Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Crop from Kaukau Corner?

The summer of 2012 seems set to enter the annals of infamy on account of the low temperatures, low sunshine levels and abundance of rain - it's been the wettest one for 100 years. As might be expected under these circumstances, the slug population has proliferated to a degree that even seasoned hands like me find hard to believe. Blight has thrived too - leaving a trail of devastation in the potato patch. As for outdoor tomatoes - don't ask. The warming Atlantic and an errant Jet Stream are apparently responsible for our woes. There are even dark murmurings that we may be in for a run of such summers, perhaps for years to come.

These are not the weather conditions generally conducive to sweetpotato production, but, fool that I am, I decided to plant my kaukau slips anyway. Kaukau is the Tok Pisin name for sweetpotato and my plants were raised from seeds from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the weather tends to be cool and misty for at least part of the day. My reasoning was that this might increase the likelihood of a finding a seedling with superior cold tolerance and an ability to tolerate our otherwise unsuitable climate. They say you should be careful what you wish for, but this summer provided an ideal opportunity to test the validity of my hypothesis.

The plants themselves grew quite well after a very slow start and as last year, were noticeably different from one another, varying in leaf colour and the bushiness or vininess of their habit.  Surprisingly, perhaps, slug damage was not too severe. I took these pictures back when exposed toes were not likely to cause  frostbite and the sun shone occasionally.

When the first frost blackened the tops recently, I knew the time for harvest was nigh; the other day, with a degree of eternally springing hope, I lifted the plants. Nothing. Not a single thickened root was to be seen. I almost cried. As is usual in these cases of heightened emotion, I sought desperately to apportion blame. The vole activity this season has been nothing short of incredible, with virtually every bed undermined by their tunneling. But they usually leave a trail of destruction and there was no sign of any root fragments or droppings near the kaukau plants; a more likely explanation is that the weather was just too cool, wet and cloudy and no storage roots had formed. After several thousand years of adaptation to northern European conditions, some of us still struggle with conditions here and dream of our ancestral homeland in sunnier climes. There's no reason to suppose that the sweetpotatoes wouldn't be feeling anything other than utterly bereft and homesick.

So the simple answer is no, a crop was not had from Kaukau Corner this year. It may be a case of back to the drawing board: there are many other edible ipomoeas worth investigating. I'm still keen to obtain seeds of culina (Ipomoea minuta) a high altitude wild relative of sweetpotato which apparently tastes good. If some of its hardiness could be transferred into sweetpotato, all these years of heartache and false dawns on the road to sweetpotato acclimatisation could well be over. Looking out at a lowering, leaden sky, with rain imminent, this is the unreasonable hope that keeps me going.

9 comments:

Vanessa said...

Our outdoor sweet potatoes (the commercially available trio of T65, Georgia Jet & Beaugregard) sulked all summer, as predicted by rootwise personages I came across on the internet. The indoor tubs (which were meant to be patio tubs...hahahahahahahahhaha) faired little better. Beauregard got left outside longer than intended and died off faster with the largest of a handful of tubers being about the size of a medium carrot (I'm not sure that's an EU standard size but it makes sense to me. Not horse carrots, not crudites). t65 and Georgia Jet are still leafy so we are going to leave them a few more weeks yet. We're going to try storing the tubers over winter and try to get some more slips in the spring. I apologise in advance because if we do manage to do that you can count on the formation of glaciers along the A30 and reports of polar bears in Dorset around June.

Ian Pearson said...

I understand that turnips can perform well in such conditions. Perhaps you should try them ;-)

Ottawa Gardener said...

Taking a turn to turnips - a new blog post?

As for sweet potatoes. Now, that's a crop I could actually be helpful with if you ever need a co-conspirator. Did you save any clippings?


orflo said...

I had some small potatoes from the kaukau seeds this year, they were pot-grown to avoid gopher damage and this must have restricted the harvest considerably, one dull-greyish tuber came out and two red ones, but they're so small and I'm not sur if they will survive throughout the winter. Pots do acumulate a bit more heat (we had a very cold summer as well), adn this extra could have made the difference. But, a bit to my surprise, the full-ground T65 produced a better crop than previous years, probably because mice didn't discover them this year...

Rhizowen said...

Vanessa - glad to hear you've had more success than me. This year was definitely the worst I've ever experienced on the sweetpotato front. I would humbly suggest that claims about certain varieties being successful throughout the UK are a little over optimistic. In a good summer, some good yields may be obtained, but the crop is essentially marginal without serious selection for cold tolerance.

Ian - yes turnips, quick easy and can even be palatable if properly disguised with strong herbs and spices ;)

Ottawa - I'm always looking for co-conspirators.

Orflo - glad you had some success with T65. It does seem to be the hardiest variety so far.

Vanessa said...

I know you're right; we just felt in our new luxury of a south facing garden which had been so hot for the last couple of years, it would be worth a go. But on the bright side if we do manage to maintain the material and another one of those summers turns up at some point, I fully intend to keep an eye out for any possibility of flowers and see if there's any opportunity to get busy with feathers and paintbrushes. What harm can it do? That's your fault, that is :-)

Rhizowen said...

Vanessa

That's the spirit. If we were (collectively) to grow a few thousand seedlings from the best, most cool tolerant varieties currently available, I'm sure we could come up with some new plants with improved adaptability to UK conditions.

Rhizowen said...

Vanessa

That's the spirit. If we were (collectively) to grow a few thousand seedlings from the best, most cool tolerant varieties currently available, I'm sure we could come up with some new plants with improved adaptability to UK conditions.

Rhizowen said...

Vanessa

That's the spirit. If we were (collectively) to grow a few thousand seedlings from the best, most cool tolerant varieties currently available, I'm sure we could come up with some new plants with improved adaptability to UK conditions.

Related Posts with Thumbnails