Tag Archives: seed

Pak Choi Blooming Signals End to Spring

pak choi flowersWell I guess spring is over; the pak choi is blooming (or bolting as we gardeners say). I barely got to eat any, we have had so much rain here in Virginia.  I grow pak choi every spring. It is easy to start by direct sowing seed early in March but it bolts so quickly that harvesting in April and May must be a priority.  The stems and leaves taste good raw in salads or cooked, such as stir-fry. The flowers are a pretty yellow with four petals. Pak choi is a member of the cabbage or “Cruciferae” family, which is Latin for cross-bearing so all flowers in the family have the cross-shaped four petals and most are yellow colored. This one, Brassica rapa, is similar to bok choi, a type of Chinese cabbage, but smaller and milder to me.

Gardening is a lot like a play. There are several acts, each with its own set of actors entering the stage to give their performance and exiting to allow others the limelight. I am busy now helping other characters get ready for their scene that I let pak choi flower (eating now would be too bitter). In a month, during Act II, I will pull them out, save the seed, and replace with a mid-summer night’s dream.pak choi

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.

 

Free Seed Catalogs (With an Emphasis on Veggies and Herbs)

I have updated my website page of free seed catalogs (also listed below). The first list is of companies will mail a free print catalog — just ask! The second list is of companies that list seeds on their website. I grow edibles in Northern Virginia so I tend to collect those catalogs that offer vegetable and herb seeds.

Seed companies that mail free catalogs

Adaptive Seeds http://www.adaptiveseeds.com

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed http://www.rareseeds.com

Botanical Interests http://www.botanicalinterests.com

Burpee http://www.burpee.com

Fedco Seeds http://www.fedcoseeds.com

Harris Seeds http://www.harrisseeds.com

High Mowing Seeds http://www.highmowingseeds.com

Hudson Valley Seed Library http://www.seedlibrary.org

John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds http://www.kitchengardenseeds.com

Johnny’s Selected Seeds http://www.johnnyseeds.com

J.W. Jung Seed http://www.jungseed.com

Kitazawa Seed Company http://www.kitazawaseed.com

Nichols Garden Nursery http://www.nicholsgardennursery.com

Park Seed http://www.parkseed.com

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply http://www.groworganic.com

R.H. Shumway http://www.rhshumway.com

Seeds of Change http://www.seedsofchange.com

Seed Savers Exchange http://www.seedsavers.org

Seeds from Italy http://www.growitalian.com

Select Seeds/Antique Flowers http://www.selectseeds.com

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange http://www.southernexposure.com

Sow True Seeds http://www.sowtrueseeds.com

Stokes Seeds http://www.stokesseeds.com

Territorial Seed Company http://www.territorialseed.com

Tomato Growers Supply Company http://www.tomatogrowers.com

Totally Tomatoes http://www.totallytomato.com

Urban Farmer http://www.ufseeds.com

Vermont Bean Seed Company http://www.vermontbean.com

Online Seed Companies (companies do not produce print catalog, order from web site).

American Meadows  http://www.americanmeadows.com

Renee’s Garden  http://www.reneesgarden.com

Sample Seeds http://www.sampleseeds.com

Landreth Seed Company http://www.landrethseeds.com

You Can Grow That: Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil

lemon basilEvery summer I grow Mrs. Burns lemon basil, a lemon scented type of sweet basil. Like all basil plants, Mrs. Burns lemon basil prefers warm weather, full sun, and plenty of moisture. I grow mine from seeds in large pots on the deck and in the vegetable garden. Throughout the summer I harvest the leaves and use them fresh in fruit salad; with seafood, chicken, and vegetable dishes; as garnishes for drinks, desserts, and salad; and in syrups and vinegar dressings. My family particularly likes using the fresh leaves for tilapia and other white fish fillets. We layer a few stems on aluminum foil on a broiler pan, then layer the fish fillets on top, drizzled with butter and chopped scallions or bread crumbs, and broil until the fish is cooked. The leaves turn black, which is fine because you can throw them away before you serve the dish but they leave the fish infused with a unique smoked lemon flavor. We also like to make syrups by boiling 1 cup of sugar, ½ cup water, and about ½ cup of leaves in a small saucepan for a few minutes. After straining out and removing the leaves, we let the syrup cool and then drizzle the sweet lemon liquid over fresh fruit or cold drinks like lemonade and ice tea.

Mrs. Burns lemon basil is an heirloom cultivar of a sweet basil and yes, there really was a Mrs. Burns who introduced the plant in 1939 in New Mexico. This particular cultivar is different than “lemon basil,” the lemon flavor is supposed to be more intense and the leaves are supposed to be larger than lemon basil. Certainly the leaves are lighter, smoother, and more pointed than sweet basil.

In addition to its culinary use, Mrs. Burns lemon basil attracts birds after the plant has flowered and set seeds. I deliberately do not harvest some of my plants to have a stand of tall flower stalks with whorls of seeds by summer’s end. Yellow finches in particular love to eat the seeds off the stalks. Then in October, before the first frost, I cut the stalks and put them upside down in a large paper bag. Later, while watching Downtown Abbey in January, I pull the stalks out of the bag and extract the remaining seeds to plant in May. It’s a full circle but then so is gardening.

You Can Grow That! is a collaborative effort by gardeners around the world to encourage others to grow something. Gardeners usually post articles on their blog on the fourth day of the month (fourth day, four words: #1: You; #2: Can; #3: Grow; #4: That). Click on the logo below to read more posts.

Youcangrowthat

New Veggie and Flower Varieties for 2015 on National Garden Bureau Site

Butterscotch, photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

Butterscotch, photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

It is great fun to flip through seed catalogs and dream of enticing veggies and beautiful flowers for the upcoming growing season.  I usually create list after list of plants I want to grow, searching for ones I had read about in the past year or searching for qualities such as “cold hardiness,” “heat resistant,” or “attracts beneficial insects.” Because I don’t receive every catalog (there are so many), I often turn to the National Garden Bureau (NGB) website to learn of more varieties.  Founded in 1920, the NBG is an Illinois-based, non-profit organization. Its mission is to improve the quality of life and the environment through increased seeds and plants. Individual and corporate members engaged in the production and/or sale of horticultural products for home gardeners pay dues to support the NGB. The web site lists more than 70 members, retail and wholesale.

Arugula Dragon's Tongue, photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

Arugula Dragon’s Tongue, photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

Each year, the members can list their new varieties through NGB. As of this week in December 2014, there are 45 “new for 2015” vegetable varieties and 62 “new for 2015” flower varieties. For each plant there is a short description, cultural requirements, and the member organization offering the seed (although it may be wholesale in which case you would have to contact them for a retail outlet). Note that “new” means new to that company, not new to the market. For example, Arugula Dragon’s Tongue is listed as new for 2015 and is offered by Botanical Interests but it is not new to me, I have seen it in the Park Seed catalog. Butterscotch is new, it is a mini butternut winter squash developed by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The NGB also is a great way to learn about seed companies — R.H. Shumway, Totally Tomatoes, and Vermont Bean Seed were new to me so I added them plus a few more to my “seed catalogs” page/tab on my blog at http://www.pegplant.com.

Burpee's Costa Rican, a type of sweet pepper, photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

Burpee’s Costa Rican, a type of sweet pepper, photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau

There are many more features on the NBG website including plants of the year. Each year they select one annual, one perennial, and one edible as plant of the year because they are popular, easy to grow, widely adaptable, genetically diverse, and versatile. For 2015, the plants of the year are: coleus (annual), gaillardia (perennial), and sweet peppers ( edible). Sign up to receive NBG’s e-mails and expect to hear more from them on these plants next year!

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

Cool Season Veggies/Herbs in Containers

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scallion seedlings

Around St. Patrick’s Day, I start the cool season veggies and herbs from seed in containers on the deck. You would be surprised at how easy it is to grow lettuce, cilantro, or scallions in small containers with little depth. It is best to use plastic as opposed to terracotta during cold weather but any container with drainage holes will work. I have used old Easter baskets, straw baskets, wooden crates that once held tangerines (lined the large gaps), and recycled plastic plant containers from the nursery.

2014Aprilgarden 011

spinach seedlings

You only need about 6 inches to grow lettuce, spinach, cilantro, kale, red radishes, arugula, chives, and the Asian leafy greens such as tatsoi and mizuma. Except for the radish of course, which is a small bulb like root, these plants have fibrous root systems that do not extend too far down into the soil. The actual plant is fairly short so the plant won’t topple over in a small container. If you have a larger container with more depth, say 8 inches, you can extend the possibilities to baby carrots, scallions, small onions, chard, broccoli raab, pak choi, chervil, and parsley.

Fill the container with potting soil, making sure you have drainage and aeration, sprinkle a few seeds on top, lightly cover with soil (read seed packet about this), water, and place in a sunny place. Bagged potting soil never has enough aeration for me; I always add perlite (the small white pellets) to increase aeration. To deter squirrels, I sprinkle blood meal on top of the soil. Blood meal is what it is: dried, powdered animal blood, typically from cows. Fortunately, it is not red; it is a black powder that contains a small amount of nitrogen (which is beneficial for the plants). The smell deters squirrels but it has to be re-applied after heavy rains. My pots are on the deck for easy access but they could be on the ground as long as they are in the sun and near a water source. Don’t forget to put a label in the pot and record what you planted (I am a big advocate of keeping records and writing everything down).

The key is to keep an eye on the weather. It’s okay if the weather gets too cold because these are cool season plants but it is not okay if the seeds are allowed to dry out. Once the seed absorbs water, germination begins, the seed coat breaks open and the root grows out. If the seed does not get water anymore, it dries up and the germination process ends and cannot be “re-started.” So always imagine the top inch of the soil where the seed is and know whether it is moist from rain or your watering can. After you can see an inch or so of green, imagine that the root has sunk down a few inches and can draw up the water that is in the middle portion of the soil. Now imagine the middle portion and ask yourself if it needs water, that is, has it rained recently? Where I live in Northern Virginia, once the plants are growing, I can usually count on the rain to keep them well watered in the spring.