August is my busy month for seed harvesting. I alternate tomato seeds and watermelon seeds, getting one batch of each done each week. Today (Tuesday) I packed away a dried batch of Roma tomato seeds and washed and set to dry a batch of Crimson Sweet watermelon seeds. These are both the Virginia Select strains which I sell to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. I harvested two buckets of Romas on Thursday and left them to fully ripen until today (day 5 for those not counting).
Each year since 2001, I’ve been selecting the Romas for earliness, productivity and resistance or tolerance to Septoria leaf spot disease. In the photo above you can see pink flagging tape on two of the T-posts and yellow on the nearer one. Pink flagging tape marks the plants that had large early yields and OK foliage. Yellow tape marks the plants that have healthier foliage and at least average early yield.
Today I processed the two bucketfuls of Romas from Thursday for seed. I like to do this task on the porch steps as this gives me various heights for the different buckets, and reduces bending double. The next step is to cut each tomato in half lengthwise, pitching any rotten ones in a compost bucket, and putting the good halves in a clean bucket.
In the photo above, the compost bucket is on the right and the food bucket on the left is getting any edible parts that I don’t want to save seed from for one reason or another. For instance, if the end of the fruit was bad, I don’t want seed from it in case the disease is also in the seeds, but the rest of the fruit is perfectly edible. For the cutting I like a small serrated knife, as shown in the picture.
Next I use a soup spoon to scoop out the seeds into a smaller bucket and I put the scooped out halves (“shells”) into another clean bucket. I’ve trained myself to keep moving on this task and only scoop once in each half tomato. I don’t go back for one odd seed that got away!
The “shells” are then all ready for cooking into sauce, or chopping and making into salsa. The seeds bucket gets a loose lid and is put in a cool dark corner of the shed for three days (until Friday). The goal is to ferment the tomato seeds, which kills the spores of some of the diseases, and makes it easier to remove the gel around the seeds and the bits of tomato flesh. I stir once to three times a day to let the carbon dioxide escape, and to break up any surface mold that develops. After three days I wash and dry the seeds.
I like seed crops where the food part is also harvested (or most of it). Peppers and melons are that way too, but not crops that we eat botanically immature, such as eggplant and cucumber. And obviously not crops where the seed is the food crop, such as peas, beans and corn.
I love it when I get the chance to read great books and then tell other people about them. And, of course, books make great gifts. If you want to read more of my book reviews, click on the Book Reviews category in the list on the left side or here.
Edited by Lee Buttala and Sharyn Siegel. Written by Michaela Colley and Jared Zystro. Published by John Torgrimson, Seed Savers Exchange, 2015. Distributed by Chelsea Green $29.95 400 pages.
Seed Savers Exchange published Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed in 1991, one of the first popular seed-saving books. The Seed Garden brings the information up to date. This is a beautiful, inspiring and informative book, which provides all you need to know to start seed growing, or to start saving seeds from a crop new to you. The explanations are clear. The technical information that you need is in a very readable, accessible form. Many mysteries and confusions are cleared up. With this book, you have all you need to understand how to reliably get plentiful viable pure seed.
The Seed Garden is written for home gardeners as well as farmers, and is divided into two sections. First comes the Art and Practice of Seed Saving, then come the individual Crop Profiles
Section 1 covers the botany of seed saving, pollination methods, plant life cycles, maturity indicators, seed harvesting and drying methods, seed-borne diseases, seed longevity and how to store seeds.
Section 2 includes information on population size (how many plants you need to preserve genetic diversity), and isolation distances (how much distance is needed between your seed crop and other crops it could cross with). The crop profiles are by scientific name. Appendices explain germination testing and a table of seed-borne diseases.
Throughout the book are “Master Class” sections, giving two or three pages of practical advice (such as how to hand pollinate squash) and explanations of important phenomena such as inbreeding depression, photoperiodism and vernalization. There is an excellent glossary and a good index.
There are chapters with Regional Considerations. For example the mid-Atlantic has hot summers long enough for most heat-loving crops, such as cowpeas, limas, eggplant, peppers, sweet corn, melons and watermelon. There is regular rainfall and high humidity, which can lead to fungal and bacterial diseases, so it is harder to grow dry-seeded crops. Harvested material should be brought under cover. Biennial seed crops can usually be over-wintered outdoors. Except in the hotter regions of the mid-Atlantic, winter is cool enough for vernalization. Cool season crops are best sown early so that seed is produced before the very hot weather which can reduce seed quality.
I read up about growing buckwheat seed, because I participated in a VABF/VSU buckwheat trial which included growing some seed. Buckwheat takes 10 weeks to produce mature seed. Temperatures above 90F reduce seed yield. The minimum population size is 80 plants, and the isolation distance is 800ft-1/2 mile for home use, 1-2 miles for commercial seed. Buckwheat has perfect flowers (that is, all flowers have both male and female parts), which come in two types. The pin types have long styles and short stamens; the thrum type have short styles and long stamens. An individual plant produces only one type of flower and pollination is only possible between different flower types. This is referred to as an “obligate outcrosser”.
Another section I studied was the explanation of the difference between Brassica napus and Brassica oleraceae. Brassica napus varieties (rutabagas, Russian and Siberian kales) are biennial and must undergo vernalization in order to flower and set seed. Vernalization requires plants with about 8 leaves standing for 10-12 weeks at temperatures below 40F. They are hardy to 10F. Brassica oleraceae annuals (such as heading broccoli) on the other hand, have only a minimal cold requirement of 1-4 weeks below 50F before they start to flower. The biennial B oleraceae (European kales, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kohlrabi, sprouting broccoli) need 10-12 weeks below 50F before flowering. They are hardy to 20F or lower (some much lower).
Finally I read up on growing sweet potato slips, which I do every spring, hoping to learn a new trick. Presprout at 80-85F and 90% humidity, for 2-3 weeks. (I think I do that) Then plant in 2-3” moist sand at 80-85F for 4-5 weeks until shoots emerge. (Yes, I do that but use compost rather than sand.) Cut the slips 1” above the sand (compost) when they are 8-12” tall. (Yep.) Pot up or plant directly (We plant into flats for a few weeks). I’m on the right track, no worries there.
My examples show you the level of detail and breadth of topic that this book includes. Additionally, the photos are breath-taking. A book of practical inspiration!
Meredith Leigh has given us a wonderful book. The trifecta of practicality, politics and poetry. “You need food. What everyone will not admit is that you should love it too. If you don’t love good food, put this book down. Now.” “The key is to honor the process, the pursuit of good food.” Ethical meat is that from an animal which enjoyed a good life, was afforded a good death, the meat is butchered properly, then cooked or preserved properly.
One aspect of her book combines practical information on how to butcher beef, lamb, pork and chicken step by step; make sausage and smoked meats; raise livestock humanely and successfully make a living doing so. She encourages and demystifies, sharing otherwise hard-to-find information in words and photos. I won’t say much about this section. I have butchered poultry and in the past, a few sheep. But this is not my area of expertise.
The second aspect includes the politics of animal farming. Meredith says “I am not a meat-crazed woman. I detest dietary dogma.” She was vegetarian for nine years, vegan for two, and also a vegetable farmer. She advocates for integrating meat consumption into a robust, diverse diet. She explains that she became a vegan motivated by “deep empathy and political aggravation . . . but my solution, sadly, mostly helped only me.” She now sees that her diet had been one of luxury and a desire to escape a system that she felt she could not affect. Now, in her life as a butcher, she can be more politically effective. Her book does not dwell on abuses of livestock, but promotes the more ethical path. In answer to those who criticize the water use of livestock farming, Meredith points out the bigger picture: water given to livestock doesn’t disappear – that which isn’t converted to meat returns to the pastures to improve the organic matter and to be used again. It’s the water cycle we should consider, not water “use”. Using water isn’t wrong – it’s important how you use it.
Supermarket food is subsidized by our tax dollars. We are not paying the true cost at the point of sale. The true cost of “cheap” food includes higher healthcare costs, higher environmental clean-up costs. Paying in installments causes us to expect food to be cheap.
The third aspect of her book is her poetic way of sharing her observations and feelings. Her farming and domestic partnership collapsed, she lost her farm – clearly that was hard.
In the Pork chapter she writes “I owned land once. Looking back, I like to think I can remember every single morning on my farm, but what I really remember it is the way that it feels each time to walk out the door into it. That’s the hush.”
“I used to feel like an invalid every spring, or like someone who had been asleep, because I was always so surprised at how new the earth made itself.” “ But the pigs, now are lying in the sun. It is the stillest, sweetest moment, there in the mud, and they are all spooned up against each other sideways. Every now and again, an ear twitches, or a chubby head bobs, but the pigs and the sun are mostly etched there, silently.”
And while it’s clear that losing her farm was hard, it’s just as clear that Meredith has jumped back on her feet, and now she runs a retail butcher shop. “Inspire yourself to a point of spirituality towards the animals you raise.” She is a true foodie: “Good food ignites all of our senses.” She generously shares some very delicious recipes.