Going through my seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.
Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† † may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob

Selecting squash, pumpkin and gourd seeds

Under good storage conditions, winter squash and pumpkins can stay edible well into winter. I have a spot in my garage that stays cool, around 50 degrees, through the winter and that is right around the ideal storage temperature for squash. Air circulation is also important and there is plenty of air movement in that spot too. So we have been eating squash on and off for the past couple of months.

One thing I have noticed is that flavor can vary from squash to squash of the same variety. Sometimes there can be quite a large difference in quality. You can buy seeds of the same variety from two different seed sellers and even though the squash looks the same, the flavors may be close but not the same. I think that explains some of the difference in opinion people have when discussing which variety they prefer. I’ve noticed this inconsistency in other vegetables too, especially with certain heirloom tomato varieties.

What I like to do is save squash seed from the best tasting squash and discard seeds from those that are bland or off-flavor. That way year after year I gradually improve my squash. Since the seeds are well preserved inside the fruit until it’s ready to cook, seed saving for me is an ongoing thing until the squash run out. You can end up with a lot of squash or pumpkin seeds in a hurry since each one can have dozens or even hundreds of seeds as anyone who carved a pumpkin knows.

Squash and Pumpkins
I have three different kinds of winter squash. I keep pumpkins to feed to my chickens in the winter.

The way I go about it is that I never toss out the seeds until dinner is over and I’ve had a chance to sample my squash. I mentally rate it and if it is better than the last one I had, I keep the seeds and get rid of the ones from the previous meal. By the time I eat my last serving of squash, I’ll have the seeds from the best tasting one from the garden. The rest of the seeds go to the chickens. I know it seems like a lot of fussing around but hey, it’s what I do.

Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.
Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.

This is a relatively simplistic way to select for a single genetic trait. Professional plant breeders select for other things such as disease resistance, high yields, ease of storage and other traits. In the home garden, flavor is a good one to select for.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late digging potatoes

Earlier this week I was out working in my vegetable garden. I finished off the season by digging the last of my potatoes.

Since we’ve had a cold November,  I was somewhat concerned about the shape they might be in. Now, I have occasionally found potatoes in the spring that have gone through an entire winter with no apparent damage so my concerns were not that great. On the other hand, I’ve had potatoes freeze over winter and ended up frost damaged tubers that were completely unusable. I debated whether or not to even bother with them since I had so many other things on my plate with the Holiday season ramping up.

On Sunday the weather was more seasonal so I got out my garden fork and dug into the first row. The potatoes were in perfect shape and the yield looked promising too. This was the patch of “near no-till” potatoes I blogged about this spring.

My first bucket of potatoes from this patch.
My first bucket of potatoes from this patch.

The ground had a covering of tree leaves that I’m sure helped insulate the soil. There must have been enough residual heat stored in the ground to keep the soil around the potatoes from solidly freezing despite the fact we had temperatures down into the teens and frozen soil at the surface. I didn’t check the soil temperature but it was probably in the mid to upper thirties which is close to the ideal storage temperature for potatoes.

The yield was halfway decent, maybe a little on the low side, but that was because of nearby trees competing with the potatoes for light and water. Plus, I never irrigated this patch but it did have a layer of dried grass mulch that helped conserve the soil moisture.

All in all, I call it a successful experiment. My “no-till plus mulch” combination along with an inadvertent late harvest worked out well.  If you are thinking the potatoes you left out in the garden are a lost cause, I suggest you try digging them even though these’s snow on the ground, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Bob

Planting garlic

 

Since I ordered my garlic bulbs way back in the spring, I was not thinking of them at all when they arrived in the mail several days ago.

I got those garlic cloves into the ground right away even though they could have been planted anytime from October through November. Getting them earlier gives them a chance to put down some roots and get nestled in for the winter.

In the past, I’ve had to postpone my garlic planting until well into November and the crop seemed to do quite well despite the delay.

Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Cover the cloves with one  to two inches of soil.
Cover the cloves with one to two inches of soil.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.

You have to plan ahead if you want to grow garlic because when planting time rolls around, you very likely will not be able to find cloves to plant. So put it in your calendar for next spring as a reminder to yourself to place your order.

Bob

Holes in tomatoes

It seems like it’s been a tougher season than normal for our tomatoes. First they got a late start because of the cold wet spring. Then we had a blast of heat just when they were blooming, causing the flowers to fall off. Now insects are attacking any tomatoes that have made it this far.

In one of my gardens, well over half of my tomatoes have tomato fruit worm damage. This is the same insect that bores into ears of sweet corn and other vegetables.

On tomatoes the damage shows up as holes or depressions that are clearly caused by something eating them. Tomatoes can look fine one day, then bam! holes in them the next. Often the worms tunnel into the fruit and leave behind frass –worm poo — if nothing is done to stop them.

Typical tomato fruit worm damage.

The problem is you can’t find who doing the eating. You might suspect bird pecking or mice bites or even tomato horn worm damage. Tomato fruit worms are hard to find. I saw one today on a plant and by the time I retrieved my phone to take a picture for you it was gone, or at least I couldn’t find it again.

Holes chewed in the tomato fruit are a passageway for fungus to enter potentially causing serious fruit rot. When the holes are new, you can just cut away the damaged portion and still use the rest of the tomato.

About the only way you can control these critters once they found your garden is to spray an insecticide. I prefer to use the biological insecticide BT since it will not harm pollinators. Other insecticides will control them too.

If you are seeing symptoms of tomato fruit worm on your tomatoes, I suggest getting them under control ASAP before they do any more damage.

Bob

Blemished but usable produce

Gardeners are fortunate to have the opportunity to grow the freshest and highest quality vegetables. Even now when organic produce is widely available, it’s no match for home grown.

When it comes to their own produce, most gardeners disregard one major criterion that defines quality ; that is appearance. Even ahead of taste, nutrition or freshness, appearance is still what matters most to shoppers. You really can’t blame folks for judging produce by how it looks, how else would you know if there was anything wrong with it? You could smell it, squeeze it or knock on it to hear how it sounds I suppose. Over 30 percent of food is wasted each year and much of that waste is because something doesn’t look perfect.

Gardeners on the other know exactly how their produce was grown because they did it themselves. So generally, appearance is less likely to be a factor in judging their produce. For example, some heirloom tomatoes are very prone to cracking or splitting. Selling blemished tomatoes like that would completely out of the question in a produce department and for good reason. Cracks and splits and other kinds of blemishes provide an entry for microorganisms to enter into the fruit. But if a gardener grew it, he would know that some types of tomatoes crack and wouldn’t worry about it. Most likely it would go from the tomato vine directly to the table reducing the chance of spoilage.

Carrots are prone to cosmetic damage too. Any number of things can cause a carrot to become misshapen such as a virus disease, insects, nematodes, soil moisture, soil texture, inadequately prepared soil, a pebble in the soil, even a tiny granule of fertilizer or who knows what else. So many carrots are deformed in a typical field that farmers had to develop a new use for them. They invented baby carrots. Those bagged baby carrots are cut and shaped from crooked carrots that otherwise would end up being thrown away.

These carrots are not perfectly shaped but are just as tasty to eat.

A gardener knows most of the time there is nothing wrong with a misshapen carrot, there are some exceptions. I met a new gardener the other day who was digging carrots and tossed most of his crop into the compost because they were not perfectly carrot shaped. There was no convincing this person otherwise.

I eat all kinds of damaged, deformed, blemish and bruised produce from my garden that I would never pay money for at a grocery store or farmer’s market. I trim around the unusable parts like most gardeners do. The trimmings and any produce that is too far gone gets fed to the chickens. The hens in turn use the nutrition from those garden scraps to produce eggs. With their help, my food waste percentage is close to zero.

Bob

Plan ahead to avoid mildew on cucumbers

Powdery mildew is a serious fungal disease of cucumbers and other related plants. It can completely wipe out an entire crop in a garden if nothing is done to control it. Regular rains, warm temperatures and high humidities this season have come together to make ideal conditions for powdery mildew development.

The standard method of battling this disease is applying fungicides of one type or another. Some are chemical, others are plant derived and there’s even bacterial fungicides. The drawback to each of these fungicides is that you have to apply them early when the plants are young and continue using them through the rest of the season. But there is another way.

Recently I had a chance to compare cucumber plants growing in two nearby gardens. Neither garden had any fungicide applied to them.

In the first garden, the gardener is growing a standard, run-of-the-mill variety of cucumber obtained from a garden department somewhere. The plants in that garden were nearly overwhelmed by mildew.

Infected non-resistant cucumber vine.

In the second garden, the cucumbers show little sign of mildew. That gardener opted to grow a mildew resistant variety from seed that he sowed directly in the soil.

Resistant cucumber vine.

The difference between the two crops is very impressive. If you are one of those gardeners who have given up on growing cucumbers and don’t like to spray fungicides, then planting resistant varieties is the way to go. Really, it’s something every gardener should look for when choosing cucumber seeds. Make a note of it in your garden journal as reminder for next year.

Bob

 

 

Tomato blossoms damaged by hot temperatures

During the past couple of weeks I saw a lot of gardens having problems with tomato plants not producing fruit. When discussing this problem with gardeners, the first thing I hear from them is usually,” I’m growing lots of leaves but no tomatoes”. Then they go on to attribute it to an overabundance of fertilizer of one sort or another.

Nutrient imbalance may cause problems, but this season it is likely due to the extended hot temperatures we had until the break in the weather happened this week.  Temperatures in the mid-nineties can damage tomato blossom causing them to fall off the plant — no blossoms means no tomatoes. This phenomenon is known as “tomato blossom blast”.

Heat damaged tomato blossoms turn brown.

There is really nothing we can do to prevent flower damage when the temperatures are so high except wait it out. Now that the weather has moderated, our tomato plants will start producing more blossoms and setting more fruit.

If another heat wave occurs, it’s likely we’ll see another round of tomato flower blast.

Bob

Almost no-till potatoes

This year I’ve decided to try a minor experiment with my potatoes. I guess you might call it a kind of no-till planting.

There are a couple of reasons I thought it might work well. First, the spot where they’re going was recently an area where some of my older chickens were penned in. I purposely kept them confined to a relatively small area to help clear it from weeds. They did a great job eliminating all of the existing weeds and keeping new ones from getting a foothold. Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh green plants and those wild greens provide plenty of vitamins.

Even though they are small, chickens can disturb a lot of soil in a short period of time. That makes them destructive if they get loose into a flower garden or other valuable spot and start scratching. Believe me, I had plenty of experience shooing chickens out of  flower gardens. It’s that relentless scratching that makes them such good helpers in the garden before planting time.

The area where my no-till potatoes are going there were no visible weeds. Under the surface however, there were thousands of recently germinated seedlings ready to pop up into the sunlight. Instead of using my rototiller, I used my sharpened swan hoe to skim along top half inch or so. I was able to cut off the weed seedlings before they had a chance to get started.

The theory is that while roto-tilling will destroy young weeds, at the same time it also drags up new seeds to the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. Shallow hoeing will kill weeds but not drag up new seeds. That Sounds like a good idea but there are plenty of dormant weed seeds waiting to take the place of their lost cousins. But over time, if done consistently, you can eventually reduce the number of viable seeds.

Back to my potato patch.

The second reason why I feel my quasi-no-till will work is because the soil is a sandy loam that really doesn’t need tilling to provide a good seed bed. If it was a finer textured soil with more clay content, I would probably not plant them without tilling.

Instead of using a trowel or shovel to dig the planing holes, I got out my two-handled post hole digger. That way I was able stand straight up to do the digging and I got a great upper body workout to boot.

The holes are plus or minus a foot apart with the rows around 28 inches apart.  At that planting density, the potato plants should eventually grow together enough to shade the soil surface keeping it cool and shading out weed seedlings.

I made sure the rows were straight and the holes evenly spaced.

I know I’ll have to keep up with my hoeing through the season, “no-till” doesn’t mean “no-work”. I’ve seen many inexperienced gardeners learn that the hard way. Real no-till involves the use of herbicides to control weeds but I’ve never used herbicides in my vegetable garden and plan to keep it that way.

While hoeing will be my main method of weed control, I’ll mulch what I can.

Bob

Spring planted garlic

Garlic is normally planted in the fall. Planting at that time of the year allows the garlic bulb to be exposed to several weeks of cold temperatures which stimulates bulb production. Missing the fall date can be disappointing, it means waiting an entire year before planting a crop.

If you are the type of person who doesn’t mind experimenting a bit, spring planting may be a option. Bulbs grown from spring planted garlic are significantly smaller which is why it is not recommended. Farmers would never be able to make a profit with an undersized crop, but in a garden it is worth having some fun with.

The other thing with spring planted garlic is finding bulbs to plant since most seed companies ship their garlic in the fall. One solution is to plant garlic from the supermarket produce department. You’ll never know what variety you’ll be getting but look at it this way, someone had a good enough crop with them to grow enough to sell.

Even though spring planted bulbs will be smaller, that doesn’t mean they will not be usable. You’ve probably eaten green onions before, you can eat green garlic too. If you’ve never tried fresh green garlic right from the garden, you’re in for a treat. The garlic taste is quite unexpected when your taste buds are expecting an onion flavor.

Don’t let them get too mature though. Green onions or scallions that swell up at the root end as they get older are still quite usable. Green garlic at that stage will start to develop the separations that eventually become cloves. When that happens tough membranes form that eventually become the papery wrappings over each clove that you see in full sized garlic. Those membranes make the young garlic too chewy to enjoy eating. At that point you just let them grow.

Since your spring planted garlic is late, you’ll have to give it every advantage to make growth. The first important thing to remember is garlic hates to be planted on it’s side. It’s critical that you plant the garlic clove with the bottom pointing down, don’t just toss it into a hole otherwise you’ll reduce the size of the mature bulb even more.

These are about the smallest sized garlic cloves that I would plant in the spring.

In your richest area of your garden, dig your planting hole so that top of the clove is covered by about two inches of soil. Plant the cloves between 3 and six inches apart; the closer spacing for green garlic, the more distant for garlic bulbs.

Early and season long weed control is essential, garlic just doesn’t compete well with weeds. Kill those weeds while they’re still little and keep it up all through the season. Make sure the soil is kept evenly moist but not soaking wet. The object is to try to encourage the garlic to grow as much as it can early in the season so that it will have plenty of green leaf area for photosynthesis.

If you’re going to do this thing, do it now — don’t wait until May. Garlic needs as much cool soil as you can provide during the early stages of growth.

With some care and persistence, you’ll end up with a culinary conversation piece that will surprise your garlic loving friends.

Bob