Why is My Squash Bitter?

"Long of Naples" squash

“Long of Naples” squash growing in our backyard.

It’s the bees.

Squash is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, one of the most difficult vegetables to save seeds from. Cucurbitaceae have both male and female flowers and lots of wild, inedible relatives. Cross pollination is what Cucurbitaceae want to do. If you want to save seed and you take the precaution of taping up the flowers, bumblebees and solitary bees can chew their way through the tape to get at the pollen. In short it’s really easy to breed a freak Frankensquash or Frankencucumber, which can actually be toxic.

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Eight Things to Consider When Saving Vegetable Seeds

seed saving

The directions for seed saving in our last book, Making It, almost got cut. Perhaps we should have just changed those directions to “Why it’s OK to buy seeds.” The fact is that it’s not easy to save the seeds of many vegetables thanks to the hard work of our bee friends.

That being said, Shannon Carmody of Seed Saver’s Exchange gave a lecture at this year’s Heirloom Exposition with some tips for ambitious gardeners who want to take up seed saving. Here’s some of her suggestions:

1. Maintaining varietal purity
Is the vegetable open pollinated or hybrid? Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to type. You can’t save and regrow the seeds of hybrids, at least not without a lot of complicated multi-generational outcrossing in order to create a new variety that produces true to type. [I'll note that I'm not anti-hybrid. The increased vigor of hybrids can be advantageous if you're having trouble in your garden.]

2. Know how the vegetable is pollinated
It’s much easier to save the seeds of self-pollinating vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes. Remember that bees can fly for miles–anything pollinated by insects have to be isolated or caged to prevent cross-pollination. And many vegetables have weedy cousins. Try to save the seeds of carrots without caging and you may get a carrot/Queen Anne’s lace hybrid that won’t taste good. And some supposedly self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes have rogue varieties that can be cross pollinated by insects.

3. Consider your climate
Bienneals require two years of growth in order to set seeds. If you live in a cold climate that could be a problem.

4. Population size
Serious plant breeders often plant a minimum of sixty plants so that they can choose the most vigorous for seed saving. And they’ll often plant just one variety to reduce the risk of crossing. One way around the population size requirement is to crowd source the problem and get a bunch of friends to grow the same vegetable.

5. Space requirements
Some biennials get really big in the second year. You’ll need to make sure they have space and won’t shade out other plants.

6. When to harvest
Fruits harvested for seed may need to stay on the plant for a long time. For example, eggplants that you want to save seed from need to be harvested well past when they’re still edible.

7. Prepping seeds
In general, seeds harvested when dry, such as lettuce need to be air dried before storing. Seeds harvested wet, such as watermelons, need to be washed with water before drying and storing. Tomato seeds need to be fermented in water for a few days before drying.

8. Storage
Moisture is the enemy of seed storage. Those packs of desiccant that come with electronic gadgets can be recycled and used in your seed storage boxes.

There’s no shame in buying seeds

In our small garden it would be nearly impossible to save the seeds of readily pollinated vegetables such as members of the Cucurbitaceae family. But it would be great to have varieties of vegetables adapted to our dry Mediterranean climate. Most seed saving operations use lots of fertilizer and water and the result is vegetables that are adapted, unsurprisingly, to requiring tons of fertilizer and water. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a notable exception. But we need more regional seed saving groups run by trained horticulturalists. In the meantime I buy seeds and stick to saving just the easy ones–beans, peas and tomatoes.

If you want more information about seed saving the bible of the subject is Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed.

How have your seed saving endeavors gone? What seeds do you save? Have you ever gone through the trouble of bagging seed heads or caging plants and hand-pollinating?

My Favorite Lettuce Mix

Earlier this week when I decried the sorry state of our winter vegetable garden, I neglected to mention the one big success: lettuce.

We grow lettuce mixes almost every year and we’ve never been disappointed. Homegrown salad greens are much better than store bought. Plus, at least where we live, they are easy to grow. We just sow the seed directly and water them in. We thin by eating the seedlings. Judging from the crowding in the photo above, we need to eat some more salads soon. There’s never been pest problems save for the edible, and aggressive, fennel seedlings you can see amongst the lettuce (memo to self: cut down fennel before it goes to seed this year!).

And, at the risk of repeating myself, I pretty much grow Franchi seeds exclusively. It’s a family run Italian company that dates back to 1783. This year I grew their “Misticanza All Lettuce” mesclun mix. It’s astonishingly beautiful and flavorful. Best damn salads I’ve ever had.

Last year I grew their Misticanza da indive, described in the Seeds from Italy catalog as a mixture of ten or more endives and escaroles. It is also well worth growing. Franchi has several other mesclun mixes that I’m looking forward to trying.

Unlike other seed companies you get a lot of seeds on one package–enough to plant a farm. I’ve had good luck with germination, as well.

In the US, Franchi seeds are available through Seeds From Italy at www.growitalian.com.

Gardening Tip: Senecent Seedlings

With seedlings, small is good.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Senescence is the “change of the biology in an organism as it ages after it reaches maturity” (see Wikipedia). I believe I’m experiencing it right now.

What we’re here to warn you about today is buying plants which are old before their time. Seedlings which are senescent.

What are senescent seedlings? Basically, these are seedlings whose roots have met the bottom of their container.  See, plants have their own intelligence and follow their own internal clocks.

If, for instance, a little tomato seedling spends enough time in a tiny pot or shallow flat, its roots will reach the bottom of the container. When it meets this resistance, it will start to feel confined, and it will say to itself, “Well, this is it. This is all the space I’ll ever get, so I better get going on the reproduction.” At that point its biology will change and it will flower and start to do it’s best to set fruit or seed as soon as possible. In short, it intends to reproduce before it runs out of resources.

The result of this biological shift is that this plant will never really thrive in your garden. It will stay smallish and bear just a little before closing up shop. It’s not that the plant is unhealthy, it’s just that it’s done. You won’t get much performance out of it. It’s the tomato that never gets tall. It’s the pepper plant that makes one single pepper.

Beware: Most nursery seedlings are senescent.


So keep these things in mind:

  • When you buy seedlings, look at the bottom of the container. If roots are poking out, it’s a no-go. This pertains particularly to annual vegetables. Perennials don’t like being root bound either, but the outcomes are not as extreme.
  • In addition to long roots, also look for tell-tale signs of maturity in a vegetable, like flowers or fruits. Tomato plants already bearing tiny tomatoes are not a good thing. Cukes that are flowering are not a good thing.
  • Look for the smallest, youngest seedlings you can find. Teeny tiny is good. The more leafed out they are, the longer their roots will be.
  • If you’re raising plants from seeds, don’t let the seedlings sit around too long. Get them into the ground when they open their first true leaves. If you can’t plant for some reason, transplant them to deeper containers.

Seed Mania

Sea Buckthorn. Image by Maggi_94

I’m still hyperventilating from all the lectures and exhibitors at the National Heirloom Exposition in Sonoma that I attended last week. I resisted the urge to buy too many seeds. Well, I sort of resisted this urge. I ended up coming back with:

Early Stone Age Wheat from Bountiful Gardens, the seed company founded by John Jeavons. I’ve grew a few Bountiful Gardens seeds this summer with great success (particularly their summer, late to bolt lettuce). I’m looking forwards to growing the world’s smallest ancient wheat field (2 square feet) this winter. Ancient wheat is known for being difficult to thresh and clean. At least I won’t have much to harvest!

Perpetual Spinach Chard, also from Bountiful Gardens. From their catalog description, “Rare, fine old European strain of Swiss Chard. Smaller smooth dark-green leaves, small mid-ribs. Frost and bolt resistant, needs water in a dry spell.”

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) from Bountiful Gardens. The fruit of this berry producing shrub can be found in Armenian and Russian markets here in LA. I was introduced to it by my friends at Tularosa Farms. It’s difficult to germinate so that plan is to gift the seeds to the TF folks and hope that they give us seedlings (an evil plan, I admit).

I also picked up some crimson clover and globe artichoke seeds from the Bountiful Gardens folks.

Desert Chia from Native Seed Search. Yes it is that chia, of Chia Pet fame. Chia is an ancient herb used by Native Americans for medicine and food.

Chadwick’s Sweet Pea from Seed Dreams out of Port Townsend, WA. I really like having some sweet peas in the garden and this variety caught my eye, for its dark purple color and the fact that it’s from the late Alan Chadwick.

Let me know if you’ve grown any of these oddball plants and how it went.

Cheerful but Depressing Infographic

Cheerful Seeming but Oh So Depressing Infographic*

National Geographic has an article about seed saving and the importance of biodiversity in the food supply: Food Ark. I know many of our readers are seriously savvy on such subjects, so the material may be too basic for some of you. But for those of you who are new to the subject, or want to share with others, this is a good overview.

And as always, National Geographic is best at the pictures. Attached to the article are several photo galleries. These are my favorites:

Potato Porn
 
Chicken Porn 

*If you can’t read the infographic labels, it is comparing the number of seed varieties found in seed catalogs in 1903 (upper register) with the current number of varieties in the National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983 (lower register). An astonishing loss of biodiversity over an 80 year period. This is one of the ways in which the 20th century really sucked.

Why I Grow Vegetables From Seed

Chard destined for failure

On the last day of a vegetable gardening class that Kelly and I just finished teaching at the Huntington, we needed to demonstrate how to transplant seedlings. The problem was that we didn’t have any seedlings at home ready to transplant, so I had to make a trip to a garden center.

That sorry errand reminded me why I grow from seed.

All of the seedlings at the nursery were uninteresting varieties and root-bound–way too big for their pots. And someone tell me what’s up with the trend I’ve noticed recently of selling mature tomato plants in small pots? I suppose novice gardeners probably think they’re getting a better value with a large plant, so the nursery has an incentive to sell root-bound stock.

In fact, every last vegetable seedling at the nursery had root systems as congested as the 405 freeway on a Friday afternoon. When roots hit the bottom of a pot you get what John Jeavons calls “premature senility,” resulting in stunted growth and plants that go rapidly to seed.

On occasion I’ll buy seedlings, as when I failed to get my tomato seeds to germinate last year. In that case, Craig from Winnetka Farms had some on hand. And there’s a guy at one of the local farmers’ markets that has decent seedlings.

But nothing matches the variety, cost savings and quality of DIY seed propagation.

Germinator Update

Last year my tomato seeds failed to germinate. Why? It was just too cold.

I vowed to build a cold frame and this winter I made good on that promise. I’ve upgraded the plastic sheeting on the “germinator” to rigid plastic awning material (plastic sheeting over a flat surface doesn’t do well in rain . . . duh). If I were to build this thing again I’d construct a sloping top, especially if I lived somewhere with actual weather.

Before–plastic sheeting on a flat surface–a bad idea! What was I thinking?

The automatic vent lifter (available from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply) works great, popping open the germinator to keep the seedlings from frying during the day (remember this is Southern California).

The sight of my tomato seedlings was a highlight of the week:

If I lived in a colder climate I might consider incorporating a compost bin inside my cold frame to keep seedlings warm, a heat mat, or growing indoors under lights.

Pimp My Cold Frame

While the climate here in Los Angeles is exceedingly mild–it rarely gets much below freezing–springtime can, some years, be too cold to get good germination of summer vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. This was the case in 2010 when I was not able to get a single tomato seed to germinate until late May. To head off another seedling crisis I built a simple cold frame.

In order to prevent the cold frame from becoming a solar cooker (it can get over 80°F during the day this time of year) I pimped it out with an Univent Automatic Greenhouse Vent Opener. The Univent uses no electricity. As the temperature gets hotter a small piston thingy forces open the window you attach the Univent too. As the temperature cools in the evening, the Univent closes the window. It was easy to install, though the directions it came with seem to have been translated back and forth between several European languages before materializing into English.

The price on Amazon seems a bit steep at $50. I got mine on sale from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, but they no longer seem to carry it back in stock here.

I’m fully aware that my cold frame, with it’s plastic cover, would be way too flimsy for places with real weather. Nevertheless, I can imagine the automatic vent opener being useful in many climates.

ETA: Mrs. Homegrown here: I just wanted to add a clarifying note. This cold frame is The Germinator ™, one of our recent garden improvements. Ordinarily it is covered with wire screen, which lets sun in but keeps critters out. Erik’s plan is to swap out the plastic sheeting with the wire screen as needed.