Category Archives: Seeds

Beginning to Save Seed — by Julia Frisbie

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 12, 2022

I try new vegetable varieties every year, because I am quite susceptible to seed catalog madness in January. But there are also some varieties I grow every year, no matter what, because we love them so much that our garden would not be complete without them: red russian kale, Jaune Flammée tomatoes, Schweizer Reisen peas, Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers, Costata Romanesco zucchini… the list could go on, but these are the first who spring to mind.

Above, Jaune Flamée and Vorgebirgstrauben grow side-by-side up a string trellis. I tried red plastic mulch one year to heat up the soil for tomatoes. The results were not impressive, and I now grow without plastic mulch, since I’m breeding towards vegetable varieties that thrive without so much coddling. 

When I’m planning to plant a particular variety for, say, the third consecutive year, that’s a trigger for me to think about saving seed for it. Here’s why:

  • What if seed producers stop growing this and I can’t find it some year in the future? My garden would not be complete.
  • If it does well enough that I want to grow it year after year, it’s probably pretty well adapted to our conditions… but growing the same variety for multiple generations in the same place presents a great opportunity to breed toward it becoming even better adapted to our specific microclimate. Plus, as a laissez-faire gardener, I’ve got a seed-saving superpower, which is the ability to breed towards greater resilience. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.
  • Look how many wonderful meals these plants have provided to us. What gift can I give in return? Plants want to make seeds. Allowing the completion of their life-cycle, and even acting as midwife to the next generation, is one of the most powerful acts of reciprocity that I can imagine.

My seed-saving mentor, Rowen White, describes the beginning of a long-term relationship with a new vegetable variety this way:

“This season I’ve fallen for this amazing Turkish cucumber variety called Çengelköy from Istanbul. It might seem odd, but I’ve asked them if they would adopt me, and I promised to care for them in the seasons ahead. Being a seed steward is all about initiating and sustaining relationships with our seeds and food… While I’ve grown a number of cucumber varieties over the years, the way these make me smile indicates that these are going to join the long-term family collection here on our farm.”

I love the image of asking a plant to adopt me. It speaks to the way healthy relationships change and deepen over time. My partner and I started out as acquaintances, then became good friends, and then significant others, before making a lifelong commitment to each other. Our commitment deepened when we became co-parents of the next generation. This progression expresses the joy we share, and the care we have for each other. If so with people, then why not with plants? Why are our relationships with the foods that feed us stuck in suspended animation? Or, to borrow language from the dating scene, why are our plants getting “friend zoned”?!

Well for one thing, capitalism depends on our willingness to buy and sell stuff, including food and seeds. We’ve sacrificed much of our natural ability to be producers rather than consumers on the altar of “economies of scale.” It’s true that nobody can do it all alone. A certain amount of cooperation and commerce is beneficial. But becoming too far removed from the plants who keep us alive, I think, has not made humans any happier or healthier.

Nobody can do everything, but we can each do what we love. If you love food, you can grow it, and you can deepen your relationship with the plants who feed you by saving their seeds. Learning how to save seed in general is complicated, because plants can be annuals or biennials; self-fertile or promiscuous; pollinated by insects or wind. But learning how to save one particular type of seed for one particular type of vegetable is do-able for just about anyone.

Jaune Flammée seed 

Which varieties do you grow year after year? Which little sprouts feel like old friends when they pop up in the springtime? Which foods stir deep memories when you bite into them? What can you learn about the life cycles of those particular plants?

You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Just start with the easiest one. My first year saving seed, I only did Red Russian Kale. The next year, I added Schweizer Reisen peas and Jaune Flammée tomatoes, both of which are self-fertile. In 2022, I’ll try to save seeds from my Vorgebirgstrauben cucumbers. This will be my first insect-pollinated seed crop, and I admit, I am nervous! But I am going to try it anyway, because I love these little cucumbers, who are so prickly I have to wear gloves to pick them, but never bitter. I want to show them my gratitude, and count them among my extended family.

Starting Seeds

by Julia Frisbie

posted 2-22-22

If you’re like me, at this time of year you’ve amassed an embarrassingly huge collection of seeds and are wondering where you’ll cram them all, and how you’ll get them off to a good start. Or maybe you picked up a few seeds at our Seed Swap on February 12th and you’re wondering what happens next. It all depends on what kind of seeds you’ve got.

All seeds need consistent moisture to wake up from their long sleep. Beyond that, their preferences seem to be as diverse as the plants who birthed them! One of the most important differences is the temperature they need to germinate. Our soil on Fidalgo Island often doesn’t get warm enough to germinate the seeds of long-season, heat-loving veggies in time for their crop to mature before temperatures turn cold again.

That’s why a lot of people here start these types of seeds inside under lights, on a heated propagation bench, or in a greenhouse. My rule of thumb is, if it needs to be warmer than 70 degrees to germinate, I start it indoors or in a sheltered/heated outdoor space. If you don’t want to do that, you should buy starts for those types of plants at a plant nursery.

Remembering which seeds prefer which conditions can be a challenge. I’ve made the following chart mostly for my own benefit, but I share it here in case it’s helpful to you. It’s based on back-of-the-seed-packet info, my own experience, and Linda Gilkeson’s excellent book Backyard Bounty. I’ve organized the information by what comes first in my own gardening calendar.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. You can grow different stuff than I do, or do it at different times (for example, I grow root veggies and brassicas in the winter rather than the summer because it makes them sweeter and lines up better with their natural life cycles). And remember, you don’t have to grow everything (I sure don’t)! Just grow what you like best. One more note: I tend to plant things out really small… like, a few inches tall with just a couple sets of true leaves. If you plan to start seeds indoors and want bigger plants by the time you set them out, you should start them a few weeks earlier than I do.

Variety Start inside by…  Pre-Treatment? Ideal Soil temp Plant outside by… 
Broad beans (favas) n/a (direct sowing is better) Soak 8 hours 40s+ February
Alliums (leeks, onions, shallots, chives) February None 60s April to early May
Hardy annual wildflowers (poppies, lupine, larkspur, nigella, bachelor buttons, calendula, ammi, yarrow) n/a (direct sowing is better, these seem to resent transplanting) They want to freeze and thaw before sprouting, so if you don’t sow them in fall or winter, stick them in the freezer for a few weeks before broadcasting. 50s – 60s February
Peas (pre-sprouting in vermiculite one week before planting is optional) Soak 8 hours, pre-sprout in vermiculite if you’re worried birds will eat them. 40s-80s March
Snapdragons March Needs light to germinate; don’t cover 60s April
Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) March None 70s-80s April to early May (not before soil is warm enough for bare feet)
Salad greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula, etc) n/a (direct sow instead) None 60s-70s April
radishes, and salad turnips n/a (direct sow instead) None 60s April
Nasturtiums n/a (direct sow instead, because germination is slow and erratic) Nick them with a knife or nail file and then soak for 24 hours 60s+ April
Asters (sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos) April None 70s May
Corn April Soak 24 hours 70s-80s May
Beans n/a (indoor pre-sprouting in vermiculite is optional) Soak 8 hours, pre-sprout in vermiculite if you’re worried birds will eat them 60s-80s April and May
Cucurbits (cucumbers, melons, squash) April None 70s-80s Mid to late May
Winter brassicas (kale, cabbage, collards, radish, cauliflower, broccoli, pac choi, brussels sprouts, turnip, rutabaga, kohlrabi) n/a (direct sow, the soil is warm enough now and the wild ones are dropping their seeds) None 70s June
Winter root veggies (plus chard and orach, which are kin to beets) n/a (direct sow instead, it’s warm enough now and the wild ones are dropping their seeds) Pre-soak beets and chard, fussy procedure is optional with carrots 70s Early July
Winter salad greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula) n/a (direct sow instead) None, but it can help to cover the bed with shade cloth to lower the temperature and retain moisture 60s-70s August and September

What if you want to start more heat-loving seeds than you have space for inside your house, but you can’t fit a greenhouse in your yard? I ran into the same problem. My solution was to build a heated propagation table under the eaves against the south side of my house. Next week on the blog I’ll share my photos of that process, along with step-by-step instructions, so stay tuned!

Plan Ahead for Winter Brassicas

by Julia Frisbie

posted July 6, 2021

If you left any kale plants in your garden over winter, and neglected to pull them out this spring, you probably noticed the wonderful tall spray of yellow flowers, followed by loads of tiny purple/green seed pods. In my garden, the birds have been eagerly checking these seeds for ripeness.

Birds and kale work together in wonderful ways to support each other’s next generations. Right as baby birds are leaving the nest, kale spreads her arms open wide and offers several weeks worth of high-protein food, packaged neatly so only birds can get it, and stored on perches high enough to offer protection from ground predators. The fledglings visit again and again as they learn their way around the neighborhood, and as they go, they disperse whatever seed they don’t metabolize in an ever-widening radius. They leave it in warm, moist bundles of fertilizer under every appealing perch, often along hedgerows and under trees. Kale seedlings spring up in apparent delight. Baby birds and baby kale both get off to a good start. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “all flourishing is mutual.”

Following kale’s lead, we know that late-June to mid-July is a good time to plant her seeds. I learned from Linda Gilkeson’s Backyard Bounty that the same holds true for many frost tolerant biennials in the brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, raab, and cabbage. If you plant them in June or July, they become the backbone of your winter garden. It’s hard to think of winter just as our temperatures begin to climb… unless you notice the dance happening between birds and kale.

Once you watch the dance long enough, you learn the steps and get to join in. Last year I cut down a few of the seed stalks (leaving plenty behind for the birds) and let them dry on my shady front porch until they were light brown and rattling. Then I wrapped them up in a big cotton sheet and jumped on them for a while. After unwrapping them, I grabbed the sticks and the empty pods up by the handful for mulch, and was left with a slick pile of perfectly black, spherical seeds in the bottom of the sheet. I tipped them out into a pint jar.

All summer I scattered pinches of seed in city easements and along our favorite walking routes, but I still had too much left over. I thought to myself: what would the birds do? So I packed them up into little coin envelopes and mailed them all across the country as Christmas gifts to my far-flung loved ones. (If you got one of those, this is your reminder: scatter your kale seeds now!) I put the rest in Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org if you’d like some. You have nothing to lose; only leafy greens and songbirds to gain.

Breeding Resilient Vegetables

by Julia Frisbie

posted April 15, 2021

Some people manage to plant, weed, fertilize, water, mulch, trellis, and prune each of their vegetables at the appropriate time. 

Meanwhile, if you’re a plant in my jungle/garden, watch out. If the chickens don’t get you, the aphids might. If I give myself salmonella poisoning, I will forget to water for a week. Hope you like living next to curly dock, because I do not have time to dig it out. Oh, you wanted a taller trellis? The best I can do for you is stick 4 more bamboo posts into the ground and hope you don’t fall on my head. Et cetera. 

But when you’re breeding vegetables, being a laissez-faire gardener is a superpower. I’m serious! Ideal growing conditions are not favored by climate chaos. Think about it: will a displaced population facing major drought and supply chain interruptions be able to provide ideal conditions for each and every domestic plant? No. 

So why are we breeding domestic plants under these conditions?! Because we’ve relegated plant breeding to professionals, that’s why. This is insane. Not only do the professionals not live here on Fidalgo Island, but most of their fields are far more intensively managed than our gardens. In other words, they’re breeding for different growing conditions than we require. 

Many professional plant breeders have goals like increased yield, uniformity, and transportability, but before they ever select for those traits, the environment in which they grow their parent stock has made its own selection: it favors performance under ideal conditions. These ideal conditions essentially hide whatever genetic advantages individual plants might carry against disease, drought, or other hardships, so those advantages can’t be selected for.

In contrast, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon subjected his lettuce to a three-year trial that he called “Hell’s Half Acre,” in which he gave them the worst possible conditions, inoculated them with diseases, and tried to kill them, just to see who would survive. Using survivor parents as breeding stock allowed him to develop new disease- and disaster-resistant varieties of lettuce. 

Let me give you another example. I like dahlias and tomatoes, and I also like to eat beans, but I like dahlias and tomatoes more. The beans never rank high enough to get their own dedicated bed. I grow them underneath the dahlias and tomatoes. Most of them limp along looking resentful and succumb to mildew or aphids before their seed is ready to harvest. But a small proportion of the total bean population manages to dry down its pods in full shade. I save those seeds, and replant them under the dahlias and tomatoes again the next season. Since all of the genes are from plants that “made it” the first year, a bigger proportion of my second-generation beans survive to reproduce. And on and on it goes. I’m breeding towards beans that are happy playing at the feet of dahlias and tomatoes.

 

Can you spy the bean? Also pictured above is the great-great granddaughter of the first Russian Kale I ever planted in Anacortes. I’ve encouraged it to naturalize, and it now feeds us year-round with zero effort on my part. I’m sure it will outlast us on this plot. That’s the sort of vegetable I want to bet on during the climate crisis. 

If you’re like me and you grow most of your veggies in less-than-ideal conditions, I challenge you to claim your superpower. Start to save seed. Different plants have different life cycles and different pollination patterns, so if this is new to you, start with a legume like peas or beans. They’re very forgiving. For further reading, check out: 

Once you’ve begun to develop your own hyper-local, diverse, resilient varieties, share them with friends and neighbors! Transition Fidalgo is working to set up a local seed bank. Email info@transitionfidalgo.org to get connected. What better legacy could each of us leave for the gardeners who will tend this soil after us? 

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.

Starting Seeds in Soil Blocks

By Julia Frisbie

Posted March 18, 2021

In an effort to reduce my garden’s reliance on single-use plastics, I use a soil blocker instead of plastic 72-cell trays to start my seeds. This method was popularized by Eliot Coleman, and you can find lots of good information about it online. But the actual tool that you use to make the blocks ishttps://www.theseasonalhomestead.com/homemade-soil-blocking-mix/prohibitively expensive upfront if you just want to start a few trays of tender annuals. I have a stand-up 35-blocker because I’m a garden tool junkie, and it seems silly to keep it all to myself. You’re welcome to come use it on my front porch. Text me at 503-975-3778 and we’ll work it out. Bring your own trays and soil.

The benefits of soil blocks are:

  • Seedling roots run into air at the edges of the block rather than plastic, so they don’t wind around and around. They just stop growing (this is called “air pruning”) and wait to be plopped in the ground, which means they do better after transplanting.
  • You can fit more seedlings on a tray. For people with indoor setups, space on the heating mat and under the grow lights is often at a premium.
  • I can fill trays faster with my soil blocker than I could if I were hand-packing damp substrate into plastic 72-cell trays.
  • No more throwing away cracked and nasty 72-cell trays at the end of the season!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Dump substrate in a flat-bottomed bin. Some people use complicated recipes, but I just use the Black Gold potting mix with the orange label. Unfortunately, it comes encased in single-use plastic. Even the complicated recipes involve bagged ingredients like peat moss. A locally-sourced recipe that uses zero bagged ingredients would take a lot of experimentation. Sounds like a fun project for a retired master gardener, but I have a full time job and a four-year-old and escaped ducks running all over the neighborhood and a sink full of dirty dishes, so I’m not investing in research and development at this point.
  2. Add water, mixing as you go, until it’s slightly less wet than brownie batter, but wet enough that when you pick up a handful and squeeze, a little water runs out between your fingers.
  3. Push the soil blocker down into the substrate while doing a little twist-and-shimmy until you can hear and feel it scraping against the bottom of the bin.
  4. Lift it up and set it down into the tray where you want the blocks, and squeeze the two handles while gently lifting to release them.
  5. Repeat two more times, and you’ve got a full tray! My blocker makes blocks that measure 1.125” square, and 105 of them fit in a standard 1020 tray.

Newly planted seeds should never be allowed to dry out before they germinate. Soil blocks are best watered from below, since there’s no plastic holding them together. I pack my blocks into mesh-bottomed trays, and then I set them into a solid-bottomed tray with water in it for a few seconds, letting moisture wick up from below. I’ve also put soil blocks on aluminum pans and plastic lunch trays and poured water in from the sides, tilting the lunch tray so that every block has a chance to wick it up.

You don’t need soil blocks for everything. Many vegetables do just fine direct-seeded into your garden. Some even prefer it! Others– especially the ones with big starchy seeds– I like to pre-soak indoors and then plop directly into the ground. The ones I raise in the soil blocks are the real divas, the long-season veggies that can’t handle a frost. Here’s a simplified, non-exhaustive list of who gets what treatment in my garden:

TRANSPLANTS (VIA SOIL BLOCKS)

  • Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants)
  • Cucumber family (cucumbers and melons)
  • Squash family (including zucchini and summer squash)
  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos

PRE-SOAK

  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums

DIRECT SOW

  • Root veggies
  • Leafy greens
  • Herbs
  • Wildflowers

Another thing I think about when I start my seeds is whether or not each type of seed has a belly-button. The belly button is the point or the little mark where it was once attached to its mother plant. Think about the little mark on the middle of a bean, or the pointy end of a squash seed. If I can see a belly button, I plant it facing down or sideways, never facing up. That’s the place where the seed’s first rootlet will emerge from, and the rootlet has to find its way downward before it can push its cotyledons out of the soil. I learned this from the book Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way by Chan and Gill, and from my seed-saving mentor Rowen White.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve never started veggies inside before, it bears mentioning that setting them next to a window really doesn’t provide enough light. You need a fluorescent shop light, and you need to hang it so it’s inches (not feet) above the top of the plants, adjusting it upwards as they grow. And most of the veggie divas who need to start life indoors germinate fastest when the soil is around 77 degrees, so stick them and their light in a warm place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It also bears mentioning that indoor- or greenhouse-grown seedlings need to be “hardened off” before planting them out into the garden. Basically you carry them to and fro for a while. It’s a hassle. Actually, this whole seed-starting process is a huge hassle. But can I stop myself? No! Because springtime is too exciting!!! While unearthing supplies in the shed this afternoon, I caught myself humming, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok

Let’s Save Seeds for Local Food Security

by Sequoia Ferrel

Posted May 6, 2020
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In such uncertain times our thoughts turn to making sure we’re secure in basic necessities such as food and clean water. The best way to achieve food security is to have a robust local system where the majority of our food needs are provided through small farms and home gardens.

As gardeners and farmers we’re dependent on having access to seeds for the plants we want to grow. Since the Covid-19 crisis, there’s been a high demand for seeds and many have sold out. So, in order to work towards developing a strong local food system, it’s imperative that we start with the seed supply.

TF&F hopes to start a seed-saving network in which participants will each be responsible for growing and saving certain seeds based on their experience and preference. Then, before the next growing season (two seasons for biennials) we’ll be able to share the seeds so everyone can have a full garden worth of seeds and more to spare.

What follows is just a basic overview of seed-saving. I’m aware many of you already know all this stuff.

To get high-quality seed involves a little more than just waiting for something to flower and set seed and then  gathering it up. Especially if we’re selecting for food crops, we want to choose seed from the healthiest plants that perform best for us under our growing conditions.

To start, we must be willing to set aside some garden space for our seed crops (if they’re biennials, that will involve this year and next also).

We also have to use open-pollinated seeds and not hybrid seeds (which won’t make new seed true to its parent). Seed catalogs will let you know whether the type of seed you’re buying is a hybrid or not.

Seeds can also be either self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. For those of you new to seed-saving, it’s best to start with self-pollinated crops as they can be grown fairly close to other varieties of the same species without fear of cross-pollination. Some of these are peas, beans, lettuce and tomatoes.

For those of you more experienced or up for a challenge, you can try growing crops that cross-pollinate, which may be pollinated by insects or wind. If you choose this option, you’ll need to know not only to keep other varieties in your garden from flowering at the same time but you’ll need to be aware of other gardens and farms that may be within your isolation distance. Some seed crops just can’t be grown here — for instance carrots will cross with Queen Anne’s Lace — which as far as I know grows everywhere in this area.

There are also 3 other main categories of plants: annuals, biennials and perennials. Annual seeds can be saved the same year they are planted. Biennials, such as the cole crops and root crops, will make their crop the first year and need to be kept alive into the second year, which is when they put their energy into making seed.

I’m willing to head this seed-saving network and if anyone wants to help, you’re more than welcome! My idea is that initially everyone interested will notify me, and the group, as to which seeds we want to save, and then we’ll  make adjustments so that we don’t have, for instance, 10 people saving lettuce and no one saving beets.

Once we decide who grows what, I can send you specific info concerning your seed choices. I’m not an expert but I do have reference materials, including The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio, which is the definitive reference. I also have a few seed screens and fan, and can help with the seed cleaning when we get to that point.

You can reply to this blog or contact me directly at gaiarisingfarm@gmail.com.  HAPPY GARDENING