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.

mucuna_pruriens_flowers

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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Building Beds With Wood Waste

Dug a trench down the row and filled it with wood.


Hugelkultur, roughly translated from German to mean “hill-culture,” is a soil-building method that raises the growing space by burying wood-waste beneath the soil.   We are rich in rotting wood here on LSSI, including live oaks, pines and some pecans, so we’re employing the method to areas in the garden prone to flooding— the “fields” between the orchard rows. 

After our summer harvest, we plowed the fields for one last time, as it will take years for the wood to rot and we can’t very well push a plow on top of it! Then we dug a trench down one of the rows and began to fill it with wood, mostly downed oak limbs that had fallen in the lodge areas.  (Some kinds of wood you don’t want to use include cedar and black walnut. A Google search yields lively discussions on the matter.)
Next we added, food scraps and other nitrogen sources like bloodmeal and feathermeal to speed-up the break-down of all that carbon in the form of wood-waste. Then we watered the pile before we covered it back with soil.
Added  N: food scraps, blood and feather meal.
Adding nitrogen via food scraps and meals is not necessary, however.  You can just bury the wood and the nitrogen in the soil will work to slowly break it down. But we wanted to hasten the process a little.  The idea is: the rotting wood will be a slow-releasing fertilizer over the years. Initially a lot of nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down the carbon.  But after a few years, it should have broken down substantially to begin releasing nitrogen, which will make your veggies grow.  While you’re waiting for that process to occur, best to plant crops like onions and potatoes which don’t require a lot of nitrogen.  Or legumes that actually fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere.
I first learned about this old soil-building method in a permaculturecourse a couple years back where its benefits for building fungal-rich berms around fruit trees were highlighted. I am sure the roots of the citrus and fruit trees on either side of our vegetable rows will meander to the beds and benefit immensely as well!
Check out this resource to learn more:  http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

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A Story of Squash: Seed to Table

Tahitian Melon winter squash in the field.
I am happy to report our guests are dining on winter squash from the garden this fall.  But my what it took to get these enormous beauties to the table this year!
It was a long labor of love that began with the patty pan summer squash I planted in the raised beds.  I trimmed the winter rye and cut holes into them where I direct seeded the squash. These dwarf plants came up lovely, green and gorgeous, but just as they began to fruit, the pickleworms bore holes in their vines and their fruit, so there was none left for the kitchen!  The pickleworm is the larval form of a night moth which lays eggs on the leaves of cucurbits and once their eggs hatch, the young bore into the flowers of the squash, into the vines and into the fruit.  We were quick to pull those summer squash plants in an effort to get rid of the worms, but in hindsight leaving them in as a trap crop may have been a better option. Just as soon as they had no more patty pan to feed on they descended upon the cucumbers on the backfield trellis!
“Frass” from hole where a pickleworm bore into cucumber.
I left those cucs in place because right next to them were the winter squash.  Now, pickleworms, according to research, typically aren’t keen on winter squash like they are on cucs and summer squash, but just in case, I covered the backfield with row cover, which also would protect it from the dreaded squash vine borer should it have decided to make an appearance this year.
A pickleworm inching its way through the vine of a cucumber.
Row cover on the winter squash.
When the squash started blossoming, I was faced with some choices: hand pollinate and keep them covered; uncover them by day and let the bees do the job and cover them again by night (when the night moth emerges again); or uncover them and see what happens.  Well, I tried all three options but soon found the last was the most practical, and least laborious!  However, within weeks of uncovering them, I noticed some holes in the vines and some fruit shriveling up with a worm in it eating its way through the flesh. 
After more research, I decided to try a biological pesticide called Dipel. It’s a bacteria that attacks the worms.  The trouble with spraying this stuff on the squash plants is that it has to make direct contact with the skin of the worm.  Now, these guys are borers and are usually protected not only from the cover of the huge squash leaves, but also from their comfy abode hidden in the hollow of a vine and fruit!  So in order for this to work, I had to thoroughly spray at the base of every flower, around every fruit, along as many vines as I could, lifting the protective leaves as I went.  Well, I was determined! And…
Naturalist Rachael harvesting some long-in-coming squash this summer!
To the kitchen!
The chefs have been serving up winter squash off the grill, mashed up as a side dish, and in savory soups for months!


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Sheet-mulching: composting in place

Cardboard, an excellent source of carbon, placed around our winter squash mounds.

We all know the wonders of good compost in the garden, but turning piles can be laborious. And spreading it wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow to the beds is lot of work.  Well worth the effort, don’t get me wrong.  We have an extensive operation here on LSSI, but we also use another method to build soil. It’s called sheet-mulching, a.k.a. composting-in-place or lasagna-gardening.
If you have a manure source or a load of coffee grinds and leaves, you’re in good shape.  We need nitrogen (think: manure, coffee grinds, vegetable scraps) and carbon (leaves, paper, cardboard). Whatever sources of wastes you have you just layer them right on top of the ground you intend to grow in and let it break down in place.  A great time to do this is in the fall, so it can degrade over the winter. Come spring, you’ve got soil ready for your seeds and transplants.
Here’s the method:
  1. Soak the planting area. Water heavily. Let sit overnight.
  2. Slash vegetation, weeds, veg. residue, roots and all, and leave as “green manure.” Do remove stumps or woody vegetation, however.
  3. Amend your soil with lime, sulfur, gypsum, any raw mineral, etc. as needed.
  4. Take a spade fork or pitch fork and crack the earth open a little. Don’t turn the earth, “just poke some holes to create better moisture retention, root penetration, and soil-critter movement” as Permaculturist Toby Hemenway says.
  5. Put down a thin layer of nitrogen material: manure, cottonseed meal, fresh grass clippings, or other lush greens or veggie scraps.
  6. Spread cardboard or newspaper to smother weeds.  Cardboard is a better suppressant because it’s thicker and takes longer to break down. (Be sure to remove tape, etc. and DON’T use the produce boxes covered in wax or lots of colorful dye.) Overlap sheets and SOAK them.
  7. Add another thin layer of nitrogen-rich material.
  8. Pour on the bulk-mulch: 8-12 inches of straw, hay, yard waste, leaves, seaweed, saw dust, etc.
  9. Add an inch or two of finished compost if you have it. 
  10. Then another final layer of carbon.
    A word on C(carbon):N(nitrogen): As you layer, pay attention to the C:N ratio. It will ideally be at 30:1.  Get an idea of what the content of your materials are.  For instance, if you’re working with sawdust which has a very high carbon content of  500:1, you’ll want to be sure to add a lot more nitrogen, than if you’re layering with tree leaves. 
     

    from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts
    Now, sheet-mulching is not an exact science and the method is pretty forgiving, especially if you’re giving it six months to break down.  Just sure to add both the elements as you have them and you’ll be doing wonders for your soil. 

 

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Sweet Potatoes=Greens All Summer Long! (and yams come Fall)

Spring was a whirlwind of activity in the garden. Summer arrives oh-so-quickly in the south, and we need to plant everything in the ground as early as possible before the heat and the bugs set in! Right now we’re seeing the fruits of our hurried labor in the forms of cherry tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and sweet potato greens. The latter is what I’d like to celebrate in this post.

Sweet potatoes are near sure-fire successes in the summer garden.  They’re a southern staple. After the kale and collards have long bolted and gone to seed, they keep providing the table with greens.  Their roots store excellently too, providing nourishment year round.

On a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia a couple summers ago, I came to know their virtues well.  They were my “power bars” throughout the day.  We baked dozens of the last year’s crop at a time, put them in the fridge to easily grab and get reenergized. At dinner, we stir-fried their bountiful leaves with onions and garlic for a tasty side dish.

This Spring, we planted several rows and a couple beds of sweet potatoes on Little St. Simons Island. All of the “seed” came from the potatoes we grew TWO YEARS AGO in the backfield. An attempt was made to grow watermelons in that field last year, but the sweet potatoes left in the ground from the summer before took hold and won out.  When I first arrived in the garden this winter, the first task at hand was to pull all those potatoes out of the ground. And can you believe after carting several crates of them out of the garden last winter, still this spring dozens and dozens of seedlings, called “slips” in the world of tater-growin,’ came peaking up out of the rye cover in that back field!

    These are the sweet potato slips my husband grew for our home garden.
 If you’re going to grow your own slips, just cut the spuds in half and
put them in a tray of water and they’ll start spouting.

All this to demonstrate what a hardy vegetable the sweet potato is and how easy it is to grow.  A city-dwelling friend of mine grew them in her kitchen windowsill solely for their greens. If you’re growing for their spuds, sweet potatoes like well-drained, loose soil and sunshine. You can mound them up in a raised row to give their roots plenty of room to swell.  You can also plant them in raised beds. We did both late last Spring.  I plucked those slips out of the backfield as they were coming up, put them in trays for later-transplanting, and now, they’re sprawling beyond their beds and rows… clipped every week to supply Charles with a substitute for one of his lunch staples, navy bean and kale soup.  Come fall, we’ll dig them out of the ground, to be cured and ready for the baking come Thanksgiving. 

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Herbs Galore

If you’re going to grow anything, grow herbs. They virtually grow themselves! They attract few, if any, pests and most herbs grow back year after year. The Little St. Simon’s Island garden has been host to an array of herbs for years, but this winter we’ve taken it to another level by installing four huge raised beds right in the middle of the garden designated just for them.  What an orchestration it was getting them in!
Naturalists Mike and Laura build bed #3.
The gardener (that’s me!) filling the beds.

 
The whole team of naturalists took part, sawing lumber, nailing boards, raking dirt, and now, we have 368 square feet more growing space to supply Chef Charles with all the herbs he needs to dream up savory delectables for your palate.

Clearly, it takes a lot of growing space to supply a commercial kitchen, but not so for your home kitchen.  You can put a lot of different herbs in a small space in a beautiful display called an herb spiral. Along with the four large traditional raised beds, we built an herb spiral as the centerpiece to our garden.  You can put one by your door so all your herb needs are within reach.

Herb spirals are a permaculture garden design you can adapt to your needs. They’re especially great if you’re short on garden space because you build up rather than out.  By creating height with a wall of brick or stone, you’re also helping to create microclimates in your bed. The stone traps heat. And it creates sunny and shadier places in the space as the sun moves across the bed. The top-level, which you fill with sandy soil, is well suited to herbs that like it warm, relatively dry and super-sunny, like rosemary and oregano and thyme.  Then as you move down the spiral, you add a little more compost and plant herbs that prefer loamier soil like cilantro and basil and parsley until you get to the very bottom where herbs, like mint, need a moister cooler place to thrive. Some herb spiral designs even incorporate a pond at the bottom. 
If you’re inspired to build one yourself, follow some of these links to get started. Spirals can be as little as three feet wide or as big as eight! We watched this herb spiral tutorial on-line, perused a bunch of designs and scouted around the island dump for recyclable materials. For our spiral wall, we had a bunch of old bricks from buildings we’ve been refurbishing on the island.  We also have lots of oyster shells piling up from the evening oyster roasts each week. We used them to build height in the center of the spiral. Many designs call for gravel, but with the mountains miles away that’s not an easy find.  The gravel/shell layer not only builds height but it also helps with drainage.
Part of the beauty of the design is that your garden herb spiral will suit your needs, your own aesthetic and help you make use of whatever you have lying around to repurpose for a wall.  It’s about a day’s work for one person to put together the infrastructure. Wait about a week to let the soil settle. Then beautify it by planting your favorite herbs.  Keeping consistent with permaculture principles, the spiral is low maintenance, requiring little energy and water. You just water the top once a week.  Research says after a year when everything is established, you can just rely on the rain.

Happy planting!

Useful Links:

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Here comes the sun… and the cold

The budding green in the ground is perking up to the sun as it slowly returns to our hemisphere, but the cold of winter is surely upon us. The Polar Vortex and “Snowpocalypse” that gripped the southeast stretched its icy fingers to the coast and brought frigid temperatures to the Little St. Simon’s garden. Our aloe plants, some lemongrass and a favorite pineapple sage have all gone indoors for the season, and we’ve been tucking in our garden beds nights it dips below freezing.

Here are some tips to protect your plants from cold weather:
  1. Harvest.  Before a light frost, take tender herbs, vegetables and fruits to the kitchen. Spinach gets picked when we know the temperatures will dip below 32.  The peppers go, too. We harvested all the lemons left on the Meyers in early January when temperatures dipped into the 20’s.
  1. Cover-up.  Many tender veggies can be left in place if you put a blanket over them.  Our lettuce and chard beds stay tucked in tight with frost cloth. It’s light and water permeable, so it can be left in place for days.  Old sheets work well, too. Just be sure to take them off so your plants can see the light of day.
  1. Insulate.  Mulch your beds or rows with compost, straw or other organic matter.  Do it after the frost to prevent heaving—the contraction of soil as it freezes and thaws which can move your plants up and out of their soil beds to expose their roots. You can also insulate the trunk of vulnerable trees. Polyurethane wrapped around the graft of some of our citrus trees keeps their most vulnerable part protected.  You can also do this with soil, too; it’s called soil banking (and more on citrus protection). Mound the soil up the trunk above the graft union. Do this before the freeze, and remove the soil when temps begin to warm again to prevent disease and pest problems. 
  1. Water. A generous watering before a light frost can help retain some of the day’s heat. But don’t do this before a hard freeze—four consecutive hours of temps below 25.
  1. Plan and plant what’s hardy in your region. Consult a planting calendar for your hardiness zone. In coastal Georgia, Brassicas produce all winter. And generally, carrots, garlic, leeks, parsnips, radishes and turnips can all survive a hard freeze. 
 
Helpful links:
 

Predicting Frost: http://www.almanac.com/blog/editors-musings/blog-how-predict-frost

Citrus Protection: http://www.seminolecountyfl.gov/extensionservices/adults/horticulture/english/article480.aspx;
http://farmerfredrant.blogspot.com/2010/11/citrus-protection-in-frost-or-freeze.html

 

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Greetings from the garden!

A new year is a new beginning. The stuff of last year gets turned into the ground to become fodder for this year’s pursuits, to become the nutriment for new ideas and dreams to take seed and fruit. I’ve recently come “ashore” here on Little St. Simons Island to tend the gardens. I bring with me the experience of growing food in a community more inland in Jesup, Georgia. I also carry the knowledge of my teachers who have guided my hands in their gardens and farmsteads, and in my own soil by their spoken wisdom.  However, nature is the greatest teacher when you’re working with the land, and that knowledge is so particular to place. I’ve much to learn from this island as I work with it to create nourishment for you all when you come to visit.
My! Has the year gotten off to a chilly start.  The sun is returning, providing much appreciated light to the new greens in the ground, but winter is truly upon us.  The island was no refuge from the Polar Vortex that swept in bringing frigid temperatures that dipped to 27!   We had to tuck in our lettuce beds and harvest the remaining citrus fruit. The blustery winds blew the covers off of the trees, but luckily the most vulnerable among them was insulated at the trunk. The freeze zapped the pomegranate leaves to brown and shriveled, but new green growth emerged from the branches just a week later when temps rose into the 70’s again. 
So it goes with maritime winters; the temperatures flail wildly. But as the sun continues to fill the day-sky, the land will warm again and we’ll be planting for Spring.  Look for an array of salad and cooked greens to accompany our new menu selections.  We’ll be growing plenty of fresh herbs for Chef Charles to simmer into delectable sauces— beurre-blanc with a spurt of lemons from our recent harvest for his infamous crab cakes and a delicious mint sauce on seasoned rack of lamb. That’s a just a little taste to stir your senses for what’s to come.
Here’s to a good year and a bountiful harvest,
Melissa Stiers
Gardener, LSSI

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