Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Decisions: Tomatoes for 2009

As most of you are aware, there are literally thousands of heirloom tomatoes to choose from, not to mention all the other veggies out there. One day there will be a tractor to help me with the garden, but in the meantime I have to be realistic about how many varieties I can grow in any given season. I’ve had numerous strategies for this in the past, once including dropping almost everything else so there was more room for tomatoes… Each strategy has had its drawbacks. This coming season will probably prove no different.

Nonetheless, I have devised a new plan for deciding which ones will make the cut, based on lessons of the past. Foremost amongst the pertinent lessons is to choose based on what is likely to thrive, or at least survive, in this little nook in the Ozarks. There are numerous enemies of healthy and productive organic tomato plants here, but the big two are heat and foliar diseases.

The typical tomato plant requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 days from transplant to produce fruits. That puts the average plant beginning production in the middle of July, when temperatures are just climbing above what most tomato plants can produce in. That leaves me two options if I want to beat the heat: early producing types and heat tolerant types. So those are two qualities high on the list.

As for foliar diseases, they can kill or seriously reduce production of a tomato plant. And the longer the season goes on, the worse the condition gets. So here again, early production is a good quality to look for.

Two qualities that rate equally high are flavor and production. Without these, what’s the point?

When I got this far, I realized that some of the things that were important to me in the past don’t have room for consideration without excluding otherwise excellent matches from my lists - things like size, shape and color of the tomatoes. Those won’t be part of the process.

So now I have a new system. I made four headings labeled Flavor, Production, DTM (days to maturity) and Environmental Suitability, and listed under each the varieties that I know either from experience or from research go into that category.

Environmental Suitability for me means Heat Tolerance (and disease tolerance), but for you it may mean cold setting ability – just depends where you live. Disease tolerance is harder to get information on with heirlooms because nobody wants to pay to find out exactly what these tolerances are, whereas with hybrids (which are generally derived from heirloom parents) the breeders will pay these testing fees for the sake of advertisement – but this is a generalized statement, there are exceptions. I know from experience that very few tomato plants are tolerant enough to foliar diseases to make much difference here, but some are susceptible enough to go off my list.

The fun part begins when you find a particular variety under multiple headings. When I completed the list, I found a few under three of the four headings – I call these Triple Threats. My Triple Threats are: Black Krim, Granny Cantrell’s German Red, and Sarnowski Polish Plum. Another surprise came with the very short list under my main environmental concern, Heat Tolerance. Heat tolerant varieties and Triple Threats go to the top of the list. Unfortunately, none of the Triple Threats are also heat tolerant… It will be interesting to see how these two classes compare over the course of the growing season. Also just for the sake of comparison, I’m going to grow the hybrid Talladega, which is considered heat-tolerant.

Then there are those that have two out of four qualities, and those that I just want to try for other reasons. Here’s my list of potentials for 2009, likely to grow or evolve before seed-starting time…

1884 Purple, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red, Arkansas Traveler, Azoychka, Berkeley Tie Die, Big Boy OP, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Black Sea Man, Brad’s Black Heart, Brandywine OTV, Carbon, Chapman, Cherokee Purple potato leaf, Creole, Dora, Fireball, Floradade, Gary’O Sena, German Giant, Granny Cantrell’s German Red, Homestead, Japanese Black Treifele, Liz Birt, Mano, Marianna’s Peace, Marizol Bratka, Opalka, Purple Russian, Sarnowski Polish Plum, Sioux, Stupice X, Sungold hybrid and some variations, Talladega hybrid, Tee Mo Or, Thessalonika, Toedebush Pink, Vorlon, Watermelon Beefsteak potato leaf, and Wes.

From these varieties, many of which I’ll be growing for the first time, I hope that several prove to be ideally suited to this environment. I like surprises, but also I’m curious to see how well my selection method performs.

I will be trying my hand once again at breeding new tomatoes. I believe I waited too long last year to begin my attempts, which is what led me to a better understanding of the effect heat has on tomato flowers and pollen. This year I’ll start early. Since I won’t be able to wait and see how well the new (to me) varieties respond to this environment, I’ll just have to make guesses as to which ones to work with. I already know how well the ones I’ve grown before perform here, so I have a few repeats in mind already.

Of great interest to me is breeding some of the Heat Tolerant list with some of the Triple Threat list. Nothing firm in mind yet, but some possibilities might include Black Krim X Arkansas Traveler, or Granny Cantrell’s X Creole, or something along those lines. The hope being to breed a Quadruple Threat!

Breeding for flavor complexity is another interest of mine intensely influenced by Keith Mueller’s selections from crossing Brandywine and Cherokee Purple. I got a taste of his work last year when I grew Purple Haze F1 (and some F2s), which is a mixture of Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry. This was a new experience in the potential for flavor – WOW! They were everybody’s favorite.

I have found two other open-pollinated tomatoes that had either Brandywine or Cherokee Purple as one of the parents, Marizol Bratka and Vorlon. I would like to breed those back to one or more of Keith’s Brandywine/Cherokee Purple stabilized crosses - Dora, Gary’O Sena and Liz Birt. The intent is to do some back breeding where I get a line that’s mostly Brandywine and a line that’s mostly Cherokee Purple, and where each will have picked up genetics from other great varieties along the way.

After breeding Vorlon X Liz Birt, (for example,) I would have an F1 hybrid that is more or less ½ Cherokee Purple. I would then breed the F1 with Cherokee Purple to get a hybrid that was about ¾ Cherokee Purple. I would grow several plants from that seed, (F2s,) and select the ones that were most impressive to me. Seeds from those select F2’s would be the basis for the F3 generation, and so on for 2 or 3 more generations. Eventually I’d have an open-pollinated twist on Cherokee Purple that was particularly well suited to this environment along with whatever other good qualities arose. And the same goes for a new type of Brandywine: Marizol Bratka X, say, Dora = roughly ½ Brandywine; resulting hybrid bred back to Brandywine; resulting in roughly ¾ Brandywine; make selections for a few generations, voila.

I say roughly a lot. Mendelian genetics show that after a simple F1 hybrid, future generations (F2, F3, etc.) segregate in many directions…

Grand gardening plans are easy in late December.

The point I was taking my time getting to is that choosing x number of varieties from a >x list can be made easier and more satisfying by taking your environment into consideration.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Catalog Season

Some of you might find it hard to decide what to grow next year. I recommend you make two lists: one list of all the veggies you want to grow, and a second based on your grocery receipts. You might be surprised at the volume or actual price (or both!) of some of the produce you buy regularly. Cross checking the two lists will get you going in the right direction.

You see the question on gardening forums around the ‘net. “Where should I get seeds?” There are plenty of local sources: department stores, feed stores, hardware stores, nurseries, of course. It’s always good to buy local, but you may find the selection limited. Here are some highly recommended places to buy garden seeds:

http://www.nativeseeds.org/v2/default.php Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House) - Definitely check them out if you live in a dry, hot environment or are Native American.
http://www.jlhudsonseeds.net/ J.L. Hudson, Seedsman - A vast and sometimes bizarre collection of rare plants, including vegetables.
http://www.psrseed.com/ Peters Seed and Research - good selection and some exclusive varieties.
http://www.richters.com/ Richters Herbs
http://www.bountifulgardens.org/ Bountiful Gardens
http://www.nicholsgardennursery.com/ Nichols Garden Nursery
http://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds.htm Fedco Seeds
http://rareseeds.com/seeds/ Baker Creek - Vast selection of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.
http://www.seedsavers.org/Content.aspx?src=buyonline.htm Seed Savers Exchange
http://www.tomatogrowers.com/index.html Tomato Grower’s Supply - Good selection of heirloom and hybrid tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds.
http://growitalian.com/2007catalog,web.pdf Seeds from Italy – European sources, things you might not find elsewhere.
http://www.mariseeds.com/ Marianna’s – specializing in heirloom tomatoes.

Now you should be able to find almost anything you might be looking for, and plenty you didn’t know you were. Please keep in mind your location when making decisions, as it can mean the difference between a successful harvest or a meager one. Also, realize that some companies are still in the process of finalizing their 2009 catalogs.

You can save a lot of money in the future if you save seeds to grow again. And for the price of a few envelopes and stamps, you can trade seeds online through your favorite gardening forums and have plenty of new varieties to try the following year. If you order quickly, you might have time to do some trading before it's time to plant your seeds.

Weigh the eco-ethics of also getting paper catalogs in your own mind… but it sure is nice to curl up by the fire with pictures and descriptions in hand and dream of gardening on those cold nights. Happy reading!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Inbreeders and Outbreeders

Corresponding with readers is enjoyable. Sometimes we trade seeds, sometimes we just talk about gardening. One man I recently sent Cherokee Long Ear popcorn seed to sent me a thank you card and a donation. I sincerely appreciate that! I gave advice to a woman recently about which kind of Brussels sprouts to grow. A few days later I was reading Carol Deppe’s Breed your own Vegetable Varieties, and I realized I had left out some important information. I apologize!

She was looking for a compact variety to grow in her attached greenhouse. I suggested Jade hybrid because it is compact, and has been around a while. I hope it’s not too late to also recommend Long Island Improved, an open pollinated variety, which is also compact. But open-pollinated versus hybrid is not the problem. I told her she could save seeds and select for the compact traits in future generations, which is true, but probably not true for someone with a small amount of growing area, not for either variety. Most Brassicas are outbreeders.

This is a point that I was vaguely aware of, but I hadn’t a clear list in my mind of which classes of vegetables were outbreeders. I knew corn was one. I’ve been working with corn for some time. I knew spinach was another. I hadn’t tried breeding Brassicas before, at least not intentionally, so it wasn’t on my mind that they suffer inbreeding depression. Last year I let kale and collards flower at the same time, and saved seeds from each. I was hoping to find a cross, but since I’ve been reading up on it, I now realize that I should have had a larger population of collards than five plants. I might luck out with the kale, because there were several growing at once. In fact, I know there were at least some viable seeds, because there are volunteers growing. There are a few collard volunteers here and there as well, but it remains to be seen if any of them will be vigorous plants, because they might suffer from inbreeding depression. There might or might not be any crosses, but that’s beside the point.

Let’s say I am just growing one variety of Brussels sprouts. These plants don’t produce good seed, if any, from self-pollination. They need pollen from other Brussels sprouts plants nearby. In fact, if you intend to save seed and grow more of them next year, you’ll want probably close to a couple of dozen plants or more. It’s best to grow them in a sort of block rather than in a row for better pollination, just like corn or spinach. If I did save seeds from a population of two or three plants, then next year’s plants would all be close relatives, and the problem would compound the following year. Each generation grown in this manner would be more inbred, and the plants would suffer more and more until they were worthless.

Vegetables like beans, lettuce and tomatoes are natural inbreeders. They do not suffer inbreeding depression. You can save seeds from one plant and expect perfectly good plants to come form them.

Back to Carol Deppe’s book, I want to point out that while it sounds like something for plant breeders only, it is a great book to have on hand for any seed saver. I also want to stress the importance of reading Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed for any seed savers. It is a must-read. You can save yourself a lot of mistakes and head scratching by doing a little reading.

Monday, November 17, 2008


The leaves have fallen from the trees, and Jack Frost has turned the tender summer plants to slime. Slime is good. It’s the beginning of a new cycle of life.

But there are some that don’t turn to slime at the first frost. The garden looks desolate at first glance, but here and there are still signs of life. Seeds from winter hardy veggies that were scattered in the summer have sprung up where they fell. I think it’s good to leave some of them to chance, so that they will be subject to the pressures of the local environment and evolve. Komatsuma, Dwarf Curled Scotch kale and Florida Broadleaf mustard are the main greens that have come back from seeds that were left to chance. Some Bright Lights Swiss chard also reappears, and the red-veined Italko Rosso dandelion leaves grow like weeds (in fact they are a type of chicory). Carrots and parsnips are reliable winter root crops that also shirk the cold, at least here. Here and there a clove of garlic that was missed during harvest sprang to life weeks ago. Walking onions, shallots and leeks are still green. All this plus a few potatoes spells hearty winter soups and salads.

But let’s back up a step. It would appear that I’ve missed one or two posts since “catching up”… There were some major disappointments this summer, mostly due to a gigantic gopher. Really it looks almost like a beaver. It ate most of my tomatoes and melons, and the very few squash that formed. This thing is as big as a dog and as sly as a fox. At least it didn’t have a taste for cukes. So the old-fashioned breeding projects were a flop, by and large. The weather was unusual this year, and I think that that affected things as well. In fact I know it affected the one successful breeding experiment, Astronomy Domine sweet corn.

This corn seed came from Alan Bishop of Homegrown Goodness. It was a mass cross of many heirloom corns, at least twenty different kinds, maybe as many as thirty. The point of the experiment was to send it out to different regions and subject it to the different environments. Ultimately, several generations down the road, it will stabilize to open-pollinated forms specific to those regions. The reason for using so many different types of corn as the parents is so that there is a great diversity of genes to begin with.

[“But Johno,” some of you say, “what are you doing messing with hybrids?!” Mixing genes to increase diversity and vigor is an ancient tradition; it is how many heirlooms came to be. One could perhaps say it is an heirloom tradition. Whenever you see a catalog description of an heirloom vegetable that says the fruits may come in two or more forms, that’s because it has a high level of genetic diversity – Native American melons and squash are especially known for this. But beyond that, we (the seed development community) want to create new nutritious foods for the years ahead, and spread the seeds. In another half-century or so, these will be considered heirlooms (they will be stable open-pollinated varieties long before that). But if you still aren’t convinced, feel good that well over ninety-five percent of the vegetables in my garden are heirlooms.]

Back to the story, the conditions in which this corn seed was germinated were harsh, so only the seeds that could handle harsh conditions grew to maturity. The soil temperature was just about warm enough when they were planted, a little on the cool side of ideal, but then the weather changed for the worse, as it is apt to do. The seeds sat in cold clayey soil for a good long while, and somewhere around one in four died before emergence. The ones that were left are better adapted to these conditions, and the next time they will be even more so. This would be called natural selection if the hand of man didn’t plant it.

I found some new favorite tomatoes this year. Two are cherries: Negro Azteca and Cerise Orange. The former is like a slightly better version of Black Cherry, and the latter is a small orange tomato that has the full flavor of a full-size tomato, and as you might expect from a cherry it is highly prolific. In the mid-size category, I liked Guernsey Island, which is a red tomato with yellow stripes. The best new-to-me full-size tomato this year was Vorlon. Weird name, I know, but you’ll soon forget about such a trifle. It’s similar in appearance to Cherokee Purple, which isn’t too surprising since CP is in its lineage. This is a “designer tomato” bred from Cherokee Purple and Pruden’s Purple, but it is stabilized (or open-pollinated). It is prolific, more so than the others in its class this year, and it has the complex flavor associated with most of the dark tomatoes, along with a creamy texture. I also tried some reds, one being Beefsteak. I really like its classic flavor, more acid than sweet, but not overly so. Also impressive was Big Boy OP. This theme just keeps coming up, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s an heirloom pepper that really tickled my fancy this year, Trinidad Perfume. It looks like a Habanero pepper, small, wrinkly and golden, and it has that same complex spiciness. But it has no heat! Unless you are accustomed to very hot peppers, Habaneros are just too much, but that incredible complexity before the storm almost makes them worthwhile to eat. Almost. Trinidad Perfume gives you the best of both worlds. Another heirloom sweet pepper that was new to me this year, and probably to most of you, was Nezhnost, or “Tenderness.” It was a smallish pepper for a bell, but I’m reasonably sure that was due to growing it in the driest, leanest corner of the garden. Nonetheless it was sweet, crunchy, and plentiful. Its color goes from pale green to red.

On a more philosophical note, the move to organic gardening I started years ago reveals more about the natural world to me all the time, and how complex the web of life is. But moving in that direction is simple enough. A couple or three years ago I added a small pond to the center of the garden to attract beneficial insects. Each year I plant more flowers and other such plants for the same intention. This has proved to be effective, although like most things in nature it takes time. It’s great to be using (and hence purchasing) fewer and fewer bio-pesticides each trip around the sun, as the beneficials relieve me of that chore. But I’ve finally admitted that floating row covers are an invaluable man made tool for reducing or eliminating especially difficult pest problems like squash bugs. They’re also pretty much essential for saving seed of multiple varieties of the same species at once.

As nature has effectively turned me into an old man before my time, I continue to look for ways to make gardening easier through organic methods. Nature will provide, you just have to know where to look. Compost is the key element in organic gardening, but it always seems like there’s never enough. Another one of those things I’ve been learning slowly is to compost weeds. They are abundant here in the lean Ozarks hills, but two things are important to know: one is to pull them when they are starting to flower, when they have lots of mass and nutritional value but no seeds; the other is to try to catch them when they are easiest to pull. If you get lucky, these things coincide. Of course there are leaves and grass clippings, but the addition of enormous weeds makes for more and better compost. This year I have made almost enough (for next year) without having to buy any materials.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Catching Up

Aack! Where has the time gone? I’ve been dealing with death, doctors, and debt. If that scenario isn’t familiar to you yet, count yourself lucky…

[1] I have lots of seedlings now, but it seems like there should be so many more (mostly herbs and flowers…) The low tunnel has served (and is serving) very well for seedling storage. But I could use two or three more… No, the greenhouse never got built… but it will.

I found that the low tunnel was heated surprisingly well by burying small hot compost piles, one every few weeks to replace the heat of the older one as it cools. These are called “hotbeds,” if you recall. I made them 4’x4’ (or slightly smaller) and covered them with the topsoil that I first removed. As the tunnel is 4’x20’, one could easily place 5 such hotbeds, but three was sufficient in this case. These were a mixture of chicken litter/straw and goat manure, about 1 wheelbarrow of each per hotbed - not the traditional horse manure, but it works.

Even without them, I suspect the thermal mass of the water-filled 2 liter bottles lining the tunnel would have been sufficient for cold hardy seedlings. They certainly moderate the temperature swings and extremes. But as I’m running out of room in the house, I’m starting to move some not-so-cold hardy plants out there – cherry tomatoes, in fact.

I placed weed barrier cloth between the seedlings and the ground. This serves a few functions, but isn’t really essential. Of course it bars weeds… but also I feel it prevents mud from being splashed onto the seedlings during rains when the tunnel is open on warm days, which might spread an infection of some soil-borne disease. The black color surely helps absorb even more heat. And it just looks a little neater…

All in all, this is an extremely effective low-tech method for starting lots of seedlings without a greenhouse!

[2] I have gone crazy with tomatoes, again. The problem is, I really don’t have the space this year, since I’ll be growing out a corn breeding experiment compliments of Alan Bishop (gene-mixer extraordinaire!) This is an early generation of a multi-colored sweet corn experiment. There were nearly twenty colored Indian corns as the parents, most of which are considered sweet corn. It will take a few more years of ‘unnatural selection’ before this line develops into an OP (open-pollinated) corn, an heirloom-to-be.

But back to tomatoes… I have around 144 cherry tomato plants, and around 300 ‘regular’ ones. They are almost all heirlooms. I hope to sell some of them, and I intend to donate the lion’s share to The Heirloom Seed Shop to sell on Pioneer Day in Norfork, AR in May. I would like to come up with 3” pots that are as cheap as newspaper pots yet more attractive (not asking for much, right?) I see a lot of potting-up in my future.

I also have some peppers – not quite so many as I had hoped. It took some of my year-old Emerald Giant bell pepper seeds literally a month to sprout. I suspect that problem would have been avoided by having warmer temperature to germinate by, but the others were up much sooner under the same conditions.

One of the other peppers, in fact the most successful germinators of the bunch, was Trinidad Perfume. I had been trying to germinate Trinidad Seasoning Pepper for years with no luck, so I thought I’d try these instead. So far, so good! They look like habaneros, but without the heat, and should be very flavorful.

I am sad to say, I lost all the celery and some of the asparagus. It had been raining for days, so I didn’t think to check the low tunnel. I thought it was surely wet enough to wick up inside the raised bed on which it rests. I was wrong. It was as dry as burnt toast, and the celery had the shallowest soil mix to grow in - close call for the others. But I ended up with 10 Precoce asparagus seedlings, which I transplanted to the garden the day before yesterday, and I’m happy for that.

The artichokes and cardoon did well (not too surprisingly since they are very nearly weeds…) They are transplanted now and growing happily in the cool spring floods.

Back at the beginning of the year, I reported on sowing poppy seeds and transplanting Jerusalem Artichokes. I was really afraid that the record rainfall for March washed the tiny seeds away, even with my careful planning for such events, but they are up and running! And the JA’s are just now coming up, too.

Leeks… oh my, what will I do with all these leeks?! I sowed two flats thickly, and I believe every single one sprouted – there must be thousands! I gave one flat away to a garden visitor (who I mentioned in an earlier post about meeting gardeners,) so half of my problem is solved. I planted out a 20’ row of them on roughly 3” centers, and that was only a small pinch out of the corner of the flat! I really need an apprentice (who requires lots of practice) to help me and my bad back plant them all! My father told me he saw leeks in the grocery store selling for $2.50 each, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise? For what it’s worth, this variety is American Flag leeks.

I have planted about 100’ of Sugar Snap peas – my absolute favorite for eating raw! It was a bargain I couldn’t pass up…

I recently got some potato seeds sowed (not seed potatoes) from 50-year breeder Tom Wagner. They will be a colorful blend, and I’m really excited about it!

And so on and so forth…

[3] I gave my speech to the Baxter County Master Gardeners (about heirloom vegetables, on behalf of The Heirloom Seed Shop) last month. I had prepared a lengthy bit, but at the last moment I found out that I could borrow a slideshow from Seed Savers Exchange (membership does have its benefits.) A picture is worth a thousand words, after all…

I think it went well, although I only had 45 minutes to cover an enormous subject. The slideshow took up the majority of the time, but I believe it stitched time as well. I had some difficulty working in the themes I had planned, but the main purposes were to get a rather large group of locally influential gardeners interested in heirloom vegetables, and hopefully get them to contribute to the Heirloom Seed Shop, and I believe that was accomplished.

There is no better way to make people happy and get their attention than 'freebies.' Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was generous enough to donate a pack of heirloom seeds for each member present at the meeting, which was a considerable number. I encouraged them to share and swap seeds after the meeting (there were multiple packs of 20 different varieties.) I had to leave early, but I am told there was a lot of swapping going on! That means another of my goals was achieved. Sharing and swapping seeds is a great thing.

Now to see if they will save seeds... that's the real test. I encouraged them to read 'Seed to Seed' by Suzanne Ashworth. That book explains all the ins and outs of saving heirloom seeds. I also provided a 3 page handout that, amongst other things, explains some seed-saving methods and materials.

As I think I mentioned before, I am terrified of public speaking. But this time (my second) I think I could be described as only shy, not so much terrified. So that’s another good thing that came of it on a personal level!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Quick Update

Seeds are sprouting! Slowly but surely, one by one, the first round is starting to come to life. So far only a single cardoon and two or three Gerber daisies have poked their sleepy heads up out of the growing mix, but others are sure to follow.

I lied. There were 74 other sprouts I didn't mention. Those were the Silver Queen sweet corn seeds that germinated out of 100, and that's not a bad rate for eight year old seed! If I'm not mistaken... the industry standard minimum germination rate for salable seeds is 80%. So I'll be planting a few rows of this white sweet corn amidst the blocks of a colorful new breed in the making. (More about that later.) The idea is to detassle the white corn plants and allow them to be a blank slate to be pollinated by the many colors of the surrounding plants.

I am soaking some pepper seeds right now. I used hot tap water and just a splash of hydrogen peroxide - maybe 5%. They've been soaking a little over 24 hours, and tomorrow I'll transfer them to a moist paper towel in a sealed container for high humidity. When they begin to sprout they'll be moved to the soilless mix.

It was hard to choose which ones not to sprout, but I decided to go with the following four this year: Emerald Giant - this is a bell pepper that turns red when fully ripe, and is the most successful one I've tried here; Paprika; Tenderness (Nezhnost); and Trinidad Perfume. Paprika should be hot - this is the one used for pepper powder. Nezhnost is one I haven't tried yet, but I think it's a small yet not too hot pepper. Trinidad Perfume looks and tastes much like a Habanero, but hasn't the heat. I was adventurous to grow and eat Habanero peppers in the past, but to me the attraction is the unique fruity taste, not the atomic heat. I hope to find Trinidad Perfume to be the best of both worlds.

One practical dilemma is that the Gerber daisies demand the heat mat for another week, so there is limited space there. I'll be starting eggplant next, and with no more room on the heat mat (the pepper seeds have taken the remaining space) I'll have to find another consistently warm area - most likely the top of the freezer.

You might have noticed a grayish blotch at the top of the above picture of an emerging cardoon seedling. That's the beginning of a patch of mold. This is why you monitor the moisture of your seedlings' environment closely. That particular container was formerly a strawberry container and has a snap-on lid. There are vents at the base and in the lid, but I had left the lids closed to maintain high humidity until first emergence. It seems to have worked just a little too well! Good thing I check them daily, because I was able to spot this potential problem on time and open all the lids - now the mold will lose its perfect environment and fade away.

Some folks have asked me about the growing mix as there is a picture in the previous post showing the components. I actually made one more adjustment after taking that photo to get more fine-sized wood bark. I try a different formula every year, ever searching for a better mix. Currently, my recommendation goes something like this: 1 to 2 parts Canadian peat, 1 part perlite, 1 part vermiculite, 1 part worm castings, and 1 part fine wood bark chips. I really don't think there is a perfect mix for seed starting, but there's only one way to find out!

I put a handful of pelletized organic 5-5-5 fertilizer in the mix, but that could be part of the reason for the mold. In hindsight, the worm castings provide around a 1-1-1 fertilizer, which is plenty for young plants. I've tried many amendments in the past, and I have to say that kelp meal was certainly the most effective. It contains all the micronutrients needed and then some, as well as a good shot of potassium. It doesn't take much, though!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Seed Starting Time

February… It’s time to get serious about seed starting for the upcoming growing season. Onions should’ve/could’ve been started sooner, but I don’t mind buying sets (they’re cheap…) If you start seedlings too early, you run the risk of getting bored of babysitting plants for so long. They do keep growing and taking up more and more space, you know. That can be problematic if you are growing them in the house – which is why outdoor space is needed.

I wrote earlier about a greenhouse I’m trying to build. It turns out I’m in no condition to build it the way I’d like to… so I need make it even more rustic than I had planned (it will be little more than a small glass-covered pole barn.) In fact, I had planned to have it built by now. At least I’ve collected everything needed to build it. So, now the pressure is on - I’ve started some seeds, and soon I’ll start more, and soon they’ll need to be kicked out the door!

So, what are the other options for outdoor seedling storage? In the past, I’ve had good luck with cold frames. A glass door laid atop four bales of straw gives ample room for tall seedlings, and excellent protection from drastic temperature swings. But in February or even March, it just isn’t warm enough. My great-uncle tells me they used to build hotbeds for this situation. A hotbed is a cold frame set atop buried horse manure; as the manure decomposes, it releases heat. I haven’t tried this before, but it seems like a good idea. Gotta’ love those traditional solutions!

Another solution is the low-tunnel. This is basically a series of arcs covered with clear plastic. Water-filled bottles (thermal mass) lining the edges help moderate temperature swings. This works well for hardy plants, but still there is the problem of an actual heat source for frost tender plants. This is much less of a concern the closer you get to the LFD. Again, placing it over a hotbed would provide some heat. Low tunnels are excellent for protecting wide rows and getting a few weeks’ head start on the season.

So, if the greenhouse isn’t finished soon, there are simple alternatives. I’m only a few bales of straw and/or a couple wheelbarrows of manure away from a time-tested outdoor holding pen for the seedlings.

Let’s get back to those seedlings. I started artichokes, asparagus, cardoon, celery, and leeks a few days ago. Also, you need some fresh cut flowers in the summer, so I’m making my first attempt at growing Gerber daisies from seed. I found some old (8 years?) corn seed, and I’m germination-testing those to see if I can use them this spring. These will take anywhere from a few days to three weeks to germinate. I started them all by soaking in water overnight, assisted by bottom heat. Then I sow them in growing medium I mixed up from bulk materials (it’s much cheaper in the long run – I bought these materials last year – and you can tailor the formula for fussy seeds.) Then, I keep a lamp on below the flats and containers to keep the growing medium temperature around 64 Fahrenheit. With the exception of the corn I’m germ testing, these plants all need the longest time to grow before the Last Frost Date (LFD.)

Next on the list are eggplant, pepper, and tomato. I’ll be starting those soon. Peppers are the most difficult of the three to germinate, so they come first. Pepper seeds definitely need to be soaked for a day first and kept warm for several days in order to come to life. A splash of hydrogen peroxide in the water can help wake them up. Then come the eggplant seeds, because they need a few more weeks of early growth than tomatoes. Tomato seeds germinate easily and rapidly, and the seedlings only need six weeks, or as long as eight, before transplanting.

The bones of my indoor setup consist of an old houseplant storage ‘cabinet’ that I built from scrap materials twenty years ago. It wasn’t built specifically to the dimensions of seedling flats, but fortunately it works pretty well. It has three shelves that can hold four flats each, and I hang four-foot fluorescent lights over them. This has worked wonderfully since I started using it for its new purpose! And it doesn’t take up too much space. It is tucked neatly into a corner, with a south-facing window in the center.

This time of year is exciting and challenging. Getting seeds to germinate isn’t the only challenge; the real bear is the process of deciding which seeds to grow, and which ones have to stay in the personal seed bank for another year! Tough decisions…

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gardening in Winter

We’re well past the winter solstice. The days are getting longer, and spring is on its way.

There are always a few things that can be done outdoors to prepare for the upcoming garden season, even in January. The things I am working on this month are often considered best done in the fall or spring, but in my climate (zone 6b) it’s neither too late nor too early.

Poppy seeds need to be exposed to the elements. A good way to do this would be to follow the guidelines at http://www.wintersown.org/

I prefer to sow poppies directly where I want them to grow, mostly because it saves me the work of transplanting. The danger in doing this is that heavy rains might wash the seeds away or cover them in mud. (Using wintersown practices can circumvent this problem.) I level the area ahead of time, touching it up twice or thrice after rains and freezes before sowing. If I were sowing a large area this would be too much work, but I’m not. Poppy seeds needn’t be buried since they are so small, only scattered thinly over a prepared area. They will come up at the right time.

I’m planting poppies in what will be this year’s squash beds. I noticed a couple of years ago that squash bugs were on every squash plant except for the one with poppies nearby. Unfortunately the poppies die off in the heat before the squash is mature. This year I intend to use poppies as a deterrent plant in conjunction with a trap crop, the idea being that the squash bugs will focus on the early unprotected sacrificial planting and not the squash plants I want to keep. The poppies may also help shade out weeds until squash foliage fills in.

The other little job I am working on is transplanting Jerusalem artichokes. Yes, they are practically frozen right now. I like to think of it as suspended animation – the perfect time to transplant! They will form a border along the road and leading up the driveway. The soil there was unimproved red clay and rock until a few years ago, when I planted a few sprigs of hairy vetch along the fencerow. The fence is long since pulled down by the vetch, a fair trade for the beautiful brown soil beneath. You don’t need good soil for Jerusalem artichokes, but it doesn’t hurt.

Jerusalem artichokes are fun to grow. They don’t require any work. You just plant one where you want a whole lot more; then come back and get them – my kind of food. In the meantime, the stems and leaves and sometimes flowers make lots of shade - use this foreknowledge to your advantage. It’s always a surprise how much foliage that one little tuber brings forth, and it’s always a surprise how many more tubers have appeared from the one. And they aren’t always small; the biggest ones are the size of medium potatoes.

How do you eat them? Like most of my vegetables, I prefer them raw. I’ve read that you can steam them or cook them the way you would potatoes, only about a third as long, because they turn mushy. I cut them into chips and eat them either plain or with salsa. You don’t have to peel them, but they require a little scrubbing to get them clean if you leave the skins on. They are crisp and slightly sweet.

Another little chore this time of year is to spread ashes from the woodstove out onto the garden. Some years I spread them on flowerbeds instead, but only when the garden soil pH is above neutral – wouldn’t want to make it too alkaline.

Wood ashes contain minerals drawn up from deep in the soil. I think it’s important to put these in the garden to replenish minerals you remove in the form of food. Two of the most important elements in wood ashes are calcium and potassium. If you need to lime your soil you can use wood ashes instead, but at a higher rate.

You must use caution spreading ashes, because if there are any hot coals in them you could easily start a fire. Make sure the ashes are cold and burned out, and even then it may be unwise to spread them over flammable materials like oak leaves.

These are the things to do outside on beautiful Ozark afternoons in January.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Personal Seed Bank

I suppose most of you have heard of the Doomsday Vault in the far north, where millions of seeds from around the world are being stored in case of global catastrophe. That’s all good and well for the future of our species (and, of course, the thousands of species being stored there,) but what would you do if such a catastrophe happened? Hike and boat your way to the Arctic Circle and fight off the polar bears, only to find that you can’t open the vault, or that others have beat you to it and eaten all the seeds? Even a relatively small and localized catastrophe, lasting longer than a few days, can mean food supplies will be in short supply. In the worst case scenario, if you were on your own for months or years, a personal seed stock would be vital.

There’s another reason to save your own seeds. Many old-fashioned varieties have already become extinct due to the promotion of hybrid varieties over the last century. Some seed companies specialize in open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, which come true from seed, but what’s available one year may not be the next. For the sake of preserving your favorite varieties of vegetables and grains (some tropical seeds and tree seeds don’t store under the same conditions) that are in danger of extinction, you should consider storing rare seeds long-term in your own personal seed bank.

There are two variables that are most important for seed longevity: temperature and moisture. Harrington’s Rule states that for every 1% decrease in seed moisture content, or every 10 degrees F decrease in storage temperature, seed life doubles. So by simply keeping the seeds a little dryer and cooler than the conditions inside your house, the lifespan of the seeds increases dramatically. Frozen seeds can last for generations. At room temperature, without proper drying, a few years is all you can expect.

The moisture content of dried seeds stored in your house is probably roughly 10-12% or more (depending on where you live.) It’s best to keep your seeds around 7-8%, or even as low as 5-6% if you want to freeze them (less than that the seeds will likely die.) If a seed breaks when you bend it, it is dry enough. You can lower the moisture in your house with air conditioning, which is convenient when you harvest seeds in the summer. There are many food-grade desiccants available to help keep moisture content low in seeds stored at room temperature. You can re-dry the desiccant in the oven if necessary.

When storing at room temperature, there are insects and microorganisms to consider, and the metabolism of the seeds. Problems relating to these factors can be greatly reduced by removing a single element: oxygen. Cultures around the globe have various traditions to deal with this. Often they fill the airspace around the seeds with something inert, like sand or dust. Small seeds would be hard to find in sand, whereas beans and some grains would not be difficult to sift out. Some of these materials, such as lime or wood ashes, also have the added benefit of acting against insects. One might use Diatomaceous Earth instead. Any of these dusty materials can first be oven dried to also act as desiccants.

A traditional method for removing oxygen from sealed containers is to place a small oil lamp or candle inside and light it just before sealing. This burns out oxygen in a short time. This method is used in cultures where the seed is normally sown within a year or two, so I would wonder how much heat is released in the process, and if it is enough to shorten the seeds’ lifespan?

A more modern method to reduce or remove oxygen in a sealed container is to simply replace it with another gas. Some have used carbon dioxide, which can be purchased in bottles or in the form of dry ice. If you use dry ice, remember not to seal the container until after it has completely evaporated, or the container may burst from pressure. Another gas used to replace oxygen in seed storage is nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen is used in cryogenic seed storage systems. Those are very expensive systems…

In my experience as a carpenter, I encountered a product called BLOxygen, which is used to replace oxygen in oil-based paint and stain containers to make them last longer. As it happens, this was inspired by something similar used in the winemaking industry. As it further happens, Bloxygen is a medical grade equivalent mixture of nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide, which is perfect for use in extending seed longevity! A can is about ten bucks, and has over a minutes’ worth of “air” in it. It doesn’t take much to replace the oxygen. I don’t have any hard data for you, but to my thinking a half-second to a one second blast will do the job for small to medium sized seed containers, so you could get over a hundred applications from one can. Not too expensive, but I think it would be most economical to only use it for seeds one intends to keep for more than 3 years or so. http://www.bloxygen.com/faq.html

Oxygen content can also be reduced by vacuum. The easiest way to do this is with a vacuum sealer designed for kitchen use. If you don’t have one you can use a piece if small tubing to suck out as much air as possible. I found an innovative system that uses a modified bicycle pump. You can check out the plans here: http://www.saveseeds.org/tools/tool_vacuum_pack.html

As for temperature, obviously you can only go so far without refrigeration. Without it, you can keep your seed bank near the floor rather than the ceiling and hope for the best. Underground rooms usually stay cooler than those above ground.

But most of us at least have a refrigerator or freezer. Depending on the size of the collection, this is often the best option. A chest freezer is better because the cold air stays put when opened, whereas in an upright freezer it falls out. This is especially important during power outages.

What happens if there is an extended power outage, or if you happen to live where there is no power? If you are really serious about long-term storage, you might consider a solar-powered chest freezer. They are available in a variety of sizes. NASA designed the best one I found. You can read about it here: http://www.alphasolar.com/alpha_solar_118.htm It comes in 5.8 and 8 cubic feet sizes, so this one would be practical for a fairly large amount of seed. It is heavily insulated, so it can keep cold for a week with no sun. It is tremendously cheaper than liquid nitrogen storage, and could operate for years without grid power.

Always allow frozen sealed seed containers to warm to room temperature before opening, to avoid condensation.

Between keeping your seeds dry and cold, versus storing them at room temperature and ambient moisture, you can expect them to last decades or longer instead of just a few years.

Another important factor in seed longevity is choice of containers. They should be airtight and not promote condensation. Glass jars with rubber-gasket lids are probably best. For individual packets, if you aren’t using vacuum packaging, foil packs are best. Zip-lock packets are okay; at least squeeze the air out of them before sealing. If they are going to be sealed in an airtight jar anyway, especially when you have taken precaution to replace oxygen, coin envelopes would be sufficient.