Seeds for a New Season

Along with most of my furniture and canning/preserving equipment lost in the house fire this summer, I also lost my seed collection. A young woman who lived in my neighborhood happened by while I was working in the “smokehouse,” and she helped me count the bags and envelopes before we scattered much of it to the winds–116 packs total of flower, herb, and vegetable seed.

Because I had gardens growing in two locations at the time of the fire, I was able to save a little from this year’s crop–a couple varieties of tomato were all I really had time and space to keep track of. I tried three times to save Coyote Cherry before I remembered to drain and dry them ahead of when they started sprouting in the jar.

I also saved Santorini–a tomato I hardly ever appreciate ’til the end of the season, when I look around and realize they’re still pumping out those lovely little bright red thin-skinned ruffled jewels. Old Pink Plum, bearer of prolific clusters of rosy pink thick-walled fruits, was first to be saved–and last to provide house-ripened tomatoes from all the green ones I snatched out of the jaws of the first hard frost.

Poking around in other people’s gardens has yielded a couple small packets of herb and flower seed. That’s something to start with. On a whim, I saved a few seeds of Lavender Touch eggplant–a hybrid from Pinetree Garden Seeds I’ve been growing for over five years now.

But with the seed catalogs coming in, I’m a little overwhelmed with how exactly to start building the collection back. One part of me thinks I should order as much as possible as quickly as possible–what if civilization as we know it breaks down, and I don’t have a big insurance policy of food and medicine ready to grow?

The other part of me knows that it will take some time to develop the gardens here, and why rush to buy more five times more varieties of seed than I will have time and space to plant?

The end result will probably be somewhere in between the conservative estimate of what I’ll be able to grow this year and the panicked squirrel-hoarding order I’d make if I watched too much news. Though it will probably be closer to the hoarding end, if only because I feel so naked without a serious collection of seed.

In the last couple of years, I’ve made a serious effort to find solid open-pollinated replacements for the hybrid varieties I like. I’ll continue that effort, so the rebuilt collection is something I can (or in some cases, could if I needed to) grow out and save for myself.

The backyard is big, and the production gardens are in the planning stages (read: walking around talking to myself stage). I’m hoping to get some long raised beds tilled and built up back there early enough in the season so I can grow a quick green manure cover before putting in warm weather crops. I’ve got my four raised beds in place (unfilled as yet) that can serve for what early season greens, roots, and legumes I choose.

But I haven’t made those decisions yet.

The seed catalogs didn’t used come out until Christmas–or even the beginning of the new year, but they are starting to come earlier and earlier now–some precede Thanksgiving, even.

It doesn’t feel right to me when spring seed catalogs come out while fall harvest is still in progress. It feels like we aren’t being allowed any rest–like we’re being pushed to make choices that need a little more time and processing of what we learned in the current season. It feels like we ought to have a little rest, a little settling into the darkness, a little of the fallow time before we start chasing the tail of spring too earnestly.

Because of my move late last winter (and failure to change addresses for seed catalogs until a few weeks ago–after my mom started calling to say gloat she’d gotten hers), I’m getting some of that rest while the catalogs slowly trickle into my PO box.

In years past, the post-Christmas seed considerations were preceded by an inventory process that took up most of an afternoon and evening. This year, my self-gifted Christmas present will be sitting down with my farm journal and a stack of seed catalogs and starting to think seriously about what this first seed order of the 2012 season will look like–on an almost completely blank slate.

Today's Projects

I started a third vermicompost tray this afternoon with assorted spent broth veggies, eggshells, coffee grounds, and some browning apples culled from the box in the basement (because, remember, one rotten apple spoils the bunch).

February is the first seed-starting month of the season, so I want to make sure I’m well-stocked with worm compost for blending my seed-starting mix by then.

I also started (finally!) my seed inventory (in a NEW farm journal–I’m now in my second decade of keeping them), so I can begin to see what I need to order, what I need to use up, and what I can contribute to a possible community garden seed swap in the spring.

To my immense relief, I am not going to have to re-order any of my usual heirloom tomato varieties–I still have a decent stock of saved seed from previous seasons.  Because I was unable to save more tomato seed due to disease issues arising from the cool, wet weather in 2009, I was worried that I’d have to start all over with some varieties.

That turned out not to be the case–I’m still able to work from the seed I’ve been saving and improving for this region and climate.  Whew!  But, I will have to do some serious saving of a number of varieties this season.

I also get to order a few new varieties–I’ve only got a couple of slicers in my line-up (Ananas Noire and Zapotec Pleated), and I’m kicking out a few that I haven’t been happy with.  One I know I want to try is Millet’s Dakota from Skyfire Garden Seeds.  It’s a pretty standard red tomato for me, but its description is compelling.

I’m sure I’ll be looking for an orange slicer as well–I did like Nebraska Wedding, but I’m out of that variety and looking for some other possibilities.  Then there’s the choice: Green Zebra or Aunt Ruby’s German Green?

Hmm.  Well, there’s a lot more boxes of seed to go through and catalog before I get to filling out the order forms.  And I’m still waiting for the Territorial and Seed Savers Exchange catalogs…

A Fine Glaze

For a moment, I thought that dripping off the front awning was the little icicles melting.  Then I looked out and saw the thin glaze of frozen rain over everything.  The roads don’t look too bad yet, but the sidewalks are treacherous.

I hate using commercial ice-melt on my sidewalks because I don’t want that chemical run-off in my soil.  Luckily, because I use sand as a component in my seed-starting mix, I had a five-gallon bucket of it sitting in my basement, half if which is now on my sidewalks.

I’ve been perusing the two main seed catalogs I’ve received so far–both from Maine.  I always order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds out of Albion/Winslow, and I almost always order from Pinetree Garden Seeds out of New Gloucester.  There are others, too, but I haven’t got their catalogs yet, so I won’t go through them.

I have gotten two catalogs from the same address (they were bought up by Jung): Totally Tomatoes and Vermont Bean Seed Company.  There might’ve been a time when I would have ordered from VT Bean Seed, but as a native Vermonter, I’m not ordering from a catalog bearing that state’s name and with an address in Wisconsin.  It’s bad enough to buy Hoffman’s “Vermont Cheddar” from Wisconsin, but a girl gets desperate, you know.

A couple of items I’m excited about this year: over Thanksgiving, H’s daughter S brought some of those big black radishes for the salad–they were incredibly good with a little salt and beer.  I’ve decided to forgo the usual Easter Egg blend of red, pink, white, and purple for some of these big, mildly spicy beauties.  For the fall radish crop, I’ll be bringing back the rose hearts–a green, turnip-sized radish with a hot pink interior.

I had planned to try celeriac last year, after picking up a couple last early spring from the now-defunct Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market in Sioux City.  This year I’m definitely doing that, and I’m going to try the big “Kossack” kohlrabis as well.

I’ve been noticing this long, light green eggplant called “Raveena” that I think I’m going to try along with my regular “Lavender Touch” (a gorgeous variety I’ve seen nowhere but Pinetree).  In Pinetree as well there is a variety of flatleaf parsley that is supposedly slightly sweeter and better-tasting than the run-of-the-mill flatleafs (flatleaves?).

I want to do parsnips because I never have, and I want to do some more gi-normous winter squashes, since those seem to be the only winter squash I can successfully grow (besides spaghetti squash).  There’s a peanut-shaped Italian heirloom called Naples Long in Johnny’s that I’ve never seen before, and I’ll probably succumb to the call of the big blue Hubbard as well.

I guess I’ve come out of the rest period a little by now–I keep looking outside and wondering if there’s some kind of garden work I could be doing, and it hasn’t even seriously snowed yet.

The Bad Seed

As much as I tell other people to use good, fresh seed, I can’t help trying to start older stuff. Sometimes I’ll toss old seed in the compost, but this year, like many others, I decided to take a chance. But, not one of the Copra yellow storage onions I started came up. So, I dumped the soil out of those two flats worth of six packs, and will likely use that space on my light shelf to start eggplant and peppers in the next day or two.

On a happier note, the leeks and red onions are looking great. I ordered the second batch of tomato seed Saturday and today–I had planned on just ordering one yellow and one orange tomato, but instead (this is the seed company’s fault for not being open on the weekend), perused the catalog one last time and came out with five.  They’re all heirloom or open-pollinated, so I can save seed from the varieties I like best.

Along with the regular slicing and paste tomatoes, I’ve decided to specialize in different kinds of little tomatoes this year. Though many shoppers like to buy slicers for their kitchens–many of the larger truck farmers can set a lower price on their slicers because of their bulk (and because many of them have family members helping them harvest!). My tomatoes for market are mostly all heirlooms and a little more delicate, so I usually charge a bit more.

Still, a lot of families will buy a pint or two of cherry tomatoes for snacking and salads–especially if they’re really pretty. Enter my Red Currant, Red Pear, Sun Gold, and Isis Candy (marbled gold and red) mixed pint and quart boxes. I can generally get a huge amount of those plastic clamshells from friends and customers to save them a trip to the recycling center.

The pain with little tomatoes is, of course, harvesting all of those tiny things. But, with solid trellising, it doesn’t pose a huge problem–at least until the late season when the plants grow up and over the cattle panels in a big, cascading mass, and I have to plunge my entire upper body underneath the crazy overgrowth in order to harvest them (OK, I could prune, but where’s the fun in that?). Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

But, many of these little tomatoes can also be harvested by clipping their entire fruit cluster off the plant–Red Currant has to be harvested in that way, as they are about the size of a fingertip. Oh, but the flavor!

Tomato Riches!

Zapotec Pleated Tomatoes

You know how it is this time of year. You start thinking about tomatoes. Especially when you’ve realized your miserable fate after scheduling two classes (actually three–two sections of comp, one section of lit) to turn in their rough drafts at the same time.

So, after spending the morning answering desperate e-mails and sorting through which mail contains a draft I’ll need to critique and which is a plea for an extension, I decided to take a break and sort through my tomato-seed riches.

Every year I say I’m going to cut down on the amount of varieties I grow. And every year, I end up growing a couple more varieties looking for that “perfect” tomato after an old favorite didn’t perform as well as it did the year before. Not that I stop growing that old favorite either–there’s only a few varieties I’ve given up on, and really it’s more a matter of putting them on reserve and/or needing to refresh poor seed stock.

So, I went through the seed box, and realized (Horror!) that out of something like seventeen varieties, I don’t have a mid-to-late season, indeterminate yellow/orange tomato in my line-up. Back to the seed catalogs I went, and picked out a couple more varieties–one I’ve tried (Yellow Perfection), and one I’ve wanted to try (Nebraska Wedding). Here be the complete list:

Tiny Tomatoes:

Red Currrant (new), Sungold Cherry (hybrid), Red Pear (saved), Black Cherry (new)

Paste/Drying Tomatoes:

Principe Borghese (saved), San Marzano (saved), A blocky, three-lobed “sport” of San Marzano I’m developing (saved), Polish Linguisa (saved)

Salad/Slicing Tomatoes:

Zapotec Pleated (saved), Brandywine (saved), Stupice (new), Yellow Perfection (re-stock), Nebraska Wedding (new), Black From Tula (saved), Nyagous (new), Red Zebra (new)

Indeterminate Tomatoes (Early Season Bush):

Orange Blossom (hybrid), Taxi (yellow), Oregon Spring (red)

I’ve only got two hybrids (F1–first generation–not GMO) on the list–Sun Gold Cherry because it’s the best darn cherry tomato I’ve ever tasted, not to mention looking really pretty in mixed boxes with Red Pear. I had a couple volunteers this year from the previous year’s dropped fruits, and they weren’t nearly as tasty, and they didn’t quite glow like the little orange suns of its parent plant. It’d be a pretty special cherry to make me drop this variety–but I’m open to possibilities.

The other–Orange Blossom, was just an ordering mistake. It’s pretty good (and big for an early tomato), but I’ll just use up the seed and either grow only the red and yellow early-bearing bush varieties, or I’ll try to find an orange early open-pollinated replacement, because I prefer to save my own tomato seed.

A couple notes on a few varieties:

Most Productive (even under stress): Principe Borghese, Black from Tula, San Marzano

Strangest: Zapotec Pleated (these are pictured in the thumbnail above–yes, they get huge, craggy, and cat-faced–later fruits are smaller and kind of draw-string purse-shaped)

Most Popular with Market Customers: Brandywine, of course, but also Yellow Perfection (people say they’re lower-acid)

Biggest Pain to Grow: Yellow Perfection (high yields, but they crack terribly if the moisture level is unstable), Polish Linguisa (finicky plants, low yields, at least in this microclimate–trying to develop a hardier strain)

Tastiest: This is totally subjective, and all the tomatoes I grow are chosen for flavor, but the prizes go to Black from Tula, Polish Linguisa, Zapotec, and Sun Gold Cherry. Brandywine is good, but I like the richer flavor of the dark red-to-“black” tomatoes. More complex, a little acid, kind of like eating a glass of good wine. Cherry tomatoes are different–I like those a little more fruity, like sunshine bursting in my mouth.

I’ve never grown a green-when-ripe tomato, though I’ve heard good things about Aunt Ruby’s German. It just doesn’t seem right. I’ll wait for someone else to grow one and try it. But, I’m afraid that, if a few at the market question whether my green-shouldered black tomatoes are ripe, or even my yellow varieties, green might be a hard sell.

Well, that was fun. I guess I better get back to critiquing drafts.