Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jump Starting Old Seeds

 Quite a few of the seeds that came in the forgotten box my Mom dropped off are several years past the "sell by" date. Just as hybrid strains (and GMO's fall in this category)are required to be labeled, the date on those packets are also mandated. Seed companies are required to do germination testing on their seed stock. If the variety passes the allotted germination rate, the seeds are then packaged and that lovely "sell by" date is applied.

 The date can vary, and more importantly, the date does not indicate the actual age of the seeds. Different species equip their seeds with a variety of built in safety mechanisms. Some are designed to withstand long storage until just the right triggers are pulled. Some won't activate unless chemical changes come about after a set amount of "chill hours".. aka exposure to cold.  There are even seeds that won't sprout until exposed to high temperatures (quite clever for reforesting after a wildfire I think).

 What all seeds have in common are energy reserves that allow them to hold dormancy for whatever length and provide the energy needed to break through the seed coat, send out roots and grow. When you are dealing with old seeds the mystery is... does it have enough reserves to sprout? 

 Many species are held for quite a few years before even being put up for the germination tests and later to be sold. As long as they pass the germination test, depending on region they are listed to be sold for the next year to year and a half. Exceptions would be hermetically sealed containers (think "life lock") some of which can list a sell by date 36 months from the date of testing (not including the month it was tested).

 This is why you simply can't beat saving your own seeds. You can't accurately estimate how long purchased seeds will retain what percentage of viability over the years. Improperly placed seed racks also can do damage, something to keep in mind when you make purchases. Seed racks are placed in locations based off of grabbing a customer's attention and nothing more. Temperature fluctuations, moisture exposure and even light can significantly reduce viability of even fresh seed. Self saved seeds, properly stored in many cases can easily hold much longer than the low ball estimates of the generic seed viability storage charts.

 In the case where you find an old stash.. like we seem to regularly do.. there are a few tricks to try to coax life out of them. You won't get miraculous germination rates.. but it does give you a chance that otherwise wouldn't be there.

 Jump starting old seeds. When energy reserves are dwindled, they are much like a car that has been sitting for too long. You put in the key, the dash lights up, but not enough juice to turn the engine over. A way to give them a boost is to soak the seeds in water with just a touch of liquid fertilizer for a few hours and then place them in a medium to germinate.

 The process of soaking the seeds help soften the seed coat as well offering nutrients that otherwise may be too depleted. Only a very tiny amount of liquid fertilizer is needed. I mean very tiny.. mainly because nitrogen can burn. Think 2 drops of organic liquid sea kelp fertilizer to 1 cup of water.

  I use vermicompost tea (NOT leachate) for a couple of reasons. It is mild enough that burning is not an issue, it is what I have readily on hand, and it contains a rather balanced assortment of nutrients with the bonus of naturally occurring plant hormones. Vermicompost has it's own issues however. While the digestive tract of earthworms can clear some diseases, they also are able to spread many soil born plant pathogens. 

 After soaking you want to place the seeds in a medium that keeps barely damp (but not wet), relatively sterile (soil less) and protected. Some opt for using a paper towel and placing it in plastic bags. This does work well, and makes it easy to determine percentages of what has sprouted. I hate using plastic bags unless I have to, and any container with a lid works too.  If you have different colored permanent markers (or sharpie pens), you can write on the towel the seed variety and the date started. 

 A bit of a problem with using paper towels is that the roots will go right into them and if the seeds are not spaced enough apart, and if not relocated soon after breaking the seed coat, they can be difficult to separate. With enough room you can cut or tear these individual seedlings apart from the others, making sure you do not harm the root. The root is covered in micro-fine hairs and is quite delicate. You do not need to remove the paper towel, but you do need to make sure to completely cover it with soil when replanting (otherwise exposed bits of paper towel will act as a wick drawing moisture away from the seedling).

 Something that I will be experimenting with more is using a shallow lidded container and playground sand or rated sand. Rated sand is graded by particle size and is usually kiln dried. Although this takes up more room, the sand can be heated again in my oven to sterilize so it can be reused.  Teasing apart the seedlings is easier is another bonus.

 I just hate going through a ton of paper towels and even worse the plastic bags. You can't quite reuse the bags unless you dip them in a bleach solution as molds are a problem. Containers as well should be cleaned out when reusing. Damping off is a fungus that spreads like wildfire and wipes out seedlings in a flash.


Random thoughts...

 I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing odd things like this. I have to admit my vermicompost bin is always full of unintentional experiments. Harvesting 10 pounds of potatoes from a bit of potato peelings that sprouted in the bin so far has been the biggest pleasant surprise.

 I left my worms in Colorado. The ones I composted with I had collected from my yard, but bringing them out here seemed wrong as they are prolific invasives. I will start it up again with what is here.. if any are here. I have about 50 pounds of vermicompost that has been screened and frozen solid to get started with.. and that is hopefully enough.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Just a few bags of seeds... and Otto

  My stash of seeds are sitting there, ready for their chance. The propagation unit as of yet is still in pieces as one of the major quirks this place has is the undulating floors. There is enough snow outside that the thought of building a cold frame, a raised bed is quickly thwarted. The only thing you can construct out there is possibly a snowman replica of the terra cotta army.

 The humidity is indeed novel. I never paid much heed to it growing up, but returning to it after almost a decade it is amazing. The landscape is swallowed up at night frequently by thick intense blankets of fog. The deep cold able to freeze the moisture and suddenly you are standing in a vortex of swirling glitter. Then reality kicks in and I race inside for something warm to drink, right after I hit up the Kleenex. 

  The anticipation has me constantly checking on my seeds. Each one with their own built in life force energy reserves, just waiting for the signal to go. They are sorted and organized, they are currently the only things sorted and organized around here. Cool season crops, warm season crops.. then further divided up and grouped together according to species & strains. 

 This would be the reorganization I should say.. as my Mom paid us a visit just the other day. She had found a box that had her seed stash in it and she is unsure of their viability. Aside from packets, there are jars and ziplock bags of seeds from neighbors and friends... of which the year is a mystery. The box with "just a few bags of seeds" is like Christmas. Can't open it until a certain date.. don't know what's inside and after that the challenge of seeing what sparks of life can be fanned into flame.

 Bringing the seeds over was an excuse. What she really wanted to show me was her new dog. He's not quite 1 1/2 years old and he's from the local shelter. A coonhound mix (that thumping sound you hear is my head repeatedly hitting the desk).. he's a problem child that was returned a few times. Well, he has his forever home now but this is going to be interesting. 

 In less than 2 seconds from entering our door he managed to leap over the couch into the boxed off "dog tail free" zone.. where I had my seeds. My boxes, packets, piles, etc. went flying everywhere. 

 This little boy is going to need some training and to have his energy run out of him. His temporary name is Otto... which does not fit and we have yet to come up with one that does. I keep leaning towards Fletcher or even more so Sabre. He's tall and thin.. so a wild guess is greyhound is in the mix. You can't miss the coonhound in him though.. and he stabs you with his nose (his nose that is in overdrive checking everything) as well he is a nibbler. Like a clingy little kid.. he gently bites on to your sleeve to hold on to you. He has enough energy that at any moment I wonder if he is going to go all super Nova on us and explode.

 The name Otto... it makes me think of my Mom's cousin. If I had to stick a dog with that name it would be an older rottweiler that is laid back.. and usually found snoring and farting. No doubt and no matter what his name will be... we will be the ones watching him when needed. Getting him to focus will be interesting to say the least. He knows "sit"... sort of. Ask for his paw.. and he will lay down. His nose.. it consumes his attention entirely.. and maybe now we may have just found the means for my Mom to locate the tv remote. 

 I have compost already started. Not enough materials yet to build a pile that could defy the winter, but I am working on it. Critter proofing is a high priority out here. Not only to keep the woodland scavengers out, but the biggest troublemakers of all... my sister's dog and no doubt the overly curious new addition. (My poor dog went from being the youngster, to the old man.. but out of them all he is still the best dog ever.)

 As sort of a clarification about the previous post.. this is where I get torn..  I understand not wanting additional legislation but the problem was ignored to the extent where now only radical action is the only option. As the population grows at the rate that it is.. and controlling the growth of the population is taboo to even speculate on.. lack of resources becomes an issue. 

 Water in many places is taken for granted as being plentiful. Fresh, clean and safe is expected.. demanded.. an unalienable right in many of our minds. Tapped into city water supplies, only when the bill arrives is the concept of reducing use brought to mind. Unless a well runs dry or is contaminated.. that too is not given much thought. 

 The pond in the backyard of the home I grew up in is a perfect example of what's going on in general. It was a typical murky fresh water pond filled with bluegills, crappie, frogs, crayfish and the like.. it was very alive... and diverse. All the neighbors who lived along the pond mowed their own lawns, raked their own leaves, etc. When 1 family got a lawn service.. that sprayed their yard and kept it emerald green even through summer's sweltering times.. that chemical lawn service got more customers. The rains would come and the pond would turn green with algae from the fertilizer run off. The fish, the frogs, the crayfish started to die off. The mosquitoes, which were always plentiful, were now in obscenely big swarms. So they began to spray..   The luxury of a super green lawn killed the pond. Every solution except giving up their swatches of perfect blades of grass was and still is explored. I can tell you that almost every neighbor around that pond... their dogs got cancer. Ours included. 

 This is what is happening to the watersheds and underground reservoirs. Some areas are more aware of limited water than others. Indeed in Colorado, the rain that falls on your roof in a storm isn't even yours to collect, yet ironically they will dump over a million gallons to flush out a water system. 

 Pressed for time, hard up for currency.. the fast and easiest choices often leave us with a huge price to pay later. The band aid to address the situation instead of solving the problem just leads to needing a bigger box of band aids. 

 While I'd rather not have more legislation.. there is not enough time to ignore it. There are too many people chasing the bottom line to see the effect of their actions until forced.

 Thankfully... there are a lot of people out there taking heed. To those people who grow their own when they can, and do what they can in regards to so many things..  you are amazing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ordering Trees and Rights or Runoff

  We are still tackling the house, struggling through sub-zero temperatures and lots and lots of snow. None of this would bother me quite as much if only I had my seed catalogs to peruse. So while the catalogs have all been reordered, I've been shopping online.

 It's really easy to get carried away or just not realize just how much you have ordered and what it will take to get it all planted.  You'd think I'd remember that and rein myself in... but no. I popped the seeds that need to be cold treated into the fridge, grabbed the debit card, glanced over my notes and then hit the net.

 "Only get a few to start with" I may have muttered that as I was logging into the net.. it seems my definition of "few" saplings are:
  • 6 apple 
  • 3 pear
  • 4 cherry
  • 2 apricot
  • 3 plum
  • 4 hazelnut
  • 2 elderberry
  • 2 crabapple

 Some of those seeds in my fridge... several hundred blueberry and blackberry. I really need to look into learning some self control. The blueberry I am not too worried about as my sister repeatedly stated she'd love to get "as many as you are willing to part with".  Elderberry.. I don't know why I ordered them. We already have them here, a lot of them. The ones we have are "wild" and I suppose I am a bit curious to see what a cultivated strain has to offer.

 I happened to wander across an article written by Bob Stallman, who is the President of the American Farm Bureau that kinda made me shake my head. While I am opposed to any additional regulations & laws typically.. which is in agreement with his point of view as far as that is concerned.. I can't help but be a bit amazed at something he glosses over. It is about regulating runoff into a watershed. Conventional farming practices.. commercial techniques.. is a problem. A problem so huge that the damage the runoff has done can be seen from space.

 At the mouth of the Mississippi, where the river runs off into the Gulf of Mexico, there is a massive dead zone. Pretty common knowledge, and it is so big it can be seen from space.. so it is a huge problem. As the Mississippi runs through the heart of agricultural lands in this country, the excess fertilizers and chemicals run off and make their way to the river and then to the ocean. 

 When you use synthetic fertilizers, they provide a temporary fix and  not a long term solution. In addition, conventional animal farming crams a lot of animals into minimal space resulting in many issues with their waste. It is a massive problem and having driven past more than a few feed lots between CO and IL, it is a problem you can smell miles before you see it. (Btw.. did you know it is illegal to take pictures of feedlots?)

 This is where I get conflicted. While I'd rather not see more legislation, the dead zone has been around for decades now and farming tactics haven't changed an iota to heal that ecological wound. Without legislation or the threat of it... those harming the Chesapeake Bay aren't likely to change their ways. 

 Large corporations and their stranglehold on many farmers doesn't help much either. The price we pay for being so alienated from our food sources is too big to ignore. Although it seems that instead of supporting independent farmers, they are being forced to sell out to major companies as they do not have the finances to oppose them.

 Which brings me back around to buying a side of beef. What I love about this... is that my sister knows the farmer well. By the time it is purchased and processed it isn't going to be any less expensive, but at least now I'll know where it was raised, by whom it was raised, how it is raised and until I can raise my own... I am good with that.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

 Still crazy busy here and every time we think we have 1 thing tackled a whole lot more fills our "to do right this very instant" list.

 Packing was insane and even though we tried to keep organized, near the end some boxes didn't get labeled and contain jumbled contents. Every square inch of the 26 foot truck was occupied even though we donated many many things including a lot of furniture!

 Finished packing at 3am, grabbed breakfast and got ready to go when... the truck wouldn't start. It was too cold and the diesel truck was as dead as a doornail. Got it jumped and were on the road several hours later. Spent the night in Des Moines and woke up to a blizzard. Drove the rest of the way on ice covered, white out, unplowed roads... white knuckle driving. It was treacherous and a very long drive when going 40mph is too fast.

 The farm we were to stay at... not an option to go to as it was snowed in. The little house in town is on a hill and there was no way to get the truck there.. so off to the 20 acre farm we went. My car just barely was able to make it because the snow was so deep. 

 My Mom had flown back from NY to IL two days before we got there. My other sister in WI was watching my Mom's dogs.. and got back home from work one day to discover the older dog had raided the trash can. (The can was put in a closed room... but it has those lever handles. He figured out how to open the door.) He was sick... deathly ill. Despite rushing him to the vet and getting him on meds for pancreatitis.. after 2 weeks he had to be put down.. right before Christmas.

 We moved into the small house in town so it is easier for our daughter to get to and from school. The town is so small that kindergarten through 12th grade is all the same building! We met all of the teachers, who we like a lot.. and upon seeing my daughter, the gym teacher ran up and immediately asked "Do you play basketball?!?" She looked like she won the lottery... only to find out her ticket was for the wrong week. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. My daughter is tall.. but coordination is not one of her strong points. 

 My daughter sticks out like a sore thumb at the school. She likes that aspect and sees it as an admirable quality. One of her Christmas gifts was a English-Japanese dictionary... which she was and still is extremely excited about. She's tall, she's pretty... and she's a super geek.

 Well... I'd best get back to tackling things here. This is a quick list of what we are trying to attack 

  • large farm house and small house in town.. pipes froze. Fixing the plumbing
  • roof on small house was incorrectly done...major leak in the mud room
  • roots and cracked sewer line...  oh this one is a gift that just keeps giving
  • mold ... due to water in the basement
  • 3 houses.. 2 washers are broken, all 3 dryers, furnace in the small farm, 2 water heaters
  • cleaning and fixing the small house (was a rental property.. previous tenants were horrid.. all carpets are being replaced due to their pets)
  • tracking down our tenant for our place as he moved in and didn't sign a contract
  • 2 broken windows
 That's the cliff notes on this chaos. Even though it made the situation that we ended up having Christmas on the 26th and at my sister's house.. we are determined. I made a 24 pound turkey and all of the sides.. lol and my brother-in-law got called off to a fire.. my sister got called in to translate at the jail... both made it back just as I was pulling the bird out of the oven.

 Back to work I go. If anything.. this situation reminds me to not take a lot of things for granted!