Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Gulag Ocapelago

pots (noun, plural):  root restricting vessels used to reduce the vigour, health and yield of plants and notorious for inducing panic attacks, hysteria and depression amongst their owners. Radix Dictionary of Horticultural Terms 2009

I hate growing plants in pots.  Maybe I should rephrase that: I don't sleep easily at night knowing that my precious plants are trapped in pots.  I know that they know that they're suffering.  There's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that plants in pots are aware of their straightened, straightjacketed circumstances.  

But pots have their advantages of course. In my case they are a useful way of keeping lots of similar plants separate.  It's a damn sight easier to be sure of the identity of the tubers from different varieties when you pluck them from a labelled pot, rather than agonising over the wayward morass of tangled, intermingling dead stems, roots and tubers come winter time.  One mud-caked tuber looks pretty much like another when excavated from the cold clay by numb fingers.  

Yet my fervent belief, shared by my plants, is that they are better off growing as nature intended.  God knows, they want to break free.  Their roots are able to forage more widely, with the corollary that feeding and watering are not so much of an issue for their indolent overseer.   You get bigger plants, bigger yields  and you don't come home after a fun-filled, sunny weekend away to find desiccated tumbleweed blowing about where your plants used to be.  Speaking from a position of enlightened self-interest, with a pan of boiling water at the ready,  I want a bonanza, not Bonsai. 

Last year, to my astonishment and for the first time, I actually had plants rotting in their pots; mashua and oca both died.  Others, located but inches away en pleine terre, grew quite happily. So, no, pots are not all they're cracked up to be - they may even represent cruel internment such as was inflicted on poor Vavilov; like him, the occupants often end up suffering from malnutrition and dying by degrees in unpleasant ways.  Gulag gardening, that's what it is. 
 
Now, if you gotta plant an oca or two, or in my case, a few more and space is at a premium, what's to be done?  I think I better think it out again.  

Well, this year I have attempted an experiment in which I combine the physical restraint of the pot with the don't-fence-me-in attitude of the untrammeled root systems. Could this be a winning blend of the best aspects of both methods?  I have plunged my twenty five oca seedlings into the soil, using bottomless pots, half in, half out.   I will backfill the pots with soil or compost (ah, the spud in a bin method) as they reach upwards.   Like the Manhattan skyline this should provide me with high density, high yielding real estate. My earnest hope is that the tubers will swell within the confines of the pots, rendering harvest easy, whilst allowing the roots to wander off in search of water and nutrients elsewhere.  It's a bit like the old ring culture method used by tomato growers in days of yore combined with the live burial motif so beloved of Edgar Allen Poe and now, apparently, me.  

I have attempted something similar with the mauka, using some scrappy old offcuts of woven black weed fabric and bamboo cane rather than pots. I will shovel spent compost in until they're also full to the brim.   Inelegant, certainly.  Cheap, definitely. Effective - I'll let you know. 


First grab your piece of spare weedproof membrane or whatever they call it in your neck of the woods and wrap it around a 30 litre pot.  Trim as appropriate.  









Now, with unconscionable haste, drive a bamboo stick through the side (or use a staple gun) to create a singularly unlovely, but very cheap and perfectly serviceable 30 litre tube.  Plonk mauka plant at base, tip in some additional  soil and wait for the plant to grow.  Top up at regular intervals until a fat 30 litre cylinder is created.  Pray that your efforts will be rewarded by a bumper crop of tasty stems and roots.   



Maukas peeping from their "pots", oca seedlings beyond.  Pictures taken in mid May. 

4 comments:

W said...

Yes, may your roots grow big and lustrous without the petty constraints and containers of calvinist morality!


Do you hill your yacon?

Rhizowen said...

Hi W

A study of Calvinist horticulture - there's a thought. If you fail, ah well, it was God's will, which may be some consolation for the hunger pangs of starvation and an imminent trip to heaven or hell (preordained of course). This may be a gross caricature of Calvinist thought and I am happy to retract if someone cares to correct me.

I often pile some extra soil around the base of yacon plants, not so much to increase yields but to give them a bit of extra anchorage against the wind.

I hope your ocas do well too. It might be worth getting them checked for viral infection every so often. If you have a few varieties and you get flowers, look out for the seed pods, which need picking before they're fully ripe, otherwise the seeds get scatttered before you can harvest them. I've heard that seed production in the Andes can be quite good, so there's certainly potential for breeding your own locally adapted varieties.

W said...

Yeah, I've put a top dressing of compost around my tall yacon plants too - and I guess I won't hill them. It is interesting that you mention viruses - as one of my oca's has recently become frail and yellow, and has not responded to any treatment - which leaves me with two oca plants of likely the same variety, so I suppose I won't get any seedpods, though I'd love to breed a local variety, perhaps. Thanks for answering.

Rhizowen said...

Hi W

Another possibility, rather than viruses, might be black leg, similar to the disease potatoes (Solanum) develop. Plants start out OK, but go yellow and the leaves wilt. The stem is rotten at the base. I have had that appear on oca plants occasionaly during humid, warm and rainy weather. It might be possible to save the plant by cutting off the top and re-rooting it in sterile compost, particularly if only one stem of several is affected - choose a healthy one. It might be worth a try. Good luck.

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