How to grow your own saffron. Or how to achieve the ultimate in 'grow your own' one-upmanship - by growing the most valuable spice in the world!
Saffron is extremely expensive to buy but is actually incredibly easy to grow! It's simply a type of hardy crocus, and you can grow Saffron bulbs in exactly the same way as any other crocus. In the Middle Ages - Saffron Waldon in Essex was the centre of saffron production in England - hence its name. One of the reasons was the very dry, sunny climate there - which is a curse for many vegetable gardeners, but is just perfect for saffron production, as warm, dry and sunny conditions are exactly what it likes. This is why it is such a commercially important crop in Middle Eastern countries, which have the perfect climate for it. Originating in the eastern Mediterranean - Saffron has been valued both for cooking and for its medicinal properties since the Bronze Age, and was depicted in the Minoan cave paintings of Crete.
A warning here! It is vitally important to remember that it is ONLY Crocus Sativus (to give it it's correct botanical name) which is the kind of crocus with edible stigmas! Other members of the crocus family are toxic if eaten! It is also the orange-coloured, thread-like stigmas that produce the saffron NOT the stamens as I heard one so-called 'food expert' say recently! (You can see them very clearly in the picture above).
The part which we buy as dried saffron is the dried stigma of the flower, and each flower will have at least one of these which splits into three as it emerges from the flower. These are best picked before midday, when the flower is dry. If it becomes wet, then the stigmas can become runny and the saffron is ruined, as much of the flavour and important nutrients are lost. This is why I grow it in pots in my polytunnel in our damp Irish climate. Saffron is rich in flavonoids, vitamins and unique carotenoid phytochemicals, which recent research has shown may be therapeutic for many conditions including depression, may have an anti-aging effect on our cells, and is also cytotoxic - meaning it has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory. I've certainly always thought of it as an uplifting, 'feel-good' spice. I believe that a saffron-rich Paella or risotto is one of the most comforting dishes in the world - and it's sunny colour alone is definitely a 'mood-lifter' in winter when many of us need a sunny-feeling uplift!
Saffron bulbs are available for planting now in some garden centres, but you can also easily get them online which I prefer, as the ones sold in the packs which available garden centres are not the biggest bulbs - and larger bulbs will give more flowers immediately - therefore more saffron. www.sativus.com in the Netherlands sells organic bulbs. I prefer to buy organic bulbs for the obvious reason that a flower produced from any bulb or plant will contain a combination of all of the systemic chemicals and pesticides used in it's production, which are absorbed by the plant's tissues as it builds itself up to produce it's flowers for next year. All organic herbs, spices and other edible plants have also been proven to contain up to 70% more of the active phytochemicals which give them their flavour and health benefits - so it's well worth buying organic if only from that perspective. Of course organic farmers don't use any pesticides which harm bees and other endangered important biodiversity, and they also maintain soil fertility and restore soil carbon so vital in the fight against climate change - so it's worth supporting organic production from every perspective.
Bulbs need planting as soon as possible now, as they are available from August onwards, but some suppliers will often have cheaper offers in September, when they may want to get rid of any leftover stock. They may have even cheaper offers once the correct planting time is over - but these bulbs are still worth planting, because they will actually flower in their first year. After that they may possibly take a year off, just producing leaves and building up the bulb's strength again for flowering, just as many flower bulbs will if planted late. As they are perennial bulbs, they will flower again the year afterwards, if fed well while in leaf, and every year thereafter. In fact if you're really kind and feed them well when they're in green leaf after flowering and are still growing and building up their reserves - they may even not take a year off at all!
They need planting at a depth of about 15 cm or 5-6ins, and about 10 cm or 3-4ins apart, then covered with soil, in a very well-drained spot in full sun. This can be either outdoors in well-drained soil or even in a well-drained container on a balcony! Alternatively - you can grow them in a tub in a polytunnel as I do where they enjoy the summer heat to ripen the bulbs. Alternatively they can be grown in the tunnel permanently, but as they don't like being shaded by other crops and are very hardy, I find a container in the tunnel is best. Then you can move it outside if more space is needed. The container can be put outside in full sun somewhere out of the way once their crop has been harvested in November, but never let them get waterlogged or they will rot. The other very good reason for growing them in a tunnel is that the flowers are protected from rain when they're flowering, so the stigmas are dry. This is very important - because there's nothing worse than watching all that lovely saffron-coloured liquid running down the flower stems after heavy rain! In a polytunnel or under a cloche they're completely protected and your valuable saffron won't be ruined!
Each flower will produce three orange stigmas from around mid-October through to November. Pick them as early as possible in the morning by parting the petals and pulling them out of the centre of the flower very gently by hand. It's very fiddly to do - which is why it's such an expensive spice. No one has yet discovered a way of mechanically harvesting it - it is all done by hand - and it must be really hard labour bending over to pick an entire field of it! I prefer to harvest it this way rather than picking the whole flower as they do when it's grown commercially - later all sitting around tables in the traditional way and chatting while they separate the saffron from the flowers. If you don't pick the flower - this remains lovely to look at for longer as you've removed the stigmas, and the flower can then die down as it naturally would afterwards - returning it's nutrients to the bulb. I harvest the stigmas directly onto paper kitchen towels in a tray, which I then place on a cake tray or something similar to dry them for a few days. Then I just fold up the paper and store them on it in an envelope, or in a glass jar protected from light, once they are thoroughly dry.
Just as with any other bulb - the thin leaves that appear with, or just after, the flowers should never be cut off - they will die down naturally at the right time the following spring. They are there to make food for the plant and to build up the strength of the bulb for next year. While the bulb is still in leaf it's a good idea to give an organic liquid feed a few times, in order to build up the bulb's energy for flowering the following year. As they originate in dry mountain ranges where they're baked in summer and very cold, but very well drained in winter - give them conditions as near as possible to those and they will thrive - producing up to 3 offsets (baby bulbs) each year which increases your stock gradually. You can lift the bulbs when the leaves have died down and replant the new offsets, which will take a couple of years to reach flowering size themselves. Alternatively, you can just leave the clumps of bulbs until they appear overcrowded, then just lift them, split them up and replant.
Planning ahead is the best way to have healthy food all year round
Although this is a really hectic time for gathering and preserving summer crops both outside and in polytunnels - thinking ahead is really key at this time of year. Good planning now will really pay off in late autumn and winter. If you don't have protected space like a tunnel or greenhouse - and haven't so far sown any winter crops - then this month is really your very last chance to sow many crops that you will get a decent return from in the open ground over the autumn and winter - perhaps given the extra protection of frames or cloches. There are plenty of suggestions in the sowing list for this month.
I also always try to make sure that all the ground in the vegetable garden is covered either with something that will give a crop in late autumn and over winter, or with a green manure which will improve and protect it's fertility and structure. That may then later be covered with a rainproof dark cover of some kind to kill off the top of the green manure used and let the worms begin to work on decomposing it and pulling the plant material in. Then all I have to do to prepare ground for early crops in early spring is just scratch over the surface which by then will be nice and crumbly - the worms having done most of the work! I know it's difficult to think about the winter when we still hope to enjoy some more summer - but if you don't think ahead now - then you'll be very sorry later. I always start to sow my winter salads and other important crops at the end of July - when the last thing one wants to think about is winter! The thing is though - a lot of late autumn and winter crops like chicories, kale, pea shoots etc. all need a long growing season even for growing undercover. Just sowing a couple of weeks later means you'll get far later and smaller crops - or you may possibly not get a worthwhile crop at all. Faster-growing things like Oriental salads and other leafy veg like spinach and watercress can be left until the end of this month or even early September to be sown.
Sowing salad crops in modules now means the best conditions for germination
At this time of year, sowing in modules is particularly valuable for crops that prefer cooler conditions while germinating. Crops like lettuce and spinach will germinate more easily, since you can give them ideal conditions - something you can't always be sure of in the open ground. Germination of some crops, particularly lettuce, can be inhibited by too high a temperature in the first 48 hours after sowing - so I tend to sow lettuce and spinach in particular, in the afternoon or evening, and then keep the modules in the shade of a north facing wall for a few days until they're all well germinated. This is the main reason people can find lettuce difficult at this time of year - and sowing in modules in the cool this way completely avoids that problem. After they're all well germinated - then I move them into better light, still shading from the sun a bit as it can be very strong at this time of year. Sowing into modules also means you can give plants more protection from slugs, which is the other major cause of seedling losses. Plants in modules or pots also tend to grow on a bit faster, which is useful if you're a bit behind with your seed sowing and they're also out of reach of slug damage if they're on a table or other structure raised off the ground! Starting off your winter salads this way means that as soon as a summer crop is finished - you'll have lovely big plants in modules that you can plant into nice neat rows with no gaps and away you go!
Lettuce 'Jack Ice' in early September.
Endive 'White Curled'
Lattughino - one of the best winter lettuces
With the price that vegetables may well be in the shops - if they're available at all in the event of a 'No Deal' Brexit at the end of this year - and possible lack of availability of many other crops due to the Pandemic - it really makes sense to grow all that we possibly can ourselves. Salads are particularly important crops to grow in winter - when there is almost nothing other than baby leaf spinach in the shops - and even then it's at least two days old at best, and already losing vital nutrients. Anyway - I could never bring myself to buy any sort of bagged salad. If I had no option - I would buy organic baby leaf spinach but only for cooking - never for eating raw!
Growing your own means zero food miles, fresher, cleaner and cheaper too.
Farmer's markets are the only other alternative if you want to buy a better selection of organic vegetables. But make sure they're genuinely certified organic by asking what organisation they are certified by - and checking, if you have any doubts. (They should always display their organic certification number on their stand. They won't mind you asking in the least if they're genuine organic producers, because checking the validity of produce is good for them as well, protecting them from fraudsters. They pay a hefty licence fee to be inspected and verified every year - so the last thing they want is anyone trying to cheat - by trying to pass off their produce as organic if it's not!) As salads are so easy to grow yourself though - they are always my first priority for sowing all year round. As soon as one crop is planted from modules - then another is sown in order to keep up the continuity - gradually changing over to sowing tunnel crops at the end of this month and throughout September. I'd far rather have too much than not enough - the hens are always grateful for any surplus and all the greens make for healthy hens which lay wonderful eggs with fabulous, orange-coloured, carotene-rich yolks!
There are some really good varieties of overwintering lettuce now - and you've still just got time to order them! Varieties like Jack Ice (from Real Seeds UK), 'Fristina', 'Belize' and 'Lattughino' are excellent. The Organic Catalogue in the UK luckily still has the wonderful winter lettuce Lattughino available this year - but how much longer they will have it is hard to know, now that it's been taken over by Suttons/Dobies - who are in fact owned by the global multinational seed giant Groupe Limagraine! If you grow Lattughino this year though - you can save your own seed next year as it's not an F1 hybrid. It crops for months - from late September until the following May, by just picking individual leaves from the outside every so often rather than the whole head,and also watering well in spring as the weather warms up. Another terrific lettuce for winter growing is 'Jack Ice', which I discovered a few years ago, and is from Real Seeds. It's a really good-flavoured, crunchy, loose-leaved lettuce with leaves like an 'Iceberg' but which don't make a heart - so you can go on picking the lovely crisp leaves all winter long. In addition to that, as the leaves are all green, they are far more nutritious than 'Iceberg'. So far I've found it to be very hardy both in the tunnel and outside - and I also find it doesn't bolt easily all year round - so it's at the top of my list now, along with Lattughino.
Even the very cheap 'value' ranges of lettuce seeds are also good for over winter. They're cheap because they're usually open-pollinated, easy-to-grow varieties that are tough, hardy and grow like weeds! I mean seriously - where else could you potentially get 1200 lettuces for 60 cents - if all of them germinate? That's about 5 year's supply at least by my reckoning! I buy those to grow for my hens, to supply some of their winter greens when grass is short - but we often end up eating them ourselves too! Those I tend to sow in a pinch of 5-6 seeds per module and don't bother to thin at all, planting them out just as they are, because they seem to mostly be the loose-leaf types which don't mind this treatment one bit. Endive is another great winter salad that crops all winter. White Curled is a very good variety that will go on cropping well into early spring - under cloches, in a cold frame or in a polytunnel.
If you don't have a garden, then it's easy to grow salads in pots, in a good peat-free organic compost. If you're short of space you could even try my 'stepladder garden' idea which produces an amazing amount of salads throughout the winter from plants growing in recycled mushroom boxes, again filled with peat-free organic compost, on each step! Recycled skip or log bags make great raised beds too. The picture above was taken in March but they're useful all year round, being warmer and more well drained than anything growing in the ground in winter, particularly if they're sited against a south-facing wall. Lamb's lettuce is another good, very hardy winter salad for outside - and even watercress can be grown from seed or from cuttings. It's much hardier than many people think - it should overwinter well under cloches. It does so brilliantly in the tunnel and you can keep picking it all winter.
This year I've planted a Brexit stepladder garden, crammed with as many fast growing salad leaves as possible, to prove that you can grow something useful even in the smallest space to supplement your diet. Fresh veg may be in short supply, as Brexit may affect fresh food supplies from the EU - where a lot of veg imported into the UK and Ireland comes from now. Get some seeds sown in modules and in Sept I'll show you how to plant it up. - So watch this space!
Why not try some Claytonia (also called miner's lettuce or Winter Purslane), if you haven't done before? It's higher in Vitamin C than anything else you can eat in the winter. It's also very hardy, very attractive in salads and if left to go to seed in the spring, you will have it forevermore, so you'll never have to buy seed again! One well known garden writer who came to stay here a few years ago said that she thought it was an absolute nuisance - but I love it and any stray seedlings are easily hoed out. If ground is bare it also sows itself around conveniently making an instant, well-behaved and quickly biodegradable green manure which worms absolutely adore! It's a really good-natured and adaptable plant that I would really hate to be without!
Another staple of mine here both in the tunnel and outside is chard - which is almost two vegetables in one, with delicious spinach-tasting leaves and crunchy coloured stems. Ruby, Silver or Golden stemmed Swiss chards are all easy to grow - I sow them two seeds to a module and then thin to leave three plants per module. My favourite is Ruby Chard which is more nutritious than the plain white variety, being higher in phytonutrients. Chard seeds are really clusters of seeds - so you may often get 3 or 4 plants from one seed but you can't always guarantee that - so that's why I always sow 2 as you can't afford to lose time by having to sow more at this time of year. When they're big enough, I plant out about 45cm/18ins apart both outside and in the tunnels and they produce a far bigger crop this way than thinned to one plant per spot. Although they're a very hardy crop - they really appreciate some protection from wind and cold and will crop reliably all winter. The same goes for perpetual spinach beet. My other winter favourite that I'm never without is my own wonderful strain of Ragged Jack kale, which is one of the most useful vegetables I grow. I multi-sow it in blocks at this time of year, plant the block out as they are - not thinning, and then pick it all winter, both in the tunnel and outside. First as baby salad leaves, then as bigger leaves and then finally it bears wonderful flower buds in spring which we like better than sprouting broccoli. It's an absolute paragon of a vegetable!
Keeping crops harvested regularly is vitally important
August is also the month when many people are away for a week or two, especially if you're tied to school holiday times. The weather is so unpredictable that it's hard to know how much things will need watering - but if you water thoroughly and then give everything a really good mulch, with grass clippings (which I use a lot as you will know) or with compost, before you go away - this will help to stop water evaporating and also keep weeds down at the same time. Any weeds that do come up while you're away will be very easily pulled up later from the moist, friable soil under the mulch. Most things should be safe enough for a week or so. If French or runner bean plants dry out at all the flowers tend to drop off before setting - they need consistent moisture at the roots if they are not to drop their flowers before they set pods. Mulch them well with grass clippings - keeping them about 6ins/10cm away from the bases of the stems to prevent causing possible rotting. The value of mulching can't be underestimated - bare soil heats up much faster and loses both water and nutrients very quickly. Mulching also encourages good worm activity, as worms prefer cooler soil. Perhaps you could persuade a friend or fellow allotmenteer to water if the weather's extremely dry and hot - as long as you tell them to pick whatever crops need picking and keep them for themselves - that's usually a pretty good incentive! Always make sure that you water well before you mulch and then the mulch will stop the water evaporating and seal it in.
If crops aren't picked - as soon as the plants have set their seed, a hormone signal is sent to the main part of the plant to say 'job done, seed set, so no need to produce any more'. This is one of the reasons for picking things when they're young and tender rather than when they're older and would give a heavier crop. It's so easy and tempting to overdo that! They tend to taste far better when young anyway. If they're not picked, you will have to pick a lot of old pods bulging with set seed when you come home - they will be inedible unless you want to shell them for winter bean stews but the actual pods will only be fit for the compost heap at that stage, and it will take at least a couple of weeks for the plant to get back to producing more flowers. That means that you may not get many more beans before the colder autumn weather and reducing light stops growth. Keep picking and they'll keep coming!
Much better to give away all of your crops for a week or so, while you're away - and keep your plants continually producing, so you can come back to some lovely home grown food. And it's always a useful way to cultivate some goodwill and store up some 'Brownie points' at the same time!!
Mulching well looks after vitally important worms and also soil fertility
One of the main reasons for mulching is that if soil is bare at this time of year your worms will also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like, so mulching to keep soil cool and moist is a must. You really want worms to stay in the upper layers of the soil, working through organic matter to make any plant foods available for your crops. Although there's an increasing awareness now about how vital bees are, which is excellent, worms - like bees, are absolutely vital to the whole ecology of the garden and in fact of the whole planet! Many people don't appreciate this. A friend rang me a while ago to say she had just read a book on pests and diseases which actually listed worms as a pest, because they make worm casts on lawns! Absolutely unbelievable.- When you think about it, after people kill all the worms in their croquet lawns or bowling greens (why else could you possibly want an immaculately smooth lawn?) they must have terrible drainage problems - having to scarify, to kill the moss growth caused by the lack of drainage, spike them to aerate and then add sand, then fertilise! What a palaver and what an amount of chemicals - all just to get a smooth green lawn! Worms would have done all that for free - if you let them! Thereby saving an awful lot of man-hours, pollution and carbon! You can just sweep the worm casts in with a good stiff bristled yard brush - they're a free natural fertiliser of the very best kind. Ditto golf courses! These days one might describe the game of golf - ("a good walk spoiled" as someone once aptly described it) - as also coming with a massive carbon footprint - despite the fact that golf courses need grass which in theory absorbs carbon!
Pesticides and herbicides don't just kill bees! These toxic man-made chemicals also kill worms and other essential soil life - without which mankind won't be healthy for very long. Next time you walk on the earth - don't think of it as just so much dirt under your feet. Think of it as the living, breathing, complex and multi-layered world, full of the life-giving organisms contained in it - and give it the respect it truly deserves! We depend on the earth for our survival and abuse it at our peril! There's a lot of talk about vertical farms and hydroponics lately - but plants drip-fed with nutrient solutions can't produce healthy food, as they by-pass all of the vital soil-dwelling organisms that plants need to keep both themselves and us healthy, and which also fix climate-changing carbon from the atmosphere.
The actions of worms makes plant foods more available to all the billions of soil bacteria which then act like a digestive system in the 'gut' of the soil to make nutrients readily available for plant roots to absorb. A healthy range of bacteria in the soil helps the plant's immune system to function correctly in exactly the same way that a healthy gut is essential for our immune system. You may remember this is something I talked about in more depth a couple of months ago. It's a vitally important process. Without worms and their associated bacteria, and other soil organisms like mycorrhizal fungi, plant debris does not break down into what is known as humus, which is gradually absorbed into the soil and fixes carbon. Without worms globally - we would all be literally buried under millions of tons of unrotted plant debris lying around everywhere in a very short time. Without worms working in your garden soil - when you put compost or a mulch onto the surface - it just stays there in exactly the same state, instead of gradually disappearing as it should. Nature worked out this perfect ecological balance - where everything works together.
My son caught me apparently talking to myself in the potting shed several years ago (I do it all the time!) I explained that I was talking to the worms in my homemade worm bin - Dendrobaenas - which work through food waste much faster than the more usual red tiger worms. He raised his eyes to heaven and said "OMG Mum - your obituary will be entitled "The Woman Who Talked To Worms"! I replied that I would be delighted as there could actually be far worse things to talk to! Anyway I love my worms - they're doing such a great job and I was just telling them so!! Hey - I talk to plants, so what's wrong with talking to worms? I mean I can see them actually doing something! They do react suddenly to loud noises, so they can in effect hear or feel sound waves - so why might they not react to my positive and encouraging dulcet tones?!! I've had those Dendrobaena worms for a few years now - they do a fantastic job of processing our kitchen waste with great gusto. I got them mail order from Finnis worms in the North of Ireland. Dendrobaena are in fact a type of earthworm, but not the 'deep tunnelling' type. They live in the top few centimetres of soil, processing plant wastes, a job at which they are the most efficient of all worms. Most municipal composting systems now use them exclusively. They will even eat mouldy bread and left over pasta - which you can't put onto the normal compost heap.
You mustn't put meat scraps, fat or dairy leftovers into worm bins - so our dogs get those, but you can put finely-ground eggshells into it as this is beneficial and provides calcium which worms need, as they prefer a soil pH of about 7. I dry them out in the bottom oven of the range oven first and then put them in a tough plastic bag and stamp on them. Doing a bit of creative visualisation at the same time - it's very therapeutic - especially if someone has annoyed me! I'm particularly thinking here of people who keep lifting ideas, content and even sometimes photographs from my blog, barely disguising stuff and presenting it as their own work with no attribution or credit to me! The other people who seriously annoy me are the pro-glyphosate nutcases who just keep quoting mindlessly straight from the Monsanto PR playbook and refuse to read studies showing how toxic the stuff is! - Anyway - the only thing here that actually goes into the brown recycling bin now is bones - after stock making of course (or broth as some trendy people now call it!) I wonder if there's a sort of domestic scale grinder out there which would turn them into bonemeal fertiliser? (Sadly bones don't break down in the soil - which means I'm still finding bones in the garden which my old labrador Lara - the children's gentle nanny for 14 years - buried in her favourite spots more than thirty years ago! Those and the old half-eaten tennis balls I come across occasionally bring back so many happy memories and make me smile - so they're now serving another purpose!
Remember - love and respect your worms! They make it possible for us to exist. Don't kill them by using weedkillers, artificial fertilisers and poisonous pesticides which are death to all soil life - not just worms! Remember that a healthy living soil is vital for our health too. Perhaps we could instigate a 'Wonderful Worms Week' to make people more aware of their importance and celebrate them, instead of trying to get rid of them because they think they're a nuisance. Now there's an idea!
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material - or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)