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.