Category Archives: Garden Advice

Seed Saving for Beginners

Saving seed and heirloom varieties is extremely important work, whether on a large scale like at Southern Exposure or a smaller scale like a family’s backyard garden. Saving seed helps to preserve genetic diversity, provide people with secure food sources, and connect people to the earth and their local community.

Unfortunately saving seeds isn’t as simple as harvesting and cleaning your seeds. First you need to ensure you have the right kind of plants to start with.

Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid

In order to save seed that will “breed true” or have the same characteristics as its parents you need to start with open pollinated or heirloom seeds or plants. All heirlooms are open pollinated but not all open pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open Pollinated

Open pollinated simply means that a variety has been bred and then maintained until it was genetically stable. This means that if you save seed from an open pollinated individual that seed will grow plants with the same characteristics as its parent plants.

Heirlooms

Heirlooms are just open pollinated varieties that have been passed down for many generations. While there are a few definitions, at SESE we describe heirlooms as varieties dating from before 1940. Unlike modern varieties that have been developed for use with modern industrial agriculture and our global food system these varieites were grown, saved, and cherished by small farmers and gardeners.

Hybrids

Hybrids on the other hand are not genetically stable. They are the seed from two seperate varieites being crossed. While their first generation traits are predictable they would not be if you were to again save seed. The second generation seed can have characteristics from one or both of the parents or entirely new characteristics altogether.

Hyrbrids are not GMO or inherently bad. In fact many people grow them for their “hybrid vigor” which can make them grow faster than their open pollinated counter parts.

Choosing a Variety

Obviously you’ll want to choose a variety you love and care about. Maybe you fell in love with an heirlooms story or your family just can’t eat enough of your a certain variety. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to stay motivated throughout the season and proccess if you’re really invested.

If you’re a first time seed saver you may also want to consider choosing from a few easy vegetables. Squash, cucumbers, beans, peas, tomatoes, and peppers are all great choices for beginners.

Planting

If you want to grow plants to save seed there’s a couple things you need to consider. First many plants require other plants of the same variety to pollinate with and produce viable seed. Also for this reason seperate varieties should be kept a certain distance apart to avoid cross pollination. For more about how to plan a seed saving garden check out this post:

Garden Planning for Seed Saving

Selection

Even if you don’t have longterm goals for changing or creating a new variety selecting which seed to save is still important. You want to save seeds from healthy and productive plants that have desirable traits.

Harvesting the Seed

Tomatoes

Old German Tomato

To save seed from tomatoes you should harvest them when they’re fully ripe. Then the flesh can be seperated from the seeds and gel that surrounds them. The gel and seeds should be placed in a glass container with a bit of water and lightly covered. This mixture should be stirred twice a day unil the seeds sink to the bottom. The liquid can then be poured off and the seeds rinsed and spread on a towel to dry.

Peppers

Cayenne, Long Red Hot Pepper

Peppers are much easier to save seed from than tomatoes because their seeds lack that gelatinous coating. Wait until the pepper is over ripe, it should begin to wrinkle, and then harvest the seeds and spread them out to dry.

Cucumbers

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Mouse Melon, Sandita)

A ripe cucumber for eating is not the same as a ripe cucumber for seed saving. Cucumbers you wish to save seed form should be allowed to ripen on the vine until they’re yellow or brown in color. Then they need to cure for an additional two weeks or until mold begins to appear. Then the seeds can be scooped out and fermented in a jar just like tomato seeds.

Peas & Beans

Creel Crowder Southern Pea (Cowpea)

Harvest your peas and beans when the pods have turned brown. Then dry them in a single layer for 1-2 weeks until they’re crisp and dry enough that you can here the seeds rattle in the pods. They can be threshed individually or stomped or beaten in a pillow case to remove the pods and then winnowed.

Squash

Candy Roaster Melon Winter Squash

Winter squash, summer squash, and pumpkins are all harvested in the same method. Wait until the fruit is hard and large to harvest. Then cure for 1 month at room temperature before removing the seeds. Wash seeds thoroughly and lay out in a single layer to dry for 3 weeks.

Storage

All seeds should be stored in air tight containers in a cool dry place. Some people choose to add a small amount of silica desiccant in with their seeds to absorb moisture. It’s also important to note that different types of seeds have different lifespans.

 

Saving seed really isn’t difficult. It’s a great way to connect with land and a bit of history. Start saving seeds this season or making a plan for next year’s garden! For more information check our Seed Saving Guides in our Growing Guides Library.

11 Free Organic Methods to Add Nutrients to Your Garden

For many, gardening is not only an enjoyable activity but a great way to save some money. Unfortunately if you weren’t raised on a farm or with a large garden it can be difficult to have a successful garden withtout spending loads of money on fertilizer and soil amendments at the garden supply store. Thankfully it is possible to maintain a healthy garden without spending a dime! Try a combination of these methods to increase your soil’s nutrients and reap a better harvest.

Leaf Litter

Leaf litter is great because it can be used to make compost or can be applied straight to the garden as mulch. As a mulch it provides habitat for beneficial insects, blocks weeds, holds in moisture, and slowly breaks down adding nutrients to the soil.

Leaves can be gathered from your yard or woodlands. You may find piles that have collected behind fallen logs or stones after being carried by the wind. In gathering leaves remember to leave some for the natural ecosystem. It’s tempting but don’t strip any area of all it’s leaf litter. Even if you don’t own wooded property you can probably still find free leaves. Many cities and suburbs collect them and you can get bags of them for free, just ask around.

Grass Clippings

If you mow your lawn at all grass cllippings are deifintely worth getting a bagger for. They make great mulch to block out weeds, hold in moisture, and provide a lot of nitrogen. Grass clippings can also be soaked in water to create grass clipping tea. Watering plants with grass clipping tea provides a fast acting nitrogen boost.

Like with leaf litter, some areas may bag their grass clippings for collection and can be picked up for free.

Compost

Compost is surprisingly easy to make right in your backyard. The most important thing to remember when making compost is to have a mix of of “green”  or high in nitrogen material and “brown” or high in carbon material. Examples of “green” material include grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and weeds. “Brown” material includes leaf litter, wood chips, straw, etc. The compost should be turned occasionally and watered to keep it moist as needed.

Compost can also be used to make compost tea the same way grass clipping tea is made. Many people choose to add powdered egg shells to compost tea for an extra boost of calcium.

Some cities and towns now offer free compost made from local plant waste like grass clippings and leaves. If you go this route you may want to have it tested for herbicides.

For more on making compost read, How to Make Compost from Mother Earth News.

Straw

Straw is a choice mulch but can be rather pricey to purchase. Look for bales leftover from Halloween decorations or consider growing a patch of wheat for a double duty crop!

Wood Chips

Wood chips can be used as mulch or can be added to compost piles. Both in compost and as a mulch they offer similar benefits to that of leaf litter but break down more slowly.

Other Plant Material

Any plant material that doesn’t contain weed seeds can be used as fertilizer. Examples include wheat chaff, weeds, corn stalks, etc. These can be applied directly to the garden or composted. Green plant material like freshly pulled weeds can be used in place of grass clipping in grass clipping tea.

Cover Crops 

Cover croping may sound like something for a big farm but it’s actually very easy and effective to implement in a backyard garden. Some cover crops like vetch or clover are legumes and add nitrogen to the soil as they grow. Others like buckwheat add nutrients as they die and rot or are tilled under. Many cover crops come with added benefits like attracting pollinators.

Check out this post by Ira Wallace for more on Cover Crops.

Urine 

It sounds wierd but urine is actually a great fertilizer if you’re not too squeamish. It can we collected and saved up then diluted (10 parts water to one part urine) and used to water plants for a nitrogen boost. Most people or more comfortable using this on fruit trees and shrubs than their annual vegetable crops.

Wood Ashes

If you have a wood stove or backyard campfires wood ashes make a great free garden amendment, addding potassium to the soil. They should be used in moderate amounts as they also act as a liming agent. They raise the soil’s pH making it less acidic. If this is helpful for your soil conditions it’s worth noting that they’re only about 1/3 as effective as commercial lime so you may need a larger amount.

Hugelkultur Beds

If you’re okay with a more involved project you may want to try building a hugelkultur bed for longtime fertility. Hugelkultur beds involve a pile of woody material which breaks down over time providing a long lasting nutrient source.

You can learn more about the benefits of hugelkultur and how to make a hugelkultur bed here

Manure

Manure can come from your own livestock or you may find it free from a local farm. Try checking with places that board horses as they typically don’t use it the way many farms do. If you’re sourcing it from anywhere besides your backyard be sure that the animals haven’t been fed plant material that was grown using herbicides as these can still be in the manure and will kill your garden.

It’s also worth noting that excessive use of manure can cause a phosphorus build-up which pollutes local water sources and can tie up other soil nutrients. This problem doesn’t occur with any plant based fertilizers so manure should be used sparingly.

If you’re unsure of where to start consider having your soil tested. Your local agriculture extension agency will be able to identify what your soil needs and advise you where to begin. Growing good, organic food shouldn’t be expensive. Experimenting with these tried and true methods can help you keep a frugal yet productive garden.

10 Varieties You Can Plant This July For an Awesome Fall Harvest

If your springtime garden wasn’t as productive as you’d hoped don’t worry you’ve got a second chance! There’s many crops that are well suited to July planting and fall harvest. They’re great for storing into the winter months or simply extending the season of your fresh veggies.

These varieties were chosen based on zone 7a but even if you live in a much cooler climate there’s still many varieties that can be planted in July.

Umpqua Broccoli (95 days)

This broccoli produces great heads averaging 5-6 inches. It also produces nice side shoots and is an excellent fall variety.

For much cooler climates check out Calabrese (58 days) or Sorrento Broccoli Raab (45 days).

Savoy Perfection Cabbage (89 days)

These gorgeous cabbages have a good heat tolerance making them an ideal fall variety. The heads are round and average between 6-8lbs. Eat them fresh or try your hand at making kraut!

Danvers 126 Carrots (75 days)

Danvers are a classic carrot variety that’s great for a midsummer planting. They will tolerate the heat and store well for winter use.

Perpetual Spinach Leaf (55 days)

This hardy green will tolerate the heat of summer but keep producing well into the fall. It’s also a European heirloom dating back to 1869!

Small Red Bush Dry Bean (75 days)

These beans are realtively quick growing and very productive. They’re perfect for those still wanting to put up a dry bean harvest.

Early Golden Summer Crookneck Squash (50 days)

While many people are loaded with squash in the middle of the summer it can actually be nice to have a fall harvest as well. This variety was grown by the Native Americans and dates to before European contact. Later it was commonly grown by settlers in the Appalachians.

Purple Top White Globe Turnip (50 days)

This variety dates back to pre-1880 and offers classic turnip flavor with just 50 days to harvest.

Champion Collards (75 days)

Champion collards are productive and offer increased bolt resistance and enhanced winter hardiness!

Tanle Queen Vine (85 days)

Depending on your zone you may still even be able to sneak in some winter squash!This heirloom is one of the quickest varieties offered by SESE with just 85 days to harvest. They sweeten in storage and are excellent for baking.

Homemade Pickles Pickling Cucumber (55 days)

These vigorous cucumbers can provide you with an excellent second harvest. They’re disease resistant and productive. Don’t let the name fool you, pickling cucumbers can also be eaten fresh and are quite tasty.

 

These varieties are a great place to start but don’t hesitate to try others too, even if you think it’s a long shot. Especially if you live in a cool area, consider using season extenders like cold frames, hoop houses, or row cover.

Additional Resources

Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman (book)

Tips for Direct Sowing in Hot Weather by Lisa Dermer & Ira Wallace (blog post)

Succession Planting Warm-Season Crops for Hot Summers by Ira Wallace (blog post)

Summer Sowings: Continuous All Summer and Into Fall by Lisa Dermer (blog post)

Planning and Planting for an Abundant Fall and Winter Harvest by Ira Wallace & Lisa Dermer (blog post)