Finding Fruition

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

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 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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Garlic

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 http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/gourmet-garlic-hardneck-vs-softneck-zbcz1404.aspx#axzz36vOWbtt5

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Isolation

The nice thing about being a seed farm is the small acreage needed to produce our seed.

You know what the tough thing about being a seed farm is? The small acreage needed to produce our seed.

Success PM yellow straightneck summer squash

Success PM yellow straightneck summer squash

Varieties of the same species can cross-pollinate: our Success PM squash could cross with others varieties of Cucurbita pepo growing in the next row over. Not necessarily a big deal if you’re growing for vegetables because you won’t notice any differences in the first generation. The impact of the cross-pollination shows up in the second generation. And this is a big deal if you’re growing for seeds: you need to make sure the squash seeds you’re selling – the second generation – actually produce the squash shown on the label, not some cross-pollinated randomness.

Isolation is critical with these varieties.

Distance is the primary way to isolate. But cucurbits like squash, melon, and cucumbers need up to two miles of separation because bees and other pollinators can range that far. We’re lucky to have several different fields throughout the Finger Lakes that we work; we can grow varieties of the same species in completely separate spaces.

Mike Mazourek, genius plant breeder, checking our work.

Mike Mazourek, genius plant breeder, checking our work.

But even the best-conceived plans to isolate are subject to change without notice. This season we rearranged field plans because a neighbor down the road was growing a variety of squash that could cross with one of ours. We also got access to some new varieties that weren’t accounted for in the original field layout.

Just turns out that sometimes you have to plant varieties of the same species in the same field, right next to each other.

Isolation by time is a technique to use when distance is not an option. You bring a variety to bloom either before or after the cross-pollinating variety blooms. We’re experimenting with this kind of isolation with our carrots because it’s notoriously easy for them to cross with Queen Anne’s Lace.

Physical barriers is another way to isolate. Trees and topography can create breaks on a large scale. Within a single field you can do things like hand pollinate, cover individual plants with bags or nets, or tape the flowers shut. You can even set up an isolation cage over an entire section of your field with the help of one of the smartest plant breeders at Cornell University.

There’s really nothing special about the cage that Mike Mazourek brought us. It’s just a big tent: a framework of metal pipes covered by a heavy-denier, small-weave mesh. The ground edges are all buried under soil and rocks. Each end is a zippered entry point. Nothing high tech or fancy. Not even the set up procedure: pounding 8-foot pipes into the ground with a sledge and then pulling the mesh body over the pipes.

Isolation cage, finished.

Isolation cage, finished.

Here’s the catch with isolation: keeping the bees away from our Success PM squash to prevent cross-pollination also means we’re keeping away the bees that the squash need for self-pollination.

The solution?

We’re going to release a hive of bees into the cage to spend the season exclusively pollinating the Success PM.

You know what the best thing about being a seed farm is? All the incredibly cool shit we get to do.

***
Additional Info:
Dr. Michael Mazourek, Plant Breeding & Genetics, School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University,

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Another experiment: Mystery Cucumbers

Mystery cucumbers in the dump bucket.

Mystery cucumbers in the dump bucket.

I’ve got another experiment going in the garden.

I found several cucumber sprouts growing in my dump bucket. About a week after I had dumped them there. So instead of direct seeding cucumbers in the new raised bed, I decided to transplant these sprouts

I’m a fan of perseverance, happy to reward it. And be rewarded by it: these sprouts will put me at least a week ahead of direct seeding.

I selected the two most robust sprouts: tallest, straightest, biggest true leaves showing. Removing them from the mish-mash of soil in the bucket required a bit of care; their roots ended up almost entirely exposed. But with a good soaking of diluted fish emulsion and carefully setting their roots in contact with the new soil, the sprouts seem to be doing fine so far.

Of course, I have no idea what varieties these cucumbers are. Green Finger? Poona Kheera? Little leaf? It’ll be something good, no worries.

This experiment was inspired by a day at the farm, working our muck land field. We were roguing cucumber sprouts that were just reaching up past the plastic and replanting holes where nothing had come up.

In some of the holes, there were two or three good-looking sprouts; we could keep only one. Instead of tossing the extra sprouts aside as part of the roguing process, we transplanted them to the empty holes.

Again, the rewards of perseverance: we get to keep the most vigorous cucumbers that have sprouted and won’t be put behind by starting over from new seed.

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Tomato Anxiety

Tomatoes from my first year growing.

Tomatoes from my first year growing. The only tomatoes.

Tomato Anxiety is a common affliction among mid-level growers like myself. It’s a deep-rooted fear that you’re going to catastrophically screw up the tomatoes in your garden and get nothing for the season.

As irrational as the fear may seem to those who have never suffered from it, the condition is very much based on real world experiences. In my own case, it comes from two successive seasons of failed tomatoes. Two years ago my novice efforts failed to produce much of anything. Last year my significantly-improved efforts were rewarded with Late Blight which, again, resulted in no tomatoes.

This year I’m working on the farm and will have access to more tomatoes than I can handle when we harvest seed. I will have had a hand in producing these tomatoes from beginning to end. You’d think this would put my fears to rest.

But Tomato Anxiety is a complex condition that defies common sense and logic. Perhaps because I’m working on the farm and growing “professional” tomatoes, my anxiety is increased; I should know what I’m doing.

To really understand the inner workings of Tomato Anxiety, it’s best to refer to the wisdom of Bruce Lee:

Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.

Before I started growing my own food, a tomato was just a tomato. After I started growing my own food, a tomato was no longer a tomato. It became both a thing and an event that now confounds me with its complexity. I am only now beginning to walk to path of understanding the Art of Tomato. For comparison, consider the other ends of this learning spectrum.

A tomato is just a tomato. I’ve talked with many novice gardeners at market this season who were confident in their own inexperience growing tomatoes. One woman proudly told me she had just planted her seeds. In the ground. In the second week of June. In western New York.

“It’s a little late for that,” I said conversationally, wanting to encourage her novice efforts. “If they don’t come up, don’t be disappointed.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” she replied with complete assurance. “I’ve grown them this way before.”

A tomato is a tomato. I’ve talked with Petra many times, usually starting with questions about how we’re planting tomatoes on the farm and gradually slipping in questions about my own at home. I get the feeling she is amused with my condition. But she has been infinitely patient and supportive of my needs as well.

The tomatoes growing in a 1:1 mix of organic soil and manure.

The tomatoes growing in a 1:1 mix of organic soil and manure.

“It all depends,” she said one day as we discussed whether or not to pluck the first flowers from newly transplanted tomatoes. “Just experiment and see what happens this season.”

The response in my brain went something like this: Experiment? Are you f-ing kidding me? I want tomatoes, woman, not just another blog post at the end of the season.

Petra is, of course, correct. Because when you’re a mid-level grower, experimentation is all you can do. There are no “right” answers. A tomato is no longer just a tomato.

In my efforts to understand the Art, I have seven tomato plants growing at home. Six of them are in raised beds I built from repurposed pallets.

A Gold Medal and a Black Prince share one bed. A Gardener’s Sweetheart and a Black Cherry share another. These tomatoes are planted in a 1:1 mixture of organic potting soil reclaimed from last year and seasoned cow manure compost.

The tomatoes growing in an experimental mixture of workshop dirt and manure.

The tomatoes growing in an experimental mixture of workshop dirt and manure.

Two Gardener’s Sweethearts share the third bed. They are planted in an experimental 1:1 mixture of compost and dirt reclaimed from my workshop floor. I wouldn’t call it “soil” yet.

The seventh plant is a mystery. It was labeled “Glacier” but didn’t look like any of the other Glacier plants. So Matthew gave it to me to grow out. It’s planted in a 1:1 mixture of new organic soil and manure, in a 10 gallon pot. If it is a Glacier variety, it’s semi-determinate and should do fine in the pot.

“Just experiment and see what happens.” Right.

Here we go.

Categories: compost, Finding Fruition, food, garden | 2 Comments

Spinach

That gnarly bed of spinach.

Our gnarly bed of spinach.

It’s funny what you end up learning on the farm on any given day.

Today we learned about spinach. Not because that was the plan. It’s just what we happened to notice.

While putting up the hoop house, I walked by a bed full of tall, green, gnarly looking plants. I thought it was spinach.

“Is this spinach?” I asked.

“That is spinach,” replied Matthew.

Spinach is dioecious, having separate male and female plants. When it comes time to bolt, male plants send up stems with countless staminate flowers along its length.

Pisitllate flowers on a female plant.

Pisitllate flowers on a female plant.

Male plants can be “extreme”, flowering early and for only a short period of time; or “vegetative”, flowering later but for much longer. In either case, their pollen is very light and predominantly transferred by wind to the female.

The female plants send up a stem with pistillate flowers along its length. They typically flower at the same time as the “vegetative” males. In our field, the females appeared much shorter than the male plants.

In both males and females, the flowers are dull and look more like plain, little buds. Because spinach cross pollinates by wind, the flowers don’t have to be showy to attract insects.

Spinach is typically a cool-weather, leafy annual. The plant originated from the Middle East and evolved to produce seed before the start of the hottest and driest weather; the seed would lay dormant until the cool, wet season returned.

Our modern spinach generally follows this same cycle: it bolts as we move into summer. This is caused by the increased amount of daylight. But heat can contribute to the speed of bolting once flowering has begun.

spinach2

Pollen from the spinach.

“Is that a male plant?” I asked.

Kim gave the tall, budded stem a good whack. A cloud of pollen burst into the air and slowly began to drift away.

“That is a male plant,” she replied.

“Just be sure you’re sending pollen in the right direction,” said Matthew.

Smart-ass comments are a common price we pay for getting smarter at the farm.

**
Additional Info:
Navazio, J. (2012). The Organic Seed Grower.

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Racing the Rain

A diluted fish and kelp emulsion.

A diluted fish and kelp emulsion.

We raced the rain today. Dark clouds were gathering strength by the time I arrived this morning.

“Moist soil is great for transplanting,” said Matthew. “Wet soil is not.”

In front of us were trays of young plants: King Crimson peppers, Violetta Lunga eggplant, and a variety of tomatoes simply called “Italian Heirloom”. Probably because whoever originally passed on the tomato seed didn’t know what variety they really were.

All of these plants needed to get in the ground before the skies opened up. Which sounds easy enough. But consider this: putting these plants in this field was never part of the original plan. There was some rearranging to do.

There was old row cover to tear up and new row cover to put down. New holes to cut in the cover with our knives. New holes to dig in the soil by trowel and hand.

There was compost to haul to the field in an old wheelbarrow, from the giant pile at the other end of the warehouse. We put a handful in each hole we made, mixed it into soil with our fingers.

There was fish and kelp emulsion to spray on the transplants to ease their transition. Stress is inevitable when moving plants from pot to earth. Spraying this nutrient mixture on their roots helps to minimize the shock. We popped the plants from their containers and lay one by each hole, soaking their roots one by one with a backpack sprayer.

The transfer from pot to earth.

The transfer from pot to earth.

And then, finally, we placed the plants in the ground. Tickling their roots lightly, giving them permission to grow in directions other than the shape of the pot. Massaging soil and compost into place. Covering the plants deep enough to keep the potting soil from wicking moisture up and way from the roots.

Rumblings of thunder made us stop and look up from our work. The clouds were closing in with streaks of rain. We ran and grabbed our rain gear. But at the last minute, the clouds turned north and moved along the other side of the ridge. We watched them break up and soften along their new path.

A lucky break.

But in the distance new clouds were gathering, dark bellies full of thunder.

Back to work. The race wasn’t over yet.

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