Posts Tagged ‘seeding’

Well, we’re about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Lunaria farm, which means our blog, and the seasons, have come full circle. Here we are at the end of winter, poised for new beginnings in the coming spring.

Gardeners all over are turning their attention to seeds. Today I attended a seed cleaning workshop at Bartram’s Garden, where we winnowed, threshed, and sifted to prepare packets for distribution. I was lucky enough to bring home some seeds of the unique epazote, a Mexican culinary and medicinal herb.

Lunaria is also offering a variety of seeds saved from last year’s harvest. We have several open-pollinated varieties, including some rare heirlooms, available for purchase online or for pickup in Upper Black Eddy or Philadelphia. Stock up, then refer to our post on seed-starting.


Cilantro/ Coriander
Coriandrum sativum, annual
Direct sow after last frost. Does not transplant well. Will go to seed quickly in hot weather, so sow in successions throughout the season for a continuous supply.

Anethum graveolens, annual
Direct sow after last frost. Does not transplant well. Will go to seed quickly in hot weather, so sow in successions throughout the season for a continuous supply.

Garlic Chives
Allium tuberosum, perennial
80-90 days, sow indoors or direct sow after last frost
Onion-flavored leaf spears and delicious flowers which bloom late summer.


Melon Hearts of Gold (heirloom)
Cucumis Melo, annual
70-90 days, direct sow after last frost
2-3 lb fruit, personal-size cantaloup with sweet, orange flesh. Suitable for trellising.

Summer Squash Early Prolific Straightneck (heirloom)
Cucurbita pepo, annual
45 days, Direct sow 2-3 weeks after last frost.
Yellow straightneck variety resistant to squash bug. Plants can become too large and less productive with age, so try planting several successions a few weeks apart.

Winter Squash Waltham Butternut (heirloom)
Curcubita pepo, annual
100 days, direct sow 2-3 weeks after last frost
3-6 lb, delicious fruits on strong vines resistant to boring insects. Harvest just before first frost, leaving part of stem attached. Cure in warm area for week – 10 days, then store in dry area at 45 -55 degrees all winter.

Winter Squash Blue Hubbard (heirloom)
Curcubita maxima, annual
110 days, direct sow 2-3 weeks after last frost
Blue-gray skin & orange flesh. Harvest just before first frost, leaving part of stem attached. Cure in warm area for week – 10 days, then store in dry area at 45 -55 degrees all winter.

Winter Squash Red Kuri
Curcubita maxima, annual
80 days, direct sow 2-3 weeks after last frost
Red/ orange skin & orange flesh. Harvest just before first frost, leaving part of stem attached. Cure in warm area for week – 10 days, then store in dry area at 45 -55 degrees all winter.

Corn Blue Dent (heirloom)
Zea mays, annual
90 days, direct sow 1-2 weeks after last frost
Protein-rich variety for cornmeal, reaching 7-8 ft. Plant in blocks rather than rows to ensure good pollination. Harvest when husks are completely dry.

Corn Hooker’s Sweet Indian (heirloom)
Zea mays, annual
80 days, direct sow 1-2 weeks after last frost
4-5′ plants with 5-7″, semi-sweet, purple & white ears. Plant in blocks rather than rows to ensure good pollination. Harvest when silks turn brown. Best when eaten very fresh.


Marigold African Crackerjack
Tagetes erecta, annual
Start indoors 4-6 wks before last frost, or direct sow after last frost
Large variety reaching 2-3 ft, with orange & yellow 4″ single and double blooms.


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Corn, beans, and squash effectively comprise the collective staff of life of the New World. These crops were so important and complemented each other so well, that they were known as “The Three Sisters,” with many legends celebrating their sustaining virtues.

A Hokkaido Stella Blue squash grown on a fence.

We try to do these New World native plants justice here at Lunaria, but none more than the winter squash, with whom we have a tasty love affair. I personally got so excited about them that I planted a few seeds on March 1, far before any sane gardener would think about squash. These tender crops are typically direct sown outdoors once the soil has thoroughly warmed up; they don’t like being transplanted. Well, ours were potted up and most were kept alive in sunny windows until last frost, and now they’re threatening to take down the fence of “Gary’s Garden” (named after the groundhog that kept infiltrating its perimeter). We have some ripening sugar pumpkins and stella blue hokkaidos that we expect to be ready in a few weeks. This should perfectly fulfill my intense craving for curried tomato-squash dishes.

Another one of our many experiments this year is corn. I’d always thought it somewhat inefficient, as it takes up a good amount of space relative to its cropping. Then, during my residence at Women’s Studio Workshop, I learned that the husks and stalks can be used to make a gorgeous, pale golden-green paper. Well that was enough to convince me to go ahead and try it. We planted 3 successions to stagger the ripening times, including a succession of transplanted corn. This is another crop that dislikes root disturbance, but we take the word of Elliot Coleman quite seriously, and decided to try it. We were elated with the results, as not a single transplant was lost, and they’re all still going strong.

Our Hooker's sweet corn planting in early July. The upper row was seeded a week earlier, transplanted, then mulched with grass clippings.

With most of our meals being vegetarian, we tend to eat a lot of beans – dry beans, that is. We can’t imagine a world without black bean quesadillas, chickpea hummus, or pinto bean chili. But when it comes to green beans… meh. Most gardeners think we’re crazy – “You don’t like green beans??!” – but we think we’re being quite rational. Besides not appealing to our particular palates, beans will always be produced at a loss for the small farmer. They are tedious to harvest, and they must be picked every day, yet they must be sold at rock-bottom prices to compete with industrial farms. Even our so-loved dry beans are uneconomical to dry, harvest, and shell, when organic dry beans are so readily available now. The main advantage of growing beans is their special characteristic of being nitrogen fixers. The legume family, including beans as well as peas, clover, peanuts, indigo, and lentils, capture the nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil, making this essential nutrient available to other plants.

The Three Sisters planting in early July.

So this year’s garden includes a small amount of beans, a good stand of corn, and hopefully a year’s supply of squash. We’re really excited about a certain portion planted in the traditional, Native American, Three Sisters formation. We chose to plant heirloom varieties that would all be ready to harvest in autumn: blue dent maize for cornmeal, drought-tolerant tepary beans, and several varieties of cucurbits, including pumpkins, winter squash, and moon & stars watermelons.

Lee arranging cardboard around The Three Sisters to thwart weeds until the squash vines fill out. (Photo by Theresa Boles)

Corn is wind-pollinated, its tassels releasing their magic dust to the air to settle on the ear silks below. This fact of life prompts a break from the modern American row system – to ensure that each kernel develops (they are seeds, remember), the corn must be planted in blocks, or in this case, mounds. The first mounds, which are 18 inches across, staggered about 5 feet apart, and amended with aged horse manure, are each planted with 4 corn seeds. Then, when the corn germinates and reaches a height of 4-6 inches, a pole bean seed is planted in the same mound, 3 inches away from each corn seedling. In between the corn and beans, we create squash mounds of the same size, with 3 seeds planted in each.

The effect, once everything grows in, is a mutually-beneficial companion planting. The corn provides something on which the beans can climb. The beans fix nitrogen to provide nutrients to the other crops. The squash sprawls along the ground, suppressing weeds and providing a living mulch to retain soil moisture, while its prickly vines help deter hungry critters. And, come harvest, the delicious crops complement each other nutritionally. It’s hardly surprising that these crops were considered to be special gifts from the Creator. All of this botanical, gastronomic, and divine harmony kind of makes you want to enjoy some succotash while you plan your own Three Sisters garden for next year, doesn’t it?

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Seed starting is one of my favorite farm tasks. Watching a tiny seed germinate, leaf out, and flourish in the garden is quite magical. We sometimes buy starts if we just want one or two of a common plant, but for a staggering selection of varieties, and to have enough to share with friends, sowing your own seeds is key. Here’s how we do it.

Step 1: Right Plant, Right Time

Different plants need different growing conditions, and therefore should be sown at different times. Some seeds, like corn, are best direct sown in the ground outside. But many things can be started inside, while it’s still snowing, to get a head start on the harvest. Seed packets will tell you what’s best for each variety, based on your last frost date. If you’re planting more than a few things, or you want to sow every few weeks for a successive harvest, try to create a seeding schedule to keep everything on track.

Step 2: Gather Your Supplies

Here at Lunaria, we like to keep it sustainable… and cheap. That means we try to find resuse old items instead of buying new things. Of course, you can buy all of these things at any garden store.

Containers: There are many different options for containers, from plastic pots to egg cartons to beer cups from last night’s kegger, even soil blocks that use no container at all. What ever you use, just make sure it has some drainage holes in the bottom. If water can’t drain, your beautiful plant roots will drown and the seedling will quickly perish.

Soil Mix: Some gardeners swear by a sterile, soilless mix of peat moss and vermiculite, while others wouldn’t use anything but rich compost. After experimenting with different mixes this year, I’m personally a partial to a balanced native soil. If you don’t feel like guessing, you can buy a bag of potting mix and relax.

Watering Trays: You’ll want to do much of your watering from below to prevent the dreaded “damping off” (more about that soon). We use old baking sheets and plastic bins, but anything that can hold your pots and water will do the trick. Soil will wick water up through capillary action, but you can also use a capillary mat with one side under your pots and the other end in a container of water. They sell fancy ones at stores but you can use any scrap of natural fabric, like a towel, jeans, wool felt, or blanket.

Light Source: We’re making do with a south-facing window because they’re located in the kitchen where we often have the light on at night and on cloudy days. But ideally your seedlings should have more light than that. Without enough light, plants become leggy – thin, spindly, struggling things. Give your plants a good start and offer plenty of light for at least 12 hours per day. They don’t need special grow lights, any florescent or incandescent bulb covering a wide area will do. Make sure you don’t burn your plants with a light placed too close; you can raise it as the plants grow.

Seeds: There are endless sources for seed out there, and seed patent technology is a lucrative business, indeed. Many commercial seed companies sell F1 hybrids, which take advantage of “hybrid vigor” to be unfailingly productive and uniform, but will not breed true if you try to save seeds. Saving seeds from patented varieties may also be illegal! If you want to collect seeds from plants that will carry on genes specific to your growing conditions, make sure you select open pollinated varieties. All heirloom varieties are open pollinated, as they were selected and bred for flavor and regional uniqueness instead of uniformity and shipability. Seed Savers Exchange was founded to save endangered varieties from extinction. Selecting organic seed will ensure that your seeds are not genetically modified. Try to choose a local company, because your seeds are more likely to be adapted to your growing region. The only thing better than buying local is trading with fellow gardeners! Mail your friends packets and give handfuls to neighbors. When you save your own, there’s always some to share.

Plant tags: My all-time favorite tagging method is a popsicle stick with the variety name and sowing date written in Sharpie. Whatever you use, make sure it can stand up to being wet.

Step 3: Sowing

Put the soil mix is in the pots within a half inch of the top, tamp down slightly, and water (overhead watering is fine). Figure out how deep the seed needs to be planted. It will say on the packet, but, as a rule, 2 – 3 times the width of the seed is good. Put a dimple in the soil to that depth, and drop your seeds in. Some gardeners sow a few seeds in each hole and thin to the strongest seedling. I personally think that wastes a lot of seed so I plant one seed to each pot, but plant more many pots than I need, and just remove the ones that haven’t germinated after a while. Inevitably, some seedlings won’t make it, and its nice to have extras for gifts, so make sure to oversow. Once your seed is in there, cover it up with a little bit of soil, and tamp it down a little. Soil contact is important for good germination, but you don’t want to compress the soil. Tag your seed so you know what’s what, and relax for a little while. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, and although warm conditions can speed germination, we keep our seeds at room temperature.

Step 4: Tend your sprouts

Hopefully you’ve been keeping your seeds well-watered, and if conditions are right, within a week or so you should see little sprouts with a set of cotyledons, their baby leaves. Congratulations! But once you see them germinate, lay off the H2O a little and make sure they receive good ventilation. Maintaining drier conditions is the best defense against damping off, a general fungal rot that is the biggest killer of seedlings. Keeping the soil line way at the top of your container is one way to promote good airflow, in addition to turning a fan on or opening the windows. That little bit of wind will strengthen your little sprouts’ stems, and prepare them for the outside world. Water from the bottom now that they’ve come up, until the soil is moist, not wet. Let them dry out a bit between waterings, and sit back and watch your babies grow.

Seedlings have all the food they need for a little while, so there’s no need to give them extra nutrients. Fertilizing this young can harm your plants. But once you see true leaves, your seedlings are in active phosynthesizing mode. Now it’s okay to give them compost or other fertilizer high in nitrogen or potassium to promote healthy leaf and root growth. It’s also safe to move them, either into a bigger pot, the cold frame, or outside in the garden.

We’ll have another post on transplanting soon. Until then, you can check out Hudson Valley Seed Library’s blog. They have a great 6-part series called Seed Starting 101.

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