Those who’ve been gardening for a while know that you should rotate your crops, and keep track of your successes and failures to make improvements in the future. I also plant in garden “families”, roughly along the lines of those described in the book “Great Garden Companions“, so I like to make sure we don’t end up with the garden version of the Hatfields and McCoys. Here are some of my favorite techniques for simple record keeping for the garden.
You Can Grow Your Own Food – No Matter Where You Live
I’m not saying it’s easy, but nearly everyone can grow something. From sprouts in the kitchen and herbs in a window, to a sprawling acre-plus country market garden, I would argue that growing your own food in any form counts as gardening. You just need to decide what works for you – where you are with what you have.
I started my tomato seeds back in March, but I’ll do a quick recap here. I like to use a mix of potting soil and worm castings (3:1 ratio), in individual cell packs. (I save those black plastic containers that you get plants in from the greenhouse.) As a rule of thumb, you want to plant seeds roughly three times as deep as the seed is wide, so tiny seeds stay on or near the surface, and larger seeds go a little deeper. You can do a germination test or pre-sprout the tomato seeds in a coffee filter, but I usually don’t bother. (Pre-sprouting is discussed in more detail in the comments of this post.) You may want to do a quick soil test on your potting mix before you start, as many on the market are lacking in key nutrients and/or overloaded with other nutrients. I like to mark my seeds using popsicle sticks broken in half. I write the name of the variety on both sides of the stick with a ball point pen (in case it gets it gets wet, which it will, generally one side remains readable). The popsicle sticks are cheap and reasonably durable, and also compostable.
In case you haven’t ordered all your garden seeds just yet, I thought I’d do a quick post about my favorite seed sources, seed storage and seed germination rates after storage.
Fedco Seeds – Fedco is where I buy the bulk of my seeds. Their prices are very affordable, they carry a large number of varieties, and they source from ecologically sound growers – no GMOs here. Their catalog is not flashy – it’s printed on plain newsprint, all black and white – but their variety descriptions are tops. They point out which varieties store best, are best in certain recipes, and are resistant to various garden problems. They also give troubleshooting tips.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – I’m new to Baker Creek, but I’m a fan. One of the best for unusual heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, plus reasonable prices. Gorgeous photos in the print catalog and online. They’ve launched a customer review option online, but so far the feedback is minimal. I expect it to grow over time. Forward thinking company, also GMO-free and supporting local farmers, like Fedco.
Pinetree Garden Seeds – Out of my top five, I’ve been ordering from Pinetree the longest. Their prices are reasonable, and they give smaller quantities of seed in each packet so you don’t end up carrying over so much seed from one year to the next if you have a smaller garden. I typically order from Pinetree for seeds that have a limited storage lifespan, like peppers and parsnips. Again, another company that is GMO-free and supports healthy farms and farmers.
Seed Savers Exchange – I love the idea of Seed Savers Exchange, and they have a beautiful and inspiring catalog – BUT – not all the seeds I’ve ordered from them have had the quality I expect from a seed company. Germination rates have been poor, squash that were supposed to store well stored poorly (they were the first to rot in storage our of six varieties), plants have failed to thrive (right next to similar plants from other seeds sources), and tomatoes that were described as crack resistant cracked worse than any others in my garden (and I grow around 20 varieties). When I emailed with my concerns, I received no response. I am still a member of SSE, support their work and order from them occasionally, but don’t rely on them for the bulk of my seeds.
Seeds of Change – SOC has a beautiful catalog where they share wonderful stories about how their seeds are changing people’s lives. Unfortunately, they were bought out several years ago by M&M/Mars company, and I have to say I miss the days of the old SOC. They used to focus on heirlooms and unique open-pollinated vegetables developed by the likes of Alan Kepuler. Now, I page through the catalog and see mostly hybrid varieties. What can I say? “Hybrid vigor” is great on occasion, but I prefer open pollinated and heirloom varieties for the most part. Update: M&M/Mars is now introducing GMO cocoa. Sorry, Seeds of Change, you’re now off my list for good.
How Long Can You Store Seeds?
So, once you’ve got your seeds, how long can you expect them to remain viable? The following charts from Seedman.com lists storage and germination times for garden seeds. My results have been somewhat different, generally with a longer shelf life than this list suggests. I’ve started keeping records for the seedlings I start inside, listing planting date, variety, number of cells, number of seeds, year of seeds, seed company, date of first seedlings, number of seedlings, final number of seedlings and date of final count. I pop these titles into Excel, make a grid and print it horizontally on a page. This allows me to keep track of whether or not I need fresh seeds for a variety even if I have a lot of seeds left. For instance, I’ve got some tomato seeds left from 2001 (ten years old) that came up great this year, and others that only sprouted one out of ten seeds.
What’s the Right Way to Store Seeds?
I keep my seeds in my cool, dry basement to help extend their lives, but they could be a little cooler. My friend keeps hers in their walk in cooler and has significantly better longevity. I may have to bum some cooler space once most of planting is over. Don’t leave your seeds sitting in a greenhouse or near a heat source, like near a furnace or in your kitchen! This will shorten their lives. According to the article from Seedman.com “The dry seed should be placed in packages and stored in moisture-proof containers. Containers such as sealed cans or jars with air tight caps work satisfactorily. Storage temperatures between 35°F and 50°F are satisfactory when the moisture content of the seed is low.”
|Crop||Seeds per Ouncea||Relative Longevity under Cool, Dry Condition (Years)bc|
|Bean, Lima||25 – 75||3|
|New Zealand Spinach||350||5|
|Onion||9,000||1 – 2|
|Parsnip||12,000||1 – 2|
|Pea||75 – 90||3|
|Sweetcorn||120 – 180||1 – 2|
|Swiss Chard||1,500||1 – 2|
|Watermelon||200 – 300||5|
aSeeds, The Yearbook of Agriculture. 1961. Stefferud, A., Editor. The United States Government Printing Office.
bHandbook for Vegetable Growers. 1960. Knott, Joe. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
cVegetable Growing Handbook. 1979. Splittstoesser, W.E. AVI Publishing, Inc.
|Crop||Minimum Percent Germinationab||Germination Temperatureb||Days to Germinate Under Optimum Temperature and Moisture Conditionsc|
|Min °F||Opt. °F||Max. °F|
|New Zealand Spinach||40||70||6|
aMinimum percent germination to federal standards.
bHandbook for Vegetable Growers. 1960. Knott, J.E. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
cSeeds, The Yearbook of Agriculture. 1961. Stefferud, A., Editor. The United States Government Printing Office.
Simple Germination Test
If you want to check if your seeds are likely to grow, try this simple germination test.
- Wet down a paper towel.
- Place ten seeds on the towel, fold to cover the seeds (so they are in contact with the damp towel on both sides and not too close to the edge of the towel).
- Place towel in a plastic bag with the top open, or in a mason jar. You want some air flow, but you don’t want the towel to dry out near the seeds.
- Put in a warm area. Check seeds daily. Most seeds should sprout in 3-10 days. (Varieties that take longer to sprout may be noted on the seed package.)
- If they all sprout or most of them sprout, you’re good to go. If half or less sprout, you’ll need to “Plant them thicker than hair on a dog’s back” (as my mom would have said) or buy new seeds.
You can also use your setup for sprouts to check germination rates or presprout a bunch of seeds before planting. This works well for me for early spring peas, which sometimes have trouble getting started in the cool ground but do well once growing.
What are your favorite seed sources and how do you store your seeds? I’m always open to trying something new.
You may also enjoy:
Seed Starting – Why I plant so many different varieties, and how I do it.
Alas, my ground outside is still very much covered with snow and ice, and here I am ogling greens seeds old and new. I love the variety you can find by shopping through seed catalogs.
This years planned greens include:
- Lettuce – Rocky Top Mix
- Lettuce – Red Romaine
- Amaranth – Joseph’s Coat
- Lettuce – Really Red Deer Tongue
- Lettuce – Blushed Butter Cos
- Lettuce – Summerlong Gourmet Mix
- Mache – Verte de Cambre
- Spinach – Bloomsdale Long Standing
- Spinach – Bordeaux
- Minutina – Erba de Stella
- Strawberry Spinach (saved seed)
- Spinach (saved seed)
- Kale – Dinosaur (Lacinato)
- Swiss Chard – Five Color Silverbeet
- Kale – Nero de Tuscana
- Kale – Red Russian
- New Zealand Spinach
- Bok Choy – Ching Chang
- Chinese Cabbage – Michili
To get a jump on the season, I’ve got an indoor planting bench and a small greenhouse attached to the house. This year, I decided to try something different and pre-sprouted and grew out some pea seeds just for use as greens. The tender tops and little tendrils make a nice salad addition.
To sprout my peas, I placed them in a wide mouth mason jar, covered them with water and the sprouting strainer lid, and let them soak overnight. In the morning, drain and rinse and leave them on the counter for a few days, rinsing once or twice a day. By the end of they week, you’ve got something like this:
As you can see, the peas have developed mice little root systems. Some of them haven’t sprouted, so those get tossed.
I put some potting soil in old organic salad mix trays, snuggled the little seedlings in and tucked them under the grow lights. At the same time, I started some Rocky Top lettuce mix, some butter Cos, some spinach, some Alyssum and some Painted Tongue.
Two days later, and the peas were coming along nicely.
A week later, and the first pea tops were ready to harvest. The salad greens and flowers were poking up out of the soil. As I said, it’s been really cold and dreary here, so I’m setting no records for rampant growth. I moved all of these trays out to the greenhouse shortly after this photo, and they’ve really been creeping along.
Here’s my first bowl of pea tops.
I added them to a nice mixed salad with some organic store bought greens (a month later, and the lettuce and spinach are almost ready to harvest as micro greens – trying to be patient). Here we’ve got some leftover shell peas from supper the previous night, greens, pea tops, crispy walnuts, raw milk bleu cheese from Nala’s, soaked sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, dried blueberries, balsamic vinegar and flaxseed oil. I regularly enjoy having a big mess o’ salad like this for lunch. Sometimes I’ll add sardines or pickled fish, or fresh sourdough bread slathered with plenty of butter.
Temps are finally warming up this week, so I’ll be starting more seeds inside and hopefully be able to plant outside within the next few weeks. I decided I’m going to use my sprouting jar to pre-sprout my early peas before plating them out in the garden (these really early ones will remain inside for greens) , since I regularly have germination issues with peas when the ground is cold and wet. I’ve got some worm castings from Whitetail Organics to top dress the soil, which adds a nice little nitrogen boost that leafy veggies love (I also add it to my potting mix). The worm castings don’t have the potential disease issues of improperly finished compost or pathogen potential of other manures, which is another reason I like to use vermicompost if I have it. Most greens do well in (or prefer) cooler weather, so they are great season extenders.
What are your favorite greens? Do you have any tips for growing them that you’d like to share?
UPDATE: The snow has finally cleared from the garden, and I can see the semi-permanent greens bed that had just started leafing out last fall coming to life. I’ve been letting this corner of my garden self-seed with mache and strawberry spinach. Last fall it was getting quite overgrown with inedible weeds (the dandelions went in the salad bowl, too), so I cleaned it and added spinach. The little plants are about an inch tall. Yeah!