Tuesday, April 29, 2014

McGregor’s Favorite Beet

Taste alright, howbeit a bold earthy taste.
It can be difficult for a gardener to not be interested in the newest and most exciting vegetables that come out in gardening catalogues each year. New colors, shapes and sizes catch my attention and often persuade me to try out something new. Such was the case with the McGregor’s Favorite beet. The picture of the beet’s root appeared similar to the beet variety Cylindra while the dark red color of the greens was similar to the Bull’s Blood variety. Since I had been contemplating crossing Bull’s Blood with Cylindra for a while, McGregor’s Favorite beets seemed to be the perfect match of dark green leaves and tender cylindrical roots.

From the very beginning of my experience with McGregor’s Favorite Beets the plants were incredibly slow to grow. The vigor of the seed I received was weak and multiple plantings were necessary to have enough plants to trial.

It seemed to take forever for McGregor's Favorite Beets to grow.

Where did the beets go?

There they are! (=

Initial seedlings exhibited bright green leaves and secondary leaves were green as well. It was not until later in the season that a few thin dark red leaves appeared and this color only seemed to persist for about 1-2 months before the later growth began to be green again.
McGregor's Favorite Initial Green Growth
Intermediary red/purple growth

More intermediary red/purple growth

McGregor's Favorite Beets are very pretty for a while.

McGregor's Favorite Beets lose all their red/purple color as they grow.

Though the dark red leaves may be a product of optimal climate conditions, one would think that if optimal climate condition are required to exhibit a specific trait that the specific variety might not be worth growing. The taste and texture of the dark red leaves was nothing exceptional. In my opinion, the texture, taste and color of Bull’s Blood leaves greatly exceeded that of McGregor’s favorite. About half way through the season I was beginning to feel that some very rare vegetable varieties are nearly extinct for a reason.

Bull's Blood Beets' color remains consistently red/maroon throughout their growth

Bull's Blood Beet root tastes pretty good.

Because the McGregor’s favorite beets were so slow to sprout and grow I had to wait until April to begin harvesting any of the roots. Note – this was not for lack of light, water, or nutrients - all the other vegetables in the garden were growing very well. The roots exhibited variable shape and size, the texture was tough and the flavor was very earthy.
Although all roots can exhibit branching, with the very soft compost soil that I grow my plants in I was surprised by the tendency of the McGregor’s favorite beet to branch.

Branching Beet Bottoms bewilder Botanists

McGregor's favorite variable root shape and size is not very marketable.

The texture was very hard to begin with and several of the roots had white pithy material that I feared might be woody (it turned out to be okay). Because the roots were hard, they took a little longer than other beets to cook.

Amputation of the leggy beet.

Concern that the core may be pithy.

Once the beets were cooked the flavor was quite earthy. Though my wife loves the bold taste of “dirt” in her beets, I prefer a more subtle or slight earthy taste in the beets I grow.

Growing Cylindra beets.

A large, yet tender Cylindra beet root.

In summary – if you would like to grow an interesting beet that you have never grown before you are welcome to try McGregor’s favorite. However, if you prefer the subtle taste and smooth texture of Cylindra (butter beet) or a season full of dark red leaves from Bull’s Blood perhaps you should try growing something else.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reinvigorating Old Seed

Some very old (yet valuable) cucumber seed
A recent issue with a cluster of old seed exhibiting poor germination led me to observe that, like Bill Gates stated, “Success is a lousy teacher”. In order for a gardener to improve his skills, he must be faced with failure and sometimes a lot of failure, though humbling, can be a great thing. Every failure that is recognized is a stepping stone on the road to success. That being said, just because I have identified 45 obstacles to growing tomatoes in my climate does not mean that I am not ignorant to the other 55 reasons why I cannot. The following information on reinvigorating old cucumber (or melon) seed is based solely on my experience with some very old melon seed. As my posts are not permanent, should anyone have any other helpful hints I would be happy to try them out and add them to this post.

The key to planting any seed is to first determine its percentage of germination. In an ideal world the germination of seed would not degrade over time, but - for various reasons - it does. The reason why a gardener would want to test germination before planting their seed is that germination testing enables the gardener to determine how dense to plant the seed. Seed with high germination rates requires less planting and more space between sowing while seed with very poor germination can require very dense sowing, resulting in the gardener seeing only 1% of the seed strong enough to become a seedling. My approach to germination testing utilizes a snack Ziploc bag and a paper towel. Once the seeds have germinated, I can then plant them where I want to grow. The only problem with planting the seeds I germinate is if I need to test germination of summer vegetable varieties in the winter.

Should you be in the position in which you have cucumber or melon seeds that do not germinate well, here are a few things you can do to. The majority of this information can be applied to working with other vegetable seeds.

1. Pre-sprout seeds as if you wanted to test germination.

This means placing the seeds in a controlled environment that is warm and moist. I like putting my whole “cucumber seeds in a moist paper towel in a snack-sized Ziploc bag” in my water heater closet. Controlling the environment helps ensure that each seed that can sprout is given every opportunity to do so.

2. Make sure that the sprouting medium (paper towel) is not too wet or too dry.

If the whole paper towel does not appear wet the seeds will not soak up enough water to sprout. Conversely, if I do not press out the excess water from the paper towel after moistening it then the majority of the seeds will most likely rot.

3. Remove anything that could rot or mold from the seed coating.

Even after properly fermenting cucumber seeds, seed growers sometimes do not clean all the old bits of fruit from the seed. I tend not to question why some companies leave miniscule bits of fruit on the seed, as the quality of a supplier’s seed is seldom related to the “stuff” left on the seed coating.

Dirty Seeds can mold, which can lead to poor spouting

Now the fleshy material is gone the seeds are ready to be sprouted.

4. Frequently check how the seeds are doing.

Once every day or two I check seeds that I am trying to sprout. This helps to check on possible problems as they arise.

 By diligent checking you may notice seeds sprouting (left) vs. nonviable seeds (right)

5. Remove all decaying seed.

As soon as I see a seed decaying I remove it. Seeds that are rotting will either drastically change color or will bloat up like a plump man who has outgrown his jacket. In this case, the plump inner seed portion has taken on water, which will decay the inside of the seed. If plump unviable seeds are left in the sprouting medium, the surface of the fleshy portion will decay until the fluids will pop out, spilling rotten sticky fluids onto the rest of the seed.

Notice the seed nearly popping out of its coat - like a plump man in a small coat

Another example of a nonviable seed that could pop open to rot the medium

6. Change the medium as often as necessary.

Should you choose a medium that is cheap and easy (such as paper towels) you can just throw it into the compost pile if it begins to produce a strange odor or change color. Changing the medium can help a few of the seeds that have not germinated yet to complete the sprouting process.

This bad example is for teaching purposes only! (=

If you forget to change your sprouting materials your seed will likely rot

7. Add a little bit of nitrogen-rich water-soluble fertilizer.

Sometimes a trace amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizer (such as Miracle Grow™) added to the sprouting area will help “wake up” some of the otherwise dormant old seeds. This does not always work and is not recommended for germination testing, but I have had a lot of success with adding a very miniscule amount of this kind of fertilizer to very old seed that needed some added help.

An ordinary water-soluble fertilizer (I normally never use this kind of thing)

I put just a very small pinch in (just a little more than on my finger tips)

8. For very old seed: Keep them in the controlled environment as long as possible.

Waiting until the seed coat is almost off is not necessary for vigorous seed, but with seed that is old and weak, ensuring that the seed is almost in seedling stage is highly important to ensuring that you can save this vegetable variety for the future.

Notice the seeds that have almost pushed off their seed coating (circled in blue).

9. Feed your seeds in a low concentration sucrose medium

Between when the seeds sprout and when they begin pushing off the seed coat, it is possible to feed them with a low concentration of sucrose in agar as mentioned in my last post.

10. Wait, wait, wait…

Seeds with low viability take a long time. Newly harvested seeds can sometimes fully sprout in under 12 hours while old seed can take over 20 days. Be patient. If the seed you are trying to grow was good but is now too old it may yet sprout.

Skilled gardeners store their most valuable seed carefully. Even if a gardener has thousands of seeds of a specific variety, storing a seed variety in poor condition can result in loss of the majority of the population. Though knowing how to bring old seed back to life is important, being able to avoid “babying” seed by properly harvesting, preparing and storing seed is much less work. By posting about my learning experience I hope each of us can better apply the words of Eleanor Roosevelt to our own gardening as she said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

Friday, April 4, 2014

Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener by Joseph Tychonievich

For those of you who would really not want to learn all the fine details of why vegetable breeding works or would just rather not read a really long book about vegetable breeding Plant Breeding for the HomeGardener by Joseph Tychonievich is just for you.

This book is great for those who do not want long reads.

One of the first things that I look for in a plant breeding book is if the author includes specific factors to select vegetables for when seed saving. In one chapter,  Tychonievich discusses selective traits for vegetables such as beans, cabbage, corn, lettuce, squash and tomatoes. The trait that most interested me in this chapter has to do with tomatoes. Tomato acidity and sweetness are noted as a few traits, along with an interesting trait known as umami. Umami, a meaty glutamate that tomatoes produce, is one of the things that make them so popular. I wonder if there is any simple method by which a gardener can test umami like you can test acidity and sweetness?

Though PlantBreeding for the Home Gardener is fun and easy to read,  it also contains some more advanced techniques and thoughts that are worth learning more about. In the chapter entitled “Beyond the Backyard – Advanced Techniques” Tychonievich references ideas such as polyploidy and embryo rescue.

Polyploidy refers to the genetic makeup of a specific plant. A diploid has 2 copies of genetic code while a tetraploid has 4 copies of a genetic code. Sometimes crosses between diploids and tetraploids are possible and sometimes they are not. As plants with different genes exhibit different growth patterns and flowering crossing diploids and tetraploids can sometimes result in very interesting (and sometimes more productive) results. However, crossing diploids and tetraploids can sometimes result in triploids, which are often sterile.

My garden is currently growing Jerico lettuce
which was bred for heat-tolerance and not for beauty!

Sometimes when making a cross between two similar species of plants the embryo of the seed aborts, or falls off the plant, before maturing. Gardeners can save the embryo of a difficult cross by a technique referred to as embryo rescue. According to Tychonievich, embryo rescue is “one of the most powerful techniques for getting new hybrids between species”. The method for rescuing an embryo requires the gardener to remove the seed embryo from the plant then place it in a substrate that enables the embryo to grow into a small plant, which can then be grown to seed. The substrate often consists of a gelling agent (such as agar), a small percentage of sucrose (to feed the embryo), specific salts (Murashige & Skoog (ms) basal salt mixture) that can be bought online. Tools and recipes for embryo rescue can be found online.

What interests me most about embryo rescue is not to apply this technology and methods to making new hybrids but in saving the rare seed that we already posses. Sometimes old seed has a very difficult time germinating and once it does germinate the growth of the seedling can be incredibly slow. If the gardener has very little seed and the seed is rare, it may be worth looking into embryo rescue as a means to provide nourishment to the seedling. Later stage embryo rescue techniques could be used with such seed to imbibe increased vigor by feeding weak seedlings until they at least push off their seed coating. In one online source, the research geneticist Sandra Reed notes that later stage embryo development could occur in a simple inorganic medium (agar) supplemented with 2-3% sucrose (powdered sugar).

In summary, Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener has something for everyone. The majority of this book contains ideas that are presented in a very straightforward manner while some of its more advanced concepts provide inspiration for further research and development by the lowly gardener.