Ask Mike

  • Storing Seeds

    QUESTION: What is the best way to store my seeds?
    - A gardener from Alabama

    ANSWER: That is a common question among gardeners everywhere, especially within the seed-saving circles. If seeds aren't stored properly, they will not germinate well in future years and all your hard work will be for nothing.

    Since seeds sprout when they’re introduced to moisture, warmth, and light, you want to keep them far from such influences while storing them. If stored at room temperature, seed will approximately last 2-3 years, more or less depending on the particular vegetable. The seed life doubles with every 10º the temperature is lowered.

    A dry, cool, and dark room is ideal. Store them in the refrigerator, basement, or cellar. You can use all sorts of containers – glass jars, Tupperware containers, buckets, cups, bags, etc. Sealed containers with lids are best, but we do not recommend vacuum-packing because seeds are living organisms that need oxygen to live. Without air to breathe, they're suffocated and you will notice a decrease in the germ rates.

    We also do not suggest freezing your seeds. There are a lot of varying opinions and stances on this matter. Let me explain why we don't recommend it. If seeds are placed in a freezer with more than 6% moisture content, they will inevitably crack and will not germinate. Sometimes the damage can be so small that the fractures in the seed are not easily visible. Don't store them in the freezer or else you risk losing seed that wasn't completely dry and ruining your hopes for future plantings.

    It's very easy to give your seeds the right environment and encourage them to live long lives in your garden. Take care of them and they will, in turn, take care of you.

    Here's a list of approximate years to expect from seed saved and stored properly:

    Vegetable Seed Longevity

    Beans----------------------- 2 – 4 years
    Beets------------------------ 3 – 6 years
    Broccoli--------------------- 3 – 5 years
    Cabbage--------------------- 4 years
    Carrots---------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Corn------------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Cowpeas--------------------- 3+ years
    Cucumbers------------------ 5 – 10 years
    Eggplants------------------- 2 – 5 years
    Lettuce---------------------- 2 – 6 years
    Melons---------------------- 5 – 10 years
    Okra------------------------- 2 – 5 years
    Onions---------------------- 1 – 2 years
    Peas------------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Peppers--------------------- 2 – 3 years
    Radishes-------------------- 3 – 5 years
    Spinach--------------------- 2 – 5 years
    Squash---------------------- 2 – 6 years
    Tomatoes------------------- 3 – 10 years
    Watermelon---------------- 4 – 5 years

    How do you store your seeds? Do you have any questions? Let us help!

  • Problems with Cutworms?

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    QUESTION: How do I keep cutworms from destroying my peas?
    -A gardener from Texas

    ANSWER: Cutworms LOVE to establish devastating tunnels of civilization at the base of various plants, including peas, tomatoes, and beans.  From there, they may climb up the stems and proceed to chew away the leaves and branches or they may remain in the soil to devour the roots of our precious plants.  Either way, YOU'LL RECOGNIZE THEIR PRESENCE when your plants fade to yellow and brown before getting completely severed usually at ground level.

    Here in our gardens, we're frequently defending our tomato plants against this invader, but no matter what plants are being attacked, the remedies are the same.

    (1.) Cardboard collars, made from paper towels, toilet paper rolls, and wrapping paper, will work in surrounding the base of the plant and blocking cutworms from circling in for the kill. Be sure to make the cardboard at least 3-4 inches in height and don't forget to bury at least an inch of the collar in the soil.  CUTWORMS DO MOST OF THEIR DAMAGE FROM BENEATH THE SURFACE. We have used this method and it has brought noticeable relief, but if you get any heavy rain, the collars may not last.

    (2.) To cure this possible complaint, you could wrap the stem of your plant with plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or plastic bottles - all of which create a thick barrier in deterring these pests. NOTE: Whatever method you choose, establish your "walls" in place before the plant gets too much time to form roots.  You don't want to cause more damage than you're attempting to avoid.

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    (4.) Another remedy we've tried on many various plants in our garden is applying Diatomaceous Earth and Neem Oil to control bugs and diseases. In the last year or so, we've hardly noticed cutworms at all and we believe DE and Neem Oil made a huge difference!  When you spray your plants, apply at night when cutworms are most active.  This will make the most effective application.

    (5.) Other gardeners have saved their peas with other remedies and experiments.  You can puree a large onion and blend it with 1/2 cup of water and spray the plants, quickly forcing cutworms to pack up and leave.

    (6.) Fresh, crushed eggshells, wood ash, and/or coffee grounds distributed around the plants also help rid them.

    (7.) One source even claimed that putting a wooden stick, such as a match or kabob skewer, against the stem of the plant on one or two sides will block the path of cutworms. Sounds interesting enough to try, don't you think?

    (8.) Others have tried luring frogs and birds, famous for being great insect killers, to their garden. Take caution here as too many birds around your garden may open up an entirely different can of worms.

    (9.) If you delay your planting or transplanting by a few weeks, that will help.

    (10.) Also, be sure to cut back your garden every year and clean out old vines and weeds, which invite the early worms to your garden.

    Whatever you do, don't give up.  DON'T LET THOSE CUTWORMS WIN!  Let's keep the peas!

  • Blackberries - Worth the Trouble?

    Summer officially starts tomorrow, so our calendar tells us. The entire season ahead is full of its many charms, but it fondly begins for us with blackberries. While we each have our favorite fruit – for example, Carissa and Diane could live on watermelon and Savanna loves strawberries and peaches – I always have to pay tribute to my blackberry patch.

    Where we live in the Ozarks, wild blackberries are very common. They're usually found intermingled with brush, weeds, and insects in hard-to-reach places.  They are generally smaller than “tame” berries and you never can ignore those sharp, pesky thorns that seem to hold on for dear life. Most people at some point, including myself, have asked the basic question – are wild blackberries truly worth messing with?

    My curiosity won me over last year, leading to an experiment on our farm that surprised me and our neighbors! We tried taming these “Beasts of the Woods.”  I quickly discovered that these wild berries, just like lions, can be trained to obey commands without losing their natural instincts.

    The “patch” of native wild blackberries on our property had grown untouched for many years.  Only an occasional mowing tractor had ever come close.  Over the years, it had produced and seeded itself into a size of 30' wide by 40' long.  The plants were so entangled and thick that picking could only be done on the outside perimeter.  The choicest fruit was always just out of reach! I hated seeing all that fresh fruit going to waste, so I decided to try my “taming” theory.

    I started the reclamation process by mowing down the weeds and grass around the berries.  Then I sized up the layout, looking for the optimum space required to support the rows and plants I had in mind. Then came the most difficult and painful part of the whole process.  Using pruning shears, I proceeded to cut the 1” diameter stalks of 5' tall plants that were not going to be kept.  They rewarded me for my trouble with painful, rebellious slashing. For revenge, I hauled off the cuttings to be burned.  And the remaining grass within the rows was quickly given a haircut, thanks to my weed-eater.

    Something more was needed though.  Trellises!  But how? And with what?  I couldn't afford to put much money into this experiment.  So I started looking around the farm for solutions.  I found some scrap rough lumber that was destined to be burned and some used electric wire that was just lying around idle.  I proceeded to cut the lumber into 6' stakes and some additional 8' sections for runners.  After driving the stakes into the ground in line with the plant rows, I nailed the runners horizontally to them at the top.  I then attached the wire about 2' below the runner and stretched it parallel to the top board.   Bingo!  My “hillbilly” trellis was now ready for action.

    The plants then had to be carefully tied to the wires.  I used some zip ties I had in my workshop.  When I was finished, my family couldn't believe the difference in how it looked.   Our neighbors even came over to see the results.  They said they'd never seen anyone try this before and were curious how it would turn out.  We were too!

    The season of “wait and see” followed for the next few weeks. I kept mowing and weed-eating the patch as needed.  The plants themselves seemed to respond well to the new found space of freedom to grow.  The trellised plants shot to 6' tall and ended the season at 8-9' tall.  New shoots for next year skyrocketed up in the rows.  I cut down the unwanted strays and left next year's crop alone.  I then watched the blooms develop in the spring and noticed a very large quantity.  My hopes began to rise.

    After a bit more time passed, I checked back in with the plants to see just how many berries had set on. I couldn't believe my eyes! Each plant was loaded with red, unripe berries.  As the weeks went by, the berries started turning black and growing larger, some even reached quarter size. A few branches were so loaded that they started breaking under the weight.

    I'm not sure the final amount we harvested, but halfway through the season we had picked over 50 quarts and our neighbors had been back 3 times to pick all they wanted!  We froze many quarts, made jam, and even sold some at our local produce auction.

    Having enjoyed this experiment more than I'd ever expected to, I've learned it's worth  taking an extra look around the farm before I ever rule anything out as “useless”. I also have an answer for anyone who might ever ask me if blackberries are worth the trouble. Yes, I'll tell them, so long as they're willing to put forth a little time and effort, they are most certainly worth it!

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