The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for ‘Seed saving organizations’ category

Stumbling into plant breeding – cucumber Damascus

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

My Damascus cucumber is not an heirloom, but it certainly can be called “rare”. I purchased the original seed in 1978 from Nichols Garden Nursery. This variety disappeared from trade shortly thereafter. I had saved seed from it for a few seasons before I noticed that it had been listed as a hybrid. Funny, it has always been pretty stable for me – I guess after 30 years I can safely say it’s been true-lined (meaning it’s now open-pollinated).

Looking back I’m really glad I didn’t notice that it was listed as a hybrid, because I would have missed out on this variety entirely. In the first place, I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it wasn’t open-pollinated, nor would I have tried to save seed from a hybrid at that time. Now I know better.

Cucumber DamascusCucumber Damascus

Cucumber Damascus

Anyhow, this is a Middle-Eastern type, intended for salads (a “slicing” cuke). Damascus is smooth and thin skinned (no peeling necessary), and crisp with a nice clean cuke flavor (no bitterness or muskiness). I have never grown a better tasting salad cucumber.

It’s about 57 days to first harvest. Obviously it does well for us here, or we wouldn’t have kept it 30 years. However, I shared seed with a gardener in a warmer clime who had disease problems with it. This has led me to wonder, if this variety is particularly susceptible:

1. Could it be that disease is present here, but since our growing season is so short, the disease is not expressed before the foliage is hit by frost anyway;

2. Or, perhaps the disease is not present here, again because of the short, cool growing season.

I dunno. I do think it’s a good example of how a variety can be great in one location, and quite unsuited to another – an argument for being skeptical about increasingly centralized “one size fits all” plant breeding. Unfortunately, that’s where the most money is for commercial breeding, not with maintaining or developing oddball local varieties.

Will the real Vermont Cranberry bean please stand up?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

My first exposure to the miasma that is vegetable variety names was in the 80s, and had to do with some fine baked beans grown and cooked up by a couple of roommates of mine nearly ten years earlier, in Lyndonville, VT. They called them “Vermont Cranberry” beans. When I began to grok seed saving and heirloom plants, one of the first plants I was looking for was this bean. I figured they were called “Cranberry” due to the bean’s predominately cranberry/maroon color.

My quest was not as simple as I expected. I first tried “Vermont Cranberry” pole beans purchased from the Vermont Bean Seed Company, but these were nothing like what I remembered – the beans were not as elongated, and they had a bright pink cast with maroon streaking. I grew them out, but was not impressed.

Then, there’s also the “True Red Cranberry” bean which actually looks like a cranberry both in form and color, and has northern New England origins, with some sources saying Vermont. I haven’t grown this one, but it’s definitely not the bean I remembered.

Through Seed Saver’s Exchange Grower’s Network, I grew out “Vermont Cranberry” BN-269, which is yer basic horticultural bush bean. The next year, through SSE, I got “Vermont Cranberry Bush” from a grower in Oregon, very like in form to BN-269, but with beans that had the bright pink cast of the “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans from Vermont Bean Seed Company. Still no joy…

Smith's is very productiveThis a really tall pole bean that needs good support

Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole beans

About that time I went out in earnest in search of heirlooms in my neighborhood, and found plenty. In 1985, I discovered that one of Lyndonville’s most colorful characters was a great gardener. The embodiment of extreme Vermont thrift, Alfred Smith saved his own seed, much of which was handed down from his parents. Alfred was known to most everybody who traveled though town regularly due to his annoying habit of driving his very old tractor, with wagon and chain saw, slowly through the main thoroughfares, constantly scavenging firewood all around town. Anyway, he had what he called “Vermont Cranberry Pole” beans that had been in his family for as long as he could remember.

Smith's flowers

Flowers of
Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole bean

These are some excellent beans. Alfred used them as a dry bean, as we do. The plants and the beans are large, the vigor is very good, it’s prolific, and early enough to mature here – about 95 days to harvest for dry beans. Perhaps the color of the mature pods is the reason for “cranberry” in its name. After my experiences, though, I was hesitant to put this bean into the SSE network as “Vermont Cranberry Pole” so I dubbed it “Smith’s Vermont Cranberry Pole,” now aka BEAN 4315 in the Seed Savers Exchange.

These were still not the beans I remembered, but a year later I did find what I was looking for, not much more than a mile away from our home in Wheelock, at one of the last dairy farms left in our town, and going by a different name – “the Johnson” bean. Pat Wiley’s mother had been growing it nearby in Barnet VT when Pat was growing up, and Pat continued to grow it here in Wheelock.

Two heirloom beans from my neighborhood

Left, Smith’s Vermont Cranberry; right, the Johnson

Pat didn’t know what “Johnson” referred to, just that her mother always called them “the Johnson Bean.” For years I have wondered whether Johnson was a family name, or was Johnson VT, but I recently came across this seed listing from Victory Seeds, which makes me strongly suspect that Pat’s beans had to do with Johnson VT, about 40 miles west of us. Here’s Victory’s catalog description for “Gross Brothers Cranberry” bean:

65 to 85 days — An heirloom variety that was sent to us several years back by a gardening friend. She rescued it from an older gardener who has since passed away but who had grown it for many years in the short gardening season of the Cold Hollow Mountain region near Enosburgh, Vermont. Introduced commercial by us in 2007. We have been growing out limited quantities and are making them available to home gardeners. The seeds are buff and heavily mottled with cranberry coloring. They are used as green beans when young or dried. There are four to five seeds per five inch pod. The plants are upright and do not require support.

Victory’s bean photo for “Gross Brother’s Cranberry” looks exactly like “the Johnson”, the plant description matches, and Johnson VT is just a few miles from Enosburg. Best of all, “the Johnson” is the bean I remember from the 70s in Lyndonville (as “Vermont Cranberry”). Sorry I don’t have photos of the plants themselves. They’re scheduled for grow-out this next season, and I’ll be doing more thorough photo documentation at that time.

After a few years of exploring for heirlooms in northeastern Vermont, I came to the conclusion that the terms “cranberry” and “Vermont cranberry” were liberally applied to nearly any old horticultural-type bean – or should I say any bean with horticultural-type markings… and there were and are lots of them. Yes, it can all be pretty confusing, but that is the nature of heirloom plant names… and you never know what amazing plants you’ll find along the way if you set out on a quest like this one.

Sugarloaf chicory – Blanc de Milan

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

This is the time of year for one of my favorite greens, sugarloaf-type chicory (chicorium intybus). There is no lettuce that can compare to a sugarloaf’s crunchy, very sweet and faintly bitter taste, in my humble opinion. Best of all, it’s early December and we are still harvesting sugarloaves right out of the garden, no greenhouse or coldframe.

Snow covers a bed of sugarloaf chicoryBeneath the snow and leaved are delicious greens

We’ve had a few nights down to about 10 degrees F, but a thick covering of maple leaves is keeping the sugarloaves in good shape, and a pea fence laid over the top prevents the deer (who are especially fond of these chicories) from getting them all before we do. There is now some damage to the heads from freezing, but with a little trimming, there are still plenty of crisp, sweet leaves. What’s in the colander below is one untrimmed head, which is plenty for a two person salad.

Ready to trim

I have been working on establishing a naturalised population of sugarloaves in our gardens, with good success, though I’m still trying to understand their cycles better. My limited understanding is not a hindrance, though, because they seem to like it here and do just fine on their own.

We have about 4 different patches, corresponding to 4 different parent varieties: Greenlof, Cornet D’Anjou, Sugarhat, and Blanc de Milan. There is, of course, crossing going on, which is fine – I’m not maintaining a particular variety. I want to develop a hardy strain for our garden.

Blanc de Milan

Blanc de Milan, featured in all the photos here, is the latest strain to be added to the mix, and I am very impressed with it. Above is a cheesecake photo of a primo specimen harvested several weeks ago. Notice the curving, wide leaf veins, the curling leaf edges, the nice thick cylindrical form, and the shear size of it – now that’s what I like in a chicory!

Purchased seed was sown in 2006, and the plants that survived the winter unprotected bolted in 2007. I pushed the tall seed stalks over towards another part of the bed, collected some seed and allowed some seed to fall on to the soil in the bed. The plants here are from the seed that fell, so I guess you could call them volunteers, except that I aimed the mother plants.

Two sibling potatoes from seed

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

In 1994, I grew out some true seed taken from Blue Shetland potatoes in our garden. Of the 24 seedlings, we selected six to grow a second season, and of those six, we have kept two over the years.

The Blue Shetlands, the parent, came originally from Will Bonsal in Maine via the Seed Saver’s Exchange, and have dark violet skin, yellow flesh, and a tendency to have a violet ring. Seed was collected from the plants in 1987. Blue Shetlands have some of what I call “primitive” potato characteristics, compared to the modern potato varieties most people grow. The more primitive potatoes tend to have smaller tubers, the leaves are a bit smaller in proportion to the stalks, and eyes deeper. They also may send the tubers out through the soil further away from the above ground part of the plant, so finding them all can be a challenge, especially the dark blue skinned types.

So, here’s our Purple Gold, a bit lighter and redder skinned than the parent’s dark violet, but the same yellow flesh, and tendency to have a purple ring.

Purple Gold potatoesPurple Gold potato foliage

…and Rose Gold, a reddish version. I love the rose star in the flesh. They both have that rich yellow-flesh potato flavor – our favorite for skillet fries and potato salad.

Rose Gold potatoesRose Gold potato foliage

If you do grow potatoes from true seed, when you judge the offspring, first look for culinary characteristics that you like, even if the tubers are smaller than you want. It can take a few seasons of growing out for a potato variety to really show its full potential for tuber size and yield.

Overwintering cabbage

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

I worry about brassicas and onions. They are such important plants, and very few seed savers are working with them. The rate that the commercially available open pollinated varieties are disappearing is really scary. Brassicas and onions can be pretty fussy to grow seed and maintain purity, so it’s not hard to figure out why seed savers grow lots of tomato and bean varieties, but very few cabbages for seed.

I have a couple of good strains of kale I’ve been working with for about 10 years, and have had some success growing broccoli seed, though not consistently. I haven’t had any success with growing seed from heading cabbage – I can’t seem to maintain the plants in a root cellar over winter in good enough condition to get healthy seed the next year. So, I have had a strong interest in finding a hardy enough heading cabbage to overwinter here in the garden. The bummer is, I’ve finally found one, and now I can’t find a source for the seed in the US or Canada. The most recent edition of The Garden Seed Inventory has it on the no longer commercially available list. Yet, there seem to be plenty of commercial offerings for this variety in the UK.

cabbage July 2007

Cabbage Offenham July 2007. It was the only seedling that survived the first winter from an in situ sowing August 2006. The plant yielded one nice, sweet, medium sized conical head in October 2007. (Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of it.) The heads have a strong resemblance to Early Jersey Wakefield, though Offenham plants are larger framed.

cabbage July 2008

July 2008, the plant had survived a second Vermont winter with no protection. I was impressed. I then expected it to bolt in 2008, but low and behold, it made 5 or 6 lovely little pointed heads this September and October, and it is continuing to throw shoots up from the roots and stalks.

cabbage Sept 2008cabbage multi head detail

Over wintering cabbages are also called spring cabbages. In warmer climates than ours, they are sown in August for heads in the late spring, and the smaller heads cut again in the fall. So, I’m wondering if I hadn’t cut the first head (in Sept. 2007) if it might have sent up a seed stalk last spring. It’s kind of a moot point because there’s only the one plant. (I like to have at least 6 plants for brassica olearica seed production). One way or another, I’ll have to find some more Offenham seed to plant next August…

Dangerous parsnips

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Parsnip flowersParsnip leaves

I finally unravelled a mystery that had me baffled for 20 years.

Our winters are very long, and in general, we don’t get a lot of sun. This makes me crave the feeling of the sun shining on my bare skin. When it wasn’t winter or “bug season” (which comes fairly soon after “mud season”) I’d often work outside in shorts. I had to abandon this habit, though, when one season I started getting mysterious small burns on my legs that would leave scars for at least a year. I knew it was not poison ivy nor stinging nettles, but could not figure out what it could be. The best guess I could come up with was that it was from handling hot grass clippings when making compost. Since I was not really sure exactly what the cause was, I resigned myself to always wearing long jeans and socks for any kind of yardwork.

Parsnip plants in situ

Yesterday a local newsite had a blurb about “nasty plants,” and of course, how could I not click on that? And there it was – beware wild parsnips, with an exact description of my mysterious burns. The thing is, contrary to this article and all the further info I found on the web, I know that “wild” parsnips and “garden” parsnips are the same creatures, pastinaca sativa. I had been growing parsnips and parsnip seed, and there were escapees from the gardens proper, which was fine with me, as long as they didn’t get too rowdy.

The plants are not a threat unless you cut into the green parts and get the juice on your skin. Beyond our lawn and garden area, we have little meadows that I scythe once or twice a year, and use the cuttings for making compost. The parsnips have a healthy colony in one of them, though I have generally made it a point to mow them down when they’re in flower… and this is how I was getting burned.

Parsnip burn

The reason it was so hard to figure this out is that there is no immediate effect when you get the juice on your skin. But, if the skin is exposed to the sun, the burning starts to happen about a day later, and the skin will actually blister. If you got a lot of the stuff on your skin, you could have some pretty serious and painful burns. The scars can last 2 years.

We have occasionally also eaten very small quantities of parsnip greens in spring, but we’re rethinking that in light of this new information. Parsnip’s appeal as a green is not all that great, anyway. The root is nice for the winter larder, but I will be handling these volunteers far more carefully in their green state.

Here’s a good article about “wild” parsnips.

Seedy justice

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

If you follow the politics of genetics in agriculture, you probably have heard about Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser.
If you don’t know about this, please check it out. It will help explain why some of us seed-saving gardeners are so concerned about multinational corporations becoming the primary breeders of plants (and animals, for that matter).

Anyway, big victory for the little guys here. Monsanto settled out of court with Percy Schmeiser yesterday. It’s not the money involved – this round was just $660 in small claims court. However, it is a big deal, because in settling, Monsanto is admitting liability for the genetic contamination of Schmeiser’s canola in 2005, which is what should have been happening 10 years ago. Instead, this all started when Monsanto went after Schmeiser because samples they took from Schmeiser’s canola showed that it had been contaminated with Monsanto’s patented canola genes. The Schmeisers had been breeding their own canola for 40 years, and never planted anything from Monsanto. It seems obvious to me that they were the injured parties here, however somehow the courts didn’t see it that way.

So, what rights and liabilities do holders of plant patents have, or should they have? I am uneasy with the patenting of living things, but at the same time I can understand that people or corporations who invest their time, money and energy in breeding need to be compensated for their investment. However, I really feel that the planet’s genetic resources, especially our legacy of at least 10,000 years of humans breeding domestic plants and animals, should be a commons, and really a sacred trust.

Most valuable gardening tool

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

No, it’s not my hand forged digging fork or my flame weeder, much as they are practically extensions of my body when the snow’s off the ground. I have to give #1 status to The Garden Seed Inventory, compiled and published by the Seed Saver’s Exchange. The reason is this – in my opinion, if you don’t have plant varieties that are suited to you and your garden, nothing you do with any other gardening tools is going to matter anyway.

We save as much of our own seed as much as possible, and have a quite a few on-going long-term relationships with particular vegetables… This may sound very frugal, which it is in a sense, but I’ve been known to spend as much on seed and plants in a year as I do on clothing. Frugality isn’t the point, for me. By saving your own seed, you can have plants that get better year after year, but you’ve got to find those plants somewhere to get started… and for me it’s an ongoing quest. Every year we try out new varieties along with our tried and true.

So, how do you find the vegetables of your dreams? Here’s a clue: getting your plants from the seed rack at Walmart is like looking for a potential spouse in the local bar. Sure, you can do it and it might just work; however, to put the odds of future happiness more in your favor, I would suggest some other sources:

1. Other gardeners in your area can tell you what varieties have worked well for them, and if you’re lucky you’ll find that some of them are seed savers who may even swap or give you seed or plants. Get yee to your local farmers market or gardening club and ask around…

2. If you’re really serious about becoming a steward for endangered garden plants, join the Seed Savers Exchange, or Seeds of Diversity (Canadian) and consider adopting some varieties offered by members who garden in a climate similar to yours. Heck, even if you don’t want to commit to actually growing and maintaining rare and endangered plants yourself, become an unlisted member, just to support the very important work being done by these non-profit organizations.

3. Buy plants and seed from specialised seed companies. The good news is, there are a lot of fine seedhouses out there, and a lot of different varieties to choose from. The bad news is, getting hard copies of all the relevant seed catalogues, or perusing them online, and going through all their listings would be very very time consuming.

This is where the Garden Seed Inventory comes in. The Inventory lists only non-hybrid seed, which is what you should start with. Each variety listing includes all the catalog description info available for that variety.

For instance, I’m looking for a new-to-me sweet bell pepper to trial in the 2009 growing season. First and foremost it must be early because of our short growing season and cool climate (USDA zone 4a). So, I skim the pepper/sweet/bell listings (about 5 pages) for the earliest maturity dates, less than 60 days. I find 7 listings of interest. Then, I assess the varieties individually.

Bull Nose, for instance, is listed as 55-80 days maturity. The high end on this range, 80 days, raises a bit of a red flag. I check out the seed companies listed as sources, and the 5 seed houses are all based in mid Atlantic states and Indiana. This does not necessarily mean that’s where the seeds were grown or bred, but it ‘s another red flag for me. 55 days in the growing season of Virginia or Pennsylvania are a lot different than 55 days in my garden in northeastern Vermont. I choose to pass on Bull Nose – it could be worth a trial, but there are other candidates that are more promising.

Earliest Red Sweet comes up next – but we ‘re already growing it, having found it through this same process in the 80s. It’s one we grow nearly every year, and it’s a good performer, though the flesh is on the thin side.

Now, King of the North has a very promising name and description: “type for short season area” and “prolific, cold tolerant.” It’s listed as being carried by 18 seedhouses, including Fedco, High Mowing, and Rex’s in Minnesota, so I would say it has some cold climate cred as cold climate is the specialty for these three companies.

Frank’s and Montana Wonder look interesting – each is unique to the Sand Hill Preservation Center, a company specialising in heirlooms, and which grows its own seed in Iowa. The climate’s close, but still on the warm side compared to us. However, I check their website and see that this is the project of Glenn and Linda Drown. Glenn has been a hugely active member of Seed Saver’s Exchange since its beginning, and I have to say the Drowns are among my heroes of breeding and genetic diversity. They also list King of the North, so I will order all three varieties from them next year.

Granny Smith is a unique offering from Totally Tomatoes in Wisconsin, however, when I go to their website, it is no longer listed. (This latest edition of the Garden Seed Inventory was published in 2004) . So, you can no longer buy this one. Perhaps it will be re-offered… or not.
Finally, Morgold. The only seed company listed for it is Garden Medicinals located in Virgina, however the description says it was bred by the Morden Experimental Station in Manitoba CA in 1952. This tells me that it would be well worth trying here, as the Morden breeding program was for seriously cold climates.

I know this may all seem a bit time consuming, but I’ve found the quest for excellent varieties to be well worth the effort. Using the Inventory I’ve discovered some fabulous plants and seed houses that I never would have otherwise found. Besides, supporting small regional seed companies and heirloom projects is really good karma – it’s a direct way for anybody to promote genetic diversity in the plant material available to gardeners and farmers.

Pet peas – De Grace

Monday, February 25th, 2008

I really like edible podded peas, and make about 5 succession plantings to have a steady supply from mid June to the end of September. Each planting of snow or snap peas is a 12 foot row on chicken wire support, and gives us enough for two people to eat their heart’s content daily, with enough for seed saving as well.

First of June, pea De Grace along bed edge, with Over-Winter spinach and volunteer cilantro, volunteer pak-choi and volunteer garlic.

I’m not keen on canned and frozen vegetables, with a few exceptions. My preference is always to have food as unprocessed as possible…. especially when I’m the food processor. Not that I ‘m lazy (well, maybe a little), but when supper time approaches, I pretty consistently gravitate to the edible podded peas as opposed to the green peas that must be shelled. I’ve grown quite a few varieties of green shell peas, but have only kept one or two long term over the years, largely out of guilt because they are nice varieties and were abandoned by the seed industry.

Anyway, each year now our first and last planting of the eat-all peas is a snow pea called De Grace. Originally, I purchased De Grace in 1985 from William Dam Seeds, a Canadian seed house with Dutch connections. (They no longer ship seed to the US — I miss them!)

Dam dropped this variety soon after I got it from them, and according to the Seeds of Diversity Heritage Plants Database, De Grace has not been offered by US or Canadian seedhouses in more than 20 years. I found one 2007 commercial listing by a Thomas Etty, in the UK, who specializes in heirloom varieties, but sells only in the EU. This variety was also known as Dutch Sugar and is mentioned by both names in the The American Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Horticulture and Rural Affairs, Vol II, 1836. (Love those 19th century book titles…)

Actually, I didn’t realize it was so venerable – De Grace was adopted into my botanical menagerie because it’s really good all around, and it thrives in my garden and the short growing season.

not ready yet

It’s early and more frost resistant than some of the other peas I’ve tried, definitely more so than the modern snap peas, and it’s quite heat tolerant, too. So, De Grace has become my “bookends” for the yearly pea succession.

Once you know the trick of harvesting them, they are very delicious. They are OK harvested when the pods are still small and flat, like most people harvest snow peas (see photo at right), but if you allow the peas to fatten in the pod (below), the sugars form and they are divinely sweet and crisp. You do have to snap off the stem end and pull off the strings, but this is easily accomplished in one quick motion.

ready to eat

In my garden De Grace continues to flower and bear peas over a long period of time (3-4 weeks), and I have been selecting seed for that characteristic among others. I suppose some growers might consider this a vice, but I’m not canning or freezing them, I just want an ongoing supply of fresh pods.

De Grace is a good example of a vegetable variety teetering on the brink of being lost to gardeners. I find that a lot of these older plant varieties seem to have a lot more genetic diversity and are better able to adapt to the rigors of life in my garden than many of the more modern varieties.