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!

The Insectary Is In

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I am that happy kind of exhausted that comes after a good day of actually accomplishing things. I even found time to pull out the weeds, pull back the old mulch and revive the center section of the front garden that serves as our Insectary.

This year a cherry tree has been added to the very center of the area. I hope it will be happy there and all the habitat for beneficial insects growing around it will have beneficial affects for the cherry tree as well as the vegetable garden. It’s set apart from the other cherry trees, so being in the center of the Insectary is it’s best hope to get cross-pollinated.

Working out in a circle from the tree, I alternated Blue Borage and Cosmos, because they should be the tallest of our beneficials.  I even read somewhere that Cosmos can turn into a 4-6ft bush if you let it. That cherry tree better grow fast if it wants to keep up! As this is my first foray into Flower Land, I’ll be happy if the Cosmos survive until fall.

In the second round out from the tree I added Calendula, an annual that might grow to two feet tall in a good year, alternated with oregano and lavender that are just starting to come back from last year. The third layer out is Zinnias and a smattering of Alyssum that I hope will mound in between the stepping stones.

After the weeds were pulled and the flowers were planted, I covered the whole area with a couple inches of Happy Frog compost as mulch, watered it in, and wished it luck. Do slugs eat flowers? There are red cabbage plants with huge holes chewed in them not far from the Zinnias. The Blue Borage does not look like a plant you want to mess with, but the Zinnias have tender-looking rounded leaves. Maybe I should fill that pie tin with beer again, just to be on the safe side.

Pulling Back the Covers

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Maturing Fava Bean PlantsDid my cover crops have to come up so beautiful and strong? When it’s grass growing up along the edges of the mulch, I have no problem ripping it out and tossing it into the compost heap, but fava beans you could actually eat.

I have to remind myself that there were other reasons we put them in as a cover crop. In addition to beans, favas make nice big plants that give a lot of ‘biomass’ for the compost pile. They also fix nitrogen, hold the soil through the winter rains and do a great job breaking up the adobe clay our garden is sitting on. I have also read that legumes develop microbial relationships around their roots that help the following crops, especially greens and heavy feeders like tomatoes.

Fava Bean FlowersI’ve also seen a lot of activity around the flowers. I can’t identify most of what seems to be benefitting from the nectar, but I have read that favas provide winter habitat and food for insect populations that are good for the garden.

I have three different varieties of favas growing this year. The ‘Broad Winsor’ you see flowering, the ‘Negreta’ which makes a dark brown bean with an ‘earthier’ flavor I am waiting to try. And the fava beans that have been handed down in my mother-in-law’s Santa Cruz vegetable growing family that we are calling ‘Grandma Susan’s’ fava. This fava grew in Santa Cruz for at least two generations and since then has been acclimating to this specific part of Santa Clara County for over 35 years now. I am thrilled to be able to grow it in the Dirt to Dinner garden.

Fava Bean PatchesIf we save the ‘Grandma Susan’s’ and the ‘Negreta’ to grow to maturity to make us fava beans to eat. That means the spaces growing ‘Broad Winsors’ are the ones headed to the chopping block–ahem, Compost Heaven. It’s time to give the space over to other cool-season crops like the beets, spinach, cabbage, broccoli and lettuces all waiting to grow.

Worm Casting Experiment 1S

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On December 14th we seeded half a flat of ‘Guntmadingen’ Spinach in Ocean Forest potting soil. Ocean Forest isn’t perfect, but I’ve been happy with it and have used a lot of it this year.  Ocean Forest is a blend of worm castings, bat guano, Pacific Northwest sea-going fish and crab meal, composted forest humus, sandy loam, and sphagnum peat moss. Which brings us to the down-side, peat moss. I’m not sure how I feel about using it since it’s not renewable, most of it is imported long distances and it releases lots of carbon as it dries for harvesting. I need to research that to develop a more informed opinion.

My ideal would be not to need to use inputs like bagged potting soil but instead to make all our own compost and seed-starting mixes on site. It’s good to have a goal, but this one might be farther off than I would like since the garden keeps expanding.

Back at the spinach transplanting…

Roughly six weeks later, on January 22nd, we transplanted the best dozen spinach plants. They were all close in leaf size and root length. Six of the plants went into a container with more Ocean Forest potting soil on 6” centers. The other six went into an identical container in the same location with Ocean Forest potting soil on 6” centers. But, this group was also given additional worm castings by mixing fresh castings straight from the worm bins into the top 4” of soil before the spinach was transplanted.

Worm bin layerWorm castings have been shown to improve the activity of beneficial microbes in soil. I’ve seen some reports that 20% worm castings may be ‘ideal’ for flowers and vegetables, with additional worm castings not providing additional benefits. But since we don’t know what percentage of the Ocean Forest mix is already worm castings, we’re testing to see if adding our homegrown castings has a positive effect on plant growth.

Check back here to see how the trial progresses.