Archive for Gardening

Strategies for Maximum Tomato Production

When engaging the general public about vegetable gardening, it is evident that most people’s growing experience seems to be centered on raising tomatoes. Little wonder, as you really can’t beat a fresh, perfectly ripened, fully organic tomato picked straight from the backyard! From the feedback we’ve received, these gardening experiences seem to run the gamut from bust to bumper crops. In this report we hope to aid you in your cultivation of bountiful, juicy and nutritious tomatoes that you can enjoy year-round, either fresh off the vine or canned in the pantry.

HEIRLOOM TOMATO VARIETIES
Choosing your heirloom tomato varieties is only the first step for the survival gardener. There are over 1,500 breeds of heirloom tomatoes, but the ones we’ve placed in our Texas Ready banks are six of the best varieties available. They are hardy, productive, easy to grow and perform well throughout the US. Texas Ready is constantly experimenting with growing strategies to give you advice on the very best gardening practices. We currently have test gardens in Michigan and Texas, and hope to add an Arizona location soon.

SOIL COMPOSITION
Tomatoes require a lot of humus, a proper balance of plant nutrients and great compost. Humus is a product of anaerobic fermentation which occurs when organic material decomposes in an oxygen-deprived environment. As fermentation occurs, the rotting matter releases methane gas. Compost is a product of aerobic decomposition which occurs when organic material decays in the presence of oxygen. As nitrogen and carbon react, energy is released in the form of heat, resulting in compost. Anything that has seeds in it should go through the composting process where the seeds will be destroyed in the 140-160 degree temperatures. That way, when compost goes into your garden, you will not be adding future weeds.

Proper soil nutrition is critical for good yields. Of course, one can purchase fertilizer at the store, but we strongly encourage you to lean toward sustainable, natural solutions. There may come a day when you won’t be able to run out and buy bags of fertilizer or loads of compost, so if you learn how to make your own now, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. If you are a second year gardener, it is definitely time to put these skills into your toolkit. One of the best books on this subject is The New Self-Sufficient Gardener, which we sell for $20.

Nitrogen
This is needed for strong stems, leaves and stalks. But don’t feed your plants nitrogen throughout the growing season or all you’ll get is a lovely tomato bush with small fruit. On the other hand, if the plant’s lower leaves turn yellow or the growth seems stunted, nitrogen is probably needed. You are striving for the characteristic deep blue-green color on foliage; when it is present, you can be assured there is adequate nitrogen. Sources include compost and fully rotted manure.

Potassium
Potassium keeps your plants strong and healthy. Without it, your plants will be much more susceptible to diseases. Yellow spots on the leaves or small, stunted plants indicate a potassium deficiency. Good sources are wood ashes, banana peels and compost.

Phosphorus
This nutrient helps in the production of the fruit and especially the flowers. Phosphorus promotes growth and health by helping the plant develop a strong root system. A purplish hue on the underside of the leaves indicates a phosphorus deficiency. Use aged chicken manure, bone meal or phosphate rock.

Calcium
Tomato plants will not develop without calcium. This nutrient also helps prevent blossom end rot.  Sources of calcium are crushed egg shells, bone meal and ground limestone. Calcium is not contained in most commercial fertilizers, though it may be present in fertilizers specifically made for tomatoes. But given that it’s so easy to add it yourself, why bother purchasing expensive fertilizer?

GERMINATION & SEEDLING DEVELOPMENT
January is the time to start tomato seedlings. Warm the dirt by growing in trays set next to a warm window or with special mats designed to heat the soil. (These may be purchased online or through your nursery supply house.) You’ll have to transplant the seedlings several times before putting the plants outside. Transplanting encourages root development. By the time your spring frost date occurs, you should have transplanted the seedlings from the seed tray into a 2″ pot and then again into a 4″ pot. Even better, move up to a 6″ pot.  By this time your plants should be at least 18-24″ tall and have flower clusters on them. I usually plant twice as many seeds as needed so that I can select the biggest and best specimens for the garden.

Once your evening temperatures exceed 70 degrees, fruiting is greatly reduced, if not impossible. Thus, if you plant too late in the season you won’t get many tomatoes. In the south it’s especially important to start seeds early due to our very hot summers.

GRUBS & CUTWORMS
If you have chickens, send them into the garden a few days before planting. They will churn up the soil and enjoy a fine protein meal! If you don’t have chickens, cover 2” cardboard tubes with aluminum foil or fashion metal cylinders from small tin cans. Once your tomatoes are transplanted into the garden, place one of these collars around each plant at soil level. Be careful not to break the tips of the plant!

TRANSPLANTING INTO THE GARDEN
Tomato plants need a lot of wind movement around them, both for pollination and for keeping your plants healthy. Don’t plant closer than three feet; if you have the room, four feet apart is better still. If you are able to dig a deep hole (up to 24”) simply add your fertilizer mix (explained below), insert your plant, fill in the rest of the hole (leaving only the top six inches of leaves exposed) and water thoroughly.

If you have a raised bed style garden, you won’t be able to dig a very deep hole. Instead, dig a trench that is 4” wide and 18″ long. Put your fertilizer in one end of the trench and lay the plant in the trench with the root ball resting on top of the fertilizer. Daily water only the root ball and soon you will see the tip of the plant begin to rise. In a few days the tip will straighten up. At this point cover the entire plant with soil, leaving only the top 6” exposed. Water the length of the covered up stem, but make sure soil isn’t splashed up onto the foliage. (And keep that strategy up throughout the growing season.) Fungal diseases spread when spores from the soil splash onto plant leaves. A drip irrigation system or soaker hose will help to prevent this from happening.

INITIAL FERTILIZATION
When digging holes for your plants, add a tablespoon of Epsom salts and a pound of aged animal manure. It is best not to use rabbit, sheep, goat, worm, llama or alpaca manure as these break down too quickly. Preferred would be horse or chicken manure (aged at least a year) or cow manure (aged at least two months).

If you don’t have access to manure, here’s a good replacement recipe (be sure to wear gloves when mixing, due to the presence of blood and bone meal).

Component  /  Contribution
1 tablespoon blood meal  /  Nitrogen
½ cup bone meal  /  Phosphorus & Calcium
½ cup green sand (found in better nurseries)  /  Trace minerals
1 tablespoon Epsom salts*  /  Sulfur & Magnesium
1 banana  /  Potassium
2 crushed Tums tablets  /  Calcium
14 crushed, low-dosage Aspirin tablets  /  Natural rooting compound

*  Epsom salts are not the same as table salt (sodium chloride) and are safe to use in your garden.

MULCHING
Tomatoes benefit from heavy mulching, so mulch immediately after watering in. This will also help prevent soil from splashing onto the plant when it rains. As the plants grow, deepen the mulch layer to about one foot by June 1. This will control weeds, add a slight amount of nutrition, and preserve needed moisture. Mulch with fresh (less than 24 hours old) grass clippings, as long as you are sure that no chemicals were used on the lawn. Alfalfa or prairie hay also works well. Wood chips are too big and too acidic, especially if they include cedar.

WATERING
Tomatoes should be lightly watered daily. This will reduce blossom rot and help prevent the shoulders of the fruit from cracking. (Texas Ready varieties tend to be crack resistant.) Water deeply once or twice a week to encourage root growth, and do so slowly so that the water will soak in and not run off. The soil 6 inches down should be moist. In a humid environment, avoid overhead watering as this can lead to fungal diseases. If you must do overhead watering, do it early in the morning. Be sure not to water excessively as doing so will suffocate the roots. The soil should not stay soggy, so reach down regularly to check the moisture content.

TOMATO CLASSIFICATION
Tomatoes are classified by their growth habits. Indeterminate varieties are those that produce tall vines which will continue to grow and produce blossoms until frost kills them. At Epcot, there are tomato plants that have been producing fruit for many years and are well over fifty feet long. On a single vine you will find fruit in all stages of development, as the growing tips continually produce flowers. In one season these vines can easily grow over ten feet! Obviously, these plants will quickly outgrow your average three-tier tomato cages or tomato stakes. Sections of 4’ X 8’ cattle panel can be used either in straight runs or formed into circles utilizing four or five strong metal clips to hold the ends together. When you rotate your crops, simply move the cattle panels as well, or grow other vine crops on them.

Although you may certainly freeze or can indeterminate tomatoes, these varieties are more often used for fresh eating since they produce a little bit over a long period of time (unlike determinate varieties which produce a whole lot in a short period of time). Little Cherry Reds and Beefsteaks are examples of indeterminate varieties.

Determinate tomato varieties have a compact, bushy growth habit. They stop growing at a certain size (usually 3-4 feet) and then produce all their fruit at one time. The fruit forms in clusters at the tips of the branches, and production occurs within a tight 3-4 week window. Since determinate tomatoes ripen together, they make a great choice for canning and freezing. Once the main crop has been harvested, the plants go downhill quickly. These are easier to grow in containers than indeterminate varieties. Roma, Rutgers, Marglobe and Homestead are examples of determinant varieties.

Other tomato varieties fall in between and are called Semi-Determinate. Larger than determinant varieties, they will not grow as big as the true vining type indeterminate tomatoes. They have a flourish of production at one time, yet continue to produce sporadically the rest of the season. There are no semi-determinate varieties in a Texas Ready seed bank.

DISEASES
Disease prevention begins with the daily removal of dead leaves, other plant debris, unused stakes and ties, etc. Crop rotation is also important: a vegetable bed should only be used to grow members of the Nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tobacco and moon flowers) once every 3-4 years. It would be good to follow tomatoes with green beans to add nitrogen back into the soil or cucumbers because they are completely unrelated and rarely suffer from the same insect or disease problems.

Septoria Spot & Early Blight
Tomatoes are susceptible to several leaf spot diseases. For instance, early blight is caused by a fungus that overwinters on plant debris in the garden. It can persist at least a year without a host or be introduced through infected transplants.

These diseases start close to the ground and work their way up the plant. The oldest leaves are infected first as spring rain splashes up from the ground, carrying spores of the fungus that overwintered on debris from your last garden.

The leaves develop dark brown spots with concentric rings, and some yellowing might also be present. Spots range from the size of a pin-prick to a nickel. The disease flourishes when there is heavy dew and/or rainfall, moderate weather (75-85 degrees) and high humidity. It is perfectly acceptable for organic gardeners to use non-toxic copper based fungicides and soaps. Once these diseases get started, they are very difficult to control. As a precaution, you can spray weekly commencing at fruit set and continuing until dry weather begins in the summer.

Blossom End Rot
If you see immature fruit with a black or rotten spot on the bottom, you have blossom end rot. It appears as dark brown or leathery black areas on the bottom of maturing tomatoes. Despite its name, blossom rot is a nutrient deficiency rather than a disease and it can easily be corrected. There are three causes: insufficient calcium, a drastic fluctuation in soil moisture and/or over-cultivation with a hoe that chops away small feeder roots. Bear in mind that even though you might have sufficient calcium in your soil, if there is not enough consistent moisture available, the calcium will not be assimilated by your plants.

Blossom Drop
Blossom drop naturally occurs when a flower dies before it is pollinated. It is not a disease, but can be exacerbated by a lack of calcium or potassium. Once you see tomato blossoms starting to form, place crushed eggshells or Tums tablets at the base of each plant. (Dry out the eggshells so that they will be less attractive to fire ants.) Use banana peels to provide adequate potassium. Place them next to the stems of your tomato plants, cover with half an inch of dirt and water in.

Tomatoes have perfect flowers (meaning that each flower has both male and female parts) which are pollinated primarily through motion and not by insects. If there is little or no wind, gently shake the plants a couple of times each day. An electric toothbrush may be used to vibrate the blossoms, or you can also use a clean make-up or artist brush which takes longer.

Italian growers employ an interesting technique with nursery-raised tomatoes, which you might try as well. Line up several tomato plants and stretch a string lengthwise about eight feet above the plants. Drop a line from the horizontal string down to the soil near the base of each plant. Reduce each plant to the strongest single vine and train the vines to grow up the strings. By twanging the horizontal string twice a day you’ll pollinate every tomato plant in the nursery at the same time! Note that this technique will only work with indeterminate varieties.

A word about Blossom Set Spray. When pollination occurs, tomato plants release a hormone called Auxin which tells the plant to start developing fruit. However, if your fruit production parameters are not right (high temperatures, too much wind, too little calcium, too much or too little water, etc.) this hormone won’t be released no matter how much set spray you use. Your dollars are better spent elsewhere.

ONGOING FERTILIZATION
If your soil is good you won’t need to add additional fertilizer. However, foliar spraying two to four times a month will still help to nourish and strengthen your plants. Liquid seaweed or fish emulsion will add nitrogen, and a 1:10 solution of dissolved Epsom salts and water will provide other nutrients.

We also recommend feedings of compost tea every two weeks. There are numerous recipes for making such a solution. Try blending two pounds of sheep, cow, goat, alpaca or llama manure into five gallons of fresh water. (You may also use worm castings – my preference – or alfalfa pellets.) Let the tea steep 24 hours before watering your plants.

INSECT PESTS
Good soil produces hardy plants, and bugs can be nature’s way of removing plants that are unhealthy or diseased. (Insect attracting pheromones differ between plants raised with adequate fertilization and those growing in depleted soils.) So the first thing to do if you see pests is to ensure that your plants are healthy and that your nutrition and growing conditions are what they need to be. Beyond that, here are some organic solutions for commonly encountered tomato pests.

Tomato Hornworms
Anyone who has spent time growing tomatoes will be familiar with this creature! Tomato hornworms grow to four inches long and can easily be recognized by the black “horn” that projects from the rear of the green caterpillar. These “worms” represent the larval stage of the hawk or sphinx moth, also known as the hummingbird moth.

Tobacco hornworms are related and have diagonal white stripes and a red horn. Hornworm eggs are round and greenish-white. If you find these on the undersides of leaves, pull the entire leaf off and destroy it. Do not put it into your compost heap! The eggs hatch in 4-5 days and it takes about four weeks for the larvae grow to full size. Hornworms are voracious, destroying leaves, stems  and fruit. Pick them off and feed them to your chickens. If you get them early enough, your tomato plant will not be affected. And if you notice a hornworm covered with white egg sacs, leave it alone since the sacs are those of a beneficial, parasitic wasp.

Tomato Fruit Worm
These equal opportunity garden pests are also known as corn earworms or cotton bollworms. These garden pests are nocturnal and feed on leaves and stems, but prefer the fruit. They attack tomatoes by tunneling inside and hollowing out the cavity. You’ll first notice a pea-sized hole and then the tomato quickly decays and rots. Once attacked, the fruit is no longer useable. Pick affected tomatoes off the plant (or off the ground) and utterly destroy them! Be vigilant and watch your plants closely for the white or cream-colored, slightly flattened, spherical pinhead-sized eggs. They may be deposited on either side of the leaves, but usually close to the blossoms. Tomato fruit worms will grow 1-2 inches long and may be cream-colored, yellow, green, reddish or brown. Up to four generations can present themselves during one summer; mature larvae overwinter in the top 2-3 inches of soil. Apply neem oil or insecticidal soap once a week and soon after a rain; you can get these products at a good garden center or nursery supply.

Avoid planting corn and tomatoes close together, as corn is one of the more preferred fruit worm hosts. If your tomatoes  are already planted near corn, cover the tomato plants with a fine netting to prevent adult female moths from laying eggs on your plants. It is better to plant tomatoes near dill, parsley and asters which attract parasitic Trichogramma wasps. Big-eyed bugs, pirate bugs, lacewings and damsel bugs also feed on tomato fruit worms. Goldenrod, daisies, alfalfa and stinging nettle will attract these beneficial insects.

Red Spider Mites & Aphids
Grow French Marigolds alongside your tomatoes as their pheromones repel aphids. If you see aphids or mites (which are arachnids, not insects), the first thing to do is to blast the majority of them away with a strong stream of water. Then drench the leaves with a solution of dishwashing liquid (Dawn works best) and water. If that doesn’t work, try an insecticidal soap, neem oil or pyrethrum-based liquid, all of which can be found at your local nursery. You can also create your own oil-soap mixture by combining vegetable oil and dish soap in a 4:1 ratio. To dilute, place one tablespoon of this mixture in one quart of water and spritz throughout your garden. You may also purchase beneficial insects such as lady bugs, predatory mites or praying mantises. When releasing lady bugs, be sure that you mist the area first and then release them at dusk or your investment will soon fly away!

This report is by no means the last word on tomato raising, but it should get you off to a good start. If you are growing tomatoes from seeds contained in your Texas Ready Liberty Seed Bank, we would love to see pictures. Please email them to seeds@TexasReady.net and let us know how your garden is faring. And if you have yet to purchase a Liberty Seed Bank, be advised that we offer both a Northern and a Southern bank depending on your growing zone. Each bank comes in five different sizes and contains over eighty varieties of non-GMO, non-hybrid heirloom seed (including six different tomatoes, both determinate and indeterminate). There is no better bank, and no better value! Go to http://www.TexasReady.net for more information or to place your order.

May God Bless your Garden!

 – The Seed Lady

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Spring Planting

WHEN TO PLANT
It’s only February, but in much of the country it looks like Spring is bustin’ out all over! We recommend that you revisit your area’s exact last spring and first fall frost dates–they will be different for individual counties. Don’t go from memory. Check the Internet or contact your County Extension Agent and/or your local Master Gardener program.

The dates for our county are March 17 and November 15 – but what does that mean? If I were to set plants out on March 17, either as seed or six inch transplanted seedlings, I have a ten percent chance of a freeze, which would kill my plants. A ten percent risk is one I can live with. Frost dates DO NOT mean that it can’t or won’t freeze after that date. Regarding the first fall frost date, I have a ten percent chance that my crops will experience a freeze before November 16. The appendix in All New Square Foot Gardening is excellent as it illustrates when to start seeds in trays, when to transplant, how long it takes for the individual plants to mature and when you should harvest.

Obviously, frost dates are guidelines, and Mother Nature has a mind of her own. Thus far, this winter has been extremely mild in my area, so I’m willing to bump up my planting date by about thirty days. If we do experience a freeze, there will still be time to reseed or replant. I have plenty of reserve seed and know I’m only taking a slight risk.
But there is also a risk in waiting too long to plant. For example, tomatoes, and to a certain extent peppers, don’t set fruit well if the nights are hotter than 70 degrees F. The heat wave can come early in south Texas–sometimes in April. If my tomatoes are not 24 inches tall and in flower by mid-April, I could miss out on a lot of good tomato production. That would be bad! Therefore, now is the time to get a tray of juicy Romas started indoors.

BEFORE YOU PLANT, PLAN
If you had a garden last year, get out your 2012 garden plan and draw up a new plan. I like to see everything on one page. Use grid paper to make it easier. Plot your entire yard, front and back. A good example is found on page 13 of The Backyard Homestead, but you may want to get even more detailed. I do it the old-fashioned way (ruler and colored pencils), but you can also use software—just Google “Garden Planning Software” and several choices will pop up. There is also a practice grid in the All New Square Foot Gardening book, pages 264-265.

EASY CROP ROTATION
Those of you who had gardens last year should rotate your crops. There are many kinds of rotational strategies, each predicated on a slightly different theory. The easiest method is to put root crops in beds which previously held above-ground fruiting plants, and vice versa. A little more sophisticated method of agricultural recycling is to plant heavy feeders, then heavy givers, then light feeders. Examples of each type would include:

HEAVY FEEDERS  –  Corn, watermelons, melons
HEAVY GIVERS  –  Peas, peanuts, beans
LIGHT FEEDERS  –  Potatoes, tomatoes, squash, onions, garlic, herbs

Experienced gardeners should consider a more complex rotational program. A good description of this is found on pages 73-75 of The New Self-Sufficient Gardener: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Planning, Growing, Storing and Preserving Your Own Garden Produce. It operates on a four to five year model.

Year 1  –  Manure the bed heavily. Sow potatoes, spring cabbage, leeks, turnips and rutabagas.
Year 2  –  Sow peanuts to harvest in the fall (if you live in a southern growing zone). Plant peas and beans—since these are short crops, follow them with members of the cabbage family, which you transplant from trays started separately to save garden space.
Year 3   –  Go to miscellaneous crops like tomatoes, greens and melons. Using an aged manure mulch, put in a cover crop after your harvest to fix nitrogen back in the soil. Austrian winter peas or soybeans (both found in your Liberty Seed Bank) are ideal crops for this purpose.
Year 4  –  Plant root crops such as beets, turnips, rutabagas, carrots and sweet potatoes.
Year 5  –  If you have the space, let the bed go fallow for a full year. Solarizing your soil (explained below) is also beneficial. Or plant a deep crop like comfrey or alfalfa, which will bring minerals up to the surface. At the end of the year, turn under the cover crop and you’ll have a ready supply of nitrogen. Start the cycle over again.

Okay, now for the rotational curve ball. You don’t want to plant members of the same “family” back-to-back in your rotations. Over the past few years we’ve reviewed at least 200 modern agriculture and gardening books with the goal of providing our customers the best information available to become food self-sufficient. We recently added a seventh book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine ($20 from http://www.TexasReady.net), which is great for experienced gardeners. It suggests a refinement to the rotational puzzle which you should consider. Pages 105-108 have a marvelous chart that covers this point in detail.

I’ll not bore you with the Latin names of the seed families, but avoid planting members of the categories listed below in the same beds in subsequent years. If you can stretch it to three or four years, so much the better.

Seed Family  –  Varieties
BEET  –  Beets, mangels, spinach, chard, orach, quinoa
GRASS  –  Corn, rice, barley, wheat, oats, rye, millet, sorghum
MINT  –  Mint, basil
MORNING GLORY  –  Sweet potatoes
NIGHTSHADE  –  Tomatoes, tobacco, eggplant, potatoes, peppers
ONION  –  Onions, garlic, leeks, chives
PARSLEY  –  Parsley, carrots, celery, parsnips, fennel, dill, cilantro
PEA  –  Peas, beans, cowpeas, lentils, garbanzos
SQUASH  –  Squash, cucumbers, gourds, melons, watermelons, pumpkins
SUNFLOWERS  –  Sunflowers, lettuce, endive, salsify, artichoke, cardoon, Jerusalem artichoke

Don’t get too worked up over this rotational business. It’s complicated—we know that. The good news is that if you compost a wide variety of plants, strict rotations are less important since your compost heap is full trace elements and minerals that will help to balance out your soil nutrition.

PREPARE YOUR BEDS
You can take the following steps now, even if your last frost date is a couple of months away.

1)    If you haven’t already done so, clean up all your previous garden debris and cart it to the compost heap.
2)    Take a forked tool (a rake won’t get deep enough) and lightly loosen the soil to a depth of four inches. If you see squirmy little worms or grubs, kill them. (Keep the earthworms, however!) If you have chickens, either give them the grubs as a treat or better yet, let them scratch around in your beds. They’ll become virtual “rototillers” with an attitude. I prefer this strategy because they’ll drop a little fertilizer in the beds as well!
3)    Using soil from your compost pile, spread enough to bring the beds up to the top of your 6” side boards. Surprisingly, the dirt in your raised beds will be down about one-third from last year. You’ll want to add a little extra soil in the center of the beds so that there is a slight crown. This will allow for better drainage and give you a little more planting area.
4)    Once everything is in place, lightly water in the top dressing. Repeat the watering process when you notice the beds are dry. Now that the hard work has been done, the fun can begin!
5)    If you have 6 weeks or so before your frost date, get some heavy clear plastic sheeting. Put them over your beds, securing the sides with heavy objects like bricks or boards. You are now going to let the sun solarize your soil. This will heat the soil, killing some insects, fungi, viruses and weed seeds at the same time.

MAKE YOUR OWN POTTING SOIL
You’ll want to use a basic potting mix without a lot of built-in fertilizer. If there is too much nitrogen, the seedlings can get leggy and the stem and support structures won’t be able to support mature fruit.

I prefer to save money and make my own potting mix; this recipe from Rodale’s Institute for Organic Growing is a good one. (You’ll want to make sure that any chicken or horse manure has been aged at least a year—preferably two—and that your compost heap was heated to at least 140 degrees F for about two weeks so that the weed seeds will not germinate.)

4 parts fine compost from one year old shredded leaves & aged animal manure
1 part perlite
1 part vermiculite
2 parts peat moss

You’ll want to mix this outdoors in a wheelbarrow; lightly moistening the ingredients to keep the dust down. I like this mix because there is a good balance between moisture retention and good drainage. Without good drainage you will struggle with “damping-off” which is a fungal disease that causes newly germinated seedlings to weaken, topple over and die. I like using shredded leaf compost because you get a timed release of good nutrition, thus avoiding the necessity of fertilizing.

WHAT TO PLANT IN YOUR SPRING GARDEN
If you reside in growing zones 3-7, you can plant any of the varieties found in your kit, as you have a relatively short growing season.

Persons living in zone 8a can reasonably expect to get in two gardens per year, and those in zones 8b-10 can grow three crops. Try getting a quick crop of beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce and other greens, mustard, radishes and regular spinach in before it gets too hot. You’ll have to wait to plant Malabar spinach (not a true spinach anyway) as it is very cold sensitive. Start trays of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, peanuts and squash indoors, or in your greenhouse.

To determine your growing zone, Google “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone” and your zip code, or call your county agricultural extension service or Master Gardener program. Bear in mind that the zone map changed dramatically in the USDA’s 2012 revision, so be sure to be sure.

Now get out there and turn some soil!

The Seed Lady

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Heirloom Seed Saving, Part 3

[This is the last of a three-part series. Be sure to read the beginning of Part 1 first, as it includes some very important comments regarding seed saving techniques in general!]

Parsley
This plant is a biennial. In the first year you’ll be able to harvest some of the fresh leaves, but you won’t be able to obtain seeds until year two. Overwinter at least three or four plants. In southern states, mulch heavily with straw or cover plants with a cold frame. Up north you’ll need to bring a few plants inside your greenhouse during the winter months. The next spring, the plants will start to flower and produce seed. Once the flower heads are dry and brown (but before they start to shatter), clip the stalks from several plants and place them upside down in a paper lunch bag. After a couple of weeks, the seed heads should all be shattered. Separate the seed from the chaff , place them in your zip-loc bag, label and store. Parsley tends to have a low germination rate, so be sure to gather lots of seed.

Peanuts
Peanuts are in the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, moon flowers, eggplant and tobacco. Peanuts are ready for harvesting when the leaves turn yellow. Gently pull the plants out of the ground being careful not to break the roots, as the peanuts are distributed throughout the root system. Each plant should bear 40-100 peanuts. Sun-dry the uprooted plants for about a week, and don’t allow them to get wet. After the shells are dry, cut or pull the peanuts from the root stalks and store them in a cool, dry place. It is not necessary to shell the peanuts before you store them, but if space is a consideration, feel free to do so. It is best to leave the red paper-like skin intact. Be sure to discard any peanuts that show signs of decay or rot.

Peas
Peas are self-pollinating, therefore there is little danger of cross-pollination. As previously stated, when selecting individual plants to use for seed stock, look for healthy insect and disease resistant specimens with high production and good taste. Allow the pods to ripen on the vine or bush for four to six weeks beyond the time you would normally harvest them. When ready, pick the dried pea pods and spread them evenly on newspaper in a warm, dry area away from direct sunlight. After a couple of weeks, open the pods and release the peas into a bowl. Put the pea pod residue into your compost heap and store the peas in a plastic bag or jar with proper identification. Keep them cool, but do not freeze.

Peppers
When selecting peppers for seed harvesting, pick the fruit when mature but not overly ripe. Collect the seeds and lay them on a cookie sheet or wax paper for two or three days, stirring them periodically to keep them from sticking. After about three days they will be dry and ready to store in your labeled zip-loc bag.

Pumpkins
Save as you would Squash.

Radishes
Radishes will cross with both wild and domesticated varieties, so it is best to grow one variety at a time when you are seed saving. Grow 50-100 plants and choose ten for seed production. The flowering seed stalks grow 3-4’ tall; depending on the variety you will see delicate white, yellow or purple blossoms. Bees adore these flowers, so plant some radishes early in the season before the bees emerge in search of food. You will be rewarded by frequent pollinators in your garden throughout the growing season! Harvest the seed stalks when the pods turn brown and the plants begin to dry. Tie several stalks together and hang on a nail in a shed or barn where there is decent air circulation and no danger of exposure to direct sunlight. After a month, get a large bowl and crush the pods to release the radish seeds. The seeds require no further processing; simply label and store for the next planting.

Rutabagas & Rape (Canola)
Procedures are the same as for Turnips.

Sage
This herb is easy to grow and has both medicinal and culinary uses. Sage flowers develop into seed pods that open up as they mature. Keep an eye on the plants. When you see that the seed is beginning to be released from the pods, cut the stalks and place them upside down in a paper bag. As the seeds ripen, they will fall out of the pods. Bag, label and store.

Sesame
Sesame is a heat-loving crop, so it only grows well in the south. It is ready for harvesting 90-150 days after planting, depending upon weather and soil conditions. To obtain the highest quality seeds, the crop must be harvested before the first killing frost. The sesame plant will tell you when to expect the harvest, as the leaves will change from green to yellow and finally to red. As this color change occurs, loosely tie the tops of the stalks together in bundles of about eight. A couple of days later, make a second pass and tighten the strings so that the sheaves are almost upright. In approximately two weeks – when the leaves begin to fall off or as soon as the sesame begins to rupture – it’s time to cut and thresh. (We’ve all heard the phrase, “Open sesame!” Its origin derives from the manner in which seed pods from certain sesame breeds loudly pop open and scatter their seeds to the wind.) When harvesting, cut the bundled sesame stalks in 30” lengths. Put a sheet down in an area where there is a slight breeze and thresh by beating the sheaves of the sesame plant on the ground. The heavier seeds will stay in a pile while the chaff will blow away; pick out the larger debris by hand. Sesame seed can be stored at room temperature and will last several years without a loss of viability. Keep from freezing, as this can damage the seed.

Spinach
Spinach is wind-pollinated, so plant only one variety at a time. Seed can typically be harvested approximately eight weeks after germination. In northern growing zones, start this cool weather crop in the early spring; in the south and southwest, plant in August in order to gather seed prior to the fall frost. This annual cultivar has both male and female plants. The ideal ratio for your backyard garden is one good male plant for every two female plants. Male plants produce the pollen, while female plants bear the seeds. If you have an overabundance of male plants, feel free to harvest the leaves while waiting for the spinach seed to mature. There are two types of male plants. The first (which should be pulled up and destroyed; i.e., eaten!) is small and quick bolting. The other type is called a vegetative male. It produces more foliage and lots of good pollen. Female plants produce small, inconspicuous flowers that have no petals. Remove (eat) early bolters and those that flower before the rest of the crop, as well as plants that aren’t as strong or as colorful as you’d like. Removing plants with undesirable traits helps to prevent producing seed that will carry these traits into your next planting season. Once you have identified your best plants, harvest only the outside leaves for eating since you want these plants to remain strong. Allow both the male and female plants to flower. Once the female (seed bearing) plants become fully brown and dried out, carefully pull up the seed stalks and continue the drying process in a shed, barn or covered enclosure where you can hang the stalks upside down for a few weeks. (Again, you’ll want to pick seed from plants that have the leaf characteristics you like: color, structure, shape, and taste are good benchmarks.) After the drying process is complete, either thresh the seeds into a container or pull the seeds off by hand. Label, bag and store in your Liberty Seed Bank.

Squash
One can divide squash into two different categories: winter (hardshell varieties such as acorn or butternut) and summer (soft skin varieties such as straightneck, spaghetti and zucchini). To save seed, harvest winter varieties when the fruit is ready to eat. Let it ripen three to four weeks off of the vine. Summer squashes, however, should be left to overripen on the vine for a couple of weeks, and are ready for harvesting when the rinds have become somewhat hardened. Once the winter or summer squash has properly ripened, cut the fruit in half and scoop the seeds and pulp into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water and separate the seeds from the pulp. Remove excess pulp from the solution, as well as any seeds that float. Rinse and drain the seeds, spread them out on newspaper or a cookie sheet to dry, and stir occasionally over a two week period. To determine if your seeds are properly dried, attempt to bend one. If it bends instead of cleanly snapping, it is not dry enough. Repeat this trial every couple of days until your seeds are ready to store. Label, bag and bank.

Tomatoes
I used to think that saving tomato seeds was simply a matter of gathering a few from my favorite varieties and letting them dry on a paper towel for a couple of weeks. But in order to get the hardiest plants and maximum production from your saved seeds, it is best to subject them to a fermentation process for a week or so. This will help to inoculate young seedlings against harmful bacteria and viruses they are sure to face in the soil. It is said that fermenting will increase tomato production by about five percent. (And since in my home tomatoes are a food group of their own, this is important!) When saving tomato seeds, pick tomatoes that are totally ripe, but not overly so. As always, the entire plant should have great conformation: check the thickness and strength of the vines, the greenness of the leaves and the abundance, taste and plumpness of the fruit.

The saving process is really quite simple. Select at least three tomatoes of the same breed. Cut them in half across the midsection and squeeze the seeds, gel and juice into a small glass or jar. Mash up the mixture, then add an equal amount of water and lightly stir. Cover the container with plastic wrap (with a few air holes poked into it) and label the glass with the exact heirloom variety. Do not rely upon your memory! Set the mash in a dark cupboard and stir gently once a day. Bubbles will appear and a yellow or white moldy crust will develop. Once you see the white mold, pour it off, drain the water and remove any floating seeds. Utilizing a fine mesh strainer and running water, thoroughly rinse the seeds. Write the name of the variety on a paper plate and spread your seeds out to dry away from sunlight or excessive heat. Stir them occasionally and keep them separated. Drying should take about a week, but allow some extra time if it is humid or rainy. When done, your dried tomato seeds will be somewhat spongy. Properly label and bag the seeds, storing them in your bank for the following spring.

Turnips
This member of the cabbage family will cross with Siberian kale, Chinese mustard and Chinese cabbage, but not with collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, other kales or other cabbages. Turnips are self-infertile, which means that they do not self-pollinate. They are also biennial, which means that they grow and mature in the first year and produce seed in the second. There are a couple of methods used for growing seed. First, you can over-winter the entire plant in the ground, and it will produce a flower stalk the following spring.  Turnips are relatively hardy, but should be heavily mulched if you leave them in the ground over the winter. However, in extremely cold areas (zones 3 and 4), they should be over-wintered in pots in a greenhouse and transplanted in the spring. A second method for northern growers is to dig up the turnip roots in the fall, trimming the tops down to a couple of inches. Store the roots in a box filled with clean sand or sawdust, making sure the turnips aren’t touching each another. A root cellar or free-standing shed or garage which has a temperature range of 35-40°F would be ideal. Replant 2’ apart in the spring when the soil warms.

Do not harvest leaves for food from plants destined for seed production. To prevent inbreeding depression and ensure a good amount of genetic diversity, it would be best to gather seed from at least twenty plants. Plants should be spaced two feet apart and will produce a 3-4’ flower stalk. Seeds ripen best well while still on the plant, so leave the pods in place to mature and dry. When the pods turn dry and brown (and the seeds inside are full and dark), they are ripe. If you see the pods starting to crack open, it is definitely time to gather them. Don’t tarry as the scattering process is generally very short and birds love the ripened seed. Cut the flower stalks and hang them upside down over a sheet of paper, cloth or plastic to catch the seeds. Seeds are viable for several years, so you can alternate which variety of turnips you allow to flower each year. When fully dry, open the pods by hand over a bowl to collect whatever seed hasn’t already been released. Use a light breeze to blow away the chaff, then place the seeds on a cookie sheet to finalize the drying process. After about a week, label, bag and store. Replanting tip: turnip seeds like cold, winter-like temperatures for several weeks before germination. Therefore, store turnip seed at least four weeks in a refrigerator prior to sowing.

Watermelons
Even though you can collect hundreds of seeds from a single watermelon, in order to prevent inbreeding you should identify three or four quality melons from different plants. Be sure to choose vines which are both hardy and known to produce exceptionally tasty fruit. Let the melons ripen on the vine two weeks past table ready. You’ll know the watermelon is “past table ready” when you can smell a slight fruitiness. The bottom of the watermelon may be cream-colored or pale yellow. Don’t gather seeds from a melon that has developed a crack in its outer rind. Once your melons are ready, pick them and cut them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and rinse the pulp away using running water and a colander or sieve. (You might want to do this outdoors!) Place the rinsed seeds in a bowl of water and pour off any that float. Save only the hard black or brown seeds; discard any that are white or undeveloped. Drain the seeds and spread them out on a cookie sheet or newspaper. Put the seeds in a warm, dry area out of direct sunlight for three weeks stirring periodically to promote even drying. To determine whether or not your seeds have dried sufficiently, perform the bend test. If the seeds bend instead of breaking, they still have a way to go. When the seed snaps or shatters when flexed, you are ready to package them.

Regardless of the variety of seed you are saving, Texas Ready recommends saving at least three times the amount of seed that you figure to plant the following year. This will help to protect you against crop failure due to drought or disease, rainstorm or rabbit. It will also give you seed to share or barter with, should the need arise.

We hope this Seed Saving series has been helpful to you! Subscribe to our blog if you would like more information on survival and urban gardening, heirloom seeds and related topics. And when you’re ready to invest in quality heirloom seed for your garden, be sure and check out Texas Ready’s Liberty Seed Banks at http://www.TexasReady.net!

Garden well,

– The Seed Lady

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Heirloom Seed Saving, Part 2

[This is Part 2 of a three part series. Be sure to read the beginning of Part 1 first, as it includes some very important comments regarding seed saving techniques in general!]

Chives
Chives look like tiny clumps of onions. The plants are perennial, and once established can grow for many years. Common chives do not cross with garlic chives or other onion species. Each spring or summer some of the plants produce purple-flowering seed heads that are insect-pollinated. Harvest the seed head by hand when it has browned. Spread the heads on screens and in two weeks, gently rub the heads to remove the seeds. Store in a zip-loc bag for sowing the following spring. As always, be sure to label with the variety and harvest date, and do not mix with seed from a previous harvest. Save a lot of seed from these plants if you want to start other clusters, as you can reasonably expect that only about fifty percent of the seed will germinate.

Cilantro
This cold season herb is one of the easiest plants to save seed from. The seeds are easy to spot, for when cilantro’s foliage is beginning to wither, the brown seeds will cling to the plant. When they are dry and brown, pull them off, place in a zip-loc bag, label and store. Be sure that there is no dew or dampness on them or they may rot. Also known as Coriander, cilantro seeds are very light and have many culinary purposes.

Collards
Collards are outbreeding plants and will easily cross with cabbage varieties like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi. Since cold temperatures are required for collards to flower, seeds are usually produced during the second growing season. The seed stalks can exceed five feet in height, will flower prolifically and are very attractive to bees. (The variety known as “Georgia” can live for more than three years and grow over six feet high in zones 9-10!) The taller the plant, the more tender and tasty are the leaves. If winter temperatures do not drop below 28°F, it is possible to plant seeds in the fall and harvest fresh seed the following summer. In regions where the temperature drops lower, dig the plants up in the fall and store them slightly above freezing with moderate humidity. Cut the stalk down to a foot and trim the root as well. A dirt-floored root cellar is a perfect environment to store a bunch of these stalks, which may be lightly tied together. Replant in a nutrient-rich bed in the spring. In order to produce viable seeds, collards should be hand-pollinated using flowers from another plant. Select your best three plants for seed saving and only lightly harvest leaves (for food) from them. The long seed pods will turn from a deep green to a light brown. Cut off the pods with sharp shears when they are completely brittle and break open the seed casings over a large bowl to catch the seeds. Label and store for your next growing season.

Corn
Corn is one of the easiest of all seeds to save. All corn varieties are wind-pollinated and will easily cross with one another. (Read Seed to Seed, pp. 197-203 to see how you can prevent this from happening.) Pollen is produced on the tassel, which is the male portion of the plant that forms at the top of each stalk of corn. The ears and silks that emerge are the female structures. Individual silk threads are attached to future corn kernels, which only develop if pollen touches some part of the thread. Any gaps on the cob indicate that the silks attached to those kernels were not pollinated. Corn should always be grown in blocks of 200 or more plants to ensure maximum wind pollination. Corn is easily susceptible to inbreeding depression; therefore, you should gather some seed from at least two dozen ears. Drying should be done at temperatures less than 95°F. Hanging entire ears upside down in a barn is the traditional way corn seed is saved, but beware of hungry rats, mice, squirrels, etc. After several months, carefully rub cobs together to remove the seeds. Examine the seed and throw out any kernels which are ill-formed. Kernels should be completely dry before storing. You will wind up with more than you need, so give some away and let your neighbors embark upon their own life of self-sufficiency!

Cucumbers
Cucumbers are outbreeding plants, so be sure to take appropriate steps to prevent cross-pollination. When selecting cucumbers from which to gather seeds, only consider healthy, well-shaped fruits from early-setting vines that abundantly produce cukes with great flavor. While there is no guarantee your future plants will have all of these traits, your chances are greatly improved by selecting seeds from cucumbers that do. When seed saving, allow the fruit to vine-ripen two weeks past the edible stage. They will usually change from green to white, yellow or even orange. Ripened cucumbers contain hundreds of seeds. Gather three or four, all from different vines. Slice them lengthwise and deposit the seed (along with the seed sack) into a large glass jar. Add an equal amount of water and place the jar inside a dark cupboard for several days, allowing the mixture to ferment. Stir the mixture once or twice a day. Mold may appear and the odor may not be pleasant, but that is to be expected. Fermentation is complete when most of the seeds drop to the bottom of the jar. Dead seeds or seed casings will float. Once you reach this stage, pour off the debris until only the good seeds at the bottom are left. Use a sieve and gently running water to clean them. Wipe the bottom of the sieve with a towel to draw off as much moisture as possible, and then spread the seeds out on paper towels laid on top of cookie sheets. Dry for about two weeks, occasionally stirring them with your fingers. Label and save.

Dill
This culinary herb is also very useful for pickling. Dill is an outbreeding plant that won’t cross with any other vegetables or herbs other than its kissing cousin, fennel. It is an annual and goes quickly to seed. Each plant produces several umbels that are usually allowed to dry on the plant. The seeds shatter from the heads very easily during cleaning. To avoid losing seed, select fully mature, dry umbels whose stems are slightly green. Rub the umbels gently to free the seed; any small stem pieces or other debris can be winnowed or screened. No further treatment is required.

Eggplant
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family and produces self-pollinating perfect flowers. Different varieties can cross-pollinate, especially by insects. Cage any plants from which you intend to save seed. When fully ripe, the fruit will be hard and will fall from the plant. Keep the fruit for an additional couple of weeks before saving the seed, as seed taken from fruit when it is at the eating stage will not be viable. In the south, it is okay to eat the first fruits before allowing your plant to produce the fruit from which you will take future seeds. Gardeners in the north will want to let the first fruits stay on the vines two to three weeks after the eggplants would normally be picked to ensure ample seed stock for the following year. Cut open the over-ripened fruit and scoop out the seeds from the bottom portion. Separate the seeds with your fingers, and rinse off the pulp. Dry them on a screen, stirring occasionally for the first couple of days to keep them from sticking together. Once everything is fully dry, store in a marked zip-loc bag. Though eggplant seed stays viable for a long time, save more than you need as only half are likely to germinate.

Kale
This vegetable is a biennial, which means that it produces seed once every two years. Kale plants to be used for seed production may also be harvested lightly for food. Kale is a member of the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family, but the seeds are treated a little differently then most other varieties in that group. Kale is very winter hardy and it will survive even in harsh areas as long as it has a heavy mulch or consistent snow cover. In the south, kale should be planted towards the end of the summer or in the fall. As always, select seed from your hardiest and best plants. You may wish to stake the seed stalks when they appear in the spring so that they won’t be damaged. (Seed savers have to get used gardens that may look a little ratty at times!) The Siberian variety may cross with rutabagas, so avoid planting kale and rutabagas close to one another. Kale stalks will grow 4-5′ feet tall. As they branch out, the plants begin to flower. Tight clusters of beautiful delicate yellow flowers will appear; these are very bee friendly. The florets are edible and taste like broccoli (and are great in stir fry). After flowering, the kale stalks will begin producing small, thin seed pods. As the pods develop, they will get thicker and longer. Side branches will also flower and carry seed pods. The average seed pod is 2-3″ and will swell when ripened. Once the pods are fully developed, the plants will die back. At this point, cut the seed-filled branches off the plants and allow them to dry on a hard surface away from direct sunlight. It works well to have a clean sheet beneath the kale bundle to keep everything in one place. It is also advisable to loosely cover the kale bunch so that the wind won’t scatter your seeds as the pods open. Within a few weeks, the pods will be fully dry. Each pod has a thin separating membrane running its length; the seeds grow on either side of this membrane. As you carefully open the pods and remove the membrane (over a large bowl), the seeds will literally roll out. Remove the small bits of chaff before storing. Extra kale seeds can be sprouted for a wonderfully nutritious addition to salads and sandwiches.

Kohlrabi
Kohlrabi is also a biennial in the cabbage family. (Refer to our instructions on how to save cabbage seed, which may be found in Part 1 of this series.) The timing of planting kohlrabi for seed production depends on where you live. In warmer locations, sow seeds in the fall and allow plants to over-winter in the garden. In cooler locations, time the sowing of seeds so that the plants will not fully mature until after the first frost hits. Manage the over-wintering of the plants as you would cabbage. Kohlrabi can survive a mild winter, but it is best to store them. Dig them up before a hard freeze, keeping as much of the root as possible. Trim the leaves to within one inch of the crown. Store several good roots in a cold, humid place. Replant only healthy roots late in the spring and allow the plants to bolt and flower. Since kohlrabi is a form of cabbage, it will have similar yellow flowers and will produce seed pods. Seed-save the same way as kale.

Lettuce
Lettuce is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) so it should be no surprise that the seed stalk might grow 2-5′ tall over a period of long days and high temperatures. Avoid pulling leaves off the plant when it bolts (that is, when the seed stalk is coming up), as they will be very bitter. The flowers are perfect so there is little chance of crossing with other types of lettuce, especially if you plant tall vegetable varieties like tomatoes or pole beans in between your lettuce breeds. Alternately, you may plant your lettuces 25′ or more apart. Seeds begin ripening 10-24 days after the flowers have shed their pollen. Flowering occurs throughout a forty day window, and the seed heads that form at the top tend to shatter by the time flowering is complete at the bottom of the stalk. Lettuce seeds are miniscule. Collect seed stalks only from plants that were the slowest to bolt. Harvest the seeds as they begin to dry, or shake them into a paper bag to avoid loss from shattering. Another method is to pull the entire plant up when half of the seed stalk has flowered. Dry indoors 7-10 days by hanging the plants upside down. Place a clean sheet underneath the hanging plants to gather any seed that drops. When you are ready to gather the seed, carefully rub the heads in your hands over a bowl. You don’t really need to screen the material, but you can do so if you wish to separate the “fuzz.” Lettuce seeds go dormant immediately after harvest, so hold them for at least two months before replanting.

Mustard
In the south, mustard can be planted during the first two weeks of September to produce greens, or in March to produce seed. The plants like partial sun. Spring-sown mustards flower easily and are bee magnets. Fall-sown mustard plants make great greens but may not make it through a freeze. Mustard plants grow quite large, and will begin to turn yellow late in their life cycle. Harvest when the seed pods are dry, but if some begin to burst you’ll need to move quickly or you risk losing a lot of seed. Collect the seed pods and using just your hands, carefully open them over a glass bowl. Empty the bowl of fresh mustard seed onto a cookie sheet and place it on top of your refrigerator. Spread the seeds out evenly and stir them periodically. At the end of three weeks, bag, label and store in your bank.

Okra
Okra has beautiful, pale yellow perfect flowers (which means that they have both male and female parts). Even though the plants usually self-pollinate, you should not grow different varieties at the same time unless you screen or cage the plants from which you wish to save seed. Flowers are pollinated immediately after opening and shortly become unreceptive to additional pollen. Gather seeds by letting four or five pods (each from a different plant) turn brown. (When you shake them, they will sound like a child’s rattle.) Pull the pods off the plant right after they start splitting, and let them dry for a few weeks. Then break open the pods, remove the seeds and allow them to dry on a cookie sheet for an additional couple of weeks. Package, label and store the seeds as previously instructed.

Onions
Onions are in the lily family as are garlic, leeks and chives. They are all saved in the same way. The flowers are small, arranged in a spherical globe at the top of a tall seed stalk. The fruits are capsules, each containing shiny black seeds which may be flat, angled or round. You’ll need to harvest the heads as soon as they have gone to seed to prevent the wind from scattering seeds throughout your garden. Cut the stalks a few inches below the seed heads, put them upside down inside a paper bag (marked with the variety and harvest date) and dry for 3-4 months on top of your refrigerator. When completely dry, rub the seed heads gently with your fingers to separate the pods and seeds. Store as usual.

Oregano
In most locations, this herb is an annual. However, in zones 9-10 it might grow year-round. Sweet Marjoram is closely related, and the techniques used to save oregano seeds will work for it as well. Let the complex flower clusters fully dry and then gather them. Spread the dry clusters on a screen, elevated to allow for good air circulation on all sides. After 7-10 days, gently thresh or rub the clusters to separate the nutlets. You may also separate the chaff if you wish, but this really isn’t necessary. You know what comes next: label and date your 4 mil plastic bag of oregano seeds, and store them safely inside your airtight, watertight, vermin-proof Texas Ready US army ammo can!

This report continues with Part 3….

– The Seed Lady

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Heirloom Seed Saving, Part 1

The classic book on growing, harvesting, preparing and saving seed is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. This book belongs in the library of everyone who is serious about food production and self-sufficiency. (Re-read pages 98 to 100 as they are lifesaving.) You can buy it from Texas Ready for $29 postpaid, and it comes free with the Vault and the Treasury Liberty Seed Banks.)

IN GENERAL
Always select your hardiest, disease-free, most productive and best looking plants for seed saving purposes. (If possible, also select plants or fruit that provide the tastiest produce; for instance, if 3-5 particular watermelons just seem to be outstanding, those would be the ones you’d want to save seed from.) Never rely on a single fruit or plant for next year’s seed. Strong genetic diversity is important.

Get some small envelopes (paper or plastic) or glass jars and label them with the breed and the harvest date (e.g. BEETS Detroit Red, July 2012) before you place the fully dried seeds inside. Writing on top of seeds is not advised as even that degree of gentle pressure can damage certain varieties. Indeed, it has been shown that dropping bean seeds three feet onto a concrete slab can reduce production by twenty percent or more. If you are concerned that you have not dehydrated the seed sufficiently, it is acceptable to put a small silica gel packet into the jar or envelope. Do not mix seeds taken from different sources or different harvests. Put the seed packets into a metal container (a bigger ammo can with a good seal would be perfect) which you will store in a cool, dry place such as a basement or root cellar. A refrigerator will also work.

Some seeds require a certain degree of preparation or drying time before they can be stored away in your seed bank. It is important to keep your seeds labeled throughout the process so that you don’t lose track of what you’re working with. This is especially true when you’re processing several different seed types at the same time!

Arugula (found in your Lettuce Packet)
Arugula will grow year round in USDA growing zones 9 and 10. For zones 3 through 8, put out seeds in two week intervals starting a couple of weeks after your spring frost date. At the end of the season, select three or four of your best plants and let them continue to grow. They will start to look “leggy” and unkempt. Allow them to bolt (throw up a central flowering stalk which will eventually produce seeds). When the flowers begin to form a fuzzy head (like a dandelion) cut the stalks off and find an area away from the sun (and its potentially harmful UV radiation) and additionally protected from breezes. Gently pull the seeds off the stalk. As you rub the chafe (fuzz) from each seed, drop the seed into a bowl. Store in a small zip-lock bag, label and place in your seed bank.

Asparagus
Healthy asparagus plants will produce for 40-50 years. If you wish to save seed as a backup, or to share with others, collect the small reddish berries from the female plants before they fall to the ground. Within the berries are six seeds. Rub the berries over a screen to release them. Then wash the seeds in several changes of water. Spread the seeds out on a cookie sheet or small tray out of the sun. Let them dry for about two weeks, bag, label and save.

Basil
After basil sets out its flowers, the seed pods will ripen and begin scattering their seeds. You’ll see the basil seed capsules turn brown. Clip off the top 4-6 inch tips and place the flower stalks upside down inside a paper lunch bag. (The rest of the basil plant will continue to produce for you.) Date the bag and place it on top of your refrigerator. In 30 days, gently rub everything on a fine wire screen and winnow away the chaff.

Beans
By the end of the season, bean pods turn light brown. If you shake them and hear a slight rattle, all is well. Remove those pods from the vine, open them up and remove the dry beans. Ideally, you want bean seeds which are large, smooth and complete. If the seeds look deformed or discolored, discard them. Place the seeds on a screen for a few days so they completely dry out before storing them.

Beets
You will need to leave half a dozen beet plants, spaced a foot and a half apart, after harvesting your beet crop. In USDA zones 3-7, put a three to four inch layer of winter mulch over the row to protect them during the cold months. In zones 8-9, remove the whole beets, cutting the tops down to 1″ above the tubers. Store in a cool, dry place and put back into the ground after the last spring frost date. Allow the beets to bolt and go to flower in the second year. The outer leaves (which will taste better the second year) can be eaten throughout this process. Each beet tuber will produce a small cluster of flowers. When the flowers turn brown and wilt, cut off the flowering top at soil level. Put the flowering stalk upside down inside a paper bag, and place it on top of your refrigerator. In a month, separate the seed clusters from the stem. Break apart each cluster of seeds with your fingers and separate the seeds from the chaff.

Broccoli
Remember, broccoli is a member of the cabbage family and will easily cross with other members of the same family. Therefore, you’ll need to avoid planting cabbage family plants too close together. Refer to Seed to Seed for complete information on this topic. Grow three to five extra plants specifically for seed production. You’ll need shears, a paper lunch bag, a cloth bag, a soft rubber mallet and two bowls. After the broccoli’s dainty yellow flowers have wilted, let the seed head become yellow and dry. Cut the stalk about 4-5 inches beneath the seed head. Turn this upside down and put it into a paper bag. (Don’t forget to label with the variety and date!) Leaving the top of the bag open to allow for some air circulation, put it on top of the refrigerator so the seed head can further dehydrate. After a month, put the seed heads into a cloth bag and pound them slightly with a rubber mallet. Use just enough force to dislodge the seeds from their pods. Pour the seed into a bowl. You’ll have to pick out the large non-seed plant material, then winnow the remaining chafe outdoors by slowly pouring the seed back and forth into two bowls on a breezy day or in front of a very low speed fan. If you’d like, you may store the seed in the lunch bag. Just turn the bag down a few folds, clip it shut and place it in your bank.

Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts are also members of the cabbage family and will readily cross pollinate. Grow only one member of the cabbage family in the garden at a time when you are saving seeds, or cage the plants from which you wish to harvest seed. These are biennial plants. The first year, you can eat the leaves and the sprouts. The next year they will produce flowers and seeds. (On occasion, Brussels sprouts planted in the spring will produce seeds in the fall, but this is rare. In a survival situation, you should not anticipate this.) Choose a few healthy plants from which to gather seed; for a family of four, plant an extra five or six plants for the purpose of seed harvesting. You can harvest lightly from these plants throughout year one, but leave at least half of the sprouts on the stem so you don’t overly weaken the plants. Once the late fall temperatures drop below freezing at night, heavily mulch (4-6”) around the base of the plants to help insulate the roots against the winter cold. Two weeks after the spring frost / planting date the following spring, gradually remove the mulch and resume watering the garden bed. New growth will begin. Leave the flowers on the plant once buds open, which will occur when daytime temperatures exceed sixty degrees. When the flowers fade and after the seeds have turned brown, harvest the dried seed pods. The pods are the elongated portion that forms at the base of each flower. Spread the pods out on a cookie sheet, away from the sun in a dry, well-ventilated area. In two weeks, break open the pods and gather the small round seeds. Add to your bank following proper labeling and bagging procedures.

Cabbage
You’ll need to sow at least three extra cabbage plants for seed production. Cabbage is a biennial and doesn’t produce seeds until the second year. Store the cabbage heads in a cool, dry place until the following spring when you’ll place them in your garden 18 inches apart with the bottom of the head sitting on the soil. Cut a 2 inch X in the center of the top of the head. This will make it easier for the flower stalk to emerge. Once the flowers die and the seed pods form (and begin turning from green to brown), gather them up. You do not want them to disperse their seeds. Put the pods on a cookie sheet out of the sun and allow them to dry. The seed pods will begin shattering, and the seeds will be released. After a couple of weeks, separate the remaining pods and seeds. Put everything into a cloth bag and lightly smack it with your hand to further release any remaining seed. Rub the seeds together to remove the thin seed coat. Label, bag and store properly.

Cantaloupe
Melons to be used for seed gathering should remain on the vine one to two extra weeks to “season” the seeds. When ready, use a knife to slice the overripe cantaloupe in half. Scoop out the seeds, place them in a bowl and rinse under cool water to remove the pulp. Cover the seeds with water and remove any that float. Spread the remaining seeds out on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels or newspaper. Let them dry in a warm, well-ventilated location outside of direct sunlight. Stir them around periodically to prevent them from sticking and allow two to three weeks for the seeds to fully dry. Take a sample seed and attempt to bend it. If it snaps crisply in half, you’re good to go. If it merely bends, let the seeds dry for another week.

Carrots
Make sure that the wild flower Queen Anne’s Lace is not in the area surrounding your garden, as these are related and will inter-breed. You may also cage the carrots you’ll be gathering seeds from. The plants produce carrots the first year, and flowers (with seeds) the second. Therefore, you’ll leave the carrot underground to over winter. Don’t disturb the clustered flower stalks (called umbels) when they come up the following spring. Let them turn brown and dry out. Use a pair of pruning shears to clip the stalks. The upper umbels produce the better seed so avoid all but the very tops. Gather from multiple plants to avoid “inbreeding depression” which results in poor future harvests. Put the umbels upside down in a paper bag. Once you are inside at a work station, remove the seed heads and rub them between yours hands. Separate as much excess plant debris as possible, but don’t worry about the “bearded” portion of the carrot seed. It may be left intact and won’t affect your future production. Seal everything in a glass jar or envelope and store in your Texas Ready Liberty Seed Bank.

Cauliflower
This is another member of the cabbage family and needs to be isolated. (Read Seed to Seed for more information.) Cauliflower seeds should be planted in groups of ten or more for the purposes of genetic diversity. Cauliflower heads do not re-sprout after harvest, so leave two florets on the plant to flower the following spring. Better yet, plant three or four extra plants strictly for seed gathering. Because you are not interested in food production, you can tightly plant these as even small heads will still produce plenty of seeds. Make sure the pods are fully dry, as green pods rarely produce viable seeds even if allowed to dry after the plant is pulled. Gather the dried brown pods and put them in a cloth bag. Lightly smash them with a soft rubber mallet and winnow off the chaff.

Celery
This is yet another biennial. When the temperatures drop below forty degrees F in the second fall after planting, a three foot flower stalk is usually produced. Occasionally, celery will send up flowers the first winter. Leave three celery plants in the garden after harvest so they can produce seed. The flower stalk has light green, feathery flowers. Once the petals wither and the stalk begins to dry, clip the stalk and put it upside down in a paper lunch bag. When indoors at your work station, spread the stalks out on a cookie sheet. Let dry for a couple of weeks so the seeds can mature. Get a shallow bowl and hold the flower stalk over it. The seed heads are located directly beneath the flowering petals. Break open each seed head with your fingers. The miniscule seeds will fall into the bowl. You know the drill by now—label, place in a small zip-loc bag and store in your seed bank.

This report continues with Part 2….

– The Seed Lady

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