Seed Saving Biennials; by David Cavagnaro

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Seed Saving Biennials; by David Cavagnaro

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Seed Saving Biennials; by David Cavagnaro

  1. 1. Seed-Saving Biennials by David Cavagnaro I’ve been harvesting seed from all sorts of veg- of biennial crops from my home garden: cabbages,etables since I was a kid growing up in northern kale, Brussels sprouts, leeks, beets, chard, carrots,California. In a benign climate such as we had there, rutabagas, turnips. Once you understand the basicgetting a seed crop from your vegetables happens premise – you want to keep the plant in a dormantalmost on its own. Leave a plant – lettuce, broccoli, state, either indoors or in the garden, through theSwiss chard, almost anything – in the ground just a winter and then grow it on the following spring untillittle too long and pretty soon it’s going to seed. I it sets seed – the techniques aren’t difficult, they justnever bought seed unless there was a new variety that take a bit more time.I was after. Maintaining my family’s supply of biennial seed No matter where you live, it’s easy to save seed has become part of our routine for storing our winterof annuals like tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, melons and vegetables. At harvest time we simply separate outsquash. And in zone 8 and southward, biennial crops some of the finer specimens as parent stock. We’re– the cabbage family, onions and most root crops lucky to have a large root cellar, where the tempera-– are easy too. But where winters are cold enough to ture averages 32 to 40°F and the humidity about 90%freeze the ground hard, the biennials take a little more – the cole and root crops keep very well. Early theeffort. A lot of people, even committed seed-savers, following season we replant them outdoors, whereare unnecessarily afraid of trying. they quickly go to seed. Since seed for most of these Today I live in zone 4, where the winters get to vegetables will keep five or six years, I only need to30 below. And I’m still saving seed from all sorts do this for a handful of crops each year. Brassica oleracea varieties Many members of the family Brassicaceae are annuals – mustards, Chinese cabbage, arugula, cress and others – but members of the species oleracea are biennials. Firm types of brassicas – kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and the hard storage varieties of cabbage – are the easiest to save. The leafy brassicas (kale, collards and Savoy cabbage) tend to mold and rot. Broccoli and cauliflower behave like annuals. I’ll talk first about cabbage because the way I handle any other brassica is just a variation of the treatment I give cabbages. I like to get my storage cabbages dug up and in pots in the root cellar before the temperature ap- proaches 20°F. I leave some cabbages in the garden later than that for eating (throwing blankets or other protection over them at night), but vegetables for the root cellar must be in excellent condition. Cold-dam- aged cabbages won’t last long before rotting. Cabbages don’t have extensive roots. After removing outer leaves, leaving just the heads, I lift the plants with a shovel, shake off the dirt and place them in five-gallon nursery containers, cramming about five cabbages into each pot. I fill the contain- ers with soil or sand and water well. The heads stay absolutely perfect this way for seven or eight months. Sometimes the humidity causes the outer leaves to Root Cellar with Biennials for Seed Saving rot. I just pull those leaves off and there’s a perfect (Photo by David Cavagnaro) cabbage underneath.48 Seed Savers Exchange
  2. 2. Root crops Carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips and celery root are not close relatives but are all brought through the winter in a similar way. In mild climates they can be left in the garden, perhaps with a little mulch to pro- tect from cold where freezes do not penetrate deeply. Where the ground freezes, it’s safest to dig them, trim the leaves and store them in sawdust. Parsnips are the only root crop that can survive deep freezing. Even here in zone 4, I can leave them in the ground without mulching. The only danger is from voles, which can ruin root crops under mulch or snow. Preparing Cabbages for Winter Storage I dig root crops for storage any time before the (Photo by David Cavagnaro) ground freezes, though it can be a hand-numbing job if the weather is very cold. I trim the leaves about a With cabbages you can have your cake and eat it, quarter inch above the root, brush off the dirt and layertoo. All you need to plant out in the spring is the root the roots in wooden boxes.with some stem – there are plenty of dormant buds Traditionally, sand is used to separate the lay-along the stem that will sprout and go to seed. (Eat ers of root vegetables. But sand is heavy, so I preferthe seed cabbage heads last, though, because once the coarse sawdust or even the chipped leaves I use forhead is cut off, the stem is far more prone to rotting.) mulch. Separate each root from its neighbor becauseIf you plant out a cabbage with the head still intact, some will inevitably rot (the separation keeps thecut an X in the top to make it easier for the flower decay from spreading through the whole box). Startstalk to emerge. with a fresh batch of packing material each season. For loose-headed cabbages (early varieties. Sa- As with the cabbage family, select the best speci-voys and collards), make a special planting for the mens for seed parents while you are sorting the crop forseed crop, timed so you’ll have small plants with little packing. Seed stock should go in separate boxes thatheads when killing cold arrives. Dig the plants, strip are set aside, so there is no chance of eating them acci-all the leaves until only a head about the size of a ten- dentally. Any roots with insects holes or other damagenis ball remains, and pot them up for storage like the are most prone to decay and should be eaten first.others. A late summer planting of kale overwinters All of these vegetables need cross-pollination soright in the garden under a layer of mulch if winter you’ll need to plant at least two of each to get seed.temperatures are not too severe. But keep in mind that many more, perhaps at least 20, One cabbage will give you plenty of seed. Every- are necessary to maintain long-term genetic integritything in this family needs cross pollination by insects, of these crops. Since these plants are much smallerhowever, so you’ll need at least two to get a crop and than mature brassicas, a full patch does not take tooyou must separate each cabbage variety from all other much garden space.cabbages as well as any other brassicas. However, Beets are wind pollinated and will cross withit takes far more than just two plants to maintain Swiss chard. The others are insect pollinated. Carrotsgenetic viability in these biennial crops. Geneticists will cross with the Queen Anne’s lace, but the generecommend a minimum of 20 plants of vegetables like for white roots is dominant, so any orange carrot youonions, leeks, or brassicas. That may be more than get the following season is sure to be true to varietymost backyard gardeners have space for. If so, you type. Other root vegetables will cross within the groupcan save seed for a generation or two (in other words, as well as with wild relatives.one or two times) before the genetic quality begins to Again, the easiest way to handle the problem is toslip, then buy in fresh seed. grow just one from each group in a given year. Most In the home garden, it’s easier just to save seed of these seeds will keep four years or longer withfrom one brassica type each year and not worry about little trouble. The exception is parsnip seed, which isseparation distance. The seed will last four years or notoriously short-lived. We like parsnips, and I renewmore if kept dry at about 50°F. I routinely get five or the seed each year, which is as simple as leaving a fewsix years out of mine. plants in the ground. Russian kale is not a true kale; it is actually related To cover any storage losses, I like to reserve sixto rutabaga, Brassica napus, and will therefore not to a dozen of each root vegetable for the seed crop, butcross with other kales or oleracea varieties. again, if you plan to maintain your seed stock through2008 Harvest Edition 49
  3. 3. several generations, up that number to about two dozen. let the plants go to seed. For most varieties and bestAll can be replanted outdoors as soon as the ground insurance of success, I dig leeks in the fall and replantthaws in spring, set very close together in the row. them densely, as many as I can fit, if five gallon plastic pots for root cellar storage. Onions I dig up my red onions in the fall and sort them Leeks are one of the easiest biennials to save be- for storage like the other crops, saving the very bestcause: most are so very cold hardy. But regular onions 20 or so for the seed crop. In mild areas you couldare one of the more difficult vegetables – it’s hard to replant the best specimens immediately and protectbring them through a long winter in a fully dormant with a light mulch of leaves or straw. In our climatestate. Onion seed loses viability very quickly and where the ground freezes solid, onions tend to rotyou need to plant a good number of parents to keep even if mulched, so we have to bring them indoors.the seed stock from gradually declining in quality. They will keep in a cold room (32 to 45°F) at 60 toMy family’s heirloom red onion kept getting smaller 70% humidity up to six months. They also keep welland smaller and producing more multiple-centered under very warm conditions – 77 to 95°F and aboutbulbs, until I learned to have 20 or more parents in 65% humidity.my seed patch. My onions sprout in late January or February. I Let’s start with leeks. In moderate climates you pot them up so they can grow roots and move themcan overwinter any leek outdoors with a bit of protec- into the root cellar. That tides them over until it’s safetive mulch. Here I can only overwinter the hardiest to move them outdoors. Onion varieties will cross-varieties, which are generally the short, stocky ones. pollinate with each other as well as with shallots andI dig them up and replant them in a trench at an angle, potato onions.so the roots and growing tips are well protected with a For seed to remain viable a long time it’s crucialbank of soil and only the tops of the leaves are above that it be completely dry. Cut the partially dry plantsground. Then I cover the leeks with a thick blanket bearing the seed crop and move them indoors to aof leaves. In spring, I just peel back the leaves and very dry room. Harvest seed just as it’s ready to fall away from the parent plant or as the pods are about to split. If the seed still feels slightly damp, spread it on paper in a thin layer. Store the seed in small paper envelopes labeled with the name of the plant, the variety and the date. The only truly airtight containers are metal or glass with rubber gaskets on the lids. Many small paper packets will fit into a large-mouthed glass jar. Weigh the seed in the packets, then put them in the jar with an equal weight of silica gel, which turns from blue to pink as it absorbs moisture. After a week in the container, the silica gel should be removed (it can be dried out slowly in an oven or microwave and reused many times) and the jar promptly resealed. Seed treated this way will retain excellent viability for a long time. If the glass or metal container is kept in a refrigerator or freezer, seed life is even longer. I encourage every gardener in mild climates to give biennial seed-saving a try. For those of us who brave our more northern arctic winters, creating some sort of cold but not frozen winter storage space is necessary, following the same conditions needed for good winter-long root crop storage. David Cavagnaro is one of SSE’s advisors. He Preparing Leeks for Root Cellar Storage spent eight years as the Garden Manager at Heri- (Photo by David Cavagnaro) tage Farm.50 Seed Savers Exchange

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