Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saving Heirloom Seeds Through Crowd Sourcing

Want to Save an Heirloom? Grow it!
I’m getting ready to sow my Three Heart Lettuce seeds and be part of a volunteer team that is evaluating a special heirloom variety of lettuce that is in danger of extinction.  Just like rare wild plants and animals, food crops can disappear forever. It happens when people are no longer growing them, and it’s happening more often now that we rely on industrial agriculture for the produce we eat.  The project is the Member-GrowerEvaluation Network (M-GEN), run by Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). The program was initiated last year to involve Seed Savers Exchange members in evaluating the numerous heritage varieties of edible plants maintained at their headquarters, Heritage Farm, in Decorah Iowa.

Seeds that are donated to the organization often don’t come with growing instructions or information about where the seeds grow best for good performance. SSE’s extensive network of member are located in growing regions all across North America, so it makes sense to harness this valuable resource. In this way, they are gathering data on the regional suitability of many varieties in their collection that lack this information.  These details will make the seeds usable to gardeners and farmers, therefore it's more likely they will be maintained in cultivation.

Heirloom lettuce seedlings: Cracoviensis and Merveille de Quatre Saisons
Preserving Crop Diversity is Up to All of Us
Why is this important? People are beginning to realize that diversity in food crops means food security, especially in a time of climate change and shrinking crop diversity in agriculture.  The less varieties of any one type of food plant we have, whether it be corn or lettuce, the less flexibility and options we’ll have when one of them  falls victim to diseases, pests, or  a changing climate. Saving seeds and cultivating as many heritage food plants as possible provides a measure of agrobiodiversity to tap into when needed.

Crowd Sourcing Uses the Expertise of Both Experts and Amateurs
This crowd sourcing strategy has been used successfully by the Audubon Society in their annual Christmas Bird Count, which leverages the expertise and energy of thousands of volunteers every year. These expert and amateur bird enthusiasts have been gathering valuable data on bird populations, for over 100 years. It would be difficult indeed for a non-profit organization to fund such an enormous effort.

The information collected in the M-GEN project will benefit all SSE members and the public in general, by providing data on the performance of particular varieties for particular regions (anyone can order seeds from SSE). This is very helpful for gardeners choosing which vegetables to plant, and gives them an idea of what to expect in terms of performance for their region.

Order Your Seeds Today!
Seed Savers Exchange was founded in 1975, and is made up of home gardeners and farmers that grow, harvest and exchange seeds for thousands of varieties of edible plants, including herbs and flowers. An updated yearbook is published at the beginning every year with information about seeds that are available directly from members for a small fee. In addition, SSE maintains a catalog of seeds and you can order directly from them.

You don't have to be a member to order seeds from SSE's  catalog, but you do have to be a member to order from the yearbook.

Photos: Urban Artichoke

This post was also published on Eat Drink Better

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Does Organic Mean to You?

What do you expect from food that is labeled organic? Pesticide free? Responsible stewardship of the land? The certified organic label may not meet your expectations.

Paul Kaiser, of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, California, explains why. I met Kaiser, or Farmer Paul, as he is known locally, at the 2012 EcoFarm Conference where we talked about saving bees, creating earth-friendly farms, and the misuse of the terms organically grown and sustainable agriculture.

Going Beyond Organic

Kaiser wants to ask consumers, “what does organic mean to you?”

He pointed me to an essay he wrote on the subject and gave me permission to share some of his thoughts from that piece.

Photo: courtesy of Paul Kaiser

Monday, March 19, 2012

Edible Landscaping: Growing and Transplanting Seedlings

So you’ve started your seeds indoors to get a jump on spring, and like magic they are beginning to grow. Now you’ve got seedlings. The excitement of having grown your own starts for your vegetable garden can turn into panic if it is still too cold to plant them in the garden. Here are my tips and "how tos" for managing seedlings for your edible landscape.

What is too cold?

It’s still too early to plant warm season vegetables into your garden if:
1. Frost is still a possibility in your area (check for the last expected frost date).
2. Nighttime temperatures are still below 50° F.
3. The ground hasn’t warmed up enough.

Growing Your Seedlings

The young seedlings will grow fast indoors and if you don’t give them the right conditions they’ll become weak and spindly. If you plant them in this condition they’ll under-perform and it will be disappointing.
As I wrote in my How to Grow From Seeds post, to raise strong seedlings you need to meet three basic requirements in addition to moisture: light, nutrients and temperature.

Seedlings in my backyard cold frame
Once the seeds start to grow they'll need either direct sunlight, or exposure to lights indoors. Your options are to hang lights over the seedlings if they’re indoors (12 hours daily), or to move them outside into a cold frame in the sun. The cold frame works well if outside temperatures are at least 40° F. If nighttime temperatures are too cold, bring them back inside for the night.


Feed the young plants with liquid fertilizer.  I use an organic dry fertilizer mix, such as Dr. Earth.  Soak it overnight in water (read the directions- it will be about 1 cup dry fertilizer to a gallon of water). Then use the liquid half strength to feed your plants weekly, and put the solids into your garden bed. You can also use a cup of mature compost from your compost pile to make a compost tea. Put the compost into a piece of cheese cloth to make a big tea bag and soak it for about fours days before you use it. It may not be as nutrient-rich as the fertilizer mix, but it’s good for the seedlings (remember: fertilizer is not necessary until the leaves begin to grow).


Protect from frost and temperatures below 50° F for warm season vegetables. I germinate seeds indoors, then keep the seedlings out in my backyard cold frame. I remove the cold frame lids on sunny days so it doesn’t get too warm, and close it up at night. Warm season veggies include: tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplant. Spinach, lettuce, chard, kale, peas broccoli and cauliflower,
are all cool season veggies and have some degree of resistance to frost and prefer cool temperatures.

Transplanting Seedlings Into Containers

If your seedlings are in a flat, or getting crowded in their containers, transplant them individually into six packs or small pots to give them a chance to develop a healthy root system while you wait for the season to warm up.

Handle the seedling carefully to avoid damaging the roots or stem

1. Plant seedlings into damp potting soil (it has good drainage). Alternatively, a friend of mine uses his own mature compost and this seems to work.
2. Make sure your seedlings are in damp soil before you transfer them to the new pots.
3. Handle the seedlings by the leaves- avoid damaging the delicate stem or roots. Gently tease apart tangled roots and plant immediately.
4. Water well after transplanting and begin using liquid fertilizer.

For small seedlings, make a hole in the potting soil with a chopstick then gently push the root inside

Last but not least, after growing your plants indoors remember to acclimate them first before you plant them into the garden. Do this by bringing them out during the day to expose them gradually to direct sunlight (in a protected porch or cold frame) then bring them back inside for the night for about a week. This is called “hardening off”. It toughens them up for the outdoors.

Newly potted seedlings with room to grow

Enjoy nurturing your seedlings and watching them grow. You'll have the pleasure of starting your edible garden with the vegetable varieties you really want instead of having to grow whatever is available. But best of all, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you can grow your own food from start to finish.

Photos: Urban Artichoke

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Mystery of Blood Oranges Revealed

We have been feasting daily on beautiful blood oranges from our local farmer’s market for weeks now, but our vendor has just ended his season. What to do? We love them so much that I bought a tree to add to our suburban mini-orchard.

The amazing raspberry-ruby grapefruit flavor of blood oranges is a special treat, but you have to take advantage of their short seasonal availability. That may change soon. Just as I brought home my small Moro blood orange tree, I found out that researchers have identified the gene responsible for the color and health benefits, and they are trying to develop a new, more widely accessible variety.

I'm feeling particularly fortunate to live in the SF Bay Area where our climate meets the unique requirements of the blood orange. It turns out to have a need for exposure to cold temperatures (chill hours) in order to develop its beautiful color, which contains all of the health benefits associated with anthocyanins.

Read my full post at Eat Drink Better 

Our young Moro blood orange tree

Photos: Urban Atrichoke

Monday, March 12, 2012

Edible Landscapes: Jerusalem Artichoke Salad with Lemony Vinaigrette

 A Bountiful Harvest Fall Through Winter

It's almost mid March and my Jerusalem Artichoke patch still had lots of tubers left to harvest. Over fall and winter we made lots of creamy vegetable soups, ate them sliced and sauteed with mushrooms, and added them raw and sliced thinly to salads. I harvested the last of them this weekend so that I could replant the patch anew with just a few tubers. They are so prolific that it's a good idea to dig all of them up and replant only three to four to have a huge crop for next fall and winter- otherwise they will quickly spread in the ground and become invasive.

Here's my last Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) recipe for the season: a grated Jerusalem artichoke salad with carrots and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. It's a lovely refreshing salad with in-season ingredients that will having you thinking that spring has already arrived. (More recipes.)

Grated Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunchoke) Salad with Carrots and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

You Will Need:
  • 1 cup cleaned and grated sunchokes, about 3 -4 medium sunchokes (it's not necessary to peel them)
  • 1 cup peeled and grated carrot, about 1 large carrot
  • Lettuce leaves or mixed salad greens
  • Chopped parsley for garnish
  • Toasted sunflower seeds for garnish
Dress with Meyer Lemon or Citrus Vinaigrette (recipe below)
Yield: about 4 servings

To Compose the salad:
Mix the grated sunchokes and carrots in a bowl. Line 4 individual salad plates with the lettuce leaves or salad greens and mound the mixed sunchokes and carrots in the center of each. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and top with sunflower seeds. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve.

Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice, about 1 large lemon
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar 
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Mix to dissolve the salt, then whisk in:
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (use more to your taste)
Yield: makes about 1/2 cup of very lemony dressing

  • You can substitute regular lemon juice, but you'll have to use less juice or add more olive oil, since Meyer lemons are sweeter and less acidic than regular lemons.
  • Substitute lime or orange juice in place of the lemon juice.
  • Substitute cilantro for the parsley, and use toasted sesame seeds or chopped peanuts.
Sunchokes are prolific so be sure to manage for spreading in your edible landscape

Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow and will reward you with plentiful tubers throughout the fall and winter. Buy some now to eat and plant a few  as soon as there is no danger of frost in your area.

Read more about growing Jerusalem artichokes.

This post was also published on Eat Drink Better

Photos: Urban Artichoke

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How to Grow Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, are easy to grow and don't need a lot of extra care. Plant in the spring and harvest in the fall when they begin to die back with the first frosts. They grow vigorously and produce an abundance of tubers. Some people call this invasive, I call it free food. See below for my tips on how to manage your crop so it doesn't get out of hand.

About Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes, Helianthus tuberosus, are native to North America and belong to the sunflower family. They aren't related to artichokes and didn't originate in Jerusalem, but their edible tubers do have a slight artichokey flavor. They make delicious soups, slice to saute them with mushrooms, or have them raw in salads.
For recipes my see recipe index.

Sunchokes sauteed with mushrooms

How to Plant and Grow Sunchokes

Sunchokes become available in the fall. Check your farmer's market or grocery store for tubers in the fall and winter months and save a few to plant in the spring. I stored about four tubers in a pot on my porch in potting soil over the winter protected from frost. I planted a couple of the tubers in the spring on the sunny side of our house where we had sheet composted to build up the soil over the previous winter.  

They need a sunny spot, regular water and medium quality garden soil.
In spring, plant a few tubers about 2 inches deep and about eight inches apart in loose soil in a sunny spot after all danger of frost is past. Adding mature compost to the soil is a plus.

Start with a modest sized patch, mine is about 1 1/5 feet by 2 feet. We got several pounds from a patch this size!

Water well.  Keep the soil slightly damp and they will begin to sprout. As they grow, water when the soil begins to dry out. They don't need to stay moist and can dry in between watering.

They will grow straight up and may need to be staked. Sprays of multi-branched yellow flowers bloom in August or September.

Jerusalem artichokes grow very tall and flower in late summer
To Harvest

Jerusalem artichokes are frost tender, so they will begin to die back when the frosts begin. When they die back cut the stalks to about 1 foot in height. The tubers become sweeter after exposure to cold temperatures, but you can begin to dig them up and try them right away. Keep them in the ground and dig them up as you need them. If the ground freezes in your region, mulch the tubers well with straw.

To dig them up use your hands or carefully dig with a trowel so that you don't break them up. The broken ones will rot in the ground.

Managing Your Crop: Replanting Jerusalem Artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes can become invasive if you don't manage your planting area. As spring approaches  dig up all of the tubers that you can find. Replant only a few, depending on the size of the crop you want the next fall. In this way you'll keep them under control, otherwise they will spread rapidly and form big mats of tubers! 

My growing area is bordered by bricks to help define the patch. This makes it easier to find them when I want to dig them up.

Before spring is in full swing, dig up all of the tubers and replant only a few

They will even grow under the bricks:

Monday, March 5, 2012

How to Grow From Seed

Butterhead lettuce and Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas transplanted into the garden from my cold frame

Growing vegetables from seed for your edible garden is a lot of fun and not hard to do if you keep in mind a few basics. Why go through the effort? There are lots of reasons, but my top reason is that I enjoy it: seeds are beautiful and mysterious and I love the process of nurturing them through their stages of growth. Second, I can grow heirlooms that are only available as seed, third, I can grow a larger quantity of plants economically, and in waves through the season.

It’s magical to propagate your favorite seeds successfully for generations! I hope you'll give it a try...

Purple of Romagna Artichoke seedliings watched over by a deity

Sowing Seeds in Flats Versus Direct Seeding

There are a couple of practical reasons for sowing seeds in flats or pots before putting them directly in the ground: you can start them earlier indoors so that they have a head-start by the time it’s warm enough that they can be planted outdoors (tomatoes, squash, cucumber- the summer heat loving vegetables) and better survivability.  When I sow seeds directly in the garden they have a bigger chance of drying out or getting munched on by critters.

How to Start

If you are new to growing from seed, I recommend starting with two or three vegetables or flowers to get a feel for it so you aren’t overwhelmed. Once the seeds begin to germinate you can’t forget about them- if they dry out they’ll die, and you’ll need to start over. Most seeds take about 7 to 10 days to germinate, and some take longer. It helps if they are indoors where you’ll be reminded to check them. As the season warms up you can keep your newly sown flats or pots outdoors.

Basic seed sowing equipment, including my saved seeds on the right

Basic Equipment

Potting soil (you can mix your own, but I found it’s easier to buy a big bag, premixed).
Labels, pencil, pen, or marker.
Flats or small pots, reused six-packs from buying seedlings (or other containers, such as waxed paper cups- but these need drainage holes).
Bucket or plastic container for mixing soil with water.
Spray bottle for water.
Seeds (there are several reputable organic suppliers ).
Sowing Basics

Moisten your potting soil first, then fill the planting containers

Fill the Containers

Tip: I use a bucket to mix the potting soil with water to just get it damp before filling the potting containers. It’s much easier to start with damp soil than to try and water it thoroughly once you’ve planted your seeds- trust me!
Fill the containers and lightly firm the soil (soil should be about ½ inch from the top of the container).

A comparison of sizes: squash, cucumber and lettuce seeds

Seed Size and Planting Depth

As you would guess, the sizes of seeds vary enormously from tiny lettuce or poppy seeds, to squash and bean seeds. Follow the instructions on the seed packet for the best chance of success.

Here are some general guidelines:

How deep to plant? For most seeds, plant as deep as the seed is wide (the width of the seed, not the length). So if a squash seed is ½ inch wide, it should be covered with ½ inch of soil. It is better to plant too shallow than too deep. When the seed germinates (sprouts) the embryo has just enough stored food to start poking out of the surface of the soil, and begin developing the leaves for photosynthesis, which will take over for food production. If it’s buried too deep it won’t make it to the surface. This is also why seeds don’t need fertilizer until they begin developing leaves.

Small Seeds

For tiny seeds such as lettuce, sprinkle the seeds on the surface (a flat is great for this) then cover with a sprinkle of soil. Spray the surface down with a water in a spray bottle. Next, I cover the flat with one layer of newspaper, perlite, or a fabric called a floating row cover. The idea is to keep the soil moist but to let light in until the seeds sprout, then remove the cover.

Set the containers near a sunny window indoors in a warm spot. Don't forget to label them.

Flats covered with a layer of perlite sitting in my cold frame for protection from frost

Let There Be Light

Once the seeds start to grow they'll need 4 to 6 hours of light daily. For strong seedlings move them outdoors if the temperature permits (after your last expected frost date). Alternatives are to move them into a cold frame, or keep them inside under grow lights, available from your nursery or garden supply center. Otherwise you'll have spindly weak seedlings.

Transplanting Your Seedlings

For most seedlings, wait until the second pair of leaves form. If your seedlings are in a flat, transplant them to six packs or small pots to give them a chance to develop a healthy root system before planting out in the garden. When they're ready to move outside, keep them in a protected area (a covered porch, etc.) for a few days so that they can adjust to outside temperatures before planting in the garden.


1. Once the seeds are wet, don’t let them dry out- this is critical. Aim for even moisture when the seeds are germinating and have sprouted, but don’t let them sit soggy or they may rot (need adequate drainage).
2. Feeding the seedlings: fertilizer is not necessary until the leaves begin to grow. If you are going to transfer the seedling to a larger pot for more growth, you’ll need to give it nutrients.
For liquid fertilizer:  use an organic dry fertilizer mix, such as, Dr. Earth, soak overnight in water (read the label- some are about 1 cup dry fertilizer to a gallon of water).  You can also use a cup of mature compost from your compost pile to make a compost tea- this should soak about fours days before you use it. It won’t be as nutrient-rich as the fertilizer mix, but it’s good for the seedlings in a pinch.

Now for the hard part: choosing just a few to grow from hundreds of possibilities!

Got a favorite heirloom to grow? I'd love to know, really.

 Photos: Urban Artichoke
Published on Eat Drink Better