Seeds of Hope

ljp_seedcatalogsI couldn’t believe it when we were socked by about a foot of snow last week! Just when I was finally up for ordering seeds and getting ready for this year’s garden – splat!

But Sunday the temperatures soared to nearly early summer averages, and the last of the snow melted away. Time at last to get down to business and order some seeds.

March isn’t too early to start cool season veggies. In USDA zones 6-7, St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day to plant your peas. Other crops to sow outside around now are carrots, turnips, lettuce and other greens. March is also the time to start your tomatoes and peppers indoors.

So if, like me, you haven’t yet ordered your seeds, do so ASAP! To help get you on your way, here are a few of my favorite seed sources:

Pinetree is great for limited space gardeners, since their seed packs are small and inexpensive. The Cook’s Garden catalog includes lots of yummy recipes, as well as nice seed offerings. Each of the sources above has a wide variety of vegetable, herb and flower seed, from wonderful old heirlooms to this year’s latest new selections.

So what are you waiting for? Get your seeds now – I know I will.

Winter of Our Discontent

Sorry I’ve been totally AWOL for months. This early, frigid winter really got me down. First frost weeks ahead of usual, temperatures as low as 20F below normal. The kind of thing that really kicks a gardener in the gut!

But every now and then a warm spell (and some sprouting spring bulbs) revives my hope. I better get on the stick and order some seeds! Seed catalogs started arriving back in December, and it’s really just about time to sow the early spring veggies outside and start transplants indoors.

I promise I’ll buck up and write about some of my favorite catalogs real soon, along with something on my favorite tomato varieties. That should help get my gardening juices flowing again. :)

(Un)fried Green Tomatoes

Yesterday I talked about saving tomato seeds. Something else to consider at the end of tomato season is what to do with those unripe green tomatoes that are left on the vine. You can prolong the season a bit by draping sheets over your plants at night when frost threatens, but sooner or later frost will do in your plants. Is there anything you can do to salvage those unripe fruits?

Well sure, there are two things you can do: Eat the green tomatoes or ripen them indoors.

For eating, unripe tomatoes make me think of very meaty sweet peppers. Some of the things you can do with those green beauties is make relish, soup, cake, or the old standby fried green tomatoes. Check out some of the possibilities at About.com’s Green Tomato Recipes or do a search at your favorite recipe site.

If you have your heart set on ripe tomatoes, you’ve got a few choices:

  1. Do you have a cool cellar or basement? Then pull up the whole tomato plant and hang it upside down in your subterranean vegetable haven. The fruits will ripen on the vine.
  2. Another alternative is to harvest the green tomatoes and set them anywhere out of direct sunlight to ripen. I have some right now on a tray on my kitchen counter. Be sure that the individual fruits do not touch one another.
  3. If you have a lot of green tomatoes to store, wrap each fruit in a sheet of newspaper and loosely pack the tomatoes – up to three deep – in a paper bag, cardboard box, or wooden crate. If you wrap your unripe tomatoes and store them in a bag or box, be sure to check on them every week or so and remove any fruit that is threatening to go bad.

BTW, some tomatoes are specially bred to keep indoors. Longkeeper is a nice orange-skinned heirloom tomato that will keep for up to three months. One year when I’d grown Longkeeper, I had fresh tomatoes into January. Seed is pretty widely available. One source is Nichols Garden Nursery, which is an excellent all-around seed supplier that also has some nice unusual offerings.

Saving Tomato Seeds (yuck!)

OK, are you ready for some fun? Saving tomato seeds is not as quick and clean as saving most other kinds of seed. The secret to successful tomato seed-saving is fermentation, which takes time and can be quite, shall we say, aromatic.

Begin by choosing a very good-looking fully ripe fruit from your best, healthiest plant. (Remember to use only nonhybrid varieties.) Then cut the fruit in half through its “equator” (separating the top and the bottom). Scoop out all the gel and seeds and put the whole goopy mess into a bowl or glass jar. Go ahead and eat the rest of the tomato.

If the seeds aren’t floating at the top of the gel-and-seed goo, add a little water, anywhere from a couple tablespoons to a half cup or so. Cover the bowl or jar with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Then place the container in a warm spot, preferably where you won’t mind getting an occasional whiff of fermenting tomato goo. Let the stuff do its thing for 2-4 days.

At the end of the fermentation, the seeds will have sunk to the bottom of the container and the liquid will be covered with a lovely scum of gel and mold. Remove the scum skin and toss it, then drain off as much of the upper liquid as you can without pouring out any of the seeds. Separate the seeds from the remaining liquid by pouring what’s left into a fine sieve. Rinse the seeds in the sieve with warm water to clean the seeds completely.

Once the seeds are cleaned off, spread them on a paper plate. Put the plate in a warm, dry place. Shake the plate or stir the seeds every couple days to help the seeds dry evenly. After about a week – or more, if it’s humid – the seeds should be thoroughly dry. Put the dry seed in an envelope or glass jar, and store in a cool, dry place.

Phew!!! That’s a lot more involved then shaking dry chive seeds from a chive blossom, but that effort will be well worth it next year when you want to grow that heirloom tomato that’s been in your family for generations. :)

The Frost Is On The Pumpkin

And that means it’s time to save your squash and pumpkin seeds for next year’s sowing. For winter squash and pumpkins, select mature fruits from your healthiest plants (one or two will do). For summer squash, let the fruit of a healthy plant mature – it’ll get really big and will develop a hard rind, kind of like a winter squash. Seed harvesting for all squash and pumpkins then goes like this:

  1. Cut the fruits and let them dry in the field or in a cool, dry place.
  2. Open up the fruits and scoop out the seeds.
  3. Wash and rinse the seeds thoroughly in warm – not hot – water. A little soap in the wash water is fine, but no harsh detergents. Work rather quickly, not letting the seeds soak up the water.
  4. Drain the seeds and maybe blot with a towel or paper towels.
  5. Spread the seeds out on a screen and keep them in a cool, dry place.
  6. For the first couple days, stir the seeds once a day, turning them over on the screen.
  7. Let the seeds dry for about 3 weeks, then store them in an envelope or jar.

And there you are! One thing you need to keep in mind, though, is that you’ll want to save the seed only of non-hybrid varieties. Hybrids will almost certainly not breed true, and the results of planting saved seed from hybrids is bound to be disappointing. But you’ll be quite pleased with the saved seed from open-pollinated varieties, such as Small Sugar Pumpkin, Howden Pumpkin, Waltham Butternut Squash, Queensland Blue Squash, and Black Zucchini.

Butterflies of Autumn

The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.  ~Rabindranath Tagore

Monarch on a Tithonia

Monarch on a Tithonia

It’s autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, and migrating butterflies are on the move. Monarchs are probably the most famous lepidopteral nomads, but now’s a good time to see more than just monarchs. In my yard lately, I’m seeing monarchs, several types of sulphurs, black swallowtails, grey hairstreaks, and American painted ladies. In past years I’ve also seen plenty of common buckeyes and several kinds of skippers.

To attract butterflies to your autumn garden, be sure to have nectar plants for the adult butterflies and host plants for their caterpillars. Some good nectar sources for this time of year are goldenrod, tithonia, sedums, and Montauk daisies and other autumn-blooming composites, such as asters. Host plants include milkweed, New Jersey tea, and members of the carrot family such as parsley, fennel, and Queen Anne’s lace.

After this season winds down, I’ll put together more info on creating a butterfly garden so you can prepare for next season. In the meantime, check out Butterflies and Moths of North America. If you live outside North America, use your favorite search engine to search on “butterflies of [continent]“, where [continent] is the name of the continent you live on. And go out and enjoy the lovely fluttery beauties that are visiting your neighborhood!

Time, Time, Time…

Phew, it’s been nearly a month since my last post! Gardening and butterfly-watching have been taking up a lot of my time (and a week-long business trip ate up quite a few days as well).

In a couple days, I’ll post some butterfly photos and give some tips on putting together a butterfly garden. And I haven’t forgotten about my promised post on saving seeds from fruiting veggies such as tomatoes and squash.