Preparing for Seed Saving at Twin Oaks Seed Farm

Reader Contribution by Edmund Frost
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I was planting gourd seeds straight into the sandy brown dirt where I just disked the clover. I want to get these gourds in early and now is just the time. I knew I was pushing it — there were raindrops earlier when I was racing around on the tractor. That stopped, but then there were dark clouds and strong wind in the treetops to the southwest. Even without the stormclouds, dark was coming soon. This all would be fine, except that I came out on the big tractor, and the fields are a few miles from home.

The wind blew the treetops again and I finally got it — time to stop, now. I put the seeds back in the bag and ran to the red Super C tractor, climbing up and headingeast, slowing down for the big bump in between the fields. I parked in its shed, got on the John Deere (attached to the manure spreader) and took off again around the pond, through the woods and onto East Old Mountain Road, switching into 8th gear as big raindrops started to hit my face and shoulders and the hood of the tractor. There is a kind of tree around here that’s covered in fragrant white cone-shaped clusters of flowers. Some kind of cherry relative, I think. There were so many more than I’d ever noticed before, and as the rain fell and the tractor roared, the storm wind was filling the night air with petals, pollen and sweet flower smells. The storm mostly missed us. I had the manure spreader sprayed out and the big tractor put away at exactly dark.

Growing for Seed

I’ve been in my head and at my desk a whole lot this winter and early spring. Our farm is taking off in several new directions this year. Twin Oaks Seed Farm’s focus has been producing seeds on contract for a handful of small seed companies. Now I am involved in starting a new cooperative retail seed project, Common Wealth Seed Growers. With that project in mind we’re doing many more small seed growouts, plus observation trials of watermelon, peppers and tomatoes.  We also got a SARE grant to research Downy Mildew resistance of 120 cucumber, melon and winter squash varieties.  I’ve got a few breeding projects in progress and many more ideas. There has been a whole lot more planning, thinking about field layout, ordering seeds from all over, and getting ideas from people than there was in previous years. How can I fit in another cucumber breeding project? What new isolation plots can I find to produce all the different types of moschata species winter squash seeds that I want to work with? Whats the best way to set up insect exclusion cages so I can save seeds from several pepper varieties without isolating them? How do I find tropical pumpkin seeds for the trial? How do you start a seed growers cooperative?

Its May now. Frost danger is pretty well passed, and the air and soil are warm enough to plant almost everything. Now, like any other year, it’s time to take the work and the thought of the winter outside and to put it in the sandy and clayey soil.To immerse myself in the smells of storms, good dirt, rotting okara (the soy pulp byproduct from making tofu that we use for nitrogen fertility), all kinds of flowers and plants, plus diesel and gasoline engines. To sink my hands and feet, heart and seeds in the soil and wait. There is a ton to do all at once. All of a sudden all those tomato transplants are looking pretty darn ready. We have to put row cover on the squashToday to keep off the cucumber beetles. Do we have all the irrigation parts we need?  It’s a whirlwind, but I think I’m doing ok.

Fortunately it’s also the time that I have a crew to help with all the work. I have the tractors and farm implements I need to prepare the ground for planting. Hopefully the thought of the winter months has come out organized enough and coherent enough that I will be able to keep up with and make sense of it all as we go along.

Gourd Seeds and Clover

A little more about the gourd planting. To prepare the seedbed for the gourds, I disked six-foot wide swaths in a red clover cover crop. The clover residue will provide nitrogen for the gourd plants.

Last year ,we grew an okra seed crop in that spot. In early July, after we were done hoeing and cultivating and when the okra was about waist high, I broadcast red clover into the patch. Soon after we got several inches of heavy rain and the clover came right up (if you don’t get a heavy rain it won’t work so well!). At the end of the growing season I didn’t have to till in the okra to plant a cover crop because there was already one there. You can see the okra stalks in the picture, coming out of the clover. With this year’s gourd planting, I left strips of clover that will keep growing and feeding the soil in between the 12-foot rows of gourds. I may let it go to seed to provide next winter’s cover crop for the area. More about cover crop experiments later!

More to Come About Seed Saving

This first blog post is mostly pretty general, but I will be getting down to it in short order.  I have a lot of ideas to share about seeds – how to plan your garden or farm for seed saving, how to decide what to grow for seed, how to save specific kinds of seeds, and how to participate in building regional seed systems that put farmers and gardeners back in control of what they’re growing. I’ll also share ideas and methods relating to soil fertility, efficient weed control, field layout, cover crops, bringing farm-scale techniques into the garden, irrigation, variety trialing, plant breeding, gourd crafting, seed politics, community living, food sovereignty, connection to the land, and creating communities and movements that challenge control of our lives by multinational corporations.

I am excited about this growing season. I’m excited about new opportunities to write and to network and to help create positive change in agriculture, and through agriculture. Thank you for reading!

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