlia tubers
Easy to peel

Boiled dahlia tubers
Took 20 minutes to boil
Fried dahlia tubers
Quicker to fry 

Boiled they were quite horrible! They were much nicer fried (like a juicy chip) which is why there were only a few left by the time I remembered to take a photograph.

But as Fionnuala Fallon reports in The Irish Times the flavour varies hugely between varieties and species. We have to find the good-tasting ones and/or breed new ones. James Wong recommends yellow-flowered cactus types such as 'Yellow Chiffon', 'Amherst Regina' and 'Inland Dynasty' and notes that enthusiasts rate a pom-pom type 'Yellow Gem'. I would like to see if the hardy dahlia, Dahlia merckii, tastes any good. The Swiss nursery Lubera is selling a variety of dahlias they have selected for flavour. (I believe we'll be able to visit Emma Cooper's blog soon once she has harvested her Lubera dahlia tubers and find out what she thinks of them). And William Whitson of Cultivariable in America has started an Edible Dahlias Facebook group where members are trying different types and pooling their findings.

There are 42 species of dahlia and 57000 registered cultivars. It is definitely early days for dahlias.


Daylily Delvings


I went to harvest some vegetables at my annual allotment today. Just as the light was fading, I visited a weedy corner where I knew some daylilies were still hanging out (after I'd moved most of the clump to the perennial plot).

If they had looked like this today I might have harvested some of their fat, crisp buds.

Daylily flower and buds

But they didn't. They looked like this:

Dried daylily flower stalks

But that was all right for what I had in mind. As a sudden downpour got underway I hurriedly dug a couple of clumps and did my best to wash a lot of claggy mud off their roots in the water butt (mostly to make them weigh less so that I could carry them home!)

Daylily tubers and roots

I was after their tubers (the small stubby roots in the photo above).

Harvested daylily tubers

There didn't seem to be many at first but there were actually quite a few hidden in that muddy mass. It took a while to extricate them.

Washed daylily tubers

Cleaning them up was a bit of a fiddle too.

Roasted daylily tubers

For the sake of speed I roasted them along with some parsnips we were having for tea. They reminded me of the tasty but slightly overdone crispy chips you get at the bottom of the packet.

Was it worth the effort? To satisfy my curiosity, yes. As a food gathering mission, no. But I think choosing a day when both the weather and the soil were drier would have helped a lot. And then perhaps making Amy Feiereisel's delicious looking Spring Vegetable Soup with Daylily Tubers. Worth a delve for that I think!


Autumn in the Perennial Vegetable Garden 2015

Comments very welcome!

Here are the autumn photographs for the plants in the spring and summer posts. (Photos here from 2013/4 and 2014/5).

Again no sign of the quamash and golden garlic above ground and the wild hyacinth seedhead has gone now too. There is a question mark beneath the plant I labelled as pignut last time because a sharp-sighted relative of mine, who has a plant from the same source, noticed that we may actually be growing corky-fruited water-dropwort (Oenanthe pimpinelloides). We're not 100% sure of the identification yet but the seeds in particular aren't quite right for Bunium bulbocastanum.

Oyster plant

Giant chives
Pearl onion

Variegated Daubenton
Ewiger kohl

Horseradish (and nettles!)
Bladder campion
Three-cornered leek

Oyster plant - Mertensia maritima
? - Oenanthe pimpinelloides?
Giant chives - Allium ledebourianum
Pearl onion - Allium ampeloprasum ssp. ampeloprasum
Variegated Daubenton - Brassica oleracea var.'Daubenton Panache'
Ewiger kohl - Brassica oleracea (translation 'ever-lasting cabbage')
Horseradish - Armoracia rusticana
Bladder campion - Silene vulgaris - known as 'carletti' in Italy
Three-cornered leek - Allium triquetrum
Grass nut - Triteleia laxa


Skirret update 2

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I've been harvesting skirret in the drizzle today. But I started off keeping dry - upending the two pots of skirret which I had growing in the yard.....

Two potted skirret plants in garden

...onto an old shower curtain lain on the kitchen floor. This skirret was kindly sent to me by Mat who writes a great gardening column in the Morning Star. (I found it after I'd been skirret-hunting online, googling 'fat skirret', and came up with his description of his skirret with 'fat fingers, thin skin and no backbone at all'). I'm calling this skirret after the newspaper - have a read of Mat's article to see his name for it!

Skirret is said to do well in light, moist soil so I had given the plant in the foreground potting compost with lots of sand mixed in and the one behind it compost with rather less sand mixed in. When I tipped it out it appeared that the sand in the less sandy mix had separated out to lie at the base of the pot.

Sand lying at bottom of plant root ball

The skirret seemed to have done better in this mix than the sandier one - probably because it could hold onto more moisture. (50p piece in the photos below - 27mm across)

Morning Star skirret from less sandy pot
Morning Star from less sandy pot
Morning Star skirret from very sandy pot
Morning Star from very sandy pot

Then I ventured out into the drizzle. At the allotment I have planted skirret from various sources both in the 'bog garden' (an area by the pond which I've lined with plastic) and in one of the beds (both areas had added compost, sand and gravel).

Skirret in the bog garden
Bog garden skirret
Skirret in the vegetable bed
Vegetable bed skirret with silverweed

So this is what I dug up at the plot.
Note: I forgot to take my 50p piece with me to the allotment but I had a 10p piece in my pocket (24mm across)!

Morning Star skirret from the bog garden
Morning Star from the bog garden

Another skirret from the bog garden
Another skirret from the bog garden

Deaflora skirret from the vegetable bed
Deaflora skirret from the vegetable bed

Morning Star skirret from the vegetable bed
Morning Star from the vegetable bed

Largest three plants of some seed-sown skirret
Largest three plants of some seed-sown skirret

The seed sown plants were very pleasing with surprisingly thick roots (the thickest was 27mm diameter). They were also very wrinkly which is not such a good trait. A combination of the smoother, longer roots of the Morning Star plants and the thickness of these seed sown types would be great. Well, I've got offsets from both types to replant and seed from both too (hopefully cross-pollinated) to sow next spring.

I made a sort of skirret shepherd's pie for tea.

Pan of skirret roots
Skirret shepherd's pie

There were just a few fibrous centres amongst the skirret roots which I had to extricate from the mash. They seemed to be from the Morning Star roots but only the ones from the allotment and not the ones from the backyard. Mat hadn't found any in his plants so I am doubtful and wondering now if I muddled up one of the plants (although I don't actually know if this is a genetic trait or a cultural one). There were none in the seed-sown plants.

The skirret mash was just like mashed potato but sweeter. I'm encouraged - the future is sweet for skirret!

Plate of skirret shepherd's pie

Skirret update 1 can be found here and the first post about skirret here


Oyster Leaf and Kale Salad

Comments very welcome!

I made a salad at the allotment today. A salad bowl and a bottle of salad dressing (dressing made out of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, grainy mustard, salt, maple syrup, finely chopped garlic chives and poppy seeds) came up to the plot with me.

Salad bowl and bottle of salad dressing

Into the bowl went two perennial vegetables that have been growing at the plot for a while but which we haven't eaten much yet; oyster leaf (Mertensia maritima - also called oyster plant or sea bluebells) and ice plant (Sedum spectabile). In the photo below the oyster leaves are the glaucous blue leaves and the oyster leaf flowers can be seen in front of the leaf on the left. There are quite a lot of oyster leaves in the bowl but when they are coated with salad dressing they lose their blue colour and don't stand out so well. They have a pleasantly salty tang. Ice plant is a succulent with glaucous green leaves. Its flat pink flower umbels are often seen in autumn covered with tortoiseshell butterflies. I thought the leaves might be bitter at this time of year but they had a fresh, mild, slightly lemony juiciness to them.

Bowl of oyster leaf and kale salad

The bulk of the salad was shredded kale. After a munch tour of the perennial kales to see which had the least bitterness I decided to use Daubenton kale. (Asturian tree cabbage came second in the least bitter stakes). The kale was shredded and massaged a bit to make it juicy and a few other leaves were added: young sea kale and sea beet leaves and New Zealand spinach or Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides). And I added two Sunset apples, a few halved cucamelons, and some Calendula petals and borage flowers.

I ate some of the salad for lunch and took the rest home. We've just polished off the rest of the salad with chilli beans and rice (and oyster mushrooms!). We had some friends around and I learnt something which surprised me. Not ever having eaten oysters I didn't know, but it seems oyster leaf really does taste of oysters!


Wild Cabbage Update 2


This is the last of the five wild cabbage plants I planted in the spring of 2013. Dead. And its fellow survivors (see last update) died earlier this year too.

Dead wild cabbage plant

To give them credit as this was their third season they had made it to the rank of perennial (living for more than two years). Only just - but the possibility of perenniality is in there. My plans now are to grow more plants from seed and keep a look out for longer-lived specimens to then propagate by cuttings.

Since first writing about wild cabbage I've learnt that many botanists consider that some or possibly all of the wild cabbages that grow around our shores have actually escaped from earlier cultivation and naturalised. See link for a discussion of this and support for the idea that cabbages were first cultivated from wild plants growing in the Mediterranean region. Perhaps it follows that the genetic make-up of 'wild' plants, having come from plants in gardens, allotments and fields whose ancestors came from diverse locations abroad, will vary between separate locations in the British Isles even more than if they were native. So I'm interested in sourcing seed from a variety of wild populations. A trip to Staithes, on the North Yorkshire coast, is planned at least. The wild cabbages that grow there are known as Silverwhips.

And looking back over that last update I'm going to try a different care plan for my next lot! I had left one of my original plants to flower freely. It appeared to die but then started to produce leaves from the base.

Wild cabbage plant producing new leaves at base

True it then copped it, but probably because I let it go too short of water during the summer. If it hadn't died of thirst perhaps it would have had more vigour and gone on to have enjoyed a longer life than the plants that had to keep producing more and more flower shoots as I repeatedly pruned them to prevent them from flowering.

Incidentally, unlike that one wild cabbage that appeared to come back to life, the plant pictured at the top of the page was truly dead. I left it for a good long while to make sure!


Living mulch - covering old ground.


Two years ago I wrote a post about ground covers I was trying to establish around the perennial vegetables to avoid having to weed and to keep in moisture. How have things on the ground worked out since then?

The creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) looked neat around the sea kale in the spring...

Creeping Jenny growing around sea kale in the spring
Creeping Jenny growing around sea kale in the spring

and is still doing a great job.

Creeping Jenny growing around sea kale in late summer
Creeping Jenny growing around sea kale in late summer

The kale is healthy despite the vigorous growth of the ground-cover. I do some occasional weeding of couch grass and dandelions. The couch grass has never been completely ousted from this plot and it emerges through the creeping Jenny. I don't think it would invade from a distance though, unlike the dandelion seeds which sneak in everywhere! The creeping Jenny spreads into the paths given the chance but is easy to pull out with the hands. I will also pull its stems back a bit from the crown of the kale plants over winter. They might be protective from winter wet but I'm concerned about the opposite effect - that stems that die and decompose may cause rotting at the neck of the kale.

I have changed things around in the garden quite a bit over the last couple of years in order to find combinations of plants that will be self-sustaining. I can't quite remember why, but the wild strawberries are now around the elephant garlic and globe artichokes and cardoon. Earlier in the year they had formed a dense mat and were fruiting prolifically but now the couch grass has invaded quite badly. I may need to pull back the strawberries and dig it out as it will compete strongly with the vegetables.

Wild strawberries growing around elephant garlic
Wild strawberries growing around elephant garlic

In another change I've recently pulled the Siberian purslane out from beneath the brassicas. It spread quickly and formed a dense cover (it is the flowering mass beneath the tall kale on the left in the photo below).

Siberian purslane growing under perennial brassicas
Siberian purslane growing under perennial brassicas

But it has grown increasingly messy as the season has gone on, and besides, I don't especially rate its flavour. I've resown the area with clover. Clover is a nitrogen fixing legume (the Rhizobium bacteria which live in nodules on its roots acquire nitrogen from the atmosphere which is then made available to the clover). As I understand it, if I cut the clover at intervals it will shed root tissue as it seeks to re-establish a balanced root to leaf ratio. Then this plant material will breakdown in the soil and become available to the nitrogen-hungry brassicas. But whether the clover can cope with the shade beneath the brassicas will need to be monitored.

I carried out my plan to plant silverweed around the skirret and, as I hoped, it did prove effective to harvest tubers from both plants at the same time. (Silverweed produces crisp, tasty but tiny tubers. I'm interested in growing and regularly harvesting various silverweed plants in the hope of finding a plant which produces bigger tubers).

Silverweed growing around skirret
Silverweed growing around skirret

There is more thinking to be done on this one though because the silverweed has struggled to re-establish a thick cover on the bed in the following season making some weeding necessary. Allowing a fast-growing annual ground-cover such as winter purslane (whose flavour I prefer to Siberian purslane) to reseed itself in the plot alongside the silverweed might work. (You might note in the photo above that most of my skirret plants didn't make it through last winter. I'm not sure why. New plants from seed have been planted to the right, currently mulched with grass clippings).

Here is the chamomile covering the Babington leek bed.

Chamomile growing on the Babington leek bed
Chamomile growing on the Babington leek bed

There is no sign of the leeks - the leek flower stems with their top-setting bulbils have been harvested and the leek bulbs will lie beneath the soil until they emerge in late winter/early spring. I've started to intermingle non-flowering garden sorrel plants with the chamomile to increase the harvest from the bed. In March last year I wrote, "The chamomile was chosen for its anti-fungal properties in the hope that it might guard against leek rust. But it is the Treneague form, very ground-hugging, and I'm wondering now whether a slightly taller plant, perhaps the species Chamaemelum nobile, might be better for promoting longer white stems on the leeks." Reviewing this now I can say that the leeks didn't get rust last year but they did this year so the 'guarding against leek rust' idea didn't work. And the chamomile (sold to me as Treneague) flowered and so revealed itself to be the species Chamaemelum nobile (Roman chamomile) after all! As its height is now quite a bit more than the four inches often quoted I'll be interested to see if it helps to promote longer white stems on the leeks next year.

Of the other ground covers I mentioned in August 2013 (lamb's lettuce, bugle and creeping thyme) I am now less keen on lamb's lettuce as a ground cover which I planted around the asparagus but which formed a huge mass of fibrous moisture sapping root by the end of the season (came in like a lamb and went out like a lion really!) I planted bugle in the deep shade beneath the Daubenton kale but I'm not sure if it is still there (I forgot to look on my last visit). The creeping thyme has done its job though.

Creeping thyme
Creeping thyme

Here it is around some tree onions and chicory.

Creeping thyme with chicory and tree onions
Creeping thyme with chicory and tree onions

It hasn't spread over the whole bed yet so I allowed wild forget-me-nots to fill the gaps (the now grey foliage masses in the fore- and background) but I like the idea of planting white and purple forms of the thyme alongside this pink one.

And that just about covers it!