All posts by Jordan Charbonneau

Proper Seed Storage: 3 Key Steps

This time of year, there’s not much work to do in the garden. We’re mostly looking ahead to next spring, planning garden rotations, new beds, and selecting varieties we’d like to grow next season. One chore that may still need to be taken care of is seed storage. Properly storing seeds will ensure they remain viable for a long time. There are three main things to consider when storing your seeds this winter, whether they’re leftover packets or seeds you saved from your garden. 

Keep them cool.

Cooler temperatures help keep seeds in dormancy. The Svalbard Global Seed Storage Vault, which hopes to be the “ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply,” stores seeds at about -0.4°F or -18ºC to keep the seeds viable for long periods. 

While that isn’t necessary or even possible for most home gardeners, generally, you want to keep your seeds as cool as possible. Storing seeds below 40°F is optimal, but between 50° and 60° will work just fine. Get creative and think about what areas in your home always remain cool, whether it’s your basement or a particular cupboard, closet.

It’s important to remember that freezing and thawing or any significant temperature changes can mimic seasonal changes and cause seeds to deteriorate. Freezers can be a great place to store seeds, but if you frequently lose power during the winter, it may be better to put your seeds in a cool cabinet than into the freezer to avoid significant temperature fluctuations.

Keep them dry.

Moisture also signals seeds to germinate. If you’re saving seeds, make sure they’re fully dry before you package them. Larger seeds should easily snap in half and not bend. Smaller seeds should shatter under pressure. 

Use airtight containers such as mason jars to store seeds. It’s also a good idea to avoid storing seeds in the refrigerator or unheated garages and sheds due to the fluctuating moisture and temperature levels. 

Another option is to add silica gel packets or some dry rice to your jars or containers. These will help absorb any excess moisture. While this isn’t strictly necessary, it can provide a little extra protection.

Keep them in the dark.

Sunlight is detrimental to the long-term viability of seeds. It can signal to seeds that it’s time to sprout and cause the seeds to break down. You can place jars or containers of seeds in a dark cabinet or a larger solid color tote or container. 

A few other things to consider:

  • Label everything! Label your containers with the date seeds were stored and when you’ve done germination tests. 
  • Especially when storing grain seed, if you see signs of pest activity such as moths or weevils, place it in an airtight container in the freezer for two days to kill them.
  • Organize your seeds and make a list of what you have to avoid over-ordering this winter.

Properly storing your seeds can save you time and frustration. Follow these tips to ensure your seeds stay viable for as long as possible. Check out a few more of our seed-related posts below:

10 Tips for Growing Great Brassicas

Many of the first crops we start indoors are brassicas. We’ll begin by tucking cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower seeds into trays at the end of January. We start sowing kale, mustards, kohlrabi, and collards outdoors in March, followed by more indoor sowing of Brussels sprouts in April. These humble vegetables make up a considerable portion of the garden. They’re generally easy to grow, but a few simple tips can help ensure you have success.

1. Begin improving the soil this fall.

While they’re generally easy to grow, you’ll have more productive brassicas in good, healthy soil. Begin with a soil test. Brassicas don’t do well in acidic soil; you want the pH level to be between 6.5 and 7.5. Amend your soil with lime if needed.

You can also fork your soil this fall and begin working in aged manure or compost. Brassicas thrive in well-drained soil, so forking and adding plenty of organic matter makes a big difference. Planting a fall cover crop is also ideal, or you can cover the bed with mulch. 

2. Avoid common seed starting mistakes.

If you’re new to starting seeds indoors, a few mistakes are easy to make. When sowing brassicas, it’s important to provide supplemental light, so they don’t become leggy. You also want to get them planted out on time so that they don’t grow too large for their containers, and you take advantage of the cool spring weather. You should also remember to harden off your seedlings.

When you’re direct sowing brassicas, be sure to keep the soil moist. If you’re sowing seeds in hot summer weather, you can lay a board or cardboard over the row until they germinate. Be sure to check them often and remove the board as soon as they begin to come up!

3. Rotate your brassicas.

Like other crops, brassicas are susceptible to a range of pests and diseases. A fungal disease called clubroot can be especially troubling and can remain in the soil through the winter. Plant brassicas on a three-year rotation to avoid pest and disease issues. 

4. Remove and destroy any pest-infested or diseased plant material.

If you have pest or disease issues, it’s a good idea to clean up the garden bed after your crop is finished. Remove and destroy this material by burning it or burying it away from the garden. Fungal diseases can be killed in a compost pile that reaches 140°F.

5. Use row cover.

Cabbage worms can quickly ruin an entire crop. If you struggle with them year after year, it may be good to try growing your brassicas under row cover. We’ve found that cheap tulle fabric works well for this. It lets in light and airflow but keeps cabbage moths out. 

Alternatively, you can kill cabbage worms with Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. It’s a naturally occurring bacteria that kills the larvae of moths and butterflies. You can find OMRI (Organic Material Review Institute) certified sprays. Be careful only to spray your brassicas, though, as it can kill other species on other plants. 

6. Use proper spacing.

Especially when dealing with a small garden, it can be tempting to squeeze in as much as possible. Please don’t do it! Brassicas do much better when given proper space. Thin seedlings of direct-sown crops like collards and kale and read spacing requirements for broccoli, cabbages, and cauliflower.

7. Mulch around your brassicas.

Your brassicas will perform better if the area around them is kept weed-free. Unfortunately, brassicas tend to have very shallow roots, which can make hoeing near them challenging. Mulching around them is an excellent way to suppress weeds and helps keep the soil moist. However, mulch can provide a hiding place for slugs. 

8. Watch for slugs.

Slugs are another pest that can do a number on your brassicas harvest. They’re nocturnal, so you may only see the damage they cause or the trails they leave during the day. At night you can go out and handpick them from your plants.

There are also a variety of home remedies for dealing with slugs organically, and you may already have a preferred method. You can also find an OMRI (Organic Material Review Institute) certified product like Sluggo to help you deal with them.

9. Read about different varieties.

There are so many different varieties of brassicas, and they all excel in different situations. Be sure to read about varieties you like carefully before selecting one. For instance, Early Flat Dutch Cabbage has excellent heat resistance making it great for southern gardeners and spring plantings. January King Cabbage has excellent cold tolerance and is slow-growing, making it ideal for fall plantings. 

10. Harvest brassicas when they’re ready.

Don’t wait too long to harvest crops like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages. If left in the garden too long, they may flower. These crops can be frozen or fermented for storage. Cabbages also keep well in root cellars. 

Having success with a selection of brassicas can provide you with fresh produce all year long. Follow these tips for a bountiful harvest. Happy growing!

Wildlife Friendly Garden: Fall Clean-Up

This fall, we’ve loved seeing an increased awareness about how pollinators and other beneficial insects are affected by garden clean-up. These creatures overwinter in organic debris such as plant stems, seed pods, and leaves. Overwintering songbirds also utilize this debris for habitat and food sources. 

So do we leave our garden as is in the fall for wildlife? No, we remove some material, leave some, and add some. These autumn chores are essential for the health and productivity of next year’s garden. Here’s what we recommend to keep your garden healthy and give wildlife a helping hand:

Clean up diseased plants.

In the fall, any diseased plant material should be removed from the garden and burnt, buried away from any garden beds, or composted in a well-managed compost pile that reaches at least 140°F. 

Nightshades or members of the Solanaceae family, including peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants, are common candidates. These plants are affected by fungal diseases such as Alternaria (early blight), late blight, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt, which can overwinter in dead plant material.

You should also remove plants like cucumbers and squashes that have been affected by Downey Mildew.

Don’t leave soil bare over the winter. 

If your first frost is still several weeks away, you should be sowing cover crops like clover, Austrian winter peas, or winter rye in open beds. Cover crops prevent erosion, suppress weeds, add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi.

However, depending on what zone you’re in, if you haven’t sown any fall cover crops at this point, you may want to use mulch instead. A thick layer of mulch can help provide a winter habitat for beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi. It also suppresses weeds, slowly adds organic matter as it breaks down, and protects the soil from winter weather. We talked more in-depth about mulch in a previous post, but you can use straw, hay, old leaves, or wood chips.

Leave the leaves!

We’ve been taught that our yards and gardens should look tidy, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving autumn leaves right where they fall. They’ll break down and add organic matter and nutrients to your lawn and garden.

If you have places you want to remove leaves from, such as pathways to your home, there are a couple of great uses for them. You can add them to your compost pile; they’re a great source of carbon. You can also use leaves as an excellent free mulch to protect soil or perennial and overwintering plants like garlic, fruit trees and shrubs, strawberries, rhubarb, or tulips.

Don’t cut back seed-bearing flower heads.

Dead flower stalks are some of our favorite plants to leave standing. A few great choices include sunflowers, echinacea (coneflowers), bee balm (monarda), and rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans). The stems from many species are ideal places for native bees. You might also spot songbirds using them as winter perches and searching them for any leftover seed. They also add a bit of beauty to the winter landscape. Frost-covered seed heads are a lovely morning view. 

Plant more flowers.

Depending on your zone, you may still be able to sneak in a few flower seeds and bulbs. Many native flowers are excellent choices for fall sowing because their seeds are adapted to spending the winter in the soil in our climate. Check out our post, Spring Flowers: Fall Sowing, for a list of flowers that can be fall sown. 

Do cut back pest-infested material.

Another instance where we opt to remove and burn plant material is when it is infested with pests that may overwinter in the material. An excellent example of this is asparagus stalks that were infested with asparagus beetles. After they turn brown and die back in the fall, it’s a good idea to cut them about 2 inches above the soil and burn them. 

Other November odds and ends:

  • Drain the gas from rototillers and other equipment that will sit all winter.
  • Bring in terracotta pots that can crack during freeze and thaws.
  • Drain and store hoses and sprinklers. 
  • Clean and oil garden tools before storing them. This also helps fungal diseases from being transmitted to other garden beds.

As organic gardeners, we strive to work with nature. Following these simple ideas can limit time spent on clean-up, help build healthy soil, and increase the number of birds and beneficial insects in and around our gardens.