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A simple guide to homegrown saffron

a saffron in full bloom with the red stamens ready to be harvested

This simple guide to homegrown saffron is intended for home gardeners, to help you get the best out of your corms. It is based on my personal experience of growing them as well as having studied saffron cultivation as part of my certificate in Organic Horticulture. Homegrown saffron might seem like an unusual crop, I found my inspiration in one of my favourite books, as well as, a personal challenge – the book was “James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution” and the challenge was the annual Locavore Challenge.

My saffron – Crocus sativus – journey began with just 20 corms, tucked into well-drained raised beds in South Wairarapa back in March 2019. Those 20 corms have continued to multiply (and travel with me). Fast forward four years to last year, I found myself planting well over 600 corms. Because we were still looking for a permanent home in the South Island of New Zealand, they were temporarily homed in vertical troughs last season. At last with a permanent home, and with too many corms to count, this season I’m planting the largest corms in their own growing bed in our new home’s vegetable garden.

With over 100 corms of flower producing size, we might harvest a gram of saffron, which requires the love and labour from about 150 flowers. Ordinarily, I don’t use much saffron in cooking, it’s expensive and it’s generally not locally (unless home grown), but I love it in dishes like a saffron & wine braised cauliflower steak, or in a plant-based yoghurt on a ratatouille.

If you are keen to grow your own and lucky enough to have the space, here is my simple guide to homegrown saffron.

The right start: size matters

When it comes to planting saffron, the size of the corms you start with is crucial. To guarantee a flowering plant, you’ll need corms that are at least 8-10 mm in diameter. However, the larger the corm, the better your chances of seeing multiple blooms. Corms around 20-30 mm are ideal as they’re more likely to flower prolifically.

While smaller corms may not flower in their first year they’ll grow bigger and are more likely to produce flowers later on. Selecting larger corms at purchase can enhance your chances of enjoying saffron blooms in the first season. Larger corms will be older and will be closer to the end of their flowering life, this is a consideration when choosing whether you want saffron immediately or are prepared to wait.

Reproduction: 20 to 600+

Saffron corms with daughter corms or cormlets attached before dividing and replanting for a simple guide to homegrown saffron

Each year, the mother corms produce smaller daughter corms, or cormlets. To maintain a healthy and productive saffron bed it’s recommended to lift, divide, and replant the corms every few years. This process rejuvenates the planting area, allows for the removal of any diseased or spent corms and provides an opportunity to spread out the corms to prevent overcrowding.

By managing the corms in this way, you can sustain a productive saffron crop over many years. The life expectancy of saffron corms can vary, but typically, they can remain viable and productive for about 3 to 5 years. After this period, the original corms may start to lose their vigour and produce fewer or smaller flowers, leading to a decline in saffron yield.

Location and soil secrets

Saffron thrives in sunny spots that mirror the conditions of New Zealand’s wine regions — warm summers and cool winters, like the South Wairapapa and Hurunui Districts for example. Almost any location worldwide can become a saffron haven if it meets these criteria.

The key to a thriving saffron crop lies beneath the surface. Saffron prefers deep, well-drained soil, whether it’s clay, sandy or loamy. If the soil feels a bit parched, enriching it with organic matter can improve moisture retention and texture. Good drainage is also your ally against fungal diseases. A quarterly dose of organic seaweed fertilisers post-harvest will do wonders for your soil’s condition, warding off diseases and encouraging corm growth and flowering.

Maintaining the right moisture balance is a fine art. A layer of straw or untreated sawdust can suppress weeds while keeping the soil moisture levels just right. Saffron plants enjoy the occasional shower, especially gentle spring rains that are beneficial for corm production. However, excessive moisture during flowering or hot spells can lead to problems. Remember, a little attention goes a long way in keeping your saffron happy.

Planting Protocols

For the best results, plant your corms in late Summer to early Autumn. The depth at which saffron corms are planted can significantly impact their yield. Generally, saffron corms are planted at depths ranging from 10 to 15 cm.

  • 10 cm Depth: Planting at this shallower depth is suitable for areas with milder winters. It allows the corms to experience a bit more warmth, which can be beneficial for their growth. However, at this depth, the corms may be more susceptible to fluctuations in temperature and moisture levels, which can affect the overall yield.
  • 15 cm Depth: Planting at this deeper depth is better for areas with colder winters. It provides the corms with more insulation against cold temperatures, which can lead to a more stable growing environment. This depth can also help protect the corms from pests and reduce the risk of fungal diseases. As a result, planting at a depth of 15 cm can potentially lead to a higher yield, as the corms are more likely to develop in a stable and healthy environment.
a raised bed with saffron - Crocus sativa -blooms that have had their stamens harvested

It’s important to note that the ideal planting depth can vary depending on your local climate and soil conditions. In general, deeper planting is recommended for colder climates, while shallower planting may be suitable for warmer regions. Additionally, ensuring proper soil drainage and fertility is crucial, regardless of the planting depth, to maximise the yield of your saffron crop.

The harvest

The magic happens in the fall, about 6-8 weeks post-planting, when the flowers bloom. Harvesting involves delicately removing the red stigmas from the flowers. Dry them on a paper towel in a warm, dark spot for a few days before storing them in an airtight container to preserve their flavour.

Aftercare: Rest and Repeat

Post-harvest, the saffron plants – Crocus sativus, like bulbs, enter a dormant phase. Reduce watering and allow the corms to rest over the winter. They will regenerate and be ready for another cycle in the following year. Because saffron doesn’t seed, it’s essential to occasionally dig up, separate the mother and daughter corms, and replant to avoid overcrowding and ensure a continuous supply of blooms.

Lifting and storing

If you are lifting between planting seasons, which I have done annually since 2020 due to space limits, here’s how to take care of them:

  • Lifting: Carefully dig up the corms after the foliage has died back and the corms have gone dormant, usually in late spring or early summer. Use a garden fork or trowel to gently lift them from the soil to avoid damaging the corms.
  • Cleaning: Gently brush off any soil clinging to the corms. Discard any damaged or diseased corms,them to prevent the spread of pests or diseases.
  • Drying: Lay the corms out in a single layer in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated area for a few days to a week to allow them to dry thoroughly. This helps prevent fungal growth during storage.
  • Inspecting: Check the corms for signs of disease or pests. Remove any corms that appear unhealthy.
  • Storing: Place the dried corms in a breathable container, such as a mesh bag, paper bag, or wooden crate. Avoid using plastic bags or containers, as they can trap moisture and lead to rot.
  • Location: Store the container in a cool, dry and dark place; ideally with temperatures between 4°C and 10°C (39°F and 50°F). Basements, garages, or sheds can be suitable locations if they meet these conditions.
  • Checking: Periodically check the corms during storage for any signs of rot or disease. Remove any affected corms to prevent the issue from spreading.
  • Replanting: Replant the corms in late summer or early fall, following the usual planting guidelines for saffron.

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