The 2023 year of talks opened with this fascinating and entertaining talk on the creation of Adam’s current garden which combined practical tips with stories of adventures tracking down vegetable seed and its links with food identity and culture, and the history of many vegetable seeds and their names. Adam’s particular interest is the conservation of the genetic diversity of edible crops.
As background, Adam told us that he has grown something every year for the table from a very young age. Despite having trained as a film-maker, Adam became a market gardener in the mid-late seventies; then that was what Adam describes as a “mug’s game”, as there was little interest in unusual vegetables such as purple-podded peas or yellow courgettes, and he returned to the film industry. That was a job that enabled him to travel widely and led directly to Adam’s interest in acquiring and protecting vegetable seeds with a history and cultural connection.
That is where this story begins – in Donetsk in 1988, where Adam had travelled as producer of a film about a Welsh industrialist who founded the steel industry in Ukraine. In the hotels of the time vegetables were not in great supply on the menu, and Adam ventured to the local market with an interpreter. There he encountered an old lady selling the surplus of vegetables she had grown, from seed she had saved herself, from seed saved previously by her mother and her grandmother. Adam bought some peppers and took them back to the hotel kitchen and was blown away by the sweetness, fruitiness and hint of heat. During his stay Adam returned to the market several times to buy more peppers (which are a very important part of the culture in parts of the former Soviet Union and eastern and central Europe, and central to the food identity of the peoples there). The taste of the pepper was unique and he wondered about saving seed to take home to propagate for conservation purposes; seed was duly dried on the window sill of the hotel and has successfully been propagated and conserved, so that it can now be distributed to displaced Ukrainians to reconnect them with their home.
Fast forward to 2013. By now, Adam was growing over 500 varieties of vegetable for the various seed libraries and gene banks. He grows at least 70 varieties each year to renew each of the seeds that he has. This takes a lot of space, which Adam found in different gardens, but he really needed to have everything in one place. So in 2013 he moved from the Forest of Dean to Monmouthshire, to a property outside Chepstow 170m above the Severn Estuary.
With the property came a field to transform into his garden; it was effectively an unrestored wild flower meadow, in which the previous owners had kept chicken and had a lot of bonfires (as the opening slide of the presentation illustrates).
In the spring of 2014, having covered parts of the ground with anything he could find (polythene, corrugated iron sheets etc.) for weed suppression, he planted potatoes (excellent for cleaning the ground) through black plastic. Then some raised beds were built in terraces to maximise the light in an East-West orientation. Adam had always used cedar for his raised beds, as it was readily available from plantations in the Forest of Dean. If you turn the cedar boards in your raised beds around every couple of years, they can last for up to 20 years.
Within 2 or 3 months, Adam had created the framework and the shape for the garden that he needed. There were 14 raised beds, each one-metre wide, which means you never have to walk on them. You can extend the season by using clear polythene film with metal hoops. As the beds are all the same length, these cloches can be re-used, and typically last five years. He also uses and re-uses fleece in the same way for warmth and to keep pests out.
While some digging was required to create the framework of the garden, the basic philosophy is to keep digging to a minimum and use black mulch (polythene or membrane) to grow through; it warms the soil and gives off heat at night creating a micro-climate for the plants. The aim is also to recycle and re-use materials as much as possible.
The contents of a 40-foot duck pond provided the base, spread on the ground and covered with black polythene, for two 30-foot polytunnels, the first of which was erected in October 2014. The polytunnels had been with Adam since 1976 and have moved with him to all of his different gardens ever since. In his raised beds within them, now in March, he has peas and broad beans in flower, fennel for eating, herbs, salad crops right through the winter and cauliflowers beginning to heart up. A trickle irrigation system is essential – he is lucky to have his own spring water (with a pH of 6.9) for this, one of the original attractions of this site.
One of the crops that Adam plants in his polytunnels is garlic – but not any old garlic! One of his filming assignments took him to Oman, home to damask roses and famed for its rose water. In Oman terraces tumble 100 metres down into ravines with the most amazing irrigation system. Adam saw garlic being cultivated, and got into conversation with the owner of the hotel where he was staying. It turned out that the plantation of garlic that Adam had seen belonged to the hotel owner; this was in April, and Adam asked him to send some garlic when it was ready, not really expecting that this would be possible. In June, having been away, Adam walked into his house to find a strong smell and a large plastic sweet jar covered in stamps and with the appropriate immigration certificate. In South Wales, Adam plants this garlic in a polytunnel in October through black polythene. The mountains of Oman in the winter experience a dry cold. This is replicated in the polytunnel where, even if the air temperature drops, the soil temperature is maintained. The garlic in the polytunnel can be harvested in the green in May, and then after that for storing in June/July. It is a hardneck variety, and doesn’t keep terribly well beyond October.
Adam also wanted polytunnels for broad beans; he grows three crops in a year in sequence, from autumn through to April, so that they do not cross-pollinate. A delicious broad bean is ‘Bowland Beauty’, which was originally bred for exhibition.
It has to be said that timing is key in terms of getting crops into the ground. Since 1976 Adam has kept a diary of what he sows when, the temperature, conditions etc. This is giving very direct information about climate change. Saving seed helps to build in local adaptations, which means that plants from very different environments from our own will in time thrive here. Carrot ‘Red Elephant’ from Australia is a good case in point. Adam has grown it outside in beds for a number of years. He discovered by chance, from seed spilt in the bed while collecting, that it can grow with absolute neglect when sown in October outside for early harvesting – there is no need for special forcing varieties.
None of Adam’s growing would be possible without compost. He uses all sorts of old materials to make the compost bins, including pallets and old carpet (this has to be pure wool). A lot of grass is used in the compost, which has the benefit of generating heat, but it does have to be turned regularly (once a week).
The last thing that Adam installed on his new site was a greenhouse, which he uses for tomatoes, capsicum, cucumbers, lemongrass, okra, ginger etc. A propagator is also key for starting seed off in early spring. There is only one cucumber which he now grows, for its taste, which comes from Syria. He encountered it in Aleppo, in what was known as the ‘fertile crescent’, and he now grows out a number of vegetables from the seed bank there for seed. The cucumber is unusual in that it has both male and female flowers. Seed is now being distributed to displaced Syrians, including those in camps in Jordan; later this year they will be sent to camps in Kurdistan.
Polytunnels or greenhouses allow you to create controlled environments for the production of seed; you can water when necessary during the growing period, and keep the crops dry when seed is setting.
One of the things that Adam has discovered on his travels is that growers like to mix things up together, and that plants don’t mind being crowded; polytunnels or a greenhouse allow him to do both of these things. Sweetcorn is an example: he has had good success growing 9 or 10 plants in a small block a foot apart, producing very good crops. Sweetcorn is a wind-pollinated crop, and growing them in a polytunnel gives good control (rather than the wind blowing the pollen far and wide, tapping the plants means the pollen falls where it needs to).
Moving on to the seed that Adam grows, here is a whirlwind tour through just a few of them:
- Fava bean ‘Syrian Small’ – first seen in Damascus, being wheeled through the streets in barrows piled high. They are traditionally eaten whole when young, but can also be eaten shelled. The seed is now primarily being distributed to displaced Syrians.
- Radish ‘Pasque’, is a French radish, which is lifted in the autumn, stored in clamps, and then eaten at Easter. It is an interesting plant in that the flowers start white, but then turn pink once they have been pollinated.
- Fava Mourda Reina Mouz (‘Purple Queen’) is a purple broad bean from Catalonia (another very interesting area for endangered vegetable varieties), which Adam is growing out to make safe for the future.
- Blue potatoes from Atacama in Chile – they have a shape like Pink Fir Apple, but are deep blue right through; they are now being included in an official breeding programme to establish their blight-resistance.
- Pea ‘Champion of England’ is the only pea still in cultivation of the 13 listed as having any merit out of the 200 catalogued by the RHS at the end of the nineteenth century. Although held in seed libraries, it returned to commercial seed catalogues in 2016, originating in the US. Adam still held some seed from 2009, so that seed is now being grown for comparison to see whether the newly-listed variety is the true original variety.
- Pea ‘Daniel O’Rourke’ was one of the most successful varieties of pea in the United States until the 1920s. Its name derives from the 1852 Derby winner, when it was introduced to the UK the following year, as a marketing strategy to encourage growers in the UK to buy it.
- Pea ‘Fesol Negre del Belgarda’ is a purple-flowered, black pea from Catalonia grown for drying and storing.
- Pea ‘Panther’ is a pea that the Heritage Seed Library was told grew to about two foot in height – but in fact grows to three times that!
- Pea ‘Jaune de Madras’ is one of the peas used by Mendel in his work on genetics. It is a mange-tout pea, its name implies it had originated in India. However, it was being introduced to the UK at the time that yellow Madras curry, which was a British invention, was very popular, so the name was purely a marketing strategy. In the US, it was called ‘Golden Sweet’, and it is now sold here as that as well.
- Blue Hopi Maize hails from very arid regions of Arizona, where three inches of rain falls in a year if they are lucky. There it is sown in very deep holes to reach the damp where it can germinate. It is sown in clumps, and the drooping leaves create shade and a particular micro-climate which enables them to grow in such a harsh climate. There is a particular culture around blue maize within the Hopi nation where it used to make blue polenta, and the ability to grow blue maize is key to winning the heart of the woman a man wants to marry.
- Tomatoes – Adam grows many different tomatoes from all over the world – including ‘Burmese Sour Tomato’ from Yangon (which is recently in demand thanks to ‘Gardener’s World’), and ‘Bolivian Orange Cherry.’
Adam stressed the importance of using green manures over winter. A very important one is Caliente Mustard – its biofumigant properties attack pathogens such as onion white rot in the soil. He also grows comfrey as a feed for plants, particularly tomatoes.
Autumn in Adam’s garden is all about harvesting. Beetroot is a great crop, as you don’t need many plants to produce masses of seeds (33,000 seeds from a single plant!). Cucumbers are much tricker – the cucumbers have to be almost rotten, and even then there is no guarantee the seed will be viable.
On that note of seed harvesting, Adam’s talk came to a close. Appreciative thanks were expressed for such a wide-ranging, erudite, and engrossing talk, and there was then a rush for the table where different seed varieties were laid out, along with Adam’s book ‘The Seed Detective’.
At our last meeting Julian introduced us to the Finnish tree-planting tool, the Pottiputki. Although originally designed for forestry planting, Julian has discovered it is invaluable for transplanting snowdrop divisions. He has created this video to show how the tool can be used and to demonstrate the process of dividing snowdrops in the green. Thank you Julian!
Updated Cothi Gardeners Website
The Cothi Gardeners website has recently undergone a bit of an update, and now includes a new section for members to write about their garden as it changes through the year – highlight ‘Members’ Gardens through the Year’ from the main menu at the top of the page. The more members who would like to contribute pieces about their gardens the better! Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with your text and photographs (or any queries you may have), and the web editor will do the rest.
One thought on “‘A Garden above the Estuary’ – a Talk by Adam Alexander; Pottiputki; Updated Website”
Wonderful write up on previous talk & really helpful Youtube Vid. ThanksRae