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How to be a cultivar champion in France

Cathy Thompson has someadvice on heritage cultivars and more

It may be best to leave vegetables that readily cross-pollinate to the experts Pic: LN team / Shutterstock

Tis the season ... to be saving seed. I’ve always saved flower seed, but the upsurge of interest in heritage varieties of vegetables sees me contemplating the future potential of plants on my potager as well.

In France, many ‘heritage’ cultivars were first grown in the marshlands around Paris and further afield in the Loire valley, areas that saw the birth of commercial horticulture in France, home to the maraîchers (market gardeners) who would feed the largest cities during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Read more: Meet the British couple growing ‘microgreens’ for French chefs

Much-loved cultivars such as swede (chou-navet jaune) ‘Saint-Marc’, celery ‘Violet de Touraine’ (syn. ‘Violet de Tours’), butternut squash ‘Sucrine de Berry’ and pumpkin ‘Citrouille de Touraine’ were treasured in this expanding market.

Why are these heritage cultivars worthy of perpetuating? Aside from the fact that they have been integral to the human experience for centuries – seeing our ancestors through cold, cold winters and times of drought – the older cultivars were always recognised for their ability to withstand specific cultural and climatic conditions – the ‘toughies’ of the vegetable kingdom.

But they have a further crucial significance in this age of genetic engineering in which so much biological variation seems endangered: they enrich the global gene pool of comestibles with their various abilities to withstand disease and pests. 

If you are in any doubt about the value of this variety to humans, think of the Irish potato famine, magnified in horror by the fact that virtually all the potatoes grown in Ireland at the time were clones of a cultivar with no resistance to the fungal disease, Phytophera infestans.

Read more: French vegetable gardens offer fresh job prospects

But there’s a caution that comes with saving vegetable seed. Many plants will not ‘come true’ from seed that you save – particularly anything that bears the ‘F1’ label. 

The plants from which it is difficult to save seed are, by nature, happy cross-pollinators and must be grown in isolation, since wind or insects can transfer pollen up to two kilometres. The offspring of your saved seed will not produce the quality of vegetable you want to grow.

It may be best to leave vegetables that readily cross-pollinate – such as the squash and pumpkin cultivars I’ve already mentioned – to the experts to perpetuate. 

Instead, buy seed of such as these from organisations like Mille Varieties Anciennes (www.millevarietesanciennes.org), whose website is encyclopaedic on old French vegetables and provides a direct link to an online shop.

Nurturing plant heritage

However, tomatoes, haricots and peas are all good choices for the amateur gardener, since they are self-fertile and require little to no isolation – with the inevitable exception of F1 cultivars, which are specially engineered by cross-breeding under controlled conditions.

Peppers and lettuces are mildly cross-pollinating – sweet peppers will even cross with chilli peppers – but three metres (or a taller intervening crop) is sufficient isolation to give you a chance of saving seed that will be true to the parent. You could also try growing peppers in insect-proof cages: fairly simple if you just drape net curtains over a support.

There are three things you can do to increase your chances of successful seed saving. Firstly: plant more than you want, setting a portion of your crop aside for seed. Notice which of your seed-bearing plants manifest the characteristics you are keen to perpetuate. With lettuces, for example, save seed from those that are slowest to bolt in your conditions.

Secondly: harvest at the right time. This kind of knowledge comes with experience, but generally vegetable plants with large fruits should be left until the fruit is overly ripe. For lettuces, wait until the ripening seed is producing little white cotton balls and some of the seeds on a seed head can be pulled easily from the plant. Then collect the seed daily, or cut the whole head and leave it to ripen upside down in a large paper bag.

Finally: cleaning and storing correctly. Small seed, such as lettuce, is generally simply sieved and treated like small flower seeds, with as much of the chaff as you can manage removed. Not such a tricky process, since viable seed is always heavier than chaff, which is why ‘winnowing’ (bouncing uncleaned seed on a folded sheet of newspaper) works so well – much of the chaff will be carried away by air currents.

Nurturing seeds

Beans and peas should be left on the plant until they are brown, and only shelled two weeks after harvesting. Many gardeners use fermentation to clean the jelly (which inhibits germination) from around tomato seeds. 

They scoop the seeds and gel from overripe fruit, pop it all into a jar of water and leave it for about a week, swirling the mixture around, or stirring it daily. The viable seeds sink to the bottom and you simply strain the liquid away and dry off the seeds.

Once you’ve cleaned your seed, store it dry (but not desiccated) in small paper bags. You could put the bags into air-tight glass containers if you are sure that all the moisture has been removed. Put the seed in a cool, dry, dark place, ideally between 0 to 10°C. The viable life of seed varies according to the plant – tomatoes and beans tend to have quite a long life, lettuce not so much.

Do you grow any heritage vegetables in your garden? What’s special about your favourite varieties? Send an email to: editor@connexion.com

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