Archive for the 'seeds' Category

Storing Seeds

Sharon March 19th, 2008

One of the essential elements of growing your own is having enough seed - as y’all know, this is a big subject for me this month.  One of the most important ways of staying secure is knowing how to store seed so that it will stay viable as long as possible.

 So, if you want to store seed for more than one year, you have several options.

 1. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place. 

-This will enable your seeds to have about the usual storage life.  The estimated storage life of seeds is listed here.  I would note, however, that this is one of those YMMV things - I’ve had no trouble keeping spinach seed for several years, for example.   If you have a fridge, are very, very careful not to let them get moist (use silica gel and package them carefully), you can keep them in the fridge.  Me, I’ve got way too many seeds for that.

 2. Vacuum Pack Them

- Lack of air exposures will extend the seed’s life a bit.  You can buy pre-canned and vacuum packed seeds or pack them yourself with a food saver or a straw.  Remember, they still have to be cool and dark.  This should add at a minimum one year to their lifespan.

3. Freeze them.  Thanks to Pat Meadows for explaining how to do this to me.

-Obviously, this only works while the power is on, but will substantially extend the life of your seeds while the freezer is working.  I keep and use too many seeds to do this with all of mine, but I plan to use this technique for short lifespan seeds, such as onions, parsley and parsnips.

 Pat double packs her seeds in two layers of plastic, and before using them but after taking them out of the freezer, allows them 24 hours to come to room temperature before opening the packages, so that any condensation forms on the outside of the packet, not where it could hurt the seeds.

 Before you do any storing, however, make sure that any seed you grew yourself is completely dry and ready to be stored. 

And remember, never plant all your seed if you can avoid it - even the best gardeners have crop failures, and the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.  The reality is that seed varieties are lost all the time - it is never wise to assume that there will always be more of a particular variety.  So save a little extra, and store it carefully for next year.


Growing or Buying Fresh Food For Root Cellaring

Sharon March 12th, 2008

If you are going to use natural cool storage to keep vegetables and fruits in a root cellar, it matters a great deal which varieties you grow or purchase from farmers.  Some varieties simply will not keep, others will last nearly forever.  So as you are planning, make sure that if you intend to root cellar, you are choosing seed varieties (or talking to your local farmer) with keeping qualities in mind.

The definitive (and highly recommended) book on this subject is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s _Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables_ and they list many varieties there.  I’ll list varieties that have done well for me here, but their book is definitely worth owning if you are using natural cold temperatures.  

(BTW, I’m going to try and put together a store section of books on preserving food fairly soon, so you should be able to get most or all of the books I recommend through my site, if you’d like to.)

One note on root cellaring - while you don’t have to keep your food in a cellar (we keep ours in a partly insulated above-ground porch), you do have to keep it in a place that gets fairly cool.  In warm climates, even shallow under-ground spots may not be cool enough  - but if you live in a warm place, you may be able to grow year ’round, and not need a root cellar.  So think about whether your location has the right combination of cool temps, frostlines, and a need for storing fresh food for long periods.


Apples - We store *tons* of these, and the best keeping varieties we’ve found are: Roxbury Russet, Northern Spy, Winesap, Lady, Winter Keeper, Smokehouse, Winterbanana, Mutsu, Sheepnose, Cortland. 

Some apples, by the way, turn into mush instantly - Macs and summer apples are the worst, but lots of other varieties don’t store well, so make sure you are storing the right kinds. 

Beets - Lutz Longkeeper is by far the most famous storage variety, but Fedco reports it may have been dropped entirely from the commercial trade - Seed Savers still has it, a good reason to become a member and save your own!  Detroit Dark Red does reasonably well, but our favorite storage variety is Rote Kugel, huge and dense and delicious.  Seed is available from

Cabbage - January King and Glory of Enkuizen are my best keepers - I got seed for both from  Mammoth Red Rock, a red cabbage, stores almost as well.  I’ve had great luck with older heirlooms, and not bothered with hybrids here.  We’re still eating our own cabbage, and will run out before it spoils.

Carrots - I’ve found that most large carrots store fairly well. “Oxheart” stores very well for us in buckets of moist sand, but any thick variety will do well. 

Garlic - All my garlic lasts just fine - no issues there.

Potatoes - The big issue with potatoes is that you want to store late-crop potatoes, for the most part, because they haven’t been sitting around. Katahdin, Green Mountain, Carola, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, Purple Peruvian - all store well for us.

Pears - Bosc, Anjou, Bartlett and Kieffer all store a couple of months

Quince - I’ve only grown one variety - it seems to keep several months. 

Rutabagas - Laurentian keeps very well in sand.

Turnips - Purple Top White does the very best keeping for us, but Golden Ball is a close second and tastier.

Daikons - all seem to keep a couple of months

Onions - Of the OP Onions, New York Early does very well for me.  Stuttgarter, the common set hybrid also does very well.  For sweet onions, Candy will keep a month or two.   New York early came to me through Fedco, listed below.

Sweet Potatoes and Squash like the same winter temps we have - 50s and 60s houses.  So don’t store them in the root cellar, bring them into the house and keep them in  closet, under your bed, or in a convenient corner.  I’ve not noticed any difference between the sweet potato varieties we grow (Georgia Jet, Porto Rico). Johnny’s sells northern adapted sweet potato varities as does Pinetree

 Squash varies a great deal - there are lots of excellent keepers out there, but some of our favorites are - Marina de Chioggia, Butternut, Green Hubbard (the big ones keep much better than the little hubbards), Pink Banana, Futsu, Hopi Orange, Thelma Sanders - I get most of mine either from seed savers or Fedco    

I hope this helps someone!


A Seed Savers Garden: Part I

Sharon March 8th, 2008

Note: This is part of my four part series on seeds and the issues of seed availability in a post peak agriculture.  I’ll write more about seed saving generally shortly, but I wanted to start this part of the series now, while I was thinking about it, and while we’re still planning/starting our gardens. 

I get my best ideas from the questions of my readers, and Stephen gave me a dilly. He mentioned that he felt intimidated by the problem of setting up a garden that could, besides feeding his family, also provide their seed needs, and did I have suggestions on this one. And that reminded me that I’ve wanted to write on this topic for some time. So I thought I’d talk about some model gardens people might set up. I wish that I had any design skills at all, or I’d show them to you, but you’ll just have to follow along verbally - and if any of you draw them out, and feel like posting them, submit a link and I’ll add it to this post. 

What are challenges of growing food and enough seed to keep the cycle going? Well, different crops present different challenges, and I’m going to go through my design, easiest crops to hardest ones, and the solutions available to each.  This will take multiple posts, however.

First of all, I recommend that all of you look into the very basics of seed saving - how it works, what the general issues are. The best basic reference, pointing you to useful books, websites and growers is at Sue Robishaw’s excellent website, ManyTracks here: Personally, the very best explanations I’ve ever seen of basic, garden level seed saving came in Robishaw’s book _Homesteading Adventures_ - I believe (but have not read) that her book _Frost Dancing_ also includes tips for very northern seed savers. Just FYI, if you buy her book, HA is a book with a ton of useful information, and a very, very annoying format. It is worth getting through the conceit (Robishaw talking to two dumb new homesteaders) to get the information, though.  There are good online guidelines for seed saving here:

The two most useful books for seed savers past the very beginning stage are Suzanne Ashworth’s _Seed to Seed_ and Carol Deppe’s _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_ - I strongly recommend that these be part of every gardener’s library. The second one may sound intimidating, but even if you have no intention of breeding, it is full of fascinating and useful information about plant genetics, presented in an accessible and fun to read (I know that sounds nuts, but it really is) way.  The reality is that seed saving *is* plant breeding - each subsequent generation becomes better adapted to your region and its conditions.

Ok, now we’ve got the absolute basics down. So the first question is how you design a seed saver’s garden. You want to plant a full variety of foods, with enough to eat, and enough to save seed. You also want to minimize the amount of work you have to do in terms of hand pollinating, and caging, and make sure that your seed comes true. But you don’t have acres and acres of farmland - you have a suburban garden. (I know some of my readers do have acres of farmland, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll imagine we’re all dealing with smaller spaces.)

Now how much land generally speaking is needed for seed crops?  Well, first it is useful to distinguish between the crops where seed can be saved *and* you can eat the plant, and those where one has to make a choice between the two.  There are also some middle ground plants, where you can derive some benefits from them.

Plants where you harvest the plant more or less normally and the save the seeds: Winter squash, pumpkins, some melons

Plants where you can harvest leaves and stems fairly steadily and still have the remainder of the plant make seed: Celery, parsley, most leafy greens, lettuces

Plants where you have to choose between saving seeds and eating the plant: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions, all grains, peas, beans and plants where you actually eat the seeds, all brassicas, all summer squash and cucumbers (although some of the summer squash can be eaten like winter squash at the seed saving stage), most root crops. 

So how much of your garden will you have to devote to seed saving?  Well, it depends on the size of the garden  - some very small gardens won’t be able to save seed from some crops, particularly if you live in an area where others are growing gardens nearby.  It also depends on the sheer number of crops you want to grow - if you are content to grow a single member of each plant that could potentially cross with another, you can save more seed than if you have to maximize every inch between plants.   And generally, the smaller the garden, the larger the percentage of crops that have to be devoted to seed saving.  In their booklet _Growing to Seed_ by Peter Donelan (available through Ecology Action) Ecology Actions says that the *average* space required to save enough seed for the next year is 3% of your garden.  I would suggest that people average that up somewhat, both for reasons discussed in my prior post on seed availability, and assume that in the first year of a crisis, and while unless you are an experienced seed saver, 5-10% of your garden might be needed for adequate seed production.

There are a couple of factors here to understand.  They all affect how much land you need to devote to seed saving.

The first, and most important, is that you want to select for good traits, and the best of your plants.  This is perhaps the most fundamental way that a seed saver’s garden is different from everyone else’s - that is, seed savers have to track their plants even more carefully than gardeners.  Because you want to select seed from the plants that have the qualities you want to perpetuate - for example, if you grow a tomato because it is especially early, you will want to save seed from the earliest crop.  That means that instead of biting into that first red tomato, you might want to leave it on the vine - which is tough.  But you also have to be careful here - some plants, when allowed to set seed, will stop fruiting, because their ultimate objective is the perpetuation of the plant - so sometimes you won’t want to leave the earliest fruits.  You might be selecting for texture, color, vigor, resistance to disease, etc… - that is, you have to think about what plants to save seed from and why - and that means more than ever, making sure you are observing your plants and spending a lot of time with them in the garden. 

In order to ensure genetic health, most crops have a minimum plant population necessary to keep  them healthy.  That is, if you save seed for a couple of years from too small a population, eventually the plants will begin to inbreed, and the seed will get weaker and less viable.  Some self-pollinators need only one plant.  Others, such as corn, need a large population to ensure long term viability.  Suzanne Ashworth lists minimum plant populations for all her crops, and I’ve used that as a guide here.

 Next is “isolation distance” - that is, how far away plants will cross pollinate by accident.  Sometimes it is very close, sometimes quite far.  But if you want your varieties to come true, you need to respect this distance.  You can often stretch this by using barriers, like your house - plant one pepper on one side of the house, another on the other, and the odds are ok that they won’t cross.  Sometimes even a row of tall plants like corn or sunflowers are sufficient.  A very small gardener will have to grow fewer different varieties of plants that can cross with each other (sometimes people are surprised by what crosses with each other - for example, new gardeners often don’t realize that chard is a beet, and will cross with beets).

Then there is  “Storage Space” which applies to biennial crops in cold places and with long dry seasons.  That is, biennials are crops that make seed in the second year - most brassicas and many roots fall in this category.  In mild climates, many will simply overwinter in the garden and make seed the next year.  In very cold places, or places with long dry seasons, however, you have to find a way to dig them up and store them over the winter or summer and replant, so that they can make seed.  For home scale gardeners, this is pretty doable, but it does take time, space and planning.

And  finally, there are rotation issues, which are really a larger gardening issue.  That is, most crops shouldn’t be grown more than once every few years in the same space.  Which means that if you are growing out a plant that requires a large population, like corn or quinoa, you need to have several such spaces to grow seed so that you can rotate next year - or you have to have enough room to grow out seed one year for 3-4 years. 

Confused yet?  Seed saving gardening is different than simple vegetable gardening, and if you haven’t ever grown a garden, or are just getting started, I’d encourage you to start with the easiest crops for seed saving, and wait a little longer to get into practice with the others.  It will be hard enough to simply design and set up your garden - adding a whole lot of other considerations is too much.  So give yourself a year or so and a successful garden, and print out what information you need so that you can plan for a seed saver’s garden in the future.

So today we’ll start with the easy seed saving plants, the ones that even beginning gardeners can do without trouble.  We’ll get into more complexity later.  Remember, anyone can save seed - it just seems hard when you are getting started, like almost every new skill.  Give it time, and keep practicing - this is one of those things that is too important to give up.

Potatoes and Sweet potatoes are both grown from pieces of existing plants, rather than seed, generally speaking. You can plant potato seed, but what you get won’t be anything like its parents. It can be fun to do, and the advantage of potato seed is that it lasts 3-5 years, so if you couldn’t plant one year and then no seed potatoes were available, you could get a crop. Not all potatoes will set seed, but some do, and it might be worth saving it. The process is simple - wait til the seed ball is mature, and then make sure the seeds are dried fully before storing them. This is a useful hedge - but whether the potatoes you get will be good is another bet, so this should be a side-venture. More generally, potatoes and sweet potatoes present no trouble - plant them one year, dig them up, save your best tubers to replant in the case of potatoes, or put a few sweet potatoes in water to generate slips, and go on from there.

Most Grains won’t be a crossing problem, unless you live in a heavy grain producing region. That is, if you grow wheat in my neighborhood, or suburban LA, you don’t much have to worry about crossing - no one else will be doing it. The same is true of most other grains. If you do live in the wheat belt, the need for you to grow wheat on a home scale is probably pretty small - grow oats or something instead. So generally speaking, if you are growing small amounts of grain, simply harvest them and save some of the seed.  Corn and Quinoa are the major exceptions, and I’ll discuss them a bit later on.

Legumes are really easy - Peas and Beans are both, at best, marginal self-pollinators, that can cross, but are unlikely to. In fact, there’s some debate about whether beans actually cross at all - they are a crop that is highly likely to send out sports or mutations, so it may not be that they are crossing. You can usually grow peas (unless there’s a huge field of field peas next door) with just a row or two of taller plants in between them. Beans you can pretty much grow right next to each other, except Soybeans, which need a little more space - more like peas. But it is perfectly common for bean collectors to grow 20 or 30 varieties in a garden. All you do is save some pods on the vine and let them get completely dry, and put them away. Just remember to save your best pods for seed if you want to improve your stock.

Lettuces are extremely easy - it doesn’t cross very much, and even grown side by side, you’ll have 5% crossing or less, according to Suzanne Ashworth.  And as long as you harvest individual leaves, you can have your salad and seed too - just remember, you want to save seeds from the *last* lettuces to bolt, not the first ones.

Spinaches cross more, because they are wind pollinated, but I haven’t had any noticeable decline in quality saving spinach seed even well within the 5 mile limit. That is, my seed is probably crossed, but it seems to come out pretty much like spinach.  Otherwise, spinach is a lot like lettuce.

Tomatoes are another marginal self-pollinator - they do cross, but sufficient garden space - growing two varieties on either end of the garden is usually sufficient. You may have a few offtypes, but generally speaking, you’ll be ok.  A barrier will almost always do it, so if you want to grow paste tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, just throw your cherries in a pot on the side of the house, away from the garden.  Tomatoes must be unpleasantly overripe and mushy to save seeds.

So here’s where a seed saver’s garden has to get selective - you might need to narrow things down to an early variety, a paste/drying variety and a cherry. Or, you might have to get creative about where you grow them - remember, properly stored tomato seed lasts at least 3 years (and usually much more), so let’s say that you want to grow 20 varieties of tomato, but you also want to save seed from your three main crops. Well, since you can grow out enough seed to last you three years with just a few plants, perhaps you’ll find a spot away from the garden, over by the house, where you can grow three plants. The first year, you’ll plant your early variety there, and save seed (by letting tomatoes get overripe, and then fermenting and drying it) enough for three years, while you grow 20 other varieties in the garden. You won’t save seed from any of these - or maybe a few to test pollination distances. The next year, you’ll grow out your drying tomato, the third year your cherry - and then the rotation starts again (of course, you can’t grow tomatoes forever in exactly the same spot, so I’m assuming you are rotating them a little). You could also do this with a neighbor’s yard - offer them some tomatoes, and ask them to simply leave a few tomatoes on the vine to get overripe.

Peppers and Eggplants do self-pollinate quite a bit, and many of us will want to grow more than one - at least one sweet and one hot. Again, this is an argument for growing a few out each year as seed crops in a place isolated from the rest of your garden or in a neighbor’s yard. But there’s another trick that can be used with both of these plants. Unlike tomatoes, which are essesentially annuals - that is, they live only one year, in their native places, peppers and eggplants are perennials. That is, one way to save seed for them, if you have bright windowsills and a warm spot, is to dig up (or plant in pots to begin with) one of each kind of eggplant and pepper, and bring them into the house over the winter. If conditions are right (experiment before you depend on this) they will continue to fruit over the winter, and you can save seed from those plants, which had no wind or insects to crosspollinate them.  Both crops have to be way past ripe to save good seed from.

Next post on this subject: More crops, and designing your garden with all these bits in mind. 


What I’m Growing - Part I - Things I Start Ahead

Sharon February 24th, 2008

I thought it would be fun to talk about favorite plant varieties.  When I get sick of winter, I start seeds - there’s something so magical about the process.  And one of my favorite projects is choosing varieties.  Perhaps some of what I grow will be useful to you.  This is going to be long - I like a lot of plants, and so I’m doing it in pieces as I get around to it.  The first one will focus on tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, ground cherries and tomatillos, among the first things that I start indoors.  I actually start much, much more than this, but one thing at a time.

 BTW, as we discuss this, we should probably note locations and what your garden is like - the plants I have success with in my cool, wet, heavy soil in upstate NY might not suit your arid, cold high plains garden or your humid, warm midwestern loam, and vice-versa.  Still, almost anything is worth a shot!

 First, there are tomatoes.  Everyone loves tomatoes, and discussing tomato varieties is one of those things that no gardener can get enough of.  I have quite a few favorites - I could never choose one or two.

 My favorite OP (open pollinated, that means not a hybrid) cherry tomato is right now is a variety I tried for the first time last year, “Black Cherry” - I’ve always liked black tomatoes, and this one has the rich flavor of a large black tomato in a prolific cherry. 

I’ll admit, my favorite cherry tomato of all time is Sungold, a hybrid.  Baker Creek Heirlooms was offering a dehybridized version of this for a while, and I grew it, but it was definitely inferior to the tropical taste of the original.   But sooner or later someone will create a good dehybridized version, and in the meantime, I love it and so do my customers.  For containers, I was growing “Red Robin” which is good (although I got a batch from Tomato Growers Supply that was *terrible* so not all strains are equal), but I’m even more excited by “Balconi Yellow” from Thompson and Morgan which tastes really good.

I don’t grow grape tomatoes - most are hybrids, and I’ve usually found them inferior to cherries.  Anyone found a non-hybrid grape tomato worth growing?  My CSA customers asked for them last year.

The best early tomato I’ve grown hands down is Glacier - I don’t bother with anything else at this point.  Not quite as early, but slightly better tasting is _Cosmonaut Volkov_  - generally my goal is to have potted tomatoes by June 10, and my first decent sized tomato by July 4, which is pretty good in our climate.  I start these in February, along with a few sweet and hot peppers.  I don’t always succeed - this year I was running late on my seed starting - but I usually make my July 4 goal.

Ok, big tomatoes.  My favorite multicolor is pineapple - I got my seed from Pinetree seeds - it is a wonderful tasting tomato, and I’m wildly in love with it.  My favorite big red is Costoluto Genovese - weird crinkly, terrific flavor.  Smaller tomatoes I’m fond of are “Rose de Berne” “Jaune Flamee” and “Red Bobs.” (That last is a great container tomato - and I’m excited to try “Paul Robeson” this year in containers, after they were praised by Pat Meadows).  Of the Brandywines I’ve tried, I like the “Black Brandywine” quit a lot although it doesn’t yield spectacularly for me.

Finally, pastes.  Polish Linguica and Opalka are the best in my garden, without a doubt, although Orange Banana is very popular here - the kids thing bright orange tomato sauce is a kick. 

 Ok on to peppers - it is very hard to get peppers to ripen fully in my climate. I’m up at about 1400 feet, and in a cool region, and summer nights are routinely in the 50s - and sometimes in the 40s.  Peppers really don’t like cool nights, and most of the ones that mature best are hybrids.  I’ve been growing some because of the customers, but this year I’m going to try and restrict myself entirely to OP peppers.

 Ace hybrid has been a reliable, reasonably early red turner here, as has Jupiter and Sunbell.  King of the North is my favorite OP, which I get from Fedco.  Albino Bullnose, a very old heirloom has also done well here, so these will probably be my main crop peppers.  I’m also going to try using my pop-up greenhouses this year over some peppers and melons to retain night heat and give them the warm temps they like.  Perhaps I’ll even be able to get the super-hot habaneros I love so much, but can’t mature here.  Growing in containers is also important for us - because the containers get warmer than the soil in the summer, peppers mature faster and better.  “Fish” hot pepper is a stunning container plant, and a delicious pepper.

Eggplants, oddly aren’t nearly as much of a problem for me as peppers.  I have no idea why - so many people have it the other way around.  The only hybrid I bother with is a mini-variety called “fairy tale” which grows in containers.  Eggplants in containers are more prolific and earlier for me than in the ground.  In the ground, I’ve done very well with “Lousiana Long Green” (lovely flavor) Rosa Bianca, and Italian White. 

 We love tomatillos here, and eat a ton of salsa verde both fresh and canned, and I mostly grow the common green variety.  But I tried “Purple de Milpa” last year, and really liked it - it was a bit sweeter and more complex.  Tomatillos and Ground Cherries are no fuss crops - plant ‘em, ignore ‘em, harvest ‘em.  Both are so prolific that I just don’t bother thinking much about them.  I like straight Ground Cherry jam pretty well, but my family mixed ground cherries with fall raspberries, about 50-50 last year, for something truly transcendent.  Not only is it good jam, but it tastes really good with meats, and a little less sweet would make a great ketchup - something to try next year.

 Ok, more soon - greens and lettuces!  Boy will that take a while!