Monday, July 26, 2010

Harvest Monday - Little Fingers

I'm talking eggplants of course. This week marks the beginning of eggplant season and may be just a little more excited than when I plucked my first tomato. I know, it's blasphemous but tomatoes are easy compared with this stubbornly heat loving fruit. My first couple years trying to grow these creamy delectable goodies was a failure. The fruit were undersized, whizened and overripe when I plucked them from their thorny branch. Since then, I have learned.

A many digit hand of 'Little Fingers.' Not my favourite variety but cute.

Eggplants are perfectly growable 'round these parts if you follow these tips.

1. They like it HOT, HOT, HOT. In Ottawa, it is probably hard to over do the sun and heat so pile it on. Put them in your sunniest location and heat the ground with clear plastic mulch, plant on a slight southern slope or use any other trick that you know.

2. If you want them big, don't let them go lean. Feed them with compost or well rotted manure and make sure they don't dry out. If you are planting in pots, use a moisture rententive mixture and put a light layer of mulch on the surface.

3. Not all eggplants are created equal. Choose early maturing, cool tolerant varieties. I find that many long asian variety are very early and productive. Applegreen is another excellent cultivar that outperformed my expectations during last year's cloudy, wet weather. I have yet to have luck with any large, Italian varieties, but I will keep on trying!

I would love to hear recommendations of other short / cool Aubergine* winners.

*Memories from the other side of the pond - common name for Solanum melongena in the UK and nearby.


Seeds of Diversity database of Eggplant varieties sold in Canada

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Saving Cabbage Family Seed

Back by popular demand, a post on saving cabbage and other Brassica seed with pictures!

Eldest holding a freshly saved bag of Red Rock Mammoth cabbage seed.

Life Cycle

To save seeds from annual brassicas, like mustards or many broccolis, grow the plant as you normally would but don't yank it out of the garden when it starts to turn buttery yellow with blooms. You may be surprised to see a five foot stalk emerge from your three inch high mustard plant so be prepared with stakes or cages. Or if you are the sort of gardener that I am - lazy efficent - then plan to have the seed parents growing near taller plants for support.

Red Osaka mustard in flower

Biennials such as cabbage and kale will need to go through vernalization before they will go to seed. That's a fancy word meaning: experience a period of cold. You can trick a plant into thinking its gone through a two year cycle by starting it indoors and then putting it outside while the weather is still cool - a technique used to get globe artichokes to produce in one year. I've never bothered trying this with brassicas.

Some people will have no issues overwintering these plants in the ground so will simply be nodding their heads at this point. Others will be sighing about having to coddle them in cellar during the frigid months. Don't despair. If storing cabbages with their roots planted in moist sand for months sounds like too much work, there are alternatives. The easiest is the wait and see method. That which makes it through the winter is considered a winner! To give them more of a chance, especially if you live in an area that has limited, inconsistent snow cover and very low temperatures, provide some insulation yourself by mulching with loosely packed leaves, pine broughs, rose cones etc... after cold has set in and mice have found other living arrangements. Don't worry if the tender bits like heads rot off, the stem may still be alive sending out leaves and flowers. Some people experiment with overwintering cabbages at different stages of growth to see what survives the best.

Red Rock Mammoth Cabbage Flowers

Perennials will flower when they are ready. That might be the first year, that might be the second year or that might be hardly ever in the case of walking kale which is traditionally propogated by cuttings.

Population Size

Respect your genetic diversity. These plants are generally outbreeders and self incompatible. You will need more than one. Make sure that you save seed from as many of the best performing individuals as possible. Think at least 20 but twice as much (or more) would be better. If you don't have a lot of space, consider these cheats.

Plant closer together. If you read seed saving books, they will often tell you to replant your mother/father plants farther apart to allow for best growth and seed production. However, if you have to choose between more seeds from a few individuals or less seeds from many individuals, I'd choose the latter.

Grow your parent plants in the middle or back of your ornamental beds. The tall yellow flowering seed heads can be pretty as fillers. Allowing kale and mustards to self seed in drifts will allow you to have a self sustaining population of delicious greens, not take up as much room in your garden and give you the opportunity to collect seeds for trading and giving away to others.

Here you will see volunteer mustard and kale in the front and middle of the border. I will harvest the mustard in the front, replacing it with fall crop. The ones further back will be left as seed parents.

Mix varieties together. To avoid this, you will want to allow only one member of the same Genus species to flower at the same time. If, on the other hand, you want to increase the genetic diversity of your seed crop, consider doing a little backyard hybridization. Let a variety of broccolis flower together. For more on breeding your own veggies, see Carol Deppe's great book on the subject.

Chart of common Brassicas by species*:

Brassica oleracea: cabbage, cauliflower, kholrabi, broccoli, kailaan, brussel sprouts, and some kale
Brassica juncea: some mustards
Brassica rapa: turnip, chinese cabbage, some mustards, some rapini
Brassica napus: rutabaga, some kales

* Same Genus species can cross

Lastly, you can save from fewer individuals and get satsifactory results. Brassica seeds are produced in abundance and are long lived. My advice would be to do it only for one generation and let anyone who you are sharing seed with know that these babies come from a small gene pool.

Seed Collection

Ah the easiest bit. Once most of the seed pods on the stem turn dry and tannish - purple ones will appear rose beige, green ones just beige - snip it off into a large bag or bowl. You can let them dry further inside (in a bag or bowl!) but they will not continue to mature. Some plants are more prone to having shattering pods so you may have to snip them off in stages to prevent losing the seeds.

Stem full of pods. Note the rose tan colour.

For delicate pods: These are the easiest. My mustard pods can be easily stripped from the stem by hand. Then just grab handfuls and crush. The seed will pop from the pod. Most of the chaff will be on the surface as the heavier seed sinks so it can be lifted off the top. Any remaining can be winnowed using various methods such as slowly pouring the bowl into another on a breezy (not too blustery day) or even just by blowing.

Close up of the Red Rock Mammoth seed pod.

For sturdier pods: My cabbage pods are more hefty so I crush the stems with pods still on in my hands or use the fire starting method pictured below. Just be careful that the seeds are not flung every which way. Most of the chaff can then be lifted off the seeds that will be resting on the bottom of the bowl or bag.

Me, starting a brassica fire - rubbing the stem with pods together in my hands.

Place dry seeds in an air tight container like a jar or a plastic bag, well labelled! (I'm yelling at myself there not you. I have lots of seeds with names like carrot, orange or just __ I guess I expect myself to recognize the seeds...)

Chaff on top, seeds on bottom.

Previous post on Saving Small Bunches of Brassica Seeds


More winnowing techniques from Salt Spring Seeds
Brassica saving notes from Real Seeds

Brassica names
Scroll down for a post by Frank from Homegrown Goodness on saving brassicas

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Harvest Monday - berry good

I'm back from vacation and did what any gardener does the minute the engine stops, rushed out to check the plants. Before even the children were out of the car, the tent stowed, or mail checked, I needed to see if there were any ripe tomatoes.

Yes, there were, with many more to come. I would have taken a picture but today my kids went foraging and came back with red seedy goodness dripping down their chins so I'll have to wait a little while before portraiting those iconic backyard garden goodies.

Montreal plums, raspberries, pixwell gooseberry - not bad despite its reputation for being average in taste, and some alpine strawberrires which are gearing up for round two of fruit making.

In the meantime, plums are starting to ripen, gooseberries are positively dripping from the bushes, and each ripe raspberry is a drop of magic making up for their slow start. In the wings, my grape vine has gone from only being good for leaves to setting what seems to be a million fruit this year, the apples are wormy but sizing up, and the perennial ground cherry and volunteer sunberry are promising late season treats.

Pixwell Gooseberry so named because it is partially thornless. It is not known as the best tasting variety but I find it quite good raw. Not complex maybe but more than merely edible.

Summer is good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Always offering seeds

My eldest blowing the chaff off from the China Choy brassica seeds. You have to be careful if you want to have this kind of fun as we all got chaffy. Most of it can be removed by hand or using usual winnowing techniques.

I just arrived yesterday from a vacation on the East coast to find my garden bursting with spent flowers and seed. My experimental cross (fingers crossed that they really crossed) between a blush savoy and a red cabbage are ready as are Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and China Choy (Brassica rapa), along with many others which will be added to the my give away list on the right side bar when they become available.

If you would like some, please email the address under my profile. You don't need to send me a SASE, or trade. I just like to share but please only ask for what you will grow.