Category Archives: Heirlooms

Seeds… A Lesson Sometimes Hard To Learn

Gold Rush Beans with Empty Pods

This morning while in the garden doing the usual chores, weeding, pulling out spent plants, fertilizing.  I came across my crop of yellow beans, hummm.  Every year I plant yellow beans.    They are pretty canned, delightful to the palate and just a nice addition to the garden.  One of my favorites, among others is  Gold Rush.   7  years ago I bought a bulk bag of these seeds.  Figuring they would last for about 3 years and by then they would be all used up.  I always date my seed as soon as I get them.  This is a really good habit to get into.  Well they got stuffed in the bottom of my seed container and forgotten.  When I came upon them early summer I thought, why waste good seeds, right?  I have always taught rotation, rotation, rotation in  seed saving.   Well, did I listen to my own words of advice?  Not hardly.  I spent good money on those seeds, and by darn I wasn’t going to go buy more and toss those!  They looked  pretty good and they were stored at a cool temperature.  They came up fairly well,  slow to germinate and some yellowing.  Once they grow to the size ready to be picked, a nice side dish was planned.  Only one problem. The beautiful yellow beans were hallow, light weight, limp and lifeless.  The taste was bland, and not something to be proud of.  A common problem you can get with old seeds.  Humbling experience 9,089.  Yup, I may be a seasoned  gardener but I to make mistakes that I hope you can learn from!  Moral of the story is, rotate your seed stash.  They are living, viable and have a life cycle.  Yes, they may germinate, grow and even produce well, but I used up precious water, time, space and energy for something that I know better than to do.  I could have used those seeds a few years earlier and had them replaced with new seeds  that would perform with vigor.  My morning chores were finished off by pulling up the plants and sending them to the compost bin (I guess not a total loss).  I  did harvest the first two crops hoping for better results with the later harvests.  Something to remember…  Sometimes, crops aren’t so wonderful when they first come on and then they can better with time, so do give them a little time before ripping and tearing.  In this case that wasn’t so.  As seeds get older they lose their strength sort of speak.  Sometimes they just don’t germinate, or they are slow to do so.  Sometimes the plant it self seems to struggle inviting disease and insects and require extra attention.   Old seeds can create poor quality fruits and can carry that trait to their offspring the following years.

Old legume seeds can be grown as a cover crop in the fall mixed with other seed in case of inferior germination which no doubt you will get.  So not all is lost.  I should have done this instead!

Store seeds in the refrigerator (for vegetable seed) or freezer (for flower seed).  They basically go dormant and this will make seed last longer.  I also think you get better germination when doing this, even if only for a few short weeks of storage in cool conditions.

Store seeds in airtight containers.  If storing seeds in the freezer, let seeds come to room temperature before opening container.  This assures no moisture will develop as things do after being brought from freezing, to room temp.  Moisture on seeds sends them a message to germinate!  Don’t bring seeds to room temp and back into the cold and then back to room temp over and over!

Seeds that are stored in temperatures that fluctuate will lose their ability to germinate.

Don’t plant seeds that are shriveled, discolored, much smaller than the rest or broken seeds.

Canning jars, with new lids are a great way to store seeds.  Screw lids on tightly.  I like to use small half pint size jars for loose seeds.  Use sterile jars.

If you have old seeds, you can use them as a cover crop instead of throwing them away.  In the past I just mixed them up and plant ed them in the fall.  Once they have reached  6″ to a foot tall I simply turn them into the soil.  This is  considered a green manure.  I alway mix them with new cover crop seeds in case of poor germination.  I don’t feel so wasteful when doing this.  This is a different theory, but it does work.  I don’t use nightshade seeds though.  Legumes are the best.

Always date your seeds and don’t mix old seeds with new!  You can keep them in their original package so you still have all the information. 

One more word on old seeds.  Sometimes you may get and old heirloom seed that is priceless.  Please don’t throw them away.  I once was very lucky to have the opportunity to grow  Anasazi bean seeds that came from a cave and they were supposed to be 800 year old seeds. Priceless!  I carefully prepared my garden bed and gave these seeds the best attention possible.  They were treated like my own children, only I kept them away from other bean friends.  I only had a few dozen seeds and three germinated.  That was still so exciting!  They struggled, and grow slow.  At the end of the season we finally got a few blossoms.  They did indeed get a few pods with few seeds in each before the season was over.  Normally you will start to harvest beans from 50-70 days depending on the variety.  These beans took a 165 days to reach dry bean harvest.  I am so glad we live in an area that has a  long growing season.  From two dozen seeds we went down to 6 new viable seeds.   But they were new seeds from our past!  Each year they grow a little stronger, gaining few at a time.  After 12 years I have 41 seeds.  This is preserving our heritage seeds, not performing dinner for 20.   I hope you can see the difference in keeping seed for production and keeping seed for heritage.  Maybe eventually the Anasazi bean seed will someday reach vim and vigor again, but for now it is purely grown for the novelty of it.

A fabulous book on saving seeds is Suzanne Ashworth’s book, Seed to Seed.  She teaches you how to save and preserve your own vegetable seeds.

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Heirloom Vegetables

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I have been fascinated for years by heirloom vegetables.  The flavor can’t be beat out by the new and old hybrids on the market today.  The colors and variety is amazing.  Most veggies in the grocery stores are now hybrids which seem to lack the robust flavor of the good old varieties that grandma and grandpa once grow.  When you think of heirloom vegetables you might think of the tomato.  While the tomato is probably the most common and prized for as an heirloom there is a vast range of other veggies that are superior and should be considered in the garden.  The taste alone should be all the reason for growing them, but sometimes the names of heirloom vegetables are pretty fun to.  Such as the tiger melon, moneymaker tomato, cocozella di napoli squash, great white tomato, moon & stars watermelon and persimmon tomato.  There are thousands of varieties to tempt the gardener.  Most Heirlooms come with great stories on how they were named.  Take the ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato.  It was said that a farmers was able to sell enough tomatoes to pay off his mortgage.  Or the ‘Hubbard’ squash, for example.  There really was a Mrs. Hubbard who found this variety, which was later popularized by seedsman James J. H. Gregory.  The ‘Caseknife’ bean was developed in Italy during the seventeenth century, this bean is one of the oldest documented pole beans cultivated in American kitchen gardens.  Its name refers to the broad, slightly curing table knives once used in the late seventeenth century. 

Heirloom vegetables are old,  open-pollinated cultivars.   Meaning that a particular cultivar can be grown from seed and will come back “true to type” if not cross pollinated.  The next generation will look just like its parent.  Heirloom vegetables are those introduced before 1951, when modern plant breeders introduced the first hybrids, but many date from the 1920’s and earlier.  Many are 100-150 years old, and some are much much older.  Hybrids, sometimes labeled as F-1, will not come back true if the seed is saved.  Sometimes the seed  can be sterile and not sprout at all, but if it does sprout, the young plants will probably not have many of the characteristics that made its parent noteworthy and who knows what you will get.  Hybrids do have some outstanding qualities such as disease resistance, but reproducing themselves is clearly not one of them.

Every year I try several new varieties of heirlooms.  I always keep record of varieties that have produced well and the ones I probably won’t try again.  Some varieties may or may not be suited for your area and some my be susceptible to problems unknown to earlier gardeners.  Trial and error.  Of course that is gardening, isn’t it?  That’s how we learn.  Ask other gardeners which variety has done well for them or just try a few new ones each year.  In our area there are few heirloom tomatoes that produce remarkably well due to our long hot summers,  but I can’t imagine not having heirloom tomatoes in my garden!  Don’t plant all one variety.   Try a few new ones and plant some of the old standbys just in case.  Try other heirloom vegetables beyond the tomato.  For the first time this year I am trying the ‘Rutgers’ tomato, a common heirloom.  So far it has produced more tomatoes on it than any of my other tomatoes bushes.  I wish I would have planted more!  I tried a new cabbage last year, ‘Cour Di Bue’.  Without a doubt I have missed out over the years on this strange shaped, but yet beautiful large cabbage with a point on top and it has a fabulous flavor to.   I had to create a new growing area for a pumpkin patch with heirlooms like ‘Thai Small, Turner Family, Shamrock, Survivor and Speckled Hound’. 

Protecting our seeds is now more important than ever with the commercial agriculture market with genetically engineered (GMO) seeds.  Support seed companies that take pride in preserving our seed heritage.  Learn to preserve your own seeds for the future!  Grow Heirlooms!

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