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Friday, April 02, 2010

Saved Heirloom Seed to the Rescue

Yesterday was the day to start 700+ eggplant and pepper seeds. we like these seedlings to be about 7 to 9 weeks old when we transplant them out and since we transplant such warm loving crops out at the end of May/early June, April 1st seemed like the perfect time to start them (plus our biodynamic calendar, The Stella Natura sez it was a fruit time which is a great time to start fruiting plants).

In order to start seed you need to know a couple of things. How much space has been allotted in the market garden and how many varieties will be planted. I knew that there was a total of 40 50'x 4' beds reserved for all the night shades (tomato, potato, peppers, eggplant) and out of that 2 beds were reserved for eggplant and 16 for peppers. The next step was to go get the seed packets and see what we had to plant.

The eggplant was easy-we had a total of 12 different packets of seed. 6 of the packets were 6+ years old and so assumed dead so I tossed those seeds out (by tossing out I mean putting the seeds in the compost and saving the packets for other uses such as seed saving). This left me with 6 varieties-Dancer, Nadia, Casper, Galine, Rosita and Oriental Express. Since Galine was bought to replace Nadia and Rosita to replace Dancer (probably because these varieties come from Peto Seed which is a part of Semenis which is Owned by Monsanto, but I would have to look this up to be sure) and both those seeds are 3+ years old, they were not planted.

The peppers were also easy because most of the seed we are using this year we bought this year. So it was a matter of going through the pepper seeds and picking out all the brand new clean, unopened seed packets and putting them aside. I chose 7 varieties, Valencia, an orange pepper we have done for years and years because it is a great pepper, Islander, a purple pepper, Revolution, the best red bell pepper out there as far as I am concerned, Lipstick, a red pimento pepper that is new to us this year, Flavor burst, a yellow Italian type reputed to have great flavor (this is also a new variety for us this year), Jalapeno and Cayenne because, while we do not sell a lot of hot peppers, these two are pretty essential to have around for personal use.

I also used this time to figure out what tomatoes will be planted this year but that is another blog post for another time...

After I figured out just what varieties I would plant I than figured out just how many seeds needed to be started to cover our asses. There is a bit of an art to this. You do not want to run short and find you don't have enough plants to fill beds and you do not want so many that after you are all done you have many flats of seedlings sitting around that Eugene refuses to kill for months on end, getting bigger and bigger. You may ask why we don't sell these plants? We don't because by the time we know what could be sold (the leftovers after transplanting) it is so late in the home garden planting season that it is hard to sell vegetable seedlings, so we make a very feeble attempt at doing so. And we are not at all set up to do seedlings for sale. We need a lot more seed starting space and a proper greenhouse that can be heated and that takes $$$.

When I figure out how many seeds to start I take into account the germination will not be 100%, more like 80% for new seed and for seed that is 3+ years old much lower rates of germination. And at least 20% will die for some reason before transplanting. Our first year here we have had 90% die off due to mice decapitating most of the pepper seedlings. So I like to start around 50% more seed than is needed as it is always better to have it and not need them than to need them and not have them. And because we do a lot of heirloom and specialty hybrids it is not as if we can trot off to the local TSC or Wal-Mart and pick up packets of the varieties we need (actually when K-mart had the Martha Stewart seed collection I found for several things like Chioggia beets and Costata Romanesque zucchini were in stock). For most things we have to order through the mail which takes extra time (as I will not pay $50+ for over night delivery for a mofo $10 packet of seed).

Okay, so with all this information I went out to the barn and made 700+ tiny soil blocks, took a break and than came back with Eugene in tow to get all these seeds started as well as finding/making tags so we know what's what. This is simple and yet amazingly important step-all pepper and eggplant seedlings look a like, never ever think you can tell one from the other. And when it comes time to prick the seedlings into 2" soil blocks there will be trouble. There will be even more trouble when it comes time to transplanting the mystery seedlings as one would have no idea what goes where. The problems get even larger when harvest time rolls around 90 days after planting the seeds.

So we started sowing seed and find we did not order enough seed for many of the peppers. This is in large part because both Fedco and Johnny's have gone nuts on using very confusing and changeable units of measurement for their seed sales. Some seeds are measured using English units (oz, pounds, etc..) some use metric (grams, Kilograms, etc..) and some are sold by the thousand. So this means you have to have the ability to convert from measurement to another and it seems we are not great this ability (nor are many market growers, judging by the bitch fest about this topic on the market farming email list in Jan and Feb). Also Eugene's eyes are weakening and the boy is too vain to wear glasses (I am talking cheaters, not prescription) so he missed a couple of crucial decimal points and thus instead of ordering 400 Revolution pepper seeds (4 grams) he ordered 40 (.4 grams) - but we got lucky and Fedco sent 65, about 1/3 the amount we need.

This pisses me off because 2 years ago he did exactly the same thing (but that was the year of the terrible pepper season for western Ohio so it really did not matter in the end, we would have lost them no matter what). The good news is I can still order this variety through Fedco because after years of resistance they have on-line ordering and now will take seed orders until September, instead of shutting down the orders in early spring and I see they have Revolution seed in stock. So I have just ordered a whole gram of seed (Woo Hoo!!!).

Any Hoo, we found, in the end, we were short on a lot of pepper seed variety (due to the confusion of changeable metrics) and thus ended up with not enough potential plants to fill the space allotted. So I looked to see what we had in saved seeds from years past and found Chinese Giant in red and yellow. So I planted enough of those to fill up all the small blocks. these are older seed so they may not germinate well, if at all. And these are not my first choice as the fruit tends to come on late and the peppers tend to not ripen without getting hit with something, so low yields of usable fruit, generally. Still we did have these heirlooms on hand and they did save the day.

But now that additional Revolution seed has been ordered and should arrive in less than a week we should be all right for red bell peppers and probably won't need many of the Chinese Giant.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Bummer you tossed those seeds. If the seeds are stored in an airtight, moisture controlled jar and stored in a temperature stable dark location they will still retain a very good germination for many years. I just got 80% germination out of my decade old seeds (eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, carrots to name a few).
Soaking old seeds overnight helps. If they are particularly old, adding a very very tiny amount of fertilizer to the soaking water helps. (I soak mine in vermicompost tea. The nitrogen + gibberellins do amazing work getting old seed to sprout.)
I hope maybe this trick works for you too in case you have a treasured variety you hope to keep going.