Where Heirloom Seeds Got Started

Willow trellis in herb display garden.

It’s hard to imagine 35 years back when saving seeds was something only misers and old folks did, and heirlooms were special dishes and diamond jewelry not tomatoes and peppers. But it was in 1975 that Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy founded Seed Savers Exchange with two types of seed passed on to Diane by her grandfather.

Today Seed Savers Exchange maintains a 890-acre heritage farm and warehouses more than 25,000 varieties of potentially endangered vegetable varieties. It also sits at the center of a movement to preserve and plant vegetables that might otherwise be lost, resulting in a narrower, less diverse food supply.

While on my way to a Garden Writers Association meeting in the Quad Cities in Iowa Thursday, I took the scenic route through northeastern Iowa and visited the Seed Savers farm outside of Decorah. I was surprised how much the farm is set up for visitors, and what a fun place it was to stop. It has several display gardens, barns full of heritage chickens and cattle (I fell in love with the guy at right),  an orchard of heirloom fruit, a specialty library, as well as hiking trails, a gift shop with a nice selection of books, hundreds of seeds and lots of knick-knacks. There is a play area for children, picnic spots, and peaceful views of the rolling Iowa countryside.

In mid-July, Seed Savers will be celebrating its 35th anniversary with a 3-day conference filled with speakers, workshops on cooking and gardening, and a seed swap for home gardeners who save seed.

Home and Garden Show Season Begins

Thursday the Minnesota Home and Patio Show opened at the River Centre in St. Paul. I’ll be stopping by tomorrow afternoon and will put some photos up from the displays. Shows like these (the Minneapolis Home and Garden Show opens Feb. 24) are great for finding ideas, spotting trends, and learning more about gardening.

The Minnesota State Horticulture Society offers seminars throughout the show on topics ranging from water container gardening to emerald ash borer. The programs begin hourly starting at 11:30 a.m. on Northern Gardener stage in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Another great reason to attend the show is the MSHS’s annual bulb sale. I’ve bought lily bulbs at the shows the past couple of years and they are high quality, reliable, gorgeous bulbs.

It’s a Growing Business

Sara Morrison advices a gardener after a seed starting class.
Sara Morrison discusses seed starting with a gardener.

After listening to Sara Morrison of the Backyard Grocery give her presentation on seed starting Saturday, I had a chance to ask her about her business. She is one of a growing number of “garden coaches,” people who help others start or maintain their gardens. Coaches are not landscape designers, though most have a flair for design. And, they aren’t gardeners-for-hire either, though some do hands-on work for clients who do not have time for it. Some, like Sara, concentrate on vegetable gardens, while others work in ornamental gardens.

Most coaches act as mentors and advisers to their clients — sort of like the wise neighbor we would all like to have. In addition, some provide tools, raised beds, plants and other garden necessities. Apparently, the business is growing. Sara started her business last spring and expected to have about five clients (she has a full-time job as well) but ended up with 30! Most of those clients will be back this year, too. She says arrangements with coaches vary. For some clients, she has a weekly appointment to look over the garden, “kind of like a piano lesson.” Others get help setting up the garden and buy plants from Sara; others she assists by providing information on harvesting and preserving food. Most coaches also do other garden-related work, such as teaching classes, blogging, or writing about gardening.

The field appears to be growing nationally as well. Last spring, Organic Gardening published an article on coaching; there is a garden coaches blog, which includes a list of garden coaches, including one from Minnesota.  For more about garden coaching, check out articles here and here.

Seed Starting Basics

Tomato seedlings under lights.

It’s still too early to start seeds indoors but that didn’t prevent a large group of eager seed-starters from attending the Just Food Co-op class Saturday. Sara Morrison, a home gardening consultant, offered a thorough and practical overview of why and how to start seeds indoors. Sara noted that if you plan to grow only a few tomatoes or peppers, indoor seed starting may not be worth the bother. Instead, pick up some plant starts at the local nursery. (Or, for more interesting offerings, try farmers’ markets in early spring when the farmers have lots of plants they don’t have room to grow.) However, if you are planning a more substantial garden, seed starting is a way to increase the variety of offerings, save money, and control the kinds of plants you are growing. And, when it comes right down to it, you can get a pack of seeds that will produce bushels of food for less than the price of a latte.

Here are some of the most important take-aways from Sara’s class:

  • Study your seed catalogs. Make sure the seeds you buy are appropriate for our zone. If they have a long growing season, you’ll need to start them indoors or forget about growing them. The catalogs will also give you information about days to harvest, the kind of plant you are growing (bush beans or climbers? indeterminate tomatoes or determinate?), and whether the varieties are heirlooms, hybrids, or something else. I would add, read the seed packages and keep them for reference during the growing season.
  • If you are new to seed starting, don’t spend a bundle on it. A simple florescent light will provide most of the light you need. You don’t need fancy pots or a special table just for seed starting. Basics you need are: sterile soil, seeds, something to put them in with drainage holes, a light source, and a small fan to keep the air moving once the plants are growing.
  • Make sure your seeds are cozy for germination. Tomatoes, peppers, and many herbs want soil between 75 and 85 degrees to germinate. If you have hot-water radiators, near the radiators is a great place to start plants. You may find that the lights create enough heat to start many plants in a moderately warm (65ish) room. If you are starting seeds in a cold basement, get a heat mat.
  • Pay attention to your seedlings. My results with seed starting improved dramatically when I set the seeds up near my home office. It just became part of my day to check whether they needed water, the lights adjusted, or just a little pep talk.
  • Water gently and sparingly. If possible, try to water from the bottom, by placing your seedlings in a pan.

For a more complete review of seed-starting procedures, check out this overview from North Dakota State University.

Northern Gardener Featured on KARE-TV

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One of my winter sowing containers.

I can’t remember an article in Northern Gardener that has gotten the response we’ve had to Michelle Mero Riedel’s article about winter sowing, which appeared in the January/February issue. Winter sowing involves using milk jugs and pop bottles as mini-greenhouses to start perennials from seed in the winter. I tried the method last year and was impressed enough with the results to give it a go again this year.

Belinda Jensen, the KARE meteorologist and garden reporter, saw the article and did a feature on winter sowing on the Saturday morning news program. You can check the video of the piece out at the KARE Web site. Michelle taught one class on winter sowing earlier this month, which sold out in a flash, so she will be offering another class at the Minnesota State Horticultural Society offices Tuesday Monday, Feb. 23. To sign up for the class, call 651-643-3601.

Garden Math for Container Fans

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Container Planting at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

While I’m generally more of a words person, I like math when it comes to the garden. Sometimes knowing proportions and formulas really helps to direct my enthusiasms. So, I was excited to find another math solution to a garden problem: How many plants should I put in containers?  If you look at photos in garden catalogs and magazines, it sometimes seems folks are planting an enormous number of plants in their pots. That’s not necessary or even healthy for the plants, according to Carrie Larson, a broker representative for McHutchison, Inc. and a frequent and very entertaining garden lecturer.

I heard Carrie speak on new plants for containers at Garden Visions this past weekend. Carrie is the person who helps local greenhouses and garden centers decide what to put on their shelves. Judging from the photos she showed, she also has a way with containers.

Now, here comes the math, and it’s pretty easy: Plant 1 plant for approximately every 3 inches of diameter in your container. So, if you have a little 8-inch pot, don’t try to stuff more than three plants in it. A big 20-inch pot could take 7 easily. If you are planting bigger plants or those that really spread, you might plant fewer. If the plants stay small or dainty in size, plant more.

For Better Garden Photos: Know Thy Camera

My attempt to capture a bee at work on a daylily.
My attempt to capture a bee at work on a daylily.

If you want to take better pictures of your garden (or for that matter, your kids, birds, places you visit, sporting events or anything else), the first thing you need to learn is your camera — and what controls it offers you. That was the message of Eileen Herrling, a Wisconsin-based photographer, who led the shortest 3-hour class I’ve ever attended last night — and not because the class ended early. Eileen had about 50 eager photographer/gardeners at Garden Visions thumbing through their manuals, clicking into the controls of their cameras, taking pictures of Coke cans, focusing and refocusing to figure out what controls each of us would have when shooting in the garden.

Even point-and-shoot digital cameras have features that allow photographers to tighten their focus or clear up the background of a photo. Here are three of Eileen’s take-away lessons:

  • If you have a digital SLR camera, learn to use F-stops and Time-values to enhance your images. (If you have a point and shoot, start using the little mountain and flower settings for different pictures.) An easy way to remember f-stops: Small f-stop (f-4), narrow depth of field; large f-stop (f-11 or above), wider depth of field.
  • Eileen has a couple of very firm don’ts. Don’t use digital zoom, unless you like (or think the shot is worth) grainy pictures. Don’t use automatic, which turns all the controls over to the camera. If you have a program mode, use that for your first picture to get the shot, then start playing with your controls to get a really good shot.
  • Develop a digital work-flow system. I’m taking this one to heart. I have about 2,000 garden shots (a few of which are pretty good) sitting on the hard-drives of two computers. That’s a no-no. Not only do the shots eat up storage space (I take pictures in the largest setting, which is what Eileen recommends), but one spilled drink (well, two spilled drinks) and I could lose it all. What your storage system looks like — disks, a remote drive — is up to you, but have one and keep it organized.

If possible, this class made me even more eager to get out in the garden and take a few pictures.