Sunday, January 31, 2010

Seed orders finally done!

Planning for the Derwood Demo Garden continues. Here are the stages I've gone through so far:

1. Brainstorming ideas. Here's where I put down on paper that I'd like waves of single-color Swiss chard making a rainbow; beans meant to be harvested in snap, shelling and dried stages; a bed demonstrating cool-weather spinach and its warm-weather substitutes; squash that is resistant to vine borers; slow-to-bolt lettuces, and so forth.

2. Seed inventory. I listed all the seeds we already have, with dates where known. Hm, we already have a lot of seed.

3. Preliminary seed order. Using the two above documents, I came up with an ideal list of everything I'd like to order and that we don't already have. For example, I found that we have no Cucurbita moschata squash seed (most resistant to borers); that we only have rhubarb chard seed; that we have a little pole bean seed, plenty for Masai bush beans, and also plenty for Black Turtle bush beans (to harvest dried); that we have some Winter Bloomsdale spinach and some New Zealand spinach (which is not really spinach but a hot-weather alternative). So butternut squash and a few relatives, several heirloom varieties of pole beans, and several other kinds of real and false spinach went on the list, along with a bunch of lettuces claiming to be bolt-resistant and every color of Swiss chard there is. And much more. I checked several catalogs and listed comparative prices.

4. Garden map. Using the template for the vegetable garden beds as they exist, and referring to last year's map to make sure I'm rotating crop families, I drew a map of what will go where. This gave me a better sense of how much space I actually have to work with for each crop. I remembered paths, too.

5. Seed orders redux: trimming for reality and the budget. We'll try to use as much of the current seed stock as possible, bearing in mind that some experiments failed, some seed is too old to use, and it's always nice to try something new. I still ordered four kinds of Swiss chard (but not the yellow one that wasn't carried by any catalog I chose to order from), and several varieties of spinach and summer substitutes. I reluctantly cut back on bean varieties and stuck with one kind of butternut squash (we'll try again with some of the C. maxima and C. pepo seed we already have, and hope early use of row cover keeps the bugs off). I ordered two new kinds of lettuce, but we'll also use up old seed even if those varieties aren't as good in the heat. We will grow kale again, but the harlequin bug problem makes me cautious about kohlrabi and broccoli.

We have seed for parsnips and peanuts, so we'll try those, and I also ordered seed for golden beets and rat-tailed radishes. And there's plenty of room for tomatoes, sweet potatoes, all the old standbys.

This is much easier to do for a small garden, although the choices are harder! It took me a long time to learn that the mapping stage is critical, since it forces me to accommodate actual physical reality into the landscape of my dreams. What do you mean, I can't fit corn into this garden? etc. It's also great to keep a seed inventory, especially when planning seed swaps with friends and neighbors. Or when you're being tempted by catalogs to get five kinds of peppers and that really cool new cucumber and two kinds of watermelon. Note: most gardeners are hard-pressed to fit one kind of watermelon into their planting scheme. And yes, I ordered watermelon seed for myself this year (orange-fleshed watermelon! Fun!), and if we have a spare corner in the demo garden I'll happily donate a plant or two...
(Photo credit: Katherine Lambert)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Garden Giddy

As the end of January approaches and I continue to drool over my seed catalogs that are coming in two by two each day in the mail, I get giddy about winter bidding us adieu.

This is my garden. My little piece of fat earth. She has a few weeds in her now and a few errant vines that I forgot to pull down off of the chicken wire, but she's there...waiting for me to bring her new life. Every year I try to grow something new. This year, among my long list of things to grow, I am going to try radishes and tomatoberries--tomatoes the size and shape of strawberries. I am also going to try the square foot gardening method. My garden is small, 300 square feet, but I do grow so much in that tiny space! How? Space-saving techniques like letting things grow on trellises instead of letting them sprawl and interplanting certain crops together. However, I think the square foot gardening method is really going to maximize my garden space because I will be utilizing the space a lot more efficiently. I plan to keep you updated on how it goes. In case you are wondering what this method entails, just google 'square foot gardening'. I can't wait to get started!

What's on tap for this year's garden? Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, radishes, cukes, okra, peas, spinach, cantaloupes and various herbs and flowers. I can just taste those salads now!

Well, I'm off to order my seeds! Until next time.....

Happy Garden Thoughts!

Grow It Eat It Goals

Erica's article below got me excited. Garden planning is a fun winter activity. I encourage everyone to set goals to change or expand your garden this year. Perhaps you can add a couple of more pots to your condo terrace. Or expand your garden another 100 square feet. Plant some new vegetables or fruits. Or put up some trellises. Improve your irrigation. Or build a hoop house to extend your seasons.

Look over the seed catalogs. Place your orders. Establish your time-lines. Dream and do.

Here are my goals for expanding my garden this year:
Gardening requires strategic planning. Those berries will be in for years so I better plant them in the best location. I must also patiently wait a year for them to start producing. I love staring out my den window in January at my dead garden and making my big plans.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Open Pollinated Corn - Part Two

Why Hybrid Corn Seed Can’t Be Saved and Unintended Consequences

Hybrid corn seed cannot be saved and replanted because hybrid varieties do not “breed true” in following generations. The reason for this is that in the hybrid variety each plant had one gene from the male parent and one gene from the female parent for every plant trait. This is what produced the uniformity in maturity, height, etc. which was so beneficial for machine harvesting. But when the seed from a hybrid variety is saved and replanted, the resulting plants have a random assortment of gene pairs for each trait, producing plants of varying maturities, heights, etc. Thus the advantage of the hybrid variety is lost if seed is saved and replanted. The farmer needs to buy new seed every year in order to have the advantages of planting hybrid seed. Clearly the benefits of hybrid varieties were worth this extra cost to farmers as adoption of hybrid varieties was rapid. Farmers quickly developed loyalties to particular seed companies and varieties and paid premium prices for hybrid seed which continued to yield ever more bountiful harvests throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. There seemed to be no drawbacks to the use of hybrid corn seed.

A chink in the hybrid corn armor showed up in 1970. Aside from the obvious yield advantage, a big factor in widespread acceptance of hybrids was the uniformity which facilitated efficient machine harvest. However this uniformity has a pitfall. If a field is planted to one variety of hybrid corn all of the plants in the field are genetically identical. Therefore if one plant is susceptible to a pest, all of the plants are susceptible. The dangers of this genetic vulnerability can be mitigated somewhat by planting different varieties of hybrid corn in a given area or even in the same field. However in the 1960s another factor contributed to the genetic vulnerability of hybrid corn. The process of hand removal of tassels of female parents proved to be time consuming and expensive. Finding high school youth willing to spend their summers trudging up and down corn rows in the heat of the summer in Illinois and Iowa became more and more difficult. When a breeding technique was developed which incorporated male-sterile cytoplasm into female parent lines it was quickly adopted by the seed companies. There was no longer any need to pay people to hand remove the tassels. Unfortunately there were only a few sources of male-sterile cytoplasm and by the late 1960s approximately 80% of the hybrid corn varieties were developed using a line known as Texas Male-Sterile Cytoplasm (T-Cytoplasm). In the crop production year of 1970 a perfect storm developed with the occurrence of a particularly virulent strain of the fungal disease Southern Corn Leaf Blight (SCLB), warm moist weather conditions that favored SCLB, and susceptibility to SCLB in all hybrid corn varieties developed using T-Cytoplasm. Many acres of corn production were lost as a result. “In August 1970, Illinois Secretary of Agriculture John W. Lewis was estimating that 25 percent of his state's corn crop was already lost to the blight. Just one year earlier, Illinois had been the nation's top corn producer, accounting for more than one-fifth of the crop.”

In the aftermath of the 1970 debacle the seed companies reverted to using hand removal of tassels until new lines of male-sterile cytoplasm were developed. But a hard lesson had been learned by corn farmers and they would never again have quite the same level of trust in hybrid corn as they did before 1970. Herbivore Reed

Next: Why there may be a place for open pollinated corn varieties

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Open Pollinated Corn

What and Why? The History

Corn, Zea mays, which most of the world outside of the United States knows as maize, is one of the most useful cereal crops of the world. Today in the United States and much of the developed world, corn is mostly fed to animals. But historically in the United States corn was a major source of direct sustenance for humans as it still is today in much of the developing world .

To understand the open pollinated corn story we need a little corn botany and genetics lesson. Sorry, you may stop reading now and wait for the next post if this makes your hair ache. Corn is a monoecious plant. That is, it has separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The tassel is the pollen producing male flower and the ear with silk is the female flower. (See diagram link) Corn is wind pollinated and normally it is cross pollinated, that is, pollen from another plant pollinates the female flower on a given plant. This process of natural pollination by the wind resulting in cross pollination of individual plants is sometimes referred to as “open pollination”.

Until about 1930, all of the corn grown in the United States and elsewhere was from seed which had been produced by this process of open pollination. Individual open pollinated varieties of corn had a great deal of genetic variability. That is, although individual plants within a variety looked a lot alike and had similar growth characteristics, each plant actually was unique and had a slightly different mix of genes from every other plant. In the early twentieth century corn breeders discovered that if they developed two inbred lines of corn and then crossed (hybridized) them, the resulting seeds would produce plants that were more robust than either of the two parent plants, a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor. If the breeders produced many plants of the two inbred lines and crossed them, the resulting seed could be used to plant acres and acres of corn that was not only robust, but each plant was genetically exactly like every other plant. That meant the plants would all grow at the same rate, mature at the same time, and grow to be the same height, assuming similar environments. This was ideal for machine harvesting of corn. Furthermore, these hybrid varieties, as they were known, had surprisingly higher yields than the old open pollinated varieties from which they were derived. The harvest advantages and yield advantages combined made hybrid corn varieties very attractive for farmers, despite the fact that the seed was expensive and new seed had to be purchased each year (More on this in the next post). By 1950 nearly all of the field corn and sweet corn produced in the United States was hybrid corn, truly an agricultural revolution.

The production of hybrid seed was fairly simple in theory, but quite labor intensive in practice. Rows of male parent plants had to be planted next to rows of female parent plants. The tassel needed to be removed from the female plants to make sure that only the pollen from the selected male parent pollinated the female parents. Resulting seed was then harvested from only the female parents. To avoid damage to the female plants, the tassels had to be removed by hand. And the kicker was that this whole process had to be repeated every year as grain from a hybrid variety could not be saved and replanted the following year. Very quickly many high school students in the Midwest had a guaranteed summer job. All you had to be willing to do was walk up and down miles of corn rows in the hot sun removing tassels. - Herbivore Reed

Next: Why Hybrid Corn Seed Can’t Be Saved and Unintended Consequences

Corn Diagram Link:

To read more about the history of hybrid corn:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mouse melon seed

2009 was, for me, the year of the mouse melon. You can read my previous post in which I enthuse about this little crisp cucumber relative that looks like a miniature watermelon.

So if you want 2010 to be your mouse melon year, order your seed now. You're not likely to find this one at your local garden center (unless you urge them to carry it!), but a number of seed companies do have it. The most likely way to find it is to search under "Mexican sour gherkin" as that's the most-often used name in the seed industry.

Here are some catalogs I've found that carry Mexican sour gherkin seed.

Fedco Seeds
Kitchen Garden Seeds
Landreth Seeds
Seed Savers Exchange
Territorial Seed
Totally Tomatoes

(Grow It Eat It and University of Maryland Extension do not endorse any business or prefer one over another; this is for information only. But I do personally know each of these companies to be reliable.)