Happy Seed Year

“Happy New Year!” When I hear that, seeds come to mind. The new year’s first month is when I plan my garden, fueled by favorite seed catalogs.

In this month’s “Edible Garden” column for Edible Seattle magazine, I offer glimpses into my annual plunge into the seed catalogs. I’ve written about this before in a series on this blog as well–here’s the first one. I took my writing inspiration from Katherine White, whose “Onward and Upward in the Garden” is a funny, perceptive, classic read.

The arrival of colorful seed listings literally whets my appetite, and I dig into my canned veggies and winter garden when browsing the offerings. Sautéed kale pairs quite nicely with down-home Territorial Seeds, while pickled beets (my mother’s recipe) brightens even further the glossy Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Since Edible Seattle wouldn’t let me take over all their pages to wax poetic about seed companies, I’d like to offer links and comments on a number of favorite catalogs.

SSE's Prickly Caterpillar

Entry for Prickly Caterpillar in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog.

Here are some of our stellar bioregional Pacific Northwest growers:

Adaptive Seeds — They seem to have a little of everything, including a number of tomato varieties unknown to me. Till now, that is.

Bountiful Gardens (a project of Ecology Action) — This is the seed catalog of the non-profit garden educators. Check out their collection of plants that will create habitat and food for beneficial insects, one of founder John Jeavons’ important messages.

Irish Eyes Garden Seeds — What started as potatoes (those Irish eyes!) and garlic has blossomed into a full seed company. But still, check out the spuds!

Kitizawa Seed Co. — They offer the broadest selection of Asian vegetable seeds, which means I can try two or three new mustard or choi varieties. Happy 100th anniversary to the Kitizawa family business!

Resilient Seeds (& Backyard Beans & Grains Project) — Resilient offers a curated list of legumes and grains that grow well in our climate. I’m excited to try their Overwintering Fava, which they say has more tender skin that eliminates the need to peel.

Territorial Seed Co. — The giant in our midst, this full-line vegetable seed company always has a couple of pages of new offerings, as well as nearly all your old favorites.

Uprising Seeds — One of my fave newer companies, Uprising offers a wide variety of seeds, including the Felder cabbage mentioned in my Edible Seattle article that’s going into my garden this year.

Victory Seeds — They focus on rare, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, a wonderful combination.

Wild Garden Seed — This treasure offers many “farm originals” that have been bred for our region. The catalog also includes an annual essay from Frank Morton, whose Wild Garden Kale mix has become a staple for me. It’s always interesting to see what he’ll come up with next.

 

And here are some valuable companies outside the Northwest:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds — With the most amazing print catalog (a real work of art) and a penchant for quirkiness, this company also sells unusual heirloom seeds not found anywhere else.

Botanical Interests — The providers of my recently unearthed gigantic parsnip, this company has a full array of vegetable seeds, sold in beautiful packaging.

Fedco Seed Co. — This Maine-based company focuses on cold-hardy vegetables, which is a good angle for our maritime growing season.

High Mowing Organic Seeds — Serious about organics, this company provides high-quality seeds and sells to commercial growers as well. They grow much of their seed on a 40-acre farm, and have more than 40 new varieties for 2017.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds — Another Maine company, this one 100% employee-owned, was a pioneer nationally in garden seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange — This revered non-profit leads the heirloom seed movement and, through their extensive seed bank, offers thousands of little-known varieties. I urge gardeners everywhere to support this organization as well as to try some of their unique varieties.

I know this is not an exhaustive list (although a bit exhausting, when you pile up all the catalogs on your desk!). If you sell seeds to home gardeners and want to suggest I add you to the list, please contact me.

ps: If you’re crazy about seeds too, come to our Great Seattle Seed Swap at the King County Seed Lending Library. It’s the last Saturday in January in north Seatt.e

Five Tips for Successful Indoor Seed Starting

Now is the time to start early vegetable crops indoors as we wait for more soil warmth and longer days. I’ve been tinkering with my seeds and equipment in the basement, and am starting on my second tray of seedlings.

Here are five tips to help get better seed-starting success indoors:

1. Use fresh seed. This year I did a test. Cleaning out my seed boxes, I found some Little Gem romaine lettuce seed from 2011. It’s seed from my own plants, and I’ve been growing it each year. But lettuce seed is delicate, and often lasts only 1 to 2 years.

I am storing it in the dark, in glass jars with a desiccant pack, in my basement, which keeps a pretty consistent temperature in the mid-50s F. Still, it’s old enough that I should probably toss it into the compost.

But I also had some Little Gem seeds from last year. I decided to plant some from each batch in starter cells in my indoor seed-starting station. My approach is to pinch 5 or 6 seeds from the packet for each cell, then thin them if too many come up.

New and old seed
Here’s an example of new and old seed. Lettuce from 2011 in front did not come up nearly as
thickly as the 2014 lettuce in back.

As you can see in the photo, the 2011 seeds in front germinated at a much lower rate than the new seeds in back. Another thing that happens with old seed is that it is not as vigorous as new seed, so the plants themselves might not be as large or robust.

Time for me to say goodbye to that 2011 seed.

Some seeds, like beans, have a high germination rate even after many years. It does depend on how you store them. You can do a germination test to see if seeds are still viable.

2. Use bottom heat. Some seeds, like lettuce, will sprout in 40 degree F. soil. But that’s not the optimum sprouting temperature. For lettuce, that’s closer to 60. The soil in indoor seed trays will be cooler than the room they’re in. So bringing the soil temp up will cause faster, more robust sprouting.

You do that with a germination heat mat. The electric mat is set up to be water-resistant, so careful watering won’t damage it or cause electrical problems. It will generally heat the soil to about 10 degrees above the ambient room temperature.

To control the soil temperature even more, plug the heat mat into a thermostat. The heat-mat thermostat comes with a soil probe that tells it what the soil temperature is. When you set the thermostat for a particular temperature, like 68, it will monitor the soil and keep the heat mat working to maintain that temp.

3. Use supplemental light. Our Seattle days are getting longer, but still pretty short, and sometimes a dim grey when there’s heavy cloud cover and rain. Supplemental light will give your seedlings another good start.

You don’t need light until the seeds pop out of the ground. Once they’re up, they can be moved off the heat mat and put under light. The light should be 4-6 inches from the plants, and moved up as they grow. Use a cool light, like fluorescent, to not add heat to the plants. Heat from lights can burn or dry out the tender young plants, or at the very least dry out the soil too fast.

I use regular fluorescents, but there are “grow light” types that are much more expensive but will boost plant growth.

4. Keep a close watch. When seeds are sprouting, the soil needs to be kept evenly moist, but not wet. Once the seedlings are up, they need to be thinned, the plastic cover removed as they get tall enough to hit it, and the lights set in the proper position. And regular water is essential.

That means a visit at least once a day to your seed-starting station in order to maximize the process.

5. Don’t over do it. Too many starts too quickly will overwhelm your seed-starting system, and also your available time.

I often start one tray of salad greens in mid-January and grow them to 2 sets of true leaves, then sprout my second tray of them 3-4 weeks later (mid-February), and throw in some brassicas (kale, broccoli, etc.). I will be setting out the first tray of greens into a cold frame or cloche by the time the second one needs the light.

In another 3-4 weeks after that (early March), I’ll sprout a tray of warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers.

Starting seeds indoors gives my garden an early start. It also scratches the itch I get as the days start to get warmer and longer early in the year.

Seed starting station

Here is my seed-starting station: lights on a timer, seedlings on top shelf, sprouting seed tray on heat mat (with thermostat) on the lower shelf. All electrical plugged into a power strip.

Cultivate Community: Share Seeds

Handling garden seeds always fertilizes my mind. The crops virtually spring up, even before they’ve been sown. And it’s almost as energizing to pass a handful of seeds to another gardener.

So this weekend I expect sprouts to come out of my ears and roots to grow from my fingertips as I help to host “Seed Swap!” It’s the second annual open trading day sponsored by the King County Seed Lending Library.KCSLLlogo

We’ll be sharing seeds and cultivating community on Saturday, Jan. 31, 1-4 p.m. at the Phinney Center in Northwest Seattle. The free event is in conjunction with National Seed Swap Day.

For me, it’s just an extension of a practice we’ve been doing for years with a group of gardening friends.

Gathered around the kitchen table, we thumb the seed catalogs, share our own seeds, and decide what to order and grow this year.

We return to our own gardens with the wisdom of our friends’ results, along with a few of their shared seeds. And when we collectively order a new variety, it comes with the feeling that we’re plowing a new furrow together, each in our own garden, but somehow with everyone’s hands on the hoe.

Go Hawks!Our event will inaugurate the newest branch of the seed library: the Phinney Neighborhood Association! The PNA has agreed to host the seed collection in its popular Tool Library. Starting in February, seeds can be “checked out” during the Tool Library’s regular hours.

Workshops will offer tips on saving and cleaning seeds. Speakers include KCSLL Co-director and Urban Food Warrior Caitlin Moore, author and educator Lisa Taylor (Your Farm in the City, Maritime Northwest Garden Guide), and me. There will be a tour of the tool and seed library, and tables with greening groups there to visit.

So this Saturday, come up to Phinney Ridge and bring your seeds and empty seed packets. If you don’t have seeds, just bring an open mind about trying something new. Someone’s sure to inspire you with a smattering of seeds.

Sharing & Saving Seeds

I’ve been puzzling over a Doodle poll with friends to get our annual seed swap and seed-ordering party scheduled. I think we finally have it, but it’s tough to bring a bunch of gardeners together, even in January.

This gathering is important to me, though. Not only do I get to see a bunch of friends and share some food and drink (some people will bring fresh or preserved garden bounty), but it’s an opportunity to find out what worked in friends’ gardens last year, and to collectively discuss what we’re going to try this year, and order as a group.

Seed Swap

And, perhaps most importantly, we get to share any seeds that we’ve saved from last year’s plants.

Many benefits

Seed saving and sharing helps me “close the loop” on my gardening a little bit.

I like to buy seeds and starts from catalogs and nurseries, but I feel better when I’m also growing some plants from seeds that came out of my own soil, or that of my friends.

In some cases, preserving seeds from your best plants will create a truly local variety, one that will respond better to our climate. Over the years, you may get bigger yields, earlier ripening, or other benefits.

Germ testing

This week I’ve been “germination testing” saved seeds from a couple of my winter squash, and I’ll offer them up to my friends. The seeds are sprouting well — 8 out of 10 in my test, which is good enough. If you want to test your seeds, here’s what you do:

  • Count out a bunch and lay them on a paper plate, then cover them with a paper towel.
  • Wet the towel and slip the plate into a plastic bag. Don’t close the bag tightly; the sprouts need air.
  • Put the bag in a consistently warm place (top of the fridge works well).
  • Monitor it for 7-10 days, adding a sprinkling of water if necessary to keep the paper evenly moist
  • Count how many seeds have sprouted.
  • Keep the test going for about 3 weeks, because some seeds germinate slowly.

Seed Sprouting

Under 50 percent germination rate means it’s time to toss out the seeds. Commercial seed comes in at 70-80 percent. Fresh seed sprouts more robustly; old seed sprouts weakly or not at all.

But before you have seed to share, you must learn how to save seeds from your vegetables. You’re in luck!

National Seed Swap Day

This Saturday, January 25, is National Seed Swap Day, and

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we’re celebrating here with a seed saving workshop, followed by a swap. It’s being hosted by the new King County Seed Library, a year-old effort hosted by the Seattle Farm Co-op. The workshop will be taught by the KCSL director Caitlin Moore.

The event starts with the workshop at 1:30 p.m. It will be held at the Good Shepherd Center, Room 202, at 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North in Seattle. It is free and open to the public, and you don’t have to bring your own seeds to participate. Children are welcome to play at the onsite Garden Art Corner.

See also

Saving Rainbow Chard Seeds

A Library That Lends Seeds

Seed Catalog Series:

 

Your Soil Weather Report

Sequim 48.4

Whidbey 49.2Soil Thermometer

Vancouver (WA) 49.5

Seattle 50.2

This concludes your soil weather report. Conclusion for the weekend in western Washington: get digging!

Those soil temperatures listed above are courtesy of the handy-dandy AgWeatherNet maintained by Washington State University. The website shows many weather conditions, including soil temperatures, at stations around the state. Air temperature (with the minimum and

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maximum for the last 24 hours), relative humidity, dew point and wind speed are also charted. Useful stuff.

But, chances are, these conditions are a bit different in your yard. That’s where a good weather station, or at

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least a soil thermometer, will come in handy.

Current conditions in my urban Seattle garden: the soil temperature (in open ground) is 47.5. Under my plastic hoop-house cloche in a raised bed: 58.

Why is soil temperature so important? Because your vegetable seeds need particular minimum temperatures to germinate, and they need higher temperatures to germinate more quickly and vigorously.

Lettuce, beets, carrots and peas will all germinate in soil that’s in the low 40s.

Go ahead and plant. And wait, because it could take two to three weeks for the seedlings to break ground.

Pre-warm your gardren soil with a cloche or cold frame, and your seeds could jump out of the ground in half that time.