All posts by Janel

Here Comes The Sun(flowers)…

Spring is swiftly approaching, and let me tell you, I can’t wait for sun—and for sunflowers! Sunflowers will brighten up your garden and bring a smile to your face. Southern Exposure loves them so much that a blooming sunflower graces our logo! To us, sunflowers symbolize the unity of beauty and utility, and serve as a reminder of the boundless source of life’s energy and creation.  Maybe, that’s why we carry fifteen varieties of sunflowers.

Autumn Beauty sunflower

Beauty and Utility United

If you are going to be growing sunflowers in the hopes of harvesting sunflower seeds, you should stick with Black Mammoth. This variety is the traditional tall, single-headed sunflower—stalks can grow to be eight to ten feet tall! Black Mammoth is a confectionery variety of sunflower, which means that its big seeds will be great for munching.

If there are children frequenting your garden, you should consider planting our adorable Short Stuff or Sunspot varieties. Kids love these dwarf sunflowers as they only grow to be about three or four feet tall. They are also perfect for borders & container gardens and for growing seed to feed birds in the wintertime.

Are you into D.I.Y. (“Do It Yourself”) projects? If so, why not experiment with dying fabric the old-fashioned way? Hopi Indians crushed the purple-black seeds of the gorgeous Hopi Dye variety and used the pulp as a natural dye for coloring woven baskets. If you want to try growing these sunflowers for seed, plan to mature the seeds in the driest part of the growing season.

The Many Faces—er—Heads of Sunflowers

Some people may not realize that not all sunflowers are stalks topped with single heads. Sunflower plants can have many branches with many heads! Poly-headed varieties usually grow to be about five to seven feet tall. Although their seeds are too small to harvest for human consumption, poly-headed sunflowers are valuable additions to a garden as they are visually striking—a single plant can yield flowers of many different colors.

Plus, birds love the tiny seeds of poly-headed sunflowers. Take, for instance, our ornamental Cucumber-Leaf variety, which you may want to plant just for your neighborhood birds. When the heads of the sunflowers mature and dry out, your feathery friends will flock to them! They tend to prefer this variety to other kinds of sunflowers. (However, all types of sunflowers attract birds, which is bad news for saving seed…so, use bird netting on poly-headed sunflowers while they’re drying down and tie paper bags over the large heads of single-headed sunflowers. Seeds will continue to mature inside the bag).

One benefit of poly-headed sunflowers is that they are less likely to fall over because of heavy heads. Black Mammoth sunflowers, on the other hand, may fall over due to strong winds or loose soil if left untrellised. Another great thing about poly-headed varieties is that you will get a longer bloom out of them. Black Mammoths might have two weeks with their heads at maturity before they wither up, but the many flowers on a poly-headed plant will give you about a month and a half of blooming action!

Sunflower Facts

Lastly, here are some general things you may want to know about our favorite flower:

  1. As most plants orient themselves towards the south to get the most light possible during the day, sunflowers tend to lean south. In fact, the French word for “sunflower” is “tournesol,” which literally means, “turn with the sun.” So, if you happen to have a fence in your yard that runs east to west, a smart idea would be to plant your sunflowers on the north side of the fence so that the sunflowers can lean against it! Talk about trellising made easy…
  2. Don’t fertilize your sunflowers with manure or anything else that is high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen leads to sunflowers that are too tall and thus more likely to fall over. Also, a surplus of nitrogen can mean more leaves and less flowers.
  3. Frost kills! When planting sunflowers, either start them in a greenhouse/indoors and transplant them or directly seed them in the ground after the danger of frost has passed.
  4. If you’re wondering when to plant sunflowers, we’d recommend planting them a couple of times over the course of the spring/summer since they flower for a limited time. For instance, if you plant your first batch in April or May, plant some more in June to maximize the time you get to spend admiring these lovely flowers.
  5. Sunflowers are beautiful, easy to grow, great for kids, and have few bug problems. What more could you ask for?

Celebrations of Sun and Soil

Keeping Up with SESE

Recently, we here at Southern Exposure have had the pleasure of participating in two lovely, sustainability-focused events: our 4th annual Heritage Harvest Festival, held at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello right here in Virginia, and the inaugural Mother Earth News Fair at the Seven Springs Resort southeast of Pittsburgh.

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello

Our booth at HHF with Monticello in the background

Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener and agriculturalist and, if alive today, would surely be a passionate advocate of the organic food movement. In honor of this, Monticello and Southern Exposure have been co-hosting the Heritage Harvest Festival (HHF)–a celebration of local food, gardening and sustainable agriculture.

Our wire seed rack on display at HHF

On Saturday, September 11th, 3,000 people flooded Monticello’s West Lawn to attend workshops and hands-on demonstrations as well as to admire Jefferson’s beautifully-restored gardens.

Experts from around the country shared their knowledge with participants at a variety of wonderful lectures. Among these master gardeners were our very own Ira Wallace and Ken Bezilla. Ira educated listeners about heirloom garlic and later, she threw a tea party! At her workshop Herbal “High” Tea, Ira served fancy herbal teas and delicious anise cookies while teaching participants how to grow the herbs needed to make such sweet and savory delights.

At Ken’s lecture, he delved into fall and winter gardening for Zone 6. Besides recommending winter greens and roots that participants could begin growing as well as naming crops such as garlic and onion that could be started for next year, Ken talked about frost preparation for summer crops, row cover, and what to do for your plants when it snows.

Andros putting out tomatoes samples

Over at our Southern Exposure booth, we hosted pepper, melon and tomato tastings that enveloped us in a flurry of activity all day long. The continuous stream of people wanting to try our numerous heirloom tomato varieties kept our ex-line cook Andros chopping tomatoes at lightening speed for hours.

Mother Earth News Fair

The first ever Mother Earth News Fair, held at the Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania, was a huge success, with over 9,000 participants and nearly 200 workshops. The fair was a hands-on sustainable lifestyle event that featured an eco-friendly marketplace, organic and local food tastings, and lectures by leading authorities on gardening, green building and renewable energy. We’re glad we got to be there and that we were asked to be a Supporting Partner of the event.

River and Gordon at our Mother Earth News Fair booth
Mmmm, garlic tasting!

An entire table of our booth was dedicated to seed swapping. We happily looked on as friends of Southern Exposure exchanged all sorts of seeds, from passion fruit to wildflowers, amongst each other.

People perusing our booth could also sample squash, tomato, pepper and garlic varieties–all of which we grew in our garden.

And Ira, ever a fountain of useful information, gave four lectures.

Ira's lecture "Growing Great Garlic and Perennial Onions"

When she wasn’t teaching attendees how to grow garlic, perennial onions, herbs and heirloom tomatoes, she was instructing people on how to eat fresh from their gardens all winter long.

If you missed the fun in Pennsylvania, come visit our booth next year! We’ll definitely be back, and with even more Southern Exposure goodness.

If you’ll be on the West Coast in June or September next year, you can also find us at these Mother Earth News Fairs:

June 4-5, 2011 – Seattle Metro Area, Puyallup Fairgrounds, Puyallup, Wash.
Sept. 3-5, 2011 – San Francisco Metro Area, Marin Center, San Rafael, Calif.

Upcoming Events: Where to Find Us This Winter

We’re donating ten percent of our sales from winter events to the Organic Seed Alliance, so come on out and celebrate seeds with us!

Dec 3-5 Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s 25th Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Winston-Salem, NC
Dec 12 Appalachian Seed Swap in Bristol, TN
Jan 19-22 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) in Chattanooga, TN
Feb 10 Organic Seed Intensive in Portland, OR
Feb 11-12 Organicology in Portland, OR
Feb 11-12 Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) in Danville, VA
Mar 5-6 Organic Growers School in Asheville, NC
Mar 10-12 Georgia Organics in Savannah, GA

Let’s Talk Tomatoes!

Choosing tomatoes to plant in your garden can be a bit tricky if you don’t know a few key terms.  Since there are so many different tomato varieties out there, it can be hard to figure out which one is right for your garden.  Some varieties are perfect for making sauce, while others are great for tossing into salads all summer long.

Certified organic tomatoes grown at Southern Exposure

All of the tomato seeds Southern Exposure offers are non-GMO and non-hybrid.  Most varieties are heirloom tomato seeds.  People often debate about what “heirloom” means, but to us, an heirloom variety is generally one that was introduced before the widespread use of hybrid varieties in industrial agriculture. This began around 1940. The integrity of our heirloom tomato seeds has been preserved thanks to open pollination. Most of our tomato seeds are also certified organic, which means the seed was collected from plants grown without exposure to petrol chemicals.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes

The distinction between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes sometimes leaves people baffled, so here’s a little tutorial.

Determinate tomatoes will stop growing at a certain point, and generally they are shorter in height than indeterminate varieties. Here in Virginia, if a determinate tomato plant grows to be five feet tall, the same plant could be three feet tall in a colder climate. Either way, there is a limit to how tall a determinate tomato plant will get.

Determinate tomatoes include: Glacier, Roma VF Virginia Select, Marglobe VF, Neptune

Glacier Tomatoes are one of the first to ripen

Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, will just keep growing and growing! Factors that affect height are climate/length of season, trellis size, and plant health. In tropical areas, indeterminate varieties can be like perennials and grow for a few years. Most tomato varieties, especially cherries, are indeterminate. One of our customers who planted our Matt’s Wild Cherry seeds in her greenhouse told us that the vine grew to be 17 feet long! (Please keep in mind that this is very unusual.)

Indeterminate tomatoes include: Yellow Brandywine, Georgia Streak, Abraham Lincoln

Georgia Streak- heirloom tomato introduced by Southern Exposure

An advantage of growing determinate tomatoes is that there is less trellising work involved. Also, if you are going to be canning fresh tomatoes, you will probably want to go with a determinate variety as most of the fruit will need to be harvested over a short period of time. The disadvantage of determinate tomatoes is that they have fewer leaves than indeterminate varieties, meaning that the plant is less likely to receive nutrients. More leaves = more nutrients = tastier fruit. So, if you are hoping for a tomato plant that will consistently bear smaller amounts of tomatoes for snacking, sandwiches and salads, you’ll want to go with an indeterminate variety.

Cage-free Tomatoes?

We’ve been asked if it’s absolutely necessary to trellis tomatoes. In other words, is it OK to let them sprawl on the ground? The short answer is yes. But it’s not the greatest idea! Cage-less tomatoes will bear less fruit than trellised tomatoes, and the fruit you will get

Newly caged tomato plants

could be more vulnerable to rot and critters. If you really don’t have the funds for trellising materials, make sure to mulch the ground heavily to protect the tomatoes. If the mulch

gets wet, however, the ripe tomatoes sitting on the ground will certainly rot, so I’d recommend only trying cage-free tomatoes in hot, dry weather.

Although tomato trellising requires both time and money, it’s a worthy investment! You can reuse your tomato cages year after year. At Southern

Exposure, we use five-foot-tall cages made with concrete-reinforced wire cut into pieces that measure two to three feet in diameter. Also, we make sure to secure our cages with sturdy posts so that they don’t fall over.

Husk Tomatoes

Thanks to some of our seed growers just up the road, we now carry fives types of tomatillos! Our most recent addition is called Purple Tomatillo. In honor of this, I’d like to briefly explore the world of husk tomatoes with you.

Purple Tomatillo - ripening

Husk tomatoes, as our catalog describes, “are distinguished from tomatoes by the light-brown, papery husk which enlarges and covers the maturing berries.” Picture Chinese lanterns with goodies inside of them, and you’ve got husk tomatoes!

Cossack Pineapple - ground cherry

Ground cherries and tomatillos are the two most commonly cultivated species of husk tomatoes.  Tomatillos are commonly used for salsa and other Mexican foods, and they are often cooked to bring out their full flavor. Ground cherries, on the other hand, can be eaten raw. They are deliciously sweet, so you could also try them in sauces, preserves, pies and other desserts!

Lastly, Some All-Time Favorites!

Garden Peach- bears fruit until frost

For storage –  Garden Peach*

For sauce – Hungarian Italian Paste

Cherry tomatoes – Matt’s Wild Cherry

All-around good – Eva Purple Ball

*Personally, I’d say that Garden Peach is the most scrumptious tomato I’ve ever tasted. These little pinkish-yellow bulbs make the perfect snack, and if you pick them when light green, they’ll store well without splitting.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomatoes were a favorite at Mother Earth News Fair and the Heritage Harvest Festival!