Thursday, September 3, 2015

Setting up a Seed Circle

Most major seed companies would obviously like us to keep buying from them every year.

A lot of both flower and vegetables grown in these companies are hybrids or F1’s and don’t come true to form when they go to seed, which keeps our dependency on their stocks. There are a lot of companies that offer Heirloom seeds and like Klaus Laitenberger only produce seed from their own stock which has been acclimatised to our area over a twenty year period.

There is one company in the UK called Real Seeds who actively encourage you to grow some of your own plants to maturity so you can collect your own seeds and eventually never have to buy from them again! If grown, picked and dried thoroughly there is no reason why our own home produces seed isn’t as good, if not better than the shop bought varieties.

Last week I looked at how to dry your seed. This week I would like to tell you about a really cost effective and social way to save your seeds, it’s called a “Seed Circle”

Setting up a Seed Circle
A Seed Circle is a simple idea:  You get together a group of friends, gardeners or neighbouring allotment holders, and each of you signs up to save seed of one sort of vegetable.
You’ll each get lots of seed when you save your own (far more than one person can use), so at the end of the year you can all swap with each other.

It’s a great way to start seed saving – you’ll all get several types of good seed for free, but each person only has to learn how to grow one sort. And you can help each other learn as you go.

A Beginners Seed-Circle

Start with a small, simple seed circle of five people.

What you need:
  • One person to organise the seed circle (you!)
  • Four more people to sign up to grow seed as well
  • A bit of time to occasionally check how people are doing
  • A few simple kitchen implements to pick, dry and store the seed
  • Good quality, real, non-hybrid seed to start with
  • Tea and some nice biscuits
It is really good if you organise a get-together occasionally, especially at harvest time, to all have a bit of an inspect of the process and the seed being saved, so you can all learn how to do it together. (hence the tea and biscuits)

It’s best if people save seed from a vegetable that they really like, as they will be more fussy about the plants they save from. So if you have someone who is really passionate about carrots, then they're the person to grow carrot seed for your circle.

Here are a few vegetables that are easy to save seed from, and which make lots of seed. You can of course make up your own list too if you prefer.

One Variety
Each person is to save seed from just one variety. This keeps it simple. To reduce work you need to do to stop things crossing, it can be best if you also only grow for eating that one variety that year.

Suggested Vegetables to Save Seed From:
Squash, Tomatoes, Sweet Pepper or chilli, Lettuce, Kale, Melons, Cucumber, Peas, Beans, courgettes and carrots.

It can take up a bit of room saving plants for seed . I have the leeks from last year coming on well but they have been in the ground for so long that I haven’t been able to plant anything else. It’s a good idea then to miss a few patches out of the crop rotation plan as the plants mature their seeds. Some plants such as peppers would do better in a polytunnel too.

Processing- ALL SEEDS
In addition, to dry your seed, you'll all need access to an oven, a baking tray, some rice, a clean dry jam-jar, and some small bags made from a pair of tights. And some plastic baggies to store the dried seed in for distribution.

The person organising the seed-circle can do the drying if they like at their house, it is more efficient that way - only one person has to bake the rice, make little baggies and ties as well just for fun.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saving Seed

 Photo:  Leek flowers going to seed

Saving Seed
Saving your own flower and vegetable seed is a great way to get plants used to your location, save money and ensure the freedom to grow the varieties you like without being tied to seed trends which will ensure a healthy biodiversity. 
It’s said that we only eat about 20% of the vegetable and fruit varieties that were grown in the 1950’s because of intensive monoculture growing so it’s important to carry on heirloom seeds that can’t be controlled by large companies. 

It’s difficult for even Irish Seed Savers to collect and store their seeds in their seed bank of more than 800 varieties. Their funding has been cut and they have even resorted to crowd funding on Indiegogo to raise the €100,000 shortfall. They only managed to raise €9,100 so are asking for smaller on their website.  Irish Seed Savers are adapting to the reduced funding from the Department of Agriculture by organizing concerts and employing someone to promote the organization in an attempt to keep growing. You can donate directly on their site. We can safeguard our own seed supply by collecting our own, just in case.

Seed-saving can be easy. You'll get better seed than you can buy, even from the professionals. And you can keep your own varieties going for future years. But, just as with growing the plants, there are a few key bits of information you need to know to keep varieties pure and drying is very important. Remember to dry your seed properly, or it will not survive storage. Don't use heat though to dry it - we have a whole info sheet on drying your seed, so read that when you've got it harvested.

One key thing before you start - you can't save seed from F1 (hybrid) varieties. You need real, open-pollinated seed.

The Secret of Saving Great Seed
You want healthy seed that is true-to-type and keeps well. For any one vegetable, you need to ask yourself a few questions: Do the plants cross pollinate? Do I need to do anything special when drying the seed, how long will they last? 

The answers are different for each vegetable. I’ve chosen just two from realseeds

Broad beans
Broad beans will cross with other varieties that are growing nearby.   So if you want to keep your variety pure, you need to isolate them in some way.    Theoretically you should aim for at least half a mile between varieties.   In practice, in a built up area, fences, trees and houses will all reduce insect flight.   This means you should have minimal crossing even with beans much closer than half a mile so long as none of your immediate neighbours are growing different varieties of bean.

Let your seed beans mature and dry on the bush. The pods will turn dark drown, dry and wrinkled. Then pick and shell them out.   Check that they are really dry by biting on them.   If your teeth leave a dent, dry them further in a warm (not hot) place with a good flow of air.    Broad bean seeds should keep for several years, so there is no need to grow plants for seed every year. 

Most modern varieties of tomato are self-pollinating, and will not cross.   The anthers on tomato flowers (which make the pollen) are fused together to make a tight cone that insects cannot enter. Usually the stigma (the receptive surface for receiving pollen) is very short, and so is located deep inside this cone of anthers. No insects can get to it and the only pollen that can fertilise it comes from the surrounding cone of anthers.

To collect the seed, allow your tomatoes to ripen fully.   Then collect a few of each variety that you want to save seed from.   Slice them in half across the middle of the fruit, and squeeze the seeds and juice into a jar.    You then need to ferment this mixture for a few days - this removes the jelly-like coating on each seed, and also kills off many diseases that can be carried on the seeds.   To do this put the jar of seeds and juice in a reasonably warm place for 3 days, stirring the mixture twice a day.   It should develop a coating of mould, and start to smell really nasty!

After 3 days, add plenty of water to the jar, and stir well.   The good seeds should sink to the bottom of the jar.   Gently pour off the top layer of mould and any seeds that float.   Then empty the good seeds into a sieve and wash them thoroughly under running water.   Shake off as much water as possible, and tip the sieve out onto a china or glass plate (the seeds tend to stick to anything else).   Dry somewhere warm but not too hot, and out of direct sunlight.   Once they are completely dry, rub them off the plate and store in a cool dry place, where they should keep well for at least 4 years. 

Tip: Rice added to a jar of seeds helps to suck out the moisture.

I am experimenting with leeks this year and allowing the biennial plant to flower and seed. They have large, strong stalks and the flowers are a haven for bees. The plants will eventually fall over and the seeds will root into the ground. I also have some aforementioned broad bean seeds that I will be putting out next month for an early crop next year. The process of collecting and storing both vegetable and flower seeds will be trial and error for a while but one day I’m sure a lot of us will be free of big company restrictions and have our own unique collection of plants grown to tolerate out climate.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Home Canning and Pickling

Home Canning
What do we do with an excess of summer fruits? We make jam.  The same can’t be said when courgettes start to take over our kitchen work surfaces. It’s usually all or nothing with these types of vegetables and we can get rather fed up with them after the hundredth search of the internet to find another recipe. Some of the later ones end up unceremoniously into the compost bin when friend start to turn them down. 

There are things we can do to extend the eating season though and with the looks of the Raised Beds Facebook page (we’re up to 14,000 members) our US friends seem to be one step ahead with preserving their “Zuccini’s”  There is a lot of interest about “Canning” their summer crops for later use. This might have come about from a warmer climate and the need for preserving food without a fridge over the years.

What is the Canning Process?
The canning process dates back to the late 18th century in France when the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, concerned about keeping his armies fed, offered a cash prize to whoever could develop a reliable method of food preservation.

After this came the idea of preserving food in bottles, like wine. After 15 years of experimentation, it was found that if food is sufficiently heated and sealed in an airtight container, it will not spoil.  No preservatives are necessary. Putting food into metal cans came after by industries in the UK but the simple glass bottling idea spread to America it was easily undertaken by individual growers at home.
Home canning or bottling, is the process of preserving foods, in particular, fruits, vegetables, and meats, by packing them into glass jars and then heating the jars in a larger container to kill the organisms that would create spoilage. Over the years special pressure cookers and jars have been created to get the hotter temperatures to kill off bacteria and microorganisms

Checking for quality
When a jar has cooled and is properly sealed, pressing the dimple on the lid will not make any sound. An improperly sealed jar will allow the dimple to move up and down, sometimes making a popping noise in much the same way a shop bought jar would act.
Older jar variations had a ceramic seal inside a one-piece zinc lid. Another method that is no longer recommended was the use of layer of hot paraffin wax poured directly over the top of the food (especially jams and jellies) to seal it from air, thus reducing growth of aerobic microorganisms like mould.

While it is possible to safely preserve many kinds of foodstuffs, home canning can expose consumers to botulism and other kinds of food poisoning if done incorrectly so there are a lot of recommendations about food safety. We here and closer to home tend to favour the pickling process, which varies quite a bit from the American Canning process.

Pickling began 4000 years ago using cucumbers native to India.  This was used as a way to preserve food for out-of-season use and for long journeys, especially by sea. Salt pork and salt beef were common staples for sailors before the days of steam engines. Although the process was invented to preserve foods, pickles are also made and eaten because people enjoy the resulting flavours. Pickling may also improve the nutritional value of food by introducing B vitamins produced by bacteria.

The main difference is the food isn’t super-heated but relies on a pH 4.6 or lower, which is sufficient to kill most bacteria. Pickling can preserve perishable foods for months. Antimicrobial herbs and spices, such as mustard seed, garlic, cinnamon or cloves, are often added. If the food contains sufficient moisture, a pickling brine may be produced simply by adding dry salt. For example, German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi are produced by salting the vegetables to draw out excess water. Natural fermentation at room temperature, by lactic acid bacteria, produces the required acidity. Other pickles are made by placing vegetables in vinegar. Unlike the canning process, pickling (which includes fermentation) also does not require that the food be completely sterile before it is sealed. The acidity or salinity of the solution, the temperature of fermentation, and the exclusion of oxygen determine which microorganisms dominate, and determine the flavour of the end product.

Other Ideas
For those of us who aren't into canning or pickling, the freezer is really our best friend. Besides freezing whole fruits and vegetables at the peak of their ripeness, we can freeze batches of summer pesto, containers of tomato sauce and apple sauce, and even garden herbs in olive oil ice cubes. These are the foundation of quick weeknight meals in the busy months ahead.

The process of dehydrating vegetables is worth looking into as well. We won’t need expensive equipment either as a regular oven does the job well. Courgettes dry out really well and can be just like crisps. 
Maybe I’ll start selling them, my latest get rich quick scheme.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Rainbow Vegetables

 An 'artists impression' of my kitchen according to my lad....

I’ve been redecorating some room in the house this week. It’s a job I’ve managed to put off for four years but I ran out of excuses and other more pressing tasks. 

We’ve decided to get away from the safe colours of pastels and venturing into the daring word of prime colours. The kitchen is now a bright yellow ("sunshine in a can" I call it) the front room is a really deep red and the back room is now a really strong dark blue. When you stand in the right position in the house you can see all of the colours together and my lad (who has good taste) thinks it looks like  a TV programme aired on CBBC called Big cook, Little cook. Strong prime colours all mixed together. 

His remark on the combination is “stinking”. He might have a point but I can guarantee it’s going to be another three years before anything will be done about it because I have a big backlog of very important jobs to be getting on with that will eat away the years before we venture into magnolia land.

Colours can change moods in rooms and the same can be said for the garden. Lovely peaceful areas can be made from rich purples and stimulating corners can be made from fire reds. So what about vegetables?  Do different types of colours change moods? They might do, but one thing the rainbow of colours does do is give us important vitamins and minerals. 

I don’t think you can go too far wrong eating four or five different types of colours in a meal if you can’t get to a complete rainbow. Here’s a bit of a list of virtues by colour. I think that for the sake of repetition we can assume all of these taken regularly will reduce the risk of most illnesses and improve immune systems as well as giving us much needed vitamins and minerals.

Healthy reasons to eat a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables

These are usually coloured by natural plant pigments called “carotenoids.” Beta-carotene in sweet potatoes, pumpkins and carrots is converted to vitamin A, which helps maintain healthy mucous membranes and healthy eyes. Citrus fruits like oranges are not a good source of vitamin A. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and folate, a B vitamin that helps reduce risk of birth defects.
Some other examples of the orange/yellow group include: Yellow apples, Peaches, Squash, Pineapple Grapefruit , Nectarines   and of course Oranges.

Red fruits and vegetables
These are coloured by natural plant pigments called “lycopene” or “anthocyanins.” Lycopene in foods containing cooked tomatoes, such as spaghetti sauce, and a small amount of fat are absorbed better than lycopene from raw tomatoes. Anthocyanins in strawberries, raspberries, red grapes and other fruits and vegetables act as powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage. These are some examples of the red group: Red apples, Red peppers, Beets, Red cabbage, Cherries, strawberries, red skinned potatoes and Pomegranates.

Green Colours
Green is coloured by natural plant pigment called “chlorophyll.” Some members of the green group, including spinach and other dark leafy greens, green peppers, peas, cucumber and celery, contain lutein.

Lutein works with another chemical, zeaxanthin, found in corn, red peppers, oranges, grapes and egg yolks to help keep eyes healthy. The “indoles” in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables may help protect against some types of cancer. Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli are excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin helpful for mothers.
Some examples of the green group include:  Green apples, Honeydew melon, Artichokes,  Green beans , Brussels sprouts,Kiwi , Cucumbers, Courgettes, Spinach Green cabbage and  Avocados.

Blue/purple fruits and vegetables
These are coloured by natural plant pigments called “anthocyanins.” Anthocyanins in blueberries, grapes and raisins act as powerful antioxidants that protect cells from damage. Studies have shown that eating more blueberries is linked with improved memory function and healthy aging. These are some examples of the blue/purple group: Blackberries, Purple grapes, Blueberries, Raisins, Aubergine, Figs, Plums and Prunes.

White fruits and vegetables
These are coloured by pigments called “anthoxanthins.” They may contain health-promoting chemicals such as allicin, which may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Some members of the white group, such as bananas and potatoes, are good sources of the mineral potassium, too. Some examples of the white group include: Bananas, Onions, Cauliflower, Parsnips, Garlic, Potatoes, Ginger, Turnips and Mushrooms.

All of these vegetables and more that I haven’t mentioned are all great and combined together in the rainbow will provide all of the daily requirements we need and getting our own vegetables from the garden will ensure that we know exactly what is going into them. 

I wonder if I can convince my lad that having a rainbow of prime colours in the house is also a great benefit to our health? I doubt it, and sometimes when the sun is shining through the windows lighting up the Big Cook, Little Cook walls, I think I might agree with him .

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