Tag Archives: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Harvesting Heirloom Yellow Potato Onions

harvest with one lone flower

I dug up my yellow potato onions and was surprised to find almost 40 bulbs. I first wrote about them in September 2016, when I received the shipment from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I planted the original 15 bulbs in the fall in very loose soil, high in organic matter. This spring, green stalks grew so that by summer there was green tubular foliage, similar to scallions. By the end of June, I could see bulbs clustered at soil level, as if emerging from the deep. The green stalks were bent and falling over so that when it was clear that the stalks were dying, I dug up the bulbs in the beginning of July.

Potato onions are a type of multiplier onion called Allium cepa var. aggregatum. They multiply at the base by making more bulbs. They are not as large or as pungent as onions we get at the grocery store. Within the same species are shallots, which also multiply at the base but are milder, can be eaten raw, and are round or bullet shape. The Egyptian walking onion is another type of multiplier onion, a different species called  Allium cepa var. proliferum. The difference between potato onions and Egyptian walking onions is that potato onions do not create bulbils at the top. The Egyptian walking onions create bulbs in the ground and bulbils at the top; therefore, are “proliferate.”

green stalks are down, signaling harvest time

In my Virginia garden,  potato onions are planted in the fall, dug up in the summer, cured until fall, and then some are re-planted and some are eaten. Thus they are “perennial” because they will exist in the garden every year. In the 1800’s, they were very popular because they were a constant source of onions, they stored for a long time, and they propagated easily. People just passed them along to neighbors and family. Now they are considered an heirloom. Very few seed catalogs sell them and you probably will not see them in your garden center.

Like other onions, potato onions have to be cured in order to extend their storage time. Bulbs should be in a shaded, warm, dry, well-ventilated area for a few months. I could slice up the large ones now and cook them or just let them cure if I want to use them in the winter.  In the fall, I will plant the smaller bulbs and harvest again next year in July. It’s a perennial cycle but I am looking forward to sliced yellow potato onions in butter and parsley over broiled trout, with green beans on the side.

Fall is the Time to Plant Yellow Potato Onions

yellowpotatoonionFall is the time to plant yellow potato onions. Also known as perennial onions, yellow potato onions are edible, like onions, but perennial as in once you have them, you will always have them. I first heard of potato onions (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) from Pam Dawling, manager of the Twin Oaks Community farm in Louisa, VA. She, along with folks who live there, grow a variety of vegetables on 3 ½ acres to feed the 100 people who live in the community. Just reading her blog gives me a lot of great ideas and information on growing vegetables here in Virginia, although on a much smaller scale. I looked to her neighbor Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) in Mineral for a source of potato onions. SESE sells vegetables, flowers, and herbs that do well in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast (i.e., our hot and humid summers) which makes them a good source of seeds and plants for my area. They too have a blog, a website, and a print catalog full of information for growing veggies in Virginia.

Although I ordered the potato onions in the spring when I ordered seeds, I knew they would not be shipped until the fall. My shipment arrived right before Labor Day and the bulbs were wrapped in a white plastic netting, along with a 4-page pamphlet on cultural requirements.

According to SESE’s pamphlet, potato onions should be planted in early to mid-November for my Northern Virginia area.  Because they are bulbs, it is best to plant them in a well-drained, sandy loam soil with a neutral pH. They are heavy feeders; nitrogen should be applied when leaves are 4-6 inches tall but not during bulb formation.  The bulbs should be planted with ½ to 1 inch of soil above the bulbs and a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to control weeds and protect against temperature extremes. Rows should be 6 inches apart. I have not decided where to plant them yet but I know I will have to find a full sun, weed free area that I can water often.

By summer 2017, the bulbs should have grown and divided to produce many more bulbs. Each individual bulb should form a cluster of bulbs at the base, which visible in the shipment I received. After I dig up the bulbs, I have to cure them, and then select the large ones to use in the kitchen, like an onion, and re-plant the smaller ones in the fall (hence perennial). I am looking forward to trying these in the garden and cooking with them next year.

Successes in my Virginia Garden: July 2016

Cardinal climber among oregano and sage

Cardinal climber among oregano and sage

July is a good time to take stock of the garden and determine what worked and what didn’t. This year I tried growing cardinal climber because I have banisters and rails in several locations on my property. Cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida) is a flowering vine, grown as an annual in Virginia. It is easy to grow indoors in the spring from seed which I obtained from Renee’s Garden. In May, I transplanted them outside and trained them up to the banisters with yarn. They learned quickly and began to wrap themselves around the banisters. Now that it is hot, they bloom every day in full sun. The flowers are bright red and simple but I discovered that they add a pop of color against the other plants. The leaves are very lacy and the vines are light enough to weave into neighboring plants (I like it when two or more plants tumble into each other’s space).  Cardinal climber is a winner in my book.

Vanilla Cream marigold with Cossack Pineapple ground cherry

Vanilla Cream marigold with Cossack Pineapple ground cherry

The other winner flower this year is ‘Vanilla Cream’, part of the Alumia series of French marigolds from Park’s Seed. I started the seed indoors in the spring although it was not necessary, I could have started them outside later. In May I plant them outside in a row in front of a vegetable bed so the lawn service crew wouldn’t get too close to the veggies with the weed wacker. The marigold plants have filled out nicely. Each bushy plant has several blooms at a time. The flowers are unusual for a marigold, they are anemone-shaped and bright yellow. I like the fact that they are a clear solid yellow — they glow like beacons in the garden.

ground cherry

husks pulled back from ground cherry fruit on spoon

Speaking of yellow, this year I grew Cossack Pineapple ground cherries. I bought seed from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and started them indoors under lights in very early spring. I was surprised at how well they germinated. In May, I transplanted several in my tomato patch and although I thought I gave them enough space I did not realize how fast they grew. Mine are a few feet wide and tall and completely cover the ground. Members of the tomato family, the fruit is small like a pea covered in a papery husk. The husks are green on the plant and gradually turn yellow and drop to the ground. I have learned that some of the ones on the ground are empty, maybe something got to them before I did, so I gather the ones on the ground and gently touch the yellow ones on the plant to see if they will drop into my hand. The fruit really does taste like pineapple but without the zing so more like a cross between a pineapple and an apple. They can be eaten raw, used in desserts, or used in savory dishes like salsa.

These are just a few success stories in my garden, more to come!

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

Landscape Edible: Growing Hibiscus for Tea

Hibiscus sabdariffa in August in container

Hibiscus sabdariffa (or roselle) in August

Fall is beginning to show its face: the nights are cool, the days are short, and stores are stocked with Halloween candy. Two of my tomato plants, Abraham Lincoln and Rutgers, are downright ugly. The leaves are brown and yellow and the large, green tomatoes sit there, defiantly, not bothering to ripen for me. I wait for them to change color, I even offer to take one that has a hint of red, but no, they never seem to change.  I am torn between pulling the plants out in anger and disgust (but I raised them from seed!) or keeping them there in hopes I will get just a few more tomatoes before frost takes over. Stupice, however, is much nicer. The plant is green, the small tomatoes keep appearing, and the older ones turn red every day.

Fall also marks the end of the vigorous lemon cucumber plant; we laid it to rest about two weeks ago. The eggplants never really took off so that was not as heart wrenching. The peppers are finally coming into their full glory with yellow and red pendulous fruit. The pole beans just keep producing beans. Nothing seems to deter them, not even when a critter munched on some leaves.

My real stressor now is a plant new to my garden: Hibiscus sabdariffa, commonly known as roselle or Florida cranberry. For a month now, I have been anxiously watching my plants, waiting for a hint of a flower bud. Because they are tropical plants, they grow like annuals in my Zone 7 Virginia garden. In other words, they are “terminal,” their days are numbered.

The flowers are supposed to be yellow, about 3 inches across, and more like okra or cotton in shape, not like those large tropical hibiscus flowers you see in Florida. Lasting one day, the flowers withdraw into the calyx to form a seed pod.  As the seed matures, the red calyx, which was originally at the base of the flower, grows to cover the seed pod. It is this red covering, the calyx that is harvested for tea, jams, and jellies. Rich in anthocyanin, the red calyxes serve as a natural food color and are responsible for the “zing” in Celestial Seasonings’ Red Zinger tea. I grew them because I had read that I could make my own herbal tea so I had started my plants from seed in the beginning of the year.  Later I learned that it is a true landscape edible – the leaves can be cooked, maybe with a chicken stir fry, to add a citrus/tangy flavor.

The plant itself is pretty, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, with maple like leaves. I grew mine in large plastic containers and if I had known, I would have added flowering annuals at the base to complement the red and green colors in the stems and leaves. Because mine were in containers in full sun, I had to make sure they received enough water all summer long. I had grown ornamental hibiscus plants before and knew they had “healthy appetites” so I had mixed fertilizer in the soil before I planted the seedlings.

By August, I had not seen any flowers and I was anxiously watching the calendar. I did some research and discovered that the flowering is initiated by short days, i.e., autumn. Sure enough, in the beginning of September I saw small buds, almost too small to capture by the camera. I read that I need to harvest the pods while the calyxes are still tender and juicy, about 10 days after the flowers appear. The seed pods have to be harvested, cut off the plant, and the calyxes have to be taken apart and dried.

Hibiscus flower buds in September, note red on stems and buds

Hibiscus flower buds in September

I also learned that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, only a few hours south, has a variety called Thai Red Roselle that will start blooming earlier in the summer to ensure plenty of calyxes before frost. Needless to say, that went on my 2015 wish list! I will continue to keep vigilance. In November, surely after our first frost has occurred, I will let you know how these plants perform plus I will list a quick summary of successes/lessons learned from my 2014 season.

Peg’s Picks September Gardening Events Washington DC Area

fallgardenAug2014 018Wow! So many events in September, from plant sales to harvest festivals! Below are Peg’s Picks for local events related to edible gardening except for one big event at Monticello, which I described at the end — it is on my bucket list!

Wednesdays, September 3, 10, 17, 24, Arlington Central Library hosts the “Garden Talks” series of free presentations every Wednesday evening from 7:00 to 9:00 pm starting mid-March through end of October. The website lists the topics and provides gardening resources for gardeners in the area. 1015 N. Quincy Street, Arlington VA; (703) 228-5990. http://www.library.arlingtonva.us/events/garden-talks/

Thursdays, September 4, 11, 18, 25, Food in the Garden: Waterways & Foodways: 1814-2014. Four different presentations on Thursday evenings in September starting at 6:00 pm in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History, Washington DC. Register, fee. http://americanhistory.si.edu/events/food-garden

Saturday, September 6, Weeds, Soil Health and Cover Crops, 9:00 am to noon, “Saturdays in the Garden” at the Teaching Garden at St. Benedict Monastery, presentations are given by VCE Prince William Master Gardener Volunteers. 9535 Linton Hall Road, Bristow, VA 20136. Free but must register (703) 792-7747. E-mail: master-gardener@pwcgov.org; http://pwcgov.org/grow

Saturday, September 6 & Sunday, September 7, Managing the 4 P’s: Pollinators, Parasites, Predators and Pests, Saturday, September 6, 2:00 to 4:00 pm and Sunday, September 7, 2:00 to 4:00 pm. (presentation given twice).U.S. Botanic Garden, presentation in the Conservatory classroom. Free but must register. 100 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington DC (202) 225-8333 (general) & (202) 225-1116 (to register for events). http://usbg.gov

Tuesday, September 9, Composting Yard and Kitchen Waste, 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Presented by the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia. Walter Reed Community Center, 2909 16th Street South, Arlington. Free but must register (703) 228-0949. E-mail: mkot@arlingtonva.us. http://mgnv.org

Saturday, September 13, Fall Garden Day & Plant Sale at Green Spring, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA (703) 642-5173. http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/greenspring/events.htm

Saturday, September 13, Friends of Brookside Gardens annual plant sale, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. Brookside Gardens Service Hill, follow signs on Glenallen Avenue, Wheaton, MD. call for more information (301) 962-1435. http://www.friendsofbrooksidegardens.org.

Saturday, September 27, “Living Garden Spaces,” Green Spring Gardens’ Garden Symposium, 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA (703) 642-5173. Learn about native plants, attracting native beneficial insects, and managing the unwanted wildlife in your garden. Co-sponsored by the Virginia Native Plant Society and Washington Gardener magazine. Must register by 9/19 and fee. http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/greenspring/gsg-symposium.htm

8th Annual Heritage Harvest Festival, September 12-13, at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia

The 8th Annual Heritage Festival is presented by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello in partnership with the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Thomas Jefferson is often called America’s “founding foodie”. He championed vegetable cuisine, plant experimentation, and sustainable agriculture. Each year the Heritage Harvest Festival honors Jefferson’s legacy with this fun, affordable, family-oriented, educational event promoting gardening, sustainability, local food, and the preservation of heritage plants. Participants enjoy tastings, workshops, hands on demonstrations, interpretive walks, and a variety of garden tours and exhibits. Friday and Saturday offer more than 100 programs and workshops, 90 vendors and exhibitors, and sample food from local farms and restaurants. On Friday evening, Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener of The French Laundry, will offer the keynote speech and there will be a Chefs’ Harvest Dinner on Montalto, Jefferson’s high mountain overlooking Monticello. This year an additional pre-festival program on edible landscaping will be held at Montalto on Thursday, September 11. For more information, including ticket information, see http://www.heritageharvestfestival.com

Jefferson's Monticello, copyright Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photography by Robert Llewellyn

Jefferson’s Monticello, copyright Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photography by Robert Llewellyn