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Straw Bale Gardening: First in a Series of Three Posts

By Cyndy Crist

Resource on Straw Bale Gardens

Resource on Straw Bale Gardens

I don’t know if this is true where you live, but here in the Twin Cities, straw bale gardening is taking off big time. Nurseries are finding it difficult to meet customer demand and articles are popping up in various media about something that for many of us is a new way to grow. As an urban grower with very limited growing space, I’m intrigued by this approach and have decided to give it a try this year. Here’s the first of what I expect will be several posts about my first attempt at straw bale gardening.

Getting Started with Straw Bale Gardening

Despite my enthusiasm, I decided to be wise and try just one bale this year. But I want to do it right, so I also decided to buy the book, Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, the person who seems to have first developed this approach. A farm boy who missed gardening after moving to the Twin Cities to attend college and start a career, he experimented with straw bales after buying a house which proved to offer poor growing conditions. He has now collected what he learned from years of experience into a guide that can be used by those with enough space for a single bale as well as those wishing to create a whole straw bale garden. The book is clear and concise, and I think it was a wise investment.

Straw Bale Pre-Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Straw Bale Pre-Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Once I had read it, my next step was to determine where to put my bale. Although I’ve lived and gardened at this house for many years, I realized that I needed to pay a little more attention to the amount of sunlight received in the several spots I had in mind before choosing one. Karsten cautions that it is important not to move the bale once its conditioning has begun (more on that in a minute), so for several days, I checked periodically to be sure I had a good sense of how much sunlight each spot would get across the arc of a day, including some guesses about how the light would change as trees leaf out and the sun’s path shifts in the sky.

Because preparing the bale for growing requires deep and regular watering, and since one never knows whether rainfall will be sufficient to give plants the moisture they need throughout the growing season, it was also essential to consider how easy it would be to get water to the bale before settling it in place. As a result, I dragged the hose out of the garage sooner than I ordinarily would in the spring, hooked it up, and pulled it off the reel to be sure it would reach even the most “remote” spot.

Conditioning the Straw Bale

straw bale conditioning

Straw Bale Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Once I had confirmed a location for my bale and moved it into place, I was ready to start the conditioning process. This consists of a specific pattern of fertilizing and watering the bale in order to prepare it to host plants. The book clearly describes the process and summarizes it in a chart, so it could hardly be easier to follow – in fact, the only little challenge is keeping track from day to day of where one is in the process (I wrote my start date by the day one description in the book). Since the fertilizing starts on day one and because the amounts of fertilizer to be used and total conditioning time vary by fertilizer type, it is essential to decide up-front whether to use a “conventional” or organic product. I plan to grow edibles in my straw bale, so I decided to purchase a bale from an organic grower and to use organic fertilizer.

I am now one week into the conditioning process that, for organic growing, requires 15 days. This is essentially a process of sprinkling on fertilizer and watering one day, only watering the next, and continuing to alternate these steps for a week before a few days of daily fertilizing and watering, and finally planting. Ideally, I might have started the conditioning a couple of days sooner than I did in order to be ready to plant over Memorial Day week-end (the timing often recommended in my neck of the woods as being safely past the last frost), but I’m not really concerned. One of the advantages of straw bale gardening is that the bale warms up more quickly than the soil in a garden bed, a particular advantage for plants like tomatoes and basil that sulk if planted in cool soil. As a result, when I am ready to plant, my vegetables should get off to a good start.

Other Steps and Strategies for Straw Bale Gardening

The book offers other ideas for success in preparing for straw bale gardening, such as setting up soaker hoses if that will be essential to growing success; providing supports as needed to keep multiple bales firmly in place and/or to secure plastic sheeting or other covers or protections; and garden designs and plant selections. It also provides information about options for fertilizers and strategies for planting seeds directly in the straw bales. In short, it’s a good resource that I’ve already consulted multiple times, but there’s plenty of good information on the web about growing in straw bales for those who don’t want to add to their gardening library.

I think I know what I’m going to plant in my straw bale, but I still have a little time to finalize my plan. I’ll let you know what I end up planting and how things are going throughout the growing season. For now, I’m excited to be well on my way to a new way of growing!

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5 Tips to help with Tomato & Pepper Seed Germination

Newly Germinated Seeds

Newly Germinated Seeds

Although there are many factors to consider in growing healthy tomato plants from seed, getting the seeds to germinate in the first place can sometimes be tricky.  After 15 years of growing peppers and tomatoes for market, I’d like to share a few tips that have helped influence germination success at my farm.

1) Seed Viability Relative to Germination:

  • Shelf life:  Tomato seeds tend to last much longer in storage than most other seed (i.e., onions need to be purchased fresh every year).  Just make sure they were stored properly (cool & dry) and you should have around a 4-5 year shelf life for tomato seeds.  Pepper seeds are considered by most growers to have a 2-3 year shelf life.  Fedco seed company puts out an informative chart on saving seeds, which includes estimates of shelf life for a range of vegetable seeds.  Click here for Fedco chart.
  • Storage:  Humidity shortens the life of saved seeds more than any other aspect.  Make sure seeds have wintered over in a cool and dry environment (such as in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator or freezer).  Dry storage at less than 65 degrees F will give you good germination results.
  • Vigor:  A number of online gardening sites explain how to test a few of your seeds for germination before planting.  Just be aware that even if your older seeds germinate, if they are too old or shriveled they may have a scant supply of food stored in their endosperm and the plants may end up weak and/or stunted.

2)  Seed sowing tips:

  • Potting soil can be fluffy with air and seeds need to make good contact with the soil in order to germinate.  Moisten your potting soil before placing it in the flat or container, drop the flat on the ground from a few inches above the floor to settle the soil into the container cells, and then make sure your seed makes direct contact with the soil.  I use a #2 pencil to lightly push the seed into the cell and then use the pencil to push a bit of soil over the seed with enough pressure to make sure it securely covered
  • Very fine seeds do not need to be covered, just press them lightly into the soil.  A few seeds need light for germination (check your seed packages for which ones).
  • General rule of thumb is to cover seed to a depth of three times their size.

3)   Water & Germination:

  • Water must be available to the seeds in order for them to germinate, but some air must also reach the seed for it to absorb the oxygen it needs.  I mix my potting soil with very hot water until it is damp but not soaking wet.  A good test is to squeeze a fistful of your moistened soil, checking to see if only a few drops of water squeeze out rather than a stream.
  • Check your flats daily to make sure they have not completely dried out.  If they become too dry, moisten them gently with a spray bottle.  Peppers, in particular, do not like to germinate in wet soil.

4) Timing & Temperature:

  • The length of time it takes for your seeds to germinate is heavily related to soil temperature.  Tomato seeds should germinate within 5-6 days if you can keep the soil temperature around 80º F.  Peppers take a little longer with a little higher temperature (7-8 days at 85º F). Remember this is soil temperature, not ambient temperature.
  • Speeding things along:  I usually get germination earlier than the standard charts predict by placing bottom heat under my flats using 100-watt light bulbs (see this post for my seed-starting setup).  A nice infographic on the relationship between temperature and timing of germination can be found here from Easy Homesteading.

5) Special Germination Tricks for Difficult Seeds

  • Pre-soaking seeds:  Soaking seeds in warm water overnight before planting helps to soften the seed coat and speed up germination.   Many seeds, even if it is not stated in their steps of seed germination, will benefit from pre-soaking.  I don’t usually pre-soak tomato and pepper seeds, but I always pre-soak parsley, sweet peas and nasturtium seeds
  • Scarifying seeds:  This refers to the process of literally damaging the seed coat, usually by scratching the seed with sandpaper and then soaking in water.  Some seeds (i.e., woody plants in the legume family) are so hard and well protected by their seed coat that the seedling is not able to break through it on its own.  Tomato and pepper seeds do not need scarifying, but some of the larger seeds with hard seed coats would benefit from this.
Seed-Starting Reference Book

Seed-Starting Reference Book

 

I have been starting tomato and pepper seeds for market now for 15 years.  The book that I found to be most useful throughout my adventure is The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, by Nancy Bubel.  This book is research-oriented, comprehensive, and provides the scientific rationale behind each method she promotes.  For more thorough information on the tips offered in this post, I would highly recommend Nancy Bubel’s book.

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Gifts for the Gardener: Gardening Books to Inform and Delight

By Cyndy Crist
Books about gardens and gardening make wonderful gifts for the holidays (or, frankly, any time of the year), in part because garden-related activities in the winter are primarily vicaious for many gardeners.  During this planting hiatus, gardening books offer opportunities to learn and plan, to dream and be inspired, and to travel around the world without leaving a comfy armchair or while curled up in bed.
Here are some of my favorites, any of which I can recommend without reservation as gifts for friends or family – or for yourself (since I have no doubt you deserve it).

Gardening Books For the Specialist

Amy Goldman books

Amy Goldman books (by Cyndy Crist)

Gardeners who have passions for specific plants, herbs, fruits, or vegetables have many wonderful choices of books to deepen their knowledge.  My gardening library contains books focused solely on lilacs, roses, peonies, auriculas, and other favorites.
To my mind, one of the best authors of books focused on a single type of fruit or vegetable is Amy Goldman.  Her tomes are filled with some of the most beautiful photography I’ve ever seen, along with useful and reliable information for growing and preparing the fruit or vegetable in focus, along with some fascinating background and historical insights. The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit is a comprehensive treatise on the vast array of varieties within this member of the nightshade family. I purchased Melons for the Passionate Grower even though my small, urban garden lacks the space for these ramblers; what I’ve learned has helped me make good choices at local markets. Amazon.com describes The Compleat Squash as “part gardening book, part ‘encounters with remarkable vegetables,’” and I hope to add it to my collection in the new year.
Another wonderful author who has focused books on a single species or genera of plants is Anna Pavord.  Her book Bulb is full of eye candy for the gardener who loves tulips, narcissus, galanthus (snowdrops), fritillaria, or any of the dozens of other bulbs that are the focus of this gorgeous and informative book.  I first became aware of her with the publication of The Tulip, which offers a fascinating history of the bulb that sparked a true mania that reached its peak in 17th century Europe and thus something of a cautionary tale. A few years back, I learned that Pavord is as entertaining as a speaker as she is as a writer when I heard her talk about and read from her 2005 book, The Naming of Names, a comprehensive and engaging botanical history that spans the globe. I have also put to use in my little potager much of what I’ve learned from The New Kitchen Garden. Pavord has a rare ability to present deeply researched information in a thoroughly engaging way.
Beverley Nichols books

Beverley Nichols books (by Cyndy Crist)

Gardening Books For the Anglophile

 Some of my favorite gardening authors are British and apparently I’m not alone, as I’ve recently noticed that a number of older books that had been out-of-print are now available in newly released editions.  One of the most entertaining authors I’ve found is Beverley Nichols. Mr. Nichols gardened for many years at his home, Merry Hall, which is described on one dust cover as a “wonderful Georgian house in Meadowstream,” located in Surrey.  Nichols was an extremely prolific author, with more than 30 books to his name.  Not all focus on gardening; those that do include Merry Hall and its sequels, Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn, as well as the earlier Down the Garden Path and Green Grows the City and the later Garden Open Today. Their observations about garden design, garden ornamentation, and the foibles and pleasures of plants in the garden (as well as of the people who tend and visit them) are alternately informative and witty, useful and entertaining.  Many of the garden-focused volumes are beautifully illustrated by William McLaren, which adds to their pleasure.   These are books worth seeking out for those who enjoy making armchair visits to the stately homes and lush gardens of England.
Vita Sackville-West books

Vita Sackville-West books (by Cyndy Crist)

 

I also collect gardening books by the incomparable Vita Sackville-West, to my mind one of the most interesting members of the Bloomsbury Group, which also included Virginia Wolf, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and others.  Some of her books focus on her famous garden at Sissinghurst, while others are compilations of gardening columns written for The Observer. Some volumes are back in print in new editions while others can only be found used.  An example of the former is In Your Garden which is (or was) also available on that fading audio format, the cassette tape, read by none other than Janet McTeer. Although, like Nichols, Sackville-West’s published works also include poetry (such as the superb The Garden) and fiction, I am particularly fond of the gardening books, which remind me that while fashions may come and go, good advice about gardening and garden design is timeless.

Gardening Books For the Practical Gardener

While I don’t want to suggest an absence of practical information in the volumes previously described, some gardening books have a clearer focus on how to select, plant, tend, and combine plants.  In this category, I have a favorite author and a favorite series to recommend, though there are many others whose books I own and frequently consult.  But these two, for a number of reasons, are stand-outs in my library.
Larry Hodgson books

Larry Hodgson books (by Cyndy Crist)

The author is Larry Hodgson, a Canadian gardener whose books Making the Most of Shade: How to Plan, Plant, and Grow a Fabulous Garden that Lightens up the Shadows and Perennials for Every Purpose are pulled from my shelves many times during each growing season.  Published by Rodale Press, both are organized by plant with sections for each that offer growing tips, information about problems and solutions, and suggestions for “top performers” and other recommended varieties for each plant featured. Hodgson also provides a “plant profile” in list format for each plant, along with either “garden notes” or “smart substitutes.”   This combination of information has proven very useful in selecting plants for garden designs as well as their subsequent care.  Perennials for Every Purpose was also my mother’s favorite gardening book at a time when she tended more than a few plants on her balcony, offering some proof of its utility for multiple growing zones, garden styles, and generations of gardeners.

Brooklyn Botanical Garden books

Brooklyn Botanical Garden books (by Cyndy Crist)

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published a wonderful series of excellent books on a wide array of topics.  I have nearly a dozen of these small, inexpensive, and extremely useful volumes on topics that range from Natural Insect Control: The Ecological Gardener’s Guide to Foiling Pests (21st Century Gardening Series) and Designing Borders for Sun and Shade to Easy-Care Roses and Salad Gardens. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been described as the publisher of America’s first gardening handbooks half a century ago, and fortunately they have continued this important mission into the current century.  Their books are well illustrated and full of concise, practical information. Whenever I see a new (or new to me) volume, I add it to my collection because I have found them all to be excellent resources for the home gardener in any zone.

A Great Source of Gardening Books

Although many of the books I’ve referenced here are available from the omnipresent Amazon and other booksellers, I first found several of them at Terrace Horticultural Books, a gem of a store here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Kent Peterson, the owner, has amassed an unbelievable collection of horticultural books, mostly used, that fill the rooms of the first floor of a charming brick home.  I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I walked in and saw the front room filled with library-style bookcases full to overflowing; the second, a cozy room graced with inviting armchairs and floor-to-ceiling shelves that include, among other things, one full section of English gardening books; and beyond that, a kitchen bulging with – what else – books about vegetables, fruits, and herbs. And that’s only part of the collection!
For those of you who reside far away from Saint Paul, don’t despair – Kent sells his books on line as well.  Although his direct site doesn’t appear to be in operation at this time, you can find his collection on-line through AbeBooks, or you can contact him at 503 Saint Clair Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55102 or by calling 651.222.5536.  Or better yet, make a trip to our beautiful city and visit in person, as Martha Stewart did when she was in the Twin Cities a few years ago.  I’ll bet you’ll be as impressed as she was.

Closing Notes

Although I’ve always enjoyed opening a spanking new volume with a crisp, clean cover, used books have a magic all their own.  Not only do they allow the reader to enjoy books now out of print and to experience them in their original design with a style particular to their time of publication, but one never knows what might be found between their pages.  In my copy of Vita Sackville-West’s A Joy of Gardening, I found an article about her and her Sissinghurst garden that had been published in the July 1977 issue of Horticulture magazine.  My copy of Let’s Make a Flower Garden by Hanna Rion, originally published in 1912, contains as a bookmark a tag from Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, a gorgeous place on Cape Cod.  I’ve also found pressed flowers or ferns in some books and, in others, inscriptions dated from years before my birth and written in the kind of beautiful “hand” now long lost.  These treasures offer proof of the timelessness of books, a little peek into someone else’s existence, and a sense of shared passion.  To me, that’s its own kind of gift.
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Late Fall Garden Pruning: Finishing Preparations for Winter

Good Pruning Tools

Good Pruning Tools (by Cyndy Crist)

By Cyndy Crist

To prune or not to prune – this is an important question to ask in late fall as we prepare our gardens for winter.  And it’s the kind of question I’ve been pondering as a strange fall has left me struggling to decide when to complete the final tasks in my garden.  Yes, the trees are nearly bare, Halloween is over, and our county compost sites are crawling with folks dumping leaves and sagging jack-o-lanterns.  But even though we’re nearly a week into November as I write this post, I still have a few annuals growing in pots and some perennials that I have yet to cut back because they still look fresh and green.

I have cut back perennials that will be a mushy mess if left until spring, and I have mounds of leaves and some marsh hay waiting to be settled onto garden beds to protect them from the damage of freezing and thawing cycles.  As a result, the woody structures in my garden are now more visible, challenging me to consider what, if anything, to do to them.  To refresh my memory, I re-visited a few reliable sources (primarily Extension Services here in Minnesota and across the country) to review guidance about late fall pruning.  Here are a few tips from that research.

Cutting Back Perennials

I don’t think of cutting back perennials as pruning, but whatever you call it, now is a good time to proceed with this task if you haven’t already done so.  I leave perennials that have sturdy stems and full seed heads to provide some winter interest, help hold snow in place, and feed birds whose food sources are rapidly diminishing.  By contrast, I cut back plants that are flattened by snow and get messy when they thaw (a good example is day lilies).

In contrast to woody plants, most of those we call perennials are herbaceous, putting out all new growth each spring.  Exceptions include some vines (for example, some varieties of clematis bloom on old vines) and plants like Russian sage, which is classified as a subshrub and puts out new growth on old branches. To know which is which, keep a list of the botanical names of your plants or save the tags that were in the pots and look them up if you’re uncertain about what to do.

Pruning Woody Plants

Pruning Illustration

Pruning Illustration (by Cyndy Crist)

If you’re considering pruning anything woody, proceed with great caution.  Some sources I consulted were blunt in advising no late fall pruning, while others offered more nuanced guidance.  Specific weather conditions, plant types, and plant health or conditions are elements to consider.

Specifically:  Don’t prune anything that blooms on old wood.  If you look at your lilacs or azaleas, for example, you’ll see that they have already set buds for next year’s flowers.  If you prune those branches now, you’ll get nothing but leaves next year.  However, flowering shrubs that bloom on new wood (like shrub roses and some hydrangeas) will still flower next year if pruned now.
Don’t prune anything that is still actively growing.  If you do, you risk stimulating new growth that will be more susceptible to damage from winter freezing.  Complete leaf drop is generally a measure of dormancy, but if in doubt, wait until mid-winter to prune trees and shrubs (February is often suggested as a good time to prune).

Like any good rule, there are exceptions to the guidance above.  If a shrub or tree has any damaged or broken branches, it can be a good idea to remove them before snow or ice can cause more damage. Damage can result, for example, if the weight of wet heavy snow tears a branch off, pulling down the bark and exposing the tender inner layers important to the health and growth of trees and shrubs.

Regardless of what or when you prune, be sure to use tools that are clean, sharp, and appropriate for the task at hand.  Keeping your pruners clean will help eliminate cross-contamination from diseased to healthy plants.  Sharp blades help ensure clean cuts and reduce the likelihood of torn bark.  And use of a proper tool will help ensure that you’ll get a good result that might not be possible if, for example, you try to use too small a tool for the task (which can also damage the tool).

Pruning Resources

Pruning Resources (by Cyndy Crist)

When you do prune, do a little research first so that you know how much to prune and where to make the cuts.  For example, the correct cut will generally be made at a 45 degree angle (a steeper angle leaves more exposed surface that can, for example, allow easier entry of disease).   Patterns of branch growth on a shrub or tree can help you determine where to prune in order to get the shape or size you desire or to “open up” a tree or shrub whose branches have become too dense. Lots of good photos and drawings are available on extension websites (my go-to site is University of Minnesota’s Extension Service website), other gardening websites, in free government brochures, and in books at the library.

A Few Last Words on Pruning in Late Fall

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, none of this is as complicated as it may sound.  There are a wealth of good resources available on the internet and at public libraries showing you where, when, and how to prune and what tools to use.  They’ll take you through it step by step, sometimes with great videos that “show and tell.”

If, after a bit of research, it seems wise to proceed, do so carefully and remember that there are worse things you can do than to prune something earlier than you should.  If you prune a lilac now, for example, you may miss those beautifully scented blooms next year, but you may end up with a nicely shaped shrub that will reward you handsomely another year out.

On the other hand, you don’t want to jeopardize a mature tree or special shrub that won’t be easily replaced.  So if you are in doubt, just wait. While we sometimes learn best from our mistakes, some outcomes are just too costly to justify the risk.  Here’s where the cliche is true: better safe than sorry.

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Saving Seeds: A Fun and Frugal Way to Garden

By Cyndy Crist

Saving out tomato seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

Saving out tomato seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

Many of us take the easy way out and purchase plants and seeds from markets and garden centers, but you can save money and have a little fun at the same time if you save seeds from your own garden (or, with permission, from the garden of a friend, neighbor, or family member).  If you keep a few tips in mind, it’s easy to do.

Before You Start

First, there are some rules of etiquette to consider.  While it doesn’t hurt a plant to pluck seeds or a seed head from it, courtesy dictates that if they aren’t in your garden, you should ask first.  Since deadheading plants generally is beneficial to plant growth, it’s unlikely that a request will be turned down (and it may even be welcomed). But unless you ask, you won’t know if the owner likes to let plants self-seed or to leave the seeds on to feed birds through the winter.  Similarly, seeds found on public land aren’t automatically fair game. Being public doesn’t mean that anyone is welcome to take whatever he or she desires, but in some settings, taking a few seeds is considered acceptable. Just ask first.

Check seed packets for patents

Check seed packets for patents

Second, some plants are patented, making it a crime to propagate them by seeds or cuttings.  If you’re saving seeds from something you’ve purchased, checking the plant tag or seed packet should tell you whether propagation is legal. While it may be easy to dismiss this issue, given the likelihood that the holder of the patent will never know if you violate legal restrictions, these protections are given for a reason and fairness matters.

Third, be aware that not all plants grow “true” from seed.  Many plants cross-pollinate or set seeds more typical of just one of the parent plants.  As a result, saving seeds from a particularly beautiful columbine, for example, may not produce a plant next year with the same flowers you prized this year.  In general, open-pollinated plants are better for seed saving than hybrids (think heirloom vs Big Boy or Early Girl tomatoes), which will be unpredictable in their characteristics when grown from saved seeds. In any case, results, as they say, may vary.

Overall, some plants grow seeds that are more easily saved than others and some plants are easier to start from seed than others.  A little homework will help you increase, though not ensure, the likelihood that you’ll be happy with the results of your efforts.  One good source to consult is the Seed Germination Database found at www.backyardgardener.com.

 

Tips for Successful Seed Saving

Hollyhock Seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

Hollyhock Seeds (by Cyndy Crist)

There’s no real mystery to how to save seeds, but there are a few things to keep in mind.  One is that your seeds must be dry in order to remain viable.  Some plants make this really easy.  Marigolds, for example, form seed heads from which you can readily pluck and save individual seeds, and it’s easy to see the seed heads on sunflowers and hollyhocks.  Columbines also form a clearly visible seed head which you can remove and from which you can then shake the small, round seeds.

Obviously, you will have to let some plants “go to seed” in order to have anything to save.  In other words, you’ll need to resist the urge to eat all the tomatoes or deadhead all the flowers before they have a chance to set seed.  If you have a large bed, simply leave a few flowers on until seeds have been set, but do be certain you remove them before the plants drop their seeds or temperatures dip below freezing.

In deciding which seeds to save, choose plants that have performed best in your garden.  For example, pick the tomato that produced fruit with the best flavor, the bean that produced most prolifically, or the zinnia that showed the most disease resistance.

If you want to save seeds from plants that cross-pollinate but increase your chances of getting the results you desire, Emily Dydo, writing on-line for Horticulture magazine, offers three suggestions:

  1. physically separate plants known to cross pollinate (for urban gardeners, this may require more space than you have);
  2. stagger planting times so that different varieties of the same plant aren’t blooming at the same time; and/or
  3. create barriers to pollination (e.g., bag flowers or use row covers) and don’t forget that both wind and insects carry pollen.

One of the most important steps is to properly dry seeds before storing them.  As noted earlier, the seeds of many flowers dry thoroughly on the plant and are easy to remove.  Among edibles, the seeds of some plants, like peas and beans, dry right in the pod and are easy to save, and it takes little effort to remove and dry seeds from peppers.

Tomatoes require a little more work.  One recommended approach to saving tomato seeds is to scoop them into a jar with the gel that surrounds them, add water, and swirl the mixture daily.  After about 5 days, the seeds will have settled to the bottom so that you can pour off the liquid, rinse the seeds, and spread them on paper towels to dry.

Finally, don’t forget that seeds need to be stored in a cool, dry environment to maintain viability.  The best container is a glass jar that can be sealed tightly.  Multiple seed packets can be put in the same jar, and a desiccant (silica gel or a small amount of powdered milk wrapped in cheesecloth or a tissue) can be added to remove any moisture that may be remaining. The optimum temperature for seed storing is between 32 and 41 degrees, which makes the refrigerator an ideal choice.

Some Good Choices

Among fruits and vegetables, and as noted earlier, the seeds of tomatoes, peas, beans, and peppers are easily saved.  Because cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, and corn are cross-pollinators, they are riskier to grow from saved seeds.  Biennial crops like carrots and beets are challenging, since they require two seasons to set seeds.

Many annual flowers also make seed saving easy.  Again, sunflowers, hollyhocks, and marigolds are especially easy because the seeds are so visible and easily handled.  Others that work well are coreopsis, bachelor’s buttons, verbena, zinnias, and cleome, many of which will readily self-seed in your garden if left to their own devices.

As for perennials, it will take several years for a seed-started plant to reach a mature enough stage to flower.  This is why many people prefer to grow perennials from divisions or cuttings.  However, nearly any plant can be grown from seed, so with a bit of patience, you can give just about anything a try, and success can be especially gratifying.

A Final Piece of Advice

Although many seeds are easily distinguished from each other, it can be hard to remember what specific plant produced the seeds you’ve saved without some labeling.  At the very least, write the name of the tomato or pepper variety on a packet of folded paper.  Better yet, write a few notes about time to maturity, spacing needs, height, etc.  Come spring, unless your memory is a whole lot better than mine, you’ll be glad you did!

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