Challenges of seed saving in a small garden

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This is wintercress, a great peppery winter green around here. I had plenty available all winter. I only grow one type – from plants a friend gave me last year, and billions of plants are now blooming all over my garden (it self-seeds readily). The mature plant doesn’t take up much room, so I’ll be letting a few put out seed pods and collect their seeds.

I always hate ripping up my kale, but they had gone to flower and I wanted to plant the bed with another crop – part of my intricate management plan for my urban lot ecosystem. We made one last harvest* then pulled up the plants and tossed them in with the chickens. Some sprouting broccoli buds were still poking out of their foliage, but aphids had moved in. The little bugs stay put even when soaked and once I know they are there, I don’t want to eat them – so we harvested the leaves instead. Broccoli leaves have the same brassica flavour as kale, but aren’t as tender.

Both the kale and broccoli represent a good portion of my winter garden produce and, over the last few weeks as I watched them put up their cheery yellow flowers, I couldn’t help but ponder if I could let them go just a little bit longer and harvest their seeds – a further step towards sustainability.

I went to a seed saving workshop at the library last week (our library also hosts a seed library, apparently the first seed library in Canada, how awesome is that!). I’m now set to save some of my seeds this year – most everything I grow is open pollinated which is clearly labelled on the seed packages. Open pollinated seeds mean that the seeds will grow a plant the same as its parent. This group includes what is referred to as heritage varieties. The alternative is hybrid plants, labeled as F1, where two distinct varieties are crossed to produce a version that contains the best attributes of the parents. The downside is, if you collect seeds from a hybrid plant you don’t know what attributes will show up in the next generation (it likely won’t be as good as the original hybrid plant).

At the talk, genetic diversity in seed saving was discussed – this is where my seed saving plans fall down a bit. Brassicas, like my kale and broccoli represent two challenges. First, they are pollinated by insects and readily cross-pollinate with each other (called outbreeding). To save seeds I would, for example only be able to grow one type of kale (currently I grow three or four with the thought that if one type doesn’t thrive, other types will) as the isolation distance for kale is over a kilometre – way bigger than my yard. An alternative, would to only let one type flower.

If I were diligent and only let one type of kale flower, I could leave a few of these plants to go to seed and save those seeds, for an example I’ll pretend I’m only letting one plant go to seed. The problem with that is that over time, I would be removing the genetic diversity in the kale. Over time, my kale plants would loose resiliency to diseases and change, potentially dieing off could. I could let more than one plant go to seed – but here is where I get into a bind, my garden isn’t big enough to let everything I’d like seeds from go to seed and plant food for the next harvest.

This year I’ll stick with the simpler self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and beans. Isolation distances aren’t as much of an issue, although I still might have trouble maintaining genetic diversity over time – the solution to that will be to continue trading seeds with friends.

*ironically my husband ordered me the kale book I reviewed a while ago as a surprise, it arrived the day after we ripped out the kale.

my imperfect world

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Kale flowers in the morning sun

We were ready to go a few minutes early this morning. My toddler’s sleep has really stabilized lately, allowing me to get the sleep I need – my whole world is better when I don’t feel like I’m dragging myself about in a sleep deprived haze. With the extra time, we went outside to see the chickens. The sun was just hitting the yard giving each leaf a rim of gold. The new growth looked almost magical in the light.

I still have a few beds full of last year’s plantings. I wasn’t fast enough harvesting kale buds so now my kale is now offering up their yellow flowers to the sun. I’ve been taking my time pulling up the plants because the flowers are so cheerful and I hope, by providing early food for the bees, the yard will get marked on their foraging maps. My broad beans are just starting to set out their pods – mostly they have won their winter race to grow faster than the slugs could eat them (my early peas lost that race).

In the golden early morning sun, my daughter and I stood by the purple sprouting broccoli munching on the crisp buds – a moment that felt perfect. Looking I saw the crumpled remnants one of my favourite red and yellow tulips in her other hand and remembered I prefer my imperfect world.

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My pretty tulips – one of the few plants I grow just because they are pretty (I can see them while working in my office)

 

Garden on the first of April (no fooling)

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The back garden on a rather grey morning. The grass is getting long, but I can’t mow it yet as it is still rather mucky in a monster mud pit kinda way.

There is lots of activity starting in the garden – garlic and chives (I’ve been harvesting these for a while) are already well on their way. My winter greens are bolting; the kale, collards, corn salad, parsley and wintercress are all about to flower. I’ve started lots of lettuce and mustard greens which are doing great. Unfortunately, my early peas have been decimated by slugs, I’ll have to start more this weekend. Here are some pictures:

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It looks like the overwintered broad beans are a success – they have out grown the slugs and are now flowering.

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The ramsons I was given last year are now up – I’m not going to harvest any this year to grow a bigger patch. I’ll be moving these to my food forest in the fall.

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The alpine strawberries are flowering

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There are more mushrooms to harvest

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The asparagus I planted this year is putting up shoots – my first food plant (ie not tree or bush) in my new food forest. It will be a few years until I get a harvest.

 

The last two…

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Spring growth of kale and collards – it’s been so warm they are already trying to flower (their flower buds can be eaten like broccoli).

On to my last two library books I took out to scour for ideas…

The Book of Kale: the easy-to-grow superfood by Sharon Hanna is relevant to my kale growing ways so it will get added to my Christmas wish list. I may be an anomaly, but I really enjoy kale (and collards), especially in the late winter and early spring. Generally I saute it with a lot of garlic, occasionally I make kale chips which tend to get eaten as fast as I can make them. Other than occasional kale salads, that about all I do with kale – so some new ideas are welcome.

The author claims kale is “the stuff of legends and reportedly offering sustenance since the age of dinosaurs, kale is one of the earth’s most health-giving, nutrient-dense food.”

What I like about this book is that she goes into the history of kale, as there is always a convoluted story behind how certain plants came to be part of our diets which I find fascinating. Kale has been cultivated for more than 6000 years. This book starts with the ancient Egyptians who must have grown a very heat tolerant kale liking it so much to decorate the tombs of their pharaohs with kale carvings to wish them eternal good health.

From another direction, wandering Celts likely brought kale to Europe from Asia in roughly 600 BC. This green went on to flourish providing tasty nourishment that went in and out of fashion to today.

The book has an entire section on how to grow kale, which I skipped – I just plant the seeds in the spring then ignore them until the fall as I generally eat other greens over the summer (the kale does get watered). Because I’ve occasionally left kale in the ground long enough to set seeds, I tend to get random kales popping up all over the place. She suggests kale as a good plant for a kids garden as it grows so quickly.

Most of the book is recipes and they are diverse – kale smoothies, kale muffins, kale chips, kale gomasio, fermented kale, kale humous, kale fritters, kale caesar, kale soups, kale pastas ……. there are lots of tasty looking recipes to try.

My last book is Vertical Vegetable and Fruit: creative gardening techniques for growing up in small spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart.

Venturing into the third dimension is one way to produce more in a small space that I’ve only dabbled in so far. I make bamboo teepees for beans and peas and have blackberries growing along a fence. And every year I stake my tomatoes, I blink, and they have grown well over the height of the stakes and flopped over, producing a mass of jumbled tomatoes. I always miss a few ripe ones inside the mass, only discovering after that they have rotten on the ground. So there is plenty of opportunity in my garden to take better advantage of growing vertical.

The author claims: “plants grown vertically have access to more air and light, pest management is easier, and you typically will increase your yield.” Sounds good to me, perhaps this year I’ll try cucumbers and melons on trellises. I’m still going to use bamboo as I like how it looks. In addition we have an old crib which is scheduled to be disassembled to provide plant support (probably for scarlet runner beans on the deck). Bamboo and wood supports have an additional benefit over wire mesh I’d never considered – the wire mesh would heat up on a sunny day, potentially burning plants (I don’t know how much of an issue this would be).

She suggests A-frames for the heavier vines like cucumbers and melons and has a tomato support system I’ll try (I can’t describe it, so I’ll take pictures after I build it). Then there is some advice for kids: “a teepee is a great way to get kids excited about growing food, because as the vines cover it, the teepee creates its own secret garden, complete with snacks!”

The author suggests malabar spinach, a perennial in warmer climates than mine, that is a heat-loving vine. It is already in my plan for this year. It is native to Africa and southern Asia and apparently produces a mild green for salads or for cooking. Apparently it is also a good looking plant – I can’t imagine it is prettier than chard, but I’ll take pictures. I’ll try growing it against the fence.

There is also some unconventional ideas such as window farming (eg www.windowfarms.org), window boxes and plants grown in bags attached to walls. There are plans for multi-level raised beds, pot sculptures and tater towers – but, since I have space to grow plenty horizontally, a lot of these ideas I won’t bother with (I think they’d be great for much smaller spaces). A living wall is something I might try as these can look fantastic (see some examples here). A modest living wall as a screen might be the solution I’m looking for to hide my compost bins.

Now I just need to remember to return these books to the library.

Smart Permaculture Design

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This flower looks like it could be tropical, but I grew in my garden last summer.

My second library garden book is Smart Permaculture Design by Jenny Allen. I was drawn to the beautiful pictures and hoped to find inspiration to beautify my veggie producing space – but the book turned out to be about gardening in sub-tropical Australia (I bet they don’t look forward to getting snakes in the yard like I do). Allen writes about her efforts to convert a traditional yard to a food producing wilderness, describing its end state as “a garden that provides us with almost everything we need: abundant and varied food, entertainment, tranquility, living art and fascinating insights into nature” – exactly what I’m hoping my garden will provide, just in a different climate.

The author defines permaculture as “an ingenious design system based on working in harmony with nature. It looks at a garden as a whole, not just at its parts. Everything interrelates.” – and this book is a beginners guide to permaculture and covers basic concepts. She examines her gardening mistakes with good humor with the hope her readers will avoid making the same mistakes.

We do have some plants in common like the ubiquitous chard, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and basil. She highlights some exotic fruit that I’ve never heard of like chocolate pudding fruits, babaco, Panama berry, choko and midyim berries. Then there are the avocados – I adore avocados and am envious of anyone that can grow them (they are much to large of a tree for me to try growing them as a houseplant, maybe…).

She does discuss two sub-tropicals I can grow in my garden: feijoas and pepinos. Feijoas with fruit that gets compared to a guava, might thrive in the warm microclimate along my back fence, so I’m going to be on the hunt for a couple of these bushes later this spring (I tried growing feijoas from seeds last summer, but they didn’t sprout). Pepino, a plant on the continuum between tomatoes and eggplants, has already been planted in my dad’s greenhouse. For me this plant will be a annual requiring shelter and tastes (so I’ve read) like a melon but grows on a metre tall bush. I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.

Although I find the plants and wildlife of her garden fascinating, her garden decor is not to my taste – I won’t be posting quotes or investing in statues anytime soon.

On the hunt for ideas

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My stack of gardening books from the library

I took a smattering of gardening books out of the library with the hope of gleaning a few ideas for my own space (library books are great because I can be totally whimsical about my choices and I don’t feel I need to read the whole book if it turns out to be not to my taste). I tend to be a random idea generator – I already have more ideas than I can possibly implement, but I enjoy putting my feet up and flipping through books and it’s completely possible I’ll stumble across some great ideas.

First up – Indoor Kitchen Gardening: turning your home into a year-round vegetable garden by Elizabeth Millard.

Outside spring is bursting forth, it won’t be long until the first of this years crops will be ready to harvest (mustard greens, arugula and chard are all on their way), but I’m still intrigued by the idea of growing what I can inside. This book is aimed towards those with much colder winters than I have to endure and is filled with beautiful pictures including full-sized celery, hot peppers and photogenic red chard. She advocates having a plan for indoor gardening (which it true outside too) to avoid getting overwhelmed, very good advice which I’m guilty of regularly ignoring.

Although I grow food year round outside, come winter time it’s fun to watch new plants sprout without getting soaked in the rain, besides why can’t houseplant produce some food? I have a sunny kitchen and the luxury of a bit of space – the biggest danger to anything I grow inside is a carrot-stealing toddler. In the winter and early spring my counters are lined with sprouts and pea shoots at various stages of growth. We recently added some grow lights to start seeds, but I can also grow some microgreens under them or even some full sized basil, cilantro and lettuce.

Millard’s instructions to set up an indoor garden are detailed, which would be good for someone just starting out. Microgreens and sprouts are first up – easy choices, both of which I grow through out fall and winter. There are instructions to grow mushrooms and wheat grass. She goes through lists of herbs and categorizes them by ease of growing. Basil and cilantro are labelled as ‘more challenging’ – however, they can’t be that hard to grow as I have both growing in my kitchen right now.

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My indoor grown basil – almost big enough to start stealing leaves from.

She suggests growing lemongrass from the grocery store this way: “trim the top and put the stalk in a few inches of water. The stalk will produce roots on its own and dozens of new shoots and you can harvest from these.” I’ve looked into starting lemongrass from seed, and her way seems much simpler I’ll have to try it.

She does go into growing full sized vegetables inside, I have to admit, with the exception of hot peppers, I don’t think I’ll bother as I can grow what she covers outside. Unfortunately, tropical options like pigeon peas (a tropical bean that I understand can be grown to a crop producing size indoors, currently I’m testing this and will report back) are outside the scope of the book.

I’ll post about the other books shortly – it looks like they contain some good ideas for outside.

what’s for dinner

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Home grown mushrooms!

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing code for a project I’m working on. So far, I’ve proven to myself that although I can write code that works eventually, my coding efforts always turn into long hunts for misplaced commas (or some other single character). It’s frustrating. So, after a couple hours of this frustration I popped outside to find something for dinner and look what is ready to harvest… shiitake mushrooms!!! I bought what looked like a plastic bag of sawdust in February at our local seedy-Saturday (it was an awesome, I’ll definitely be going in future years). The bag went outside and got ignored, now it is bursting with mushrooms. Here’s a close-up:

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a mushroomy close-up

I’ve tried growing mushrooms several times before and produced nothing but rotten substrate. So I’m surprised this time was successful so quickly. I’m looking forward to eating them. I think I’ll stir fry up the mushrooms with garlic and my purple broccoli. Hopefully, I’ll get a second crop.

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Purple sprouting broccoli, which my two year old claims tastes ‘sooooo gooooood’ – I’ve clearly corrupted her.

 

Garden at the beginning of March

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The garden at the beginning of March. I’ve planted Asian greens in the cold frame which have already sprouted while the chard and parsley already there are doing great. In the first bed my chives are growing like mad (which is a good thing around here).

Our unseasonably warm weather has resulted in a lot of growth in the garden – some good, some bad.

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The new growth on the raspberries is looking good.

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While the kale is getting ready to flower – about a month earlier than other years. I can eat the buds just like broccoli, but I’m disappointed to have my kale harvest end sooner than usual.

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I have all sorts of flowers blooming right now – very pretty!

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My garden villains are out in full force. I wish garter snakes would move in and help out with slug control. Might put some thought into creating some good snake habitat.

 

Re-creating wilderness

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A close up of grape hyacinths – one of my favorite flowers this time of year.

My new post about nature in a bubble and re-creating wilderness is up at the Sustainable Collective – check it out.

some brassica appreciation

My spring bulbs have burst into bloom – grape hyacinths, daffodils and snow drops are all showing off their colours. And the unseasonably warm weather has coaxed the plum tree behind the back fence to bloom (which isn’t necessarily a good thing as I haven’t seen a single bee). As pretty as the flowers are this time of year I really appreciate the brassicas for both being pretty (in a more subdued way) and their tastiness. So here are some cabbage-family pictures.

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A volunteer kale that looks nothing like the kale I originally planted.

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Purple sprouting broccoli which I should harvest soon

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A kale sporting one of my favourite colour combinations of purple and green

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Morning dew on my last January King Cabbage – I had to zoom in as this cabbage is roughly the size of a golf ball.

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Tatsoi in a cold-frame – which clearly I’ve neglected as it has gone to flower. The little yellow flowers are lovely though.

 

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