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?

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Counting my summer successes: Ceratotheca triloba

About this time last year, I made my first visit to Montrose. On a tour of the gardens there, I became bewitched by Ceratotheca triloba, sometimes known as South African foxglove.

Ceratotheca triloba

Looking something like a cross between a salvia and a foxglove, Ceratotheca triloba grew tall and elegant in bare gravel and gracefully entwined with a nearby red-foliated cotton plant. Seized with plant lust, I promptly went home and scoured my seed catalogues. I found the seeds in a catalogue that promised they were rare, but since the seed pack only cost $2, I’m guessing what they meant was “rarely purchased.”

That’s a shame, for Ceratotheca triloba has been perfectly charming for me this year and would probably be equally well behaved in others’ gardens, should they learn about this under-the-radar gem. I started some of the seed at home and planted out two sturdy seedlings. They grew for me, flowered for perhaps three months, and produced seed. I cannot ask for more.

ceratotheca triloba african foxglove

In dry, light shade it performed well, if it sagged a bit in its old age. (Who doesn’t?) I might have done a better job pinching it early in the season to coax it into a more shrubby form. As you might imagine, bees love the long, drooping tubular flowers. My form is more lavender-colored than the pink one I saw at Montrose; I don’t know if the color is impacted by pH or sun exposure, or if it just naturally varies a bit. Next year I’ll experiment with its placement and see what I can learn.

Ceratotheca triloba seed pod, ready to spill its contents.

Ceratotheca triloba seed pod, ready to spill its contents.

On my desk sits an envelope full of homegrown little black seeds, waiting for their chance to fill the abundant vacancies in my garden. I allowed some seed to sow itself naturally; if I remember not to mulch over the spot too heavily, perhaps I’ll see Mother Nature’s design work next spring.

Ceratotheca triloba is an annual, and there’s no excuse for not trying it next year. I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do.

ceratotheca triloba african foxglove

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 8, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

I’m trying a technique often used in the vegetable garden in my landscape: cover cropping. I’m sowing buckwheat in bare areas in my landscape in hopes of suppressing weeds in the areas I’ve cleared. I just recently learned that buckwheat is not a grass, but is related to sorrel, which I grow and love. I’m hopeful that its long taproots will help break up my thick clay and bring some nutrients up from the subsoil. I have no idea if I’ll be able to harvest any buckwheat seed or not–that will be a little adventure to look forward to as the weather cools.

Wet processing seeds decanting tomato seedsMy vegetable seed-saving is in full swing. It’s a great way to make use of those Principe Borghese tomatoes whose skins split wide open before I can harvest and process them. I’ve also got a fine batch saved from my ‘Contender’ bush beans, and I know I’ll have more ‘Cossack Pineapple’ ground cherries than I’ll know what to do with. I’m donating packets to the Digging Durham Seed Library. I’m still refining my pickle recipe, and hoping to score a second-hand boiling water bath canner from my in-laws’ house so I can take my food processing adventures even further.

My landscape looks tired, but the promises of fall are already visible. The berries on my ‘Issei’ callicarpa are beginning to turn, and buds are forming on the chrysanthemums I cut back in June. My crinums started blooming today–such elegant things. Crinums are supposed to be wonderful passalong plants, but I have to wonder how that passing gets accomplished. From all I’ve read, they, like the amaryllis to which they are related, like to pull their bulbs down into the soil for a few years before they bloom, and don’t care to be moved after that. And we know that the bulbs grow to be the size of basketballs. Who could share one without use of a backhoe?

chrysanthemum budsI’m thinking about building another raised bed before the fall, where I can grow some veg that will be harvested through the winter. I’m planning to order shallots and garlic–I missed the shallots last fall–and I’ve got a long list of spring-blooming bulbs that will need to be ordered soon. The gardening to-do list never ends! What a shame it would be if it did.

Best,

Amy

Seed saving 101: Cucurbits

To continue with the seed-saving series, let’s focus on cucurbits (melons, squash, cucumbers). As with corn, the seed-saving challenge for the home sub/urban gardener will be to maintain a population size that will permit seasonal attrition and genetic diversity.

Common name

Scientific name

Variety name

Isolation distance

Population size

Pollinators

Melons, cantaloupe Cucumis melo ‘Minnesota Midget’ 1600’ 10-20 Insects

Know what you grow.

When it comes to cucurbits, the gardener must know the scientific names of the crops she wants to grow. Cucurbits will cross-pollinate within their species (Cucumis melo with other Cucumis melo) but not inter-species, i.e., within the genus. So you can grow ‘Minnesota Midget’ cantaloupe next to your zucchini (Cucurbita pepo), and they’ll be fine. But you cannot grow cantaloupes, honeydew melons, and crenshaws together (all Cucumis melo) without expecting cross-pollination.

Common names in this family can be misleading. Armenian cucumbers, for example, are Cucumis melo, but regular salad-type cucumbers are Cucumis sativus. Summer squash, another cucurbit, is Cucurbita pepo, as are pumpkins, but winter squash may be Cucurbita pepo (acorn, crookneck, scallop-type, and spaghetti squash; zucchini; and pumpkins) Cucurbita maxima (hubbard and turban squash, buttercup squash, and some pumpkins), Cucurbita moschata (butternut squash), or Cucurbita argyrosperma.

In short, if the Latin name is the same, you can’t grow them together without cross-pollination. If the first half of the name is the same but the second half isn’t (Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita moschata), you’ll be fine.

Getting them growing

First, keep cantaloupes and other muskmelons 1600 feet away from other muskmelons (what’s your neighbor growing over his fence?).

Cucurbits are insect-pollinated, and given the distressing decline in native pollinator populations, it’s not fair to assume you’ll have a healthy supply of wild pollinators nearby. Without an abundance of natural pollinators, you may have to resort to hand-pollination to get any fruit set. Fortunately, hand-pollinating is quite simple.

Cucurbits produce male and female flowers on the same plant. Fruit will form from the female flowers if they are pollinated. Female flowers can be distinguished from male flowers by the fruit (the bulbous part, or ovary) at the base of the flower. Male flowers do not have an ovary.

To hand-pollinate your plant, pick a male flower from the plant and peel back its petals, exposing the pollen on the anthers. Find a female flower, and gently open its petals if necessary.  Rub the pollen on the stigma, and let the petals fall back to their original position. One male flower can pollinate multiple female flowers.

Male acorn squash flower (Cucurbita pepo) by Forest and Kim Starr [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Female acorn squash flower (Cucurbita pepo) showing large, dark-yellow stigma. By Forest and Kim Starr [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Female acorn squash flower (Cucurbita pepo) showing large, dark-yellow stigma. By Forest and Kim Starr [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Pollinating the female stigma with the male anther. Photo by Jay at Scientific Gardener under Creative Commons 3.0.

Pollinating the female stigma with the male anther. Photo by Jay at Scientific Gardener under Creative Commons 3.0.

The flowers tend to open early in the morning, and close as the heat of the day increases, so plan your pollination activity accordingly. A peculiar habit of cucurbits is that the female flowers often develop later in the season than the male flowers. Day length, light intensity, and temperature all influence the ratio of male to female flowers produced. Long, hot days yield more male flowers; cooler temperatures and shorter days yield more female flowers.

Saving the seed:

Muskmelons are easy. When the melon is ready to eat, the seed is ripe. Separate the seeds from the flesh, rinse them clean, and allow them to dry on a screen away from heat and direct light. Store in a clean glass jar or paper envelope in a cool, dry place.

Seed saving 101: Understanding isolation distances for corn

Continuing the erratically-scheduled Seed saving 101 series…

Saving Sweet Corn

Who doesn’t love corn? But when each plant yields only 2 ears or so, it can be hard for the average home gardener to maintain a reasonable population size to permit good genetic diversity and account for seasonal attrition.

Ohio corn field By Graylight (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Corn is wind-pollinated, and to prevent cross-pollination for seed-saving purposes you must maintain more than 1/3 mile (some sources say more than ½ mile) between your corn and anyone else’s.  If you live in a typical American suburban cul-de-sac development, avoiding contamination might be impossible if anyone else on your block grows corn. If you don’t have 200 plants, you might be able to use row covers to shelter your corn from other varieties. Frames can be made out of flexible PVC piping that are both inexpensive and can support row covers, but this might be more work than you want to do.

A short word about GMOs: In 2010, 86% of the corn planted commercially in the US contained some modified genetics.[1] Genetically modified corn seed, such as Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready seed, is not sold to the home gardening market. However, a 2004 pilot study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that modified genes had found their way into 50% of the non-GMO corn seed they tested. Their test seeds had been purchased from the same retailers that sell to US farmers. The UCS data suggest a 1% contamination rate in the seeds of traditional varieties, which equates to 6250 tons of transgenically-derived seeds planted in fields of traditional crops.[2]   In 2004, approximately 81 million acres of corn were planted in the US, and 45% of all corn planted were biotech varieties.[3] In 2013, that amount had grown to 97.4 million acres, of which 90% were biotech varieties.[4] Such statistics suggest that in the past ten years since the UCS pilot study, accidental contamination of non-GMO seed stocks may have also increased, and may have found its way to a corn seed packet near you. And if you live within approximately 1/3 to ½ mile of a farm where corn is grown commercially (particularly for commodity corn, used in the production of ethanol or for livestock feed), the potential for direct GMO cross-pollination with your home-grown crop exists.

Truckload of corn

Truckload of corn, Wikipedia photo released to public domain.

Hybrids are not the same as genetically modified organisms, but seed saved from hybrid corn will not come true. Open-pollinated corn may cross with nearby hybrid varieties by wind pollination, which may result in unfavorable traits in your second-generation corn seed.  Sweet corn will also cross-pollinate with field corn and ornamental corn, resulting in less-sweet sweet corn.

How to grow and save the seed:

Plant your corn in blocks, not rows, to ensure the heavy pollen fully fertilizes all the seeds and the ears fully develop. Hand pollination is simple and is a good way to control the fertilization (and prevent cross-fertilization) of your corn:

  1. Place bags around the ears of corn before the silks emerge, securing the bags tightly.
  2. Separately bag the tassel, which contains the pollen.
  3. Shake the pollen from the tassel and allow it to collect in the bag.
  4. Then de-bag the ears, shake the pollen onto the silks, and re-bag the ears to prevent cross-pollination.

To harvest seed:

Allow the ears to dry on the plant. For sweet corn, harvest when a fingernail pressed into a kernel releases a milky fluid.[5] Peel back the browned husks and allow the seeds to dry on the cob in a well-ventilated space.  Twisting the dried ears will encourage the kernels to fall off the cobs, and you may also rub the kernels off by hand.[6] Store in a glass jar in a refrigerator or other cool, dark place.

Further tips on saving corn seed may be found at the Seedsavers.org blog, http://blog.seedsavers.org/preventing-gmo-contamination-in-your-open-pollinated-corn/.


[1] Acreage, Released June 30, 2010, by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pp. 24, 32. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/Acre/2010s/2010/Acre-06-30-2010.pdf

[2] Gone to Seed: Transgenic Contaminants in the Traditional Seed Supply. (pp. 1-2). Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA: 2004. http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/seedreport_fullreport.pdf

[3] Acreage, 2004. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, US Department of Agriculture,  p. 24. http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/nass/Acre//2000s/2004/Acre-06-30-2004.pdf,

[4] Acreage, 2013. National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, US Department of Agriculture,  p. 25.  http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/current/Acre/Acre-06-28-2013.pdf

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.