Seed Greed

“Seeds will make you a thief… I steal seeds in the hopes of surrounding myself with a bewildering and awesome universe of plant life.”
– Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground

The limits of my seed greed.

The limits of my seed greed.

“You should take a look to see if you want any of those seeds.”

Matthew was pointing to a cardboard box on a table in the corner, a random assortment of bags spilling over the sides.

“We’re cleaning out the cooler. It’s stuff we don’t need to keep.”

This is another of the unique perks of working on a seed farm: free seed coming your way. High quality seed. Interesting seed. Seed you’ve never seen before, maybe most people haven’t seen before. Maybe never will see in a catalog anywhere.

I don’t know if Janisse Ray is right. I don’t know if seeds will make you a thief. But they definitely fire up a key cardinal sin: greed.

It’s easy to get over-enthusiastic digging through a box of seeds like this. The look of the beans alone make you want to grab them all. You start thinking to yourself, “I’ll definitely grow an entire field of anise hyssop next season.”

No I won’t.

And so I set limits, mostly choosing only things I want to eat. Varieties I know I will take care of.

An almost-empty packet of Black Zebra tomatoes, “a cross between a Green Zebra and a Black tomato.” Half used packets of cucumbers: Bush Pickling, National Pickling, and Little Leaf. A giant ziplock bag of cilantro. A dime-bag of basil. Lemon queen sunflowers and barley, two varieties I want to grow for chicken feed as well as cover crop.

And I took the beans, every last one. Beans leftover from a collector who gave them to us. Calypso, Dolloff, May Flower and Annelino Giallo.

I brought them all home. Sealed them in glass jars. Made sure they were labeled. Stored them in the back, bottom corner of the refrigerator.

And started dreaming of next season.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | 1 Comment

Chicken Tv, episode one


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The Blight of Uncertainty continues

Gold Medal tomatoes, no blight. Yet...

Gold Medal tomatoes, no blight. Yet…

Today we walked the fields again, this time in the company of our friend Ada from High Mowing Seeds. We had just spent two days at the Vegetable Breeding Institute, talking varieties with everyone from High Mowing to large corporations and seeing what Cornell’s breeders have been up to. Seeds and sharing are inseparable, even in business.

We walked among our rows and hoop houses. We talked of the flowers and lettuces and tomatoes surrounding us. We stopped to make observations.

“That’s blight,” I said suddenly.

On either side of us, the rows of tomatoes were showing the uber-wilted decay of plants hit hard by late blight. We were surrounded by the bastard.

Everyone went silent. The sort of silence you’d expect from a group people suddenly realizing they’re surrounded by the enemy.

“It is,” said Petra. She’s knows my Tomato Anxiety.

I knew the farm hadn’t been spared the heavy hand of late blight this year. Some varieties have shown no signs but others have suffered mightily. We are fortunate late blight is not a seed-born disease.

But the blight will still kill my plants at home if it gets there. It will steal all the tomatoes I plan to can.

The best way to avoid getting blight on your tomatoes is to avoid being around blight on tomatoes; there’s no way to know if you’re picking up spores to spread. Don’t set yourself up to be a disease vector.

I made a hasty exit from the field. Far, far away from the field. Sorry, Ada.

Fortunately, I had brought a second pair of shoes. If I had contact with the blight in our fields, it was walking on any plant matter on the ground. At the end of the day, I switched shoes before heading home.

I took additional quarantine-style precautions when I arrived home.

I parked my car in a different spot, downwind and away from my tomato plants.

I sprayed my shoes with bleach. Bottoms, tops, sides, laces, everything. I let them sit overnight.

I threw all of my work clothes in the laundry.

I showered immediately.

This is all I could do. Because there’s no way of knowing for sure.

And I will not lose my tomatoes this year.

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The Blight of Uncertainty

The leaf in question. Notice the fuzz.

The leaf in question. Notice the fuzz.

Late Blight is a bastard.

It took out my tomatoes last season, after herculean efforts to nurse them along and right when they were starting to turn. And for a moment last week, it looked like the bastard might be back.

On one leaf, on one plant, there was a single dark spot with white fuzz showing on the underside. Above it on the stem were black spots. On several other plants, leaves were browning around the edges.

“July is the month that gives us so much hope as the tomatoes size up and begin to blush,” said Petra recently as we walked the rows of tomatoes at the farm. “Only to be dashed into a thousand pieces in August by the blight.”

This isn’t hyperbole.

Late blight is a disease that looks a lot like a fungus but is actually caused by a pathogen more closely related to brown algae, Phytophthora infestans. Cool temperatures and moisture, both on the leaves and in the air, make an ideal environment for the disease. It spreads easily and can be airborne. It affects both tomatoes and potatoes; it caused the Irish Potato Famine in 1845. Once your crop shows signs of the blight, you can loose everything in just a few days.

There are three key steps to stopping the blight once you’ve positively identified it:

* Pull the infected plants. Bag them. Bury them or burn them.

* Spray the remaining plants with fungicide. Copper fungicides are approved for organic growing.

* Pray.

Other questionable damage.

Other questionable damage.

It’s horticultural shock and awe. Heavy duty, no messing around. By solution or blight, you’re probably going to lose all your tomatoes.

Which is why it’s uber-important to correctly identify what’s ailing your plants. There are several other diseases and conditions that can be confused with blight, but don’t require the same heavy-handed response.

In comparison to the photos on the Cornell Cooperative Extension web site, the fuzz and the spots on my plant kind of looked like late blight. But I just wasn’t sure.

So I snapped my own photos and sent them by text and email to people way smarter than I am about these things. I waited for definite answers to roll in.

“Not to me,” said Jon, the first to respond. “Late blight usually wilts then turns black.”

“That looks like the early stages of late blight to me,” said Caroline, seconds later.

“The length and location of the spores looks more like gray mold,” said Caroline and Jon’s guy from Cornell Cooperative Extension. “But the color and texture of the lesion looks like late blight.”

“From what I see it does look like late blight,” said another guy from my own county’s extension office. “You cannot kill late blight.”

More questionable damage.

More questionable damage.

Definite answers? A whole bunch of “maybe” is more like it.

But in the course of all this communication, two very important details came up.

I mentioned to Caroline that the damage on my plants had been there for at least a week.

“Then it might not be late blight,” she replied. “It usually moves fast.”

Caroline’s guy at CCE also said something interesting: “If late blight, there should be more spots visible on the plant. Including fruit.”

There were no additional spots on the plants. And absolutely no damage whatsoever on the tomatoes themselves.

And it was these two details that helped me decide not to nuke my plants.

Instead, I just cut off the affected leaf and any other questionables: snip, bag, tie, and leave in the sun to die. If this really was blight, all my tomatoes were dead anyway; I only have seven plants growing in close proximity to each other. Taking this extra step wasn’t going to make things any worse. But if this wasn’t blight – or if I had caught it early enough to make a difference – then I had just saved my little tomato crop.

The tomatoes look great.

The tomatoes look great.

The gamble paid off: eleven days have passed and there’s been no recurrence of dark spots or fuzz. The damage around the leaf edges hasn’t spread. The fruit looks beautiful; the Gardener’s Sweethearts, Black Cherries and mystery tomato continue to turn.

It’s important to point out that Caroline and Jon run their own farm plus a winery. They took time out of their busy day to help me solve my problem. I am extremely grateful to have such good people in my community.

Of course, just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, one week after Caroline and Jon helped me work through my uncertain situation, their own crop of tomatoes was identified as having blight.

“The plants are all dead even if they don’t know it yet,” said Caroline. “We hopefully saved the potatoes by mowing off the tops.”

Did I mention that late blight is a bastard?

Additional Info:
Jon Hunt and Caroline Boutard-Hunt, Italy Hill Produce,

Petra Page-Mann, Fruition Seeds,

Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center, Cornell University,

USABlight. What is Late Blight? Retrieved from

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The Harvest begins

Threshing. With a wiffle ball bat.

Threshing. With a wiffle ball bat.

It’s now that point in the year when we live up to our name on the farm and all of our efforts come to fruition.

Plants are going to seed. Time to harvest.

Time to get all these little embryonic plants ready to put into packets for someone else’s garden.

Seeds are different in this regard. Our process for harvesting and cleaning depends on whether the crop is dry-seeded or wet-seeded. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are examples of wet seeds; beans, lettuce, and basil are examples of dry.

Chervil is an herb that successfully overwintered. Which means it’s one of the very first to go to seed. Chervil is a dry-seeded crop and was allowed to dry in the field. When harvested, we hung it in the mill to dry even further. Until the leaves and stems were brown and as close to feeling like ancient, fragile paper as possible.

Using fans to further clean the seed, after screening.

Using fans to further clean the seed, after screening.

Then we threshed the chervil. There really is quite a bit of finesse involved with threshing. It’s not just whacking dead plants with a stick (or wiffle ball bat). If you bludgeon instead of thresh, you’ll create way more chaff than necessary. Which will just make cleaning harder. Threshing the chervil with a stick is just as much a stroking motion as hitting. And listening is incredibly important: you can hear when more chaff than seed is falling on the tarp.

When threshing was done, we gathered all of the detritus on the tarp to screen it. This is the first step to cleaning out the chaff. We have screens with openings of all different sizes and shapes because we have seeds of all different sizes and shapes. You want to find the screen that’s just right; that lets mostly seed fall through the openings. Until you’re familiar with every seed, it’s a bit of trial and error.

Once screened, the cleaning continues with the use of fans. Two boxes fans, actually, one positioned right in front of the other on a table. Two fans are used because, in combination, the airflow is less turbulent and can be fine-tuned with greater precision.

Clean chervil seed.

Clean chervil seed.

Immediately in front of and below the fans are two bins, side by side so that one bin is closer to the fans than the other. The detritus is poured through the airflow of the fans. Because seed and chaff are different weights, they separate in the breeze; mature seed is heavier and will fall closer to the fans, while chaff and immature seeds are lighter and will drift more. This means mature seed – the stuff we want – falls into the bin closest to the fans and the chaff blows into the second bin. Or off into the mill. Like screening, there’s a bit of experimenting to find the right strength of airflow to make this happen.

We often clean the same batch of seed several times in this way, both to ensure the maximum amount of mature seed is kept and the maximum amount of chaff isn’t.

And when we’re done, we’re left with clean chervil seed. Or kale seed. Or radish seed. Or whatever dry-seeded crop we’re working on.

The seed is then bagged in a cloth bag, labeled, and put in the cooler. To wait patiently until we’re ready to start filling packets.

To wait patiently while we continue with the harvest.

Check out the whole process in photos.

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Tasting beans

Petra in and among the beans.

Petra in and among the beans.

Days on the farm often start with a walk though the fields. Getting low, lifting leaves and branches, looking closely at what’s growing. Noting color and shape and size.

And taste. We’re growing our vegetables for seed. But gardeners will be growing our seed for vegetables. Taste is a huge consideration.

Today we walked through the beans at Hickory Bottom. Rows and rows of bush beans. Mostly green, some purple, some yellow. Tavera, Amethyst, Black Coco, Uncle Willie’s. Even a couple rogue Gold Rush plants.

“We should make sure to remove those,” says Petra.

Or save them to eat?

“We could do that too,” she says.

Picking a bean. Snapping it in half to share. Tasting, carefully. Sometimes different beans, side by side. Comparing. Contrasting.

Taste, in general, is a matter of preference. I can tell you how beans taste different; I won’t tell you which bean tastes the best. But taste, as we’re doing it, can tell you something about how the beans are growing.

Like when two varieties of beans taste the same. And they normally don’t.

Amethyst bush beans

Amethyst bush beans

I can’t taste a difference.

“You’re right,” says Petra, thoughtful and focused. She picks more of the same two beans, snaps them in half, and we taste them again.

Could all this rain, all this water, be affecting the taste?

“I don’t know.”

We continue to walk the rows, pondering the little mystery given us this morning.

This is one time of many we will walk these rows, tasting these beans. We’ll keep asking questions about these little things we notice. Because the little things make clear the bigger picture we’re looking at.

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Lady bug in the field, among the beans, on the farm.

Ladybug in the field, among the beans.

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What to do?

Chickens in the wild.

Chickens in the wild.

These chickens confound me sometimes.

Four of my six birds have decided they like leaving the chicken pen. Daily, they get out to wander in the woods, pecking and scratching and free ranging their way to a non-stop meal. The other two chickens simply hunker down within the safety of the coop.

I have no idea why this routine got started.

I came home one day and the four birds were bobbing around my woodpiles. I thought it was a fluke; it’s happened before. I herded them back to the pen.

I came home the next day and the same four birds were bobbing through the underbrush of the woods behind the pen. Again, I herded them back and tossed them into the pen.

After a week of tossing hens back over the fence, and thinking each day that I had cleverly blocked or removed their escape route, I decided to just watch the birds for a while. Maybe I could find some concrete evidence as to how they were getting out.

Leaning on the gate, one of the Reds hopped right up next to me. And would have continued on her way over if I hadn’t pushed her right back into the pen.

What to do?

“We just let our four roam all day at home and bring them back in at night,” says Jon, a farmer and friend. “We’ve only had to replace two.”

I fully admit that my four birds look completely content and healthy doing their chicken things in the full wide-open glory of the woods. It’s the best programming on Chicken TV so far. And I’d be happy to let them continue doing it. If the woods weren’t filled with fox, raccoon, weasel, owls, and hawks. This isn’t hyperbole; they’re all known predators that have been observed directly or by the signs they’ve left. I don’t want to lose even one more bird let alone four.

“Have you ever clipped wings before?” says Matthew, during lunch at the farm. “Their feathers eventually grow back and it’s easy with two people doing it.”

I have considered this. But clipping their wings is going to make the chickens less effective in evading predators the next time an attack happens.

Chickens in the wild. Again.

Chickens in the wild. Again.

“This is an excellent point,” says Matthew.

I could build a tractor for the chickens, move them around in the open areas between the trees each day. It’s an ideal compromise between the chickens wanting to roam for food and me wanting to keep them alive for their eggs. Not to mention it would help to clear these areas of the weeds, thistle, and general overgrowth that I’ve been wanting to deal with for a while. I could even build a decent coop-like tractor and simply let the birds live in there through the end of the summer.

But building a tractor means another big project that will require time and materials. Time and materials that I didn’t count on for this season. It’s going to put me behind on my current list of projects. Projects that I’m already behind on.

It also means I’ll have this giant penned-in space not being used for anything. Which should be used for something. Which suddenly feels like a whole bunch of other unplanned projects sneaking onto the list.

“When there’s been sign of a fox or something, keep the chickens inside for a few days,” says Jon. “Just to make sure no one gets in the habit of thinking there are chickens out for the taking.”

And this is exactly what I’m doing right now: keeping the chickens in the coop. Wanting to be sure predators don’t get in the habit of looking for chickens in the woods. And hoping to break the chickens of their habit of getting out.

It sucks for all of us. But it’s also best for all of us in the short term.

Just until I figure out exactly what I want to do.

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Garlic hanging to dry, for either food or seed.

Garlic hanging to dry, for either food or seed.

“Here, I have something for you.”

And Matthew tossed me a giant bulb of garlic. Striped purple and white beneath the dry soil crusted to it.

He also showed me the rows of garlic laid out on screens to dry in the mill. New garlic that the farm received from a friend. We’ll plant it and see what we can do with it.

Matthew told me to pick what I want from the drying garlic. Bulbs that were too small or damaged or undesirable in some other way to keep as seed for future seasons.

But garlic bulbs that are perfectly fine to eat.

The perks of working on a farm: food always coming your way. Carrots and watermelon radishes and onions that weren’t planted at the beginning of the season. Lettuce by the armload as we rogued. Soon it will be tomatoes and peppers and tomatillos as we harvest seed.

And today, garlic.

Before this, I knew very little about garlic. Other than it makes everything better. And you can never have too much.

Garlic is commonly categorized in one of two ways: hardneck and softneck. If you have a bulb with the vegetative stalk still waving from the top, give the neck a squeeze. No secrets here: it’s either hard or soft.

Hardneck garlic grows the tall stem known as the scape. Left alone, the scape will flower and continue the reproductive cycle of garlic; harvested before blooming, the scape is a tasty treat that can be prepared in any number of ways. Hardneck garlic is more cold hardy, ideal in a place like New York. It’s smaller and has fewer cloves.

By contrast, softneck garlic is a larger bulb with several layers of cloves. No tall stem, no scape. Softneck varieties supposedly store much better than hardnecks.

The trick to successfully storing any garlic is the same as successfully storing seed: make sure it is dry, dry, dry. Moisture is the catalyst for fungus, rot, and germination, all of which can ruin your garlic and the plans you have for it.

After drying mine for three days on a screen in front of a box fan, I hung the garlic in a darker area of the house with good airflow. The skin is turning thin and papery; the stalks are turning brown and dry. These are good signs.

I’m not entirely certain what I’ll do with this garlic. Eat it for sure. But some may go in the ground this fall to overwinter and come up early next spring.

Additional Info:
Cross, A. (2014, April 7). Gourmet Garlic: Hardneck vs. Softneck Garlic. Retrieved from

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, food storage, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Nature wins again.

Nature wins again.

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