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.

Turnip Testing 2011

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TurnipsWe didn’t have enough turnips in the Dirt to Dinner garden in 2010. Or in 2009 for that matter. When I was growing up in the 70’s in the suburbs around Cincinnati, no self-respecting kid would have eaten a turnip. Today, in California, I know kids who will happily eat raw, pickled, braised or stewed turnips without complaint. So, I guess we really are making progress. It just takes a long-range perspective to appreciate it.

Because the turnip is a popular vegetable around here, and we have an unexplainable deficiency in the radish growing department, we’d like to identify a turnip variety that does well in our conditions, grow a lot of it, save our own seed, and maybe even further improve or adapt the variety in the future.

This is probably a bad idea for several reasons:

#1. Turnips are biennials. They won’t even make seed until after they have been in the ground over the winter. Which means they are going to take up their space in the garden for a long time.
#2. Turnips are out-breeders so even if we grow only one turnip variety we could still have our seed accidentally crossed by a bee visiting from a neighborhood garden growing a different turnip variety we didn’t know about. But how many neighborhood gardens are going to have turnips laying around long enough to go to seed, you say?
#3. Well, it’s not just the turnips we have to worry about! Turnips are classified as Brassica rapa and could potentially cross with mustard, rutabagas, Chinese cabbage, Chinese greens or those radishes we can never seem to grow! On the up-side, Ecology Action’s booklet #13 “Growing to Seed” says we only need to keep seed from five plants to maintain enough genetic diversity in the line.

Not one to be deterred by facts, I went ahead and started Phase 1, which is growing several varieties in order to choose one to work with in the fall or next spring. This part just involves growing and eating. We have identified six types of turnip seed to trial, four of them were planted today and after the next storm front passes, we’ll add ‘Tokyo Market’ and ‘Tokyo Cross.’

2/23/2011 We seeded two 2.5′ x 2.5′ beds with turnips separated by a North-South running strip of ‘Petit Pois’ peas saved from 2010.

Bed A is ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from Bountiful Gardens vs. ‘Scarlet Ohno’ from High Mowing Seed. I’m hoping they aren’t both repackaged seed from the same farm! At the very least we should see some landrace variation. The Bountiful Gardens package says, “Greens are smooth and hairless, excellent for greens. Roots for fresh use and pickling, not keepers.” High Mowing adds, “Hot pink skins with white, mild and crunchy flesh. Excellent for baby roots or greens with a signature pink streak.” 50 days. The Bountiful Gardens pack is marked for planting in May-August, but I’m guessing that’s either not right or not for our area. Seems odd when everything else says, “As soon as soil can be worked,” or “4 weeks before last expected frost.”

Bed B is ‘Gold Ball’ side-by-side with ‘Orange Jelly’ with the same separating strip of ‘Petit Pois’ between the varieties. The Sustainable Seed package for ‘Gold Ball’ says, “…perfectly shaped 3-4” amber globes…never woody…perfect storage turnip for the root cellar.” ‘Orange Jelly’ is also recommended for its storing ability and says flavor is improved by frost. Might be nice to try these two again in the fall.

By about mid-April we should be munching, marinating, fermenting and baking our different turnips and picking a winner. Do you already have a favorite turnip that does well in your area or a favorite turnip recipe to share? Leave us a comment!

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.

There Are Flowers in My Vegetables

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Yesterday I found a bee on the bright yellow flowers of a Chinese asparagus plant that had gone prematurely senile in it’s pot after our unexpected January heat wave. I whispered to the bee that we have lots more interesting delights coming for it this spring.

We’re growing Blue Borage to have a companion for tomatoes, strawberries and squash that is also edible. It really does taste like cucumber. I’ve already eaten some leaves. Seedaholic.com has a detailed, interesting entry on Borage, which includes this in the “Companion Plants” section:

Borage is good companion plant to have in the vegetable garden as the insects it attracts make good pollinators for crops. It is a very useful companion plant to strawberries, as they are believed to stimulate each other’s growth.
As a companion plant to tomatoes, it is believed that borage deters tomato worm, and is thus a natural form of pest control. Borage is attractive to blackfly, this can be used to advantage by planting it as a decoy close to one’s fruits and vegetables to prevent them being blighted – an excellent companion plant for beans and peas.
Borage is also good as a green manure. Its long taproot brings up nutrients from the subsoil that remain in the leaves. Before the plant flowers the plants can be dug back into the ground to release the nutrients back into the topsoil.

We’ve also had good germination with our Calendula, a good companion for our cabbage family plants. The ‘Pacific Beauty‘ Calendula we’re growing is a culinary marigold, though I understand only the petals of the flowers are really edible. They are also supposed to soothe bee stings if you rub the fresh flowers into the spot that was stung. I’m wondering if I should be planting the Calendula away from where I want to attract pollinators though. Some of the listings I’ve seen say they repel insects (and deer). Louise Riotte (Carrots Love Tomatoes) doesn’t mention Calendula by name, though she does mention marigolds in general for nematodes and other uses. In Great Garden Companions, Sally Jean Cunningham reports Calendula attracts beneficials and may repel Asparagus beetles.

OK, this whole companion thing gets complicated quickly, doesn’t it?

We have also started a nice planting of ‘Pesche’s Gold’ marigolds, which are apparently ‘French’ marigolds. And we are getting ready to start ‘Tangerine Gem‘, which apparently also have edible petals.  Rosalind Creasy mentions them in the latest edition of Edible Landscaping. The ‘Sunrise’ Cosmos are coming along nicely. I have to pot them up again or decide where they are going in the garden fast. They will be almost the same colors as the marigolds on taller, frillier plants. We’re using the cosmos to attract bees, parasitic wasps and other beneficial insects on the theory that pretty much anything that’s good for the bees is good for the garden.

Mexican sunflowers, Echinacea and Yarrow, as well as Sweet Alyssum (to shelter ground beetles and spiders),  are also part of the garden plan for this year. We are also trying Tarragon as a Nurse Plant for our eggplants who often don’t quite get the warmth they need in our climate and take a long time to fruit. Hopefully they will grow better with a little help from their new friend.

If you have tried and true companions you use in your garden, please let us know which combinations and varieties work well and which Zone you are in.