Now that the holidays are mostly over, we're getting into that long stretch of winter. I was the happy recipient of some old peanut butter yesterday. We cleaned out the cupboards at my grandmother's house and got old nuts, fruit, seeds, and some lard, so I think I have all the stuff I need to make suet cakes again. As if I didn't have enough things to feed already, yesterday I took the deer block my mom gave me for Christmas down into the field below the house. It weighed 25 pounds, and I should have put it in my packback, because today my arms are sore from carrying it. I'll need to go and peek in a few days to see if anything has found it. I saw a wild turkey the other day, and I know there are still deer down there.
On Christmas morning, we saw about an eight or nine point buck the size of a cow just a couple miles from the house, and there are lots of tracks out back. Those hunters are slacking! I like the new combined deer season because the hunting season gets over and done with sooner and I don't worry so much about going out in the woods, but it seems like fewer people are hunting and fewer people are getting deer. I know a lot of people think hunting is cruel, but I'd much rather see a deer on someone's table than have to wrestle the dogs off deer carcass all winter long if when one dies out back. And I really, really am in favor of anything that get people up and out of their houses doing something active and real. Espcially if it involves making people appreciate the outdoors and also participate in getting their own food.
People always think it's a little funny that the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania is like a holiday. There is no school, and I made the mistake this year of thinking the farm co-op would be open on the first day of deer! I also remember that in sixth grade, as part of science class everyone at my elementary school took the hunters' safety course. If you think about it, it was a good idea because to hunt at that age, you needed the course, and, also a little firearms safety never hurt anyone. It wasn't like they actually did in class demonstrations.
For me, this is a really exciting time of year. The seed catalogs are coming! I lived in an apartment for the first ten years of my adult life, and some times it seemed like I would never get out. I kept a few houseplants and a little herb planter on the porch, but I always loved gardens. When I was a kid and we lived in a house with a big yard, my mom always grew flowers, and we had a lots of different gardens. Shade gardens, annuals, perennials, bulbs. We usually didn't bother with vegetable gardens. Though we did have a really nice old fashioned berry patch with gooseberries, currants, and rhubarb. The college where I went had a lot of amazing gardens which were tended by a retired English professor who showed up in lots of different classes to talk about the art of garden design. I was always very interested, as I had grown up in a gardening family, but I never had the opportunity to do any gardening for a long, long time after I was out of school.
When we moved to our place out of town, it was in the middle of summer and too late to plant anything. There were a lot of established herb patches, asparagus, some raspberries and currants, and a blackberry patch that bore really well. I was able to make a lot of blackberry jam that year, but that was about it. It took a lot of work just to "reclaim" some of the gardens that year, and the following spring, which is unbelievably three years ago this coming spring, I started a new strawberry patch, and planted a vegetable garden for the first time in the established garden up near the house.
This year, at the end of the season, I kind of dived head first into saving seeds from my heirloom varieties. I've been reading a little about it since I actually collected my seeds, and I'm kind of worried about cross pollination.
In the first place, the book that I was using as a guide just said, don't allow it, and didn't say why and also just had a section of cross pollination and didn't really mention it again except in a chart that said what would cross pollinate. If anyone is interested, the book is Seed Sowing and Saving by Carole B. Turner, and it's a really good book. It has a lot of information about how to handle seeds like cold treatment and how to test for germination and things like that. It even says how to make your own hybrids by hand pollination and has a great list of open pollinated seeds and sources.
To find out more about cross pollination and whether or not I should worry about the seeds I collected at the end of the season, I turned to a different book: Heirloom Country Gardens by Sarah Wolfgang Heffner. Now, Sarah explains cross pollination a little better, and also includes in a section on each type of vegetable how to avoid it. This is very useful, as there are really big differences between how different plants need to be treated if you are trying to save a particular variety for seed. Different varieties of tomatoes for instance, need to be kept only about twenty feet apart, and they probably will be safe from cross pollination. Peas need to be kept only five to ten feet apart. There are four varieties of squash, and within those varieties, they will cross pollinate, but not without. Unfortunately, just about every kind of pumpkin or squash or gourd that is common is Curcurbita pepo, meaning seemingly very different things like pumpkins, summer squash, and gourds will all cross pollinate, and the seeds are no longer pure. Sarah Wolfgang Heffner, who is not dramatic about other things, suggests that if you are growing squash specifically to propagate a particular seed variety, plant only one a year to ensure the seed remains pure.
There are some kind of fun facts in the Heirloom Country Gardens book, too. Carrots and onions are biennial seeders, meaning they will only bloom and make seed the second year. They need to be dug up in fall and replanted in spring, and if you are saving onions for seed, you can only plant one kind or they will definitely cross polllinate. And the onion has to be a mile away from other varieties to absolutely ensure seed purity! Also, though peppers really only need about five feet apart between varieties, if a bell pepper does cross pollinate with a hot pepper, the hot taste is dominant, so you can end up with hot bell peppers.
Now, I was not careful last year about keeping my bean plants away from each other, but even Mrs.-Super-Cautious Carole B. Turner says bean plants only need limited isolation. I saved Kentucky Wonder bush bean seeds and green and yellow French beans. The Kentucky Wonders are first year, but the French beans were grown from seeds I saved two summers ago. I might have some concerns for my tomatoes, which were planted even more freely than I usually do things, and my bell peppers were definitely planted really close to my salsa peppers. And I'm still looking for a good answer on my watermelons. I have a lot of seed from sun, moon, and stars watermelons which I planted mixed in with some funny French melons which were not even in the same species or genus. Most books just say "melon", so I don't know what is going to grow, if anything, if I throw those melon seeds in the ground.
In the middle of rounding up my million and a half seed catalogs -- I'm a heavy user, all the seed companies want me! -- I've been getting ready to test the seeds I did save to see what I need to order and what I can try and grow from saved seed. Seed testing is kind of fun, because it is almost like that wonderful time just thirteen short weeks from now. That would be eight weeks before the predicted last frost when seed starting starts!
Testing seeds is a pretty simple process, and like anything to do with gardening, labeling and documentation makes things even easier. First, pick out the seed and count out a good number of them. I usually go between fifteen and twenty, but I'm testing ground cherry seeds this week, and they are tiny and slow germinators so I picked out fifty of those. I use tin foil cookie sheets as a work surface, but real cookie sheets, cake pans or even a plate or a dish will do, but it should be waterproof. Get a paper napkin or paper towel and lay the seeds out neatly. You can draw grids on the towel and count the grids and just put one seed per space if you don't want to count seeds, but I like counting seeds. Make sure you label what it is you are testing and you should really put the date on, also. Cover the seeds with another layer of paper towel and mist with water from a squirt bottle. Cover the seeds with a sheet of plastic wrap and place them in a warm, light area. I live in Northwestern PA, and there is no warm, light area, at least not until the middle of May or so, so I use a shoplight with a grow lamp that I just clamp into place wherever, a few feet above the trays of seeds I'm testing.
Keep up with this set up fir about three weeks and note the number of seeds that germinate. At the end of the period, you need to do a little math, but it's okay! Devide the number of seeds that actually did something by the number of seeds that were tested. This will give you a percentage. If fifty per cent or more grew, you are in good shape. If anywhere from fifty to twenty five per cent germinated, you might want to sow a little thicker than you normally would to make up for the number of seeds that will not germinate. If fewer than twenty five per cent of the seeds germinated, you should probably toss those out and start over with purchased seed.
Some seeds need special treatment before they will germinate. Most of the time, that means they need to be exposed to cold for a period of time. Generally, these are flower or herb seeds that if they were growing in the wild, they would just get dropped on the ground. If the seeds germinated directly, they would be used up before winter. Since I like to touch on "useful" as opposed to "pretty" plants, I'll just mention that bee balm and echinecea both need to be chilled before they will germinate. To do this, you can package up the seeds and actually bury them in a trench for the winter, or refrigerate them for a few weeks. You can cold treat (also called "stratification") right when you plant by getting the seeds into flats and getting the planting medium nice and damp. Cover this with plastic and refrigerate the whole thing. In the interests of not filling the entire refrigerator with seeds flats, a basement window or stairway blocked off from the heat will do the trick, and I stratified polygonum on a shelf in the garage for a month or so in the spring, and that worked very well.
I saved quite a few alpine strawberry seeds which need to be kept in the freezer for about four to six weeks before they will grow. The Polygonum -- also called "Prince's Feather" or "Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate" -- is just a tall, strange flower that looks neat planted next to the snake rail fence in a little area which is starting to become the tall, strange plant garden, apparently. I mention it here because it needs both scarfied and stratified. That means, the seed coating needs to be sanded (with sandpaper) before it gets planted and chilled. Think of the seed getting eaten by a bird in the fall, passing through the bird, and sitting somewhere chilly all winter.
Right now, I have two trays of seeds getting tested. One variety of beans, three tomatoes, the watermelons, ground cherry, bell peppers, and broom corn. I'm also making plans to use my lower garden patch at the growing space for things I want to save for seed. Between seed saving and regular crop rotation and my congenital inability to measure anything in a straight line, my garden planning this year is looking pretty complicated. Luckily, I expanded my lower garden patch this year and really tried to work the soil a lot with compost and green manure before I even tried to grow anything in the new areas. Luckily, all I need to do for more space is grab my shovel and get working!
And one more thing! All these fancy and expensive books that I leaf through a grab one or two pieces of information out of and never really have to look at again? I'm getting them out of the public library. I just read a great news report that young adults ages 18 through 30 are the heaviest libary users. For gardeners, there is no better resource, since there are usually incredible tons of garden books in every public library. Lots of people give memorial donations to libraries, and they tend to ask for books that the people they are commemorating would like. At my local libary, there is an amazing collection of books on weaving and fiber all in memory of one person. There are the garden books, of course. The library where I used to work was like a fantastic repository for all things fish, to the point where if I had another request for a memorial book about fishing, I had a hard time finding one the library didn't have already. I had to laugh, because when I went to the library I use all the time now to pick up books on fish over the summer, I didn't find very many, and I had just kind of grown to think that all libraries had a whole shelf of books dedicated to fishing.
I digress! The point being, the public library is a fantastic resource. Even just the website for the public library is a great source or really good information. And you get free access to a lot of things that you would never expect. I'm currently using Rosetta Stone to learn Chinese. For free! At home on my own computer! There are also databases on periodicals, geneology, marketing, car repair, full texts of books from novels to really cruchy scholarly things. Even downloadable audiobooks. And if your local library doesn't have it, they will get it for you! They are remarkable people with limitless resources! Get your library card and go and learn something, already!