Subscribe via Email

If you're not receiving email notifications of new posts, subscribe by entering your email...

How to Start Seeds Indoors

Seed starting supplies

Seed starting supplies

It is easy and fun to start seeds indoors. Seeds are just magical – tiny bits of stuff that can turn into a delicious fruit or vegetable or gorgeous flower with only the help of a little soil, sun and rain. That magic is available to us all. All of us can plant seeds, and wave our magic wands to keep ourselves busy while we watch the magic show produced by Mother Earth, Father Sun and Sister Rain.

The first thing we need to know is the likely date of the last frost. We used to think this date was Memorial Day, but weather is unpredictable. These days we might calculate an earlier date.

I plant most of my seeds directly in the garden. Some vegetables are very hardy and can be planted in April. Lettuce is a cool weather crop that can be planted as soon as soil can be worked. Lettuce loves temperatures of about 60 degrees.

One of the most dependable ways to determine when you can plant outdoors is to test the temperature of the soil, not only the temperature of the air. If soil temperature is 45 degrees lettuces will germinate and grow. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog lists the most optimum soil temperatures for the different crops. A soil thermometer costs approximately $13.

However, many gardeners like to start seeds indoors. This doesn’t require much work or equipment. Starting your own herbs, tomatoes and peppers, or cosmos and zinnias can give you a headstart on the season, lots of plants, and some fun. Seeds can usually be started indoors between four to six weeks before you expect to plant them outdoors. By mid-May you can plant nearly everything outdoors, especially if you use row covers for the most tender.

To begin you need containers for sterile soilless seed starting mix. This can be the plastic foam containers that various food products come in if they will hold a couple of inches of seed starting mix. They would need to have drainage holes put in the bottom. You can also make pots out of recycled newspapers.  I do not recommend egg cartons or egg shells because as cute as they might be, they do not hold enough soil to stay moist very long. Seeds need constant moisture to germinate.

For a small investment you can buy a plastic tray and plastic cell flats or peat pots. This arrangement will allow you to water your seeds from below which is the easiest and best way.

If you buy and use small peat pots keep them in a tray and make sure you use enough water to soak the peat pots otherwise the pot itself will wick water away from the seed. Seedlings started in peat pots will not need transplanting. The whole pot just gets put in the ground – after you have removed all the extra seedlings, leaving only one.

You can mix your own seed starting mix. You’ll need one third, sphagnum peat moss, one third finished compost, and one third vermiculite. A light mix makes it easier for seeds to grow. Do not use garden soil.

Dampen your planting mix. I use large cell flats so that I do not have to transplant seedlings twice. I fill each cell with damp mix, put two or three seeds in each cell and cover lightly with more mix. I keep my flats in a tray and put water in the tray every day which will be absorbed by osmosis into the cells. You want the soil mix to be consistently damp, not waterlogged or you may get damping off fungus which will kill your seedlings.

You can also buy a clear plastic cover for your tray. This will make a little greenhouse, slow down evaporation and warm the planting mix. When the seeds begin to germinate prop the cover up slightly so there is some air circulation. Once the seedling is fully germinated remove the cover.

Different seeds have different germination schedules. Seed packets usually tell you how long you’ll have to wait to see the emergence of a tiny shoot. Nowadays, you can buy electric heated seed starting mats, which will help germination, but these are not vital. If you do use a heat mat, the flats should be removed from the mat once the seedling has germinated.

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings also need light. You can put your flats in front of a sunny window. Once the seeds have germinated you will need to keep turning the flats because the seedlings will always be leaning toward the sun.

You can also use grow lights. I use both methods because the little grow light I inherited will only accommodate a few flats.

Your carefully tended seedlings can grow happily in this nursery for four to six weeks, depending on the crop. When there is no danger of frost prepare them for planting.

You can’t take your seedlings directly out of the house and plant them outside. They need to be hardened off. Spring breezes and direct sun are too much for the tender seedlings to tolerate. Every day, for a week or two, bring them outdoors in a protected spot for a while, increasing the time a little more each day.

If you want to transplant your hardened off seedlings into the soil as soon as possible, you can use row covers set over wire hoops. These permeable lightweight covers capture warmth and protect plants from wind and light frost. They will also protect plants from some pests.

Spring weather is exciting. Gardeners need to temper their excitement. Our weather is so unpredictable these days that it is hard to think of a schedule for seed starting and transplanting. The gardener needs to consider the needs of the particular plant and his particular site and climate.

Happy planting.

Between the Rows   March 19, 2016

 

 

 

What’s New for 2015

Grafted TomTato from Terratorial Seeds

Grafted TomTato from Terratorial Seeds

What’s new for 2015? In just five days we’ll have entered a new year where unimagined things may happen. How much of 2014 did you forsee on January 1, 2014? I’ll bet lots of the unimagined entered your life, and I hope that much was positive and joyful.

You know that there will be many banners of NEW in the nursery and seed catalogs that are starting to fill our mailboxes. Perhaps the most unimagined new plant I have seen – so far – is the Ketchup ‘n Fries TomTato being offered by the Territorial Seed Company. I had just gotten used to the idea of grafted tomatoes that promise to give us delicious tomatoes earlier in the season, but now there is a grafted TomTato. Territorial says, “Extensive trials and careful selection of both the tomato scion and potato rootstock cultivars were required to achieve properly staggered maturity. This enables the plant to focus its energy first on yielding hundreds of sweet, tangy, and early glistening red cherry tomatoes, before maturing up to 4 ½ pounds of fine, thin-skinned, all-purpose white potatoes in the late season.”  Wow!

I never imagined such a thing as a TomTato, but you can be sure that I want to try it. That is the joy of gardening. All kinds of experiments, including the weird and wonderful, can be tried with very little investment.

Other vegetable catalogs will have new varieties. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is offering a new carrot, Nutri-red. These coral-red carrots “are best cooked to deepen the color and improve the texture.” It is not often that cooking deepens the color of carrots. Johnny says that the strong carrot flavor makes it excellent for stews.

Renee’s Garden Seeds also has a new carrot. This one, Purple Sun, is a rich purple color, but a sweet flavor. It will probably fade a bit when cooked, but it is also good eaten raw.

Renee has paid a lot of attention to gardeners who have limited space. One of her new window box tomatoes is Litt’l Bites Cherry that produces early cascades of fruit on plants just 20 inches wide and 12 inches tall.

Botanical Interests has its own new carrot, Atomic Red. “When you steam, roast, or stir-fry them, the contrast between the brilliant, deep red outer layer and orange core intensifies.”

Botanical Interests is also offering a number of seeds on seed tapes. For example there is a packet of three lettuces, Waldman’s Green, Little Gem Romaine and Tom Thumb butterhead, on three 6-foot seed tapes. These cost more, but if you don’t like working with tiny seeds this might work very happily for you.

Even the Seed Savers Exchange whose mission is preserving old varieties of vegetables and flowers has NEW offerings for 2015. I liked the Holmes’ Royal Red radishes. These were introduced in 1899 but are now very rare and will only be sold while the limited supplies last. This radish has a beautiful color, shape and delicious flavor. Shop quick for this one.

While it is not a flower bunny tails grass is a fun ornamental annual that Seed Savers is selling. This low growing grass with its soft beige seed heads is pretty in the garden and also useful in flower arrangements. Sometimes it will self seed, but it is not invasive.

Needless to say there are new flowers, too. The brilliantly colored osteospermum Blue Eyed Beauty is a showstopper. I became aware of the osteospermum family  because they are used generously on the Bridge of Flowers in a range of colors. They bloom all season long and are a great front of the border plant.

Akila Daisy White is an osteospermum in a very different mood. It is a serene white around a small pale yellow eye. You may not find seeds for these plants, but osteospermums are easy to find at garden centers.

The National Garden Bureau has named this the Year of the Coleus. The coleus has become more and more popular as people become more interested in foliage in the garden. Nowadays when you go to the garden center in the spring you will find a large array of these plants with colors ranging from lime green to deep burgundy red. Marquee Box Office Bronze is a new shade this spring, a deep rich bronze. Lime Sprite, another new introduction, has that lime green border around a burgundy heart. So many plants require sun, but coleus is happy to have shade.

Burpee Seed’s new nasturtium is a 100 year old variety renamed Phoenix. The unusual split petals are in shades of glowing red-orange. Like other nasturtiums they are edible and cheerful in the front of the border.

Another larger Burpee nasturtium, Summer Gown, is perfect for containers and hanging baskets with its busy growth and deep burgundy/purple blossoms that shade more blue over the course of the summer.

High Mowing Organic Seeds has a new mix of one of my favorite flowers – zinnias. County Fair Blend mix has warm tones of coral-peach, gold, and scarlet blossoms. They will produce more flowers as you cut them for bouquets. Disease resistant.  Zinnias make great cut flowers over a long season.

It’s fun to try something new every year. Something new in the garden is sure to bring new beauty or new flavor into your life.

Be ready for the unimagined.

Between the Rows   December 27, 2014

 

Indoor Seed Planting Preparation for Microgreens

Microgreen seeds

Indoor seed planting preparaation for microgreens – or for any seeds – begins with seeds. Botanical Interests Seeds  are sold at the Greenfield Farmers Coop – as  well as many other brands of veggies and flower seeds.

Seed starting supplies

The Farmers Coop also sells all the supplies you will need to start your seeds, planting trays, watering trays and seed starting mix which makes it easy for those seeds to get a good start.

Seeds in planting trays

I put some of the soilless seed starting mix in a metal mixing bowl and dampen it. It absorbs quite a lot of water. Then I put sufficient seed mix in each of the planting trays and scatter the seeds over the patted down mix.  I have two trays of Savory mix and one of pea mix. I’ll plant more trays in another week or so.

Seeds covered with soilless mix

I cover the seeds  with dry seed starting mix and pat it down a little. The seed trays all have dainage holes  and are arranged in the watering tray. I then pour enough water in  the watering tray so that it can be absorbed by osmosis into each planting tray. This easy watering method does not disturb the soil planting mix at all. This is the way I water  all my indoor seed planting.

I can’t grow a whole salad of microgreens every day, but I can add a daily handful to my storebought greens for extra nutrition and zip.

 

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Catalog – First of the Year

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog 2014

The new Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog for 2014 came in the mail the other day. For the past few years the Baker Creek catalog has been a thing of beauty, but this year’s Whole Seed Catalog, billed as the World Largest Seed Catalog, is 355 glossy pages of fabulous photographs of heirloomvegetables. There are famous, beautiful and excellent nursery catalogs, but this book has taken the seed catalog to a whole new level.

Jere Gettle with Emilee and young Sasha

Jere Gettle is an amazing man. In 1998, at the age of 17, he printed his first heirloom seed catalog. It looked very different from this one. Talk about a Wish Book! It is filled with 1,500 vegetable, herb and flower varieties, profiles of seed farmers, seed explorers, recipes, and information about festivals and celebrations. The Heirloom Festival nearest to us is at the historic Comstock, Ferre & Co. (now owned by Gettle) in Wethersfield, Connecticut on May 25, 2014. The largest is the National Heirloom Exposition which will be held in Santa Rosa on September 9-11, 2014. Produce displays, 100 speakers, vendors and music! Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds seems to be more than a seed company, it works on conservation, education and celebration! They even have a Facebook page.

I have written about Jere Gettle before, but this catalog shows me that he has been very busy since then. His commitment to fighting GMO seeds continues. He not only finds heirloom seeds from the US, but from countries around the world including Syria. He partnered with the First Presbyterian Church in Anselmo to work with the Bare Root Tree Project in Afghanistan. This organization has become the umbrella organization that brings trees, seeds and water systems to Afghanistan. The Heirloom Gardener magazine is in its 10th year of publication and their new Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook joins the Heirloom Life Gardener published in 2011.

The Whole Seed Catalog will be for sale in bookstores, but their beautiful and informative regular catalog will be available as usual.

Tiny New Seedlings on Wordless Wednesday

Tiny new seedlings

I planted seeds on March 22 and now on March 27 the mesclun and lettuce seedlings have sprouted. Look close.  The heat mat helps a lot.  It almost feels like  spring.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Satisfying Seed Starting & Seed Swap Sunday

Seed starting supplies

Seed catalogs are full of seed starting supplies. There are all kinds of seed trays and flats, peat pots, cow pots, coir pots, tools for making soil blocks,  soilless growing mixes, heating mats and grow lights.  Where to start?

If you have never started seeds indoors the real question is what do you need? You need to buy very little because you can use your kitchen recycling of clear plastic salad and vegetable containers, yogurt containers and cardboard milk cartons to hold soilless mix and seeds. It is important to remember that all these items work perfectly well, but you must make sure to put drainage holes in the bottom of all of them. This also means you need a tray of some sort underneath your planting boxes to catch drainage water.

Some people recommend using cardboard egg cartons and even half an egg shell to hold your mix and a seed,. This is very cute but it is a bad idea. Soilless mixes dry out quickly and a small amount of mix dries out very quickly. Seeds need to be kept moist in order to germinate and will need that constant moisture as they begin growing. Giving children such an arrangement is really setting them up for failure. Much better to start with a paper cup, soilless mix and a bean seed.

Nowadays I use the cheap little black plastic six cell flats, and plastic leak proof trays to hold them. I have a hand-me-down grow light. You will also need a sunny windowsill.

Choosing your seeds: You can only keep seedlings in their little temporary bed for so long. Eggplant and peppers can be seeded 8 to 12 weeks before the last frost. Tomatoes can be seeded 6-8 weeks before the last frost – in our area considered to be Memorial Day weekend. Cole crops (broccoli, cabbage etc.)  and lettuces can be seeded indoors 5-6 weeks before  a safe planting date. These are all tolerant of cold temperatures, but would welcome a little protection. The back of your seed packet will give you all this information.

Planting: Dampen your soilless seed mix before you put it into your flats or planting cells. The seeds I have mentioned will only need a light covering of mix. If you are using a small flat that will hold many plants in one space, they will have to be pricked out and transplanted after they have grown their first true leaves. For this reason, I prefer planting two or three seeds in each cell of a cell pack. Then they do not need transplanting until they are ready to be put in the garden.

My seedlings March 2012

Caring for seedlings: The leak proof tray underneath your seedling trays will not only collect drainage water, it will allow you to use the easier method of bottom watering. I use the natural force of osmosis. I put enough water in the bottom tray so that it wan be wicked up into the soil of the plant flat.  Having some water in that tray is especially information if you use peat pots. Peat wicks moisture away from the mix; you must keep the peat pots moist as well.

Many seedless mixes include some fertilizer, but you can also water the seedlings with a dilute solution of fish emulsion or Neptune’s Harvest after they have their first true leaves. If your seedlings are on a sunny windowsill you will need to keep turning the trays as they will lean toward the sun.

Hardening off: Your seedlings will grow happily on a sunny windowsill, or under a grow light, growing taller and producing more leaves. A week or so before you want to transplant them into the garden you must prepare them for the harsher outdoor weather. Begin by bringing the trays outdoors in a sheltered shady spot  for  three or four hours for a couple of days. Then lengthen the time they are outside for another couple of days. The plants are toughing up. Make sure you keep them watered. The flats will dry out more quickly in the breezy outdoor air. You can then move them to where they will get more sun for another couple of days. In 7 to 10 days the plants will be ready for a sunny spot in the garden.

If you have a cold frame of some sort, it can be used for the hardening off process.

Transplanting: Water your plants and the prepared garden bed before transplanting. Gently take each seedling, place it in a planting hole and tamp the soil around it.  You can give the seedlings a gentle watering after planting. Seedlings must be kept watered while they are germinating and beginning that first tender growth.

Protection: I have protected my early hardy seedlings, lettuces, coles, and chard, with a floating row cover. This is sufficient protection if I have been a little too optimistic about the arrival of spring. It also protects the plants from rabbits!

You will find all the supplies you need  for seed starting including row covers at your local garden center.

Growing plants from seed is easy, economical and very satisfying.

For those who want to get more advice about seeds, saving seed and growing seeds the Annual Cabin Fever Seed Swap is scheduled for Sunday, February 10 from 1-4 p.m. at Green Fields Market, Main Street, Greenfield. This is an informal and fun gathering for novices, experts, and everything in between. You don’t need to bring seeds to swap, just your good cheer and interest

Don’t forget to leave a comment here and enter our GIVEAWAY lottery for a copy of The Speedy Vegetable Garden.

Speedy Vegetable Garden Giveway

Speedy Vegetable Garden by Diacono and Leendertz

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how fast does your garden grow? The 208 page Speedy Vegetable Garden by Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz (Timber Press) will give you a whole new view of how fast you can grow something to eat. This means we can keep some food growing all year long, if only on our windowsill. Impatient children will find that they can harvest some greens in less than two weeks.

I have grown sprouts in my kitchen for years using jars or a sprout bag, but this book opened up whole  new world of quick harvests. Diacono and Leendertz take the reader and gardener all the way from ‘soaks’ to quick harvest vegetables like zucchini and cherry tomatoes. I had never heard of a soak. Did you know  that  soaking pumpkin seeds for only 1-4 hours will wake up the germination instinct and even before the nascent sprout is visible you will have  buttery crop to sprinkle on your salad or sandwich adding potassium, and vitamins A, B, C, and D? Peanuts can be soaked for 12 hours, until the root just breaks through. Lots of vitamins and minerals. Almonds can also be soaked for 12 hours and eaten with gusto.

Moving on from soaks and sprouts, micro-greens come next. Full directions are given for seeding and watering. Little plastic seed flats can be used, but metal guttering cut to an appropriate size can also make a good planter for intensely flavore crops like cilantro, fenn, radishes and oriental greens. A micro-green is really just the baby stage of the shoot and this is a time when nutrients are at a high level. You wouldn’t make a whole salad out of micro-greens, but they add vibrant taste to your regular salad. Harvest in about two weeks. If you grow microgreens you’ll want to keep successively planted containers going all the time.

Other chapters detail cut and come again salads and quick harvest vegetables, again with good directions for keeping the harvest coming. The illustrations are beautiful, as are these young healthy plants, but the chapter on edible flowers makes you understand how easily you can make a salad suitable for the cover of any food magazine. And if you don’t quite know what to do with any of these crops, Diacono and Leendertz provide you with 20 quick and easy recipes. The Spring Garden Tart with spring onions, spinach, peas, beans, herbs and cheese would give my family a very happy lunchtime.

I always say you can’t hurry in the garden, and that is very true. However, there is no harm in letting vegetables ready themselves for the table as quickly as they like.  In the Speedy Vegetable Garden Diacono and Leenderts show us how these speedy vegetables can lead us to a longer growing season, and extremely nutritious vegetables without the usual back-straining labor.  If you would like to win a copy of this book and start your own speedy garden just leave a comment below by midnight on Wednesday February 13. If you want to tell me about the quickest – or longest crop – you ever grew so much the better I am all ears. I will randomly choose a winner and announce it on Thursday, February 14. Because Timber Press and I love my readers.

New Vegetables for 2013

 

Galeux D’Eysine squash – Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

What is a hybrid vegetable?

Hybrids are compatible plants that have been intentionally cross pollinated to create a plant that will combine the best attributes of both parents. This thoughtful work by plant breeders or hybridizers has brought us hundreds of new vegetable varieties that have more disease resistance, heat resistance, different coloring, or some other desirable trait.

Hybrids have been created over the eons when plants naturally cross pollinated because pollen had been carried by the wind or by insect pollinators. Hybridizers have been breeding new plants for decades to make it easier for gardeners to grow healthier more disease resistant plants. I want to stress that hybrids are not the controversial Genetically Modified Plants (GMOs) which are created through technological gene splicing procedures.

Tomatoes are among the most popular vegetables to eat and one of the most popular to plant because there is nothing like the fragrance and flavor of a fresh ripe tomato off the vine. There are now dozens of hybrid tomatoes on the market. This year Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine has developed Jasper, a new cherry tomato that not only has a sweet rich flavor, but a vigorous growth habit that is resistant to several diseases including early and late blight which have been such a problem lately.

Johnny’s is also offering a new late blight resistant slicing tomato, Mountain Merit. Disease resistance is an important attribute to be looking for in any vegetable or flower.

As Americans we often like to look for big vegetables. Burpee’s new big tomato is the meaty Supersauce which can reach a weight of two pounds. “One tomato will fill a jar” the catalog says, but this disease resistant tomato is also good for salad.

If I could have only a tiny vegetable garden it would be a salad garden with tomatoes and salad greens. Now it is easier for us who like a mixture of greens, but have no need of six packets of seed to gain satisfaction. Renee’s Garden has several lettuce mixes including Farmers Market Blend consisting of Little Gem, Cimarron, Outrageous and Tango lettuces, green and red varieties. What I like about the lettuce-only blends is that they all ripen at about the same time instead of the mesclun blends where harvest times can vary.

The lettuce and greens sections in the catalogs is filled with familiar varieties, but even so I found a new pale green oakleaf, Ocate, in the Johnny’s catalog with strong disease resistance. It is slow to bolt, a big plus as far as I am concerned.

            Broccoli is a big item in my weekly grocery basket, and in my garden. Burpee’s is offering a new broccoli variety, Sun King, that tolerates more heat than most other broccoli which grows best during the cool seasons, but stops growing when it is too hot.

While some cauliflower varieties are not brand new, many companies offer a fascinating array of this often ignored vegetable. Veronica produces a surprising looking head that is lime green with pointed, spiraled pinnacles. This is a perfect variety for succession planting because it can be planted in summer for fall harvest .

Graffiti is a brilliant purple cauliflower and Cheddar is an orange shade that becomes brighter when lightly cooked.

One of the biggest and most beautiful catalogs around is the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. You will not find any new hybrids here, but you will find many open pollinated vegetables and flowers that will be new to you.

Squash is not a very exciting vegetable, but Baker Creek offers some of the most weird or beautiful squashes you will ever see. I was particularly taken by the Galeux D’Eysines winter squash which is billed as one of the most beautiful heirloom squashes. This 10-15 pound French heirloom has a salmon-peach skin covered with  large gold-mustard warts. It doesn’t sound beautiful, but it certainly is interesting looking. It has deep orange flesh and is good for baking, and for making soup.

Boston Marrow – Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Closer to home is the Boston Marrow squash. This red-orange squash will reach about 15 pounds and was first documented in 1831.  According to the Baker Creek catalog “Mr. J.M. Ives of Salem, MA . . .received seeds from a friend in Northampton who had obtained his seeds from a friend in Buffalo.”  Apparently the seed first came from Native Americans in the Buffalo area. Boston Marrow became one of the most important commercial squashes through the 19th century. It is rarely offered anymore, but it was chosen for a place in the Slow Foods “Ark of Taste” for its superior flavor.

High Mowings Organic Seed Company of Vermont is now offering Winter Luxury pumpkin for the first time. This heirloom pie pumpkin has orange skin with a silvery netting so it is especially pretty. The flavorful flesh is velvety and sweet, making it perfect for pies, cheesecake and soup.

Whether your desire to try something new takes you to the newest disease resistant varieties, or back to an unusual heirloom variety, or to a new seed mixture that will give you an interesting variety in a single seed packet, or simply a new to you variety, seed catalogs and websites offer you a myriad of choices.

Between the Rows   January 19, 2013

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn Galbraith

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

My friend Kathryn O. Galbraith was recently presented with a Growing Good Kids 2012 award from the American Horticultural Society for Excellence in Children’s Literature. This book, beautifully illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin depicts the myriad of ways that we all, people, birds, and animals as well as the wind and the rain plant the beautiful and fruitful gardens that grow along the roadsides, riversides and meadows. I wrote about Kathryn and her book when it first came out here.

White aster in our field

I am surrounded by wild gardens, in my fields and alongside my country roads. Kathryn lives in a much more populated area in Washington Sate, but you don’t need to live in a rural area to appreciate wild gardens.

When I asked her where this lovely idea came from she said, “I remember exactly where the seeds of this story began. I was at a writing workshop in one of our state parks.  Every morning and evening I’d take a walk along its many paths.  There I saw rabbits nibbling on grasses and goldfinches feeding on huge purple thistles.  And woe be to you if you stepped off the path – there prickly, sticky weeds were just waiting to catch on your jeans and socks.

I wrote those images down in my notebook, but only several years later, when I went back to my notebook, looking for gold, did I see how all those images could be connected.”

Goldenrod in our field

We have acres of goldenrod in our field,

Autumn dandelion, black eyed susan and oxeye daisy

and even at this season of the year our ‘lawn’ is a  flowery mead with ox eye daisies, black eyed susans and autumn dandelions. Christina Rosetti asked “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I:. . . ” but here, just outside my door is evidence of all the beautiful places our Heath breezes have visited.

And inside the pages of Planting the Wild Garden you can join Kathryn, and Wendy, in a garden that we never planted, but that surrounds us where ever we go. We just have to keep our eyes open.

CR Lawn and Fedco Seeds

CR Lawn checking Mega Sugar Snap Peas,

We’ve all faced the spring task of combing through the seed catalogs trying to decide which squash, or tomato or whatever variety to buy. Will it be dark green Raven zucchini, the light green Magda or the striped Safari? We might be considering days to maturity, disease resistance and spininess of the plant.

If we agonize over our few choices, can you imagine what a seed company has to take into consideration?

Recently I spoke with CR Lawn, the founder of Fedco Seeds at his Colrain home. He spends part of his year in Maine where Fedco is headquartered. The first question was how do you get into the seed business at all? Lawn explained that in the early 70s he was involved with the cooperative movement and worked for the Maine Federation of Cooperatives. “We had done successful pre-order days of staple foods with everyone arriving at the warehouse to do the break-down. I thought we could do a coop seed order the same way. The model worked and this was the forerunner of Fedco.

“We had a lot of luck along the way. I extrapolated from our experience to calculate the number of buyers and the amount of seed. Those numbers were amazingly accurate. We’ve been in the black ever since we started 34 years ago.”

When I hear people talk about the Fedco catalog, I hear them talking about the prose style as much as about the seeds they buy. “We have fun with the catalog. We’ve attracted six or seven writers, New Yorker Magazine wannabes, who like to write and edit. We are very serious about the quality of the writing,” Lawn said.

Lawn himself writes the seed section of the catalog. Others each take on the separate potato, bulb, and tree catalogs. All the writers then submit the work to the team of editors who go over everything from punctuation to content. “The front of the catalog text gets a lot of scrutiny.”

Lawn walked me through his garden which includes the vegetables that he and his partner, Eli Rogosa coordinator of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, eat but he also has multiplier plots. While Fedco, like all seed companies gets most of its seed from wholesale seed producers, about 20 or 25 percent of the seed comes from their own suppliers.

This year he is multiplying Mega sugar snap pea seed. “I have a 20 or 30 foot row of Mega sugar snaps off to the side of the garden. Peas aren’t supposed to cross pollinate, but they do a little bit. If you are growing peas for seed you need to keep them isolated. ”

Because Lawn has very limited space he can only do the first multiplication, for example, turning two ounces of seed into two pounds of seed. Then the seed will go on to someone with more space who can turn the two pounds into 20 pounds of seed. “It usually takes three multiplications before we have enough seed to sell. The seed business is not for the impatient. Slow Food might be slow, but seed growing is exponentially slower, and breeding is exponentially slower than that. Breeding is the slowest of the slow,” he said.

Lawn will not usually work with pea seed in Colrain because New England is more susceptible to pea diseases than other parts of the country.

He is also growing some Beerfriend soybeans for seed. These are harvested at the edible green stage for edamame. “We’ll bring them to Maine for seedstock, but they will have to pass the germination test before they are accepted, he said.

I asked how varieties were chosen for the catalog. “We usually get a group of people together to taste and we rate the variety. It’s all very democratic, but I’m not convinced that is the best way to choose. I think there is some expertise involved, like an expert wine taster.

“I’m passionate about tomatoes and I’m looking for a complex flavor. I’m not sure anyone can taste a tomato and choose the best one. There are legitimate disagreements about preferences. Some like acid tomatoes, and some like them sweeter. Brandywine is my favorite. Nothing can beat it. I also like the Sun Gold cherry tomato,” he said.

Lawn said he doesn’t get to Colrain until April, but he likes to start his tomato seeds in mid-March. I’m a convert to early planting. I don’t wait until Memorial Day. I think the best time to plant in this garden is the second week in May. Last year I planted the summer squash on May 13, which turnd out to be two days after the last frost.”

He also noted that as the season gets warmer there is more drought. The rain is more reliable in May. June is drier, and July is drier still. That certainly has been true this year.

We walked around the garden and he pointed out all the self seeded plants, beautiful red amaranth, sunflowers, kale, lettuce, and even parsley. “The self seeders make this garden semi-wild,” he said. Part of the garden was given over to cover crops because crop rotation is vital to the health of the soil and of the plants and the seeds.

I don’t think I’ll ever again complete my seed without considering the thought and labor it took to get my choices into those neat little seed packets.

Between the Rows  July 28, 2012