Dr Ada Grabowska-Zhang is one of the Guild’s scientific advisers and helps to construct our experimental designs and protocols. She has a shared allotment in Oxford and grows all sorts of vegetables for her family there,. we’re pleased she’s found space for some ocas too.
With oca breeding, like with real estate, it’s all about location, location… you get it. Because we are trying to follow the fate of our new varieties from seed to (hopefully) naming and release, we need to always make sure that we know one pink tuber from another. If we don’t know what’s grown where, we are doing little more than playing in the mud with colourful marbles.
How can you make sure that your oca growing contributes to science? In the words of Discovery channel’s Mythbusters: “the difference between science and mucking about is writing it down.”
It all starts with the elating moment when you receive your tubers. You look at the Plymouth stamp on the bubble wrap envelope, and you know that you are looking at the long awaited packet from Rhizowen. You rip open the seal and empty the contents on your kitchen table. Little baggies with white, pink, and yellow marbles are a joy to look at. But before you sit down and start admiring them one by one, like Gollum, whispering “my precious…” to each one, grab your garden notebook, or any notebook, or the back of your wedding photo (you are unlikely to lose it) and start writing.
On the other side of the country, Rhizowen has kept a meticulous record of who has which varieties. There is no reason why you shouldn’t do the same. Write down all the names you received. I just received my tubers. Apart from the numbers, I also wrote down their colour, and the number of tubers in each bag. You can note anything else that you find interesting at the time, for example, that some tubers tend to produce single sprouts, others are branched. I don’t know whether branching matters, but as we all gain experience and get to know our ocas, we will build a better picture of the full variation of traits in this species.
A cautionary tale comes from one of our members last year, who posted a desperate plea on the Breeders’ Facebook group: “ … I accidentally removed both these labels from their bowls. Whoops. Could someone tell me which is which?”
Disaster was averted because we could refer to the detailed description of tuber appearance.
It is also worth spending some thought on proper labelling when you pot up your ocas. If your garden is prone to wildlife disturbance or, like me, you have a toddler who would like nothing more than pull out some labels and play Pooh sticks in the nearest puddle, you should double up with some more permanent labelling. I tend to use masking tape stuck to the side of the pot and round the rim, and a permanent marker. You could write directly on the pot if you’re using brown ones, just make sure you cross out any old labelling.
Last year, one of our varieties was returned as “?” with a note “blackbird pulled out the label”. Once your ocas are planted in the ground, there’s nothing better than some good, old fashioned mapping. A bit of planning can save you some headache later on, too. Try to plant your ocas so that similar coloured tubers are not next to each other, if you can. Now is the time to go back to that wedding photo and sketch down the position of each variety in the bed. Still stick the label in, even tie it loosely to a stem. The more measures you take, the safer you are against the fickle blackbirds (and toddlers).