By Bill Daley.
Title image: The Kitchen Garden at the Goschenhoppen Historians’ Antes House, Perkiomenville, PA
These observations are from 2016:
Once again this year has exhibited some strange weather. Generally speaking this past winter was a mild one but after a very early start Spring took a U-turn and produced a number of killing frosts that have probably done a great deal of harm to early budding fruit trees that had been “fooled” into an early start with the warm weather in February and early March. It also slowed up germination of many of the early-planted varieties of spring vegetables.
However, the self-seeding orach, a leafy green, seems to have come through another period of dormancy and is beginning to germinate throughout the garden. Now we will have to transplant those seedlings we want into a uniform growing area. Interestingly, the first few times we tried to plant orach we had very poor germination, and it wasn’t until we had established a few plants which we allowed to go to seed that it started to thrive on its own. Unfortunately, the chickweed did an even better job of germinating over the winter and became a major weeding headache in all of the beds.
Many of the garden vegetables are biennials, meaning that they have a two-year life cycle, setting seed in their second year. Annuals produce their fruit and seed in a single year of life, although many can go through more than one generation of plants in a single year. Many of the plants encountered in the Antes kitchen garden are biennials and each year we allow a few of them to overwinter to produce seed for subsequent planting. Such is the case with cabbages, turnips, kale, parsnips and rutabagas.
This year we have overwintered kale, and parsnips. As you can see from the accompanying photos both plants have survived healthily with only leaf mulch around them to protect them from extreme winter temperatures that might otherwise kill them. We harvested two of the parsnips to see if they were too woody. While quite edible, they are not prime. Parsnips, like turnips, are crops that were traditionally left in the ground until well into the winter months as they become sweeter after several heavy frosts. In colonial times these two root crops were often used as animal feed throughout the winter. The varieties we grow today are generally not as large nor as tough as those grown for livestock.
Parsnips were generally planted in early spring, as they are a long season crop. They were generally harvested in the fall or, as mentioned, after several hard frosts. Turnips, however, were traditionally planted on or about the first of August (Pederketz Day) and not harvested until January or later. In many instances turnips were left in the field and the livestock allowed to directly forage for them over the winter months. We tend to plant a spring crop of turnips and another for fall harvesting. If we’re lucky with the timing the first crop of turnips are at their best at Goschenhoppen Folk Festival time in early August and garden visitors can sample their refreshing bite.
The so-called root vegetables, beets, carrots, horseradish, kohlrabi, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips, among others, were extremely important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they provided a great part of the winter menu. If kept above freezing and below about 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit in a high humidity location most could be stored for several months without significant deterioration. These conditions were approximated in the unheated cellars of stone farmhouses or special-built root cellars. Today’s refrigerators are designed to operate within those parameters but it would be difficult to store a family’s winter’s food supply in such conditions economically. Fortunately, we have large-scale food storage and distribution systems today that make our life far easier than that of the early Germanic settlers in the Goschenhoppen region.
Strange as it may seem, potatoes do make seeds, although we rarely see them. We commonly refer to the sprouted tubers that we plant as “seed” potatoes, but they really aren’t seeds at all. Most gardeners, if they even see potato flowers pick them off the plants in the belief that this will direct more of the plant’s energy into making more and larger tubers, the part of the plant that we eat. In fact, the rest of the potato plant, the leaves and stems, is slightly toxic. It was this characteristic in common with other plants in the same family: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, among others. Potato and tomato plants have many similarities, but potatoes, unlike tomatoes have large flowers and small fruits. Tomatoes have small flowers and large fruits except for newer varieties of tomatoes that have been bred in a broad range of sizes.
Potatoes naturally reproduce by seed but their original habitats are different, climatologically, form ours, and the small flowers are only rarely pollinated, becoming the seed bearing fruit we call berries. The cool, wet weather we experienced last summer more closely approximated potato’s original climate and many gardeners were surprised to see small green “berries” on their potato plants. Some of the potato plants in the Antes Plantation’s kitchen garden had berries on them during the 2019 Goschenhoppen Folk Festival in August, and garden demonstrators were able to point out this phenomenon to many visitors’ amazement.
Potato fruits are similar to tomato fruits both inside and out. Potato berries though are toxic and should not be eaten. If there are children around the garden berries should be removed and destroyed, as they too closely resemble green cherry tomatoes. Potato berries can contain as many as 300 seeds; the number varies by variety of which there are thousands. In this country only about 50 varieties are grown commonly and even fewer commercially.
Potatoes are not generally grown from seed primarily because the results are entirely unpredictable. Potatoes to which we mostly have access are genetically classified as tetraploids, meaning they have four copies of each chromosome. This imbues them with the mathematical opportunity to produce an almost infinite number of different offspring. In reality every potato seed is unique, much like human offspring only more so, and while resulting differences may be slight, they may equally be vast. This means you have no idea what you might harvest from potatoes grown from seed, if they grow or produce at all. It is for this reason that we clone potatoes by growing new plants from the same plant tissue, thereby assuring that the characteristics of this year’s crop will be the same as last year’s, and the year before that….
New potato varieties, however, are as close as planting potato seed if you’re adventuresome and many home gardeners enjoy the idea of creating their own variety of potato, uniquely adapted to their conditions. There are places to purchase true potato seeds (TPS) that have been produced from non-commercial potatoes. As noted earlier, the possibility of harvesting your own seed from commercial seed potato varieties is rare. TPS grown plants, however, would be much more likely to produce seeds for subsequent experimentation as they are much closer to their ancestral roots genetically.
This year when you plant your sprouted tubers remember, they are not seeds at all but simply exact replicas, clones, of their parent plant.
Interested in volunteering?
The Antes kitchen garden is a popular Goschenhoppen Festival attraction but it needs the involvement of more than a few dedicated volunteers to remain effective. If interested in joining the garden crew, email the Goschenhoppen Historians: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be happy to contact you when the lifting of coronavirus restrictions allows us to open the garden for volunteers.
Author and Goschenhoppen Historian Bill Daley has led the Antes Kitchen Garden project and had chronicled several seasons of growing heirloom varieties in the garden. This post has the potato berry information from 2019 combined with observations from the May 2016 garden.