SAVING SEEDS FROM YOUR GARDEN

Standard

fullsizerender-3

 

An excellent way to preserve a favorite vegetable variety is to harvest and save the seed from your own garden plants.  This can be done with all open-pollinated (non-hybrid) vegetables.  Hybrids are pollinated by humans for a specific resulting plant.  (Seeds saved from hybrids will not produce the same fruit or vegetable you grew.)  Many rare, open-pollinated heirloom vegetables and flowers have been saved and passed down for generations.  Some Native American kinds of squash, corn, beans and sunflowers have been passed down by various tribes for over a thousand years!  Several heirloom kinds of lettuce, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables still exist from Colonial and Victorian times.

Locally adapted varieties will be the most successful and productive.  You will need to save about 100 to 150 seeds of each cultivar you want to save.  Some easy vegetables to begin with are tomatoes, beans, peas, and lettuce, which are all self-pollinating and easier to keep true to type; they can also be cross-pollinated.  Other vegetables need to be cross-pollinated to produce seed and will cross with other nearby plants of the same genus or species.  Each variety needs to be isolated so it will remain true to type.

Isolation may be accomplished by distance; staggering maturity dates; by caging, or bagging.  For most vegetables 200 feet of distance is enough to retain genetic purity, but some, such as corn, need a mile or more.  Staggering maturity might be accomplished by planting two strains of corn, one maturing at 65 days and another at 80-85 days.  Pollination of the early variety will be finished by the time the later one is ready to pollinate.  Cages can be built and covered with row cover fabric to isolate radishes, beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips and onions.  A bait of honey spread upon a plate will attract bees into an uncovered cage.  When about 15 bees are present, cover the cage for an hour or two; release the bees before sunset. There are three species of squashes and pumpkins commonly grown so you must research this if you want to keep your strain pure.  Corn, squash and pumpkins can be hand-pollinated if bagged.

In the garden, give plants grown for seed more space to accommodate tall seed stalks.  Select the most healthy, robust plants to save seed from.  The fruit should be riper than that used for eating.  Usually fruit will turn yellow, soften and sometimes even begin to rot before seeds are mature.  Pea seed turns green or yellow; beets, beans and watermelon seeds darken; peppers and squash seeds are usually white, and corn seed (especially sweet corn) will dent and shrivel.

To process seed for storage, remove pulp, juice or flesh and dry the seeds on a fine screen because seeds will stick to paper or cloth.  A float test will show viable seeds.  Those that float will not grow.  Dry the seeds to about 10% moisture before storing away in glass jars with metal lids.  Glass jars are the best way to keep out humidity, which might cause your seeds to sprout and die in storage.  A cool, dry place is best for storage, or you may place the jars in the refrigerator.  Label your seeds carefully to keep good records.

SOIL PH FOR GROWING VEGETABLES

Standard

FullSizeRender

 

Soil pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity.  This measurement can range from a very low pH of 1.0 to an extremely high pH of 14.0.  7.0 is considered neutral and several vegetables will thrive in soil with a neutral pH.  Some vegetables do prefer a more acidic soil while others prefer a more alkaline soil.  Fortunately most will grow and produce well in a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5.   Areas with high rainfall, such as coastal Washington, tend to have acidic soils high in organic matter, while areas with lower rainfall, such as most of the mountain valleys in Montana, tend to have alkaline soils low in organic matter.  Here in the valleys of the Flathead region, where most of us garden, soils tend to be somewhat to highly alkaline.

Before you amend your existing soil to plant vegetables it is a good idea to test the pH.  An easy way is to purchase a test kit.  Most of them are easy to use and give fairly accurate readings.  Your county extension agent can do a soil test also.  Once you have determined your soil pH and which crops you intend to grow, you can amend your garden soil.  Adding lime will increase pH and make acidic soils more alkaline; adding sulfur will lower pH and make soils more acidic.  Organic matter usually helps reduce alkalinity.  Aged manure, pine needles, compost and coir dust are a few amendments that will help do this while they improve soil structure and encourage beneficial soil micro-organisms.  If your garden is divided into separate beds or raised beds, it is easier to adjust the soil in each bed for what you plan to grow.   I rotate my vegetable crops in a four-year rotation plan, so I try to keep a basic soil pH around 6.0 to 6.5.  This way I can grow almost every vegetable, but I slightly adjust pH each year before growing a particular plant.  For example, I add sulfur before growing potatoes.  Conversely, I add a small amount of lime before planting any of the Brassica family (Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc.).   Having soil pH correct for each crop will reduce pest and disease problems as well as increase yields.

Here is a listing of pH tolerance ranges for specific vegetables.  (The optimum pH for each is usually the median between the two extremes.)  I have listed vegetables preferring more acidic soils first and those preferring more alkaline soils last:

Potatoes, 4.5-6.0; sweet potatoes, 5.6-6.5; horseradish and rhubarb, 5.5-6.8; butternut squash, carrots, corn, eggplant, lettuce, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins and watermelon, 5.5-7.0; cucumbers, garlic, winter squash, and tomatoes, 5.5-7.5;  celery, 5.9-6.9; soybeans and strawberries, 6.0-6.8; onions, radishes, shallots and spinach, 6.0-7.0; beets, any of the Brassica family, peas, summer squash, Swiss chard, and zucchini, 6.0-7.5; okra, 6.0-8.0.

 

Starting Seeds Indoors

Standard

photo (127) photo (128)

Many of us get a good feeling from planting seeds and watching them grow when outside it is still dark and cold.  But inside, we are planning for spring planting.  We can start the varieties we want—perhaps a favorite is not available locally as a transplant or as seed; we can raise it ourselves from seed!

Most everyone I know has good luck starting seeds in a sterilized seedling mix.  It may be difficult to find an organic seedling mix; and it must be sterile or seedlings might dampen off from fungi present in the air and abundant in unpasteurized soil mixes.  A mix I make is soil free: 6 parts sterile (pasteurized)peat moss + 3 parts fine perlite + 1 part washed coarse sand.  If you are unsure if your mixture is sterile or not the mix may be heated in an oven at 160 degrees for one hour.  Do not allow the mix to heat above 180 degrees.  A mixture including compost would need to be sterilized by heating to use for seedlings.

Several types of containers might be used to start your seedlings.  In the first picture above, I used a milk carton cut laterally, providing two useful containers.  Shown are pepper seedlings.  Peat pots work well for plants that are difficult to transplant, because they minimize transplant shock and biodegrade into the soil.  Be sure to keep them quite moist once planted, because if the peat pots become too dry, roots will not penetrate the container.  Some plants that benefit from being raised in peat pots and are difficult to transplant are: portulaca, nasturtiums, sunflowers, poppies, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins.  Peat pellets also work, but they sometimes are so hard that roots have difficulty growing in them.

Timing is another important factor in raising seedlings.  Your transplants should be big enough to mature and produce in your season, but not too big, or they will not take off well and will take up a lot of room in the house.  Here is a basic seed planting guide, categorized month-by-month, of which seeds to plant at what time for success in northern climates of 100 to 170 days.  (Adjust timings to your local climate):

In January plant impatiens, begonias, geraniums and salvias.  Late January or early February is a good time to start eggplant, peppers, onions, petunias and pansies.  March is probably the best month to start cole crops (brassica family).  April is a good time to start tomatoes and balsam; late April or early May for pumpkins, squash, melons, cucumbers, and nasturtiums.

Florescent grow lights with an adjustable chain are a great help in starting nice seedlings; the lights can be lowered with the chain to keep the newly emerged seedlings in bright light.  This will prevent your plants from getting “leggy”.   Temperatures vary for germination: cole crops about 65 degrees, onions about 70, tomatoes about 75 and eggplant, peppers, squash, melons, cucumbers and nasturtiums about 80 degrees.

Make sure your seedling mix is not too wet.  Some seeds like to germinate on the dry side, such as tomatoes and peppers.  I cover my newly-planted seeds with plastic wrap, but check them twice daily for moisture and rotate them if necessary.  Once the seeds are just up, I loosen the wrap (a little more each day) to harden the babies off to the air.  Grow your plants on in cooler conditions than you germinated them and they will grow stockier.  A cold frame is just about the best place you can put them if it is not too cold outside.  In a south-facing cold frame the soil will remain warm at night, and daytime venting will give the plants fresh air.  Keep shade cloth handy if it tends to get too hot during the day in your area.  This is a common occurrence in dry, sunny climates with warm days and frosty nights.  The second picture above shows newly transplanted seedlings in a cold frame vented for the day.  A cold frame will harden-off your plants before planting out.  Don’t forget to place open-ended containers around plants as you place them in the garden to deter cutworms.  Good luck!

Cloches and Cold Frames

Standard

photo (121)

We have to face the fact that here in much of the Northwest we have a short frost-free growing season.  Those living at higher elevations have an even shorter growing period.  Most gardeners in the area look for ways to extend the vegetable growing season: everyone wants to have ripe eggplants, tomatoes, squash, melons, etc. before the season ends and frosts return.  A great help for gardeners is to purchase or construct covers, or cloches, to protect our plants early and late.  In the nineteenth century, glass bell-shaped cloches were used, as well as cold frames glazed with glass.

Today, one popular and inexpensive alternative cover is a polyethelyne tunnel, a series of metal hoops over which plastic is stretched.  The spring vegetable season can be started up to four weeks earlier with tunnels.  The same is true of fall, when it is possible to have crops ready up to six weeks later, because the soil will be warmer in fall and hold its heat longer if cloched.  Tunnels are quite useful for heat-loving crops in our frequently cool summers; cantaloupe, watermelons, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumbers are some examples.  Floating row covers will also protect plants at night from colder temperatures.  The heaviest will protect plants from frost up to seven or eight degrees of frost.

Plastic jugs, with the caps taken off and bottoms cut out, work well for small plants planted out before late frosts occur.  Covers can be placed before nightfall and removed during the day.  Gluttonous and ubiquitous cutworms will be discouraged from chewing by the subterranean sharp edges of the jugs; this is important because these creatures feed at night.  Large metal cans and paper milk jugs are other inexpensive cloches.

Cold frames are excellent cloches or protectors of young plants.  The soil inside them stays much warmer at night than the outside air.  If mats or fabric floating row covers are used to cover plants they will protect crops to lower temperatures than uncovered plastic tunnels or jugs.  I constructed my own cold frames, though they can be purchased from many sources at a considerable price!  An important factor with cold frames is to open them in the morning as soon as temperatures permit and close them before it gets too cold, in late afternoon or early evening.

Paper, glass, water-filled plastic covers or wax coated cloches are other quick solutions to save plants if a late frost is expected.  In Montana, in a mountain valley at an altitude of 3,000 feet I have used cloches to save bleeding hearts, primroses, lilies and early spring flowers from sudden freezes that would have set them back considerably.

Have a great spring!

 

 

Some Heirloom Cucumbers

Standard

photo (22) photo (23) photo (24)

This season I grew several heirloom cucumbers.  All of them are open pollinated so seed can be saved and planted next year.  The first of my cucumbers to ripen was ‘Boothby’s Blond’ (top photo) a variety handed down over generations by the Boothby family in Maine.  The date is unknown, but I would guess nineteenth century.  It is a lemon-type, rather small, but quite mild and delicious.  The plants produced well and began early.  One failing is that the plants developed powdery mildew earlier than other varieties, and this eventually weakened the plants causing them to slow production.  My garden is in shade for the first half of the day and that is part of the problem.  I garden organically and use a soap spray to control mildew.  It slows down the spread of mildew, but does not kill it.  Anyway, I would recommend growing ‘Boothby’s Blond’ cucumber.  It is great tasting, early (50-60 days) and productive.  Just try to give it as much sun and air as possible to prevent disease.

Another good heirloom cucumber I grew this year is ‘Parisian Pickle’ from 1880 (middle photo).  This variety is listed to mature in 50 days.  Now that is true if you pick the cucumbers small, which you might want to do because the fruits grow large quickly.  We used this variety for slicing and were about to make pickles when rats appeared and ate all the cucumbers in the garden.  I suppose they are traveling all over town trying everyone’s cucumbers.   ‘Parisian Pickle’ is very productive and fast-growing, but the leaves also developed powdery mildew a couple weeks after ‘Boothby’s Blond’.

In the bottom photo is a cucumber grown since the era of the Oregon Trail, 1830-1869.  It is ‘Long Green Improved’ from 1842.  It is listed as maturing in 70 days, but I found it to be ten days earlier.  (This could be due to weather; we had the hottest summer on record here in Oregon).  The skin of the fruit of ‘Long Green Improved’ cucumber has few spines so is smoother-skinned than the previously mentioned varieties.  It is an excellent slicer with mild flavor that can be used for pickling when picked small.  Best of all, my six plants of this variety still show absolutely no mildew on October 5.  That means this variety will tolerate slightly shadier or more close conditions than the other two.  The fruits will grow to 12 inches or more if allowed.  This is a great variety that should be saved from extinction.   Why not try it next season?