Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Long Term Storage of Seeds

Gardeners are often required to grow out their vegetable varieties to keep each kind of seed they have viable. Though there are many charts available online to help gardeners determine how long they can expect their seeds to last after harvest, many of these charts don’t help gardeners who may want to only grow their harvest out to seed every other year, instead of every year. What if I don’t want to grow onions or parsnip every year – does this mean that I have to buy new seed each time or anticipate that only half my seed will germinate after being stored for 2 years?

Some supplies for Long-term storage of vegetable seeds

Gardeners frustrated with the idea of growing out vegetable varieties just to preserve their hard-earned seed may take comfort in knowing that there are other alternatives out there. A few of the options to extend seed life include desiccating (or drying out) seed, storing seed in airtight containers and storing the seed at very low temperatures.

Silica Gel Beads from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Before putting seeds in a container, they need to be dried out properly. The reason they need to be dried is so that the seed's cell walls do not expand and burst when being frozen. Most garden seed uses moisture as one of the triggers to know when to begin the plant’s growth. However, when moisture is present without the presence of other growing conditions, moisture can cause vegetable seed age more quickly and, over time, the seed will fail to germinate. While several methods of drying seeds out exist, it is often difficult to know exactly how dry seeds are without the use of some form of material to desiccate the seeds. In order to prepare seed many seed-savers are now utilizing silica gel (or beads) to ensure that their seeds are dried out properly before moving their seeds into long-term storage. This is similar to the silica gel you may find in a container with new shoes, however this gel is used for garden applications. The silica gel is able to bring the seeds to a 2-3% moisture rate. I obtained my silica gel from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They sell a food-grade silica bead that is much safer to use around food than other varieties. When drying out seeds I put an equal amount of seeds, per weight, as silica beads in a glass jar to dry out. Note: if your seeds are already dry then be careful of drying them out any more! Over-drying seed can desiccate them so much that it can kill the seed.

Putting orange-to-green silica beads and seeds in jar

Storage container ratings from McCormack, 2004.

Once dried properly, the seeds should be kept in an airtight container to keep out the moisture. Although polyurethane (plastic) bags are often used to store seeds, these bags often let in small amounts of water. As a result, though storing seeds in plastic bags might be better than storing them in the open air, storage in glass jars with airtight lids will make the seeds last much longer. If mason jars are used, a new or unused seal is recommended for greater protection from leaking. There are other storage methods that are used, including metal lined polymer bags.  In general, the less the container that stores seed leaks - the longer the seeds will last. One research-based online article tells of several good ways to store seeds. 

A clean break when snapping a seed (right) is evidence of proper drying.

There are a number of studies that show that frozen seed can last longer than seed that is stored at room temperature including one from North Carolina State University and another one from a journal entitled Cryobiology. Additionally, some seed may be supported, rather than hindered, by being frozen. However, any seed that cannot be dried properly should not be frozen. When seeds with excess water content are frozen, the expanding water can damage the cell walls of the seed, causing the seed to be damaged and unusable. Remember that excessive desiccation of seed can lead to seed mortality as well.

Freezing Vegetable Seeds can help them last longer

All melon seeds from those that were not dried sprouted

All melon seeds from those that dried also sprouted

All seed sprouted - Strange that the frozen ones grew faster

Taken together – proper drying, storage and freezing of seeds may be the best way for seed savers to preserve their seed for future growing seasons and future generations. I experimented by sprouting seeds that had not been dried, had been dried, and had been frozen. All three were watered and sprouted within 3 days. My experience has shown that when proper drying, storing and freezing are used together, the germination of frozen seed is equal to original germination percentages. So next time you want to store some of that seed you have worked hard to harvest you might consider drying, bottling, and freezing your seed.

Can you sprout and grow seeds that have been frozen? Yes!

Thoughts about Seeds

I enjoy sharing and trading some of my excess seed with other gardeners. One way that I share my seed is through our local library’s seed bank. Recently Elena Acoba, a local writer, interviewed me about my thoughts concerning the Pima County Seed library in our local paper, the Arizona Daily Star. Apparently, I was contacted by virtue of the fact that I was one of the only people who left contact information with my donated seeds.

Seed Libraries help build community.

On a side note, Gardener’s Supply Company has this really interesting chart to guide you as you seek to start your seeds this spring.  I have moved from using the planting calendars to using charts like these because the decision to plant not just about what month it is but also what the recent temperatures were, what present temperatures are, as well as what future temperatures may be. I try to think about how air temperature trends affect the soil temperature before I plant.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fertile Valley Seeds

Carol Deppe, the renowned author of The Resilient Gardener and Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties just released her 2013 catalogue from her small seed company (Fertile Valley Seeds). She runs the company once each year to sell off any excess seed she produces. So what does Carol have in her 2013 catalogue?

For squash she sells a supersweet Delicata, a Sweet Meat (C. maxima) squash and a Costata Romanesco summer drying squash. She also sells a very hardy multi-purpose flint corn variety called Cascade Ruby-Gold. The beans she sells include a Gaucho bush bean, a Black Coco bush bean, a Hannan popping garbanzo bean and a Beefy Resilient Grex bush bean. The Grex has a fascinating story of a cross that I never knew was possible. Carol also sells some Kale, a tasty romaine variety, a multi-purpose radish, an Indian Spinach, an edible Amaranth, and a Oregon Giant Sugar pea.

Carol Deppe developed the Hannan (Garbanzo) Popbean

For full access to Carol Deppe's catalogue you just need to email her a request for a copy of it. Her contact information is located on her website. She only sells her excess seeds once a year, so if you even think you might be interested make sure you email her. Last year I made the mistake of waiting a week to place my order and she ran out of seed before she could get to my order.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Founding Gardeners

While there are many books that can be categorized as either “informational” or “inspirational” there are very few books that are both. I found Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners to be both informational and inspirational in every way. Wulf tells the story of how various gardens and farms shaped the life of those who signed the constitution. These gardens not only provided inspiration for the founding fathers, but also taught these men to be good stewards of their land as they looked forward towards the future of what America would become. As the author notes, “It’s impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners”.

Founding Gardeners is a great book!

Inspiration for gardening came to the founding fathers in many ways. I was surprised to find that as Jefferson and Adams sought for inspiration for their gardens while touring English gardens, they found these ornate gardens were filled with mostly American, rather than English, plants. This not only gave these men ideas in how they might use native plants to design their gardens back home, but also somehow encouraged their desire to establish the new nation.

Later, after the United States became more segmented and disjointed as a nation, the founding fathers turned to gardens to help them ease the tensions they worked to unite the nation during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Apparently, after the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were deadlocked on the decision of how congress would be organized, a group of them took a morning off to visit John Bartram’s nursery. After visiting the nursery, where they saw plants from all thirteen colonies growing among each other, these same constitutional delegates were able to return to their duties with a renewed desire to approve the Connecticut Compromise, the plan in which enabled for the establishment of the two houses of congress we know today. Though I knew that gardens could be inspirational and a place to relieve myself from the stress of everyday life, I had no idea how important a walk through the garden could be to those men who founded the United States.

One crop the colonists grew was wheat.

Many of the founding fathers looked at their farms and gardens as a reflection on themselves and sought to do all they could to care for their land. They not only cared about their land, but recognized that it needed to be replenished to remain healthy. Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison all sought to incorporate amendments such as manure, seaweed and river silt to their lands in an attempt to keep it fertile and healthy. Though Washington seemed to be the foremost expert on utilizing manure, after seeing the effects of successive tobacco farming on Virginia’s depleted soils Jefferson, Adams and Madison were quick to follow. Near the end of the book Madison gives a landmark address where he identifies the relationship between trees and healthy air, contour farming and erosion protection and emphasizes the importance of giving as much back to the soil as possible. The founding fathers cared about their land because they believed that as each farmer took care of his land, the crops would support him in protecting his rights in America’s new nation.

As the founding fathers looked forward to the future of the United States they were encouraged by the opportunity for growth that expanding westward provided. Each new area of the country that was explored provided the founding fathers with hope and encouragement as they learned about the many flowers, fruit, vegetables and trees now available to them. The westward expansion also provided for the expansion of the Agrarian, or farming, class. As fertile land became available, it provided the opportunity for individuals without fields of his own to claim his or her freedom by establishing farms in new territories. This was the hope of many of the founding fathers – that as citizens of the United States lived off the land they would be able to retain their inalienable rights and remain a free people.

I am grateful for the very ground I garden on

To anyone who enjoys history, gardening, or both I would highly recommend Founding Gardeners. This book is well written, informative, engaging and inspirational. It really helped me to understand how the enjoyment found in gardens could provide the founding fathers with a sense of inspiration, responsibility and a hope of the future of America. Having read this book, I am imbued with greater respect for the small seeds I plant and the soil I turn in my humble garden.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Downsizing my Winter Garden

Kids' Garden in Orange
As my summer garden waned in the decreasing day length of October I began to formulate my plans for my winter garden. Last winter’s warm and dry season found me running out to my vegetables them almost daily to hand-water. Now that my wife was going to school full-time it would be impossible for me to be hand-water my garden while getting myself and my family ready to leave for work and school each morning. Something just had to go. 

The rope is meant to keep stray balls (and children) from falling on the plants

I decided that I could grow only the size of garden that would work with a small soaker hose. The only location that was currently unoccupied with “stuff” was the kids’ garden. Though this had previously been a place where my kids could much on veggies at their leisure, I had a family discussion and explained that I would need to commandeer their garden plot this season to retain my sanity. My children understood and reluctantly agreed.

Bull's Blood Beets

Downsizing a garden is really difficult for someone who really enjoys growing as much as possible. I am literally trying to do the same thing as before, but with less space. The Red Creole onions came to me via the Pima County’s Seed library while my chickpeas came to me via the USDA. Should I want to save these seeds for future generations I will definitely have to grow them out again in a larger population to avoid the bottleneck affect that leads to inbreeding depression and poor plant vigor. This inability to select plants based on vigor or trueness-to-type is one of the reasons why this winter’s garden is mostly an “experiment with a few varieties” rather than an actual full-fledged garden.

Onions, such as this Red Creole, take a while to grow

My first herbs ever, Cilantro plants, next to one of my Chickpea plants

With exception of the Atomic Red Carrots and the Bull’s Blood Beets – both of which I planted in greater numbers - the population of my veggies has made it so I’ll have to grow these same varieties out another winter before I can obtain a population of plants in which to save strong seed from.

Some onions growing in my winter garden

Friday, February 1, 2013

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Because of the very limited time I have to devote to sitting down and reading I decided I could listen to CDs about gardening while driving around for my job. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver is about a family who sought to live for 1 year off of mostly local and home-grown food in the Appalachian area. Other than the author’s somewhat irritated agnostic views on the religious, her ability to border on becoming preachy, and her extremely long-winded descriptions of her thoughts about her experiences, this book was alright. The book includes fascinating descriptions of how Kingsolver’s family grew a large garden, gathered food, and how they raised livestock for their own consumption. I greatly enjoyed descriptions of her family – especially the excitement that her youngest daughter had for the miracle of life. The one animal this book describes in detail is the turkey, and the text would be most helpful for anyone who would like to raise turkeys for themselves.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was occasionally interesting.

From time to time, the book becomes quite preachy – though occasionally the facts are a little interesting. Looking back on my experience with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I would say that this book is not for everyone. At times the book can really drag and I would not recommend it to anyone who possesses no interest in how a family could live for a year off of locally-produced food. If you are planning on buying a farm that you plan to live off of or if you would like to create a self-sustaining colony of turkeys, then this book might be for you.