It’s that time of year again, where we are drowning under the weight of the vegetables we planted in a ridiculous burst of optimism in the spring. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, and zucchini all need dealing with, and dealing with *right now*. Produce is not patient.
The big winner this year has been the wax beans. This is mostly because our cold, wet, spring led to germination issues, and over and over, we just shrugged and planted beans in those rows, thinking that at least beans can produce in the 60-75 day window we had left before frost. We did not keep track of how many rows this happened to, since we gave up on the parsnips far earlier than we gave up on the beets, and somehow we ended up with seven (!) rows of various types of beans by the time it was all said and done.
We really did not do much to deserve all this bounty. We dropped some seeds into some rows, and the rains came more or less when we needed them, so it’s mostly been a matter of keeping things weeded and picked. The beans seem to handle heat and drier weather better than a lot of our other vegetables, so I guess we picked the right summer to plant lots of them!
We find it easier to see colorful beans among the green leaves, so we planted red, purple, and yellow beans. The red and purple beans turn green when they are cooked, but they sure look fun in the picking bucket!
I wish I had written down variety names when we were planting, but we were scrounging half-packets from the bottom of my seed box to fill in the rows, and we have no idea how many varieties we even stuffed in there, or what they actually were. The purple beans were probably ‘Royalty’, but that’s really only my best guess. The purple and yellow varieties were heavy producers in the early part of the season, but have tapered off; the red ones were slow starters, but are going great guns now, when everything else is taking a break, so I guess the combination worked out well.
So far, we’ve picked upwards of fifteen gallons of wax beans, which sounds like a lot, but once they are topped and tailed, chopped, and packaged up in neat little four-cup vacuum-sealed bricks, the pile in the freezer is shockingly small compared to the buckets of freshly-picked beans. To be fair, we’ve eaten beans with every second meal for weeks, now, and I’ve pickled a bunch, too, so it’s not a disappointment in any way.
We were blanching our beans for the first five or six gallons’ worth, but a friend cheerfully informed me she doesn’t bother, and her beans are not tough, even after ten or twelve months. Given that it’s been 30-plus degrees here for much of the last month, and given that we don’t have air conditioning, we’re happy to test out this theory, and save on heating up the house. I’ll try to remember to do a blog post about how that worked out!
Meanwhile, I’ll be washing and chopping zucchini and beans…
Asparagus is a big favorite in my family. In the beginning, it was just me who really loved it, but the more I tried to keep it all for myself, the more the kids wanted a share. Go figure.
Asparagus is very hardy, and easy to grow here in zone 2/3. We have a substantial amount of the stuff, spread over three different patches. We’re currently harvesting from maybe 35 – 40 plants, and this spring, we were getting around 1.5 to 2 pounds, every second or third day. It still isn’t enough!
We did plant 10 more roots last year, and another 10 this year, so hopefully we will have enough for everyone to eat their fill in another few years.
Here are my thoughts on growing asparagus:
Asparagus will survive in not-weeded conditions, but they won’t get to the big, juicy spears you can harvest lots of (or it will take a lot longer for them to get there). We dug one patch out of sod around 8 or 9 years ago, and planted asparagus there, but the arrival of child #2 meant we ran out of time to stay on top of it, and that bed got abandoned. I still see several asparagus plants growing in that spot, but the spears are too small to harvest, even after all that time. They are hanging in there, but barely.
What we’ve done with our two surviving beds is weed them well, dump on a bunch of compost, then cover the whole thing heavily with wood chips. It hasn’t completely eliminated the weeds, but it vastly reduces the amount of weeding needed. The established asparagus doesn’t seem to mind pushing through the extra several inches of ‘stuff’, and the mulch really helps with water retention during hot, dry spells.
Asparagus also likes significant amounts of water, so we do water them if it’s really dry. We try to water deeply when we do water, as the roots are way down there, and won’t benefit from light surface watering. They will survive drought, but again, you won’t get great production without sufficient water.
Asparagus don’t really spread through roots, but they can self-seed if you have female plants (some of the cultivars that commercial places sell are male-only crowns – great for production, but they won’t set seed). They don’t really self-seed on wood chips, though. One of our patches is at the edge of our garden, and we sometimes find little baby asparagus there; we try to relocate those back into the patch, but the survival rate is not great. I’ve also tried growing asparagus from seed, but haven’t had much luck with that. They sprouted, and grew, but did not survive their first winters on any of the occasions I’ve tried, so now I just order the 2 year old roots from nurseries.
Once a root is healthy and established, they will push out lots of spears, though not necessarily all at once. I have one bed that is healthy, well-tended, watered, and ten years old; from that bed, I am getting initial spears that are bigger around than my two thumbs together. I harvest all of the big spears from those plants, over and over. So I might pick 4 or 5 spears one day, then another 4 or 5 in a few days, and so on, until each spear coming up is smaller than my pinkie finger. I have big hands; my pinkie is bigger in diameter than a pencil, but I like to leave lots for the plant to re-establish with, in case there is drought or other weather issues. At that point, I stop picking and let the asparagus grow up and form ferns.
Most of the articles I’ve seen recommend waiting until year 3 to harvest, and only harvesting spears that are bigger in diameter than a pencil. However, when you are establishing new beds, I actually recommend giving the plants more time to establish, and fewer pickings, than the literature suggests.
The way asparagus works is that it stores up energy and nutrients in its roots, and uses that energy to push up the spears. I find that if you can be patient and go easy on it for the first few years of harvest, then you end up with a stronger, more resilient plant, and to me, long term resilience is more important than large and early harvests.
I try not to harvest until the plants are 4+ years old (I buy 2 year old roots, than wait at least 2 years to harvest), or at least putting out multiple spears bigger around than my thumb. Like I said earlier, I also stop harvesting well before the recommended minimum size, as I want my plants to have lots ‘in the bank’ to size up the roots with, even if summer growing conditions are less than ideal.
Personally, I think asparagus is a great perennial food plant for northern gardens, and if you have the space and the time, I would encourage you to plant a bunch!
I’ve read a few news stories lately that lament the price of celery, which has more than doubled in some places, recently. My town has definitely been hit by the expensive celery bug, which can be a nuisance when we go to make soup stock!
On the bright side, our lovage plant is up, now, so we don’t actually have to buy celery, at least for the rest of the summer. Probably the fall and winter, too, if I get organized enough to dry some later, when the plant is bigger.
What is lovage, you ask?
Lovage is a large perennial herb that is hardy to at least zone 3. Wikipedia says it can grow as large as 8 feet tall, though I doubt it would reach that here, in our short season. All parts of the plant have uses, either in cooking or medicinally; the leaves, in particular, have a strong, sharp celery flavor that is spectacular in broths and soups.
So, if you’re not willing to pay for
expensive celery, consider growing lovage!
We started our lovage plant from seed last spring, and it was easy enough to do. I started it in a peat pot a few weeks before last frost, and planted it our later in the spring, once all danger of frost had passed. Once established, the plant can take some cold weather, but the seedlings seem to need a little pampering to really get going. It’s a little late to start seeds, though I’d imagine if you started them in the house and planted them out before midsummer, the plant would probably still have enough time to get established before winter. I have seen lovage available at greenhouses from time to time, as well.
Our lovage is planted in full sun,
though I’ve read that they can handle part shade. We put ours in a
corner of the vegetable garden, in good soil, which it seems to
appreciate. We watered it regularly through last summer, but we
haven’t watered it at all so far this spring, and it has been really
dry; the plant shot up about a week ago, despite the dry conditions,
and looks unperturbed with the heat and dry weather. Based on our
experience so far, growing lovage is very easy, and it doesn’t seem
to need a huge amount of care, nor does it appear to have significant
problems with pests.
We have mostly just used lovage as a replacement for celery, but a little goes a long way; a couple of sprigs will flavor a large pot of soup. For the more adventurous, you can find some interesting lovage recipes here.
I get a little frustrated with my
access to garden plants, sometimes. There are no fruit tree
nurseries in the nearest town, and only a couple of big-box stores
that carry garden stuff; the locally-owned place shut down last fall.
There are a couple of bedding plant places, but they don’t generally
have much (or anything) for perennial plants.
Big box stores are frustrating places
to try to buy perennials. Far too often, I see zone 4 or even 5
stuff being sold; a lot of tree and shrub buyers are going to be
disappointed the first time their purchases encounter a normal
I am also sick of winter. Seriously sick of winter. The local news pointed out that we had 67 consecutive days that did not come above freezing; more than half of them were -30 or colder. The days are getting longer, but the snow is still at least thigh deep across most of our acreage, and while it is around freezing, it’s not really warm. This is probably a taste of our new normal with climate change. The hype had us all set for growing mangoes on the prairies in my lifetime, but instead it’s looking more like drought and polar vortexes and forest fire smoke. Blech.
Clearly, I needed something to get into
a better headspace. What better than playing in some dirt?
I ordered a couple of asparagus seed
packets over the winter, since there are only three (!) varieties of
asparagus that I have come across to order as roots online in Canada.
What the heck, Canada? I’m all about the diversity, and have been
pretty disappointed about the Mary Washington / Jersey Giant / Sweet
Purple asparagus options.
Luckily, Baker Creek had a couple of new options I hadn’t seen before – Connovers Colossal and Precoce D’Argenteuil. Ordering those effectively doubles my asparagus options. I have never tried growing asparagus from seed, though, so it may or may not work out as planned. Some of our asparagus has self-seeded before, as we’ve found tiny little fronds in the garden, but we haven’t tried to do it on purpose, up until now. Stay tuned for updates in a few months.
The seed packets indicated to start the
seeds 8-12 weeks prior to last frost, and here we are, 11 (or so)
weeks from our anticipated planting date. Perfect timing.
So I got out all of my seed starting
supplies (hello, old friends!) and played in the dirt for a bit.
Besides the asparagus, I planted a bunch of seeds for perennial
flowers that will attract bees and butterflies. Black Eyed Susans,
Purple Coneflowers, and some Speedwell – pretty things for the
flowerbeds I plan to dig in the front lawn this spring.
The actual saving of seeds, for us, is mostly happening in February and March, as we want to select for squash that is long-keeping, which means not saving the seeds from squashes that go soft early in the year. We do save seeds from named varieties that are known long-keepers, even if we eat them in, say, November; however, we weight our seed saving efforts towards the survivors that are still hanging in there by this time of year.
If you want your saved seeds to produce squash that resemble the parent plants, it is important to choose varieties that will come true from seed. Hybrids, which are crosses between different squashes from the same species, do not come true from seed – your seeds might grow something similar to one or the other parent, but won’t necessarily be the same as the squash you saved your seeds from. Hybrids often have more disease resistance, or bear heavier crops, so lots of gardeners like them; they just don’t make the best choice for saving seeds from.
Heirloom varieties typically come true
from seed. That means that if you grow a particular type of
pumpkin, for instance, and save the seeds, your seeds will grow
pumpkins that are the same as the original plant…as long as those
pumpkins were not cross-pollenated by a different variety of the same
You can learn more about the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds here.
In order to keep varieties pure, you
need to pay attention to what sorts of squash you are planting in
your garden. There are four species of garden squash: curcurbita
pepo, curcurbita moschata, curcurbita mixta, and curcurbita maxima.
They do not cross with each other, so you could theoretically grow
four different squash varieties (one of each type) and get pure seeds
from each of them. In practice, it is more complicated, at least for
us, as three of our favorite squashes (pie pumpkins, spaghetti
squash, and zucchini) are from the same species (c. pepo), meaning
they will inter-breed.
There are ways to keep your seed strains pure, even if you are growing several squashes from the same species. This involves taping the female flowers shut, so they cannot open, then carefully peeling them open and pollenating them with a male flower of your choice, before taping the female flower shut again, allowing the fruit to develop without any new pollen being added to the mix. We have not tried this yet – gardening with children makes it very difficult to deal with careful timing and delicate close work. You can find good descriptions of hand-pollenating squash here and here.
The other way to keep your seed pure,
is to plant only one type of squash from each species. We have done
this before, with great success. We always plant several types of c.
pepo, as we just can’t imagine trying to get through a year with no
pie pumpkins, or no spaghetti squash, or no zucchini. However, we
have some favorite types of long-keeping curcurbita maxima squash
that we have planted one at a time. Our current favorite heirloom c.
maxima squashes are Red Kuri and Sweet Meat.
We haven’t had any luck growing
butternut-type squash like c. moschata here, as our season is so
short; however, we’ve joined up with a breeding project that will
hopefully (eventually) produce a c. moschata that will mature fruit
in our cool 90-day season. We’ve never tried a c. mixta squash,
though it is bound to happen eventually!
We tend to alternate
years for seed saving efforts; some years, we grow only one type of
c. maxima squash, and we can then save pure seed from that. Other
years, we grow a bunch of different squash types. We still save the
seeds from the crossbreeds, and grow them out; the results usually
taste quite good, and over time, by saving seeds from the tastiest
and longest-keeping squashes, we will develop a strain of squash that
tastes good to us, keeps a long time, and grows well in our
The actual seed collection and saving is pretty straightforward for squash. When you are ready to cook the squash, cut it open and scoop out the seeds. The seeds are attached to stringy flesh; rub this between your hands to get as much flesh as possible off of the seeds. Then, put the seeds in a dish or cup of water, and let them soak / ferment for a few days.
Once the remaining flesh falls off the seeds with rinsing (or they begin to smell – usually a few days, depending on the temperature), pour them out and rinse them thoroughly, rubbing them through your fingers to clean them off as much as possible. Then dry the seeds on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, stirring them from time to time. When the seeds snap when you bend them (instead of bending), they are dry enough to store.
At that point, I pick out the plumpest,
most nicely-shaped seeds to save, and feed the rest to the chickens,
as we always end up with way more seeds than we could ever use!
Squash seeds stay viable for quite a long time – five years or more if they are kept cool and dry, so you can save seeds one year, then use them for several years. I usually store my saved seeds in plastic baggies in a box in the bottom of a cool closet in our spare room.
Spring is almost here, and for those of
us in the North, it’s time to be thinking about ordering seeds and
But which seeds to order? How do you make sure you aren’t putting genetically modified (GMO) vegetables in your garden?
A lot of people have concerns about GMO foods, and want to make sure that they are not growing GMO’s in their garden or feeding them to their kids. However, there is a lot of hysteria and misinformation floating around out there, making it hard to figure out where to shop or what is safe to buy. Here is an explanation of the differences between Heirloom, Hybrid, and Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.
Genetically Modified Organisms
First, it is important to remember that
Genetically Modified Organism (or GMO) seeds are not really available
to the general public. The majority of GMO seeds out there are
grains, such as canola and corn, or other commercial plants, like
cotton and alfalfa.
GMO’s are created in a laboratory,
often using genes from completely different species that would never
be able to breed in nature. They are usually created to be disease
resistant, or, more commonly, resistant to specific herbicides, such
as Roundup Ready canola, which will survive being sprayed with
glysophate, allowing farmers to use Roundup to control weeds in their
Farmers have to sign an agreement not to save their seeds, since the GMO producing seed companies hold patents to the seeds, and require royalties from anyone planting those seeds. While The Non-GMO Project lists corn, papaya, summer squash, and potatoes as having widely available GMO options, it is unlikely you would come across GMO garden seeds for a backyard garden or orchard. If you are curious about what plants have GMO varieties, the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database has a searchable list that is quite interesting.
The biggest threat to the home gardener
would be if your crop was cross-pollenated by a GMO crop. Given that
most home gardeners are not growing canola, soybeans, or cotton, it
is not an issue for most people. However, if you live in a rural
location, and are growing summer squash next to a field of commercial
summer squash, it might be worth speaking to the farmer about what
variety he or she has planted, or simply don’t save your summer
squash seeds that year.
There are other issues with GMO seeds,
such as herbicide use and resistance, concerns with untested genetics
getting into wild populations through cross-pollenation, and moral
issues with large international companies holding patents to the
seeds that provide our food. However, you don’t really need to worry
about finding them in your garden.
Hybrid seeds are sometimes confused with GMO’s, but they are completely different. Hybrids not created in a lab using biotechnology; rather, they are created by crossing two different plant cultivars (types) of the same species – so, for instance, a hybrid squash seed is created when one type of squash plant is intentionally pollenated using another type of squash plant. These crosses could occur naturally in people’s gardens, but seed companies create the crosses under carefully controlled conditions, so that the person who plants and grows the seeds gets a consistent and predictable end product.
Hybrid seeds often have better disease
resistance or better yield; some hybrids are bred for better flavor,
as well. Hybrids are widely available in seed catalogs, and many
gardeners grow them. Seed companies usually mark which seeds are
The one significant drawback to hybrids
is that they do not come true from seed. This means that if you save
seeds from a hybrid plant, then plant them the following year, the
plants you get will most likely resemble one of the original hybrid’s
parents, rather than resembling the hybrid plant you saved your seed
A totally fictional example would be
something like a purple squash that was created by breeding a red
squash plant with a blue squash plant (silly fictional example,
remember). If you saved seeds from your purple squash and planted
them, you might get red squash plants or blue squash plants, but you
would not be able to count on getting purple squash plants.
Hybrids are nothing to be afraid of,
and are often a good choice for a gardener looking for specific
traits such as high yield or drought tolerance. Unfortunately,
because of the confusion over GMO’s, hybrids sometimes get a bad rap,
which they really don’t deserve.
Heirloom seeds are seeds from stable
cultivars. This means that the flower or vegetable sub-type was
created through traditional breeding, by crossing various plants of
the same species, then selecting specific plants that have the traits
the gardener was looking for, and saving seeds from those for several
generations, until the offspring plants have the same traits as the
parent plants. Heirloom varieties are perfect for saving seeds from,
since the parent plants are the same as each other, so plants you
grow from saved seeds will have predictable traits.
Back to our fictional purple squash, an heirloom variety of purple squash might have started out by crossing blue squash with red squash, but over several generations, the farmer re-planted saved seed, and selected for purple squashes. This means the farmer only saved seeds from purple squashes, and any squash plants that reverted to the red or blue types of the original parents would be eliminated, and none of their seeds would be kept in the gene pool. Eventually, the saved seeds would only produce purple squash, and if you saved seeds from purple squash one year, and planted them the next year, you would end up with purple squash in the second generation (and third generation, and so on).
Which Is Best For Me?
Most homesteaders and gardeners who save their own seeds prefer heirloom varieties, because of the predictability of the offspring. Sometimes, heirloom varieties are hardier, or tolerate poor conditions better than hybrid plants, though some heirloom varieties are less productive than hybrids.
Ultimately, the choice between hybrid
and heirloom seeds comes down to your own goals. Do you want a plant
that will give you the most possible produce in the smallest space?
A hybrid might be perfect for you. Do you want to save seeds from
your garden and get away from having to buy new seed every year? An
heirloom variety is probably your best bet. You are unlikely to end
up with GMO seeds in your garden, so even if you are trying to avoid
GMO foods, luckily, you won’t have to work very hard or worry about
where you are getting your seeds from.
If you have moral concerns with
supporting any company that produces or sells GMO seeds, look for the
Safe Seed Pledge. Many smaller seed producers have pledged not to
plant or sell GMO seeds, and have signed the Pledge. The Safe Seed
Pledge reads as follows:
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.”
You can find a list of seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge here.
Remember, though, that just because a
company sells hybrid seeds, or may not have signed the Safe Seed
Pledge, doesn’t automatically mean they are selling you GMO seeds or
supporting companies who do. Contact them and see what they say!