Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Oca - The Plot Thickens

I spent this morning planting out oca varieties at a secret location in the Tamar Valley. Secret in the sense that I doubt I'll be able to find my way back there again without assistance. I'm not renowned for my infallible sense of direction and it gets worse when I'm driving. I was merely tailgating Dave, my guide and assistant for this escapade. Luckily he knew where he was going. I'm borrowing a plot on the field that Dave and fellow members of HaMAS (no, not that Hamas) use for their community supported agriculture project.

They're a motley bunch (the ocas I mean), mainly ones I've grown from seed, plus a few old favourites and others raised by Frank van Keisbilck and Debs & Carl Legge. I thought there were about 120 of them, but it turns out there were 133.  This probably makes this the most biodiverse patch of oca in the whole of the Tamar Valley. And there's still the small matter of a few more as-yet uncatalogued tubers sitting outside my back door - the fruits (or should I say roots?) of the volunteer seedlings of 2012. The grand total must therefore be approaching 150. This is far too few to really get oca breeding off to a flying start, even though I struggle (read: fail) to maintain them properly and keep accurate records. If some philanthropist with a horticultural bent would like to support my efforts, I'm open to offers; I would certainly be delighted to adopt a more systematic approach to record keeping and give oca breeding the attention it so richly deserves.

I'm intending to lift all the varieties together in the autumn, but earlier than usual, to see whether any of them show signs of precocious tuberisation. I keep saying I'll do this every year and then I don't manage it. I'm pretty sure I've come up with various other excuses to over the years, some of which may even have been genuine. I'm blaming my failure to do so last year on the very wet weather. When I finally got around to harvesting the 2012 crop, scenes reminiscent of the Somme ensued. Intellectually I knew that I wanted a day-neutral oca, now I know it in a damp, numb-fingered and mud-caked sort of a way - I'm not even sure that I've got the mud out from under my fingernails yet. No, the fact is, we need varieties that tuberise at a sensible time of year. The simplest and possibly best way, to my mind at least, is to sow thousands of seeds and select the best plants for further evaluation: my efforts are just the beginning of the beginning as far as I'm concerned.

What 133 oca tubers look like planted in a field. 
Dave kindly offered to dig the trenches (oca, not Somme-sized), which he did with great enthusiasm; my job was to place the tubers carefully in them, backfill and label them. I suggest that, should the gods be kind and a harvest obtained, Dave be served a splendid ceremonial oca meal in recognition for his heroic efforts; if it weren't for him, I'd be out in the field right now, planting ocas in the pouring rain, which if you haven't tried it, is surprisingly unenjoyable. In fact, just as the last tubers went in, the rain began to fall in the kind of quantities that make gardening thoroughly unpleasant; what had been fine tilth quickly transformed into sticky, boot-clogging clay - the plot literally thickened before my eyes and beneath my feet.  My work being done, I retreated to the car; Dave had left a short while earlier due to another engagement. A good morning's work and I eventually found my way home - which in itself is something of a result.


Gwenfar's Lottie said...

That's a lot of oca! Sounds like an interesting idea, to select for earlier croping in the UK. Look forward to seeing how it develops.

What does Oca taste like? Is it similar to potato?

Bill W. said...

What spacing did you use for your planting? I'm getting ready to plant out two plots of about the same size. I haven't grown enough so far to have a sense for how crowded they can be and still produce good yields.

Rhizowen said...

Hi Gwenhwyfar - it's a time honoured way of helping plants adapt to new environments. Farmers have been doing pretty much the same thing for around 10,000 years.

Hi Bill
I'm using a spacing of around 30cm between plants, with rows about 50cm apart. That seems to be OK in the kind of conditions we have here, although the plants will eventually fill every available inch of space which will make getting in among them more tricky.

Ottawa Gardener said...

Seriously impressive: the diversity, the tales of secret gardens, rain. I'm looking forward to hearing about the possible harvest.

CarpeDiem said...


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