Category Archives: seeds

On seed production

Copra onion blossom:  this F1 original seed, purchased/planted in 2007, is five generations removed from its hybrid origin.  Does this make it a non-hybrid yet?  It is a great yellow storage onion nonetheless for me.

With all the green pressure of seeding, growing and harvesting one’s own edibles, I will tell you it makes sense to go a step further.  You should harvest your own seed.

Forellenschluss lettuce

My first true (read: overwhelming) harvests of 2012 happen concurrently with the first harvests of next year’s seeds.  I allow, intentionally most of the time, lots of my spring veg to go to seed.  Many are biennials and thus won’t seed until this, their second, spring, but most are simply live-and-die annuals hellbent on reproduction in this, their only, year of life.  So I keep a store of paper lunch sacks handy and I snip off dried seedheads, marking the bags with a permanent marker as to what the heck they are, then I fold these bags to store in the basement for next (or maybe later this) year.  Roots, lettuce, brassicas, spinach, alliums, herbs.  Who needs a seed store when you have your own store?

The above is an example of inadvertent seed saving and seed starting.  About a month ago I deadheaded some Russian kale (the red, toothy kind) and left the seedpod branches on the ground to pick up later.  Well, it looks like I have my fall kale started already!  whoops.

Also, the ridiculously hot temperatures have lifted (joy) but one of the casualties was the artichokes.  The very thought of steaming them steamed me, so I let them flower.  Beautiful relative of the thistle, huh?

My go-to guide for all seed saving adventures is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth,  There are other guides out there I am sure but this one is handily grouped by plant families and has relevant information about a plant’s suitability for growth in your particular area of the US.  If you know of others, please leave them in the comments.  Happy harvests!

On something from (almost) nothing

It must be Monday because my muscles are sore

Ah, Spring!  Newness everywhere:  new buds, new shoots, new babies, new sprouts.  It must be time to crack the spine of…an old book?  Indeed.  Late winter and early spring find the bedside table crowded with well-thumbed gardening books.  This year is no exception, and I have dug up (pun intended) one of my favorites.  It’s called Life in the Soil by James B. Nardi.

Seeds plus light, water, soil equals a July tomato

Every page is a revelation.  I highly recommend it.

Seeds plus compost and a trellis equals a June pea or three

IN the food web of life, I of course find most fascinating the producers:  those organisms that produce their own nutrients from only air, water, minerals and energy…the everyday wonder that is a lettuce seed, say, spouting and heading up for my eventual enjoyment on just the soil, rain and sun that falls upon it?  Awe, inspiring.

Does this weather mean we’ll have a six-month-long summer?

Other indications of spring are spring onions in every possible form.  Here’re regular scallions, chives, and walking onions in a greenhouse bed.  Since they coexist with Egg Season, we’ve been pairing a lot of them lately, because, really, who can resist cong you bing for breakfast?  Not me!

I watched a fingernail moon hurdle the treeline as I was milking this morning.  So strange, this weather…have we skipped a month?  Did I miss it somehow?  How else to explain the scent of hibiscus and daffodils and the sound of the nightjars’ calls. Surely it’s late April, not mid-March.

The kid about to unplant her first spuds last July

Traditionally, however, St. Patrick’s Day is pea- and potato-planting day ’round here.  Many years I haven’t even been able to trench the frozen earth to accept peas (much less potatoes) but this year I wonder if the soil is already too warm for them.  If “regular” weather returns the potatoes, though, can take more than a few frosts, if my consistent missed-spud harvesting every fall is an indication.  Those volunteers are always my first spud harvests.

Fava beans, parsnips, carrots and beets have also been planted outside, some already sprouting.  Baby lettuces transferred around.  Late root crops pulled and eaten.

I am thankful to the slow slide into winter that we had last year:  I was fully able to put the garden beds “to bed” for the winter (out with the old harvests and in with the thick mulch) so this spring’s planting is amazingly easy.

And I also realize that I am somehow always optimistic about the time I will have in the future to take on some project (either maintenance or new hairshirt I mean farm task).  Does this time ever materialize?  Nope, never.  It’s best to do whatever it is (fully dig out a weedy bed, fully repair that fence section) when it needs to be done…trust me here.  Its effects can be cumulative if you put it off.

Another year, another round of seed-starting

Little Edie has adaptation skillz at the ready.  Any time there’s a pile of something warm-ish in a greenhouse, she’s sure to land and nest.

We are all born tinkerers.  Tinkering’s a prime adaptive skill, of course, honed over millenia to help us fulfill our needs.  In this age of relatively easy money, though, I think that within the ease at which we exchange money for goods, we’re also exchanging something else.  With every dollar goes a bit of inborn knowledge, some nascent adaptation, a skill…simply because it’s easier to pay for it than to do it yourself.  We’re not so quick to tinker!

I am surely not saying you all should get out a circuit board and some solder and make your own computers.  Hah.  No; rather, this is more a signal to myself that not all my troubles have an easy monetary fix.  Indeed.  Sometimes, life requires a little bit of pain.

Case in point:  I abhor indoor seed starting.  Really.  And every year, I seem to be on a quest, a grand period of Deep Think, to solve this problem.   It’s not an insurmountable problem.  In fact, it’s really not even a problem.  It is just, of all that goes into gardening, seed-starting in trays interests me the least.  Maybe because it’s phony?  Maybe me warming 48-plug trays to start the tomatoes and okra in my basement is somehow cheating the process?  Ah.

Who knew I was such a purist, right?  Well, I have no problem at all planting seeds outside in the ground.  And I do start a fair number of spring/summer veg in rows in the greenhouse beds themselves.  But not all plants find these beds–and their wild temperature swings–to their liking.  Knowing how some seeds require a constant warm-ish soil temperature to germinate, is there a way I can get around this?

Nope.  Not if I expect a harvest.

Shrewd:  When moving them to get at what was under them, I threw the agricultural cloth in a pile over the top of the kale.  Edie took that as an invitation to lie UPON said kale.

Not all early veg are so picky, though.  For the last two years I have experimented with growing the seed-start trays in the greenhouses themselves.  Problem was, the voles (field mice, the scourge of the winter greenhouse) found a few of the seed trays and mowed them down of their particularly delectable victuals, so I needed them off the ground or somehow out of harm’s way.  A makeshift table seemed to work, but it cast shadows…and the warming late-winter greenhouse needs no shadows.

Now this year, on Leap Day, I actually splurged bought my way out of my problem by getting a new wire shelf for the old greenhouse’s back wall.  Wire shelves let the light through, I figure, so I can leave it on the wall all year…and darn it, the vermin can’t jump that high.

Probably the lamest tinker ever, new shelf on back wall.  Mylar blanket wraps about trays of herb, flower and cabbage-family seeds on wire shelf.  Those sticks coming out of the ground?  Attempts at fig propagation.

But damn.  The tomato, celery, okra, tomatillo, and pepper family plants are all testing my patience in the basement.

Here’s a bit more context.  Dang, I try not to show you what a slob I am…sorry.  But do you see Edie?

On what a gardener does in the off season

What do I do to occupy my time when I don’t have weeding to do?

I hate this stuff.  And yes, that’s snow less than a foot away.

Well, who says I don’t have weeding to do?  Have you ever heard of henbit?  This mint family weed does not let Old Man Winter stop it from growing AND flowering; it loves the greenhouse beds and paths, and it’s a bear to evict from those little spaces between lettuces.  Ahem.  Sadly, no hens like it…nor do turkeys, bunnies or goats.  That puts it in the truly worthless weed camp.

So perhaps I don’t get a vacation from weeding, ever.  But the down season does allow me to attack the list of things I had set out to accomplish, um, the year before

Too good to be sauced, yet.

…like making applesauce.  Right about now is when the putative bad apple spoils the lot (bad potatoes, too, come to think of it).  I sort through the stores and pull out the spotty and the wrinkly, or the varieties which look fine but whose texture is off, and sauce them.  The apples are kept in half-bushel baskets on our back porch/mud room.  It’s an unheated porch and it does freeze, though not that often–cool enough, then, to keep apples–and it smells great.  The half-bushels work because they’re shallow enough to find the bad ones and the bottom apples do not get as smooshed as they do in bushel baskets.  We like our sauce saucy, not lumpy; I simply cook the thinly sliced/peeled apples and run them through a chinois.  Sugar, salt and spice is added to taste, then process the jars in the pressure canner.

Molasses-smoked ham

Smoking is another.  Despite the cold I am often quite itchy to be outside, and tending the smoker is a guarantee that I am in and out all afternoon as every 20 minutes or so I’m flying out the door to verify that the smoker is indeed still smoking.  Trimmings from our apple trees and grapevines as well as the yard’s ever-shedding maples are used as smoking fodder.  I do both hot and cold smoking.  It’s an opportunity to get creative:  hams, side pork, pork belly, fresh sausages, salmon from a friend’s fish CSA, boiled eggs, home-made gouda and mozzarella…even dried whole paprika peppers are game.  Some things don’t require much smoke at all whereas others can take all day. “Whatever’s available in the time I have” remains the rule of what gets smoked when.

And it’s not quite my least favorite time of year (indoor seed starting) but we’re getting close.  I do drive my husband crazy in that I am sloppy-organized whereas he is tidy-organized (both systems work, right?) but it’s usually late January when I mess up tackle the pile of grown/saved, newly purchased and old seeds.  (Of course, I do need to upend things in order to make things tidy, don’t you?)  This year it’s been a bit easier:  I got a fabulous sieve from Fedco…what a great way to do the final shake/sort of saved seeds.  And I love that the box it came in called it the Almighty sieve.  Indeed.

The bomb

One should appreciate the off-season, and I do!

On home-grown flour

Painted Mountain flour corn, seed gifted generously from Mike.  Riffing off my last post:  One cup medium-fine corn meal in four cups boiling water equals polenta; one cup medium corn meal plus three cups boiling water equals grits.  See how easy this all is?

One of the things most surprising to those considering a “local” diet is how truly dependent their normal diet is upon flour.  Though flour can be made of any grain, it’s wheat we Westerners are terribly dependent upon…surely there’s a way to grow one’s own?

I suppose there is; in point of fact, on commercial farms, spring wheat and regular rye are commonly grown between vegetable rows where I live (the wheat grows quickly, and its roots hold down the soil between the plastic-mulched crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.).  But wheat is not the normal commodity crop ’round here (ugh, we plow down our vineyards and orchards to grow corn and soy with shocking regularly here because–get this–we can’t find enough people to pick the grapes and fruit! sigh; this is a staggeringly sad factoid in a state with chronically high unemployment).  I’ve tried my hand growing hull-less oats and rye and buckwheat; all grew.  Dang, though, you need LOTS of grain to feed your own humble self.  My grains simply aren’t grown at that scale.

Child amongst the dent corn, August 2010.

However.  I do grow corn.  Armed with a handful of seeds in spring and with a $20 corn grinder in winter, whammo:  I am self-sufficient in dried corn and corn flour.

Can I just say there is NO good way to photograph this thing in action, at least not by me, not in this kitchen.  It is a corn grinder, and I do not lie that it cost $20 plus shipping: do the googles or the amazon to find it your own self:  I got the one with the deeper hopper.  BE WARNED it is not good if you’re looking to grind your own wheat flour:  it’s great, though, if you just want cornmeal on occasion, or wish to crack some corn for your chickens.

I grow dent corn, flint corn, and popcorn.  (I don’t grow sweet corn; it’s too easily had locally to make it worth my while.)  All can be ground; all make a decent flour.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange both offers all kinds of corn AND gives a whiz-bang what-for lesson of which type is used for what:  go see for yourself.  And because I am a fool for polenta, I bought a packet of SESE’s Floriani polenta-specific corn to try this year.

This cheap thing is great for home use.  After about five passes, the meal is perfect for a good polenta; after four, it makes great grits…and I’ve used it for bean flours (garbanzo, black turtle) too to good effect.  Oh, and I’ve ground up rice in it too:  rice mush makes a great breakfast!

Give corn-growing a try this year, or, barring that, use your muscles and grind your own.  Trust me, the taste of freshly-ground corn is worth the turn!

On heirlooms

Jimmy Nardello’s sweet Italian frying peppers:  find them in my garden and on the Ark of Taste

The true spirit of this holiday season, Greed, showed up right on time for me with Tuesday’s arrival of the 2012 Fedco seed catalog.  Whee!   Time to get out the highlighter and tally my wish list for next year’s seeds.

I have had to become a lot more serious about my gardens now that I’ve started a pseudo-CSA.  My usual mania for no unplanted ground has been a good policy, but keeping up with my customers’ vegetative demand has required that I likewise be ruthless about harvesting and doing away with any spent plants.  Precious, every square inch, that garden space!  So you would think that I would be stocking my garden with hybrids, right?  Grow big, grow fast, grow uniformly, grow hardy F1 seeds:  the great guarantee for yield!

Yeah, right.  Perhaps you should step over to a very non-judgmental description of hybrids and heirlooms right here; read it, get educated, then come on back.

Okay.  Here’s the deal:  I love heirlooms.  Heirloom, or open-pollinated, or standard plants (the names are interchangeable) appeal to me on many levels.  I am naturally thrifty, so having a plant whose seed I can save and perpetuate puts these puppies in the LIKE category for me:  I will go through the trouble of growing seed if it spares me from buying them year in and out.  I enjoy the natural variation found in a planting of seed:  they’re not all exactly alike, either as seedlings, as growing plants or as the yield of seeds (fruits) they produce…close, but no cigar.   This slight variation enables me to save seed from the plant whose qualities most appeal, whilst eating its slower-growing or smaller or leafier siblings…very nice, especially in a row of, say, cabbage, when having 18 heads of F1 plants ready and huge right now is more burden than blessing.  I’d prefer the variation of the small, the big, the wooly and the sprouting.

(Not all heirloom seed produces such crazed variation.  I’m generalizing here as there are loads of other factors all along the plants’ growth that could cause those differences.  Also, I like to pick on cabbages.)

My other insistence on heirlooms has to do with the vast gene pool from which they spring.  When I picked up a copy of The Vegetable Garden (web version here) about ten years ago I began to understand just how few varieties of open-pollinated seed are available to home gardeners today.  The more I looked into it the more ill I became by how little of that seed heritage remains.  Here’s a graphic that should shock you:

which can be found in a probably more legible view at National Geographic, make sure you read its attendant article too.  We’ve squandered our inheritance, it seems to me, with our happy pursuit of Early Girls and Big Boys.

I won’t step into the waters of patenting seeds (you don’t have all day, do you?), trademarking life forms and bioengineering.  Producing F1 seeds typically enriches just one seed producer.  Problem is, a successful hybrid will most likely get bought up by a seed conglomerate who also is in the gene-splicing business.  And frankly I am not keen to support the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, even by buying a lowly packet of hybrid onion seeds.  Why feed the beast?  Here is a list of seed sellers that have signed the Safe Seed pledge, wherein they don’t knowingly* produce or sell GMO-tainted seeds.  (*”Knowingly” is telling.  It’s up to you to research that the hybrid you wish to buy is not owned by or modified by a company that genetically modifies its seeds.)

Probably the biggest reason I love heirlooms is that they’re an unbroken link to our past.  Perhaps I am simply a romantic at heart, but it’s truly humbling when I hold a handful of that savoy cabbage seed over a freshly-scratched trough of earth, as it’s a link to the past.  Think about it:  SOMEBODY, actually a whole chain of somebodies, has tirelessly grown and saved the very seeds in my palm.  It is living history.  In growing and saving seed myself, I become the latest link in that unbroken chain.  The only other thing that I have actively done that has even come close is to become a mother:  that, likewise, is a mighty long chain.

Sigh.  So Tuesday night I curled up onto the couch with my highlighter and my catalog.  Sure; 1/3 of all the seeds therein are hybrids:  hybrids equal cashmoney, after all, and even Fedco isn’t above that.  (I read and circle Fedco for its politics and its writing, of course, and not necessarily for its offerings.)  And it is equally true that my garden, likewise, is home to a few safe hybrids.  I might be strident, but I am not an absolutist, except maybe on GMOs….

Here’s a great source for home-saved heirlooms:  Become a member of Seed Savers and get their annual catalog. I love Fedco but I also support TerritorialVictory Seeds and Southern Exposure, but please, I hate Baker Creek so don’t try to persuade me otherwise.  You Canadians have lots of options:   Salt Spring Seeds and a whole bunch of others in the comments.  Lucky ducks.

Oh:  You may also be wondering why I would need more seeds if I save so many.  ahem.  Avarice!  Rapacious greed!  and an overwhelming sense that I “need” more types of veg! that’s why.   I am an American after all:  consumption is my birthright, isn’t it?