Growing Good Seed: A Visit to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

ping tung long LSSI

Ping Tung Long Eggplant from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a variety adapted to the humid conditions of the island. It is resistant to the Root Knot Nematode prevalent in our soil. Its origin is Taiwan, another island in our latitude that’s hot and buggy too.

You often hear growers preaching the importance of the soil, but equally important is the quality of the seed you put in the ground.  Growing varieties well-adapted to your region, its climate and soil type, sets you up for success each season.

Most of the seed we plant on Little St. Simon’s Island comes from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia. My family recently stopped in on a road trip this summer.

gardens

Gardens of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Much of their seed is sourced from farmers in the Southeast, and that means the seed is conditioned to grow in this hot and humid environment with its abundance of pests.  Many of their varieties specify resistances to particular diseases and pests, as coded in their catalog.

seed packs

When you get your seed where farmers get theirs, its germination rate is likely superior to whatever you might find at your local hardware or garden store.   A farmers’ livelihood depends on it.  They won’t be hoodwinked into buying poor seed with a fancy package that a hobbyist will put in the ground with little results thinking it’s them.

ira master gardener ken in seed fridgesenna in seed freezerLuckily, there are folks out there like Ira Wallace and Ken Bazilla, long-time worker/owners of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. (And that’s my daughter Senna in the seed freezer 🙂 ) They’re looking out for ordinary folk who want to partake in this ancient and essential tradition of growing food for oneself, family and community.

Keep it up, Southern Exposure!  We thank you for your excellent work.

zinnia and corn

Zinnia and Maize

tomatoes

Tomatoes!

bean tee pee

Pole Beans

planting seeds 2

Planting beets and peas with Ira

seed fridge

Seed Cooler

seed packer with tomato pack

Seed Packer

seed supply closet

Shopping for seeds!

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From the Garden: Seed to Pickle

cucumbers

When the harvest comes on fast and plenty, it’s time for pickling! Seen here the Arkansas Little Leaf Cucumber.

It’s the height of summer and our cucumber and bean production is just wrapping up.  These long, warm days are perfect for indoor food-preservation projects, and nothing gets faster results than quick pickling.  The kitchen has been featuring pickled beans, cucumbers, and peppers from our garden in a variety of styles, both sweet and sour. The empty pickle bowls at the end of meals speak for themselves.

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Every good pickle starts with a good brine and includes the freshest produce available.  We pickled two varieties of cucumbers this year, both grown in our garden: the Suyo Long from Asia and the Arkansas Little Leaf.

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Suyo Long Cucumbers

Both varieties work well in this environment. We chose them for their pest- and rot-resistance, which is key in this hot and buggy climate.  Growing varieties familiar to your growing region and climate is a trick of the trade among organic growers.  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange out of Virginia is where we source most of our seeds. Many of their seed growers are farmers in the southeast.

You do your best growing the right variety, but pests often make an appearance anyway. The pickleworm reemerged this year, but we got an early handle on it with the biological pesticide BT.  (Read more about our history with the worm and the pesticide.) When our kitchen is overwhelmed with cucumbers, I’d say we triumphed!

Here’s our recipe for your own home-made quick dill pickle. The whole coriander seeds and sprigs of dill make for a real eye-catcher!

———-Dill Pickle Recipe———-

  • *1.25 C distilled white vinegar
  • *3 tbsp kosher salt
  • *2 tbsp sugar
  • *2 C cold water
  • *2 tbsp coriander seed
  • *6 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • *1 tsp mustard seed
  • *0.25 tsp red pepper flakes
  • *16 sprigs dill
  • *1.5 to 2 lbs cucumbers, cut in spears or sliced in 0.25 inch rounds

Combine vinegar, salt, and sugar in a small, non-reactive saucepan over high heat. (Stainless steel, glass, teflon, or ceramic will work.)   Whisk until the salt and sugar are dissolved.  Transfer liquid into a bowl and whisk in cold water.  Refrigerate brine until ready to use.

Place cucumbers in clean 2 qt. container such as a large Tupperware or stainless steel stockpot.  Add coriander seed, garlic cloves, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, and dill sprigs, then pour chilled brine over the mixture.  If necessary, add water until the cucumbers are covered.  Cover container and refrigerate for 24 hours, then serve; cucumbers will keep for up to a month.

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Summer Cover Cropping in the Garden

Take care of the sIMAG0322oil and it will take care of you. Cover cropping is an easy way to condition the soil whenever a part of your garden is lying fallow. Cover crops protect the soil, build structure to maintain the microbial life within, suppress weeds, add organic matter and keep nutrients from leaching away each time it rains. Some popular summer covers include: buckwheat, sudan grass, sunn hemp, cowpeas, and velvet beans.  Each one has its particular benefits, so choose according to your needs.  (Here is a comprehensive guide to cover crops of the southeast.)

Buckwheat

Buckwheat (photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Some summer covers we’ll be using on LSSI are buckwheat and velvet bean. Buckwheat is a quick-growing cover crop for short sowing windows.  I recently spread some buckwheat seed where I intend to plant sweet potatoes next month.  I cleared the field of winter arugula, but my potato starts were not ready yet. Come June, the buckwheat will have grown shin-high and will be easy to hoe in to make way for my sweet potato seedlings.  You can put buckwheat in for longer, just keep trimming the heads back with some hedge shears or a weed whacker each time it flowers so it won’t reseed itself.  I’ll be seeding buckwheat all season as my earlier spring crops of lettuce and beans quit producing and it’s too hot to plant a second round of snap beans or summer squash.

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Velvet bean. (photo courtesy of feedipedia.org)

We’ll grow velvet beans in the raised beds that need a break this summer.  Giving the soil regular rest is a sound practice in sustainable soil management.  On LSSI, we rotate our production beds, trying to give each bed or row a rest once a year. Think of cover crops as a living mulch, and velvet beans lay it on heavy. It grows a lot of organic matter, and because it is a legume, it will fix nitrogen into the soil for the next crop. Just chop it in with a hoe and let it sit and break down before sowing the next thing.  Velvet bean is an especially beneficial cover for us because it is known for deterring the detrimental soil pest, the root-knot nematode.  We haven’t grown regular tomatoes in our garden for years because this critter binds to the roots and takes soil nutrients from our plants. Look out for an update next summer, as I plant tomatoes in the beds I treated with velvet beans to see its effectiveness in managing that pest.

eggplant in rye cover 2015

Baby eggplants transplanted into a bed of winter rye

And since, we’re talking ‘maters, I want to share this great cover cropping tip for you to experiment with next spring, but in order to do it, you’ll get started late this fall by scattering rye seed. Our cherry tomato and eggplant beds will be nearly weed-free this summer because I sowed this rye last November and let it grow winter-long in order to plant my nightshades into this spring.  I simply cut the rye at soil level and turned the soil where I wanted to transplant my seedlings.  I turned it a few weeks in advance. That’s important or else they’ll compete with the rye and won’t get a good growing start.  The summer heat will kill the rye and I’ll essentially have grown my mulch in place.

As soil biologist Elaine Ingham reminds, “Nature abhors bare soil.” If you’re going to leave it bare, she’ll put something in there that you will probably call a weed.  Spread cover seed.

Another reminder for the more northerly growers in clay-rich soil: Use daikon radish, AKA nature’s plow, to break up that clay. Sow this fall and let it over-winter and rot in the ground.

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