All posts by Jordan Charbonneau

Seed Saving from Biennial Crops

Generally when people think of seed saving they think about annual crops like corn, tomatoes, and beans which all produce seed in the fall or at the end of the growing season. While these are great crops for beginners to get started with many other common crops are actually biennial.

Seed Saving for Beginners

What’s a Biennial?

Biennial crops are those that require two growing seasons to reach maturity and produce seed. They need to go through a cold period called vernalization in order to produce seed. These include crops like beets, Swiss chard, bulb onions, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips, and more.

Planting

For most of these crops it is best to plant them in early fall. With the exception of bulb onions, plants that are started in fall rather than spring generally overwinter better.  When planting make sure that you give them enough space. Remember that your plants will be growing beyond the size they normally would for harvest before you’ll be able to collect seed.

You should also consider how much your chosen crop needs to be isolated. For example beets are wind pollinated, can cross with Swiss chard, and need to be isolated by 1/4 mile for home use. For pure seed they need to be isolated by 1/2 mile! Unless you have a large farm it’s probably best to stick with one variety so isolation isn’t as much of an issue. You can find this information for most crops in our growing guides.

Overwintering

Depending on your climate you may have different options for overwintering these crops. In southern zones it’s possible to overwinter some of these crops right in the ground especially if you have a hoop house, low tunnel, or cold frame set up over them. They should also be mulched in heavily to keep the soil temperature warmer. Many biennial crops can survive temperatures into the 20°Fs.

If you live in a colder climate where you cannot overwinter your crop in the ground it is still possible to save your own seed. Before the the ground freezes pull the plants up, being careful with the roots, and store them in moist peat moss, shredded newspaper, sawdust, or sand in a fridge or root cellar the way you would store carrots and beets for winter eating. Leave space between each plant so they aren’t touching each other. In storage you want to keep your plants cold but still above freezing. The high 30s are ideal. Onions however prefer less moisture and warmer temperatures (storage temperatures in the low 50°Fs).

Before pulling them up you can let them get frosted a few times. This will encourage them to go dormant. If they don’t go through a cold period they won’t be triggered to produce seed when you replant them in the spring. You can replant as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring.

Collecting Seed

During their second growing season biennial plants will flower and go to seed. For most crops this seed should be collected when it’s dry and brown. Some crops may have seeds on the same plant maturing at different rates so you may need to harvest your seeds while some are still green. Do no keep any seeds that didn’t fully mature and are green.

While there is a bit more involved in seed saving from biennial crops it’s still not a difficult skill to learn. If you’d like to help save your favorite heirloom variety or adapt a crop to your specific climate you  might consider trying your hand at seed saving.

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Fresh Food in Winter

As the leaves begin to change colors each fall I’m relieved by the decrease in garden chores but I’m also saddened the thought of nothing but store-bought or preserved produce. Thankfully there are a few ways to keep the fresh, local food on your table through the winter.

Cold frames, low tunnels, hoop houses, and more.

One of the best ways to enjoy fresh food from your garden during the winter is to utilize a season extender. You can use a hoop house, low tunnels, a green house, or cold frames in order to buffer your crops from winter lows. Cold hardy crops like pan choi, kale, arugula, spinach, radishes, turnips, and beets can be planted in these during the fall so that you can enjoy harvest through the winter.  Note that even if your garden is protected from low temperatures lack of daylight during the winter still hamper plant growth. To ensure good winter harvests plan ahead and plant in the fall or late summer while there’s still plenty of light.

 

In the ground.

Some late plantings of root crops like carrots, beets, and even potatoes can be left in the ground in some southern states. Mulch them heavily with a thick layer of leaves, straw, or hay and dig them as you need them.

In the kitchen.

Garlic and onion bulbs can both be easily grown in large enough quantities to feed a family for a year. They store well at room temperature so they can be kept right in the kitchen. Bulb onions and soft neck garlic can be braided for store helping to save space and look lovely hanging in the kitchen too.

Root cellars.

There are many crops that can be stored fresh in a root cellar or other cool/cold storage though the winter. These include root crops like beets and carrots as well as cabbage, potatoes, winter squash, and pumpkins. Pumpkins and squash do well in slightly warmer While an actual root cellar is wonderful they’re not absolutely necessary. Check out this post for how to store crops without a root cellar.

Fresh, homegrown produce doesn’t have to be a fleeting summer pleasure. With a little bit of extra planning and hard work you can enjoy fresh, local food year round.

Winter Composting

As temperatures and leaves drop many summertime garden chores end for the season. One chore that you can keep up with year round is composting. As microbes and insects slow down in the winter so will your compost pile however there’s no reason to stop composting. With these tips you can make the most of your winter compost pile. 

The first step to any good compost pile no matter the season is to provide the microbes with everything they need to thrive. This includes moisture, oxygen, carbon rich material, and nitrogen rich material. Typically fall and winter compost piles are plenty moist without adding an extra water. You can also provide it with oxygen by adding fluffy materials and avoiding packing it down. To achieve a good mix of carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials mix “green materials” like grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and manure with “brown materials” like straw or hay, leaves, or wood shavings. If your compost pile stinks or gets slimy you need more “brown materials.”

Winter Tips

  • Build a large pile.
    Just like larger animals can hold body heat better, larger compost piles will stay warmer in the center throughout the winter than smaller ones. Building up a good size compost pile in fall is essential to good winter composting.
  • Cover your pile.
    Anything you can do to protect your compost pile from the elements will help it remain more active in colder temperatures. You can build a structure for it with walls and a roof or even just throw a tarp over it. An existing hoop or green house is an excellent place to set up a winter compost pile. These will help hold in heat and keep precipitation and wind from cooling the pile.
  • Choose the best materials.
    As I mentioned above microbes that decompose compost need a certain mixture to thrive but if you really want your compost pile to keep working through winter you can take it a step further. Adding shredded materials like leaves or grass clipping less than 2 inches in size will allow the microbes to decompose things more quickly and generate more heat. A thick outer layer of leaves is also an excellent idea to help insulate the pile and shredded leaves are more insulating than whole ones.
  • Cover green material.
    When adding kitchen scraps or “green material” to your winter compost pile be sure to cover them. It’s best to dig a small hole in the top of the pile and then cover them with the surrounding material otherwise they may just freeze.
  • Try vermicomposting.
    If trudging out to your compost pile in winter doesn’t sound like something for you consider setting up a worm bin. Vermicomposting can be done year round indoors and is a perfect way to turn kitchen scraps into valuable worm castings. Here’s some direction for setting up a worm bin from Mother Earth News.
  • Avoid turning your pile.
    While turning your compost pile may help in summer, during the winter months it’s best avoided as it allows large amounts of heat to escape.
  • Add material in spring.
    As the spring thaws comes your composting will speed up and you’ll need to be prepared to add material. Frequently more brown material is needed at this time.

From Florida to Vermont winter composting is possible. It may take a bit of extra work (especially if you live somewhere you’ll be shoveling a path through the snow) but you can still have a thriving compost system during the winter months. Follow these tips to keep on working.