HORTICULTURAL RESEARCH ON OUR DOORSTEP
The James Hutton Institute, (formerly known as the Scottish Crops Research Institute) is based in Invergowrie, and has been carrying out research into food crops for over sixty years.
In the early years it was recognised that agricultural productivity was very poor due to pests, diseases, weeds, growing systems and poor yielding varieties of crops. Research stations were set up all over the UK to rectify these problems, often at local levels with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute being set up at Mylnefield farm in Invergowrie in the early fifties.
I can remember my time at SCRI in the mid sixties when research was concerned with plant breeding to create higher yielding crops, disease resistance in soft fruit and vegetables, fertiliser trials, weed control and studies into plant viruses and eelworm in potatoes and raspberries. We also had a museum collection of apple trees from all over the world to assess their suitability for Scottish conditions, and the first blueberries, saskatoons and aronias were planted.
Many problems of that time were solved, as chemical controls were found for many pests, diseases, and weeds, but today most of these chemicals have been withdrawn, creating more problems to solve.
Growing methods have also changed, so plants suited for open fields are no longer the best for tunnel production as demanded by the supermarkets.
Effects of climate change are also being addressed as Scotland suffers a wetter climate but with a milder winter.
Work is also undertaken to establish isotopes to identify the authenticity of Scottish whiskies in the battle to prevent inferior counterfeits. Isotope signatures are also used for olive oils.
Strawberries no longer suffer from red core disease, botrytis (apart from this very wet year) and virus and SCRI bred Symphony and Rhapsody are very popular
Raspberry breeding gave us a heavy yielding Glen Ample, but now pressure is on to find resistance to raspberry root rot (phytophthora) as it is so widespread that growers are finding it difficult to find clean land unaffected by root rot. They are now growing them in compost bags in tunnels with Glen Fyne one of the most promising new varieties. Work is ongoing to breed other varieties resistant to common strains of root rot, while still having good size, flavour, colour and taste.
Blackcurrants are mainly grown commercially for production of juice high in Vitamin C, though many of the Ben series are excellent for gardeners. I grow Ben Conan on my allotment. It is a very heavy cropper with large sweet fruit and not troubled by any pests or diseases. The new variety Big Ben has huge fruit, twice the normal size, and suited for supermarket retail sales. I intend to plant this variety in the winter as we like to eat fresh blackcurrants straight from the bush, as well as putting them in compote and summer puddings. Research is ongoing to continue to find ways of increasing the levels of vitamin C in the fruit for new varieties. Other research is underway to tackle the problem of lack of winter chill as we get milder winters. Blackcurrants need a period of cold weather to initiate fruit buds and have been suffering poor crops following recent mild winters, which have also advanced flowering times making the young fruit liable to damage with a late frost.
Gooseberry breeding has been successful in creating mildew resistance and an almost thornless bush. A new variety is approaching release. I have harvested some fruit from these bushes and lost very little blood, whereas my Invicta bush has superb fruit, but it is a vicious bloody battle to pick the crop.
Blackberries for tunnel production include Loch Ness and Loch Tay.
Potato breeding is looking at the problems of late blight in our wetter climate, as well as increasing levels of vitamin C and other healthy traits. A new range of Phureja varieties such as Mayan Gold with enhanced levels of carotenoides in the deep yellow fleshed tubers have been created from potatoes grown in Peru.
Turnips and Swedes are being bred with resistance to clubroot and powdery mildew, such as Invitation, Gowrie and Lomond
Plant of the week
Livingstone Daisy (Mesembryanthemum criniflorum) is also known as the Ice plant as the succulent leaves have a frosted appearance. However it is quite tender and really thrives best in a sunny hot summer. Gardens are planned well in advance, so I had the perfect spot for a dwarf annual that would thrive in a dry sunny border at the top of a wall. Seeds were sown in early April in trays indoors, then after a good germination (they are pretty easy to grow) they were pricked out into cellular trays to grow on for another few weeks. Nice sturdy plants were planted out in May awaiting the long hot sunny summer so they could burst into a mass of dazzling colour. They were quite outstanding on several occasions, but this was just not their best year.
They can withstand a bit of salt spray so are perfect for maritime planting locations, and are fine for sowing direct into the soil in a normal year.