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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Chicken Phrases in Our Speech

Chicken behavior permeates what we say and when we say it. I didn't fully appreciate how much chicken culture has influenced human culture until we began to raise hens this year. I found myself describing the behavior of the chickens by using literal phrases that I'd only used figuratively before.

Jo is our smallest hen. She was a straight-run chick so we had to wait until she began maturing before finding out whether she was a rooster or hen. A beautiful, multi-color, Easter-Egger, she began laying small white eggs and our questions ceased. After only a month of laying she suddenly stopped. That change coincided with the loss of some of her long, black tail feathers in a round patch on her back; it revealed bare skin and an apparent increase in her stress level.

Jo's feathers are beginning to grow back

I guessed that she got too close to the fence and a fox nipped her. That was until I saw Lucy, the big Rhode Island Red hen, pecking at the bare spot. It was instantly obvious that Jo was "henpecked".

I knew chickens establish a hierarchy of dominance, but wasn't aware of how it was functioning in our coop. Obviously, big, red Lucy "ruled the roost".

Lucy is the boss

This was confirmed later when I put some yellow squash from my garden into their chicken run. They all ran to the delicious vegetable, but only Lucy began pecking at it. When the other hens stuck their beaks in, Lucy pushed them away. There was a definite "pecking order" and Lucy was number one.

As the other chickens backed away quickly, frustrated and flustered, it was apparent that Lucy had "ruffled their feathers" and "got their hackles up".


Lucy gets first peck

Those chicken-based phrases are ones I've used and are commonly heard describing human interactions. A timid husband is henpecked because his wife rules the roost. When the kids go for a car ride the oldest gets shotgun because of their pecking order. If Aunt Helen gets stuck in the back it ruffles her feathers.

There are many other phrases we use to describe ourselves. Chickens prefer light spaces and familiar areas to sleep. When the sun goes down they’re “chicken” about the dark as they enter the coop and "come home to roost". That being said, they don't like being "cooped up" for long periods of time and often will "fly the coop" if given the chance.

The hens are anxious to get outside each day

The hens we have typically won't sit on eggs for long periods expecting them to hatch. After Jo's feathers grew back, she began laying eggs again. Unexpectedly one day she sat on her "nest egg" for nearly 30 hours straight. I couldn't get her out of the nest box. She "brooded over" that egg. It was almost as though she was acting like a "mother hen". My wife was finally able to coax her out with special chicken treats.

It wasn't long before her tail feathers began to disappear again along with a regular supply of little white eggs. We were left with an "empty nest" with those eggs gone.

No eggs in an empty nest

We have just a few hens and have had few problems when collecting eggs. We haven't worried about "putting all of our eggs in the same basket". We've never dropped an egg and haven't had to worry about "walking on eggshells". And of course we've never had "egg on our face".

All of these phrases have obvious origins. And their transference to human actions are easily understood. When you see the bare dirt of a chicken run it's easy to understand why bad handwriting looks like "chicken scratch". Chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise; after all, the cost of their food is just "chicken feed".

We don't have a rooster so we don't have to worry about "counting our chickens before they hatch". We use the eggs regularly so we know that "you have to break eggs to make an omelet". And we know that a "good egg" is home-raised.

Many other animal actions have factored into human speech, but I have to believe that chickens have had the most impact. I can think of no other animal that formed the basis of so many common English phrases. Obviously with that much influence, chickens "have something to crow about".

Chicken behavior permeates what we say and when we say it. I didn't fully appreciate how much chicken culture has influenced human culture until we began to raise hens this year. I found myself describing the behavior of the chickens by using literal phrases that I'd only used figuratively before.

Jo is our smallest hen. She was a straight-run chick so we had to wait until she began maturing before finding out whether she was a rooster or hen. A beautiful, multi-color, Easter-Egger, she began laying small white eggs and our questions ceased. After only a month of laying she suddenly stopped. That change coincided with the loss of some of her long, black tail feathers in a round patch on her back; it revealed bare skin and an apparent increase in her stress level.

Jo's feathers are beginning to grow back

I guessed that she got too close to the fence and a fox nipped her. That was until I saw Lucy, the big Rhode Island Red hen, pecking at the bare spot. It was instantly obvious that Jo was "henpecked".

I knew chickens establish a hierarchy of dominance, but wasn't aware of how it was functioning in our coop. Obviously, big, red Lucy "ruled the roost".

Lucy is the boss

This was confirmed later when I put some yellow squash from my garden into their chicken run. They all ran to the delicious vegetable, but only Lucy began pecking at it. When the other hens stuck their beaks in, Lucy pushed them away. There was a definite "pecking order" and Lucy was number one.

As the other chickens backed away quickly, frustrated and flustered, it was apparent that Lucy had "ruffled their feathers" and "got their hackles up".


Lucy gets first peck

Those chicken-based phrases are ones I've used and are commonly heard describing human interactions. A timid husband is henpecked because his wife rules the roost. When the kids go for a car ride the oldest gets shotgun because of their pecking order. If Aunt Helen gets stuck in the back it ruffles her feathers.

There are many other phrases we use to describe ourselves. Chickens prefer light spaces and familiar areas to sleep. When the sun goes down they’re “chicken” about the dark as they enter the coop and "come home to roost". That being said, they don't like being "cooped up" for long periods of time and often will "fly the coop" if given the chance.

The hens are anxious to get outside each day

The hens we have typically won't sit on eggs for long periods expecting them to hatch. After Jo's feathers grew back, she began laying eggs again. Unexpectedly one day she sat on her "nest egg" for nearly 30 hours straight. I couldn't get her out of the nest box. She "brooded over" that egg. It was almost as though she was acting like a "mother hen". My wife was finally able to coax her out with special chicken treats.

It wasn't long before her tail feathers began to disappear again along with a regular supply of little white eggs. We were left with an "empty nest" with those eggs gone.

No eggs in an empty nest

We have just a few hens and have had few problems when collecting eggs. We haven't worried about "putting all of our eggs in the same basket". We've never dropped an egg and haven't had to worry about "walking on eggshells". And of course we've never had "egg on our face".

All of these phrases have obvious origins. And their transference to human actions are easily understood. When you see the bare dirt of a chicken run it's easy to understand why bad handwriting looks like "chicken scratch". Chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise; after all, the cost of their food is just "chicken feed".

We don't have a rooster so we don't have to worry about "counting our chickens before they hatch". We use the eggs regularly so we know that "you have to break eggs to make an omelet". And we know that a "good egg" is home-raised.

Many other animal actions have factored into human speech, but I have to believe that chickens have had the most impact. I can think of no other animal that formed the basis of so many common English phrases. Obviously with that much influence, chickens "have something to crow about".

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

More Gifts for Gardeners

Gardeners are a giving group. As the growing season progresses, we're more than willing to share our flowers, produce, seeds, and advice to anyone willing to partake. We give our time, labor, and effort to build gardens and grow plants of every type. After giving so much during the growing season, it's nice to receive thoughtful gifts during the holiday season.

In my previous article I discussed some of the simple items and tools that many gardeners might like to receive. There are many other potential gifts for the gardener in your life and today I propose a few more.

Two gift ideas top the list and are quite obvious, as I was reminded when the last article was published. Plants and seeds are the basic ingredients that make what we do possible. They're the foundation of the garden and few gardeners would refuse them. The hardest part is trying to figure out what to give.

The easiest way to do give green is with a gift card or gift certificate from a local nursery. Many gardeners go over budget at planting time because there's always another plant they'd like to try. Being able to make those purchases without budgetary concerns is a great gift.

While I'm not a fan of gift cards normally, I recommend this method because gardeners can be picky about their plants. A plant given with the best intention may not be appropriate for our specific gardens. While orchids are beautiful, I don't have the facilities to grow them properly and while the gift of a live plant would be appreciated, the plant would begin a lingering death as soon as I touched it. Many other plants that can be purchased from catalogs won't survive my dry, hot summers or harsh winters. For gardeners like me a gift certificate makes more sense.

Seeds are a better option than live plants at Christmas because there are many more to choose from and they won't die before it's time to sow. I recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) and Territorial Seed Company (www.territorialseed.com) as good online sources. Take the time to determine if the plant that comes from the seed will survive in your region before buying. For the best success, select seeds that you know your gardener already grows.

There are many sources for ordering seeds and plants

Another basic, yet great, gift is a book about gardening. I have a pretty substantial gardening library, but there are always new books coming out with new ideas and techniques and I'm always willing to learn more. If your gardener has expressed interest in a particular type of gardening, find a book on that subject. Lasagna gardening, square-foot gardening, hydroponic gardening, roof gardening, container gardening, and bio-dynamic gardening are just a few of the topics that would be new to even experienced gardeners.

There are many great reference books that should be part of every gardener's library. Here are a few: "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" from the American Horticultural Society; "National Garden Book" from Sunset Magazine; "The Practical Gardener's Encyclopedia" from Fog City Press; Reader's Digest "Illustrated Guide to Gardening". These are just a few of the books that I reference regularly.

For a flower gardener interested in beginning to grow vegetables, buy a book on vegetable gardening. For a vegetable gardener buy a book about flowers. For all gardeners, buy a thorough book on composting. I'd suggest you take a look at the books they already read and enjoy for an idea of appropriate subjects, and so you don't duplicate any.

Magazine subscriptions are another nice option for readers. I subscribe to eight different magazines and go to the library to regularly read the ones I don't get. I prefer sitting in my own chair, in my own house, when I settle in to read and look at the great garden photos so a subscription is better for me. One of my favorites is "Garden Gate"; it's well written and always has information appropriate to my gardens. Another good mag is "Horticulture"; the photos are amazing, though most of the articles are written for gardeners who don't live in the mountains. For Western gardeners, "Sunset" focuses their gardening articles to regional specifics, though gardening is just one part of the magazine that also includes sections on travel and cooking.

"Gardening How-To" magazine is a nice resource for gardeners, particularly new gardeners. It is written for the entire U.S. with some region-specific information. It's produced by the National Home Gardening Club, of which I am a lifetime member. Membership in the club includes the magazine and access to their very informative website. The gift of membership might be a good idea. Check them out at www.gardeningclub.com.

While I proposed garden art in the last article I neglected to mention the most basic decorative garden component. Pots and planters are readily available year-round and easily used by gardeners. A pot that is brightly-colored, uniquely-crafted, or over-sized can look great as a garden focal point. Pots can be moved around by the gardener until they find the proper home and there are always enough plants to fill them. Even if your gift ends up in a hidden garden corner you can expect that it will be used.

The pot is what makes this garden art unique

If your gardener is a social animal or you would prefer they leave the house occasionally, consider giving the gift of club membership. Many cities have gardening clubs and they usually have a membership fee. Sign your gardener up. Locally we have an Iris Society, a Rose Society, and a Horticultural Arts Society. There are neighborhood garden groups. There are volunteer gardening groups for schools and churches. Do a little research and see if there's a group, club, or society that matches your gardeners strengths.

While I could spend a great deal of time listing the great power tools that I'd love to own or the large structures I'd love to build, every gardener is different and my desires may not be ideal when it comes to your gift purchases. Take a look at your gardener for the best gift ideas. If he's always complaining about his torn jeans, buy him a new pair. If she keeps harping about the weeds or an area that needs to be cleared to make a garden bed, give the gift of your time in the garden.

The best gardening gifts are the ones that come from the heart. Taking a little time to ensure your gift matches what your gardener needs will make your efforts memorable and welcomed. While the tools are nice, the books are good, and the seeds will grow, it truly is the thought that counts.

Link to:

National Home Gardening Club
Baker Creek heirloom Seeds
Territorial Seed Company
Gardeners are a giving group. As the growing season progresses, we're more than willing to share our flowers, produce, seeds, and advice to anyone willing to partake. We give our time, labor, and effort to build gardens and grow plants of every type. After giving so much during the growing season, it's nice to receive thoughtful gifts during the holiday season.

In my previous article I discussed some of the simple items and tools that many gardeners might like to receive. There are many other potential gifts for the gardener in your life and today I propose a few more.

Two gift ideas top the list and are quite obvious, as I was reminded when the last article was published. Plants and seeds are the basic ingredients that make what we do possible. They're the foundation of the garden and few gardeners would refuse them. The hardest part is trying to figure out what to give.

The easiest way to do give green is with a gift card or gift certificate from a local nursery. Many gardeners go over budget at planting time because there's always another plant they'd like to try. Being able to make those purchases without budgetary concerns is a great gift.

While I'm not a fan of gift cards normally, I recommend this method because gardeners can be picky about their plants. A plant given with the best intention may not be appropriate for our specific gardens. While orchids are beautiful, I don't have the facilities to grow them properly and while the gift of a live plant would be appreciated, the plant would begin a lingering death as soon as I touched it. Many other plants that can be purchased from catalogs won't survive my dry, hot summers or harsh winters. For gardeners like me a gift certificate makes more sense.

Seeds are a better option than live plants at Christmas because there are many more to choose from and they won't die before it's time to sow. I recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) and Territorial Seed Company (www.territorialseed.com) as good online sources. Take the time to determine if the plant that comes from the seed will survive in your region before buying. For the best success, select seeds that you know your gardener already grows.

There are many sources for ordering seeds and plants

Another basic, yet great, gift is a book about gardening. I have a pretty substantial gardening library, but there are always new books coming out with new ideas and techniques and I'm always willing to learn more. If your gardener has expressed interest in a particular type of gardening, find a book on that subject. Lasagna gardening, square-foot gardening, hydroponic gardening, roof gardening, container gardening, and bio-dynamic gardening are just a few of the topics that would be new to even experienced gardeners.

There are many great reference books that should be part of every gardener's library. Here are a few: "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" from the American Horticultural Society; "National Garden Book" from Sunset Magazine; "The Practical Gardener's Encyclopedia" from Fog City Press; Reader's Digest "Illustrated Guide to Gardening". These are just a few of the books that I reference regularly.

For a flower gardener interested in beginning to grow vegetables, buy a book on vegetable gardening. For a vegetable gardener buy a book about flowers. For all gardeners, buy a thorough book on composting. I'd suggest you take a look at the books they already read and enjoy for an idea of appropriate subjects, and so you don't duplicate any.

Magazine subscriptions are another nice option for readers. I subscribe to eight different magazines and go to the library to regularly read the ones I don't get. I prefer sitting in my own chair, in my own house, when I settle in to read and look at the great garden photos so a subscription is better for me. One of my favorites is "Garden Gate"; it's well written and always has information appropriate to my gardens. Another good mag is "Horticulture"; the photos are amazing, though most of the articles are written for gardeners who don't live in the mountains. For Western gardeners, "Sunset" focuses their gardening articles to regional specifics, though gardening is just one part of the magazine that also includes sections on travel and cooking.

"Gardening How-To" magazine is a nice resource for gardeners, particularly new gardeners. It is written for the entire U.S. with some region-specific information. It's produced by the National Home Gardening Club, of which I am a lifetime member. Membership in the club includes the magazine and access to their very informative website. The gift of membership might be a good idea. Check them out at www.gardeningclub.com.

While I proposed garden art in the last article I neglected to mention the most basic decorative garden component. Pots and planters are readily available year-round and easily used by gardeners. A pot that is brightly-colored, uniquely-crafted, or over-sized can look great as a garden focal point. Pots can be moved around by the gardener until they find the proper home and there are always enough plants to fill them. Even if your gift ends up in a hidden garden corner you can expect that it will be used.

The pot is what makes this garden art unique

If your gardener is a social animal or you would prefer they leave the house occasionally, consider giving the gift of club membership. Many cities have gardening clubs and they usually have a membership fee. Sign your gardener up. Locally we have an Iris Society, a Rose Society, and a Horticultural Arts Society. There are neighborhood garden groups. There are volunteer gardening groups for schools and churches. Do a little research and see if there's a group, club, or society that matches your gardeners strengths.

While I could spend a great deal of time listing the great power tools that I'd love to own or the large structures I'd love to build, every gardener is different and my desires may not be ideal when it comes to your gift purchases. Take a look at your gardener for the best gift ideas. If he's always complaining about his torn jeans, buy him a new pair. If she keeps harping about the weeds or an area that needs to be cleared to make a garden bed, give the gift of your time in the garden.

The best gardening gifts are the ones that come from the heart. Taking a little time to ensure your gift matches what your gardener needs will make your efforts memorable and welcomed. While the tools are nice, the books are good, and the seeds will grow, it truly is the thought that counts.

Link to:

National Home Gardening Club
Baker Creek heirloom Seeds
Territorial Seed Company

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gifts for Gardeners

Gardeners are pretty easy to please. We find enjoyment in getting our hands dirty and find that the simplicity of nature can be quite beautiful. While there will always be an expensive plant or tool that we drool over, inexpensive and thoughtful gifts are usually very welcome.

For those looking for a gift for a gardener friend or family member, the following suggestions should help you make a wise decision. Be aware that a good gift doesn't need to cost much and each gardener's personal tastes and gardening methods should be taken into consideration when choosing. There are some snobby gardeners out there, but most of us aren't.

At the top of my list is a good hat. Granted, we can be vain and picky about our wardrobe and selecting the perfect headgear is important, but if your gardener doesn't wear a hat they should. The sun can be very damaging and my own skin cancer attests to the worst-case scenario. A wide-brim hat needs to be on every gardener's head. A gifted hat can change the way they garden and could save their life.

My favorite gardening hat

On a lighter note, the gift I always look for in my Christmas stocking is a nice pair of leather gloves. While I enjoy the feel of warm soil on my fingers, I wear gloves for most of my gardening tasks. Digging, weeding, constructing, and clearing brush are all tasks that are made easier while wearing gloves. I will buy a three-pack of cheap cloth or cloth-leather gloves for a few bucks, but laying down a couple sawbucks for a nice leather pair doesn't happen often. When I have a good set I'll use them until they're worn out. That's why I hope for a new pair at Christmas each year.


These gloves have seen better days

My shed and garage are filled with garden tools, but most of them are still the ones I bought when I first began gardening years ago. And back then I didn't really know what I was doing so cheap tools seemed a good choice. I still make do with hand tools that have broken handles, bent spines, or dull edges. It makes sense to buy new ones, but that's too much effort. A gift isn't any effort at all.

Pruners are a good example of a tool that many gardeners need upgraded. There are many wonderful hand pruners that are ergonomically designed with cushioned handles. Deadheading and small pruning chores are easier when the tool is comfortable. A little information about a gardener's personal preference can help when choosing hand pruners. There are basically two kinds: bypass and anvil. While each type has its purpose and usefulness, some gardeners have a clear preference. For pruning live plants, I prefer bypass pruners because I think anvil pruners can damage plant stalks and stems. Luckily many stores sell hand pruners with both types packaged together.

Bypass pruners with uncomfortable handles

Trowels are another common gardening tool that may need an upgrade. A good quality hand trowel can last a lifetime, but few of us have one. I have different trowels and they all have problems. My favorite, with a nice, wide, padded handle, was discovered by Lily the Lab when she was a puppy; the handle is now chewed up. On another, the wood handle has separated from the metal blade and I spend as much time sticking the two pieces together as I do digging in the soil. A sturdy, ergonomic trowel would be nice to have. There are skinny trowels and wide trowels and they all have a use.

Trowels are a must have

I discovered a wonderful weeder years ago and remarkably I'm the only gardener I know who owns one. It's a stirrup hoe, also called a Hula Hoe. It's amazingly easy to use and removes small weeds below the soil surface. Every year I use it when weeds begin to sprout. It eliminates most of them before they become a problem. It's a tool I think every gardener should own.

A stirrup hoe is great

Another nice tool is a dandelion weeder. It has a forked tongue on a long, narrow spine designed to dig along the root of dandelions and pull out the entire plant. It works. You can find them with handles long enough to use while standing, but I prefer the hand-size ones. They are great for dandelions and many other long-rooted weeds. Every gardener should have one.

Dandelion weeders work well

Many other garden items are nice to have, but seldom purchased by the gardener. I'm always in need of plant markers. Galvanized metal ones with zinc or copper nameplates are very attractive, but I haven't purchased many because they're a bit extravagant. I own a few, but find myself using cheap aluminum or plastic ones. If I had more of the fancy ones I'd use them.

Cheap plant tags don't always look good

Plant ties are similar. A twist of twine is all that's needed to hold a plant to a stake, but I recently saw Velcro plant ties. They're reusable, strong, and a great idea. For a gardener who wants a fancier plant tie than twine, Velcro could be the answer.

The simplest items can be the most useful. I never seem to have enough staples in my garden. I'm talking about the galvanized metal staples that are six or eight inches long. I use them to hold bird netting, soaker hoses, and plastic row covers in place. By the end of the season many of them "just disappear." Very inexpensive, they're a wonderful stocking stuffer.

Good staples are hard to find

I tend to think that a gardener can't have too many bird feeders. While some gardeners don't want birds in their garden, I do. I have hummingbird feeders, and suet feeders, and seed feeders. Especially in winter, birds can use the thoughtfulness of a gardener who supplies free food. Bird feeders can be simple or fancy and in all cases can be a nice gift.

Decorative bird feeders look nice

I love garden art, and I do think that is one thing there can be too much of in a garden. But a few tasteful pieces can be fun and add character to a garden. Last year my wife got me a nice, welded iron, tricycle plant stand. It blends nicely with the other scattered pieces of art in my landscape and I think of her every time I see it.

A welcome gift

There are many catalogs and stores brimming over with wonderful gift ideas for gardeners, but it’s often hard to choose the right gift. The suggestions above are just some of the useful garden items that make my gardening experience better and can make your holiday shopping easier. Gardeners aren't hard to buy for and we'll accept anything useful in the garden.


Gardeners are pretty easy to please. We find enjoyment in getting our hands dirty and find that the simplicity of nature can be quite beautiful. While there will always be an expensive plant or tool that we drool over, inexpensive and thoughtful gifts are usually very welcome.

For those looking for a gift for a gardener friend or family member, the following suggestions should help you make a wise decision. Be aware that a good gift doesn't need to cost much and each gardener's personal tastes and gardening methods should be taken into consideration when choosing. There are some snobby gardeners out there, but most of us aren't.

At the top of my list is a good hat. Granted, we can be vain and picky about our wardrobe and selecting the perfect headgear is important, but if your gardener doesn't wear a hat they should. The sun can be very damaging and my own skin cancer attests to the worst-case scenario. A wide-brim hat needs to be on every gardener's head. A gifted hat can change the way they garden and could save their life.

My favorite gardening hat

On a lighter note, the gift I always look for in my Christmas stocking is a nice pair of leather gloves. While I enjoy the feel of warm soil on my fingers, I wear gloves for most of my gardening tasks. Digging, weeding, constructing, and clearing brush are all tasks that are made easier while wearing gloves. I will buy a three-pack of cheap cloth or cloth-leather gloves for a few bucks, but laying down a couple sawbucks for a nice leather pair doesn't happen often. When I have a good set I'll use them until they're worn out. That's why I hope for a new pair at Christmas each year.


These gloves have seen better days

My shed and garage are filled with garden tools, but most of them are still the ones I bought when I first began gardening years ago. And back then I didn't really know what I was doing so cheap tools seemed a good choice. I still make do with hand tools that have broken handles, bent spines, or dull edges. It makes sense to buy new ones, but that's too much effort. A gift isn't any effort at all.

Pruners are a good example of a tool that many gardeners need upgraded. There are many wonderful hand pruners that are ergonomically designed with cushioned handles. Deadheading and small pruning chores are easier when the tool is comfortable. A little information about a gardener's personal preference can help when choosing hand pruners. There are basically two kinds: bypass and anvil. While each type has its purpose and usefulness, some gardeners have a clear preference. For pruning live plants, I prefer bypass pruners because I think anvil pruners can damage plant stalks and stems. Luckily many stores sell hand pruners with both types packaged together.

Bypass pruners with uncomfortable handles

Trowels are another common gardening tool that may need an upgrade. A good quality hand trowel can last a lifetime, but few of us have one. I have different trowels and they all have problems. My favorite, with a nice, wide, padded handle, was discovered by Lily the Lab when she was a puppy; the handle is now chewed up. On another, the wood handle has separated from the metal blade and I spend as much time sticking the two pieces together as I do digging in the soil. A sturdy, ergonomic trowel would be nice to have. There are skinny trowels and wide trowels and they all have a use.

Trowels are a must have

I discovered a wonderful weeder years ago and remarkably I'm the only gardener I know who owns one. It's a stirrup hoe, also called a Hula Hoe. It's amazingly easy to use and removes small weeds below the soil surface. Every year I use it when weeds begin to sprout. It eliminates most of them before they become a problem. It's a tool I think every gardener should own.

A stirrup hoe is great

Another nice tool is a dandelion weeder. It has a forked tongue on a long, narrow spine designed to dig along the root of dandelions and pull out the entire plant. It works. You can find them with handles long enough to use while standing, but I prefer the hand-size ones. They are great for dandelions and many other long-rooted weeds. Every gardener should have one.

Dandelion weeders work well

Many other garden items are nice to have, but seldom purchased by the gardener. I'm always in need of plant markers. Galvanized metal ones with zinc or copper nameplates are very attractive, but I haven't purchased many because they're a bit extravagant. I own a few, but find myself using cheap aluminum or plastic ones. If I had more of the fancy ones I'd use them.

Cheap plant tags don't always look good

Plant ties are similar. A twist of twine is all that's needed to hold a plant to a stake, but I recently saw Velcro plant ties. They're reusable, strong, and a great idea. For a gardener who wants a fancier plant tie than twine, Velcro could be the answer.

The simplest items can be the most useful. I never seem to have enough staples in my garden. I'm talking about the galvanized metal staples that are six or eight inches long. I use them to hold bird netting, soaker hoses, and plastic row covers in place. By the end of the season many of them "just disappear." Very inexpensive, they're a wonderful stocking stuffer.

Good staples are hard to find

I tend to think that a gardener can't have too many bird feeders. While some gardeners don't want birds in their garden, I do. I have hummingbird feeders, and suet feeders, and seed feeders. Especially in winter, birds can use the thoughtfulness of a gardener who supplies free food. Bird feeders can be simple or fancy and in all cases can be a nice gift.

Decorative bird feeders look nice

I love garden art, and I do think that is one thing there can be too much of in a garden. But a few tasteful pieces can be fun and add character to a garden. Last year my wife got me a nice, welded iron, tricycle plant stand. It blends nicely with the other scattered pieces of art in my landscape and I think of her every time I see it.

A welcome gift

There are many catalogs and stores brimming over with wonderful gift ideas for gardeners, but it’s often hard to choose the right gift. The suggestions above are just some of the useful garden items that make my gardening experience better and can make your holiday shopping easier. Gardeners aren't hard to buy for and we'll accept anything useful in the garden.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

San Diego Botanic Garden

The mission of the San Diego Botanic Garden "is to inspire people of all ages to connect with plants and Nature." After strolling through its incredible 35 acres, I am inspired. I've visited many gardens, both small and large, and I always try to imagine what the gardener was thinking during plant selection and placement. The horticulturists responsible for the San Diego Botanic Garden were apparently channeling heaven as they constructed the park.

Real, not plastic

It's amazing! I felt like I was experiencing natural nature and the actual habitats represented in the many earth zones throughout the garden. While enjoying the shade of monstrous bamboo, I was transported to Asia. Then suddenly I forgot I was walking through a botanic garden and felt like I was discovering a passionate gardener's home garden as a pond and vibrant flowers appeared.

Walking through the bamboo garden

Bananas, pomegranates, grapefruits, avocados, and other mysterious, exotic fruits dangled enticingly in the subtropical fruit garden. Around the corner I stumbled upon an expansive herb garden with "living" sculptures that made me want to sit, relax, and sip a little Sangria.

A "living" Mariachi band

Many large cities have botanic gardens that represent their region and highlight local plants. With the construction of greenhouses and pavilions they can grow and display non-native plants. San Diego is blessed with a temperate climate that mimics disparate locations of our planet. Without a single greenhouse they can showcase Mexico, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and Central and South America. All of their gardens are in the open air.

The San Diego Botanic Garden began as "Quail Gardens" in 1971, and the address and local signs reflect that start. In 1993 they lost financial support from Dan Diego County and the non-profit Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation, Inc. was formed to operate the gardens. The current name was instituted in 2009.

Stewards of the environment, new parking lots have permeable surfaces to reduce runoff, solar panels produce electricity, green roofs cool buildings while reducing water runoff, and of course all plastic, paper, and metal is recycled.

They've constructed the botanic garden using water wise gardening methods. Through the use of recycled water, weather sensitive controllers, and low-water sprinklers, they use and display remarkable ways to save valuable resources. Prunings and leaves are shredded and composted and reused naturally in the gardens as mulch.

A weather controller proudly displayed

The entire Garden is very user friendly and educational. There is an obvious attempt to encourage local gardeners to replicate the plantings. So many civic gardens operate with an attitude of, "look what we've grown and you can only look at." San Diego Botanic Garden operates with an attitude of, "look what we've grown and you can too."

A tutorial on using rocks in the garden

I find that approach very appealing. I don't live anywhere near San Diego and am inspired to try some of their designs and plantings in my gardens. I recognized plants that grow well for me already, but in new displays and settings. The creative gardener in me is already planning new beds and new designs for next year.

I can grow a similar succulent bed

A separate children's garden makes gardens fun with a tree house and outdoor activities for the little ones. I've always believed that capturing the positive spirit of gardening for children benefits them and us.

So often in professional gardens one wanders through, admiring the beauty, while stupefied by the plants. Everything mingles together with no identification of the individual components. That experience is non-existent in San Diego. Everything is exquisitely labeled with an abundance of interesting plant information. On the few occasions I saw a planting with no identifying sign, a quick search revealed information hidden under a branch or limb of a neighboring plant. They're unobtrusive and blend in well.

Everything is labeled well

The design of the self-guided tour allows visitors to experience the gardens at their own pace and allows lingering. A walk on a boardwalk overlooking natural, native zones ends at an overlook of the garden, the town, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. A spectacular waterfall and meandering creek lies hidden in a back corner of the gardens. Imposing and interesting sculptures from professional artists are mingled with the plants and are available for purchase.

Waterfall in a jungle setting

The San Diego Botanic Garden doesn't reside in San Diego itself, but rather in Encinitas, California, about 30 minutes north of the city proper. There are few signs announcing it's location so I recommend getting directions ahead of time or relying on a GPS.

At this writing the admission price for adults is $12, with a $2 parking fee. I found a 50% off coupon in the magazine "101 Things To Do In San Diego", which can be found in most local tourist centers and visitor bureaus. The $14 total price my wife and I paid was the best expenditure of our vacation.

I don't know when we'll get back to San Diego; our last trip was two years ago. Even with that uncertainty I'm sorely tempted to become a member of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Even though I won't be able to use the benefits, I can help an organization that is doing everything right for the world of plants and gardening.

If you're a gardener, and planning to visit San Diego, check out the San Diego Botanic Garden. If you live in or near San Diego county, consider becoming a member. You'll be a richer gardener for either choice.

Link to San Diego Botanic Garden

The mission of the San Diego Botanic Garden "is to inspire people of all ages to connect with plants and Nature." After strolling through its incredible 35 acres, I am inspired. I've visited many gardens, both small and large, and I always try to imagine what the gardener was thinking during plant selection and placement. The horticulturists responsible for the San Diego Botanic Garden were apparently channeling heaven as they constructed the park.

Real, not plastic

It's amazing! I felt like I was experiencing natural nature and the actual habitats represented in the many earth zones throughout the garden. While enjoying the shade of monstrous bamboo, I was transported to Asia. Then suddenly I forgot I was walking through a botanic garden and felt like I was discovering a passionate gardener's home garden as a pond and vibrant flowers appeared.

Walking through the bamboo garden

Bananas, pomegranates, grapefruits, avocados, and other mysterious, exotic fruits dangled enticingly in the subtropical fruit garden. Around the corner I stumbled upon an expansive herb garden with "living" sculptures that made me want to sit, relax, and sip a little Sangria.

A "living" Mariachi band

Many large cities have botanic gardens that represent their region and highlight local plants. With the construction of greenhouses and pavilions they can grow and display non-native plants. San Diego is blessed with a temperate climate that mimics disparate locations of our planet. Without a single greenhouse they can showcase Mexico, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and Central and South America. All of their gardens are in the open air.

The San Diego Botanic Garden began as "Quail Gardens" in 1971, and the address and local signs reflect that start. In 1993 they lost financial support from Dan Diego County and the non-profit Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation, Inc. was formed to operate the gardens. The current name was instituted in 2009.

Stewards of the environment, new parking lots have permeable surfaces to reduce runoff, solar panels produce electricity, green roofs cool buildings while reducing water runoff, and of course all plastic, paper, and metal is recycled.

They've constructed the botanic garden using water wise gardening methods. Through the use of recycled water, weather sensitive controllers, and low-water sprinklers, they use and display remarkable ways to save valuable resources. Prunings and leaves are shredded and composted and reused naturally in the gardens as mulch.

A weather controller proudly displayed

The entire Garden is very user friendly and educational. There is an obvious attempt to encourage local gardeners to replicate the plantings. So many civic gardens operate with an attitude of, "look what we've grown and you can only look at." San Diego Botanic Garden operates with an attitude of, "look what we've grown and you can too."

A tutorial on using rocks in the garden

I find that approach very appealing. I don't live anywhere near San Diego and am inspired to try some of their designs and plantings in my gardens. I recognized plants that grow well for me already, but in new displays and settings. The creative gardener in me is already planning new beds and new designs for next year.

I can grow a similar succulent bed

A separate children's garden makes gardens fun with a tree house and outdoor activities for the little ones. I've always believed that capturing the positive spirit of gardening for children benefits them and us.

So often in professional gardens one wanders through, admiring the beauty, while stupefied by the plants. Everything mingles together with no identification of the individual components. That experience is non-existent in San Diego. Everything is exquisitely labeled with an abundance of interesting plant information. On the few occasions I saw a planting with no identifying sign, a quick search revealed information hidden under a branch or limb of a neighboring plant. They're unobtrusive and blend in well.

Everything is labeled well

The design of the self-guided tour allows visitors to experience the gardens at their own pace and allows lingering. A walk on a boardwalk overlooking natural, native zones ends at an overlook of the garden, the town, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. A spectacular waterfall and meandering creek lies hidden in a back corner of the gardens. Imposing and interesting sculptures from professional artists are mingled with the plants and are available for purchase.

Waterfall in a jungle setting

The San Diego Botanic Garden doesn't reside in San Diego itself, but rather in Encinitas, California, about 30 minutes north of the city proper. There are few signs announcing it's location so I recommend getting directions ahead of time or relying on a GPS.

At this writing the admission price for adults is $12, with a $2 parking fee. I found a 50% off coupon in the magazine "101 Things To Do In San Diego", which can be found in most local tourist centers and visitor bureaus. The $14 total price my wife and I paid was the best expenditure of our vacation.

I don't know when we'll get back to San Diego; our last trip was two years ago. Even with that uncertainty I'm sorely tempted to become a member of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Even though I won't be able to use the benefits, I can help an organization that is doing everything right for the world of plants and gardening.

If you're a gardener, and planning to visit San Diego, check out the San Diego Botanic Garden. If you live in or near San Diego county, consider becoming a member. You'll be a richer gardener for either choice.

Link to
San Diego Botanic Garden

Friday, October 19, 2012

Biochar Works in the Garden

Biochar enhances plant growth and is ideal for short-season gardens.  In my experimental garden bed, biochar added an extra two weeks to my harvest schedule. For many of us who grow in challenging regions, that can be more than 10 percent of our growing season.

Biochar is reported to improve the development and growth of plants. Most of the benefits have been reported through anecdotal evidence so I decided to conduct as scientific an experiment as I could to prove or disprove the claims. I've written about biochar before and about the beginning of this experiment (see my article "Using Biochar in the Garden", June 4, 2012).

I was convinced by others on the internet that biochar could improve my garden, but I wanted to prove it to myself, and others looking for statistical analysis. With a calendar, metric ruler, and scale, I set out to document the effectiveness of biochar. I must acknowledge that a new friend, the daughter of very good friends, is a strong advocate of biochar and is a director at Soil Reef Biochar, a company selling and marketing the product. That had no effect on my analysis.

Using 100 percent biochar from Soil Reef Biochar, I amended the soil in one half of a four feet by eight feet raised bed. As a control effort, the other half of the bed remained unamended, aside from an addition of compost that the entire bed received one year earlier. As mentioned in my earlier article, I inoculated the biochar with beneficial bacteria. After amending the soil I let the bed rest for three days, keeping the bed's soil moist in the process.

Amending with biochar

In each four feet by four feet half I placed 24 'Straight Eight' cucumber seeds at the recommended depth, spaced approximately six to eight inches apart in a grid. 'Straight Eight' is a common slicing cucumber that I've had success with in the past. Normal germination ranges from 3 to 10 days with about eight days being the norm. Maturity is reached in about 50-75 days with about 60 days being the norm.

The growing season in my garden at 7500' elevation (2285m) is short, typically ranging from 110 to 130 days. Late frosts are common in spring and delay sowing and planting of warm season plants. My seeds were sowed on May 30, 2012, and I began the diary of plant development at that point.

The first obvious difference in the biochar side of the bed began with the germination time and rate. On June 3, five seedlings broke the soil surface. That is four days after placing in the soil, half of the typical germination time. The first non-biochar seedling appeared on June 4, but the biochar germination rates exceeded the other half. Here are the results for the germination of each side:

                                Biochar seedlings                               Control group seedlings
June 3  (Day 4)                     5                                                               0
June 4  (Day 5)                    13                                                              1
June 5  (Day 6)                    19                                                             13
June 6  (Day 7)                    23                                                             16
June 7  (Day 8)                    23                                                             18
June 8  (Day 9)                    23                                                             19

All of the biochar seeds sprouted earlier than the expected germination time. After nine days, 23 of the 24 seeds sprouted on the biochar side, a 96% germination rate. Only 19 of the 24 in the control group sprouted, a 79% rate. The soil was kept consistently moist on both halves and no pest damage was evident. There is no clear reason for the lower germination rate of the control group.

Seedlings on the biochar side

It's obvious that the biochar plants got an earlier start than the control group and that advantage carried through for the rest of the experiment.

On June 25 (Day 26), I measured the height of all the plants. The average height of the biochar cucumber plants was 7.53 cm. The average height of the control group was 5.34 cm. In an effort to avoid skewed numbers, I deleted the measurement of the smallest and tallest plants in each group before averaging. The biochar plants were 41% taller than the control plants.

Measuring a seedling

At this point I thinned the plants to 14 in each half of the bed. Each section's plants were staggered in four rows spaced about one foot apart. This spacing is closer than commonly recommended, but not out of the ordinary. It does add a minor stress factor.

All of the plants were watered at the same rate and received addition of a balanced liquid fertilizer on days 26 and 37.

On July 6 (Day 37), I measured the plants again. The biochar plants averaged 16.2 cm and the control plants measured 12.22 cm. The biochar plants were 33% taller than the control plants at this point.

The test bed with biochar on the right

The first flower appeared on a biochar plant on July 15. The first flower in the control group appeared on July 21; eight flowers were on biochar plants at that time. That six-day difference continued the trend of accelerated growth in the biochar plants.

All of the fruit was harvested when it was at least 18 cm (7 inches) long. The average in both groups was 19 cm (7.5 in) at the time I picked them. I harvested the first fruit on a biochar plant on August 10 (Day 72). The first fruit on a control plant was harvested on August 22, 12 days later.

A cucumber from the biochar experiment

The accelerated growth in the biochar bed allowed me to begin enjoying juicy cucumbers almost two weeks earlier than a standard garden bed in my garden. I harvested four biochar cucumbers before I picked the first one in the control group.

It should be noted that the maturity/harvest point of the biochar cucumbers was at 72 days, at the high end of normal maturity and past the expected 60 days. The control group reached maturity/harvest at 84 days, well past expected maturity. This isn't unusual in a high-altitude garden. Our summer nights are cooler than gardens at lower elevations and this temperature variation delays maturity of many warm season plants.

Test bed nearing harvest

I expected that the biochar cucumbers would be bigger and more robust that the control group, but that wasn't the case. The average biochar cucumber was 19.14 cm long and weighed 272.2 grams. The average control cucumber was 19.02 cm long and weighed 279.1 grams. The control group cucumbers were about 2.5% heavier, but that isn't statistically significant with my measurement methods. Basically, the cucumbers in both groups were about the same size at harvest.

Ultimately I harvested 13 cucumbers from the biochar plants and 12 from the control ones. The stress of growing the plants close together reduced the potential number of fruit, but that was partially intentional so I wasn't overrun with cucumbers to measure. I was also on vacation for 10 days during the middle of the experiment and our house sitters enjoyed a few cucumbers that weren't measured.

I had the first frost damage to my garden in the middle of September at about 110 days into the growing season. Though I covered the cucumber bed with plastic and was able to keep the plants alive for a few more weeks, the cooler weather effectively ended new growth and flower and fruit development. There were still a number of cucumbers, of varied sizes, on the vine when I let them succumb to the climate.

I think the results of this experiment are clear. Biochar speeds and enhances germination in cucumbers. The earlier germination and effect of biochar in the soil leads to greater plant growth rates. This enhanced growth results in earlier flowering, fruiting, and harvest in biochar-amended garden beds.

Biochar offers a clear advantage to gardeners like me who have concerns about short growing seasons. For gardeners in warmer climates and more gardener-friendly regions, two weeks of extra harvest time may not seem like much, but for me it's substantial. My tomato beds are almost always two weeks short of reaching full maturity.

We can infer that the results of this experiment with cucumbers can be carried over to other plants in the garden. I've started another experiment using biochar in one bed of cool season plants and no biochar in another bed of the same plants. The biochar plants are already larger than the others.

Next year I'll add biochar to my tomato beds and I anticipate bigger growth and earlier harvests. I plan experiments to determine if the ultimate harvest amounts of biochar beds is larger than non-amended ones.

Biochar adds an exciting component to gardening. As advertised, it does influence the growth of plants in a very positive way. Currently about 10 percent of my garden is amended with biochar. I look forward to the day when all of it is enhanced.


Link to my article "Using Biochar in the Garden"
Link to Soil Reef Biochar


Biochar enhances plant growth and is ideal for short-season gardens.  In my experimental garden bed, biochar added an extra two weeks to my harvest schedule. For many of us who grow in challenging regions, that can be more than 10 percent of our growing season.

Biochar is reported to improve the development and growth of plants. Most of the benefits have been reported through anecdotal evidence so I decided to conduct as scientific an experiment as I could to prove or disprove the claims. I've written about biochar before and about the beginning of this experiment (see my article "Using Biochar in the Garden", June 4, 2012).

I was convinced by others on the internet that biochar could improve my garden, but I wanted to prove it to myself, and others looking for statistical analysis. With a calendar, metric ruler, and scale, I set out to document the effectiveness of biochar. I must acknowledge that a new friend, the daughter of very good friends, is a strong advocate of biochar and is a director at Soil Reef Biochar, a company selling and marketing the product. That had no effect on my analysis.

Using 100 percent biochar from Soil Reef Biochar, I amended the soil in one half of a four feet by eight feet raised bed. As a control effort, the other half of the bed remained unamended, aside from an addition of compost that the entire bed received one year earlier. As mentioned in my earlier article, I inoculated the biochar with beneficial bacteria. After amending the soil I let the bed rest for three days, keeping the bed's soil moist in the process.

Amending with biochar

In each four feet by four feet half I placed 24 'Straight Eight' cucumber seeds at the recommended depth, spaced approximately six to eight inches apart in a grid. 'Straight Eight' is a common slicing cucumber that I've had success with in the past. Normal germination ranges from 3 to 10 days with about eight days being the norm. Maturity is reached in about 50-75 days with about 60 days being the norm.

The growing season in my garden at 7500' elevation (2285m) is short, typically ranging from 110 to 130 days. Late frosts are common in spring and delay sowing and planting of warm season plants. My seeds were sowed on May 30, 2012, and I began the diary of plant development at that point.

The first obvious difference in the biochar side of the bed began with the germination time and rate. On June 3, five seedlings broke the soil surface. That is four days after placing in the soil, half of the typical germination time. The first non-biochar seedling appeared on June 4, but the biochar germination rates exceeded the other half. Here are the results for the germination of each side:

                                Biochar seedlings                               Control group seedlings
June 3  (Day 4)                     5                                                               0
June 4  (Day 5)                    13                                                              1
June 5  (Day 6)                    19                                                             13
June 6  (Day 7)                    23                                                             16
June 7  (Day 8)                    23                                                             18
June 8  (Day 9)                    23                                                             19

All of the biochar seeds sprouted earlier than the expected germination time. After nine days, 23 of the 24 seeds sprouted on the biochar side, a 96% germination rate. Only 19 of the 24 in the control group sprouted, a 79% rate. The soil was kept consistently moist on both halves and no pest damage was evident. There is no clear reason for the lower germination rate of the control group.

Seedlings on the biochar side

It's obvious that the biochar plants got an earlier start than the control group and that advantage carried through for the rest of the experiment.

On June 25 (Day 26), I measured the height of all the plants. The average height of the biochar cucumber plants was 7.53 cm. The average height of the control group was 5.34 cm. In an effort to avoid skewed numbers, I deleted the measurement of the smallest and tallest plants in each group before averaging. The biochar plants were 41% taller than the control plants.

Measuring a seedling

At this point I thinned the plants to 14 in each half of the bed. Each section's plants were staggered in four rows spaced about one foot apart. This spacing is closer than commonly recommended, but not out of the ordinary. It does add a minor stress factor.

All of the plants were watered at the same rate and received addition of a balanced liquid fertilizer on days 26 and 37.

On July 6 (Day 37), I measured the plants again. The biochar plants averaged 16.2 cm and the control plants measured 12.22 cm. The biochar plants were 33% taller than the control plants at this point.

The test bed with biochar on the right

The first flower appeared on a biochar plant on July 15. The first flower in the control group appeared on July 21; eight flowers were on biochar plants at that time. That six-day difference continued the trend of accelerated growth in the biochar plants.

All of the fruit was harvested when it was at least 18 cm (7 inches) long. The average in both groups was 19 cm (7.5 in) at the time I picked them. I harvested the first fruit on a biochar plant on August 10 (Day 72). The first fruit on a control plant was harvested on August 22, 12 days later.

A cucumber from the biochar experiment

The accelerated growth in the biochar bed allowed me to begin enjoying juicy cucumbers almost two weeks earlier than a standard garden bed in my garden. I harvested four biochar cucumbers before I picked the first one in the control group.

It should be noted that the maturity/harvest point of the biochar cucumbers was at 72 days, at the high end of normal maturity and past the expected 60 days. The control group reached maturity/harvest at 84 days, well past expected maturity. This isn't unusual in a high-altitude garden. Our summer nights are cooler than gardens at lower elevations and this temperature variation delays maturity of many warm season plants.

Test bed nearing harvest

I expected that the biochar cucumbers would be bigger and more robust that the control group, but that wasn't the case. The average biochar cucumber was 19.14 cm long and weighed 272.2 grams. The average control cucumber was 19.02 cm long and weighed 279.1 grams. The control group cucumbers were about 2.5% heavier, but that isn't statistically significant with my measurement methods. Basically, the cucumbers in both groups were about the same size at harvest.

Ultimately I harvested 13 cucumbers from the biochar plants and 12 from the control ones. The stress of growing the plants close together reduced the potential number of fruit, but that was partially intentional so I wasn't overrun with cucumbers to measure. I was also on vacation for 10 days during the middle of the experiment and our house sitters enjoyed a few cucumbers that weren't measured.

I had the first frost damage to my garden in the middle of September at about 110 days into the growing season. Though I covered the cucumber bed with plastic and was able to keep the plants alive for a few more weeks, the cooler weather effectively ended new growth and flower and fruit development. There were still a number of cucumbers, of varied sizes, on the vine when I let them succumb to the climate.

I think the results of this experiment are clear. Biochar speeds and enhances germination in cucumbers. The earlier germination and effect of biochar in the soil leads to greater plant growth rates. This enhanced growth results in earlier flowering, fruiting, and harvest in biochar-amended garden beds.

Biochar offers a clear advantage to gardeners like me who have concerns about short growing seasons. For gardeners in warmer climates and more gardener-friendly regions, two weeks of extra harvest time may not seem like much, but for me it's substantial. My tomato beds are almost always two weeks short of reaching full maturity.

We can infer that the results of this experiment with cucumbers can be carried over to other plants in the garden. I've started another experiment using biochar in one bed of cool season plants and no biochar in another bed of the same plants. The biochar plants are already larger than the others.

Next year I'll add biochar to my tomato beds and I anticipate bigger growth and earlier harvests. I plan experiments to determine if the ultimate harvest amounts of biochar beds is larger than non-amended ones.

Biochar adds an exciting component to gardening. As advertised, it does influence the growth of plants in a very positive way. Currently about 10 percent of my garden is amended with biochar. I look forward to the day when all of it is enhanced.


Link to my article "
Using Biochar in the Garden"
Link to Soil Reef Biochar


Friday, October 5, 2012

How to Save Plant Seeds, Part 3

After seeds have been gathered from garden plants, it's time to remove them from the stem, flower, pod, husk, pulp, or shell that protects them from nature's destructive elements. If left in place, the forces of wind, sun, snow, rain, and insects and animals will separate a seed from the withered plant, drop it to the ground, and gradually wear down a seed's covering so it is ready to germinate and sprout. For gardeners saving seeds, we can separate the seeds in a controlled manner so they're ready to grow for us as soon as we sow them.

This is the most time-consuming aspect of collecting and saving seeds. But it is a necessary part of the process.

The simplest and most common way to separate dry seeds from the plant parts holding them is to pinch the dried pieces between your fingers until the seeds fall out. Besides allowing them to mature, permitting the seeds to dry out before collecting them makes this effort easier.

Collecting Marigold seeds

This method is very effective for many annual and perennial flowers. For these plants, the dried flower head is bursting with seeds. The same parts that you're deadheading are the ones that hold the seeds. Some, like Marigolds and Zinnias, maintain their flower shape as they dry. Gently squeezing the dried flower heads releases the seeds.

In the vegetable garden, big seeds tend to be the quickest to collect. Crush a pod of peas or beans and the dried, hard seeds inside separate easily from the thin exterior shell. These kind of seeds are sturdy and you can grab a bunch and roll them in your hands until the dried pods are pulverized, leaving behind the seeds.

Collecting green bean seeds

The same procedure works for smaller dry seeds too. A pinch of the fingers separates the seeds from the plant pieces. Usually the color of the seed is different from the rest of the plant so you can tell which is which.

Some seeds are easy to separate
One of the biggest issues with separating seeds this way is that you're left with a lot of small, broken plant pieces when you only want the seeds. A second step is necessary to separate the seed from the chaff. Again, it's easier with big seeds.

I separate my seeds on a blank sheet of paper. It's a piece of cake to see the seeds, move aside the chaff, and put the seeds in a clean, dry container. I remove big seeds from the paper with my fingers and leave behind the small bits. Then I lift the sheet and pour the remains into my compost bucket.

It's the opposite for most small seeds. I collect the seeds on the sheet of paper, remove the larger pods or plant pieces, and pour the seeds into the clean container.

Pouring seeds in a jar

I like to work in small batches that give me control over collecting as many seeds as possible. Working on a few pieces at a time, I separate the seeds, remove the waste, and clean off the paper.

You can put a large amount of pods, stems, or dried flowers in a bowl or bucket and crush the mass to shred it. When the protective shells break apart, the dried seeds will fall to the bottom for collecting. You can also put the seeds and plant pieces in a paper or cloth bag and roll it around to crush what's inside.

To me, this tends to create a big mess and it takes just as much time to separate the seeds from the pulverized plant pieces because so much of the pile is waste material. Also, regardless of how much you pound it, there are always some of the seeds clinging to pods and stems and you still need to comb through the mass to separate and collect all of the seeds.

You can try a few methods to separate the chaff from the seeds if you choose to do a mass crushing method.

Pick out as many of the larger pieces of chaff as you can and place the remaining material in a bowl. Shake and roll the bowl. Seeds tend to be heavier than small chaff and will sink to the bottom. It's like panning for gold where swirling the mixture separates heavy and light pieces.

Separating dill seeds in a bowl

This method can work well for medium size, sturdy seeds that can be easily detected. Particularly when the seeds are bigger than the plant material, separating a lot of seeds this way may be preferable. For seeds that grow in umbrellas, like cilantro, dill, and parsnips, there is little plant material with many seeds and the bowl fills quickly with seeds.

I find there are always stem pieces that are the same size as or smaller than the seeds so a secondary separation is still required. Putting the mixture on a sheet of paper and picking out the seeds from chaff still works well. Tweezers may be necessary when fingers are too bulky.

For some seeds that are definitely heavier than the pulverized chaff, a little breeze can help. While leaving them in the bowl or while slowly pouring them out, gently blow across the surface so that the chaff is blown away and the seeds fall to a collecting mat. If you're mechanically inclined, a small fan set on low may achieve the same effect. Depending on the strength of the air, the chaff can be blown around quite a bit and create a widely-distributed mess.

For small seeds, a screen, colander, or sieve can be beneficial. When you place the chaff and seed inside and crush it all, the small seeds will drop through the holes leaving larger pieces behind. This is an efficient way to separate the big pieces, but you still have small chaff mixed with the small seeds.

Using a colander to separate dill seeds

For most wet seeds, the process is easy and straight-forward. Scoop the seeds out of the fruit and separate them from the pulp. Many wet seeds are large so they're easy to work with. Washing the seeds and pulp in a bowl of water works well to separate the seeds with your fingers.

Scooping out squash seeds

Squash and pumpkin seeds are a breeze. Pull them from the flesh of the fruit and place the seeds on a paper towel or sheet of newspaper to dry. You want all of your seeds to be dry before storing so you don't have rot or mold problems.

Drying squash seeds

Other wet seeds that are encased in a very wet, fleshy pulp, like tomatoes and cucumbers, need to be fermented before drying the seeds. This helps break some of the protective covering and encourages better germination later on. For these types of fruits, place the seed and pulp in a bowl and leave them alone for three to five days. They'll ferment and a mold will develop on top. At that point scoop as much of the mold and pulp off as you can, then add water and mix it all up.

Watery pulp like cucumbers may need fermenting

Viable seeds will sink to the bottom while bad ones will float. Gently pour off the water and unnecessary pulp. Add more water and agitate until you have separated the clean seeds from the rest of the residue, being careful not to pour out the good seeds. Place the seeds in a sieve with smaller holes than the size of seed and rinse well. Then place the seeds on paper to dry out.

Don't try to accelerate the drying time by putting seeds in the oven or near a heat source. Just let them air dry naturally. Larger seeds will take longer than smaller ones. In a week or two the seeds will be dry. Have patience.

When the seeds you've collected are dry, they're ready for storage. Choose a clean, dry container as your storage vessel. Many gardeners use paper envelopes. They're easy to write on which makes it easy to identify the type of seed and the date you saved it, both important things to know when you're ready to sow later on.

I like to use small, glass jars and bottles. I label them with a strip of masking tape. It's a good way to recycle household items. I also think jars do a better job of maintaining a dry environment; exposure to liquids will soak an envelope and the seeds inside. Seeds are alive and need some exposure to air, but the amount in a jar should be enough.

Some of the containers I use

You want to store seeds in an environment that is free from moisture and relatively cool. Moisture can ruin a batch of seeds. A refrigerator is a good place to maintain the proper conditions. A cool garage or shed works well too.

Most seeds can remain viable for three to five years after collecting, though they'll do best the sooner they're used. Proper storage conditions, like in a refrigerator, extends the storage time. It's best to keep seeds from different years separated in storage. That's another reason to label them. You'll know which ones are oldest and can choose to sow those first or discard them if the viability is in question.

Allowing plants to produce seeds and then collecting them is totally natural and easy to do. By adding this task to your annual gardening list you can establish a seed bank of your own and enable yourself to sow next year's garden from this year's or last year's crop. This makes your garden self-sustaining and will save you big bucks over time. I like those options.

Check out my previous articles for the entire process for saving seeds.



After seeds have been gathered from garden plants, it's time to remove them from the stem, flower, pod, husk, pulp, or shell that protects them from nature's destructive elements. If left in place, the forces of wind, sun, snow, rain, and insects and animals will separate a seed from the withered plant, drop it to the ground, and gradually wear down a seed's covering so it is ready to germinate and sprout. For gardeners saving seeds, we can separate the seeds in a controlled manner so they're ready to grow for us as soon as we sow them.

This is the most time-consuming aspect of collecting and saving seeds. But it is a necessary part of the process.

The simplest and most common way to separate dry seeds from the plant parts holding them is to pinch the dried pieces between your fingers until the seeds fall out. Besides allowing them to mature, permitting the seeds to dry out before collecting them makes this effort easier.

Collecting Marigold seeds

This method is very effective for many annual and perennial flowers. For these plants, the dried flower head is bursting with seeds. The same parts that you're deadheading are the ones that hold the seeds. Some, like Marigolds and Zinnias, maintain their flower shape as they dry. Gently squeezing the dried flower heads releases the seeds.

In the vegetable garden, big seeds tend to be the quickest to collect. Crush a pod of peas or beans and the dried, hard seeds inside separate easily from the thin exterior shell. These kind of seeds are sturdy and you can grab a bunch and roll them in your hands until the dried pods are pulverized, leaving behind the seeds.

Collecting green bean seeds

The same procedure works for smaller dry seeds too. A pinch of the fingers separates the seeds from the plant pieces. Usually the color of the seed is different from the rest of the plant so you can tell which is which.

Some seeds are easy to separate
One of the biggest issues with separating seeds this way is that you're left with a lot of small, broken plant pieces when you only want the seeds. A second step is necessary to separate the seed from the chaff. Again, it's easier with big seeds.

I separate my seeds on a blank sheet of paper. It's a piece of cake to see the seeds, move aside the chaff, and put the seeds in a clean, dry container. I remove big seeds from the paper with my fingers and leave behind the small bits. Then I lift the sheet and pour the remains into my compost bucket.

It's the opposite for most small seeds. I collect the seeds on the sheet of paper, remove the larger pods or plant pieces, and pour the seeds into the clean container.

Pouring seeds in a jar

I like to work in small batches that give me control over collecting as many seeds as possible. Working on a few pieces at a time, I separate the seeds, remove the waste, and clean off the paper.

You can put a large amount of pods, stems, or dried flowers in a bowl or bucket and crush the mass to shred it. When the protective shells break apart, the dried seeds will fall to the bottom for collecting. You can also put the seeds and plant pieces in a paper or cloth bag and roll it around to crush what's inside.

To me, this tends to create a big mess and it takes just as much time to separate the seeds from the pulverized plant pieces because so much of the pile is waste material. Also, regardless of how much you pound it, there are always some of the seeds clinging to pods and stems and you still need to comb through the mass to separate and collect all of the seeds.

You can try a few methods to separate the chaff from the seeds if you choose to do a mass crushing method.

Pick out as many of the larger pieces of chaff as you can and place the remaining material in a bowl. Shake and roll the bowl. Seeds tend to be heavier than small chaff and will sink to the bottom. It's like panning for gold where swirling the mixture separates heavy and light pieces.

Separating dill seeds in a bowl

This method can work well for medium size, sturdy seeds that can be easily detected. Particularly when the seeds are bigger than the plant material, separating a lot of seeds this way may be preferable. For seeds that grow in umbrellas, like cilantro, dill, and parsnips, there is little plant material with many seeds and the bowl fills quickly with seeds.

I find there are always stem pieces that are the same size as or smaller than the seeds so a secondary separation is still required. Putting the mixture on a sheet of paper and picking out the seeds from chaff still works well. Tweezers may be necessary when fingers are too bulky.

For some seeds that are definitely heavier than the pulverized chaff, a little breeze can help. While leaving them in the bowl or while slowly pouring them out, gently blow across the surface so that the chaff is blown away and the seeds fall to a collecting mat. If you're mechanically inclined, a small fan set on low may achieve the same effect. Depending on the strength of the air, the chaff can be blown around quite a bit and create a widely-distributed mess.

For small seeds, a screen, colander, or sieve can be beneficial. When you place the chaff and seed inside and crush it all, the small seeds will drop through the holes leaving larger pieces behind. This is an efficient way to separate the big pieces, but you still have small chaff mixed with the small seeds.

Using a colander to separate dill seeds

For most wet seeds, the process is easy and straight-forward. Scoop the seeds out of the fruit and separate them from the pulp. Many wet seeds are large so they're easy to work with. Washing the seeds and pulp in a bowl of water works well to separate the seeds with your fingers.

Scooping out squash seeds

Squash and pumpkin seeds are a breeze. Pull them from the flesh of the fruit and place the seeds on a paper towel or sheet of newspaper to dry. You want all of your seeds to be dry before storing so you don't have rot or mold problems.

Drying squash seeds

Other wet seeds that are encased in a very wet, fleshy pulp, like tomatoes and cucumbers, need to be fermented before drying the seeds. This helps break some of the protective covering and encourages better germination later on. For these types of fruits, place the seed and pulp in a bowl and leave them alone for three to five days. They'll ferment and a mold will develop on top. At that point scoop as much of the mold and pulp off as you can, then add water and mix it all up.

Watery pulp like cucumbers may need fermenting

Viable seeds will sink to the bottom while bad ones will float. Gently pour off the water and unnecessary pulp. Add more water and agitate until you have separated the clean seeds from the rest of the residue, being careful not to pour out the good seeds. Place the seeds in a sieve with smaller holes than the size of seed and rinse well. Then place the seeds on paper to dry out.

Don't try to accelerate the drying time by putting seeds in the oven or near a heat source. Just let them air dry naturally. Larger seeds will take longer than smaller ones. In a week or two the seeds will be dry. Have patience.

When the seeds you've collected are dry, they're ready for storage. Choose a clean, dry container as your storage vessel. Many gardeners use paper envelopes. They're easy to write on which makes it easy to identify the type of seed and the date you saved it, both important things to know when you're ready to sow later on.

I like to use small, glass jars and bottles. I label them with a strip of masking tape. It's a good way to recycle household items. I also think jars do a better job of maintaining a dry environment; exposure to liquids will soak an envelope and the seeds inside. Seeds are alive and need some exposure to air, but the amount in a jar should be enough.

Some of the containers I use

You want to store seeds in an environment that is free from moisture and relatively cool. Moisture can ruin a batch of seeds. A refrigerator is a good place to maintain the proper conditions. A cool garage or shed works well too.

Most seeds can remain viable for three to five years after collecting, though they'll do best the sooner they're used. Proper storage conditions, like in a refrigerator, extends the storage time. It's best to keep seeds from different years separated in storage. That's another reason to label them. You'll know which ones are oldest and can choose to sow those first or discard them if the viability is in question.

Allowing plants to produce seeds and then collecting them is totally natural and easy to do. By adding this task to your annual gardening list you can establish a seed bank of your own and enable yourself to sow next year's garden from this year's or last year's crop. This makes your garden self-sustaining and will save you big bucks over time. I like those options.

Check out my previous articles for the entire process for saving seeds.



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How to Save Plant Seeds, Part 2

Saving seeds from the garden is easy, very cost effective, and allows you to selectively grow quality plants. There are many activities that gardeners consider standard tasks for a successful garden, like soil preparation, irrigation, fertilization, weeding, and fall clean up. I don't put my garden to rest at the end of the season until I've added "collecting seeds" to my chore list.

Vetch pods with seeds

The first step in saving seeds is to let the plant do what it is programmed to do. Let the plant develop seeds. Many gardeners snip off the flowers of their herbs, pull up cool season plants that have started to bolt, and harvest root vegetables in their first year. These are normal gardening practices and there is nothing wrong with them, but they eliminate an opportunity to continue growing the same plants in the next year with free seeds.

All plants will produce seeds. Identifying the part of the plant that contains the seed is usually elementary, but varies by plant. Look for the seed in or near the flower. For flowers that turn into edible fruit, (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, tree fruit, peas, beans), look for the seed inside the fruit. For plants that offer up another part to eat, (like roots, stems, leaves), look for the seed to develop in the flower itself; carrots, beets, radishes, celery, rhubarb, chard, spinach, lettuce, and kale all produce seeds in their flowers. Ornamental perennials usually produce seeds in flowers too.

Sunflowers produce obvious seeds

Collecting the seeds is simple, but determining when to collect them may not be. For a seed to be viable and able to grow into a plant, it needs to be fully formed. Just because a seed looks like a seed doesn't mean it is ready to sow. The key is knowing when it should be collected. Basically, let the seed or fruit that contains the seed remain on the plant as long as possible to help it mature appropriately.

Green beans drying on the plant

Seeds will be either wet or dry at maturity. Wet seeds are the ones surrounded by fleshy or pulpy plant material of a fully mature fruit. These are the fruit parts that we often eat, including the seeds. Seeds in tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and many squashes are wet and usually require effort to separate them from the flesh or pulp. A completely ripe fruit will provide viable seeds.

Though some seeds are the goal of the harvest, like peas and beans, they are not suitable for saving and sowing in their young, edible phase. These are actually dry seeds from a collecting perspective. For them to be fully formed and ready for sowing, they should be left on the plant until the pod dries out and the seed begins to dry.

Pea pods drying on the plant

Seeds that develop directly from a flower are dry seeds too. They should remain on the plant until the pod or husk that forms is completely dry. Many seeds can be collected slightly early, before completely drying, and they'll continue to mature, but some, like plants in the mustard family, will not. It is best to leave developing seeds on the plants as long as possible.

While wet seeds are gathered wet, the key to dry seeds is that they dry on the plant and remain dry until sowing later. If sustained rain, snow, or fog threatens when it's time to collect seeds, it's better to gather them while dry, or in a stage of drying, than to run the risk of mold and rot setting in. Dry seeds can be damaged or ruined if moisture permeates them at maturity.

Collecting seeds isn't much different than harvesting fruit and vegetables. I enter my garden with a paper bag already marked with the type of seed I'm collecting. Then I snip, pluck, or break off the seed cluster into the bag. I focus on one plant and try to harvest all of the seeds before moving on to another.

Collecting radish seed pods

Some seeds, particularly large ones, can be easy to collect. Pea and bean pods are easy to grab and break off from the plant; radishes offer up nice little pods too. Corn cobs are one of the biggest seed containers you'll gather.

Seeds that develop in clusters from little flowers are slightly more effort. Cutting off the entire cluster is usually the easiest way. Dill, parsnip, and cilantro produce little umbrellas of seeds that are easy to cut off. Spinach, basil, and thyme produce little seeds along the stem and are easiest to gather by cutting off that part of the plant. Onions and leeks produce globes of seeds and the entire ball can be cut off.

Leek flowers with seeds at the tips

After I've collected dry seeds, whether in pods or clusters, I fold over the top of the paper bag and store it along with the others in a cool, dry place. In my case that's on shelves in my garage. I'll leave them in the bags to finish drying completely. When they're ready, the seeds will need to be separated from the protective coverings.

Bags of collected seeds

For the wet seeds, it's a similar process, with a few key differences. The seeds are still collected from their pod or cluster, but it's in a moist, robust form like a cucumber, tomato, or squash. If you attempt to let the fruit dry out to collect the seeds you'll end up with a stinky, mushy goo before the seeds are ready. Wet seeds are best separated from the fruit and allowed to dry individually.

Most of these fruits will change color as a sign that the seeds are ready to harvest; they will no longer be green. Tomatoes will be a deep red (or orange, yellow, or purple depending on the type). Peppers will turn red. Pumpkins will turn orange. Cucumbers will turn orange. Eggplant will be a deep purple (or white). The point is that when the fruit reaches its zenith of color, it's usually the right time to collect seeds. Often the fruit loses its best flavor and texture at the same time.

At that point cut open the fruit and scoop out the seeds to remove them from the fruit. The seeds will usually need to be scrubbed, rinsed, or fermented to completely separate them from the pulp. You want to get individual seeds that can be dried and saved.

Scooping out cucumber seeds

You can expect that all seeds will need to be separated from some type of covering. Whether it's a pod, husk, cluster, or pulpy fruit, the covering needs to go so only the seed remains. Depending on the plant and seed type this process will vary. I'll cover the different ways for isolating the seeds and preparing them for saving in my next article.

Collecting seeds involves just a few steps. Let the plant produce seeds, allow the seeds to mature, remove the seed and its covering from the plant, then separate the seed from its covering. Most of the work is done by the plant while you wait and do other gardening chores. When the process is complete you're left with seeds ready to sow the next season or share with fellow gardeners. A saved or shared seed has a definable history that you may not discover in anonymous seed from a retail package.

Knowing where my seed comes from and being part of the process brings me even more in touch with the plants I grow. For an avid gardener, collecting seeds is as much a part of the gardening experience as amending soil with my own compost, using reclaimed organic mulch, practicing integrated pest management, or any of the many other beneficial garden practices available.

Saving seeds from the garden is easy, very cost effective, and allows you to selectively grow quality plants. There are many activities that gardeners consider standard tasks for a successful garden, like soil preparation, irrigation, fertilization, weeding, and fall clean up. I don't put my garden to rest at the end of the season until I've added "collecting seeds" to my chore list.

Vetch pods with seeds

The first step in saving seeds is to let the plant do what it is programmed to do. Let the plant develop seeds. Many gardeners snip off the flowers of their herbs, pull up cool season plants that have started to bolt, and harvest root vegetables in their first year. These are normal gardening practices and there is nothing wrong with them, but they eliminate an opportunity to continue growing the same plants in the next year with free seeds.

All plants will produce seeds. Identifying the part of the plant that contains the seed is usually elementary, but varies by plant. Look for the seed in or near the flower. For flowers that turn into edible fruit, (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, tree fruit, peas, beans), look for the seed inside the fruit. For plants that offer up another part to eat, (like roots, stems, leaves), look for the seed to develop in the flower itself; carrots, beets, radishes, celery, rhubarb, chard, spinach, lettuce, and kale all produce seeds in their flowers. Ornamental perennials usually produce seeds in flowers too.

Sunflowers produce obvious seeds

Collecting the seeds is simple, but determining when to collect them may not be. For a seed to be viable and able to grow into a plant, it needs to be fully formed. Just because a seed looks like a seed doesn't mean it is ready to sow. The key is knowing when it should be collected. Basically, let the seed or fruit that contains the seed remain on the plant as long as possible to help it mature appropriately.

Green beans drying on the plant

Seeds will be either wet or dry at maturity. Wet seeds are the ones surrounded by fleshy or pulpy plant material of a fully mature fruit. These are the fruit parts that we often eat, including the seeds. Seeds in tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and many squashes are wet and usually require effort to separate them from the flesh or pulp. A completely ripe fruit will provide viable seeds.

Though some seeds are the goal of the harvest, like peas and beans, they are not suitable for saving and sowing in their young, edible phase. These are actually dry seeds from a collecting perspective. For them to be fully formed and ready for sowing, they should be left on the plant until the pod dries out and the seed begins to dry.

Pea pods drying on the plant

Seeds that develop directly from a flower are dry seeds too. They should remain on the plant until the pod or husk that forms is completely dry. Many seeds can be collected slightly early, before completely drying, and they'll continue to mature, but some, like plants in the mustard family, will not. It is best to leave developing seeds on the plants as long as possible.

While wet seeds are gathered wet, the key to dry seeds is that they dry on the plant and remain dry until sowing later. If sustained rain, snow, or fog threatens when it's time to collect seeds, it's better to gather them while dry, or in a stage of drying, than to run the risk of mold and rot setting in. Dry seeds can be damaged or ruined if moisture permeates them at maturity.

Collecting seeds isn't much different than harvesting fruit and vegetables. I enter my garden with a paper bag already marked with the type of seed I'm collecting. Then I snip, pluck, or break off the seed cluster into the bag. I focus on one plant and try to harvest all of the seeds before moving on to another.

Collecting radish seed pods

Some seeds, particularly large ones, can be easy to collect. Pea and bean pods are easy to grab and break off from the plant; radishes offer up nice little pods too. Corn cobs are one of the biggest seed containers you'll gather.

Seeds that develop in clusters from little flowers are slightly more effort. Cutting off the entire cluster is usually the easiest way. Dill, parsnip, and cilantro produce little umbrellas of seeds that are easy to cut off. Spinach, basil, and thyme produce little seeds along the stem and are easiest to gather by cutting off that part of the plant. Onions and leeks produce globes of seeds and the entire ball can be cut off.

Leek flowers with seeds at the tips

After I've collected dry seeds, whether in pods or clusters, I fold over the top of the paper bag and store it along with the others in a cool, dry place. In my case that's on shelves in my garage. I'll leave them in the bags to finish drying completely. When they're ready, the seeds will need to be separated from the protective coverings.

Bags of collected seeds

For the wet seeds, it's a similar process, with a few key differences. The seeds are still collected from their pod or cluster, but it's in a moist, robust form like a cucumber, tomato, or squash. If you attempt to let the fruit dry out to collect the seeds you'll end up with a stinky, mushy goo before the seeds are ready. Wet seeds are best separated from the fruit and allowed to dry individually.

Most of these fruits will change color as a sign that the seeds are ready to harvest; they will no longer be green. Tomatoes will be a deep red (or orange, yellow, or purple depending on the type). Peppers will turn red. Pumpkins will turn orange. Cucumbers will turn orange. Eggplant will be a deep purple (or white). The point is that when the fruit reaches its zenith of color, it's usually the right time to collect seeds. Often the fruit loses its best flavor and texture at the same time.

At that point cut open the fruit and scoop out the seeds to remove them from the fruit. The seeds will usually need to be scrubbed, rinsed, or fermented to completely separate them from the pulp. You want to get individual seeds that can be dried and saved.

Scooping out cucumber seeds

You can expect that all seeds will need to be separated from some type of covering. Whether it's a pod, husk, cluster, or pulpy fruit, the covering needs to go so only the seed remains. Depending on the plant and seed type this process will vary. I'll cover the different ways for isolating the seeds and preparing them for saving in my next article.

Collecting seeds involves just a few steps. Let the plant produce seeds, allow the seeds to mature, remove the seed and its covering from the plant, then separate the seed from its covering. Most of the work is done by the plant while you wait and do other gardening chores. When the process is complete you're left with seeds ready to sow the next season or share with fellow gardeners. A saved or shared seed has a definable history that you may not discover in anonymous seed from a retail package.

Knowing where my seed comes from and being part of the process brings me even more in touch with the plants I grow. For an avid gardener, collecting seeds is as much a part of the gardening experience as amending soil with my own compost, using reclaimed organic mulch, practicing integrated pest management, or any of the many other beneficial garden practices available.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How to Save Plant Seeds, Part 1

Saving seeds from your garden is easy. With very little time and effort you can save yourself much time and money. I've been collecting seeds in my gardens for years and consider it one of the most important aspects of gardening.

Rhubarb going to seed

Saving plant seeds can reduce some gardening costs dramatically. Last year I spent over $100 on seeds for my vegetable garden. This year I spent nothing. Granted, last year was the first major planting of my new, big, vegetable garden. And this year I sowed many of the seeds left over from last year's big purchase.  But sowing seeds that I collected enabled me to continue growing plants that do well in my garden, at no additional cost.

I've grown green pole beans in my garden for about 12 years. The only time I bought green pole bean seeds was about 12 years ago. At the end of each summer I save some of the bean seeds and the next year I plant them. I foresee repeating this process until I'm no longer able to stick my finger in the soil. One purchase of green pole bean seeds over a decade ago has produced a legacy of innumerable plants and dozens of jars of pickled green beans.

My green beans

Vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers all produce seeds that can be saved and sown. If you discover a plant that you like, that performs well in your garden, or that has expensive seeds, you may be able to continue growing it at no additional cost.

At this point it's important to discuss important concerns about saving and sowing garden seeds. First, some plants are patented. A plant patent protects the rights of its inventor and prohibits reproducing the plant asexually. That means you aren't legally authorized to propagate such a plant from cuttings, divisions, grafts, buds, and all other asexual propagation methods. However, seeds are a sexual form of propagation and aren't covered under patent protection. Therefore, some gardeners hope to reproduce patented plants from seeds.

This raises an important second concern of collecting seeds. Seeds from hybrid plants will not grow true to the parent plant. A hybrid plant is almost every one with a fancy, copyrighted name. Virtually every patented plant is a hybrid. Plants with extraordinary color, shape, size, and growth characteristics are often hybrids.

Hybrid plants are created by cross pollinating two parent plants. The resulting hybrid offspring may have characteristics of the parents or may have completely different attributes. Because of genetic variation, the seeds of these hybrids will produce a mix of offspring that may not resemble the hybrid parent at all. To produce an exact reproduction of a hybrid plant, asexual reproduction is necessary; hence, the legal limitations of patent protection.

The only way to be ensure the seed you collect will grow into the plant you're trying to reproduce is to collect seeds from "open-pollinated" or "heirloom" plants.

Open-pollinated plants are the ones you see all around you in nature. The flowers bloom, insects and wind transfer the pollen to other flowers, seeds develop, and those seeds grow into the same kind of plants to start the process all over again. Collecting and sowing open-pollinated seeds will usually produce replicas of the parent plant.

"Heirloom" is the name that the gardening industry has given to these kind of plants. Many plant growers and nurseries recognized long ago the value in producing seeds and plants with consistent characteristics. Seeds from heirloom plants can be saved and when sown will grow into the same plant. Thankfully, heirloom plants aren't patented.

It's also important to recognize the biggest limitation with collecting seeds from open-pollinated plants: they open pollinate.  That means that if you're growing one heirloom tomato next to another heirloom tomato, they will cross pollinate. The seeds will produce hybrid plants and may not resemble either of the parent heirloom plants. If you want to collect true seeds from open-pollinated plants you need to be sure they haven't been compromised or contaminated by another, similar plant.

With a focus on collecting open-pollinated plant seeds, the next thing to know is how the plant produces seeds. Annual, biennial, and perennial plants will all provide seeds, but not all in the same way.

Annual plants complete their life cycles in one year. They grow from seed, mature, flower, set seed, and die. Many of our garden plants fall into this category: tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, dill, cilantro. You'll be able to collect these seeds the same year you plant.

Biennial plants have a two-year life cycle. They grow from seed, mature, lie dormant in winter, grow, flower, set seed, and die. Many of the biennial plants we grow in the vegetable garden are harvested before they produce seeds:  parsley, carrots, beets, onions, and parsnips will only seed when left in the ground for a full year. Flowering plants like Black-eyed Susan, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Nots, Sweet William, and some Hollyhocks are biennials. You have to wait a year to harvest seeds from these plants

Parsnips setting seed in their 2nd year

Perennial plants live longer than two years. They grow from seed and mature, but may take a few years before they flower and set seeds. Once they do, they can be expected to flower virtually every year. In the vegetable garden, asparagus, artichoke, and rhubarb are the ones most gardeners know (I treat horseradish as a perennial too, leaving it to return each year and harvesting as needed). The number of perennial flowering plants is too numerous to list.

Plants flower and produce fruit after pollination. The fruit may be large and edible or small and almost imperceptible. In many perennial flowers the fruit isn't much more than an enlargement at the base of the flower where the ovary is. Some fruit may be pods with the seeds inside. Some may be husks. Some may connect to feathers or parachutes. Most of the fruit we eat has seeds inside (with the exception of strawberries); in some the seeds are edible (pomegranate) and in others they may be toxic (peaches).

Regardless of how big the fruit or how big the seed, the process of saving seeds is basic. You remove the seeds from the fruit, allow them to dry, place them in a clean container, label them, and store them in a cool, dry location. Some seeds will only remain viable for one year while others remain viable for centuries; it all depends on the plant.

Many seeds need exposure to cold temperatures before germination, also known as vernalization. If the seed you're saving is from a perennial that can handle cold, hard winters, it probably needs to be stored in temperatures below 50F degrees (10C) for a period of time. Usually, four to six weeks in a refrigerator is enough. I store my seeds in an unheated garage or shed through the winter.

I'll cover the procedures of how to collect and save specific seeds from a variety of plants in my next article.

While I save many seeds and grow much of my garden from them, I'm not advocating that you take business away from nurseries and seed companies.

In exchange for the opportunity to begin growing a new heirloom plant from a seed that a seed company provides, I'm more than willing to let them sell me hybrid seeds that I can't reproduce. There are also many heirloom plants that don't do well in my garden, but I don't know that until I've tried. The price of that seed is written off as a failed experiment.

If I can save seeds from a plant I've grown successfully and reproduce it in the future at no additional cost, I will. But this represents just one aspect of gardening costs. I'm continually on the lookout for new plants to try in my garden. Some are heirlooms and some are hybrids. Some are seeds and some are plants. Each year I try new things. While I didn't buy any seeds this year, I did buy a number of plants.

Saving seeds spotlights the ability of the gardener to find a specific plant that can be grown year after year with continued success in an individual garden. In my garden, only dill, cilantro, beans, and pumpkins are plants that I grow every year from saved seeds. This year I've also collected seeds from cucumbers, radishes, leeks, parsnips, shallots, beets, peas, vetch, and spinach. Some of those may return for years to come and some may fade away.

I'll continue saving seeds and sowing them in an effort to find plants that provide me what I want, whether it be fruit, flowers, or some other result. It would be great to find another plant like the green beans that I've come to love so much for the many years of pickled green beans they produced.

Saving plant seeds doesn't take much effort, but can pay huge dividends. Join me in my next article to find out more about it.

Saving seeds from your garden is easy. With very little time and effort you can save yourself much time and money. I've been collecting seeds in my gardens for years and consider it one of the most important aspects of gardening.

Rhubarb going to seed

Saving plant seeds can reduce some gardening costs dramatically. Last year I spent over $100 on seeds for my vegetable garden. This year I spent nothing. Granted, last year was the first major planting of my new, big, vegetable garden. And this year I sowed many of the seeds left over from last year's big purchase.  But sowing seeds that I collected enabled me to continue growing plants that do well in my garden, at no additional cost.

I've grown green pole beans in my garden for about 12 years. The only time I bought green pole bean seeds was about 12 years ago. At the end of each summer I save some of the bean seeds and the next year I plant them. I foresee repeating this process until I'm no longer able to stick my finger in the soil. One purchase of green pole bean seeds over a decade ago has produced a legacy of innumerable plants and dozens of jars of pickled green beans.

My green beans

Vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers all produce seeds that can be saved and sown. If you discover a plant that you like, that performs well in your garden, or that has expensive seeds, you may be able to continue growing it at no additional cost.

At this point it's important to discuss important concerns about saving and sowing garden seeds. First, some plants are patented. A plant patent protects the rights of its inventor and prohibits reproducing the plant asexually. That means you aren't legally authorized to propagate such a plant from cuttings, divisions, grafts, buds, and all other asexual propagation methods. However, seeds are a sexual form of propagation and aren't covered under patent protection. Therefore, some gardeners hope to reproduce patented plants from seeds.

This raises an important second concern of collecting seeds. Seeds from hybrid plants will not grow true to the parent plant. A hybrid plant is almost every one with a fancy, copyrighted name. Virtually every patented plant is a hybrid. Plants with extraordinary color, shape, size, and growth characteristics are often hybrids.

Hybrid plants are created by cross pollinating two parent plants. The resulting hybrid offspring may have characteristics of the parents or may have completely different attributes. Because of genetic variation, the seeds of these hybrids will produce a mix of offspring that may not resemble the hybrid parent at all. To produce an exact reproduction of a hybrid plant, asexual reproduction is necessary; hence, the legal limitations of patent protection.

The only way to be ensure the seed you collect will grow into the plant you're trying to reproduce is to collect seeds from "open-pollinated" or "heirloom" plants.

Open-pollinated plants are the ones you see all around you in nature. The flowers bloom, insects and wind transfer the pollen to other flowers, seeds develop, and those seeds grow into the same kind of plants to start the process all over again. Collecting and sowing open-pollinated seeds will usually produce replicas of the parent plant.

"Heirloom" is the name that the gardening industry has given to these kind of plants. Many plant growers and nurseries recognized long ago the value in producing seeds and plants with consistent characteristics. Seeds from heirloom plants can be saved and when sown will grow into the same plant. Thankfully, heirloom plants aren't patented.

It's also important to recognize the biggest limitation with collecting seeds from open-pollinated plants: they open pollinate.  That means that if you're growing one heirloom tomato next to another heirloom tomato, they will cross pollinate. The seeds will produce hybrid plants and may not resemble either of the parent heirloom plants. If you want to collect true seeds from open-pollinated plants you need to be sure they haven't been compromised or contaminated by another, similar plant.

With a focus on collecting open-pollinated plant seeds, the next thing to know is how the plant produces seeds. Annual, biennial, and perennial plants will all provide seeds, but not all in the same way.

Annual plants complete their life cycles in one year. They grow from seed, mature, flower, set seed, and die. Many of our garden plants fall into this category: tomatoes, peppers, squash, peas, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, basil, dill, cilantro. You'll be able to collect these seeds the same year you plant.

Biennial plants have a two-year life cycle. They grow from seed, mature, lie dormant in winter, grow, flower, set seed, and die. Many of the biennial plants we grow in the vegetable garden are harvested before they produce seeds:  parsley, carrots, beets, onions, and parsnips will only seed when left in the ground for a full year. Flowering plants like Black-eyed Susan, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Nots, Sweet William, and some Hollyhocks are biennials. You have to wait a year to harvest seeds from these plants

Parsnips setting seed in their 2nd year

Perennial plants live longer than two years. They grow from seed and mature, but may take a few years before they flower and set seeds. Once they do, they can be expected to flower virtually every year. In the vegetable garden, asparagus, artichoke, and rhubarb are the ones most gardeners know (I treat horseradish as a perennial too, leaving it to return each year and harvesting as needed). The number of perennial flowering plants is too numerous to list.

Plants flower and produce fruit after pollination. The fruit may be large and edible or small and almost imperceptible. In many perennial flowers the fruit isn't much more than an enlargement at the base of the flower where the ovary is. Some fruit may be pods with the seeds inside. Some may be husks. Some may connect to feathers or parachutes. Most of the fruit we eat has seeds inside (with the exception of strawberries); in some the seeds are edible (pomegranate) and in others they may be toxic (peaches).

Regardless of how big the fruit or how big the seed, the process of saving seeds is basic. You remove the seeds from the fruit, allow them to dry, place them in a clean container, label them, and store them in a cool, dry location. Some seeds will only remain viable for one year while others remain viable for centuries; it all depends on the plant.

Many seeds need exposure to cold temperatures before germination, also known as vernalization. If the seed you're saving is from a perennial that can handle cold, hard winters, it probably needs to be stored in temperatures below 50F degrees (10C) for a period of time. Usually, four to six weeks in a refrigerator is enough. I store my seeds in an unheated garage or shed through the winter.

I'll cover the procedures of how to collect and save specific seeds from a variety of plants in my next article.

While I save many seeds and grow much of my garden from them, I'm not advocating that you take business away from nurseries and seed companies.

In exchange for the opportunity to begin growing a new heirloom plant from a seed that a seed company provides, I'm more than willing to let them sell me hybrid seeds that I can't reproduce. There are also many heirloom plants that don't do well in my garden, but I don't know that until I've tried. The price of that seed is written off as a failed experiment.

If I can save seeds from a plant I've grown successfully and reproduce it in the future at no additional cost, I will. But this represents just one aspect of gardening costs. I'm continually on the lookout for new plants to try in my garden. Some are heirlooms and some are hybrids. Some are seeds and some are plants. Each year I try new things. While I didn't buy any seeds this year, I did buy a number of plants.

Saving seeds spotlights the ability of the gardener to find a specific plant that can be grown year after year with continued success in an individual garden. In my garden, only dill, cilantro, beans, and pumpkins are plants that I grow every year from saved seeds. This year I've also collected seeds from cucumbers, radishes, leeks, parsnips, shallots, beets, peas, vetch, and spinach. Some of those may return for years to come and some may fade away.

I'll continue saving seeds and sowing them in an effort to find plants that provide me what I want, whether it be fruit, flowers, or some other result. It would be great to find another plant like the green beans that I've come to love so much for the many years of pickled green beans they produced.

Saving plant seeds doesn't take much effort, but can pay huge dividends. Join me in my next article to find out more about it.