Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Humble Seed

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the Farmers market; today’s topic is the deconstruction of the often baffling terminology surrounding seeds. The goal of today's post is to hopefully provide you the reader with all the information needed to discern what the heck they are talking about in the seed catalogs you receive every spring. Before I get into talk about seed terminology, I need to do a few special notes regarding people and events that have just occurred.

First off I would like to direct all of you to look up the blog Suburban Hermit of Fayetteville, run by a neighbor of mine just up the road. This guy makes in credible use of concrete bits to make these amazing curved terraces in fact his backyard is quite incredible. It’s a good blog with lots of photos and information. Secondly I would like to thank everyone who attended the Sustainable Neighbors Fermented Foods event on Saturday and thank everyone who stayed or came to join in on the Seed Swap event right after. You guys all of you are truly amazing, the response to the fermented foods event was impressive, Perhaps worth a six-month repeat towards the fall even. The seed swap crew was quite incredible as all sorts of seeds were exchanged and honestly the bulk of them were hardcore organic. Out of this I can now say with certainty what BL2 will be growing this year the plant list for 2013 is now in stone with one addition due to a conversation with Marsha about a certain plant variety and will be posted up here in the next LITFM post. Thank you everyone for participating in the event, it was great to see you all.
As a final note to the mention of the seed swap, I think those who read this blog and are in or near the Fayetteville area ought to sit down and have a crop discussion. I noticed that some of our local sustainable neighbors could grow certain things but not others and thus we may have the beginnings of our own local food network. All we need to do is either take a record of what participants can or cannot be grown and start coordinating crops. If we were able to do that we might have the humble beginnings of a new breed of farmers market. If you are interested feel free to contact me through this blog or through sustainable neighbors. You can also contact the wonderful Marsha Howe through Sustainable neighbors with your thoughts comments or if you want to participate.

With all of that said today I would like to talk to all of you about what a seed is and the terminology surrounding it.

The symbolism of the seed is quite well known as it often is used to represent raw potential, and to a lesser extent a state of plant immortality. From this tiny dry little thing comes a great plant that has equal power to feed (Lettuce), beatify (roses) or be a scourge (poison ivy) or even can do great things to improve the environment (mustard).  We as gardeners spend so much time thinking over what seeds to buy because in that tiny packet there are dozens of little potential plants that can make our corner of the word better.

Like anything else the seed is a living breathing organism with a definite life span and it has needs. Some seeds wont germinate unless certain conditions are met while others practice ally grow on anything (chia pet anyone?). Seeds like plants are illiterate, they can’t read your seed packet, don’t care how they were raised and don’t even know what a book is so their ability to do what is genetically preprogrammed is an product of ongoing evolution. Some plants are utterly reliant on mankind to keep them going as they have somehow lost the ability to produce seed (bananas, figs and naval oranges) where as others need mankind to keep their offspring in existence (Corn, Wheat, Rice.) as they are no longer able to out compete naturally occurring ‘weeds’. With all that said the closer a plant variety is to it’s original wild origins the better it tends to be in fighting off insects weed competition and handling changes in the environment. A good example can be found with Lettuce and Chicory, the former having been cultivated for centuries but is still competitive. The latter (chicory) in its basic format is still pretty much a roadside weed, but with good soil and fertilizer becomes a productive perennial leaf green.  In respects to the lettuce some lettuce seed has been known to last for decades in dry storage with modest losses in viability. Old seed may not necessarily be bad seed but for the purposes of growing crops it may not produce the necessary number of plants you seek.

Needless to say, like any other living thing you handle the seed itself requires a few things to maintain most of its viability. We at the Skye project store our seeds in a plastic BPA-free container that has an internal rubber gasket to prevent moisture from getting to the seeds. We also use a few of those little silicon gel packets in the container to reduce internal humidity to prevent any damage to the seeds. The container is typically stored at room temperature away from direct sunlight.

The seed packets above are from a variety of sources ranging from seed saved in our own test garden to certified organic seed and on to major commercial types.
Storage aside there are some terms you should know in regard to the source of your seeds take a look over these terms and then look at your seeds and see what you’ve got.

Cultivar is an amalgamation of the words Cultivated Variety. A cultivar is a specifically cultivated cross or breed which has been selected specifically for a special trait, such as Clemson Spineless Okra which was cultivated and selected for the lack of stiff bristles on the pods. For note Clemson is also one of those varieties that has been called a heritage or heirloom breed but no solid evidence verifies or denies it’s status.

F1 Hybrid
F1 stands for Filial First Generation hybrid; it is basically the seed from that first crossing between two parent plants that has not yet been tested for the stability of its characteristics. You may see a lot of F1 type seed in non-organic catalogs and seed racks as the major companies often rush these plants to market without full garden trials. Admittedly there is nothing wrong with an F1 hybrid, with exception of it being somewhat unreliable genetically.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
The GMO is a laboratory-produced plant or seed where the genetics of the plant have been intentionally mixed in a way that otherwise would not be naturally possible. Prime examples include Starlink Corn, Roundup Ready Corn and Golden rice. The long term health effects of these products are questionable at best as any real study is often polluted by the biotech industry if it is unfavorable. When in doubt if the seed or plant you are holding is or is not GMO do no buy it. It is better to make due then to let GMO loose.

An heirloom is an older variety of seed that has been handed down through the generations. The issue with heirlooms is the difficulty in establishing what is and is not old enough to count as the word has became a marketing ploy for some seed producers (yes you burpee I mean you.).

Heritage varieties are heirloom varieties that were famous at some point or another for some reason. For instance the specific varieties grown at President Washington’s estate would be heritage varieties because of where and when they were grown. Often such varieties have some noted historical role such as Nankeen Cotton which played a part in the American Civil War as well as in slavery.

A hybrid is merely a cross between two similar plants that produces seed that may or may not have the desirable traits of one or both parents. Typically hybridizing is done through pollen transfers. Hybrids aren’t as bad as many make them out to be as they are often confused with ‘Man-Made’ hybrids and GMO hybrids.

Man-Made Hybrid
The MMH is a hybrid between two similarly related plants in a specific family. This process often involves manual pollen transfer and the intentional exclusion of natural pollinators to attempt to create a normally unlikely cross between two plants. Some examples of such crosses can be found in the Faux Haworthia (aloe x haworthia), the Gasteraloe (Gasteria x Aloe) and a large number of house plants and annual flowers. The MMH isn‘t necessarily bad because there isn’t supposed to be any actual genetic manipulation however the product plants that result could be pretty bizarre looking, sterile or even extra aggressive.

Open-Pollinated seeds or OP seeds are ones produced from parent plants where nature is allowed to take it’s natural course and pollinators such as bees and butterflies do all the usual work. A lot of the non-purple color varieties of Cherokee heirloom type tomatoes were first produced in this way. Ideally OP seed should be the only way seed is produced but corporate agriculture seems to have other plans.

The term variety is used to indicate the plant or seed in question is somehow a variation on the primary variety. For instance, Yellow Brandywine and Pink Brandywine are varieties of the Brandywine type tomato. There generally is nothing wrong with a variety because it is often the product of a natural mutation some aspect of unintentional selection. As with GMO seed if there is a doubt on it’s origins do not buy it.

The term wild is often applied to seed that is very close to it’s genetic origins, Currant tomatoes, dandelions and chicory are all virtually identical to their wild origins. Wild seed isn’t a bad thing but always make sure you have absolute identification of the plants they produce.

I know you all have heard the adage ‘a weed is a plant out of place’ or ‘A weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” This is true and I often refer to weeds with quotes because most of them do have a use. Corporate agriculture on the other hand makes profit from telling you that weeds are the downfall of civilization or well at least your yard. Most of them can be used to indicate soil conditions and weather patterns. As with Wild seed, always verify what you have before you eat anything.

With all that covered there are a number of terms being used on the market now that certainly do not help the average gardener make the best decisions for him or herself. Below is a list of a few seriously organic seed sources that do not use GMO seeds and have a good reputation for providing excellent seed and plant stock to the Skye Project

Baker Creek Seed
High Mowing Seed
Richters Seed
Southern Exposure Seed
Seed Savers Exchange

With all that said if you hardcore gardeners out there are on track by now your hot seasonal such as eggplant and peppers should have been started a week or two ago, and your ready to push on to tomatoes and other less temperature sensitive plants. If not you should get started since the weathers trying to turn more mild spring is approaching rapidly. Check in at LITFM next week for our official 2013 plant list and the next phase of our current topic. As always Folks keep ‘em growin!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Planning And Seed Starting

Welcome back all you garden aficionados out there, today we have one heck of an episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market and I think you will get a kick out of it. Today’s topics of discussion include the final part of the planning series and some good stuff about seed starting. Maybe it’s a bit of irony that the two got lumped together due to the cold weather forcing me to talk about rain barrels and frost hazards. As it turns out planning and seed starting go hand in hand and both are practicable for all skill levels, so let’s dive into the topics. Before we get into that I have some recent photos from the test gardens involving the latest weather and harvesting operations.

This was the scene on Saturday the 16th, a decent slow with frost, which came after I had installed the anti-frost socks on the rain barrels.

As you can see the Leeks and Egyptian Onions actually are cold hardy enough to ignore a light coating of snow and ice.

The collards and other leaf greens however got a nice coating due to their surface area and were a bit wilted the next day.

Add caption This batch of Cabbage-Mustard weathered the cold alright but much like the collards and cabbage-collards most of the leaves needed to be harvested the next day

Add caption This is a photo from the next day, as you can see the collards are starting to wilt near the leaf tips as the day warms. This wilting is due to cell damage which in most plants is a bad thing but on members of the cabbage family it makes them more mild in scent and flavor. For note, the plant on the left has not had any leaves removed, and the ones on the right have. I took this photo to show how you pick cabbage leaves to extend the harvest. Remember harvest from bottom to top but leave enough leaves for the plants to feed themselves. I also always fertilize crops like this after if the weather permits.

Weather-related activity aside supply gathering is an essential action in February, because for the less experienced gardeners, March is the best time to start seed where as for high production minded gardeners like yours truly, February is where it’s at.  The first step to supply gathering is to write a list of what you need. Needs are best divided into four groups when it comes to supply gathering.

1.      Absolutely Essential – the materials you can’t start without.
2.      Needed regularly - the stuff that you burn through regularly.
3.      Seasonal Needs – the stuff runs out slowly so you don’t need it in bulk.
4.      Wants – The stuff you can do without but want anyway.

That’s a fairly clear list, but let me clarify the information further. The absolute essentials for the average gardener would include things that they absolutely cannot function without and the lack thereof might actually compromise their growing schedule. For instance, the lack of seed starting soil, propagation trays, and seed might hobble gardeners growing efforts.

In comparison the things that fall under the ‘Needed Regularly’ category all are things you know are important to your operations, and that you know the average amount of time the item will last. A great example of this is found with soil enrichment products such as Alaska fish fertilizer. I know that under normal use a quart of this stuff will last about two months on average meaning I also know I must buy six bottles or a gallon and a half a year. This then allows me to find a better deal by buying in bulk when it is more economical to do so.

The ‘Seasonal Needs’ group is best thought of as the materials you might buy annually for use and or application that have a very slow rate of depletion. A good example of this might be the spring and fall applications of soil amendments to feed the soil and aid in improved crop productivity. One good example might be composted manure products which do wonders towards maintaining soil fertility.

The last group is simply the ‘Wants’ and are comprised of the odd stuff you don’t actually need but desire anyway. Technically the wants themselves are useful but the research behind their effects and utility has not been documented so at best they might be curiosities. A good example of such things would include such gimmicks such as the ‘Topsy Turvy Tomato Planter” or the “Earth Box” product line. In the case of the former, its value is highly doubtful as it operates of pseudoscience at best, in the case of the latter the sheer cost* to utilize this system makes it hard to justify. Let’s be honest here we as gardeners know we’ll fall for some garden gimmick eventually, so at least make it a less expensive one.

Enough about the topic of planning for your supply needs since we have a more pressing topic to cover this week. As you know it is February and this is the month in which most gardeners begin planning to or actually start planting seed.  In the north typically seed starting is often delayed until mid to late march with an intended set-out date some time around mother’s day in May. For those of us in the North Carolina region however February is the earliest month you can start seed without a heated greenhouse with a expected set-out date around or just after Easter in April. 

Keep in mind, what you grow from seed varies on your experience and the materials you have available to propagate your crops.  The timing of starting seed in particular varies based on the type of seed you are growing. Typically with warm season crops the plants are grown in a reverse order with the slower growing crops that require the summer’s warmth started first. The faster growing largely temperature insensitive plants however are often started later.  Somewhere in the middle cuttings, tuberous slips such as potatoes and other non-seed plant propagation items are typically started or other wise propagated by division. For the average gardener this means you would start your peppers and eggplant first, with some cold tolerant annuals, and then move gradually towards the warm seasonal plants with less temperature sensitivity such as tomatoes, beans, squash and warm season leaf vegetables.

It sounds simple, because despite all the daunting terminology and the wide plethora of seed starting materials seen in the seed catalogs and in the garden centers the starting of seed is rather easy. Most seed require several things to be started including a soil media humidity, and warmth but they also require you to be wary of planting depth and once the seedlings have emerged light intensity and temperature. Fortunately most of the seed we would grow are pretty tough thanks to long term selection. For instance the average marigold once the seedling has emerged can largely aside from watering and fertilizer needs can hold its own. In contrast, Passionflower seedlings are incredibly temperamental when young and wilt at the mere threat of the humidity dome being removed in the most dramatic fashion possible.  That said if you can maintain moisture humidity and warmth long enough seed emergence should be as a simple affair.

For note the term Production cycle is relative to when you want to have a ready crop of plants.  The average time frame is about two months but you should allow yourself additional time to compensate for unusual weather and other factors. Additionally some plants will not tolerate cold wet soil so you should plan your plantings accordingly.  For note we at the Skye Project started our slowest growing warm seasonal plants back on the 9th of February. We started our seeds that early because our facilities include a seedling mat to keep the soil warm, and a lighting system to compensate for the weather and to reduce the incidence of seedling stretch. In addition the seedling bench itself has room to accommodate upwards of ten full trays which makes for quite a bit of production area.

Now here’s a tip any of you out there just starting out on the urban farming voyage. If you lack a seedling mat to keep your soil warm while germinating seeds believe it or not the top of your fridge is constantly warm enough to simulate the effects of a seedling warming mat. The size of the fridge does not matter except in the case of the fridge being too small for the seedling tray to sit on top of it and in the case of top-loading freezers.

Another cost cutting tip is to remember that light plays a role in seed germination however before your seedlings have emerged they can’t necessarily tell the difference between the sources of light. Warm and bright can go a long way to reliable seed germination. A simple 100 watt incandescent light set about 8” to 1’ above the top of the soil media or the top of the humidity dome is sufficient to aid germination if you lack a specific lighting system. In fact for a number of years in the early Skye project back in New Jersey we used three of those work site lights with the metal reflector and a position able clamp set to a timer on a 8 hour run time. The effect was that without a seedling mat germination was fairly reliable. As your seedlings mature they will need real sunlight but for the purposes of getting them started you can bend the rules ever so slightly.

As a final cost-cutting tip for seed starting, it has been asked if you can use compost in seed starting mix and I say yes, yes you can but here is a formula for making your own seed starting mix using compost.

16oz / 2 cups Compost, sterilized*
8oz / 1 cup Perlite
8oz / 1 cup Vermiculite
48oz / 6 cups Coir Fiber soil material

  1. Sterilize compost.
-You can sterilize compost by baking it in the oven for an hour at 450 degrees. This kills off any weed seeds and bugs that may be dormant in the soil. Always make sure that any earthworms are removed from the soil before this process. If you can put the earth worms back in the compost.

  1. Allow Compost to cool and re-wet it.
  2. Prepare Coir fiber soil.
  3. Blend Coir and compost well.
  4. Add in Vermiculite and Perlite.
  5. Check soil mix for any large chunks and dry spots.
  6. If soil mix is adequately cooled it is ready to use.

The advantage to this sort of soil mix is its lack of pH in the coir fiber and the high drainage value added by the vermiculite and perlite. Base fertility is supplied by the compost which is as good as you can make it. If you want to super charge this formula, you can replace the home made compost with something like black kow composted manure but doing so  means you don’t have to sterilize anything but also defeats the purpose of keeping this soil mix low cost. This blend should create five pounds of finished seed starting mix. You can upgrade this to potting mix by reducing the amount of coir and proportionately increasing the amount of compost until the ratios are about equal. This mix can be turned into a cactus, citrus or succulent mix by replacing one cup of coir fiber with sand and another cup of coir with fine gravel.

With that said feel free to experiment with that last bit, and this brings us to the end of this article. In our next article I will be talking about seed selection itself and the terminology associated with it. Hopefully it will help all you gardeners out there understand all the terminology associated with the industry. There is one other thing to note before I bring this episode to a close, The greens harvest after the minor snow in Fayetteville brought in about five pounds of greens. Until next time though feel free to comment here or at sustainable neighbors about anything in this article and of course as always keep ‘em growing. 

*Just a note folks: Most earth box systems at the retail level are about 40-60 dollars just for a small ‘earth box’ itself and does not include soil or plants. In comparison, two 14” pots might cost 10 dollars and the soil to fill them 10 more dollars you get the same effect and efficiency minus paying for someone’s brand name and copyright costs.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Winter Weather Advisory

Welcome back to another winter edition of lost in the farmer’s market. Today’s topic is one of critical importance as the winter weather seems to be more dangerous then ever. However we will not be talking about road hazards or winter driving, instead today the topic is about winterizing your rain barrels. It should be said that aside from the standard procedure of disconnecting the downspout from your installed rain barrels and emptying the water there is no absolutely safe method to maintain a functional rain barrel during the winter.

That said since the concept of rain barrels for irrigation went mainstream and is now subject to what some think of as 'trendy design' the durability and styles of rain barrels now vary greatly. If you check out Amazon.com or merely Google the words rain barrel you can see the great variety produced for public consumption these days. However all rain barrels are vulnerable to freezing. Today we will be using the skye projects own rain barrels as an example we will demonstrate some virtually free of cost methods to secure your rain rain barrel against the erratic winter cold in 2013.

For note the Rain barrels used by the skye project are the pickle barrel style sold through the Cooperative Extension Agency in town. I prefer these because the material that the actual barrel is made of is food grade plastic that is resistant to the corrosive fluids used to make pickles. This means that were I desperate I could boil the water to kill bacteria and pathogens then run it through a set of ceramic and charcoal filters to make some kind of potable water with no plastic byproduct contaminants. The first step to preparing your rain barrel begins with the overflow fitting on the upper right or left side of the barrel's body.

Step one, Remove any  overflow hoses attached to the overflow fitting, as they may burst if they are full or partially filled with water.

Step two: If your rain barrel has an additional fitting such as the elbow and hose hookup connector like the one pictured remove it if you can as ice may burst or damage the elbow if the barrel is full enough.

Step Three: Once the elbow fittings are removed allow any excess water to pour out. In this case for note the original fitting is the white piece connected tot he barrel but the part the water is pouring out of is a plug adapter that allows the elbow to be attached. I cannot remove the adapter because it is glued in place as the original adapter lacks threading.

The second half of preventing frost damage to your rain barrels is to protect it's most vulnerable part, the spigot or spout at the bottom of the barrel. As you can see below, the pickle barrel types feature a reinforced Boiler drain spigot which means it can handle extremes in temperature within reason. Before I took this series of photos this guy was frozen solid which gave me quite a scare. It did eventually thaw but it was too close of a call for me. So here is a inexpensive way to protect this sort of spigot.

This is your spigot, you want to make sure it is closed before you start

Step two: Get an old worn out sock, and wrap it about the spigot taking care to cover the opening and all parts except for the handle. I use black socks because like the barrel they tend to stay warmer then the air temperature and once the sun hits them they will thaw any freezing in the spigot rather fast.

Step Three: Since the first sock isn't actually held in place by anything, a second old sock placed at the angle shown above will serve to hold it all in position.

Step Four: Tie old Sock #2 in a loose knot to hold the whole thing in place. Remember that if the weather forecast calls for low temperatures and rain you may have to protect this further by using a supermarket shopping bag over the whole assembly.

As a third point of reference some times you cant remove the overflow port or it's fittings from your rain barrel because the port will expel water too close to the foundation of a building. Should this problem arise, the solution is pretty easy just take a look at what has been done below.

Step One: Remove prior overflow hose fitting.
Step two: If possible rotate the elbow fitting so it faces away from nearby structures. If this is not possible then allow your self a few extra feet of hose for the next step.

Step Four: Attach one of your better quality hoses to the elbow connector and prepare to find a place to aim the flow.

Step Five: You want to have enough hose to direct the overflow away from structures, paths and vehicle traffic. As you can see this hose gets the overflow a good distance from all of that but is in risk of being run over by the vehicle in the upper right corner. Some hose adjustment clearly is needed, but the placement of the hose meets all other criteria.

Remember, any spigots attached to the building need protection too, if you have a flow splitting device such as the one above remember to turn off the water and leave the individual valves of the splitter open.

 With all that covered I must repeat, not all rain barrels have the same features, I would be no less cautious with metal fittings then I would with plastic. It is up to you to make that critical judgement call as to how and what you do with your rain barrels, but I know this, putting a new spigot on is a pain and so is replacing a burst rain barrel so consider the weather and be mindful of frost activity. Oh and remember to keep 'em growing folks.