Behind The Seeds

  • 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!

  • Pollination & Isolation

    If saving seeds is your goal, then the process of plant pollination must not be overlooked.   Plants produce their fruits once their blooms have been fertilized by pollen.  While this is a desired result of seed-saving, if the plant has been pollinated by a different plant, their seed will be a cross between the two.

    You may not notice the alterations in that first year harvest.  The initial fruit should be fine.  However, if you save that seed and plant it next year, it will contain genes from both parent plants.  That's why pollination control is essential to saving pure seed.

    The way to control pollination is by isolation.  Protect the blooms and you protect the seeds.

    First get acquainted with the vegetables within each botanical family, as we mentioned in our previous post 5 Rules to Saving Seeds.  Remember, only plants within the same family will cross with each other.  The rest are fine and will not affect seed results.

    There are 3 main methods of plant isolation:

    1.  Time Isolation involves planting conflicting varieties at alternate times.  Either plant your second variety once your first has already begun to flower or separate their planting dates far enough apart to be safe.  It is important that the first sets its seed before the second variety flowers or there will be reason to be concerned that cross-pollination has occurred.

    If you want to grow two types of sweet corn and save seed from both, for example, plant varieties approximately 3 weeks apart.  Once the first is done tasseling and is ready to pick, the second variety should be starting to pollinate.  Maturity dates may vary with each variety, so the required time isolation may differ some.

    Lettuce, corn, and sunflowers are just a few of many crops that favor this method.

    2.  Bagging is your second option for isolation.  This process requires you to cover the flower heads to keep unwanted pollen out.  Whatever you use for protection, it must allow air in and keep insects out.  Nylon mesh bags, lightweight fabric, or bridal tulle secured around the entire plant or individual blossoms will work well.  Once the variety has finished flowering, mark the fruit with a string and uncover barrier.

    (If you don't bag the entire plant, make sure to protect multiple blooms in case something happens to one of the fruits later.  You wouldn't want to put all your seed saving hopes on one tomato, let's say.  If that tomato ended up getting chewed on by bugs later in the season, you will have lost your only chance.)

    This method does take some extra work and attention to detail, but it also gives you a little more freedom with what you can grow where.  Tomatoes, which are mostly self-pollinating, are often saved this way. However, others like spinach, beets, and corn are pollinated by wind and should not be isolated through bagging.

    Image courtesy of

    3. The other main choice you have is Distance Isolation, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Plant space in between family members to prevent pollination.  If you have ideal growing space, this may be your solution.  Follow our chart below for recommended and required distances for proper seed saving.  (And don't forget about any nearby neighbors who might be growing conflicting varieties adjacent to yours.)

    Smaller gardens may have a problem providing enough distance, however.  If so, they should try one of the methods already mentioned.  Everyone can save seed.  They just have to figure out what works best for them.

    Plant Isolation Distances
    every Seed-Saving Gardener needs to know:

    Plant Isolation Distance
    Bean--------------------- 25 – 100 feet
    Beet--------------------- 1/2 mile
    Broccoli------------------ 1/2 mile
    Cabbage----------------- 1 mile
    Carrot------------------- 1500 feet
    Corn--------------------- 1/2 mile
    Cucumber--------------- 1/2 mile
    Lettuce------------------ 25 – 50 feet
    Melon-------------------- 1500 feet
    Okra--------------------- 1/2 mile
    Onion------------------- 1500 feet
    Pea---------------------- 50 feet
    Pepper------------------- 500 feet
    Radish------------------- 1500 feet
    Squash------------------ 1/2 mile
    Tomato------------------ 25 – 100 feet
    Watermelon------------ 1/2 mile

    Do you save your own seed?
    If so, what method do you use to control pollination in your garden?

  • 5 Rules to Saving Seeds

    Saving your own seeds does not have to be as complicated and impossible as people believe at first.  With just a few supplies and a little preparation, anyone can do it!

    There is certainly a world of information out there on this popular subject among gardeners and survivalists alike.  We will tell you about some books we recommend which offer great, in-depth information in just a bit, but first we'd like to go over the basics of seed saving.

    1.  First, you need to know the difference between Hybrids and Open-Pollinated varieties.

    Open-Pollinated — These varieties, so long as they are properly isolated from other plants of their species, will produce “true to type” seed with the same traits as that of their parent plant. That is why gardeners everywhere consider OP seed to be irreplaceably important, for it allows them to produce their own seed supply.

    Hybrid — The result of deliberate crossing of two distinct parent varieties from the same species, for the purpose of combining the ideal characteristics of separate varieties into one. While at first this may sound appealing, any seed saved from an F1 hybrid will not grow the same “true to type” traits a second time. Plant breeders must deliberately cross the parent varieties every time to obtain new hybrid seed.

    2.  Familiarize yourself with the different botanical families and vegetable groups.

    Varieties of the same botanical family can cross-pollinate each other and produce altered seed as a result.  However, different varieties of vegetables can be grown together unprotected and will not cross.  It's essential to securing a pure seed supply that you are familiar with each botanical family member you're growing and prevent unwanted pollination.

    For example, a tomato will not cross with a bean, but it will cross with a different tomato. That is because tomatoes and beans come from different botanical families.  They can be grown side by side without any worries.  Just learn your vegetable groups.

    Certain vegetables are grouped together in one family.  The Brassica family, for example, includes cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. So in this case, a cabbage plant could cross with a broccoli plant.  Again, learn your vegetable groups.

    One odd exception to the family rule is the matter of squash.  Take a deep breath!  You can get this!  Squash are divided into four different family groups and must be protected from their members within those individual groups only.

    (Includes Crooknecks, Zucchini, Scallops, Straightnecks, Spaghetti, and some pumpkins)

    (Includes Butternuts)

    (Includes Bananas, Hubbards, & Marrows)

    (Includes Cushaws)

    This means, i.e. that “Moschatas” only need to be protected from other “Moschata” siblings.  They'll be fine next to the “Maxima family”.

    3. Control pollination to maintain pure seed.

    The process of cross-pollination consists of pollen being transferred from one plant to another and where fertilization occurs as a result.  Now that you see the influence of the families on each other, another question arises.  How do I prevent unwanted cross-pollination then?

    There are various ways to prevent this and protect your plants.  Here's a few:

    -Plant only single varieties in your garden. One variety of watermelon, one variety of beans, etc.

    -Organize successive or alternating plantings, where one variety finishes blooming before another one begins.

    -Isolate plant blooms, either by “bagging” or distance.

    (We will talk more about this in-depth in our next blog post, so stay tuned!)

    4.  Allow fruit to fully mature before harvesting for seed.

    Each vegetable has its own maturity date.  It's important you let it finish growing or the seeds you save may be underdeveloped.  Tomatoes are one that you must pick ripe from the vine and scoop the seed out.  Beans, on the other hand, should be allowed to dry completely on the vine right up to the first frost and then shelled.

    5.  Seed must be stored properly to preserve a high germination rate in following years.

    Again, we will be touching on this more in a couple weeks on our blog, but as a general rule keep all seeds in a cool, dark, and dry environment.  We recommend in a refrigerator or in the basement.

    So there you have it.  5 rules to save seeds by.  For more information and instructions, check out any – or all – of these great resources:

    Seed to Seed
    by Suzanne Ashworth

    The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds
    by Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough

    Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving
    by Carol Deppe

    What seeds have you saved?  If you haven't ever tried it, what's holding you back?  We're all still learning here, so feel free to share your thoughts and ask questions.

  • Meet The Family - Cucurbitacea

    They're everywhere we look this time of year. They're sitting on the neighbor's front porch. They're entertaining kids on the farm. They're claiming the spotlight at every grocery store and market. And they're literally glowing from within – full of pride. The season for pumpkins has arrived!

    With Thanksgiving Day drawing closer, families will soon be making the trip and time to reconnect with each other. In following with this important theme, we thought it would be fun to feature the families from your garden – the botanical families – and highlight their plant members. As gardeners, its time we really got to know what's growing in our soil. Let's meet the family for this month! Are you ready?

    I'm sure you're familiar with pumpkins, but how much do you know about its family - the Cucurbitacea? This group includes over hundreds of the most unique and largest fruits on record. Species of the genus Cucurbita, which include squash, pumpkins, and gourds, were first cultivated in Mesoamerica and today are commonly grown throughout many parts of the world. While in the early 1800s, the Haitian people considered gourds their currency, today the family at large is mainly grown for its fruit and edible seeds. They are also used for decoration, crafts, musical instruments, pipes, and canteens.

    While gourd is the common name for the entire Cucurbita family, most people differentiate the other members like melons, cucumbers, and squash by name. Squash, for example, is then further divided into two separate groups. What's the difference between summer and winter squash? Well, summer squash is typically harvested before the fruit is fully mature, while the seeds and skins are still tender. These varieties are usually eaten immediately and require little cooking. The most familiar members of this group include zucchini, crookneck, vegetable marrow, and patty pan squash. They do not store as well as winter squash, but they are hard to beat in your favorite recipes.

    On the other hand, winter squash, like the hubbard, butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash, and pumpkin, are harvested once they fully mature on the plant. These beautiful fall classics have tougher rinds as well and can be reliably stored over the winter in most cases.

    There are, in fact, many edible parts to the plant. There is the obvious fruit harvest, but there are also the nutritious seeds, which can be eaten fresh either roasted or salted, ground into meal or flour, or even pressed into oil. For greens, many eat the shoots and leaves of the plant. Native Americans even added the blossoms to their cooking.

    The plants in this family are quick growing and most contain pollen-bearing male blossoms and seed-bearing female blossoms. The pollen itself is too sticky to be carried by the wind, so insects are the primary pollinator, especially bees and beetles.

    All in all, the members of the Cucurbita family complete many multi-purposes and have been for quite some time. They were grown in the original Three Sisters Garden in the early 17th Century and remain a popular favorite among worldwide gardeners today. Due to their incompatibility with the frost and cold soil, they are grown primarily in the warmer climates and months of the year.

    With over 800 species within the family, they easily make their presence known.  With their various shades of blue, orange, green, red, yellow, or even white, it's no surprise that the Cucurbitaceae continue to capture our attention. Next season, don't forget to leave room in your garden for these classics!

  • Basic Benefits of Beets

    How many of you have discovered the pleasure of growing beautiful beets in your garden?  For many years, this was a veggie that I thought I could live without.  Then just a couple years ago, we tried growing some in our garden.  Wow!  They were much better than I had ever remembered.  Now this is a vegetable I plan to always have in my garden.

    The beet (Beta vulgaris) is a biennial native to Europe and North Africa.  People have  been growing beets as a vegetable since the third century A.D., and even before that for medicinal purposes.  The Romans used beetroot as a treatment for fever and constipation.  From the Middle Ages, beetroot was especially used for any ailments relating to the blood or digestion.  Beets also have the added benefits in the fact that they are simple to grow and the whole plant can be eaten.

    Edible parts are the storage roots and leaves.  The roots can be cooked, stored for later use, canned, or pickled.  The leaves can be cooked like spinach or just eaten raw in salads.  Beet juice has also become a popular health food.  And it is one of the sweetest of vegetables.  Either way, both roots and leaves contain Vitamins A, B, and C, calcium, iron and protein.

    So are you ready to plant? First prepare the soil by working in rotted manure or compost.  Rake to remove any rocks.  Beets do not grow well in acidic soil, so make sure the pH level is anywhere from 6.O to 7.  Beets do best in cooler weather.  Hot weather will cause the roots to become tough and stringy.  Sow in your garden 3 to 4 weeks before your last frost date.  Plant seeds 1/2” deep and then seedlings should later be thinned to about 4” when they reach about 6” tall.

    Side-dress with a fertilizer such as cottonseed meal and mulch heavily with straw, lawn clippings, or sawdust to retain moisture and keep the weeds under control.  Moisture is very important, so water regularly, making sure water penetrates deep into your soil.

    Another benefit of beets is that they suffer from very few pests.  And that's always good news!  However, if you live in a warm area, you may have trouble with tiny, yellow leaf miners.  So prevent this by covering plants with cheesecloth, floating row covers, or some other fine netting.  This will protect them from the adult flies.

    Now comes the best part.  You can harvest your beets when they reach 1 1/2” - 2” in diameter.  When root tops begin to push up through the ground, carefully remove soil from around the top to check for size.  Remember, beets will become more stringy and woody if left in the ground to grow larger.  Pull beets up – do not dig and leave about an inch of stem on the beet to prevent “bleeding” when cooked. A few that are known to do well all over the country are the Detroit Dark Red and the Early Wonder.

    Once yielded, beets store well in a cool, dark cellar.  You might even consider burying them in moist sand or peat moss to retain their crispness.

    If you're looking for a good easy recipe, try this one:

    2 cups fresh sliced beets
    2 Tablespoons butter or margarine
    ¼ Cup orange marmalade

    Peel beets; slice or cube. Cook, covered, in a small amount of boiling salted water until tender (about 20 minutes). In a small skillet, melt butter or margarine over medium-low heat; stir in orange marmalade until combined. Add drained cooked beets; cook and stir until beets are glazed and heated through. Makes 4 servings.

    This season, plant these easy-growing beets in your garden and enjoy!

  • An Heirloom's History

    We love heirloom seeds for many reasons. They're praised for their purity, their consistency, their strength, and their quality, to name just a few. But it's their historical heritage we treasure the most. By growing an heirloom vegetable, in some way, we feel connected to those who've come before us and grown these same vegetables. For their goal was to provide for their family and ours is as well. What better foundation could we ask for our gardens than one based on the history of the food we eat?

    The lineage of peas, for example, spins a fascinating tale. They're believed to have originated in either Egypt or China, having been unearthed in ancient tombs. Historians and Archaeologists have found many dated pictures and writings discussing the virtues of this vegetable.

    Nomadic tribes traveled into the countries of the Mediterranean carrying the crop. The Greeks and the Romans cultivated this legume about 500 to 400 BC. During that time, street vendors in Athens sold hot pea soup. In the Middle Ages, it was dried and saved in case of a famine. Up to the time the American colonists set sail, dried peas were considered the norm. They were what we would call “field peas” today, usually being dried for later use in stews and soups. In this form, they contained longevity, remained nutritious, and required little storage space. This cool-season vegetable was one of the first crops planted in the new soil. Fresh peas finally became a fashionable delicacy for the Europeans around the late 17th Century. President Thomas Jefferson loved gardening and particularly peas so much that he had 30 varieties of them planted in one plot. In 1870, the Campbell Soup Company first began canning peas. Slowly, but surely, the pea has finally earned its respectful place as a garden staple.

    Another vegetable – the radish – was domesticated in Europe in pre-Roman times. The Greek name of the genus Raphanus means “quickly appearing.” We all know about that wonderful trait. The common name “radish” comes from the Latin word Radix, which means root.

    Squash, in other English-speaking countries besides the United States, is generally called “vegetable marrows.” 17th Century Europeans considered them another kind of gourd, due to its resemblance to Old World gourds. Squash only grew in popularity through the generations. And today, both European and American gardeners grow substantially the same squash strains as those grown by early native Americans.

    The Connecticut Field Pumpkin traces its roots back to the early Iroquois settlements. Another beautiful squash, likened to Cinderella's pumpkin, is the Rouge Vif D'Etampes. In France, its name means “vivid red.” The White Bush Scallop is one of the oldest cultivated, with records dating to the 1500s. Northern Indians called them “Squantersquash,” from which comes the name “squash.”

    The wild carrot is native to Europe and southwestern Asia. Early on, this biennial was grown for its aromatic leaves and seeds, instead of its root. Relatives of the carrot, including parsley, fennel, dill and cumin are still grown for those original reasons today. One thing's for certain – people love their carrots!

    Tomatoes originated in the Americas amidst the Spanish colonization and from there was carried to the Caribbean, the Philippines, and throughout the rest of the world. Wild species grew in parts of the Andes Mountains, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Many historians believe the Spanish explorer Cortes may have transferred the small yellow tomato to Europe after having captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Others say Christopher Columbus was the first European to take back the tomato in 1493. Its worth was recognized from the beginning. The Pueblo people, for one, believed any who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with divine powers.

    An Italian physician and botanist named Peitro Andrea Mattioli wrote in an herbal in 1544, calling it the “golden apple.” In British North America during the mid-18th century, some thought tomatoes to be poisonous and grew them mostly as ornamental plants. The strong, unpleasant smell of its leaves and stems further contributed to this mistaken idea. However, as the cultures continued to blend together due to immigration, new light revealed the tomato's true value. The earliest cookbook discovered with tomatoes as one of the ingredients was published in 1692 in Naples, but we know the Spaniards consumed this crop far earlier. In 1876, when Henry J. Heinz bottled the first tomato catsup, tomatoes widely increased in popularity.

    As for particular favorites, have any of you ever grown Hale's Best Jumbo Melon? Did you now this old classic cantaloupe dates back to the 1920s? It was discovered in a California market in 1923 by I.D.Hale.

    The Serrano pepper hails from the mountains of northern Puebia and Hidalgo in Mexico. For this reason does it derive its appropriate name Serrano, which interpreted means “from the mountains.”

    One of our favorites, the Old German Tomato, claims a Mennonite heritage, originating in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

    Every gardener should know what depths of history they are sowing in their soil. Before you plant your favorite veggies, learn more about their individual stories. Doing this will truly make your plants come to life.

  • The "Three Sisters Garden"

    As gardeners, we all know about the so-called staples – the necessary vegetables each of us can't live without. For many, these staples vary according to personal preference, location, and need. However, the foundational staples still reign in popular demand today and they're continuing to prove to us why.

    As this is the week of Thanksgiving, what better time to look back at these essentials of the garden?

    Have any of you ever heard of the Three Sisters Garden? Early 17th Century Colonists relied heavily upon their gardens for survival and found great provision in growing the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash. These New World crops became staples for the early settlers and have since earned their irreplaceable right in gardens all around the world.

    Besides their great compatibility to each other, the Three Sisters each contain much-needed nutrition – corn ( or maize as they called it ) has carbohydrates, beans have protein, and squash has Vitamin A. It's not hard to guess how they earned our forefathers' respect. They deserve ours as well.

    To grow this kind of a garden, a large amount of space isn't necessarily required. This trio is accustomed to growing amidst each other – they are called sisters after all! Pole bean varieties, such as the Rattlesnake Pole Bean, work splendidly if you train them to trellis up the corn stalks. This gives them the desired support they demand while strengthening the corn against harsh winds. Beans also promote a healthy, fertile soil by adding nitrogen back into the ground.

    Squash, for example the Connecticut Field, also offers a lending hand by keeping the night critters, such as raccoons, from sneaking golden bites! The big leaves of squash plants are known to deter them and provide you with an all natural guardian. Squash will also serve as a “living mulch,” shading the soil, retaining the moisture, and keeping down the weeds.

    What's wonderful about growing the Three Sisters is how easy it is for anyone to do. Both children and adults can succeed at this! It offers great Native American history for us all to learn and live by. It's definitely a fresh way to get the kids interested in history! And don't be discouraged if you don't have the space for it. Many have grown a smaller version of the Three Sisters in a container. On the other hand, if you have extra space and you decide to add a fourth or even a fifth sister, go for it! Sowing sunflowers or potatoes, both native plants, will also compliment nicely.

    Since before the birth of our nation, these veggies have been raised alongside each other and have lived together in harmony. According to Iroquois legend, the three were considered inseparable – an early example of companion planting. American Natives commonly saw them as gifts from the Creator, calling them “Sustainers of Life.” There is an abundance of stories, celebrations, customs, and folklore surrounding this basic inter-cropping system.

    Growing a Three Sisters Garden is not without its hard work, though. Careful attention must be given to timing, seed spacing and varieties. Just as in any garden, these over- achievers require much patience, understanding, and knowledge. Most importantly, they must be protected. By saving seed and their traditions, our ancestors have left us priceless heirlooms which we must too preserve for future generations. Our livelihoods depend on it as much as it did for the natives and pilgrims back then.

    “So long as the three sisters are with us we know we will never starve. The Creator sends them to us each year. We celebrate them now. We thank Him for the gift He gives us today and every day.”
    Chief Louis Farmer (Onondaga)

    We here at White Harvest want to wish you and your family a very special Thanksgiving.

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