Too Many Seeds

I bought too many seeds.

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My sciencey friends adore Ali Express. It’s a site where Chinese third-party sellers post things at suspiciously low prices. My friends use it for circuit boards and the like. I discovered recently that they sell seeds at suspiciously low prices, as well. And in very suspicious shapes, such as this “breast melon.” That link is not safe for work, if your work is sensitive about long weirdo boobs hanging from a trellis.

I really considered planting all Ali Express seeds this year. I could easily have filled my garden for a couple dollars, and it would have been awfully interesting to see what actually came up. There was, of course, the risk that I’d be introducing strange invasive species. There was also the very real risk that nothing would come up at all, or at least not the thing I was expecting. If I planted breast melon seeds, pretty much the only thing I could be sure I wouldn’t get would be droopy, uncanny valley breasts.

So I went for the other end of the spectrum. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds collects interesting ancient seeds from around the world and makes them available to gardeners. I’m a sucker for weirdo vegetables, especially weirdo vegetables with a history. I’ve also written about a few of their offerings for Gardening Know How’s heirloom section, like the Oxheart Carrot and the Golden King of Siberia Tomato.

I did not go for the Golden King of Siberia, but I did get three other tomatoes – a blue, a deep red, and a yellow cherry that supposedly puts out fruit like grapes. I’m also trying a Purple Tomatillo with high hopes of purple salsa.

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I have a soft spot for eggplants. Last year I planted a couple varieties and managed a handful of small fruits, but I’m hoping for more this time. I’m trying Ronde de Valence, a big, spherical French type, and Ping Tung, a super long and skinny Taiwanese type. Maybe I’ll throw in a regular Black Beauty, just for comparison.

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I’m going strange with beans. The Chinese Red Noodle reportedly reach 18 inches long. Dragon Tongue is a Dutch bush bean that’s supposed to be very tasty.

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I’m going a similar route with peas. The Dwarf Blauwschokkers is another compact bush from the Netherlands. The Magnolia Blossom Tendril produces vines, but with a lot more tendrils than leaves. This is supposed to increase airflow and prevent disease. That’s good, but I’m in it more for the aesthetics.

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Gambo and Oda are two sweet peppers that I chose for their bright colors and compact, high-producing plants. There are so many peppers -hot and sweet- that I got a little overwhelmed and just chose what I thought I’d like, which is not necessarily the name of the game here, but it’ll have to do.

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I went a little crazier with roots. De 18 Jours is supposedly ripe in just 18 days, which sounds outrageous even for a radish. We shall see. Opposite that little French radish is the totally wild Pusa Jamuni Radish from India. It looks long and tapered with white skin and deep purple, starbursty flesh. It has no reviews and runs $4 per package. To be honest, I don’t even like radishes that much. I’m just excited to see it.

It’s a similar story with the Pusa Asita Black Carrot. Although I do like carrots, I’m more eager to see these things than eat them. The Crapaudine Beet has me excited, too. I wrote an article about this one for Gardening Know How, though it hasn’t been published yet. It’s thought to be the oldest existent beet, possibly in cultivation for a thousand years. From what I’ve read and seen, it’s something like the missing link of beets – more rootlike and barky than modern varieties. Apparently if you bake it, the skin sloughs right off and it’s delicious.

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Squash is a tough one for me, since my space is so limited. I love a good squash, and the diversity of heirloom varieties is pretty impressive. A line had to be drawn, though. Winter squash was right out, since I can’t justify devoting so much real estate to something that won’t mature for months. I chose this Desi summer squash almost by chance. It’s a prolific bush-type that supposedly stays small. It’s brand new this season, so I’m taking a bit of a risk, but the catalog reviews it well, at least.

I grew melons for the first time last year. In fact, I grew Kazakh Melons from Baker Creek, inherited from a fellow gardener. I planted maybe ten seeds and got six seedlings. They languished for the first half of the summer, and one made it to maturity. I moved it from a pot down to the garden in the middle of the summer, where it absolutely took off. It produced two softball sized melons that slipped the vine before they were fully ripe. So it was mostly a bust. I learned a lot, though, and I’m ready to try again, this time with Kajari. (Now that I’m taking stock, it looks like I’m going to have an Indian garden). It’s supposed to mature very early, and it’s beautiful!

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These are two total weirdos I’d never heard of until I wrote about them. They’re both very old fashioned salad greens that lost the war with Big Spinach somewhere along the way. Strawberry Spinach tastes a lot like spinach but produces brilliant red (and unexpectedly bland) clusters of berries. Red Orach tastes something like spinach but is bright red, heat tolerant, and enormous.  I’m looking forward to it.

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This last bunch didn’t fit into any other groups. The cabbage came complimentary with the order. The Carentan Leeks are for my housemate Will, though I’ll probably plant some too. Leeks are a household favorite. The broccoli is for Ben, who wanted the most basic broccoli money could buy (no ancient, barky beets for him). As a bonus, it’s called Waltham 29, presumably named after Waltham, Massachusetts, where we used to live. I also got myself Beleah Rose Lettuce, a deep, deep red variety that should look interesting.

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And that’s it for now. I hope I can scrounge up the space to try everything. I’ll have to do some serious container planting. I’ll document as I go and keep track of what works and what doesn’t. I’ll write some reviews for the Baker Creek site, as well. The information for quite a few of these is awfully sparse, and more than once I had to sift through reviews for a success story from a climate similar to mine in order to be confident it would grow at all. I’m sure other Zone 6-ers would be happy for the input.

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Saving Seeds

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I’ve started saving seeds. I wasn’t planning on it, but when you go away for the last week and a half of June, some decisions get made for you. I left orderly rows of leafy greens and roots. I came back to anarchy.

The lettuce had bolted. So had the bok choy and last year’s leeks. And so had this downright tumescent radish.

My community garden has a plastic baggie pinned to a bulletin board where you can dump old seed packets. Just to fill in space where some of my kohlrabi had failed, I planted some seeds from this baggie. They were for some daikon-like radish packaged for 2010. I wasn’t expecting much, so I threw in the whole packet’s worth of seeds. And they all germinated.

I thinned them down to just a few and picked most of them when they were a reasonable size. They looked just like white carrots but had a serious, almost peppery bite to them. This last one I left in the ground before my vacation, and by the time I came back it was in full flower. I let it go until the flowers turned to seedpods and the seedpods started to be eaten by birds. I yanked the whole thing out of the ground, then, and brought it inside to dry. I hung it upside down in the cellar from a ribbon the cat likes to play with, because there was no string on hand and I couldn’t just leave this monster draped across the kitchen table.20150909_131149_HDR

If you’re doing the math, you may have figured out by now that this thing has been hanging in my basement for quite a while. You’re right. I’ll admit that I’ve found the prospect of dealing with it daunting, and knowing that something’s dried and not going anywhere is fantastic for procrastination. Now that I’ve gotten my act together and discovered that seed collection is all the work of a few minutes, I’m planning on going at it full throttle and becoming that old seed saving woman in Mad Max.

I dragged the whole plant upstairs and returned the ribbon to where the cat last left it. The radish had formed a big network of spreading twigs, and at the end of each one was a seed pod. I quickly found that the easiest method was to break all these pods off first to get the huge, brittle structure out of the way.

While breaking off pods, I found one bunch of flowers that had been blooming when I picked the radish and dried with the rest of it. The flowers were so delicate when they were blossoming, and I can’t believe how well they were preserved. Maybe next year I’ll grow a couple just for the flowers. I wrote a post recently for Mother Earth Living about cutting and preserving bolted vegetable flowers. Go have a look if you’re in the mood.

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Once I’d collected the pods, my task suddenly seemed a lot less daunting. They were dry as a bone and split apart easily in my fingers. 20150909_132143

In just a few minutes, I had a healthy little pile of seeds. Sometimes gardening seems like magic to me. I often say that if someone told me you could make unlimited food by sticking a little bit of old food in the ground for a while, and I didn’t know that’s how it actually works, I’d never believe it. A single seed sat in the ground for a while and made all of these new seeds. How can that be right?

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Anyway. I tucked all my radish seeds into an envelope labelled Big White Radish because I have no recollection of the real name on the packet, and I got to work on some other plants I’ve had lying around drying for far too long. This is a bok choy, another surprise success from the ancient seed baggie. A lot like the radish, it produced these branched seed pods for the convenience of the collector.

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I did my best with a spinach plant I’ve been drying since forever, but I’m worried the seeds may not have matured. I pulled the plant at the time because it was stone dead, but the seeds had to be pried off with force and don’t want to break apart from their clusters readily. Are the seeds too young, or have I just been spoiled with these pod-producing plants? We’ll find out in the spring.

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That’s my seed arsenal for the moment. That and a bunch of chives I saved when I noticed the chive flowers I’d picked were dumping seeds onto the kitchen table. It’s no fail-safe against the fall of civilization, but it’s mine. I could have let the leeks die to produce seeds, too, but I picked and dried them still in bloom because they’re just so cool. I can buy leek seeds.

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An Attempt at Science

This summer I’m using Neptune’s Harvest Fish & Seaweed Fertilizer on everything I grow. It has great Amazon reviews, and it was available at the urban farm supply store where I talked so long with the owner I felt obligated to buy something. I’ve gone whole hog on ideas for much stupider reasons.20150611_094656_HDR

And I have to say, my garden does look a lot more impressive.

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On the left we have last year at this time, and on the right we have this year, all fishified.

The fish-drenched guys are definitely further along. The chives are enormous, the greens at the far end are a solid mass, and the peas have completely escaped their trellis. Of course… last year I didn’t plant anything until I got my plot at the end of April. Most of the things in this year’s picture were planted indoors during a February snowstorm. There are more scientifically rigorous studies…

Like this one!

I’ve chosen two vegetables I know grow quickly. I don’t know anything that grows faster than radishes, but I’m worried the hot weather will set them back, so I’m planting beans as well.

20150618_161848_HDRThe Neptune’s bottle suggests soaking seeds before planting in a solution of 1 tsp fertilizer to 1 cup water. Do radish and bean seeds like to be soaked? I’ve never heard they do, but I’m doing it anyway! I’m also doing a control of seeds soaked in regular tap water.20150611_182021_HDR

If you’ve never used fish fertilizer before, trust me when I say it smells just as good as it looks.

I let the seeds soak for 24 hours, then planted them. Another use for Neptune’s, and the one I’ve been using in my garden, is a simple watering with a very diluted solution every one to two weeks. So I sowed a set of each seed that will be watered normally, and a set that will be fished. If you’ve been doing your math, you’ll know that comes out to eight different treatments.

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And here they are!

All sown at exactly the same time in soil from the same bag in basically the same containers are plain radishes and beans, fish watered radishes and beans, water-soaked radishes and beans, and fish-soaked radishes and beans. I’ve put three seeds evenly spaced in each pot, so hopefully individual seed quality doesn’t get too much in the way. I lightly watered the plain pots with water and the fish pots with fish solution.

After only four days the radishes, true to form, were making an appearance. At least one plant emerged in every pot.

Oddly enough, though, the water-treated seedlings look vastly healthier.

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Go ahead and click on the pictures to enlarge them so you can see the seedlings and my beautiful labeling. The plain seedlings look more developed and vividly green. Their leaves are splayed out completely. Also, only the completely untreated pot has two of its three seedlings already. The fish seedlings, on the other hand, look yellower and not fully opened yet. This could be chalked up to a few hours’ difference in growth at this stage, but I really did sow everything in one go. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that there are berries just everywhere. They’re mulberries, and they’re getting a post of their own soon.

I’ll be tracking the seedlings’ growth and updating every now and again. If this current trend continues, maybe I’ll have enough evidence to bring down Big Fish.