Seed starting

I’ve been fairly heads down with all sorts of projects.  Spring is trying to come early this year in Vermont, in fact it is supposed to be in the 60s and 70s all this week.  We had a beautiful weekend and I got some more things planted in the low hoop tunnel and also in the new cold frame I just put together.

I’m also attempting to start some seeds in the basement.  I scrounged together a system using mostly stuff I already had.  I already have some wire racks that are great for all kinds of things, including storing homebrew and equipment.  I also had a couple of aquarium fixtures with working lights, so that is my light source for now.  I think I’ll likely have to upgrade to a) bigger lights and b) better bulbs (more full spectrum) to get great results.  But trying this first before I go spend a bunch of money.  I did buy a heat mat, some seed starting trays and a little fan to circulate the air around the plants and help them develop decent stems.

Here are a few pictures:


The whole set-up.


Starting with onions, they take awhile to get going.


A few seedlings poking through.

I’m curious to see if I can use the cold frame outside to start some seeds as well.  One nice thing about that is the plants get used to the soil immediately and there isn’t much in the way of hardening off that you need to do.  But you definitely have less control over temperature and environment in general.  So I’m just going to try some of each and see what works.

Google custom search for seeds

When we looked at buying seeds this year, we had a bunch of catalogs and seed companies to choose from.  It would be really great to be able to quickly determine who has what variety, the cost and whether it is still in stock.  Certain popular seeds tend to sell out quickly.

When I started looking into this, it seems like a task that would be difficult to accomplish without some direct assistance and interaction from the seed companies.  And I’m not sure they would be that interested.  I still think there might be a way to do this with some sort of screen scraping app, but it would take some doing.  And it might not make the seed companies happy, even though my goal is to support those who are selling organic and open-pollinated seeds. 

Still might be a fun project to try.  The problem is not everyone uses a distinctive enough url structure to make this easy.  It’s also not trivial to compare prices, since some companies sell by the number, some by the ounce and it also depends how large a quantity you are buying.  If you could find the price, I guess you could just display it.

In the meantime I created a Google custom search that searches all of my favorite companies.  I tried to filter down the urls to be as specific as possible (e.g. use the item detail page, not every url in the site). You can do this with some of the sites, but not all.  Makes me wish everyone was using MVC/friendly urls.  Mother Earth News already has a custom search like this, but it’s hidden in their site and they search several hundred companies.  So the signal to noise is pretty bad if you ask me.

You can check out mine and see if it’s helpful.  I will likely add some additional companies into the mix, but trying to keep it a bit more curated.

Review: Diane Ott Whealy – Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver

Article first published as Book Review: Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver by Diane Ott Whealy on Blogcritics.

First, a bit of background on the lens through which I read Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver. As a child, I spent a lot of time in the summer working in the garden and often could not wait to be done with it.

Fast forward a number of years, however, and I find myself interested again. The idea of growing your own food is a compelling one for many people, particularly in this age of economic uncertainty. I’m certainly very much in agreement with the goals of this organization and my review reflects that.

When my wife and I started researching various aspects of gardening and sustainability, some resources kept popping up in more than one book and one of them was Seed Savers Exchange. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a non-profit organization with the mission of saving and sharing the richness of genetic and cultural diversity found in open-pollinated seed.

Today many of the seeds you find in the seed rack are hybrid types. But you can’t save hybrid seed year after year; you must buy it again each time. This book is the memoir of Diane Ott Whealy, one half of the husband and wife team that brought SSE to life.

While it certainly helps if you are interested in the subject matter, there are aspects of this book that make it a compelling read for anyone interested in small business, entrepreneurship and the strength of the human spirit.

Diane and her husband Kent fought through many obstacles to bring Seed Savers to where it is today. Ms. Whealy is honest and forthcoming about the very real struggles that it took to develop the organization to where it is today.

When they were getting SSE off the ground, the idea of preserving genetic diversity and using sustainable gardening practices was going through a dark period. For hundreds of years, farmers had basically farmed organically, saving their best seed from year to year.

But starting in the early to mid 1900s, a new rush of “progress” pushed farmers to make production the primary goal, through the use of chemical fertilizers, unsustainable soil practices and the new hybrid seeds and later GMO seeds.

Open pollinated seeds must be regularly planted and saved or they can be lost forever. In addition, the diversity of seeds in catalogs for the home gardener was dwindling. Each year found more and more varieties unaccounted for and some seeds were only available from a single source. The Whealys recognized this as the problem it was and set about trying to do something about it, well before most people were thinking in these terms.

Scattered around the country, there were other individuals with the same dreams and goals. Seeds Savers provided a framework to bring these people together and work for the common good. They started in 1975 with only 29 gardeners exchanging and sharing seed. The tradition was started of a yearly meeting on the property, with like-minded folks coming from all over the country. By 1983, they had around 3500 different seed varieties in their collection, including 2000 different beans, 500 different peppers and 200 different squashes. For the most part, the business was run out of their home and there wasn’t always money for a salary. Income came from the seed catalog they distributed each year.

Another struggle was finding the room to work and grow the business. The Whealys moved around several times before Seed Savers finally found the right property in Decorah Iowa. Eventually Kent Whealy won the MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1990 and there were some other grants along the way. These grants, along with growth in the business and help from other benefactors finally got SSE on stable footing.

Later the organization was also able to purchase an additional 700+ acre property of pasture and woods, giving them a large protected area to carry out their mission. But it was a long road to get there, years of laboring and putting everything back into the organization. This shows the perseverance that is often necessary to make your dreams come true.

This intense, sustained focus on the organization was not without its downsides. It took a toll on the Whealy’s marriage, which ended in divorce in 2004. It is very difficult to pour your entire waking existence into a dream without some aspects of your life being neglected. This is food for thought for any entrepreneur. On the other hand it is often difficult to create something of good and lasting value without a lot of sacrifices along the way. Many people are grateful to the Diane and Kent Whealy for the lasting impact their life work has had and will continue to have on the sustainability and organic gardening movement.

Gardening Plans

We are very excited this year as we go from the shaded 100 square foot garden patch (behind our friends’ house in Chicago) to a full-on 2000 square foot “real” garden.  There is some shade around the garden, but I think we’ll get plenty of sun for a lot of the garden. I think this is approximately the same size as the garden we had at our first house when I was a kid.

We’ve already planted a patch of garlic (it gets planted in the fall just before frost really starts).  Will be cool to see how that works out.  There is also a few plants of asparagus already planted.  We have several compost bins/piles going, as well as some leaf mulch breaking down over the winter.

During this time of year, the days are short and it’s pretty dreary.  But the bright spot is receiving all the garden catalogs, allowing dreams about the summer.  This year we are trying some new catalogs. We’ve bought a lot from Johnny’s in the past and we still love them, but we want to support some other small heirloom/organic seed companies. These companies need all the help they can get to stay in business. It’s important to make sure those of us who care continue to have an alternative to the evils of Monsanto, GMO seeds and the like.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we ended up purchasing. We might have overdone it a bit, but this is an experimenting year.  We actually had a decent number of seeds already, so we didn’t need everything.  This is just a partial list of what we plan to plant.

Encore lettuce mix (a standby, we’ve grown this for several years already)
Legume inoculant – to encourage nitrogen formation on the roots of the various beans and peas we are growing
Yukon Gold seed potatoes
Celosia – Chief Mix

Comstock Garden Seeds – one of the oldest seed companies in the country, since 1811
Radish – French Breakfast
Broccoli – Calebrese
Savoy Cabbage – Perfection Drumhead
Pea – Little Marvel
Onion – Giant White Stuttgart and Yellow Dutch
Brussels Sprouts – Long Island Improved
Squash – Blue Hubbard
Squash – Delicata

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – we think this might be our new favorite catalog
Lettuce – Rocky Top Mix
Culantro (Vietnamese Coriander)
Beet – Chioggia
Beet – Cylindra or Formanova
Radish – Pink Beauty
Tomato – Stupice, San Marzano, True Black Brandywine, Pink Icicle
Cauliflower – Purple of Sicily
Cucumber – Mexican Sour Gherkin
Carrot – St. Valery
Pepper – Hungarian Hot Wax
Pea – Alaska
Sugar Pea – Mammoth Melting, Sugar Snap Pole
Onion – Red of Florence
Melon – Boule D’Or, Sugar Baby
Squash – Kuri
Sunflower – Mammoth
Marigold – Red Cherry

High Mowing Organic Seeds – local Vermont seed company
DMR (downy mildew resistant) Lettuce Mix
Chard – Rainbow, Fordhook Giant
Thai Basil
Bean – Dragon Tongue
Sweet Pepper – Sweet Chocolate
Kale – Russian White
Potato – Red Norland

Seed Savers
Cucumber – Bushy
Fingerling Potato – La Ratte

D. Landreth Seed Company
Genovese Basil
Spinach – Bloomsdale
Zucchini – Black
Bean – King of the Garden
Marigold – Sparky
Nasturtium – Dwarf Jewel
Hollyhock – Nigra
Tomato – Paul Robeson

We are curious how some of this stuff will do in the garden and whether we are biting off more than we can chew (pun intended).  But it should be fun to have plenty of room to experiment and see what works in our shorter growing season.

What are you growing this year?

2011: Year In Review, Part 4

The rest of our year mainly revolved around settling into our new home. I decided to stay with Clarity Consulting and work from home, a decision that is working out fairly well so far.  It’s definitely a bit of an adjustment, but it’s great having no commute, eating lunch with my wife and now having time to spend with our little one here and there throughout the day.

When we got here, there were still some parts of the garden going from stuff the previous tenant had planted.  However, most of the garden was overgrown with weeds and about half the garden had nothing in it.  There was one raised bed already in place.  We like raised beds, particularly for square foot gardening, so we threw together another one with some scrap wood that was lying around.  The soil in the garden is amazing, due to years of amendments done by our landlords of compost and manure.  We gradually got all the weeds pulled out and planted some stuff for fall.  Our landlord let us borrow a tiller and I worked up all of the garden that didn’t have plants.  We planted buckwheat and winter rye as cover crops in the tilled areas.  I built some low hoop houses with some PVC pipe, rebar to anchor it and Agribon 19+ row cover over the raised beds.  We planted a bunch of cool weather crops, such as greens (lettuce, arugula, Asian greens, mizuna, spinach), broccoli, kale, radishes and turnips.  Unfortunately, we had a lot of trouble with slugs that we didn’t catch in time, probably partly due to the weed cover that allowed the soil to remain overly wet.  So we lost a lot of plants, but a few things took off.  We harvested radishes and kale into December.

We did some painting when we first got here and it took a bit longer than expected, but the place looks great.  Kristin did the majority of the unpacking.  It’s great to have so much room here, we have three bedrooms, an unheated attic, a cold pantry and a small barn out back that we can use.

We visited a few churches and eventually landed at the Middlebury episcopal church, St. Stephens on the Green. Really great people, including a few farmers we’ve been getting to know.  Kristin has made the acquaintance of some fiber folks (spinning, weaving, etc.) and joined a fiber guild. We’ve also met a lot of local artistic people (writers, potters, musicians, etc.)  So we are gradually building a community.  Everyone in Bristol has been very welcoming and we are starting to make some local friends.

We didn’t travel for the holidays, due to Kristin’s pregnancy. Kristin’s parents came to visit for Thanksgiving and we made a local turkey and fired up the antique wood kitchen stove to make some of the dishes. Some fits and starts, but I finally figured it out with our landlord’s help.  Our baby was due on December 6th.  Kristin went to yoga on December 1st and had her water break in class at around 12:30PM.  She made it home by about 2:30, after a stop at the hospital to get checked out.  We were ready to settle in for awhile, since everyone had told us early labor usually takes a bit.  But it seemed the contractions were coming pretty frequently and Kristin was already in a bit of pain.  Turned out the baby hadn’t heard about the early labor taking awhile, so we headed to the hospital and by 5:45PM we welcomed Ezra Geiger Swartzentruber to the world.

The rest of December was a bit of a blur, as the first few weeks of having a newborn typically is. Kristin’s mom came up to help a bit the second week.  Then Kristin’s parents and brother came for Christmas and my mom came for New Year’s for a few days.  So we had a bit of help.  It really made the holiday season special and was a great way to end a year of many changes.

This is a four part series, check out the other posts here:

Farming Resources

As many of you know, Kristin and I have spent at least the last 5 years learning all we can about sustainable living, gardening, small-scale farming and homesteading.  Over that time we’ve found lots of great resources we like, good books and web sites of interest.  I’m slowly collecting all those in a new section on my web site called Farming.  I think there is going to be a good amount of information for anybody interested in similar things, so check it out if you are interested or mention it to anybody who you think might find it cool. Farming Resources

First month in Vermont

So we’ve already been in Bristol for a bit over a month.  So far we are really enjoying it for the most part.  Kristin has been busy at work unpacking and getting the house into shape.  We’ve been whipping the garden into shape, although the season is nearly over.  We’ve planted some cold tolerant veggies in a couple of raised beds (one existing, one hacked together with spare cedar shingles).  Hoping they get enough of a start before the first good cold snap.  We’ve planted lettuce, radishes, kale, rutabaga, carrots, Asian greens and some other things.

I’ve also tilled most of the garden and put down some cover crops.  We already have a nice crop of buckwheat goingWinterRye on one side of the garden and I just planted another section of winter rye.  If all goes well, we might even get a few loaves of bread out of it.  But mostly it’s just for green manure and to keep our good soil in place over the winter.  The soil in this garden is gorgeous, rich stuff.  Our landlords did a lot of amending over the years (manure, compost, cover crops) and it has made a big difference.  It’s teeming with life, both visible and invisible.

HoopsWe put up some low hoops over the beds as well, using Agribon AG-19 row cover material over some PVC pipe planted in the ground over some rebar.  This only gives us frost protection down to 28 degrees, so we’ll probably lose most of the plants at some point.  But combined with some mulch, it might get us towards the end of the year. We are using this time to experiment with some of the techniques we’ve been reading about, so it will be interesting to see how things go.

Working from home has its pluses and minuses, but it has mostly been going well.  I built a new PC because my old desktop was just too slow and that has helped.  It’s nice to have lunch with Kristin most days and have no commute.  Focus can be hard at times, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

As far as Bristol, it’s a nice quiet town, but lots of people out and about.  Friendly neighbors. Beautiful setting.  One nice change from Chicago is that it doesn’t take forever to get basic life stuff done.  I’m talking about getting a driver’s license, setting up bank accounts and utilities or finding healthcare.  There are less options to be sure, but the options that are here have been easy to find, get set up and the quality has generally been very good.  We have a wealth of hikes within a 10 mile radius, which is a welcome change from having to drive hours to find good hiking in Illinois.  Even after a month, the geography is still stunning and only promises to get more that way as we are seeing the first hints of the beautiful fall foliage Vermont is famous for.

There are some things that we are still trying to adapt to.  Driving everywhere for the most part, unless we want to just walk into town for something.  Fortunately we have a great bakery, several grocery stores (including a natural foods/organic store that is awesome), drug store, hardware store and most importantly brewpub right in town.  But for anything else we have to drive.  We are starting to make some connections with people, but it is taking some time.  It’s not easy to find a lot of the ethnic food or groceries that were so easy to come by in Chicago, although there is no shortage of great food here and some good Vietnamese places in Burlington.  Church options are not plentiful, although we’ve found very good community vibes and friendly people at the ones we’ve visited.  Still not sure if we’ve found our place yet.  Certainly nothing like Chicago where there were a variety of good options, although some were a bit of a drive, probably more than from our place to Burlington here.

We are starting to move into a more intense baby mode now. Kristin has found the midwife practice she is going to use and we have a birthing center picked out.  We are starting to buy all the “stuff”, although doing a lot of research.  Tonight we have our first birthing class.  We are down to about 10 weeks, which will probably fly by very quickly.

I’m sure there is more I could write about, but that’s a good start for now.