Book Reviews: The Seed Garden and The Ethical Meat Handbook

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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.

First up today, is  The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving

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!

On the Seed Savers Exchange page for the book, you can view a short video about seed-saving.


EthicalMeat_Comps1Next is  The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete home butchery, charcuterie and cooking for the Conscious Omnivore

$24.95, 256 pages, published by New Society Publishers October 2015

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.

Meredith Leigh at work. Photo by New Society Publishers
Meredith Leigh at work.
Photo by New Society Publishers

In praise of West Indian Gherkins

640px-Cucumis_anguriaThe West Indian burr gherkin. “Cucumis anguria” by Eugenio Hansen, OFS – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I just harvested 4 5-gallon buckets of gherkins (one for seed, 3 for pickling) from a 50ft row we abandoned over 5 weeks ago. We pulled out the drip tape too, so these plants have survived just on rainfall, and there hasn’t been all that much of that. Maybe 3″, but almost all of it in one week, with nothing in the past ten days.

Next year, I want this to be the only pickling cucumber we grow! Not only is it prolific and drought-tolerant, it also shows no sign of any diseases or pests, and its healthy vines cover the ground, leaving no room for weeds. It is a rambler (long vines) so maybe a trellis would be wise. I’ve also learned that it is resistant to some species of Root Knot Nematodes, so we may grow it in our hoophouse as part of our rotation of nematode resistant crops for the bed there which produced some gnarly-rooted tomatoes this year.

Because it’s open-pollinated and doesn’t cross with actual cucumbers (or watermelons, despite the look of the leaves), we are saving our own seed, and a little money in the process. I mentioned West Indian Gherkins last winter when I was ordering seeds. Before September 2012, when I saw these gherkins growing at Monticello, in Thomas Jefferson’s reconstructed garden, I had no idea of their existence. Now I’m starting to hear about them in more places.

William Woys Weaver, author of  Heirloom Vegetable Gardening wrote about them for Mother Earth News in 2008. He discovered that they originated in West Africa, rather than West Indies, and that they can be pickled, eaten raw or cooked like zucchini.Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/growing-burr-gherkins-zmaz08djzgoe.aspx#ixzz3EAMru5hv

Seed is available from Monticello, Baker Creek Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Trade Winds Fruit and Reimer Seeds. This seems like a great crop for hot, humid disease-prone gardens.


 

Meanwhile, we are replacing the plastic on the end walls of our hoophouse. Not sure when we last did that – maybe 7 years ago? We’ve worked two mornings so far (our garden shifts are in the afternoons now that fall has arrived). We’ve got the old plastic hanging, detached everywhere except around the end bows. Tomorrow we’ll get the new plastic on. I think battening the new plastic will be easier than de-battening the old plastic! I’ll probably write more about that next time, and hopefully I’ll have some photos too.

Eggplant variety trials, first frost

Nadia eggplant. Photo credit Kathryn Simmons
Nadia eggplant.
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Last December I wrote about trying new eggplant varieties

After my experience in the hot summer of 2012 with our Nadia eggplant refusing to set fruit in the heat, I started looking for heat-tolerant varieties. We like large, classic purple-black Italian types. For a while in early summer 2012 the Nadia didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. I looked at growing some combination of Nadia (67d, good set in cool conditions) with some of 

Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds
Epic eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Epic 61-64d (early and huge!), from Osborne, Stokes. Recommended in Florida and Texas.

Night Shadow 68d, (size claims vary from “similar to Epic” to “smaller”), Osborne, Stokes, Siegers.

Traviata (variously recorded as 55-60d, 70d and 80d), small but good flavor. Osborne, Johnnys, High Mowing. Recommended in Florida.

Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds
Traviata eggplant from Osborne Seeds

Irene  (mid-early). Large, shiny purple, traditional-shaped fruit 5″ x 6-7″. Great flavor, big plant, productive. Seeds from Italy.

Classic 76d, heavy yields, high quality, does not perform well in cool conditions. Harris. Recommended in Florida and Texas.

Santana 80d, large, continuous setting. Siegers. Recommended in Florida.

These are all hybrids, but I also found a couple of promising -sounding OPs:

Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange
Florida High Bush eggplant from Seed Savers Exchange

Florida High Bush 76-85d, reliable, large fruit, drought and disease resistant. Seed Savers Exchange, Cherrygal/Sustainable Seed Co.  Recommended in Florida and Texas.

Florida Market 80-85d, large, excellent for the South, not for the Northeast. Baker Creek. Recommended in Florida and Texas.

If anyone has any comparisons of two or more of these, I’d love to hear more. (Also if you have others of purple-black, classic shape to recommend.)  I can see the sense of planting several varieties, including a fast-maturing one, followed by more heat-tolerant (but slower) ones.

This year we tried three 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. So alongside Nadia, we trialed: Florida Highbush is open-pollinated, from the Seed Savers Exchange. Epic and Traviata are hybrids from Osborne Seeds.

Ironically, this summer was not hot. One of the coolest we’ve had in a long time. We just did a final harvest in preparation for our first frost, which happened Sunday night October 20/21, and I crunched the numbers. Our record-keeping was a bit spotty, some days we didn’t write anything down. But the relative yields should be about right.

We planted 38 Nadia, 10 Florida Highbush, 10 Traviata and 12 Epic. Harvests started on July 25, later than our usual July 10, because of the cool weather. We harvested three times a week until 10/17. I was surprised how few fruit each plant provided – about 6. We only recorded the number of each variety harvested each time. I started out noting size and number of cull fruit, but that didn’t last long! Initially, Nadia was providing by far the largest fruit, with Florida Highbush the smallest. Traviata doesn’t claim to be big. In the first week of harvests, Nadia produced most per plant, but this leveled off pretty soon.

Final figures were 7.3 fruits/bush for Traviata, 6.3 for Florida Highbush, 6.1 for Nadia, and only 4.4 for Epic. In all fairness, Epic was the variety nearest the road, where the soil is drier and pebbly, and the sprinklers don’t reach so well. I wish I’d recorded weight as well as count, as Traviata’s 7.3 might not be such a good deal as it sounds.

In conclusion, I’d like to try all three varieties alongside Nadia next year, and keep records on weight as well as number of fruits from each variety. Maybe it will be hot, and I’ll learn what I originally set out to discover..

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