Storing Seeds

The summer garden is in. Days and weeks of digging beds and barrowing compost are over, and daily tasks shift to weeding and watering. It is time to store seeds.

I often have seeds left over after I plant what I want. If stored properly, most seeds will be viable for three to ten years, depending upon the variety. Sweet corn, beets, carrots and onions are infamous for their refusal to germinate after the first year, but tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, cucumbers, and brassicas are more cooperative if stored in the right conditions.

After I have planted the garden, I tuck the packets with the unused seeds into small, plastic, ziplock bags, and write the name of the seed on the bag. It’s a good idea to add the date, too. I put the bags into a plastic shoe box with a tightly-fitting lid and stash it in a corner of the freezer. Yes, the freezer!

Store seeds in the freezer for future use.

Store seeds in the freezer for future use.

Seeds germinate when they encounter moisture and warmth, and the freezer is dry and cold. When you are ready to plant again in the spring, take the seeds out of the plastic bags and let them come up to room temperature. Condensation is not a good thing!

If you go to all the trouble to grow heirloom, open-pollinated varieties so that you can save your own seeds, make sure to store them properly so that you can enjoy a good harvest for many years.
 

Another Greenhouse

I have started another greenhouse. I think this is my fifth or sixth one. Some have been more successful than others, but I have learned something from every project. Most of them have been made out of found or recycled materials, too.

My first greenhouse was made out of something called Starplate connectors. You can use them with boards to make a dome-style shelter. This worked pretty well for a while, although the long, slim green houses seem to have more usable space. We bought them from the Stromberg’s Chicks and Game Birds Unlimited and they still sell them.

The next version of a greenhouse was a frame made from aspen saplings and straw bales covered with plastic. This was also pretty successful and I used it for three years before we took off the plastic and let it compost itself. The patch of blackberries that grew up where that greenhouse was produces berries that are an inch long or bigger.

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Then I began to experiment with hoop houses with varying amounts of success. None of them seemed to stand up to snow load very well. I thought I had it licked a couple of years ago when I used cattle panels with plastic over them, but two feet of wet snow one night flattened it to the ground.

Cattle panel hoop house

Cattle panel hoop house

After that I began making small hoop houses to protect plantings of greens, carrots and beets for the winter. These worked very well for that purpose, but I didn’t have anywhere to store my plants when it was too cold to put them in the garden yet. I hope I have finally solved the problem.

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Today I began to put together a hoop house using PVC pipe that began life as color guard flag poles from the high school marching band. I have to wait until my next pay day to buy the connectors I will need, but I think this one will be strong enough, or at least I hope it will! It will have interior bracing along the hoops on both sides, so that should do the trick.

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Saving Seeds

This is the fall garden. We have been enjoying salads for a couple of weeks and are looking forward to peas, carrots and beets.

This is the fall garden. We have been enjoying salads for a couple of weeks and are looking forward to peas, carrots and beets.

This is the groundhog that has been scoping out my fall garden. So far, the dogs seem to be keeping it at bay.

This is the groundhog that has been scoping out my fall garden. So far, the dogs seem to be keeping it at bay.

I’m trying to save more seeds this year for next spring’s garden. I have been saving tomato seeds for quite a while now, but this year I decided to save seeds from beans, broccoli, cauliflower and chard. In the spring, I hope to get seeds from beets, carrots and lettuce. You can gather your own seeds from all kinds of vegetables as long as they are heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are vegetables that have been grown for many years and seeds from these varieties will “grow true,” which means that when they are planted the following year, you will get vegetables that look very much like the ones you grew last year.

This is not true for hybrids. When a vegetable is labeled as a hybrid, it has been produced by crossing two different varieties to get a new one, but it will not grow true the following year. Seeds saved from hybrids will grow, but you don’t know what you will get, and it will not look anything like what you grew before. Also, hybridization is NOTHING like the bioengineering that creates GMO seeds. Don’t get me started!

Most seeds are easy to save. With beans and peas, I simply leave any pods that have gotten a bit too big for eating fresh, and when the plants stop producing, I pull them up by the roots, tie them into bundles and hang them in the barn. In a few weeks, the pods are brown and dry, and the beans can be removed. With most other seeds, you can simply dig the seeds out, let them dry on a plate and then store them in paper envelopes. Being the kind of weirdo that I am, I save envelopes from the mail, put seeds in them, write the contents on the envelope and tape it shut. Do not store seeds in plastic bags! No matter how dry they may appear, there will still be enough moisture in them to create condensation and that leads to mold which leads to dead seeds in the spring.

Tomatoes are a bit trickier. Tomato seeds have an outer covering that needs to be removed in order for them to germinate in the spring, so they have to be left to ferment for a bit. Remove the seeds and put them in a plastic container, then add an inch or so of water. Let the seeds soak for a couple of days and stir them daily. Eventually, you will see a white film beginning to form on top of the water. That is a good thing, because that means the coating on the seeds is breaking down. Let the coating build up for a few days, and then add more water to the container and stir. Skim off the stuff on the top and any seeds that float–they won’t grow–and then strain. Keep rinsing until the seeds are clean. I put them on paper towels on top of paper plates, and write the name of the variety on the plate. I stick them on the upper shelf of a cupboard and forget about them for a while, but eventually I put them in envelopes.

A few more things to consider: if you plan to save seeds, try to isolate each variety in the garden to keep them from cross-breeding. Also, seeds need some time to mature before they will be viable, so choose a nice specimen of whatever you plan to save and leave it on the plant much longer than you would if you were going to eat it. Don’t let it rot, though.

This article from Organic Gardening has some good information. http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/saving-seeds-for-next-season?page=0,2 Happy seed saving!

Create an Almost Instant Garden with Sheet Composting

If you really want to plant a garden, but you are staring at a bunch of green grass and thinking, “That’s going to take a long time,” take heart.  Sheet composting can come to your rescue.  I first heard about sheet composting when I took a Permaculture design course fifteen years ago.  I fell in love with it and I’ve been using it ever since.

The basic idea behind sheet composting is to put down a layer of mulch to discourage the grass or weeds from growing up through and then forming a planting bed on top of that with manure, straw, and compost.  First, decide where you want to put your garden, and then collect all your materials.  Once you have everything together, the sheet composting process moves very quickly.

The easiest and most readily available mulch material for sheet composting is cardboard.  It is available for free in many stores.  My favorite place to get it is at appliance stores, because the boxes that refrigerators, washers, and dryers come in are really big and cover a lot of area.

A pile of cardboard in my garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once you have your cardboard, find a source for fresh manure.  That’s not a problem for me, because I have livestock, but it can be a challenge if you live in a city.  If you have a vehicle, you can visit horse stables in your area and fill some bags or buckets (ask first).  Some cities still have police horses and when I lived in Seattle, we collected buckets of manure from the police stables.  Zoos often will part with their doo doo, as well.  If you don’t have access to any of those sources, you can use kitchen scraps, but that will take a bit longer.  Dump things that you would normally add to a compost pile–fruit and vegetable peels and waste, grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc.–on the cardboard in a layer about six inches deep.  It will take a little longer to create your bed, but this is also a good option for people who object to using animal products.

Piles of sheep and goat manure on top of the cardboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, cover the manure or kitchen scraps with a layer of straw about a foot thick.  If you are using scraps, I’d recommend covering them with straw every time you add to your bed to keep odor under control.  Straw is readily available at garden centers.

I am planting summer squash, so I decided to make hills. Sheet composting is flexible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The final thing you will need is some finished compost or top soil.  If you don’t make your own compost, both of these are available in bags at home and garden centers.  The beauty of sheet composting is that you don’t need much soil to plant in these beds.  Pull the straw away along the top of the bed all the way down to the manure layer, then add the soil on top of that until it is level with the straw.  This is where you will plant.  The roots of the plants will work down through the soil and into the manure layer for nutrition, but the plants won’t be burned by the fresh manure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some things work better in sheet composted beds than others.  Anything that is transplanted into the garden, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, or broccoli, will do well in a sheet composted bed.  Things that are directly seeded are more difficult to grow in these kinds of beds, because they can be washed away when watering if you are not extremely careful.  It might be a good idea to grow the lettuce and carrots in containers instead.

Finished hill. Ready to plant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bed will dry out more quickly than soil, so keep up with the watering.  At the end of the season, just leave the bed in place after harvesting.  In the spring, your eighteen inch bed will have shrunk down to three or four inches of lovely soil.  After several years of repeating this process, you should have created enough soil that all you will have to do is add some new compost and plant.

Mini-Hoops

I have had several incarnations of unsuccessful greenhouses over the years.  Actually, the greenhouses were not as much unsuccessful as they were temporary, so going with that idea, I decided to set up temporary mini-hoops to grow some winter greens and to shelter my baby tomatoes and peppers until they can go in the ground.

The mini-hoops are cheap and easy to build.  I made mine with things I already had laying around, although I am a bit of scrounge and I tend to have a lot of things laying around.  I have two mini-hoops at the moment:  one tucked into the front corner of the house and one in front of the studio.  The one in front of the house has been there all winter and it sheltered three containers filled with kale, green onions, lettuce, and an Asian braising mix.  It was really nice to have fresh greens all winter!

Winter greens in the mini-hoop

I chose the corner, because it has a southern exposure, so the plants got as much of the winter sun as possible, and they were protected from the wind–wind stresses plants out just as much as not enough moisture or light.  I placed a piece of old conveyor belt on the ground and sat three plastic, recycling tubs on it.  If you don’t happen to have old conveyor belt (what’s wrong with you?), you can use black plastic.  Pay a little more and get the heavier stuff. It will last for years! It is available at construction supply stores.  You might even get some for free at a construction site.  They just throw it away, but ask first! The reasoning behind the black plastic is to collect heat during the day and then give it off at night to keep your plants warm.

Next you need hoops.  Anything that can be bent into a U without breaking will work.  I have a roll of left over water pipe and that works great.  I use foot-long pieces of pvc pipe driven into the ground to attach the hoops.  Arrange the hoops in a crossed pattern so that you can pull the plastic covering tight over the hoops.  Sags will collect water and can damage your plants or even bring down the whole construction.  Trust me.  I know this from experience.

In the mini-hoop for the winter greens, I used two layers of plastic with hoops in the tubs and another layer over them.  This works like a double-paned window and really keeps everybody nice and toasty.  I just put together another mini-hoop for my garden plants.  That one is only one layer, because I need to open it during the day so the plants don’t get too hot.  The only thing I had to buy for these was the clear plastic to cover them and you can use that for a couple of years if you take care of it.  You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a little greenhouse (although they are cute) in order to start your own plants or to have fresh, healthy food throughout the winter.

Starting Seedlings: Get Ready

As I was writing this, I realized that there is a lot of information to fit in on this topic, so I decided to split it up into a couple of posts.  The first part will address reasons to start your own seeds, and then I will cover what you will need, and finally how to do it.

It’s early spring here in northwestern Pennsylvania, and we are talking about becoming more self-reliant and saving money, so a natural topic for this time of year is starting your own seeds.  It is kind of late for tomatoes and peppers, but there is still time to start broccoli, cabbages, herbs, flowers, and other plants.  Yes, I said flowers.  Flowers are not a waste of valuable real estate!  They provide nectar for bees and butterflies, and some are medicinal, and some are edible.  We’ll talk more about that later.

I’ve started my own seeds for a long time, but a couple of years ago I took a new job that involved a lot of driving, so I decided to save myself some time and buy my plants that year.  Wow!  Was that a mistake!  Not only were my choices limited in terms of varieties, but they cost $2 – $3 a six pack.  An entire packet of tomato seeds costs between .95 cents and $2 (depending upon the company, but that’s an average) and contains around 20 seeds per packet.  I started 150 tomato plants this year–seven different varieties–for $14.  It would cost me $50 to buy those plants, and the heirloom varieties I like would definitely not be available.

There are lots of places to buy seeds (I will discuss saving your own later in the season when there are actual seeds around here to save).  I prefer not to buy them from stores, especially places like Wal-Mart.  Many of the seed companies have been gobbled up by Monsanto over the last couple of years and I prefer to stick with small, mail-order companies that raise their own seed stock.  I like Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, ME, and have been purchasing my seeds from them for the past twenty years.  I also like Fedco.  They are located in Maine, as well, and they are a cooperative of small growers who produce all kinds of untreated seeds for vegetables, herbs, and flowers.