Seed Saving 101

Onion seed head

If you ever wanted to know the ins and outs of how to save seed from your favorite varieties and crops, the difference between monocots and dicots, if your region’s climate gives you a step-up on any crops, how to store seeds and how long their shelf life is or even how to plant with seed saving in mind, then “Seed Saving for Farmers and Gardeners” is the class for you.

Developed and put on by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), and presented by Micaela Colley, this was the class that answered all my questions and got me over my fears about when, how, where and even why to save seed.

A pollination explanation started us out and addressed open-pollinated varieties as opposed to hybrids: with open-pollinated crops the pollen is carried by the wind, insects, birds or other external method; hybrids – known in seed catalogs as F1’s – are crosses of open-pollinated lines of the same species, but they don’t breed true to seed themselves and will separate back out to their parents’ individual traits.  She also addressed Genetically Modified seeds (it’s illegal to save them, but I don’t know anybody that wants to) and other patented varieties (even on non-GMOs), and the standard 17-year PVP (Plant Variety Protection) that exists for some specifically bred traits.

Head lettuce

After a thorough but quick discussion of basic plant botany covering perfect flowers (those that have both male and female parts in the same flower), imperfect flowers (each flower has either a male anther or female stamen), monoecious plants (separate plants have either male or female flowers), and dioecious plants (the same plant has both male flowers and female flowers), and the difference between dicot seeds and monocot seeds (dicots are things like beans and grains and produce 2 cotyledons; monocots like corn produce only one cotyledon), we moved on to the annual, biennial or perennial natures of crops.

A foot-peddled Amish style thresher

Biennials are the most intriguing to me; they require what’s called a vernalization period, which is a time of cooler weather and ideally higher humidity in order to fulfill their life cycle and decide to bolt and go to seed.  The thing is, depending on your region’s climate or the type of year you’re having, vernalization could happen in only one year (as opposed to the 2 years you normally think of with a bi-ennial) thus lending your crop to an annual life cycle.  Now, when you’re a plant breeder yourself you might consider this an advantage depending on the crop; if the fruit of the plant is harvested an earlier ripening date may be preferred, but if the vegetative parts of the plant are what you eat then holding it off for the longest amount of time before it bolts would be ideal.  Seed saving and plant breeding are starting to become something of an interest and a playground, aren’t they?

From there we learned about the amount of spacing between bodies of crops you’ll need if you want to save seed that is true to this year’s crop: as little as 3ft for peas and lettuce, but up to 2 miles might be required for things like brassicas, squash or corn whose pollen travels the farthest.  Also – having at least 50 individuals in one planting seems to be the magic number for optimal pollination.

When growing for seed it’s important to remember your bases:

These beets definitely need this trellis

1-Timing; you have a much smaller window for planting to go to seed than for mature harvesting.
2-Spacing; as just discussed, you’ll probably need more plot space for a body of seed-saving crop (also, it’s best to plant in blocks rather than rows for seed crops.)
3-Staking; bolted plants get HUGE, taller than people in a lot of cases, and they’ll need support and air flow. Have trellising in mind.
4-Irrigation; You definitely don’t want an overhead watering system, since you want the fully formed seed heads to dry out as much as possible before harvesting. Drip is the way to go.
5-Fertility; your soil is going to need more and longer sustained nutrients since the seed growing process takes a bit longer.
6-Weed management; DO NOT LET THE WEEDS GO TO SEED. Nobody wants tainted seeds.
7-Pest management; the case I’ve seen involved trying to keep hungry deer away from fully ripe plants, they can destroy a season of waiting for seed head maturity in one night.

Fanning: pouring off the seeds in front a full-speed fan; the heavy, mature seeds fall off into the 1st bin, the lighter chaff into the 2nd

 

In the case of seed from edible vegetation crops (things like carrots, kale, cabbage, lettuce; anything that isn’t a fruit of the plant) you’ll want to let the seed head get fully dry before processing the chaff and debris off.  Drying on the stalk is one way, but even after that you want your moisture level to be as low as 6%, so further drying, like on a tarp or ground cloth in a well-ventilated space helps a lot. You can then thresh the seed off the heads and sift and/or fan (winnow) off the rest of the debris until you have clean, dry seeds ready for storing or selling.

Bin 1 with seed; bin 2 with chaff

Seeds obtained from fruits (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers) have to be cleaned and then dried, and in the case of tomatoes, a slight fermentation period is necessary. Just cut open the fruit, scoop out the seeds and sieve out the pulp.  Let the seeds sit in their juice for about 3 days, uncovered at room temperature.  If a white mold develops it’s ok, it just means the seeds are ready.  Pour off the tomato juice but not any of the seeds, then add water to the bucket or bowl and pour that off, reserving the seeds in the bottom; a few times and the seeds are cleaned of their residue and juice and you have clean seeds ready to be laid out and dried.

Using a sieve to separate big debris off the seed pods

When the seeds are completely clean and completely dry storage is the next step.  As stated before 6% moisture is the target percentage and a rule of thumb is that if the number of temperature degrees plus the number of the percentage of humidity equal less than 100, you’re in the clear and your seeds should store fine.  Envelopes, jars, rubbermaids, tupperware and ziploc bags are a few of the best options for storage, and these are best when kept at a constant, cool temperature.  Stored well, seeds can retain their viability for 4-5 years.

And so my comfort level in seed saving savvy has progressed beyond garlic cloves and potato eyes.  And with countless traits just begging to be reigned in and bred out in future generations, I have renewed hope for our contemporary food revival and the broad scope that stewarding the earth entails.

As Time Goes By

And so it’s finally fall. The first day of the season and I’m wondering, as I do this time every year, where did the summer go? It flew by.  Especially when I’m working in the great outdoors and with the ground everyday, I’ve become hyper-sensitive to the variances in temperature, the path the sun travels as it lights the sky in the morning and casts creamy peach and blueberry streaks as it makes its exit in the evening, the rainy days, the windy days, the perfect days and then suddenly – the first day I see entire flocks of colored leaves carpeting the ground beneath me. And I know the year has entered its exiting stage. 

April

 

he has made everything beautiful in its time.  he has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what god has done from beginning to end”   ecc 3:11 

Where did the time go? Where does time go, and how?  Surprisingly, there are different ways to measure even passing time. 

May

 

Plants measure it in degree days: plants will only develop and grow when the temperature rises above a certain threshold and stays below a certain threshold, says 50F base temperature and 90F max temperature, and for a determined length of sunlight.  Anywhere outside this arbitrary range and the plants’ development ceases.  In fact, when you buy your seed packets and the back of the envelope says: “Will mature in 65-70 days,” it means that according the day length and temperature fluctuations in the area where the grower produced his seed crop, the average of all the crops’ maturity came in at 65-70 days. This is not a hard and fast rule and can vary extremely from place to place, climate to climate and your latitudinal placement. 

June

 

As a transient and a traveller I have started measuring my time in relation to places: the last place I built a fire was in Kansas (April); the last time it snowed was in Colorado (May); the last time I got a haircut I was still living in North Carolina (March); it was in Canada that had my first truly hot, hot summer day (July); I had already lived in 6 different places by the time the first strawberries were ripe this year (August, for me); before the farmers markets opened I was in both Kansas and Colorado (April and May); it was Colorado when the asparagus began to come on; when I was in love it was Kansas, Colorado and Montana; when I was brokenhearted it was Canada and Washington.  

when the times are good, be happy; but when the times are bad, consider: god has made the one as well as the other                 ecc 7:14 

July

Sometimes I remember different times in books, I remember different emotions and situations I was working out in my head during the time I was reading certain books and authors.  Often I measure time in friendships and relationships: back when my sister and I fought a lot, then when we started getting along and were going out on date nights together; that period when I felt really popular in middle school; when I grew apart from all of my friends ( that was the last year of highschool); when my relationship with my parents finally started righting itself (not too long after I left home the first time); when I went through that really long period of just wanting to be autonomous and on my own for everything. 

encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness                                   heb 3:13 

August

 

A period can feel like a fleeting moment when you can look back on it as a passing stage or a few steps along the path to who you are now. 

jesus christ is the same yesterday, today and forever         heb 13:8 

Maybe summer always seems to pass by so quickly because of the higher temperatures.  They do everything from making your hair and nails grow faster to speeding up your body’s metabolism.  And the longer hours of sunlight can give you reason and ability to pack more things into your days, and how busy-ness makes time fly!  Maybe we feel invincible in the summer because the weather is going our way, school is out and the harvest is plentiful with abounding choices.  Then when fall puts its foot down we’re awakened to the fact that the earth, seasons and time continue to march on – whether the pace be steady, hurried or paused. 

September

 

….a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak…..  ecc 3 

Whether you want to measure time in tree rings, variegated rock faces, digital numbers or second hands, don’t forget to look beyond and above those things, to where you’re standing now.  What’s happening with the weather outside right now? What are your best friends doing today? How can you most experience what you’ve been given today?  Appreciate these things.  Not living in the past and not living for what might happen can be hard, painful or scary, but if the peace and satisfaction that comes with living where you are and what you are right now can be tapped, it’s a tribute to your faith. And believe me, building a strong faith takes time.

WSU Farm Tour

After weeks of preparation; cleaning, mowing, moving, tidying, finishing up odds and ends of projects, harvesting, jamming and bottling, the WSU Farm Tour coordinated by FIELD-intern coordinator, Leora Stein, was a smashing (if thoroughly soaking) success.

Cuckoo Maran, Barred Rock, R.I. Red, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Freedom Ranger, Black Australorp

A stream of cars was already filling the driveway when the tour officially opened at 10am and people were itching to walk around the farm to meet the chickens, sheep and farmers of Spring Rain Farm and Orchard. 

Macroinvertebrate team leaders, Julia and Kay

Activities and interests included “Guess that Chicken Breed!”, scooping up macroinvertebrates in Chimacum Creek, painting a chicken coop mural, viewing a frame of honeybees in an observation box and personal tours led by Farmer John himself.

The sales tent didn’t do too shabbily either, as you can’t find Spring Rain at any of the farmer’s markets in the area (they only sell to the co-op, a cafe in town and some direct shares of certain crops, eggs and meat.)  People had heard about the farm but didn’t have a clue where to find our products and many came with a one-track mind for purchases.  Jam, honey, tinctures (by yours truly), eggs, corn, winter squash and pumpkins went like hotcakes.

Despite a tremendous rain shower that lasted a good hour, folks were not deterred and continued to stream in along their day of touring 17 other farms in the area.

John, Kay, Julia, Tassie, Camille, Heidi, Caroline, Roxanne

In the end we decided that we topped off with a good 300 visitors, over $1000 in sales and many good reasons to hit the sack for a much-needed night’s sleep.  And today, we rest.

Veggie Crackers

What’s a great way to preserve your harvest, contain it in a lightweight and easily storable form that doesn’t require freezing and not have to break your back and a sweat hauling water to your canner?  The answer: dehydrated veggie crackers.

All that’s needed is your produce of choice, a few nuts and seeds (for binding power), a food processor (I’m convinced no kitchen should be without one) and a dehydrator lined with parchment paper.

Last week a lot of the interns on various farms in Chimacum/Port Townsend met together at Solstice Farm B&B for a cracker making event consisting of a dozen pairs of hands helping to rinse, drain, chop, grind, pour, taste, spread and dehydrate; condensing bucket loads of produce into compact, crunchy bites. 

Virtually any combination you could think of is possible.  Our ingredients ranged from kale and chard, beets and their greens, summer squash, pumpkin seeds, soaked rye berries, fresh dill, mint and basil to sprouted lentils, reconstituted sun-dried tomatoes, sauerkraut, pickle juice and even cocoa powder (though not all in the same batch.)  The results were colorful spreads reminiscent of hummus or pate on the dehydrator trays.

Here’s some of the combinations we came up with, feel free to use whatever you have on hand and what sounds or tastes good to you – sweet, savory, sour or spicy.  You could compress an entire meal into one of these cracker combos making the perfect trail or travel food!

#1:
sprouted lentils
carrots
toasted sunflower seeds
cooked white rice
kraut juice
dried onion
ground flaxseed
salt
fresh mint
summer squash
garlic

#2:
beet greens
ground flaxseed
salt
sauerkraut
garlic
dried onion
fresh basil

#3
sauerkraut
sprouted rye berries
toasted sunflower seeds
ground flaxseed
fresh rosemary
dried onion
a tad bit of honey

 

 

#4:
lacinato kale
cooked grits
sauerkraut
toasted sunflower seeds
ground flaxseed
pumpkin seeds (mixed and as a garnish)

#5:
dill
chard
kraut
pickle juice
salt
garlic

 

 

 

#6:
beets
beet greens
kale
cooked white rice
soaked sunflower seeds
ground flaxseed
honey
salt
cocoa powder

*It’s best to put larger material in the food-processor first so it can break down a bit; some liquid is helpful at this stage.  Grains or dried nuts/seeds are good next and you want to finish with things like the flaxseed or soaked nuts/seeds and honey.  And flax seeds really do make the best binder – you don’t need too many, and a coffee grinder (for herb use only – coffee residue will taint anything it comes in contact with) is great for breaking the hard outer shell of the flax.

Gingerbread Biscotti

With all the abundance of zucchini we’re still receiving from the garden, I’ve been baking loaves and loaves of zucchini bread to put away in the freezer.  Naturally, experiments and adaptations want to work their way into all the sprinkling, measuring and stirring.  Yesterday as I geared up for an afternoon of baking, 20lb. box of zucchini in-tow, these were some of the variations I came up with:  chocolate and olive oil (a dense, dark crumb with a smooth and round flavor), strawberry-apricot kernal (some apricot varieties produce edible kernals – most include the toxin, cyanide – similar in appearance and taste to almonds and there are 2 gallon jars of the things sitting in the pantry with no one using them; plus we had some strawberry pulp leftover from the makings of syrup), and gingerbread.

Now, with the weather doing its dance of transition from summer to fall with the dizziness of summer activity and heat reeling, only to dip and sway into the first breezes bringing on autumn’s clear air, the thought of fall’s harvest and quintessential spiced foods warms both my heart and my belly.  And when I saw this first recipe of the season I knew it was time to enter fall’s graceful swing and break out the warming spices like nutmeg, cloves and ginger.

So it’s no surprise that I was really looking forward to taking a bite of the zucchini gingerbread with all its dense, rich, pungent and molasses glory.  The oven was hot and baking away, the timer went off and upon testing the loaf for doneness it felt firm, with no give in the center (a toothpick test would have been approriate, but we didn’t have any in the kitchen.)  I pulled the bread out of the heat and set it on a cooling rack before attempting to free it from the pan.  20 minutes later, to my horror, it had sunken to a pit of muddy depression and when I tried to take it out of the pan it began to mold around my hand like spineless putty.  I flopped it back into the pan to keep its shape, cursing myself and began to think what I could do to rescue it.  It had already cooled too much and the starches had settled in too well to think of popping it back in the oven as it was.  So it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that the only thing to do with it was turn it into biscotti!

I turned the oven back on and up to about 400 degrees (which I did by setting it at 415, I learned too late that their oven consistently runs cooler than temp), and while it was pre-heating I began slicing the turned-out loaf with a long, serrated bread knife into 1/2″ thick slices width-wise, which I then cut in half lengthwise to give the long, dippable biscotti shape.  Think quick and intentional slices when cutting through doughey bread as it starts to flop over as some of the gooiness wants to run out from the middle.  Arranged in a single layer on a pan coated with the slightest bit of oil, I slid them into the oven for 12 minutes before taking them out to flip them over once and returned them to the oven for an additional 12 minutes.  Now, one thing I like to do that’s a bit unconventional for baking (usually I only do this with my granola) is to cut the oven off when it’s almost done, and leave it inside as the oven cools down.  Then a few hours later, or the next morning I come back to perfectly cooled and crsip granola which has set in the little crunchy clumps I like in my morning bowl.  Why not try the same method with the biscotti?

It worked like a charm.  When I rolled out of bed this morning and put the kettle on for a cup of tea, I opened the oven and to my satisfaction, a pan of perfectly crisp, browned zucchini gingerbread biscotti was there.  And it pairs perfectly with a good cup of chai.

Zucchini Gingerbread Biscotti

-2 cups white flour
-3 cups whole wheat flour
-1 Tb. baking soda
-3/4 Tb. baking powder
-1 tsp. salt
-ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves

-2 eggs
-1 1/3 cups molasses
-1/3 cup brown sugar
-2 ts. vanilla extract
-3 cups shredded zucchini
-2 tsp. vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 and grease 2 bread pans.  Whisk the dry ingredients together and in another bowl crack the eggs and mix with the molasses and sugar, then add the rest of the wet ingredients.  Fold into the dry mix, adding a little water if necesary to form a good batter.
Bake for 30 minutes or until just done.  Let cool in pan for about 20 minutes, until cool enough to handle.  Meanwhile, turn the oven up to 400.
Once the bread has cooled some, turn it out of the pans and slice lengthwise/widthwise at 1/2″.  Slice these in half for slender biscotti that will dip into a mug.  Brush these with just a dab of oil and bake for 12 minutes, flip once and bake another 12 minutes, checking every few minutes for doneness.  Turn off the oven and leave the tray of biscotti in it to harden with the cooling.  Enjoy!

Harmony of Farming

Farming can encompass many things, from family sustenance to farmers’ markets to grocers supplying, to flowers, bugs, birds, livestock, perennial fruits and annual vegetables, grains as cash and cover crops, watching for frosts, keeping to the routines of animals, harvesting and recognizing abundance . Homesteading and being a radical homemaker can encompass these things and beyond to include putting up enough food for the family and then some, building and repairing your dwelling place, sewing, weaving or knitting to meet clothing needs, family-raising, community involvement (and contra dancing!).  The main thing is, farming and a life connected to the land is never static.

It’s all these things that can make your head spin and leave you fretting about not getting the 15 things done on your 14-item list, all of which need to happen yesterday. Take spring, for instance, when you’re coming out of the winter doldrums with hope taking the form of seed catalogs, preparing beds, finishing repair work that needs to be done before the season takes off, working around frost dates, planting new crops and finishing up the overwintered ones while also planning your full season’s itinerary – and all this when farmers’ wallets are the farthest thing from being green.

But it is also all these things that keep it interesting, broaden your spectrum and diversify not only your job, but your life, since with farming the connection between work and living hasn’t been severed. Instead of just one task or routine day in and day out that can make your life seem to roll like a short wheel down a long road, your attention and focus is exercised in multiple ways by demanding knowledge and being in many and varied situations. And the beautiful thing about this aspect of farming is that it’s all connected, inter-dependent and even cyclical.

Now, certainly the iron hand of the industrial revolution has left its heavy thumbprint on today’s forms of agriculture giving us fertility-stripping monocultures, chemicals from WWII aftermath and even genetically modified potatoes with frog genes.  But even this type of agriculture brings with it its own various tasks such as continual tractor maintenance, chemical selection and a schedule of plowing, spraying, planting, spraying, cultivating, spraying (again) and harvesting.  This proves to weaken the soil for future generations of plantings and farmers, relies heavily on petroleum energy and creates disease-resistance in pests and plants as well as unforetold health-risks to us (frog genes?).  This type of agriculture seems to exit the realm of farming and takes on qualities more to the effect of exploiting, lab testing and stripping.  It bullies its way into the cycle of harmony and breaks the rythm.

But living a sustainable mindset in regards to God’s creation and working with nature rather than against it to produce crops, health and a cleaner world are things more likely to be involved in a multi-tasking farmer’s life.  Respect for the soil, happiness and health of plants, animals and humans, and creating and sustaining family and community and their harmony are all foundational.

In my WWOOFing travels I’ve found:

In Lawrence, KS, farming was about not disturbing the soil, recognizing “weeds” for their uses, strict rotation of both pasture and crops, listening to the sheep and being tuned in to their needs, volunteers coming together to have a part in the farm and developing strong friendships.  It was also about farming in the dark with a headlamp because the farmer couldn’t support herself on her farm alone and had a full-time off-farm job.

In Golden, CO, it was about double-digging beds to prepare them each year, manually moving the solar-tray to pick up energy for the watering system, pulling out adventitious thistles by the root so they wouldn’t come back, covering small transplants with cloche’s at night for protection from frost, trying to get the community involved, trying to wrangle and hassle with drip irrigation specifics before digging trenches for the lines and using a south facing living and dining room as a greenhouse for starts.

In Canon City, CO, it was about a multi-generational family not stepping on each others’ toes as they went about their specific areas of farm management;  grandma on the land, dad on the cows and daughter on the greenhouses, crops and markets.  It was about ditch-style irrigation, deciding which markets were most profitable and worth making the drive, fixing falling-apart garden tools (note: ductape is not the answer in this case,) spending a good hour at least watering the entire 3-domed greenhouse, and also taking time for a cold one next to the river on a hot day.

Cucumber trellises

In Hamilton, MT, farming included watering the in-ground plants in the greenhouse without crunching the tender ones with the back length of hose, mulching strawberries with straw as well as the rows between the beds (note: “guaranteed weed-free straw” is another way of saying: “I am soaked in herbicides”).  It was also about picking out rocks from first-year prepared beds so the tractor could go through and root crops wouldn’t have to deform themselves to the spaces underground.  Unfortunately it was also about having to re-do an entire row of pea trellising because the T-posts “weren’t perfectly straight,” spending thousands of dollars on a faux barn-front wall for the greenhouse and ill management of chickens by keeping them confined to too small a space and forcing them to hard pack the ground around them.

In Sorrento, BC, it was about weeding, weeding, weeding, picking un-trellised peas (not recommended), weeding, long and lavish feasts for lunch and a good mid-day break, weeding, drying food and herbs, going for cold, clear swims in Canada lakes on hot, hot, dry afternoons and weeding.  It was also about 10 hour days and top-notch harvesting for both Urban Harvest food distribution programs and 2 quaint markets a week in neighboring towns.

In Mount Vernon, WA, it was about thinning and using all sizes of beets and green onions, providing to the co-ops in the area.  It was also about taking produce to sell to the food bank even while being eligible to receive a food box in return.  It was about who looks after the kids while the other goes out to spend time in the fields.  It was about slow mornings, going out every 2 hours during the day to manually move drip-irrigation lines between beds of kale, evenings spent at the grandparents’ lake house eating burgers and whatever sides happened to come in the food box that week.  Experimenting with cover crops or no-till wasn’t a viable option, there simply wasn’t enough time or money.

Becka, the sheep puppy

And in Chimacum, WA, it’s about morning and evening chores with the 500+ chickens and turkeys (watering, feeding, collecting eggs and having to wait until the very last remains of sunlight have escaped over and beyond the horizon before the birds will even think of retiring to their coops where they’re shut up safe and sound for the night – in the summer that’s 10:30pm, in the winter that’s 4:30pm), the 20 or so sheep and the newly acquired sheep-puppy in training, Becka (short for “rudbeckia”, the latin for black-eyed Susan’s.)  It’s about building of infrastructure (a cold storage building for crops, travelling chicken coops and renovating an old trailer as housing for interns someday,) weeding and mulching thousands of blueberry plants, gleaning raspberries from their early crop while waiting for them to set their late crop, harvesting zucchini everyday at fat finger-size; that’s the way the cafe down the street likes to buy them.  It’s about one spouse having an off-farm job to keep things financialy viable, specializing in off-season varieties of fruits, establishing apple and pear orchards, moving land into conservation easements and inserting permaculture practices they learned from over-seas agricultural work.

Blueberry field at Spring Rain

No two farms or farmers have been the same.  None of the soils have been the same.  Farming is a completely unique livelihood dependent on the sun, weather, altitude, latitude, organic matter in the soil, space, neighbors, city/county regulations, the saleable outlets, environmental care and the family demands.  To weave these in to a person’s lifestyle is to recognize and honor life, the earth, it’s Creator, cycles, fertility, rest, indivuals and community.  This is harmony, and it’s never static.