Last March I cleaned out the root cellar located over the springhouse and selected some nice large beets, parsnips, salsify, red chard, turnips, carrots and scorzonera. Averaging about six roots each, I replanted them in the garden to produce seed in the fall.
Last fall, we discussed beginning seed saving techniques, and since seed saving is almost as old as the hills we live in, it is most fitting that we continue to include it in our series on gardening.
We save seed because it: (1) saves us money, (2) is an art form of advanced gardening, (3) is educational, (4) develops a superior strain of seed–much better than hybrid, and (5) it opens social doors for the gardeners who want to join national and international seed saver exchanges that have the goal of saving the heirloom seeds that are fast disappearing all over the world.
My first reason for getting into seed saving was to save money. Indeed, seeds cost far too much today. You are paying more for less seed today, than you did five years ago. It is not going to get any better either. If you are a large garden producer you can easily spend a hundred dollars on seed each year, farmers much more. Why spend so much? In a three-year stretch you can produce more seed than you can use, and still have plenty left to give away.
Let’s take a look at the simplicity of raising some root crop seed. Beets and chard are in the same family, and are best raised for seed on alternate years. Beets this year, chard next year. Otherwise they will cross-pollinate and your seed would produce some odd plants of no value.
Years back, before the 1950’s, neighbors were into seed saving and they would often form neighborhood agreements on cross-pollinating plants; who would grow which, and in what year. Some gardeners would specialize in certain seeds, and exchange seeds with other specialty seed savers. Garden clubs flourished. But today, this is largely history, hybrid seeds dominate the market, and home seed production is becoming a lost art. From this our children suffer the loss of knowledge intrinsic to their future–how to produce food.
I dig my root crops in the fall before the hard frosts, trimming the top stem above the root two inches. There are many ways to store roots, but they do best if stored in high humidity, slightly above freezing (35°F to 40°F), in boxes of damp sand and side-by-side. They will continue to live this way, naturally, through the winter, and can be dug from the boxes for many fine meals at the gardener’s leisure. The storage boxes of sand or Maple leaves, again, need to be placed in a moist environment; an earthen cellar is most popular. Do not let the roots freeze. If the winter is mild, many roots can be left in the ground, perhaps mulched over and dug as needed. They will resprout in the spring and need to be re-dug to select the best roots for seeds. Re-plant the biggest and best roots.
Transplant the roots to an organically rich, neutral soil that gets full sun and moderate moisture. Space the roots much further apart than you would think necessary since in this second year of growth they will become a big bush. Beets are my favorite; they grow into a handsome bush three feet high and two feet wide with pretty blossoms and the most heavenly scent. Space the beets two feet apart in rows…flowerbeds are a good place too, or perhaps under a bedroom window. The perfume from the beet flowers was once linked to fertility and romance. Chard is spaced the same, but on alternative years. Some gardeners replant chard hither and yon, especially in more barren spots since with its deep root system it acts like a mineral pump, enriching the soil around it. Chard is hardier than beets and can often be left in the soil over winter with a light mulching.
Parsnips and salsify are among my favorite dinner treats in the winter. Many gardeners who have not tried salsify are missing out. Salsify is also known as the oyster plant and vegetable oyster. Another variety is called Black Salsify or more correctly, Scorzonera. This plant is the utmost tops in taste and a favorite in Europe for centuries.
Parsnips can be wintered over. Scorzonera is best dug and stored. Place the roots in a sunny location in medium dry soil early in the spring. These plants will get BIG. Expect a six foot high, three-foot wide plant full of beautiful flowers that the bees will work for you. Space the roots three feet apart. Six roots are enough.
The above roots will grow nicely into fall, and their flowers will form seed clusters and turn brown. It is important at that time, on a dry day, to pull the-entire plant up by the roots, and hang upside down in the garage, barn or workshop to gently dry. Place newspapers under the plants to catch, falling seed. When ready to harvest the seed on a frosty fall day, at low to no humidity, place the seed clusters in a paper bag and lightly rub to break the seeds loose. Shake the bag to settle the seeds. Skim off the chaff. A small amount of chaff remaining is not an impediment to next season’s early planting. Store the well dried seed in clean peanut butter jars, labeled and dated in the refrigerator. A touch of organic insecticide kills of any emerging insect that may hatch.
Do not forget your turnips and rutabaga; plant for seeds on alternate years, at least 300 feet apart.
Copyright: 2009, Back2theLand, Mark Steel