Ordering seeds! Seed Viability and Varieties New to us

I’ve been busy putting our seed orders together. As we grow so many different crops, it’s quite a time-consuming process. And I hate to buy too little and be out in the field on planting day, looking at an almost empty packet. Equally, I hate to buy too much, which either wastes money (if we throw the extra away), or else causes us to risk sowing seed that really is too old, and won’t do well. I keep a chart of how long different types of seed last:

Seed Viability

(From Sustainable Market Farming, (c) Pam Dawling, New Society Publishers, 2013)

     

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   “Opinions vary a bit about how many years seeds of different vegetables are good for. The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. You can make your own decisions, weighing up the information supplied, your knowledge of how carefully you stored the seeds, the information on each packet about percentage germination when you bought it, and the economic importance to you of that particular crop. If you always transplant lettuce, as I do, you can risk one of your four varieties in that sowing coming up poorly, and just plant out more of the other three if it fails. Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook.

www.chelseagreenFrank Tozer in The Organic Gardeners Handbook has a table including minimum, average, and maximum.

A simplified version is as follows:

  • Year of purchase only: Parsnips, Parsley, Salsify, and the even rarer Sea Kale, Scorzonera
  • 2 years: Corn, Peas and Beans of all kinds, Onions, Chives, Okra, Dandelion, Martynia,
  • 3 years: Carrots, Leeks, Asparagus, Turnips, Rutabagas
  • 4 years: Spinach, Peppers, Chard, Pumpkins, Squash, Watermelons, Basil, Artichokes and Cardoons
  • 5 years: most Brassicas, Beets, Tomatoes, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Muskmelons, Celery, Celeriac, Lettuce, Endive, Chicory.”

Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce). Other seed contains compounds that inhibit germination. These can be flushed out by soaking in water for about an hour (beets).

Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts. Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops.

Our main seed suppliers are FedcoJohnny’s and Southern Exposure. Fedco has great prices, especially on bulk sizes, great social and political commentary in the catalog, and no glossy pages. Johnnys has some good varieties that Fedco doesn’t, and a ton of useful information tucked away on their website. Southern Exposure is best on southern crops and heat tolerant varieties which we can’t expect seed companies in Maine to specialize in. Plus, SESE are my friends and neighbors.

This year we are trying some new varieties. Generally we like to have some reliable workhorses that we know well, and trial a few new things, especially if we hear our favorite varieties are no longer available. Last year our Nadia eggplant couldn’t cope with the heat. For a while in early summer they didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. So next year, alongside Nadia I’m trying 3 that should deal better with heat. Florida Highbush is open-pollinated, from the Seed Savers Exchange. Epic and Traviata are hybrids from Osborne Seeds.

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds
Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds
Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds
Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds
Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange
Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange
Sugar Flash Snap Peas from Osborne Seeds
Sugar Flash Snap Peas from Osborne Seeds

I also bought some Sugar Flash snap peas from Osborne. We have been big fans of Sugar Ann, but I’ve heard Sugar Flash is even better on flavor, yield and harvest period. We’re going to find out!

For a couple of years we really liked Frontier bulb onions as a storage variety for this climate and latitude (38N). Frontier disappeared from the catalogs of our usual suppliers and we tried Gunnison and Patterson. This year – no Gunnison! And we didn’t get a good test of Patterson last year, as we failed to weed our onions enough, after an initial enthusiastic good go at it. We were looking again at Copra, one we grew some years ago (before we found Frontier). I lucked out when I decided to see if Osborne had Gunnison, while I was shopping there. they didn’t, but they had Frontier! And then when I was shopping at Johnny’s, I found they did have some Gunnison for online sales only. So I ordered those too!

We’re also trying Sparkler bicolor sweet corn from Fedco and a drying bean I won’t name, as the seed is in short supply. And this year we’re hoping Red Express cabbage will prove to be a reliable little worker. We used to like Super Red 80, but had several years of poor results. Since then, none of the other red cabbages we tried have satisfied us in terms of size, earliness, productivity and flavor.

West Indian Gherkin Seeds (Cucumis anguiria) from Monticello
West Indian Gherkin Seeds (Cucumis anguiria) from Monticello

After a few years of poor pickling cucumbers, we’re going outside the box and trying West Indian Gherkins from Monticello, where they were grown by Thomas Jefferson (and some of the enslaved people, no doubt). These are not closely related to actual cucumbers, but are used similarly. I saw them growing in the Monticello garden when I was there for the Heritage Harvest Festival in September, and they are certainly robust and productive in hot humid weather. We’ll see how the pickles turn out!

My only other “impulse buy” was the Salanova Lettuce new at Johnny’s. They are 6 varieties of head lettuce designed to be used for salad mix at a single cutting. Quicker than  snipping rows of baby lettuce with scissors. More fun than plain lettuce heads. They are loose heads of small leaves in various shades of green and red, and two “hairstyles”: frizzy and wavy.

Salanova Lettuce from Johnny's Seeds
Salanova Lettuce from Johnny’s Seeds

Twin Oaks November Calendar (and December)

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch in November

November -The End is in Sight

During the month

Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce in hoophouse, for January transplants.

Write Thank You Letter to Paracrew (part-time workers)

Early November: Finish up sowing cover crops in Nov. Can sow winter wheat in early November (won’t winter-kill). Sow wheat or rye in carrot beds by 11/30(?), or if too late for cover crops, just spread carrot tops on beds.

Sow onions to overwinter in hoophouse.

Plant hard-neck garlic when soil temp at 4″ deep is 50°F, and mulch immediately, not too thickly.

Plant soft-neck garlic.

Plant leftover small garlic cloves for garlic scallions and garlic greens.

Potato onions: till beds.  11/1-12/1: Plant medium-size (1½-2” diameter) potato onions, at 6”, or wider if supply is limited.  Cover with ½-1” soil, then mulch. If planning a January planting of small potato onions, prep bed and roll mulch now.

Sow spinach (for spring harvesting) in early November if not done already.

Mid November: Free trapped garlic shoots from over-thick mulch, when 50% emerged.

Cover lettuce, spinach (“burns” below 10°F), celery, zukes & cukes and Chinese cabbage. Use double hoops for the spinach, celery, and the last lettuce bed.

Harvest: celeriac (hardy to 20°F), beets (15-20°F), turnips(20°F), kohlrabi (15°F), winter radish (20°F), rutabagas (OK to 20°F), carrots (12°F), parsnips (0°F) in that order. Wash and store in perforated plastic bags in walk-in cooler. Record yields.

After curing, store boxes of sweet potatoes in basement cage (55-60°F, 80-90% humidity).

Sort white potatoes in storage 2 weeks after harvest.

Spread lime or gypsum as needed, referring to soil analysis results.

Potato Onions: sell small ones (<1½”) or store on racks until January. Ideal conditions 32-40°F, 60-70% humidity, good ventilation, layers < 4” deep. Do not seem to suffer from freezing.

Winterize the rototillers and BCS mower.

Planning:

Week 1: Check the accounts and prepare Budget Requests for economic planning. Write Informant. Revise Seed Inventory spreadsheet.

Week 2: Inventory seeds

Week 3: Inventory seeds

Week 4: Seed Inventory: proof reading, etc. File notes.

Perennials: Cut dead asparagus tops with weed whackers or machetes, and remove all ferns. Weed strawberries and spread sawdust in aisles. Weed and fertilize rhubarb, blueberries, asparagus, and spread cardboard and sawdust, (hay for asparagus if possible). Weed grapes, take vine cuttings. Transplant new blueberries if needed.

November Harvests: last outdoor lettuce (hardy to 15°F with rowcover), beets (15-20°F), broccoli (25°F), cabbage (12°F), cauliflower, celeriac (20°F), celery (15°F with rowcover), chard (10°F), fall greens, collards (5°F), fennel (25°F), kale (0°F), kohlrabi (15°F), komatsuna (15°F), leeks (fall leeks hardy to 12-20°F, winter ones to 5°F or lower), parsnips (0°F), scallions (25°F), senposai (12°F), spinach (0°F), tatsoi (10°F), turnips (20°F), yukina savoy (10°F).

December – Time to Rest

Perennials: see November. Cut fall raspberry canes (after leaves have dropped) with pruners, to the ground. Weed raspberries. Hang blueberry drip tape in the branches. Dig docks from asparagus patch.

Plant medium potato onions, if not done in November.

Drain and store the hoses and irrigation. Clean up stakes, labels.

Planning:

Week 1: Prepare seed order spreadsheet. Decide seed order.

Week 2: Revise Lettuce List, lettuce Log. Spend last of money. Check expenditures and spend remaining budget. File the year’s accumulated notes.

Week 3: Put your feet up and read seed catalogs and inspiring gardening books

Week 4: Put your feet up and read seed catalogs and inspiring gardening books

December Harvests: cold frame spinach or lettuce, cabbage (hardy to12°F), celery (15°F with rowcover), chard (10°F), collards (5°F), kale (0°F), komatsuna, leeks (fall leeks hardy to 12-20°F, winter ones to 10°F or lower), parsnips (0°F), senposai (12°F), spinach (0°F), yukina savoy (10°F).

Winter Squash in storage at Twin Oaks potato onion planting, potato onion storage,

Winter Hardiness

It can be hard to find out just how cold a temperature various vegetable plants can survive. Reading books written in different parts of the country can be confusing: “survives all winter” is one thing in the Pacific Northwest and another in Montana. So for some years I have been collecting data and exchanging information with my friend and neighbor Ken Bezilla at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Each winter I try to record what dies at what temperature. Below is my current list, which should be treated as a work in progress.

Your own experience with your soils, microclimates and rain levels may lead you to use different temperatures. If you have data from your garden, please leave a comment. Likewise if you have found particular varieties to be especially cold-tolerant, I’d love to learn more. Central Virginia isn’t the coldest spot in the US, but if I can grow something without rowcover, I’m happy to hear it!

Here’s our temperature list at which various crops die:

 35°F (2°C):  Basil.

32°F (0°C):  Bush beans, cauliflower curds, corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, limas, melons, okra, some Pak Choy, peanuts, peppers, potato vines, squash vines, sweet potato vines, tomatoes.

27°F (-3°C): Most cabbage, Sugarloaf chicory (takes only light frosts), radicchio.

 25°F (-4°C): Broccoli heads, chervil, chicory roots for chicons, and hearts, probably Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), dill, endive (hardier than lettuce, Escarole more frost-hardy than Frisée), annual fennel, large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive even colder temperatures), some mustards and oriental greens (Maruba Santoh, mizuna, most pak choy, Tokyo Bekana), onion scallions, radicchio. Also white mustard cover crop.

22°F (-6°C): Arugula, Tatsoi. (both may survive colder than this.) Possibly Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), Maruba Santoh, Mizuna, Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana with rowcover.

20°F (-7°C): Some beets, cabbage heads (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some corn salad, perhaps fennel, some unprotected lettuce – some OK to 16°F (-16 °C), some mustards/oriental greens (Tendergreen, Tyfon Holland greens), radishes, turnips with mulch to protect them, (Noir d’Hiver is the most cold-tolerant variety).

17°F (-8°C): Barley (cover crop)

15°F (-9.5°C): Some beets (Albina Verduna, Lutz Winterkeeper), beet leaves, broccoli leaves, young cabbage, celery (Ventura) with rowcover (some inner leaves may survive at lower than this), cilantro, endive, fava beans (Aquadulce Claudia), garlic tops may be damaged but not killed, Russian kales, kohlrabi, perhaps Komatsuna, some covered lettuce, especially small and medium-sized plants (Marvel of  Four Seasons, Rouge d’Hiver, Winter Density), curly leaf parsley, flat leaf parsley, oriental winter radish with mulch for protection (including daikon), large leaves of broad leaf sorrel, turnip leaves, winter cress.

12°F (-11°C): Some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), carrots (Danvers, Oxheart), multi-colored chard, most collards, some fava beans (not the best flavored ones), garlic tops if fairly large, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln, King Richard), most covered lettuce (Freckles, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Parris Island, Tango) , large tops of potato onions, Senposai, some turnips (Purple Top).

10°F (-12°C): Beets with rowcover, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest, Brussels sprouts, chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), mature cabbage, some collards (Morris Heading), Belle Isle upland cress, some endive (Perfect, President), young stalks of Bronze fennel, perhaps Komatsuna, some  leeks (American Flag), Oriental winter radish, (including daikon), rutabagas, (if mulched), tops of shallots, large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than flat leafed varieties), tatsoi, Yukina Savoy. Also oats cover crop.

5°F (-15°C): Garlic tops if still small, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), some leeks (Bulgarian Giant, Laura, Tadorna), some bulb onions (Walla Walla), potato onions and other multiplier onions, smaller leaves of savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel.

0°F (-18°C): Chives, some collards (Blue Max, Winner), corn salad, garlic, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, Vates kale (although some leaves may be too damaged to use), Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf  kale, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel); some onion scallions (Evergreen Winter Hardy White, White Lisbon), parsnips, salad burnet, salsify, some spinach (Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia, Tyee). Also small-seeded cover crop fava beans.

Even Colder: Overwintering varieties of cauliflower are hardy down to -5°F (-19°C).

Many of the Even Star Ice Bred varieties are hardy down to -6°F (-20°C).

Walla Walla onions sown in late summer are hardy down to -10°F (-23°C).

Winter Field Peas and Crimson clover (used as cover crop) are hardy down to -10°F (-23°C).

Hairy vetch and white Dutch clover cover crops are hardy to -30°F (-34°C)

Sorrel and some cabbage (January King) are said to be hardy in zone 3, -30 to-40°F (-34 to -40°C)

Winter wheat and winter rye (cover crops) are hardy to -40°F (-40°C).