A simple way to keep track of garden changes

My life is hectic. I’m trying hard to cut down on distractions so I can enjoy a few things in my life more fully. One of those priorities is my garden.

shed and iris.jpeg

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) in shades of red and pink, planted among irises, lilies, and daffodils.

This year I had a glorious show of Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus). Sweet William is a biennial plant, meaning it grows, flowers, sets seed, and dies over the course of two years, rather than one for annuals.

They’re fading now, and setting seedpods. If I collect the seed, I can sow it and have another batch of plants ready to go for next year. And while I like the mixed-colors look, there are a few places I’d like to add these plants but I want to restrict the color scheme a bit.

As I went outside with brown paper envelopes in hand, I wondered how to differentiate between the different colors of Dianthus. How will I remember what’s what? Then I remembered the bit of genius always at my side: my smartphone.

I snapped photos of each color and immediately labeled them:

 

Then I labeled my paper seed envelopes to match.

I created an album in my iPhone Photos app to keep them organized, so when I’m planning my garden for next year I’ll have a quick reference. (Or I guess I could also come back here.)

How do you keep track of changes in your garden?

January gardening chores

You may have just gotten the last of your holiday houseguests out the door and the decorations packed away into the closet, and you were probably hoping to spend 10 minutes with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Ha. It’s only 14 weeks until the last average frost date. You think you have time to sit around?

You wish. It’s time to get organized for spring.

First task: Go through that shoebox full of leftover seed packets. If you cannot remember when you purchased the seeds, throw them out. As for the rest, test their viability.

hollyhock seeds

Second task: Clean out the seed flats. Make sure you have enough potting soil and perlite. Winter sow your perennials and hardy annuals and get them out of your house.

Third task: Get out the garden notebook you faithfully kept last year (it was your New Year’s resolution, remember?) and consider your successes and failures. Which tomatoes performed brilliantly and tasted like the perfect summer day? Which ones (which looked so promising in the catalogue) tasted like cardboard and attracted aphids by the bucketful? Which of your experiments in the annual or perennial bed won your heart or turned your stomach? Make notes of the edibles and ornamentals you want to grow this year, and those you will not repeat. Clean out your seeds accordingly.

Fourth task: Look at your photos from last year, or your map of your garden beds (which you made so you won’t accidentally dig up your dormant plants), and analyze where the gaps are. What plants look great in their current spots, and which ones seem to suffer? Will one of those plants perform better if it gets more, or perhaps less, light? Make a plan to transplant poorly performing plants to better spots, and plan which plants to grow in their vacancies.

2014 catalogues, first harvest

The first harvest of the 2014 gardening catalogues.

Fifth task: If you are begging for a break, fine. Take that stack of gardening catalogues and magazines and a pack of post-it notes to the table, along with your coffee or tea. And bring along your maps and plans and notebooks. And something to write with, for goodness’ sake.

Using all of your accumulated data, choose the plants you can no longer live without. Circle them, flag them with the post-its, dog-ear the pages. Prioritize. Of course, you are not going to order more plants than for which you have identified space, because you have learned that lesson already, haven’t you? Plus, your budget is still on life support after the holidays, and wasn’t that another of your New Year’s resolutions, to stay on budget in your gardening pursuits?

Now place your plant orders. The nurseries will ship live plants at an appropriate planting time, but you don’t want to place your order late and find that the Uvularia grandiflora you desperately want, that will be just perfect in that spot near the door, has sold out (again). If you procrastinate you know where this will end: You will find a poor substitute on a clearance rack somewhere that you know will recover under your tender care, and you will plop it in the spot (never mind that it wants full sun and this gets three hours, at best, in the height of summer), and be shocked–shocked!–when it cries uncle six weeks hence.

Your garden is going to have its finest year ever. Your organization and discipline will pay off so handsomely in five months’ time that the local gardening clubs will be clamoring for your wisdom in lecture form, and the neighbors will be resentful because of the traffic slowing down to admire your handiwork.

Count on it.

 

 

Seed saving 101: Isolation distances and planning your garden

My last real post began to explore isolation distances and their role in seed saving. This is a big and complicated topic. I find that sometimes, the best way to grasp an expansive topic is to try to apply it to a more particular situation.

Applying isolation distances to the sub/urban home garden

Let’s start, for simplicity’s sake, with five major summer vegetables you may want to try to save, and we’ll assume you want to try heritage or heirloom varieties:

  1. Beans (‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole bean)
  2. Corn (‘Golden Bantam‘)
  3. Melons (‘Minnesota Midget’ cantaloupe)
  4. Tomatoes (‘Brandywine‘)
  5. Zucchini (‘Black Beauty’ zucchini)

All of these are open-pollinated varieties.

Common name

Scientific name

Variety name

Isolation distance

Population size

Pollinators

Beans Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Kentucky Wonder’ 20’ 10-20 Self
Corn Zea mays ‘Golden Bantam’ 1600’ 200 Wind
Melons, cantaloupe Cucumis melo ‘Minnesota Midget’ 1600’ 10-20 Insects
Tomato Solanum lycopersicum ‘Brandywine’ 40’ 10-20 Self, insects
Zucchini Cucurbita pepo ‘Black Beauty’ 1600’ 10-20 Insects

Table is adapted from A Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers by the Organic Seed Alliance, www.seedalliance.org.

The immediate issue visible for most sub/urban home gardeners is that we have nowhere near the space to grow 20 tomato plants and 200 corn plants, so maintaining a population size to ensure good genetic diversity may not be an option. You can still grow enough plants to feed your family, and save your seed and even share it.

Beans:

This, perhaps, is the most reasonable plant of the five for the home gardener to both maintain a population size suitable for maintaining genetic diversity, and also maintain appropriate isolation distances from other bean crops.

Using a square-foot gardening technique, a row of beans 15-20 feet long × 1 foot wide or a double row 10 feet long × 2 feet wide will yield enough to permit attrition due to deer, disease, and occasional errant basketballs, and still have a viable population. And unless you and your neighbor are both trying to grow beans in the only sunny part of land in your neighborhood, which just happens to fall directly on your property line, you’ll probably be able to keep your plants 20’ from another variety of bean plant.

Urban patio gardeners: Beans may be grown in containers, using cage-type trellises to support the vines as they grow. Grow as many plants as your space permits, but do not overcrowd your containers. Plan on one plant per 8″ of container diameter. Spacing from other plants may be more challenging for you. Can you tell what your neighbors are growing?

Seed saving technique:

Enjoy some of your beans, and leave some on the vine until they turn leathery and yellow, tan, or brown in color. Then remove the pods from the vine, and dry them out of direct sunlight for a week. When the beans rattle in the pods, they are ready.

Corn

Corn is tricky. Let’s come back to it in another post.

Melons

Melons likewise are challenging. We’ll address those in a separate post.

Tomatoes

The trouble with tomatoes, from my perspective, is that there are only 200 interesting varieties. How can one possibly pick just one variety to grow in the home garden? I have no discipline: If I have the space to grow 10 to 20 plants such as would be recommended for a good seed-saving population, I will grow 10 to 20 different tomatoes.

Brandywine tomatoes by rsgreen89, via Creative Commons 2.0.

Brandywine tomatoes by rsgreen, via Creative Commons 2.0

It helps that tomatoes are primarily self-pollinating. If it is possible in your garden to grow multiple varieties and observe the 40’ planting distance from other tomato varieties, by all means do so.  But the popularity of home-grown tomatoes means you would do well to pay attention to what your neighbors are growing if your sunniest spot happens to be near your property line.

Acknowledging these challenges for the sub/urban gardener, my best advice from a seed stewardship perspective is to grow as many plants as you can of the variety you love best, say, ‘Brandywine.’ Cluster them together, tend them well, and select appropriately. If you cannot resist growing 15 other varieties, consider growing those well apart from the best-loved variety. Knowing that the other 15 may mix between themselves, if you save seeds from those varieties, keep those seeds for yourself. Keep detailed notes on how those plants behave from year to year, select them as you will for the Brandywines, and if they appear to be quite stable, then you may share them.

And if you live in an apartment and can only grow 1 tomato plant, grow it and enjoy it. If the plant is healthy, save seed from it to use next year. It’s your treasure.

Seed saving technique:

To save tomato seeds, use a wet processing method:

  • Squeeze the pulp and seeds from several saved fruits into a glass jar, and top it off with tap water.
  • Leave it on the kitchen counter for a few days, stirring occasionally. (It will begin to mold, so this may not be the time to have your mother-in-law over for dinner.) The white mold can be stirred back into the mixture with no ill effects.

How to know when they’re finished fermenting? There are several indicators that may be used, but I have had fine luck simply waiting 48 hours. You may want to try the different methods described here and find the method that works best for you.

  • Rinse the seeds several times using a metal mesh strainer. You may need to rub some residue off the seeds if they won’t come clean by a simple rinse. I find the spray attachment that comes on many kitchen faucets works well, as long as the spray doesn’t hit the seeds with full force.
  • Spread the seeds on a cookie sheet and let them dry for a week (it may take up to three weeks for the seeds to fully dry), and store them in a labeled paper envelope placed in a glass jar in the refrigerator.  You may put a packet of silica gel, such as you find tucked into a box of new shoes, in the bottom of the jar to absorb extra moisture, provided the packet is intact and the seeds are well secured in their envelopes.

Zucchini

Good heavens. I can barely keep up with the produce from 1 zucchini plant, let alone the 10 recommended for selection purposes. I should like to see the freezer big enough to hold all the zucchini bread one could make from 20 zucchini plants.zucchini copy

But perhaps your next door neighbor, or one across the street, or both, wants to grow zucchini as well. If you all are concerned about genetic diversity, you can all grow the same variety, splitting the seed packet between you. You might then be able to each select your best plants, save those seeds, and perhaps share a few seeds between each of you to spread the risk.  What are their neighbors growing? If they’re growing a variety of yellow summer squash, you might have an isolation issue. Fortunately, squash are easy to hand-pollinate. You could take this route, and use floating row covers to isolate the plants from the neighbor’s yellow squash.

Urban gardeners: I’m guessing that, due to the plant’s enormous size, heirloom zucchini may not be high on the list of plants to grow on a balcony. If you want fresh zucchini, you may need to go with an F1 variety developed to grow compactly. You can still have grow such plants organically, but heirlooms may simply not be practical for you.

Squash and zucchini are cucurbits, which are notorious cross-pollinators. I’ll get to this in more detail when we explore growing melons.

Seed saving technique:
  • Allow some fruits from the best plants to grow very big and to harden.
  • Harvest them, then allow them to cure at room temperature for four weeks.
  • Remove the seeds, cleaning the pulp from them, and rinse them well.
  • Spread the seeds on a cookie sheet and allow them to dry for several weeks.
  • Store them in a labeled paper envelope in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

Seed saving 101: Understanding isolation distances

In order to save seed and, more to the point, be a good steward of the health and success of open-pollinated varieties, it’s important to take a few precautions.

Perhaps the most challenging one, particularly for (sub)urban gardeners, is that of observing some isolation distances. Isolating plants is a way of preventing the pollen of two closely related varieties from mixing, thus ensuring a relatively stable and pure strain of seed.

A pure strain of seed? Didn’t we want genetic diversity? Well, yes, but not too much. There is a balance to be struck: We want enough diversity to maintain a healthy and well adapted variety, but not so much that the heirloom cabbage you love doesn’t resemble that same cabbage anymore. Seed saving and seed stewardship are a blend of art and science, but don’t be terrified or put off by that. You alone will not irrevocably destroy your favorite variety of cabbage.

Of course, if your whole ambition is to produce a totally different variety by throwing everything into the pot and seeing what comes out, plant with abandon, but please don’t share your resulting seed and promise it’s going to be the original. And be considerate of your neighbors, and any plans they may have for their own gardens.

First steps in planning your summer gardening and seed-saving activities:

  1. Assess your site. Understand the space you have available to grow your crops and the light the site receives.
  2. Identify the crops you want to grow.
  3. Learn your plants’ scientific names, and which other plants share that scientific name. That means both parts of the name: the genus and the species (not the part in single quotation marks). It’s especially important if you wish to grow cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins) or brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, collards, kale, to name a few).
  4. Depending on the size of your property and your proximity to your neighbors (especially critical if you grow in a community garden), learn:
    1. What your neighbors’ plans are for their summer gardens, if any.
    2. Whether anyone in your vicinity is a beekeeper.

The topic is a big one to grasp (bigger than I realized when I set out to research the issue), so I’ll break down an example in my next post.