Garden and Greenhouse

Saving Seeds

I am a seed saver. I pinch seed heads and pods when I go somewhere and see something I like (and nobody’s looking to object). I save gloriosa and Shasta daisy seeds and penstemon and Sweet William and asters.   I save my heirloom tomato seeds. And I save seeds like dill and coriander for the kitchen.

I use a lot of dill, and it doesn’t always do well in my garden. I usually have to get it in Reno, if I have to buy it, because it’s become hard to find in our small town. Some years, I have plenty of dill in the garden, and others, I don’t get any seedlings at all . So when I have a good crop, I save as many seeds as I can for the next year, so I don’t have to buy it, or at least, not as much.

The best way to save dill seeds is to put a large, paper grocery bag under the plant and clip the umbel directly into the bag. I do this when just a few of the seeds have turned brown and the rest are swollen but still green. Leave a long stem, and drop the umbel in upside down. The seeds will continue to ripen on the stem. Staple or paper clip the bag closed to keep out dust, and let it sit somewhere out of the way. When all the seeds are dry, pull out one stem at a time, breaking off the dry seeds into the paper bag. When all the seeds are off the stems, pour them into a colander or sieve to separate seeds from stem pieces. Then they go into jars (I have saved old dill seed jars from the grocery store), all ready for next year’s dilly beans or pickles. I always let some seeds drop to the ground for volunteer plants next year. I seem to have better luck letting the plants self-sow. The seeds know when to sprout in the spring.

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I use the same harvesting method for coriander seeds. Coriander and cilantro are one and the same plant. When the plant is green, before it blooms, it’s called cilantro and is used in salsa and other Mexican dishes. Let it flower and go to seed, and you have coriander. These little round seeds roll around, so you have to be careful not to let any escape! It is easy to grind them yourself in a spice grinder or coffee grinder dedicated for spices. (I have one labeled “Not for coffee!” so my husband doesn’t use it by mistake.) I love ground coriander in lots of dishes, especially my pumpkin/winter squash soup. Freshly-ground coriander is wonderfully aromatic. So if your cilantro wants to bloom, let it. Then harvest the seeds.

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This year, I let my kale go to seed. For some reason, I have a hard time getting kale to sprout from seed, and I don’t know if I’m planting too early or too late, or if the seed has not been fresh. I took care of that this year. I have a ton of seed, and I know it’s fresh. Some baby kale has already sprouted around the spent kale plants, so I’ll have kale until we get a hard freeze, and hopefully, more kale sprouting in the spring. I also intend to plant some in the greenhouse to get a jump on spring production. We do love our greens around here.

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I also save heirloom tomato seeds for the next year’s plantings. Saving tomato seeds is easy, although it takes a week or so to complete the process. I do it late in summer or early in fall, when I’m harvesting ripe tomatoes for salsa or red hot sauce.

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There usually one tomato that’s gotten a bit over-ripe on me, so that’s the one I harvest seeds from. As I’m cutting up the tomato, I just use my knife to scrape out a dozen or so seeds, however many I want, into a small bowl. Then I cover the seeds with a couple of tablespoons of water, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, label the plastic wrap with the type of tomato and the date, and set the bowl aside for a few days and wait for it to ferment.

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Fermentation of the seeds takes a few days, but this kills off bad bacteria that could affect the seeds’ sprouting capabilities. It also helps kill off any diseases or viruses the tomato plant and fruit might have had. (Heirlooms are susceptible to various diseases that many hybrids were bred to be resistant to.) I wait for a little mold to appear in the bowl, and then I pour the seeds and liquid into a fine mesh strainer, rinse the seeds well, and dump the contents onto a piece of labeled waxed paper.

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At this point, it’s easy to pick out any skin or flesh that might have adhered to the seeds when they were placed in the bowl.  Spread the seeds out so they’re not too clumped up and will dry faster.  I let the seeds dry for two or three days, until they pop right off the waxed paper when it’s jiggled.

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Then I fold the waxed paper containing the seeds into a tight packet, seal it with labeled masking tape, and put the packets into my seed jar. I have a plastic gallon jar that I put charcoal and/or silica packets into along with all the seeds I’m saving. This goes in a cool corner of the laundry room or out in one of the pump houses where it will stay cold but not freeze until I’m ready to plant in the spring.

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Saving heirloom seeds means I don’t have to worry about GMOs or not being able to find the seeds I want come spring. It also makes me just that little bit more independent, which I like.

I’ve been saving seeds and planting them with various results since I was a kid. I’ve grown peach trees from seeds that bore good fruit. This summer, I brought home a cherry pit from England, from a backyard cherry tree at one of the B & B’s where we stayed. Who knows, maybe my seed saving habits will net me a cherry tree for my orchard. We’ll see what spring brings.

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Garden and Greenhouse

January Daze

The holidays have come and gone.  I’ve used up all the leftovers, and I’m sick and tired of cooking.  It’s the time of year when I’m glad I have a well-stocked pantry.  I can open a jar of abalone chowder base (just add half & half and sherry), or a jar of venison chili or venison stew, mix up a batch of cornbread, open a jar of pickles or dilly beans, and there’s dinner.

I tend to get a little blue in January.  After the holiday rush and bustle, the delight of having the whole family together, and the fun of watching the little ones enjoy the season, I always feel a little let down.  I remind myself that this is the time for rest.  Like my garden, I need this time to regenerate.  I need some quiet time to rest and think.  I need time for reflection.

When I was teaching, reflection was an important part of the way I taught writing as a process.  If we don’t take time to reflect on what we’ve done, we’re missing an opportunity for learning.  Rushing from one assignment to the next (whatever kinds of assignments these are, whether self-imposed or part of a standardized course) doesn’t give us time to understand what we’ve done well, where we need to improve, and what we need not do again.  Reflection allows us to make a solid plan for the future, based on what we know worked, or didn’t, in the past.

So this is the time when I pull out my garden log and go over the notes I made about the garden and the harvest during the spring, summer, and fall.  It’s the time when I decide what changes need to be made in what I plant and where I plant it.  It’s the time when I sort through my seed packets to see what I need to buy fresh and how much.  It’s a planning time, and it heartens me.

Seed catalogs have been arriving for a couple of months.  I put them aside until January, when their bright, colorful photographs cheer me and remind me that another growing season will fill me with energy, purpose, and hope.

I don’t buy a lot of seeds.  I sow very frugally because I hate to thin.  A packet of carrot seeds will usually last me two years because I don’t use them all the first year I open them.  The same with most small seeds:  beets, lettuce, spinach, etc.  I seal up the opened seed packets with masking tape, and I put all my unused seeds into an old plastic mayonnaise jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Into the jar along with the seeds, I place several silica packets, the kind that are shipped inside large bottles of medications, to absorb moisture.  I put this container in my laundry room, which stays cool summer and winter, and my seeds stay fresh for years.  I have some large packets of lettuce seeds that I’ve been planting from for ten years.

Seeds grown and processed for storage organically may be viable for a very long time.  There are reports of seeds left in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years that grew when planted.  Unfortunately, many large commercial seed companies began some years ago to treat seeds with substances that are supposed to increase germination rates and/or provide protection against pests and pathogens during and right after germination.  I believe these treatments affect seeds’ viability if they are not used within the first growing season after harvest.  For this reason, and the fact that I don’t like the idea of chemically-treated seed, I’ve begun to look for organic seeds and to grow more and more heirloom varieties and save the seeds myself.  Tomato seeds are very easy to harvest and save, and I’ve had very good luck with them.  I always germinate seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant between moist paper towels stuffed inside plastic zipper bags.  It only takes a couple of days, and that way, I know exactly how many plants I will get from those seeds.  When the sprouts have just broken the seed coat, I can use tweezers to gently move them from the paper towels into warm, damp seed-starting medium and put them under a grow light in the greenhouse.

For other plants like lettuce and spinach, I allow self-sowing.  I let these plants flower (which has an added benefit of giving the bees more blossoms to milk). This means the garden gets pretty raggedy-looking in July and August, when the plants bolt and send up tall spikes of unremarkable flowers, then turn brown and, well, seedy-looking, but it saves me time and work and energy, and I get lettuce and spinach earlier the following spring.  There’s no guesswork on my part about when to plant:  the self-sown seeds sprout when conditions are favorable.  The plants and seeds do all the work.  Sometimes the seeds sprout where I didn’t expect them to, but I just work around them.  I like the spontaneity of allowing self-sowing.  I don’t mind a head of romaine in the middle of the row of carrots.

Larger seeds like pumpkins and squash are also viable for years when left untreated.  I have a pumpkin seed story that makes me smile every time I think of it.  When my children were small, I always grew jack-o’- pumpkins for them.  I usually grew a medium-sized variety, and we’d cook the pumpkins down the day after Halloween for pumpkin pies.  But one year when they were a little older, they wanted big pumpkins, so I planted a variety called Big Max.  They were big, all right.  We don’t have a very long growing season here, but we got a few Big Maxes, and I grew them for the kids for several years before I stopped growing a garden under the pressures of completing my M.A.

When my grandchildren were old enough to enjoy the idea of growing their own jack-o’-lanterns, I dug out the few leftover Big Max seeds and planted them.  Those seeds were twenty years old, at least, maybe older, and I got about a 50% germination rate from them.  Kaedynce and Bryce grew four big carving pumpkins from two plants.  I had stored the seeds using the method above, with silica packets in my leftover seed jar.  That was several years ago, but the kids still talk about Big Max and Maxine.  Yes, they named their jack- o’-lantern pumpkins!

Despite (or perhaps because of) this experience with the pumpkin seeds, I know that as my seeds get older, their viability will begin to decrease.  This is natural.  So I always plant a few extra seeds, more than I would if the seed was fresh.  This spring, because of my garden log, I know that while I still have a few Minnesota Midget cantaloupe seeds left (the only melons that do well in my garden), they will be five years old this spring, and I only got about 50% germination out of them last year.  I need fresh seed.  They are a hybrid, so I can’t save the seed myself.  But I’ll still soak the old ones and sprout them between paper towels, so I can use up every last seed that’s viable.  I don’t like to waste a thing if I can help it.

Just thinking about spring planting cheers me up.  On this gray day, when we’re in the middle of another drought cycle, and yet another moisture-bearing storm is pushing north of us, leaving only dry clouds to veil the winter sun, it’s good to rest, reflect, and plan.  That’s what January is for, in my book.

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