How to Germination Test Your Seeds

IMG_0685-2Looking through the seed packs of seasons past, it’s not always easy to know which seeds will reliably germinate. And which seeds to buy for the coming season. Here are some tips on how to test your seeds so you know which will be most productive and abundant for you.

Count out an exact number of seeds. We usually count at least 100, making the math easy: if 89 sprout and 11 don’t, you have 89% percent germination. Make sure you test at least 10 seeds, but the more seeds you test the more accurate your results will be.

Wrap your freshly-counted seeds in a moist paper towel, tuck them in a plastic bag and seal the bag. Label the bag with variety, seed count and date the test began. Keep the bag in a consistently warm place in your house (60-70 degrees F).

After a week, open up the bag and count the seedlings. Some seeds take longer to germinate than others; some seeds require unusual conditions to germinate, as well. But most garden seeds will sprout with this simple test within a week. And by the second week you’ll certainly have a sense of whether or not they’ll be reliable once the snows melt.


A couple of the common pitfalls


Relatively consistent 60-70 degree temperatures will suit many seeds. If seed is too cool (below 55 degrees F), it may not germinate. There are exceptions: claytonia germinates even in the refrigerator!

If seed is too warm (above 80 degrees F) germination also decreases. Brassicas and spinach are especially hesitant to germinate in warm conditions. Some crops, like lettuce and kale, germinate best when they chill in a refrigerator for three days prior to becoming moist. Other varieties (like our Habanada pepper) germinate best in temperatures that fluctuate 15 degrees F with a day/night cycle.


If seed is too wet, or especially too dry, they will not germinate well. Fortunately, moisture issues are generally easier to diagnose than temperature issues. A spray bottle is handy to moisten any paper towels that are too dry. Some common crops have moisture preferences you might not expect! Cucumbers, for example, prefer to germinate on the dry side.

And one more idea if you’re struggling

Potassium Nitrate (KNO3)

Some seeds prefer to grow in soil rather than a moist paper towel, period. For these we spray with a dilute solution of KNO3 (also called saltpeter) to simulate the chemistry they experience in soil that inspires them to germinate. For some seeds, this softens the seed coat in a way water would not; for others it breaks their dormancy. Tomato, parsley, chard and pepper are all crops we germination test with KNO3. Important note: it is possible to get a good germination test off these crops without KNO3. But if you are struggling, you now have an idea of how to troubleshoot.

Categories: Home Garden, Seeds, Tips | 4 Comments

Roger B. Swain: The Uneaten Beans

“Grow what you eat, and eat what you grow.”

It is the sort of advice that fits on a bumper sticker. Economy, frugality, efficiency, these are all admirable virtues. But in September, when the onions have been braided and hung, when the sauerkraut crock on the kitchen floor has begun to bubble, when the lids on the jars of stewed tomatoes fresh from the pressure canner are snapping shut, one is grateful for exceptions. There are some things in the garden that don’t have to be eaten, edible though they may be, even delicious. Take for instance the artichoke, a perennial whose seedlings here in New Hampshire must be carefully vernalized to yield a harvest. When that long-awaited bud appears, does one have to cut it off and steam it? Not when leaving it to open yields the largest most beautiful thistle blossom of all, a flower to rival a king protea.

Scarlett Runner Beans

Scarlett Runner Beans

Artichokes are too much of a high-wire act for me to grow them regularly. Instead, I am growing pole beans for show. Just inside the main vegetable garden gate are two columns of ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans, Phaseolus coccineus, a native of the mountains of Mexico. The shiny seeds of this variety of runner bean, mauve and black, are nearly an inch long. Sown as soon as the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees, and thinned to three plants per pole, they have swiftly climbed to a height of eight feet. The stems of orange-red flowers that have followed are as arresting as survey flagging. They are also hummingbird magnets. Even a person weeding nearby scarcely deters our resident ruby-throated hummingbirds from visiting every blossom.

My second fancy climber is the hyacinth bean, Lablab purpureus (formerly called Dolichos lablab) which originated in Africa but is now distributed pan-tropically. Its seeds are only slightly bigger than a pea, flat black with a distinctive white hilum where they were attached to the pod. This year a single plant (started indoors several weeks before the last frost) is growing up a tripod of poles to the left of the house’s front door. The variety is ‘Ruby Moon’ with green and purple foliage. A length of baling twine leading from the top of the tripod to a screw-eye under the eave of the house has allowed the vine to climb to a height of twenty feet in a single summer. The flowers are lilac trusses that are just as attractive to hummingbirds as the runner beans. The blossoms are followed by flat pods that look like lima beans except that they are a deep shiny purple.

Both of these species of beans are culinary favorites in other parts of the world. Hyacinth beans are used in Indian curries, and runner beans are an English favorite. My neighbor Hilda Bridgewater has a fifty foot row of runner beans. She grew up in Yorkshire, where, she says, everyone is “quite wild about eating the immature pods, though the flowers are quite attractive.” The Dutch call it case-knife bean, the Germans feuerbohne, or fire bean, the Greeks make a bean soup honoring St. Nicholas who is said to have fed the poor with it.

Hyacinth Beans

Hyacinth Beans

If you eat either runner beans or hyacinth beans it is important to note that they can be toxic. Dry runner bean seeds contain small amounts of the lectin phytohaemagglutinin (raw mature red kidney beans contain the most) and they have to be cooked long and slow to avoid the gastrointestinal distress that can result after eating them. In the case of hyacinth beans the mature beans or dry beans contain cyanogenic glycosides, a source of cyanide, and the beans must be boiled in lots of water to eliminate this. Young pods of hyacinth beans are much less toxic, but the water in which they are boiled or steamed is best discarded. The young pods of hyacinth beans will turn green when they are cooked because the anthocyanin that gives them their color will break down in the heat revealing the underlying green of chlorophyll.

A quick internet search will readily yield recipes and instructions on how best to serve runner beans and hyacinth beans in all their stages of growth, but that is not the point here. Amidst the abundance of a backyard garden, these are beans that I am happy to leave unpicked. The whir of hummingbirds is reward enough, and the admiring comments of visitors. The mature dried seeds are easy to gather and save. And so I will be cheerfully giving them away for others to plant along with the closing line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about the spring blooming Rhodora:

“If eyes were made for seeing.
Then beauty is its own excuse for being”

Roger B. Swain

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Roger B. Swain: A Non-Compete Clause for Onions

“Since the best way of weeding
Is to prevent weeds from seeding,
The least procrastination
Of any operation
To prevent the semination
Of noxious vegetation
Is a source of tribulation.
And this in truth, a fact is
Which gardeners ought to practice,
And tillers should remember,
From April to December.”
~ The New England Farmer, vol.8, Boston, October 1829 *

Nowhere in the vegetable garden is this advice more apt than in the onion patch, where the least procrastination is the key word. Freed of the need to do anything for us, weeds will out compete nearly all of our annual crops, growing faster, seizing nutrients and water, and often overtaking their domesticated kin. In the kitchen onions may make cooks cry but in the garden row they are weaklings, handicapped by their short stature, slow growth, a limited amount of foliage and a root system that is both small and shallow.

Many years ago I tucked away a startling statistic about the consequence of weeds among the onions and not trusting my memory, I rummaged around in my library of vegetable books until I found it. It is on page 110 of Know & Grow Vegetables 2, the second volume in a pair of books written by J. K. Bleasdale , P. J. Salter and other staff of the National Vegetable Research Station in Wellesbourne, Warwickshire, England.

Oxford University Press published these two little books in 1979 and 1982. The research they cite is now at least 35 years old, but I have remembered the findings correctly. Onions in competition with weeds yielded almost 4% less after a single day. Leaving the onions unweeded for a fortnight reduced the harvest by more than half when compared to onions grown on ground that was kept clean all the time. I have always been fond of measuring things in fortnights. Why use miles per hour and not furlongs per fortnight? It’s no wonder that the fifty percent reduction per fortnight for onions has stuck in my mind all these years.

The issue of course is how does one keep the ground weed free? For starters, the onion bed should be laid out so that it is easy to reach all the plants without knocking over any onions that are in between. Hexagonal close-packing in a raised bed is fine, but the bed should be no more that two arm’s length in width. Then whether you start your onions from transplants or onion sets you should remove even the smallest weeds as soon as you spot them. The adage that the finest fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow applies to this activity. There is no substitute for regular scrutiny. Onions are not a low maintenance crop.

You can reduce the germination of annual weed seed by the use of mulches. On the Victory Garden television show the beds of Ailsa Craig onions, which we intended to reach three or more pounds apiece, were mulched with the fresh grass clippings taken when the lawn was mowed. Several inches of fresh clippings tucked right up against all the onions would dry, depriving weed seed the light and warmth needed for it to sprout. Of course, we were robbing the lawn of nutrients to do this, and having no bagger on my own lawn mower, I mulch my onions today with chopped leaves. These I rake up in the fall, shred and store them dry for the winter. Spread thickly among the young onion shoots they do not mat down or blow away. They dramatically reduce the amount of hand weeding.

When the onion tops have fallen over, the crop gets harvested and braided for storage. The mulch can be tilled into the soil and a cover crop can follow, or the weed seed will provide one. Nature abhors a vacuum, my father liked to say. But maintaining a weed-free zone for the onions when they are growing is what the nature of onions demands.

Roger B. Swain

* I thank Christie Higginbottom for passing this poem along. She recited it from memory at a recent NOFA winter conference. She was for many years the Horticulture Coordinator at Old Sturbridge Village, an 1830’s living history museum in Massachusetts so the poem is, as historians like to say, of her period.

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Roger B. Swain: Lettuce On First

Sometimes iceberg still wins the contest for lettuce superiority.

Sometimes iceberg still wins the contest for lettuce superiority.

It is where salad bars begin: a big bowl of shredded lettuce. A generous base is the foundation of salad, our excuse for heaping on the cheese, the bacon bits, and a drench of dressing. The lettuce is iceberg, a crisphead type that is the second most consumed vegetable in this country after potatoes (and that includes all the varieties of potatoes lumped together).

Iceberg lettuce is grown primarily in Salinas, California, The Salad Bowl of the World. Each head, stripped of its wrapper leaves, encased in plastic, and chilled, manages to cross the continent in less than a week. From this perspective, 3,000 miles away, it is hard to see iceberg as anything but an industrial commodity. Some label it a “polyester vegetable”: weak flavored, nutrient poor, mostly water.

Sure, there are other more nutritious lettuces, and one can buy them in the supermarket: dark green heavy-ribbed romaine, tightly corseted heads of red or green loose-leaf types. There has even been a proliferation of hydroponically grown Boston bibb types usually sold inside a plastic dome with the roots still attached.

But in season, lettuce is always best harvested from one’s own garden. This first offering from the salad bar is also the first offering from the garden. Sown alongside the first peas, lettuce is ready to harvest when those peas are just coming into bloom.

Black Seeded Simpson with its chartreuse leaves, the frilly green Saladbowl, Red Sails, Flashy Troutback, Deer Tongue, Buttercrunch… The list goes on and on. Plant them early (and again, and late.) Eat the thinnings. Mix the colors on your plate. But before you claim that one variety really tastes better than another you have to sample each one undressed.

When lettuce is in your mouth, color disappears. The water that is the primary ingredient of all lettuces is obvious, but the nutrient content can really only be determined by chemical analysis. The fact that iceberg is the highest in water and lowest in everything else has led home gardeners to renounce its culture. That and the fact that many iceberg lettuces like cool temperatures, and will bolt quickly in heat. (Ocean air and fog from Monterey Bay keep the lettuce fields cool in Salinas.) Here in New Hampshire iceberg lettuce is as rare in backyard gardens as artichokes, that other Californian import.

All lettuces will bolt eventually, sending up a seed stalk and blooming. At which point they become much more bitter, the result of sesquiterpene lactones being produced in the milky latex, the same chemicals that render wild lettuce inedible from the start and which breeders have selected to reduce, except in chicories where it is desired.

To let some of your lettuce plants bolt and set seed – and to save that seed for replanting – or to let the lettuce reseed itself is to understand that lettuce is indeed a plant and not just a nutritional commodity.

The same goes for iceberg. Let me encourage you to plant a row of an iceberg lettuce called Summertime. Developed by Dr. James Bagget at Oregon State University, it is one of the few iceberg lettuces that can take the heat. Sown in the spring it develops dark green wrapper leaves with frilled edges surrounding a tight light-green head. In the garden a row of them is as beautiful as the lettuces in the garden of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. Harvest one of these heads, cut a wedge of it, and put a chunk in your mouth. You will be delighted by its shattering crispness, a mouthfeel that is unique to iceberg lettuce. This characteristic is what keeps iceberg in the salad bars and refrigerator drawers.

There will always be people who tell you that romaine is best or that a certain leaf lettuce trumps all. But in the titanic contest over lettuce superiority, the fact is that, in the home garden, the iceberg sometimes still wins.

Roger B. Swain

If you’re looking for lettuce similar to the variety Roger mentions in this post, be sure to give our Winter Density a try. It’s one of our all-time favorites!

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Roger B. Swain: The Great Rhubarb Pie Mystery

vintage_vegetable_can_label_art_rhubarb_farm_invitation-r77dc65045dfb4d7d862f96c957d3abac_zk91q_512It was not yet Memorial Day and already the rhubarb was in its full glory – the stalks as thick as broom handles, leaves bigger than place mats, and the fat fists of the flower stalks reaching skyward out of each great green mound. This native of Siberia is incredibly hardy; you cannot kill it with cold or drought or even fire. Homes have burned to the ground, and the rhubarb, like its fellow immigrant, the lilac will live on.

Rhubarb is the first fruit of spring. Its tartness earned it the reclassification (made official by a New York court in 1947 in the matter related to assigning tariffs). You reach down, grasp each stalk by the base, and pull outward until it tears neatly from the fleshy root. No knife is needed. But only the hardiest can eat rhubarb straight and raw. The culprit is the acidity, a blend of malic and oxalic acids. (The latter acid is much higher still in the leaves which makes them potentially toxic if you managed to eat enough of them). My neighbor Lou, a horse logger, eats his rhubarb raw, like someone chewing a stick of celery, but most people slice the stalks and bake them into rhubarb pie.

“Pie plant” is what many call this member of the buckwheat clan, and the pie that comes to the table most frequently has been amended with the addition of strawberries.  People do love strawberry rhubarb pie.  And this is where the matter gets curiouser and curiouser. To be a home gardener is to be reconnected with the seasons. A pie made with strawberries and rhubarb is delicious. I have been served many, but rhubarb is ready to pick now and the strawberries have just begun to flower. Their fruit won’t be ready to pick for a month, so the question is who invented the strawberry rhubarb pie, and why?

As eating seasonally began its renaissance and I began asking this very question to audiences as I spoke about the merits of growing at least some of one’s own food, I got a number of explanations. Most claimed that the sliced strawberries added sweetness, though they admitted that additional sugar was always necessary, and most admitted that they used either frozen strawberries or frozen rhubarb when it came time to make a pie. Only a few claimed to have both ingredients fresh at the same time.

The availability of sugar is what made eating rhubarb popular. The dried roots were a  source of traditional medicines for many centuries before anyone sat down to a slice of pie.  Sugar, lots of it, is what makes rhubarb delicious. If a slice of rhubarb pie gets rid of the taste of humiliation, as Garrison Keillor announces on Prairie Home Companion, it’s the sugar balancing the acidity that does it.

But when did strawberries enter the picture? I am speaking at a spring flower show in Bangor, Maine one cold winter day. A blizzard is blanketing the parking lot outside, but the room I am speaking in still smells faintly of the elephants that are housed there when the circus is in town. The audience is attentive, undeterred by the weather and dressed for it.  We discuss the conundrum of a pie whose two ingredients are almost but not quite in synchrony. Once again people admit it is a problem, one they solve by going to the freezer.

It is not until I am back out in the hall when the answer appears. She is a woman who has weathered many a winter, her accent is not just Maine but Northern Maine, perhaps Caribou. “What don’t you understand about strawberry rhubarb pie?” she wants to know. “How to make it,” I reply. “You make it out of strawberry rhubarb,” she says. When I look befuddled, she goes on, “Use the red rhubarb, it’s so much prettier than the green stuff.”

This is my “Eureka!” moment, the solution that has eluded me lo these many discussions. Some varieties of rhubarb have bright red stalks, others partially red, and still others are all green. It is not a matter of how the plants are grown; the color is in the genetics. With your eyes closed you won’t know what color of rhubarb you are eating, but the red is prettier to many eyes. ‘Macdonald’ and ‘Valentine’ are varieties with deep red stalks. ‘Victoria’ stalks are green on the top red on the bottom, and ‘Riverside Giant’ is all green but the stalks are both longer and thicker than some of all red varieties. There is even, of course, a variety named ‘Strawberry’ whose stalks are pink both on the interior and exterior.

Whether ‘Strawberry’ rhubarb was the plant used to make the first strawberry rhubarb pie or not, it is clear to me now that the name refers to color not fruit. Like strawberry blondes, no actual strawberries need apply. The convenience of frozen ingredients, like the arrival of the inexpensive sugar that made rhubarb a food in the first place, is what turned strawberry-rhubarb pie into an actual combination.  My advice: Make rhubarb pies in rhubarb season, and wait until strawberry season to make your strawberry pies. To grow well is to eat well. In every season.

Roger B. Swain

Categories: Home Garden, Home Ground | 4 Comments

Roger B. Swain: Walking the Plank


Last winter, in a consignment shop in the next town, I spotted four squares of oak each bearing an odd iron clamp. The clue to their function was the impression left by a horseshoe in the wood. The horse that once wore these boards is undoubtedly long gone, but while it lived these “bog shoes” served to keep it afoot in soft ground. I am reminded of this now as I steer a wheelbarrow filled with compost along a narrow plank. It’s not myself I am trying to preserve but the integrity of the soil under my boots.

Frozen ground and dry ground both resist compaction, as does sandy ground and ground rich in organic matter. But the soil between these raised beds is none of these. It would only take a few trips walking back and forth on this path. even without a load, to transform it into hard-packed ground. The human heel reportedly exerts a pressure of 25 pounds per square inch about the same as the tire of a light pick-up truck.

The beds themselves are hardly less vulnerable to compaction from being trod upon. In my days as host of the Victory Garden television show, Kip Anderson, the show’s gardener, was always very tight-lipped whenever the director instructed me to climb into a bed so that I could face the camera while displaying a particular vegetable. Invariably Kip would get his spading fork when the shoot was over, and like the fellow tidying up behind circus elephants, he would carefully loosen up he ground wherever I had stepped.

The case for protecting the soil in the aisles is two-fold. First, the aisles are where water should be allowed to freely percolate as opposed to running off quickly. If your heat-loving eggplants are mulched with black plastic, this is how they will get their water unless they have a drip irrigation line under the mulch, which mine won’t. Second, how sure are you that you will never be planting in the aisle? To assure adequate wind pollination of corn, it may be necessary to periodically merge beds to allow for the planting of an adequate number of rows. Yes, the ground can always be re-dug, or re-tilled but why make work for yourself and tillage always results in a loss of organic matter.

And so one should always save scrap, untreated, lead-free lumber – the rougher the better – with which to lay out runways when the ground is wet. They will spread your weight in the spring, and if not picked up immediately will keep weeds from growing in the summer. The ground contact will mean that eventually, these boards will rot and no longer carry any weight, but they should rot and then they can add their own organic matter to the soil, like the horse that once wore those bog shoes, and as we who steer the wheelbarrows may someday do in turn.

P.S. One has only to write about trafficking on wet ground to create a drought. The spell of hot, windy weather that has followed will no doubt come to an end now that we have just set up an irrigation pump to draw water from the reservoir by the barn. It is the innate perversity of nature, my father liked to say.

Roger B. Swain

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Roger B. Swain: A Sparseness of Parsnips

Parsnips are the first harvest of the year, the sweeter for having spent the winter in the ground. But this year they aren’t.  As in absent, missing, departed, history, in short, gone. They were there in October when we dug the last of the carrots and beets. They were there when the ground, still bare at Christmas, froze so deeply that the waterline to the Hancock town library iced up. Parsnips are tougher than plumbing.  Parsnips are absolutely cold hardy, our spring reward for having survived all the blizzards and the school cancellations.

This  year, though, they are not. As in missing in action, AWOL, dearly departed. The day the snow banks receded enough to expose bare ground, I picked a spading fork up off its hook in the tool shed and went to dig the first one. In the thirty feet of double row, that’s all that remained. One. One single parsnip, the sole survivor, the one left behind to remind us of all the sweet roots we won’t be eating. Not this year the steamed and buttered, the baked, the pureed. We are too late to the feast. Our lovely parsnips have been eaten by others.

Unlike the bare shoulders of carrots or beets,  parsnip roots fatten up safely underground. I have seen deer hoof away enough soil to take a few bites, but not once the ground has frozen, or snow has buried the garden. This time, however, the roots have disappeared not from the top down but from the bottom up. As I turn over the soil I uncover a couple of crowns that are mere husks.

Voles like carrots, too.

Voles like parsnips. They like our carrots, too.

The snow that does such a good job of hiding the ground, also insulates it and provides cover to voles, those short-tailed, round-nosed,  plump little rodents in the genus Microtus. You can look up them up in your Peterson Field Guide to the Mammals. The culprit here is the one commonly called a meadow vole, among the most prolific of all vertebrates. The females reach sexual maturity in a month and can have a litter every month thereafter, with six or so young at a time. Woodchucks hibernate, chipmunks. too. Not voles.  They feed day and night all year long.  On spring lawns those half tunnels in the grass mark where their trails ran beneath the snow. The entrances to their burrows lack the pushed-up piles of soil created by moles, those completely unrelated tunnelers that have never once even bitten into a parsnip.

It was clear last fall, as I mowed the field with the tractor, that the vole numbers were up. Their population crests every two to five years. In an old field in Virginia, researchers once reported a peak density of 983 meadow voles per acre versus the 67 per acre when the population was at its minimum.  Hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, weasels, snakes, shrews, and domestic cats all eat voles, but they do not prevent eruptions, and I take care to protect the tender bark of young fruit trees by wrapping their trunks in cylinders of quarter-inch hardware cloth. But parsnips?

Catching the culprit.

Catching the culprit.

Some people claim that they share their gardens with wildlife. Fifty or so to one, hardly seems evidence here of much sharing. Some will point out that I could have shielded the parsnips with the same hardware cloth that I used to save the fruit trees from being girdled.  Had the snow not been so deep for so long, I might have trapped the voles as I do to protect other vegetables during the growing season. Voles are a sucker for a chunk of apple wedged into the cup of one of those newer hard-plastic rat snap-traps, especially when the traps are hidden beneath an upturned nursery pot or box.

The loss of an over-wintered biennial crop is a risk that both the plant and the gardener take. For the plant, it is a summer’s accumulation of nutrients saved to make several feet of seed stalk and seeds the next summer. For the gardener, it is the starches and sugars to be consumed in a season of few other fresh vegetables.

The odds in this case were stacked against us both. The parsnip row ran alongside a  bed of daylilies and herbs, plants which no doubt provided voles with summer cover and nesting ground. This year they will rotate into a bed as far way from other vegetation as possible.

As for this spring’s lost harvest, let us say that it is out to lunch, or whatever the feedings of voles are termed. The sustenance that parsnips have provided not to us, but to the voles, will in turn pass on to those who will dine on the diners themselves. It’s a long way round. Next year let the odds be in our favor, let us be first at the table.

Roger B. Swain

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Home Ground with Roger B. Swain

Roger B. Swain


The steam rising off the pans of boiling maple sap, the receding snow banks out the sugar house door, the pair of newly-returned turkey vultures soaring overhead – these are all signs that spring, however delayed, is finally upon us. The spring peepers will soon be calling from the marsh at night, a chorus of optimism if there ever was one, and it seems a good time to introduce a new project, a series of seasonal reports and opinions on vegetable growing. This has come about through a chance encounter with Matthew at the Connecticut Flower & Garden Show where I was lecturing this winter. I stopped to admire his gallon jar filled with kernels of ‘Magenta Parching’ corn and one thing has led to another.

By way of introduction let me say that I have been raising vegetables on this southern New Hampshire hillside since I was a teenager, half a century ago. This has been purely non-commercially, although it has served me well as a practicum for my years as Science Editor of Horticulture magazine and as host of PBS-TV’ s The Victory Garden.

In my semi-retirement I have the luxury of reflecting on the whys as well as the hows of what we grow and eat. The booming enthusiasm for whole food and food that has been locally grown is both welcome and laudable, but it should not eclipse the homegrown. Just as recycling a grocery bag is trumped by reusing one, and in turn by not needing one at all, so the case can be made for the superiority of raising at least a portion of one’s food. It is not just the calories consumed or the dollars saved that matter. There is also the connection that is established to those who labor elsewhere to feed us.

Signs of spring

Signs of spring

To grow even a few vegetables at home is a lesson in ecology, and a reminder that the domestication of plants for our benefit requires that we, in turn, provide our plants with a level of care , from fertilizer to pest control, that their wild progenitors do not need. Finally there is the well-being that comes from a sense of self-reliance, and a generous measure of good health from the exercise. All these things we hope to expand upon in the months to come.

I am joined in this endeavor by Birgitta Keinanen, a source of inspiration and ideas, who, though younger than me, spent a dozen years gardening at Rosaly’s Garden, the oldest and one of the largest organic producer of vegetables in this state. As the first buds swell and we ready seeds to go into the soil again, wish us well, as we do you.

Roger B. Swain

Categories: Home Garden, Home Ground, Seeds, Tips | 1 Comment

Seed, Story & Citizen: an Interview with Scott Chaskey

Scott Chaskey has been well described as a working farmer, poet, and spiritual father of the community farming movement.  Twenty five years ago he began Quail Hill Farm, one of the original CSAs in the country, as an innovative stewardship project with the Peconic Land Trust on Long Island.  Currently serving 250 CSA members, local restaurants, food pantries and farmers markets, Scott has also nourished the world through the thoughtful training of well over one hundred apprentices over the years.

Scott Chaskey, at home on Quail Hill Farm.

Scott Chaskey, at home on Quail Hill Farm.

I first heard Scott speak as NOFA-NY’s Farmer of the Year at the 2013 Winter Conference.  The room was silent and electric, all attention rapt as the farmer-poet-sage brought us on a journey of soil and spirit, simultaneously grounding and uplifting us, renewing our passion for the good work and good world we call home.

As a seed farmer, breeder and founder of Fruition Seeds,  I am particularly inspired by Scott’s rich, articulate commitment to sharing the significance of the seeds that form the foundation of our food system.

Scott’s recent book Seedtime celebrates the story of a seed through story and scholarship, calling us to “renew our role as citizens of nature,” as Aldo Leopold implored, “not as conquerors of it.”  We shared a conversation this fall and here are a few highlights.

Seedtime-Cover (2)

Petra: Scott, what is a seed?

Scott:  Each seed is a story, a story held in a state of rest.  To grasp the whole story, we will have to look at the structure of a flower, how plants have evolved to attract pollinators, and how a flowering plant produces seed.  Our entire food supply is a gift of the angiosperm revolution – the magnificent event that introduced flowering plants to the world 140 million years ago –  and our health and food futures are entwined with the way in which we choose to nurture or manipulate the seeds of that natural revolution.

Petra:  How has our relationship with seed developed over time?

Scott:  Throughout most of the history of agriculture, each farmer was by definition a seedsman.  In the fields,  the strongest plants were selected, collected and saved the seeds to ensure another harvest.  Seed companies eventually replaced farmers in the field as the keepers and  purveyors of seed. As seed production became more centralized, on-farm breeding and seed selection diminished, and the indigenous wisdom of generations began to fade.  How many of us can name the difference between an open-pollinated plant and a hybrid, let alone understand the implications of our present industrial systems for our food supply?  If we retrace the story of seeds to the waters and soil of origin we will glimpse a shared identity.  We are, after all, fellow travelers on this earth and dependent on each other.

'Dukat' Dill

‘Dukat’ Dill

Petra: How has your relationship with seed developed over time?

Scott:  I was first welcomed to the world of plants by a garden in England in my late 20s, studying plants and poetry.  I learned to turn the earth and to cultivate crops in the dark, fertile soil of the cliff meadows perched just above Merlin’s rock, where the interconnection between mineral, flowering plants and man – far from abstraction – could be immediately felt.  Twenty five years ago we began Quail Hill Farm on Long Island, planting many thousands of seeds each year.  Fifteen years ago we began to save seed from our fields and immediately noticed the signature of farmer-saved seed: better performance.  Finally, I was inspired to write Seedtime in reverence to the miracle of creation as well as the need to communicate the story of seed with more people.

Petra:  It’s a beautiful book Scott, thank you for writing it.  What specific qualities do you see changing in the seed you’ve saved on your farm?

Scott:  The first seeds we saved at Quail Hill were tomatoes.  Increased productivity and earliness were notable, but perhaps the most significant experience came in 2009, the first year we experienced Late Blight.  Though we eventually lost our entire crop, four varieties specifically stood out as resilient, producing fruit weeks after the rest.  These four were each crops we had been saving seed of, adapting them to our conditions, to our needs.  Some were varieties widely known for this resistance, such as Matt’s Wild Cherry.  Others had no known resistance, such as Jaune Flammee.  This resilience defies characterization and we continue to value seed selected on our farm as a result.

Fruition Seeds' Gold Medal tomatoes (and Kim!) are remarkably resistant to Late Blight, as well.

Fruition Seeds’ Gold Medal tomatoes (and Kim!) are remarkably resistant to Late Blight, as well.

Petra:  How does the term ‘citizen’ relate to seeds and seed saving?

Scott:  Functional societies cultivate citizens who find themselves and find their place, learn throughout their lives and contribute to the health of the whole.  Of course, this is how seeds function.  For us often ‘thinking’ gets in the way.  I love a statement about the effectiveness of plants by Zen teacher Robert Aitken.  It goes something like this: “Clover does not think about responsibility…its response to altered circumstances is to give nourishment.”  When I first learned about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model I thought, “now here is a way contribute to our culture in a way that deepens my relationship with the Earth and serves needs greater than my own.”

Petra:  So true!  Scott, where do you find hope these days?

Scott:  In the passion of young people!  The change of age and interest in farming is dramatic and invigorating.  The NOFA-NY Winter Conference used to be about 200 people, many in their 40s and 50s; now it’s about 1500 people, 75%  are in their 20s. Quail Hill was one of the first CSAs in the country; now there are more than 6000.  We are ready to get back to our roots!

'Caribe' Cilantro

‘Caribe’ Cilantro

Petra:  And what would you like us all to remember?

Scott:  The health of our fields, the health of our plant communities and the future of our food supply will depend on whether, as a global culture, we can learn to respect the whole of the biological community and to accept our role as citizens of it.  Our culture, our habitation in this time on Earth, is in need of transformation, some say in the shape of a new story.  Transformation comes from within, and seeds have mastered the art.

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Keeping the Snap in Sugar Snap Pea

Peas are the harbinger of two seasons: the Spring comes when peas are pushed into the cold, untenable earth and then Summer arrives with the first fresh snap pea so sweet, so succulent and so long awaited.  The sweetness of peas is so much more than sugar on your tongue!

Oregon Giant Snow Pea is delightfully sweet & prolific!

Oregon Giant Snow Pea is succulent, sweet & prolific!

Have you noticed how commonly the peas growing in your garden are mixed company?  You’ll often find snows in snaps and snaps in snow, shell peas with whomever (but rarely by themselves)!

As gardeners, we love finding the huge, luscious snow pea among the sea of snap peas.  As seed savers, we smile and get to work.

To ensure the next generation of pea seed is more true to type, we simply remove the plants we don’t want to save seed of.  It’s a simple as that!

Sugar Ann Snap Peas are early, prolific & delicious!

Snap Peas at their finest: Fruition Seeds’ Sugar Snap Select!

Removing (‘roguing ‘) the unwanted plants is easy, fun and delicious: we do most of our roguing when the pods are still tender and sweet.   If it’s snap peas we’ve planted and there are a few snows, we pull the entire snow pea plant, eating as we go.  If it’s snow peas we want and we see shells, we pull the entire shell pea plant and enjoy every pod.

We prefer to rogue when the pods are in their edible prime, but we also rogue when the pods are brown and dry.  Shell pea pods will be straight and smooth while snap pea pods are curved and tend to tuck in around each seed, snow pea pods are wide and flat comparatively and bulge around each seed quite dramatically.

Shell Peas (on the left) are straight; snap peas (on the right) are curved.

Shell Peas (on the left) are straight; snap peas (on the right) are curved.

As seed has become commodity,  the international industry currently surrounding agriculture has focused ultimately on economic profit rather than seed quality.  This results in two key factors mixing up our peas: seed cleaning equipment not being fully clean and little, if any roguing to then maintain varietal purity.

Sugar Ann Snap peas have been rogued in the field and on the drying rack!

Sugar Ann Snap peas have been rogued in the field and on the drying rack!

With all their nooks and crannies, seed cleaning equipment is challenging to clean.  To get every single seed is almost impossible!  Also, the roguing has become increasingly difficult to manage and economically justify when farmers grow acres upon acres of a single seed crop .

Sugar Ann Snap pea is a dwarf plant; we trellis but you don't have to!

Sugar Ann Snap pea is a dwarf plant; we trellis but you don’t have to!

At Fruition Seeds, we revel in the process of providing high quality, regionally-adapted seed that is certified organic and non-GMO.  Every time each of us eat, plant or save a seed we are selecting seeds for all generations to come:  eat well, rogue often and sow your seeds wide!


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