If indoor seed starting is not your thing, but you still want to have the variety and cost effectiveness of seeds, you can direct sow your seeds directly into the garden. If you are planting in mulch, be sure to open a hole in the mulch, plant the seed to the depth on the seed packet and cover with potting soil. Mulch can form a hard crust that only the strongest seedling (like beans and squash) can break through.
Here is the by-month seed sowing calendar for our Zone 6 garden. There are so many early and late varieties available that you should consult the seed packet on the best outdoor sowing times (always listed as the weeks before your last frost date).
(as soon as soil can be worked)
Fruit trees and bushes
Lettuce (sow every 2 weeks if you are a salad lover for continuous salads)
Mache (corn salad)
Spinach (sow every 2 weeks through early May)
Beans (snap-bush & pole)
Bee balm (monarda)
Summer squash (like zucchini)
Beans (dry & lima)
Melons (cantaloupe, watermelons)
Malabar & New Zealand spinach
Winter squash (like pumpkins and butternut squash)
Never miss a plant date again — check out MOTHER EARTH NEWS When to Plant app for iPhones and iPads.
For more garden tips, see my blog at www.VictoryGardenOnTheGolfCourse.com.
I am off to Polyface Farm to intern for the summer and I’m so excited! I plan to write every week to explain to you what we are learning, how we spend our days, mistakes we make (that you can learn from) and basically anything that can help readers become better farmers and homesteaders. I’ll include lots of photos too, so make sure to check back!
I’ll start from the beginning and explain how I got to this point. For the past nine years, I have worked at my family’s stone company in a sales and project management capacity. I found that my hobbies and interests gravitated towards the farming/homesteading lifestyle, but given the prevailing social paradigm that farming doesn’t pay, is too much work, land is expensive, etc., I didn’t really see a way to make a life doing what I loved, and while I accepted it, it bummed me out.
Inspiration from Joel Salatin
At one point during my early garden hobbyist days, I Googled methods of growing potatoes in containers and up came an online article from MOTHER EARTH NEWS. After poring through the website, I immediately subscribed to the magazine and was heartened by how many subscribers there were and all the great ideas people were sharing. I had also read Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm, and was inspired by his can-do attitude and optimistic outlook on farming as a business. I saw him in Concord, Mass., when he came out to promote one of his newer books, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. I remember bringing up my dogeared copy of You Can Farm to the book signing table, told him how I loved this book and he wrote, “Oh yes you can!” on the inside page above his signature. I took that as the sign from the universe, and I decided that come hell or high water, I would have a farm. Joel Salatin said I could, and I believed him.
A few months later, Dan (my now-fiancé, whom I have known for the better part of a decade) got a job as a farm assistant at a sustainable pastured livestock farm. As a result, I was able to be included in their chicken processing and some vegetable harvesting. One of my favorite things to do after work became stopping by the farm to visit and help Dan wash and pack the eggs. After reading You Can Farm, I had been eyeing the Summer Internship section on Polyface Farm’s website, wanting to apply, but had to wait until the window of opportunity to request an application. (For 2014, the window is August 1st through August 10th. Mark your calendars!)
Polyface Farm Internship Process
I applied, reminding myself not to get my hopes up, but I received an email inviting me to come for what they at Polyface call a Two-Day Checkout. The Checkout period is a two-week window where one picks a two-to-three day time period where he will eat, sleep and work alongside the Salatin family and the Polyface staff, mainly for both sides to get to know each of the applicants and see how everyone works together. Of the almost 400 applications sent out, only 50 were invited. I was so excited to be offered the chance that I responded almost immediately with my dates (December 5th-6th).
I spent the next two months wondering what type of work I’d be doing, what I should pack, wondering whether they would they like me, and other sorts of things like that. It was a ten-hour drive, give or take, from Massachusetts and the weather was unseasonably warm, almost 70 degrees. Polyface Farm is located among some beautiful country and it was very surreal driving up the road seeing this farm I had seen in so many documentaries and read about so many times, knowing I was going to sleep there.
Settling in was a bit of a blur. It was almost 5pm when Dan dropped me off and right away I was put with a group of applicants and we stacked wood until dinner. The next morning, the applicants and staff met out front at 7am for chores and more wood stacking, followed by breakfast. The weather was warm, but became very rainy and windy so we ended up cleaning and sanitizing the freezers, coolers and equipment until lunch. After lunch, we installed horizontal wall slats made from whole pine trees that has been trimmed, moved cows, hayed pigs, stacked wood and were able to see the different animals. When it came time to head in to get ready for dinner, it occurred to me that even though I was wet and covered in mud, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
My last day at Polyface was spent stacking wood (we finally finished the massive pile), moving pigs over a small brook in a trailer, moving cows so we could add bedding to their shelter, and feeding the cows, pigs and chickens. We were warned that a severe ice storm was coming through the next day and that the roads would be terrible and flights would be cancelled. Dan ended up picking me up a little bit early so we could get a head start on the weather and he had the distinct pleasure of listening to ten hours of Polyface stories on the way home. I had had a wonderful time. The Salatins couldn’t have been better hosts, I met a lot of really great people and I had the opportunity to do the farm things I only dreamed of before.
Bringing the Farm Experience Home
I suppose now would be a good time to mention that in October of 2013, Dan and I bought a 45-acre former farmstead in Newport, N.H. It was a bit of a love-at-first-sight kind of thing, and even though the house needs some TLC (and insulation, come to find out), we had to have it. We named it Sugar River Farm and fully intend to have our own farm business. When telling Dan about all the other great people applying to be interns, he reassured me that even if I didn’t get accepted, it had been a great experience (which it had) and that there would be plenty to do up north should I be available this coming summer.
Sadly for Dan (and for me, I’m going to miss him), I will not be available this summer to help on our farm, as I was offered the internship. I am honored to have been asked, grateful for the opportunity and very excited to share with others what I learn. Now make sure and check back— I promise to have all kinds of stories and tidbits that will amuse, enlighten and encourage you. (And plenty of pictures!)
To read some of Joel Salatin’s farm inspiration for yourself, check out his book page on MotherEarthNews.com/Shopping.
You can flavor sugar and salt with homegrown herbs, fruits, and flowers from the garden. It is simple and fun. Let your taste buds and creativity run wild.
Flavors for Flavored Sugar
Kumquat (the rind is sweet and citrusy)
Rose hips or petals (gives off a beautiful fragrance in tea)
Flavors for Flavored Salts
How To Make Flavored Sugars and Flavored Salts
Dry your ingredients first. For citrus peels, rose hips, or rose petals, I let dry in the pantry on a paper towel. For berries, I would dry in a dehydrator. Herbs I put loosely in a paper bag with the stems upright to dry. After they are dry, you can use a coffee grinder to grind to a fine powder, crush the herbs by hand, or for larger pieces, leave whole and mix 50/50 with organic sugar.
For salt, use fine sea salt for salt shaker use or coarse sea salt to use in a grinder. Yield 3/4 cup.
Steak and Grilled Veggie Seasoning
5/8 cup coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons small hot dried peppers
2 tablespoons juniper berries
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon rosemary
2 sticks of cinnamon or turmeric
1 1/2 tablespoons sage
This is great on anything you grill!
You can easily make pretty gifts for others using herbs and flowers from the garden in decorative containers.
When lettuce is mentioned, many think of the standard iceberg lettuce found in supermarkets and restaurant salads. That is changing with the growth in popularity of the different types of lettuces from Romaine to head and leaf-type lettuces, mainly due to the flavors and colors that they offer from deep red to almost white and noticeably sweet to tangy and slightly bitter. Iceberg lettuce, originally bred as a hybrid, is now offered as an open pollinated variety and has been around long enough to be considered by some as an “heirloom”!
We have come to expect lettuce year round, mainly due to being educated by the supermarkets as to what our vegetables should look like, taste like and when they should be available. Many are surprised to find that lettuce is a cool-season crop and will bolt or go to seed readily during late spring and summer months. It is best planted early in spring and then again in late summer or early fall when the temperatures start to cool off.
Ideal Lettuce-Growing Conditions
Lettuce seeds won’t sprout when soil temperatures are above 80°F but they will start to germinate as low as 40°F, making it ideal for early and late season planting. A plant hormone is produced under warm conditions that stop the germination process, called “thermo-inhibition”. This is a carryover from wild lettuce that originated in the Mediterranean Middle East, where summers are hot with little moisture. If the lettuce seeds were to sprout under these conditions, they would soon die out and the species would go extinct.
Thanks to traditional plant breeding and selection of heat-tolerant characteristics over a number of years, there are several varieties of lettuce that are more heat-tolerant and are open pollinated — meaning you can save seeds from year to year. Some examples are Saint Anne’s Slow Bolting, Summertime, Black-Seeded Simpson and Jericho. Just because these are heat-tolerant doesn’t mean that they will grow through the summer, only that they won’t bolt or turn bitter quite as quickly.
Thanks to ongoing research on lettuce traits, there are some techniques to extend the sprouting for lettuce seeds into the warmer months that home gardeners can use. The optimum soil temperature for most lettuce seeds is 68°F, with some varieties sprouting in the 40 - 75°F range. The temperature of the soil must be taken, not just the air temperature which can be several degrees different.
Sprouting Lettuce In Warm Weather
In warmer temperatures, imbibing or soaking the seeds in water for at least 16 hours before planting in a well-lit area will increase the germination percentages greatly. Red light has been found to be the best color, but many home gardeners won’t have access to a non-heating red light and sunlight or full spectrum light was found to be almost as good. Soaking the seeds in the dark in warmer conditions decreased their germination rates. Another technique that has shown to be successful is to soak the seeds in cool water in a well-lit area for 16–24 hours. This approach has increased the germination rate up to 97% when planted in warmer conditions. Soaking for less than 16 hours has little to no positive effect on germination. For a closer look at what happens when a seed goes through germination, read our article Starting Seeds at Home – a Deeper Look.
Other successful methods of extending the season for lettuce in the garden include laying a thick mulch of straw or wood chips on the ground of at least 1 1/2 to 2 inches. This insulates the soil from becoming too hot and drying out too fast and helps to preserve moisture in the soil. Shading the lettuce plants can give enough of a temperature drop to keep them from bolting, sometimes up to 3 – 5 weeks. Shade can be from a shade cloth on a row cover or hoop type structure or companion planting of tall wide leafed plants such as some types of pumpkin.
The traditional rule of thumb of “plant early and plant often” for lettuce can also be said as “plant late and plant often,” but some of the more heat tolerant varieties, along with soaking in light and providing some mulch and shade can greatly extend your lettuce season in the garden this year.
Stephen Scott is an heirloom seedsman, educator, speaker, soil-building advocate, locavore, amateur chef, artist and co-owner of Terroir Seeds with his wife, Cindy. They believe in a world of healthy soil, seed, food and people. Everyone has a fundamental need for vibrant food and health, which are interrelated. They welcome dialogue and can be reached at Seeds@UnderwoodGardens.com or 888-878-5247.
Feast days are when we celebrate special occasions with special foods. I think whenever we eat food we have grown ourselves in ways that replenish the earth is a cause for celebration. If you don’t grow it yourself you could acquire it from growers who are following sustainable practices. You can find some of those growers in your area at www.LocalHarvest.org. We need to pause in reverence for what we are about to eat to remind ourselves what a gift it is to be able to grow this food to nourish our bodies.
You could declare a feast day, even if it is only you at the table, but gathering with others makes it even better. Potlucks are a great way to celebrate occasions. Everyone brings food to share and takes the leavings back home. Too often at gatherings, however, the plates, silverware, and cups are disposable, generating large bags of trash. It doesn’t have to be like that. Since everyone is bringing their large dish of food, they can just as well bring their own non-disposable plate, silverware and cup. Provide a compost bucket for food scraps and there is no trash, making your celebration a zero waste event. If you are planning a large event you can get more ideas by searching “zero waste events” on the internet. Some organizations trying to green up their act are looking at diminishing or eliminating trash at their gatherings.
You don’t need to attend a potluck to take your own table service. Whenever I go to a gathering with food I take my own plate, silverware, and cup. I have often been the only person in line holding a non-disposable plate brought from home, but that opens the way for a conversation on the matter — if anyone notices, that is. Some years back my daughter made me a kit from her old blue jeans that contained two dishes, two each of spoons, forks, and knives, and two cloth napkins. You can see it in the photo. I used to grab what I needed from the cupboard each time, but having the kit at the ready makes it easier to remember. If your car usually transports you to these events, you might leave such a kit there so you will always be prepared. Read more about feast days and potlucks at Homeplace Earth.
Learn more about Cindy Conner and what she’s up to at www.HomeplaceEarth.wordpress.com.
Cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) is widely used in both conventional and organic agriculture as a simple inexpensive method of creating hybrids and protecting seed company's trade secrets. Sterile plants are problematic for landrace gardeners and seed savers because they interfere with normal plant biology and seed saving practices.
Male sterility can be achieved by unusual natural means or by genetic engineering. Last week's blog defined cell fusion CMS and touched on the politics of using genetically engineered varieties in USDA organic seeds and food. This week's blog takes a pragmatic hands on approach to sterile plants and treats all male sterile plants the same whether they originated by natural means or in a genetic engineering laboratory. On my farm I have banned male sterility of both types in annual and biennial crops because I think that it is wrong to propagate defective plants.
How CMS Affected My Carrot Crop
Approximately 85% of the USA carrot crop are F1 hybrids that are male sterile. They do not produce pollen. What this means from a practical standpoint is that if a home gardener plants one of these carrot varieties and tries to save seed from it that their attempt will be unsuccessful. Either no seed will be produced, or some wild pollen from Queen Anne's Lace will pollinate the crop and the offspring end up reverting to wild forms, or the plant will be pollinated by other nearby carrot varieties.
When I started my carrot landrace I used a mix of hybrids and open pollinated carrots. After I became aware of cytoplasmic male sterility I screened my carrot crop and found that 70% of my plants were male sterile. I was crushed, and incredibly disillusioned with myself, with the seed industry, and with my trading partners that unknowingly provided the seed.
Review of the Seed Industry
This week I reviewed the seed offerings of 6 seed companies that were suggested to me as having low rates of cell fusion CMS. Half of the companies offered inventories that seem like they have a lot of male sterility. One of them claimed to be 100% organic and a signer of the safe seed pledge. It seems to me that about half of it's inventory on some species was made by cell fusion genetic engineering! One company didn't disclose whether or not the seed they are selling is hybrid but they are offering varieties with the same names that the other companies are calling F1 hybrids so they are likely the same varieties and made with cell fusion CMS.
Half of the companies I reviewed offered only open pollinated seeds. They are doing seed right for home gardeners. If I still bought seeds I would only buy from those companies.
The take away message for me is that I can't trust the seed industry and my swap partners to tell me whether or not the seed they are offering is male sterile. I figure that they either don't know what they are trading or they know and don't want to tell me. Fortunately I don't have to rely on other people to do the screening for me. If a plant fails to produce pollen it is often obvious by looking at the flowers with a magnifying glass or even with just my eyes.
How To Eliminate CMS
Male sterility takes many different visible forms depending on the species, but one thing that is fairly common among them is that the anthers are missing from the flower. This week's images show what that looks like in the cabbage family and in the carrot family.
Nowadays I routinely screen for male sterility and chop out every sterile plant that I find.
Male sterility is common among commercial hybrids in the carrot, beet, onion, sunflower, and cabbage families. I don't knowingly add hybrids from those families to my landraces. I think that last growing season I finally eliminated male sterility from my carrot patch. Healthy carrot flowers look fuzzy even from a distance because of many anthers poking up. Sterile carrot flowers look smooth because the anthers are missing. I have included photos in this blog of what that looks like.
Commercial hybrids of cabbage family plants are often made by cell fusion CMS. They are crops like broccoli, kale, turnips, radishes, bok choi, rutabaga, mustard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, canola, and kohl rabi. A normal cabbage family flower has styles with anthers attached growing from the center of the flower. A common manifestation of male sterility is that the anthers and styles are missing. Look at the drawing of a broccoli flower to see what that looks like.
In onions, male sterility is often indicated by bulbils forming in the flower head. The flowers might produce anthers, but they don't release pollen. If I rub my fingers across a normal onion flower it will come away with pollen on it. Sterile plants don't produce pollen. Seed set is often low in male sterile onion flowers.
In potatoes with male sterility the pollen is often sticky. It is like a jelly instead of a fine dust. I can observe dusty pollen by flicking a flower with my finger on a sunny day. Pollen pours out of healthy flowers.
I don't know what male sterility looks like in beets or chard. I suppose that male sterile plants wouldn't release a cloud of pollen when shaken.
Another way that I commonly identify male sterile flowers is to pay attention to the pollinators. Flowers that are not producing pollen are less attractive to bees, flies, wasps, and other pollinators. What self respecting sweat bee is going to visit a pollen-less sunflower? Additionally male sterility often interferes with the nectaries of flowers causing them to produce little or no nectar. Another turn-off to pollinators.
Seed set is often much lower in male sterile plants than in plants with healthy flowers. In the case of a single variety being planted with no related healthy plants within pollination distance the variety might self-eliminate by failing to produce any seed at all.
In spite of contamination of the conventional and organic seed markets by genetically engineered cell fusion CMS, it is simple to participate in survival-of-the-fittest and farmer-directed selection in order to create healthy locally-adapted populations of food crops that are free of male sterility. This is part of the reason why I believe that landrace gardening is a path towards food security through common sense and traditional methods.
Joseph Lofthouse grows vegetables in a cold mountain valley where he practices the art of landrace gardening in order to feed his community more effectively.
The importance of soil health was recently emphasized by Robert Kremer in his presentation to the Cover Crop Research Symposium in Columbia, Missouri. During a day long seminar devoted to cover crops and the No Till methods of Agriculture, the importance of the subsurface ecosystem for plant health and crop yields was highlighted.
This USDA Soil Food Web graphic shows the importance of microbes in the soil.
Soil microbes provide numerous benefits to plants. These include suppression of pathogenic bacteria and fungi, and absorption of nutrients. If your soil is in poor condition as a result of chemical farming, or industrial agriculture, in addition to increasing organic matter, you may want to consider giving your soil a boost by adding local indigenous microbes. The recipe for creating a brew of your own batch of microbes is given below and is a chance to introduce you, and if you have them, your kids to the subject of microbiology.
Soil amendments are often peddled as a magic bullet. When it comes to building soil thee are no shortcuts. In order to increase the organic content of the soil, the research presented at the Cover Crop Symposium indicates that it takes 10 years to increase organic matter by one percent. A test of compost tea, soil microbes, and a control plot showed no difference in productivity as detailed in an research paper in the February, 2009 issue of HortScience Journal but there was no testing of nutrient values after harvest. A soil scientist that I spoke with at the conference suggested that just spraying the soil with a molasses solution, which provides and excellent food for soil microbes, would probably produce the same results. There is a possibility that local, indigenous, soil microbes might be of more benefit than commercially viable microbe preparations. Here is a recipe we tested at the Creek House Norganic Community Garden in Kansas City.
Make Your Own Soil Microbe Mix!
- Molasses - unsulphered – (Our tests of every brand we could get our hands on found that Plantation Blackstrap brand produced the most active cultures) For bulk orders contact Organic Fertilizers Inc.
- Water - filtered or distilled
- Dirt from undisturbed pasture, bottom land, prairie, Harvested every six inches from a 3 foot deep hole.
- When soil temperature reaches 60 degrees or more, using post a hole digger make a hole 3 feet deep, taking a dirt sample every six inches.
- Clean Gallon Jug with Hot Water and Soap, Rinse well.
- Add 2 cups hot to the touch water.
- Add 2-1/2 oz molasses - = 2-1/2 shot glasses - this yields an approximate 2% solution.
- Fill the bottle ½ full with cool non chlorinated water.
- Mix the soil samples, add 1 cup dirt to the bottle, shake, then fill bottle with water 2 inch below neck.
- Wait until foaming stops - about 2 weeks at 90 F, or pH = 3.5 - 4.0 (pH test papers widely available)
Using Homemade Soil Microbe Mix
One part Microbe Mix to 20 parts water. Use as foilar spray, on new and established seed beds
The photo shows typical leaf sizes from our test of local, indigenous microbes on 100 foot row of sweet potatoes. After brewing as described, the microbe mix was applied without dilution using 4 gallons on half the row. The other half of the row was not treated. No other fertilizers or soil amendments were applied. The treated side of the row produced larger leaves.
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Cover Crop Symposium
Application of Two Microbial Teas Did Not Affect Collard or Spinach Yield