Tag Archives: Seed Savers Exchange

Starting Cool Season Veggies in Northern Virginia

Here is a handy chart courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange. Seeds or transplants of cool season veggies can be planted when the temperatures are at least 40 degrees, which is March and April in Virginia.  There are two types of cool season veggies. Hardy types can withstand a heavy frost and  temperatures as  low as 40 degrees so they can be planted two to three weeks before the average last frost. In Northern Virginia, the average last frost date is between April 10 and 21 so I arbitrarily pick April 15 to be able to remember. That means that I can either directly sow seed into the ground the weekend of March 25 (because I work during the week) or (having started the seeds indoors) I can plant the small plants into the ground. Semi-hardy plants can withstand a light frost and prefer slightly warmer temperatures toward 50 degrees so they have to be planted later, two weeks before average last frost date which would be the weekend of April 1. If a severe temperature drop would to occur, I would protect the plants by covering them with empty 2-liter plastic soda bottles that had bottoms cut off.

cool-season-crops-infographic

Epic Tomatoes, Epic Stories: Learning How to Grow Tomatoes in Virginia

Epic_TomatoesLast Sunday I had the good fortune to hear Craig LeHoullier speak about tomatoes at Green Spring Gardens, Alexandria, VA; part of the annual Harry Allen Winter Lecture Series. Armed with a PhD in chemistry, Craig used to work for a pharmaceutical company and always grew vegetables as a hobby. In 1986, bored with nursery-bought tomato plants, he tried starting heirloom tomatoes from seed and developed a passion for growing them.

That same year he joined the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom plants. SSE members receive the annual SSE Yearbook, akin to the toy-filled Sears Wish Book that used to come out every Christmas. The Yearbook has over 13,000 types of seeds, 4,000 of which are tomatoes. Craig started growing these obscure types and corresponding with other gardeners who also shared “hand me down” tomato seeds.

Currently, Craig resides in Raleigh, NC, with his wife Susan who also was at Green Spring Gardens. In addition to growing heirlooms, Craig researches old types, collects old nursery catalogs, and exchanges seeds with other gardeners. For 10 years, he organized the Tomatopalooza, an annual tomato tasting event.

In his talk, Craig explained the history of tomatoes and how there were very few varieties up until the mid-1800s when the process for selecting desirable traits changed. Since then more types have become available so that now there are so many types, it’s hard to choose. He suggested considering two criteria:  first, hybrid, heirloom, or open pollinated; and second, indeterminate, determinate, or dwarf.Craig

Hybrids, he explained, are “a cross between two parents” and are bred for a particular characteristic. “Hybrids are good if you want maximum yield or you want to avoid a disease or if there is one that is so good, you can’t live without like ‘Sun Gold.’” Saving seed from a hybrid may not give you the same desired characteristics. With open pollinated types, the saved seed will produce successive generations with the same characteristics. Heirlooms are a type of open pollinated where the plants “have stood the test of time or have a story associated with them.” For him, an heirloom pre dates 1950 which is when Burpee produced the hybrid Big Boy. Thereafter, seed companies focused on selling hybrids. Open pollinated may or may not be heirlooms depending on how long people have grown them.

The second criterion depends on space. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow so tall they need staking but they produce wonderful fruit all season long.  The vast majority of heirlooms are indeterminate because the gene for short growth occurred around 1920. Determinate plants are “tomato machines,” they produce crop quickly, can be grown in pots, and may need short stakes or cages. Harvesting time is condensed but yields are great enough for canning or sauces. Dwarfs, his new project, provide the best of both, since they grow at half the rate of an indeterminate but bear fruits gradually with great flavor. Dwarfs are open pollinated but not heirlooms yet, they have not been grown for generations yet. He has been growing his dwarf plants in 5-gallon containers in a soil-less mix and they get as tall as 3 to 4 feet.

Craig described his dwarf tomato breeding project where he wanted to grow a container size plant that produced good tasting fruit. He started to work with Patrina Nuske Small in Australia and between the two hemispheres were able to combine two growing seasons in one calendar year. In 2006, they created a collaboration of more than 100 amateur gardeners across the world to produce new but stable dwarf varieties. To date, about 60 varieties have been produced and are sold through a few, small seed companies.

Craig illustrated how he grows many different types of tomatoes from seed at his home, using only fluorescent lights – he does not have a greenhouse. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground, he recommends planting deep into the soil, “any part of the plant that is underground will root,” and mulching to prevent disease. Plant about 3 feet apart: “Spacing is important to increase sun and air circulation to prevent disease.” Watering from the bottom also is important to prevent diseases. He has many containers on his driveway full of fresh, soil-less mix every year – he does not re-use the mix in the containers in order to prevent diseases. He concluded his talk by briefly describing straw bale gardening, common tomato diseases, and saving seeds from fresh tomatoes.

I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Craig genuinely wants to help people learn how to grow great tasting tomatoes. Afterwards, he spent time answering questions and signing his two books, Epic Tomatoes and Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales (both published by Storey Publishing). Check his website, http://www.nctomatoman.com or http://www.epictomatoes.com, for his lecture schedule and information on growing tomatoes.

 

You Can Grow That! Sugar Snap Peas

plump sugar snap peas

plump sugar snap peas

March is the time to grow peas here in Northern Virginia. In our family we prefer the sugar snap peas where you eat pea and pod together but shelling peas and snow peas are also started during March’s cool weather. Last year we grew Amish Snap from Seed Savers Exchange which was excellent; this year we will try Renee’s Garden’s Sugar Snap Peas just to compare. We have already tied the nylon netting to the banister that leads to the front door and, in the back, to the deck railing, wherever I could ensure that the peas would receive full sun. Pea plants are light in weight and their small tendrils need to wrap around thin nylon or string. In the beginning, you may have to “train” them to wrap around the nylon or unwrap them if they find a nearby plant but eventually they learn to wrap up and create a pretty green screen. St. Patrick’s Day is my cue to soak the seeds in water overnight, insert in cone shaped coffee filters (could have used paper towels too), and place in zipped plastic bags. I left them on a shelf, I did not put them under grow lights. Within two days, the seeds germinated and after a few days, when it was necessary for the shoots to receive sunlight, I planted them outside about 4 inches apart. Planting them when they have germinated as opposed to planting seeds makes them able to withstand the cold soil temperatures. Last year, in April and May, we picked them almost every day when the peas had expanded enough to make the pods plump – hence – snap when you bit them or bent them. They were so sweet, we ate them raw as the vegetable portion of dinner. Peas are easy to grow, nutritious and delicious, and are a great kid gardening project.

You Can Grow That is a collaborative effort by gardeners around the world to encourage others to grow something. Usually articles on posted on the fourth of the month. Visit http://www.youcangrowthat.com/blogs/ to read more posts.Youcangrowthat

Cool Season Edibles: Expand Your Horizons by Planting Seeds

mustard

mustard

Last year at this time, I was furloughed due to the government shutdown. On a happy note, I had plenty of time to work in the garden and visited several well-known garden centers in Northern Virginia and one in Maryland to peruse their selection of cool season edibles. I was surprised to see a very narrow selection: plastic packs of broccoli, kale, and lettuce; one type of an onion; one type of soft neck garlic; and in one place, one plastic bag of hard neck garlic. To their credit there were raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry bushes in large plastic containers, usually at a reduced price. But even that selection was not representative; there are many other fruit bushes and brambles that do well in this area.

Many people are interested in eating healthy and growing their own food so I find it perplexing that garden centers don’t capitalize on this in the fall like they do in the spring and summer. Growing vegetables is the same, it’s just different vegetables. Several of my spring plants like spinach are grown again in the fall. In fact, I often use the same package of seeds. But then, most of my plants are started from seed. If you want to learn more about what is really possible, if you want to expand your choices of edibles, try growing your plants from seeds. Find companies that sell seed, ask for catalogs, and order a few seed packages of cool season edibles.

While you may see a few broccoli and kale transplants in the garden centers, you will find many types of broccoli and kale not to mention brussel sprouts, red and green lettuces, spinach, mustards (like a lettuce but peppery), mache, chard, endive, arugula, turnips, broccoli raab, cilantro, and dill from companies such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange, and Territorial Seed Company. If you look at their web site or their catalogs, you will find that within each of these types of plants, there are many varieties, some more cold tolerant than others.

mache

mache

Don’t forget the “Asian” or “oriental” greens which tolerate light frosts here in my Zone 7 garden. Some of these are sold by the aforementioned companies while Kitazawa Seed Company sells 20 varieties of Chinese cabbage, 20 varieties of mustard, over a dozen varieties of pak choi, and different varieties of tatsoi, mizuna, and edible chrysanthemum greens.

pak choi

pak choi

mizuna

mizuna

Although these are not harvested and eaten in the fall, I would be remiss if I did not mention the wide variety that exists in the Allium family. Like I said, I only found one onion, one soft neck, and one hard neck garlic in the garden centers. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has about 7 of each type of garlic, plus elephant, Asiatic, and turban garlic. They offer Egyptian walking onions, white multiplier onions, yellow potato onions, and shallots. Small bulbs like these are easy to plant:  dig, drop, and cover! Seed Savers Exchange and Territorial Seed Company sell many different types of garlic and shallots and Territorial Seed Company also offers multiplier and walking onions.

These are only a few of the companies that sell these types of seeds and bulbs, and this based on 2014 catalogs I have at home now. I have no doubt that other companies sell cool season edibles; this was just to provide a snapshot of what is possible to grow in the fall in the Mid-Atlantic area. Don’t assume that what you see in your garden center is all there is to grow. The world is full of possibilities!!

Seed: To Save or Not To Save, That Is the Question

In my garden, I save seeds from certain plants every year and for others, I leave the seed for the birds. Seed saving is a great idea but whether or not you should save the seed depends on the plant.

dried seed pods on Hibiscus 'Lil' Kim'

dried seed pods on Hibiscus ‘Lil’ Kim’

If you are interested in saving the seed, ask yourself this: will you get the same plant as before? The first thing you need to find out is whether or not your plant is a hybrid or an open-pollinated plant. A hybrid is a plant that comes from the controlled cross breeding of two distinct species or cultivars. This is done intentionally to capture a desired trait such as flower color or disease resistance. If you saved the seed from this hybrid, the next generation will not look like your original plant. It will exhibit some of its parents’ (or even previous generations’) characteristics so you won’t retain the desired traits. For example, in September my Hibiscus syriacus ‘Lil’ Kim’ has interesting seed pods that look really easy to cut off, dry, and save. But this plant was deliberately created as a dwarf form of the species Hibiscus syriacus, commonly known as Rose of Sharon, a shrubby plant about 5 feet tall. If I planted the seeds next year, I would get a Hibiscus plant, that is one with hibiscus-like characteristics, but it may be small, medium, or large, with white, pink or lavender flowers.

If you have an open pollinated plant, the seed will produce the same plant as before with most flowers and herbs. There are exceptions in the vegetable world. There are some vegetables that self-pollinate such as tomatoes and beans so the seed retains the original characteristics. However, there are some vegetables that are pollinated by insects willing to travel to your neighbor’s garden to cross pollinate your neighbor’s vegetables with your vegetables. Peas, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, and squash are examples of vegetables that are cross-pollinated so the resulting seed may produce plants that do not have the same or desired traits as before. After you have decided whether saving the seed will result in the plant you want, consider these criteria:

1. Do you have enough of the plant or want more?

This spring I planted love-in-a-mist seeds (Nigella damascena), which I bought from the Green Spring Gardens gift shop in Alexandria, VA. Green Spring Gardens has stands of these small lavender-blue flowers that produce very interesting seed pods, perfect for dried flower arrangements. My seed only produced a few plants but fortunately, they flowered and produced seed. I want the seeds to disperse and germinate in the garden next year in the same place to get more plants (hopefully a stand of them just like at Green Spring Gardens). I could do this manually by saving seeds and planting next year or I could just let nature do it for me. I left the seed pods in the garden.

love-in-a-mist at Green Spring Gardens

love-in-a-mist at Green Spring Gardens

On the other hand, I have a few columbine plants, Aquilegia columbine, growing in one place.  I would like for them to grow in other places on the property so I cut the seed pods and put them in a paper bag. Later, when they were bone dry, I pulled the pods apart and put the tiny, glossy black seeds in a glass jar.

dried seed pods and seed from columbine

dried seed pods and seed from columbine

2. Is the seed useful in the kitchen?

I always grow plenty of dill and cilantro, some of which I harvest the leaves for cooking, some of which I leave alone and let the plants flower and “go to seed.” When the seed heads are brown, I cut them and let them drop into a paper bag and let dry some more. The dill seed is great for breads and rolls, the cilantro seed, which is known as coriander, is great for cookies and fruit salads. Sometimes, I use the seed for the garden the next year, just depends on how much baking is done in the winter.

dried dill seed head, in vase on napkin

dried dill seed head, in vase on napkin

3. Do you find it easier to save seed or just buy again next year?

The corollary being, how much time do you have? There are two basic methods for saving seed: dry and wet. With most of my herbs and flowers, I use the dry method because the seed themselves are in a dried pod so it is simple to cut the pods and put it in a paper bag. After a few weeks, when very dry, I put them on a plate, separate seed from the pod, and put the seed in a glass jar with a label. With pulpy, fleshy vegetables, I use the wet method. Parts of the fruit, such as tomatoes, are cut up or mashed and put in a jar with water. After days, depending on the plant, you eventually extract the seeds from the pulp and lay on a paper towel to dry.  The exact process depends on the vegetable. For detailed information on how to save seed (and for buying open pollinated seed), check out the Seed Savers Exchange (under the “Education” tab) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (under the “Growing Guides” tab).

4. Do you want to attract birds or create winter interest?

If you want to feed the birds or try to achieve some architectural interest in the garden in the winter, you have to leave the seeds on the plants. I grow a lot of lemon basil because I use some plants for cooking while leaving others in the garden to flower and set seed. In late summer through fall, the yellow finches land on the swaying seed stalks and peck at the seeds. I also leave the coneflower (Echinacea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) plants alone. After they flower, they have stiff seed stalks and prominent seed heads that add interest in the winter and provide food for birds.

lemon basil plants gone to seed

lemon basil plants gone to seed

This September, my rue plant (Ruta graveolens) produced interesting seed heads far above the foliage. Rue is a well known herb but I use it as a landscape plant. Its gray, green foliage provides a lot of color and texture, it is drought resistant and seems to repel deer and critters, and it provides yellow flowers in the summer for me to cut and place in vases for the office. I was torn between harvesting the seed for more rue plants next year or leaving the seed heads for winter interest when I read that rue is a great companion plant for alpine strawberries (which I just grew this year) and for raspberries (which I also planted in my garden). Off with her head!

rue seed heads

rue seed heads

Quick! Eat the Peas Before Summer Rolls In!

The peas are here – quick, eat them before summer rolls in. This year, I am growing Seed Savers Exchange’s Maygarden2014 080Amish snap. We prefer the snap peas — my son especially likes to pop the sweet, crunchy pods into his mouth, spit out the remaining stem into the garden, and exclaim, “See Mom, they are biodegradable!” I too prefer to eat the entire pod raw while the rest of my family likes them cooked with chicken and pak choi (cut into ribbons). Also this year, I am experimenting with a nylon trellis system on the rail that leads to the front door. Although there are plenty of strings for the tendrils to hold on to, periodically, I gently directed the three pronged tendrils to the nearest string for them to sense something nearby to which they should attach. Now that they are full grown, the four-foot high plants decorate the walk up to the front door with small white flowers and luminous green pods.

Last year, I made it a point to get the seeds in the ground by mid-March to have as long a harvest as possible. I thought the soil temperature was the required 45 degrees but after I planted the seeds, it snowed. Nothing much came up and I learned that planting seeds in cold soil tend to rot more or don’t germinate as well as planting seedlings, which can survive the cold soil much better than seeds. This year, it snowed so often in March I didn’t plant until the beginning of April. Instead of planting the pea seeds directly in the ground,I first soaked the pea seeds in water overnight. The next morning, I placed several seeds in damp paper coffee filters and then covered in a plastic bag. They germinated within 2 days! I also planted some of the seeds in small containers of soil, and they too germinated quickly. After a few days, I had many small seedlings, which I planted at the base of the trellis system.

pea seeds germinaed in paper coffee filter

pea seeds germinated in paper coffee filter

Now, at the end of May and beginning of June, I can snip off a bowl full of peas for us to eat at dinner. I pick the “middle-aged” ones: not too young and flat; not too old and starchy; but just right, just thick enough to “crunch.” My kids take it for granted that they can eat fresh peas from the garden but I know that getting that kind of goodness is a gift to be savored during the ephemeral spring days.