56 Is the New 64: Tomato Germination Tests

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Tomato Germination Test‘Cherokee Chocolate’ 88%
‘Orange Heirloom’ 88%
‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ 100%
‘Green Zebra’ 100%
‘Pruden’s Purple’ 100%
‘Black Sea Man’ 100%
‘Pineapple’ 100%
‘Old Kentucky’ 25%

It didn’t matter that the ‘Orange Heirloom’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ and ‘Pruden’s Purple’ seed was from 2009. Or that the ‘Green Zebra’ seed was from 2010. OK, it might have mattered a little bit that the ‘Orange Heirloom’ seed wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I’d be willing to bet that tray position had every bit as much to do with slightly lower germination rates in both the varieties on that side. Was that the problem with the ‘Old Kentucky’ seed? Maybe not, since the two cells that did sprout seeds were the ones on the very outside. I’ll probably try to sprout another four seeds in a flat as a test just to see.

Sprouting Pepper SeedsPeppers are another thing entirely. They do not leap out of the potting soil the way the tomatoes did. The tomatoes were planted 3/6 and by 3/11 all of them that were going to sprout were sprouted, except the ‘Old Kentucky’ twins who didn’t show their heads until the 13th. Peppers dawdle. One comes up over here, the next day maybe another one over there. Or not, maybe they wait a week or two.

I started the pepper seeds on March 1st. The first pepper out of the ground, more than a week later, was a lone ‘Golden CalWonder’. When it was still alone the next day, I re-potted it to go under the lights and returned the rest of the cell packs to the incubator where they would stay warm and moist.

If you enlarge the photo I hope you’ll be able to see that two weeks after planting, several of the seeds are just now emerging, and there is no sign yet of some of the varieties.

Golden Purslane SeedlingsOne thing we do have germinating is ‘Golden Purslane.’ I thought I winter sowed a patch but when they didn’t come up where I expected them, I started a small pot of seeds to be sure. Right now all you can see are the tiny seed leaves with red stems and red around the edges of the leaves. But in another week or two I’ll be pricking them all out of the pot and wishing I had been more careful with my winter sowing!

Tomato Math: How Many Seedlings Does 64 Tomato Seeds Make?

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Heirloom Tomato SeedsIt nearly killed me, but I have managed to wait until March 6th to start my main season tomato plants. The early drying tomatoes, Principe Borgheses, are out in the garage under lights already. But this year I am following the planting schedule recommendations from the Common Ground Ecology Action Planting and Gardening Guide and it really does say to start tomatoes in flats in March. If truth be told, the printed version actually says, “Tomatoes, Early” under the Start in Flats column for March, but I am gardening to the south of their location in Palo Alto, so I am taking this gardening license.

The first batch consists of ‘Cherokee Chocolate’, ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’, ‘Green Zebra’, ‘Pineapple’, ‘Old Kentucky’, ‘Black Sea Man’ and ‘Orange Heirloom’. Eight varieties in all. Because I’m only starting a few of each type I chose not to use flats but to start the seeds in Fiber Grow Coir 8-packs I picked up at Common Ground. I planted eight seeds of each variety, two to a cell. Because the seed is from different years, germination may not be consistent, but I am hoping for at least two nice looking plants of each type. One for the Dirt to Dinner garden, and one for a friend we are starting tomatoes for this year.

Seedling IncubatorThe soil in the planted coir 8-packs was well misted, then I set the tray of all 64 seeds onto a covered heating mat, which I am hoping will keep them between 72 and 78 degrees. The temperature of the area was 68.8 degrees when I covered the heat mat. Then I covered the whole thing with a plastic storage bin to keep in the heat and moisture. An hour later the center section registered 74.7 degrees. Now, I just have to remember to keep the moisture right and wait for yet another week. When this group of tomatoes moves into the garage or cold frame, depending on the weather we get, it’ll be time to start the paste tomato varieties and the ‘Cherokee Purple’ trial. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

Fresh in February: 22 Things We’re Eating Right Now from the Family Food Garden


It takes some planning. And, depending on your growing zone, it may take some straw, row covers or cold frames. But it really is possible in most USDA Zones to eat something out of your garden year round.

That’s easy for me to say, I live in Northern California and garden in Zone 9b. So, don’t take my word for it. Grab The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. He’ll tell you everything you need to know to grow through the winter—and he’s farming in Maine!

Peas, Spinach and ParsnipsOur favorite snap pea, ‘Sugar Daddy’, is delicious this time of year, sweet, crisp and productive. It’s growing alongside ‘Catalina’ spinach which is producing a surprising amount of salad greens and stuffing for omelettes. In the bed behind, you can see the tops of parsnips ready for pulling. Get your digging trowel ready though, those roots are deeper than they look.

One of the joys of winter food gardens is that the wet weather waters for you. Try to be sure that you position plants that are sensitive to too much moisture, like these peas, in raised beds with good air circulation around the plants so you don’t have to fight mold for the delicious pods. Even though pea plants will grow happily when crowded, consider spacing the seeds a bit farther apart in the winter to give them good air circulation and also so they are better able to share the available sunlight.

Kale, spinach and collards prefer the cool winter weather. The spinach that I am growing will not do a thing for me in warm weather even when I shade it with tomato plants. But it grows well in the winter and doesn’t fall apart when exposed to a light frost. The ‘Dwarf Siberian’ kale and ‘Vates’ collards actually improve their flavor after exposure to colder temperatures. Most of the red cabbages growing among them have been ripped apart by slugs, but the green cabbages are doing much better and providing us with slaw and sauerkraut galore.

Here are the 22 fresh foods we can eat out of our yard this February:

1. Spinach
2. Mustard Greens
3. Snap Peas, Snow Peas and Shelling Peas
4. Chard
5. Parsnips
6. Cabbage
7. Collards
8. Carrots
9. Rutabagas
10. New Potatoes
11. Beets
12. Fava Beans
13. Arugula
14. Celery
15. Lettuce
16. Radishes
17. Turnips
18. Bok Choi
19. Green Garlic
20. Broccoli
21. Cauliflower
22. Kale

Do you have a favorite winter-grower in your food garden? Let us know about it in the comments section. We’d love to hear what works for you and give it a try next year.

Rainy Weather Redux

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Peas Sprouting

The strong La Niña weather pattern has meant an unusually dry winter for the San Francisco Bay Area and our patch of Zone 9b garden. This is the first year I can remember having to water in January. Most of the rest of the country is waiting for their soil to dry out enough to plant some seeds. I’m out there with a hose every morning making sure the beds are moist enough for seeds to germinate.

But the Weather Woman has promised me another week of rainy weather and I spent the day scrambling to get ready. This is a perfect time to put out the seeds and transplants I have been putting off. Sugar Daddy peas were top on my list, as they often are this time of year.

So far the slugs, birds and squirrels have been getting more than their fair share of our pea sprouts. I started some extra seeds in a flat as insurance for the Alderman and Cascadia patches. I meant to do that with the Sugar Daddy patch I started today, but, halfway through watering in the seeds I realized I was also watering the seed packet and the remaining Sugar Daddy seeds. Since I hadn’t yet built the flat or mixed the flat soil I needed to use to plant them, I decided to use the now wet leftovers to reseed a pea patch that something had chewed on. I also needed to reseed half of the Green Beauty snow pea patch. I’m out of Green Beauty seeds, so I filled in with Golden Sweet snap peas from J. L. Hudson, which I’m excited to try. Hudson’s is a local seed company that doesn’t have a slick catalog or a zippy website, but it looks like many of their seeds are sourced locally so I expect them to be happy in my garden and they got my order here fast. I’m looking forward to trying them out.

All three pea patches are now covered with a layer of rice straw. I have a theory that slugs don’t like to slime their way across straw. Especially if it’s dry straw. I have also had good luck covering my pea sprouts with thin burlap or the kind of netting that onions are sold in. Burlap and straw may hide the apparently delicious smell of peas sprouting from hungry birds and squirrels or be hard for slugs to slime across. I don’t care how it works. I just want my peas safe long enough to get a couple of leaves. That seems to be all it takes before critters stop munching them. If they last long enough to get a couple sets of leaves, I’ve got a very good chance of eventually eating some peas. If the kids don’t get to them first.

My Shady Gardening Plans

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NettlesThis ever-expanding patch of nettles is growing in my back garden in the ‘dappled shade’ that it supposedly likes. My husband swears he won’t be eating it because we don’t really know what it is, since it just turned up there, in the middle of what was once a lawn. But they look like nettles, they certainly sting like nettles, and they grow right where nettles are supposed to grow, so I’m making them into a cream soup. Just as soon as I can figure out when the right time to harvest nettles happens to be.

In the front garden, in what I hope is a patch of roughly 75% shade, I fall-planted half a dozen goldenseal rhizomes. I haven’t seen them yet this year, but I hope to. From the description on botanical.com, it sounds like they’ll be hard to miss, “The flowering stem, which is pushed up early in the spring, is from 6 to 12 inches high, erect, cylindrical, hairy, with downward-pointing hairs, especially above, surrounded at the base with a few short, brown scales.” They aren’t strictly edible, but I think they’ll be a fun medicinal addition to the garden if we can get them started. The challenge may be figuring out exactly what “75% shade” is. Does that mean a spot that is in the shade 75% of the day? Or does it mean a spot that receives 8+ hours of sunlight through leaves or lathe or whatever that blocks 75% of that light?

Catalina SpinachOver the winter I tried spinach in a spot that only gets the late afternoon sun, and it clearly wasn’t enough. The spinach plants are still there, but they are tiny. Nothing like their relatives planted 15′ away in the sun–which are delicious! They are Catalina spinach, my favorite variety to grow at home. They not only grew, they happily made new leaves as we picked them all winter long. The other green I seeded into a shady patch is Good King Henry. Still waiting for it to come up this year. For the warm months, I’m planning to do a patch of greens in lighter shade. I’m going to include spinach, mixed in with chard, kale, lettuce and sorrel.

I’ve heard a lot of conflicting things about runner beans and shade, though everyone seems to agree that they do not like to flower or produce beans in the heat. I am going to start a few plants early in a container tucked up alongside the house where it will stay warm. That should give them a chance to germinated and get going while the ground is still cool. Then, if they are unhappy, I can move the container to provide more or less light, as long as I am smart about how I trellis.

Sugar Daddy PeasThis year I am also going to keep the snap peas going with additional plantings where they will get afternoon shade through the summer. I don’t want to go to extreme efforts to eat them out of season, but I’m curious to see how long we can keep them happy with a nice tall crop of something to their northern side.

Other suggestions I’ve had for the sun challenged areas of my garden include chives, radishes, Asian greens, sorrel, nasturtiums and currants. Do you have something that grows well for you in less-than-perfect light conditions? Let us know about it and we’ll consider it for our light trial experiments this year.