Saturday, March 17, 2018

Using Winter Sowing to Start Seeds

Winter Sowing
Yellow onions in their winter sowing jug.
This is the first year I am using a seed starting technique called Winter Sowing. It's pretty simple, and allows you to start seeds without using grow lights, heat mats, or a greenhouse or cold frame.

You start out with simple plastic jugs, like milk, water, or even cat litter jugs. (Note, I'll take more photos of this process, but wanted to describe it today for a friend.)

It's pretty easy. You need a clean, empty plastic jug, some soil (not seed starting mix, but actual potting soil), scissors, duct tape, a Sharpie or wax pencil, and some seeds.

1. Cut the clean plastic jug almost in half, leaving a hinge on the backside so you can flop the top open.

2. Using a drill or a nail, put some holes in the bottom so the soil will drain. Not big ones, but about eight or ten holes.

3. Wet down your soil in a bucket. I do this before I use it so it doesn't have any dry pockets later.

4. Add about four inches of the pre-moistened soil so it's filled almost to the cut.

Winter sowing techniques
Jugs seen from above.
5. Plant your seeds as the packets instruct with regards to depth and spacing.

6. Mist the top of the soil so some water trickles down and ensures the seeds are nicely wet (but don't flood them!)

7. Close the hinged piece and duct tape it all around the cut.

8. Use a Sharpie or wax pencil (I prefer wax pencils, as they don't bleed or fade) to note the seed sown and the date you're sowing them.

9. If you're using a large jug (like a cat litter jug) put several small strips of duct tape across the open top of the jug, so some water gets in when it rains but not too much cold air gets in.

10. Place the jugs in an area that gets full sun, (but not too windy) and wait. Check about once a week or so and when the seeds are ready, they'll sprout!

When it's sunny as spring advances, you'll want to open the tops and let the seedlings get some full sun, but be sure to close them up again at night.

And prepare to be amazed at how easy it is to start seeds without expensive setups, just some old jugs and some soil.

This blog post lists seeds that work well with Winter Sowing.

In another post I'll describe how to separate seedlings for transplanting which might have grown together very thickly without damaging their roots.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Flower Jellies for Canning

Every spring I wait for the Redbud trees to bloom, because I know I can make a gorgeous and tasty jelly from them. But they're not the only flower from which jelly can be made, there are many more!

Flowers that can be made into jelly include: Black Locust, Honeysuckle, Violets, Lilac, Dandelion, Sunflower, Kudzu, Queen Anne's Lace, Lavender, Elderflower, Hibiscus, Clover (red and white), Rose petals, Nasturtium, and Forsythia.

Here's my method:

  • 4 tightly packed cups of flower blooms
  • 1 quart of hot (but not boiling) water
  • Approximately one cup of pure water
  • 1 package of Sure Jel pectin
  • 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice
  • A pinch of butter (about one teaspoon)
  • 8 half pint jelly jars (NB: this may make only 7 half pints and one quarter pint.)


  • Pick over the blooms, removing dirt and insects.
  • Wash the blooms gently in a colander.
  • Put the 4 cups of blooms in a quart mason jar. 
  • Pour 1 quart of hot water over the blooms.
  • Let jar cool, and then put in a refrigerator for 24 hours.
  • After 24 hours, strain the liquid through a coffee filter or jelly bag. That should leave about 3 cups of liquid.
  • Wash the jars, lids and rims, and put the jars into a pot with hot but not boiling water to keep warm while you prepare the jelly.
  • Add enough pure water to the flower liquid to make a total of four cups. Place it into a large pot and bring it to a roiling boil.
  • Add one package of Sure Jel pectin and one tablespoon of lemon juice to the mixture. 
  • Bring it to a roiling boil that cannot be stirred down.
  • Add five cups of sugar and return the mixture to a roiling boil that can’t be stirred down. Once you reach that stage, boil for one minute.
  • After one minute, remove from the heat.
  • Stir in a pinch of butter at this stage to help remove bubbles.
  • Fill the clean hot jars to the ¼” headspace line. 
  • Wipe the rim of each jar, then apply a lid and a jar rim, tightening to fingertip tightness.
  • Follow your canner’s instructions and water bath can the jars for ten minutes.
  • Remove from the canner and place on a towel to cool. After 12 hours, remove the rims and check the jars to ensure the lids have sealed. Any which have not, place in your refrigerator and use within a week. Those that have, store in a dark place.

Note that Redbud blossoms make a gorgeous pink jelly, but the color fades over time. So if you’re gifting them to someone else, do so sooner rather than later. They will still taste the same.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Seed Saving with Blossom Bags

Once I became hooked on growing my own tomatoes and other food, I wanted to start saving the seeds from what I grew so I could use them the following year.

The principle is simple: make sure the plant you want to save seeds from doesn't become cross-pollinated by another plant of a different variety.

So if I want to save seeds from my San Marzano tomatoes, I want to be sure the blossoms aren't pollinated by my Striped Roman plants.

An easy way to do this with self-pollinating plants like tomatoes is to use blossom bags. You can make them yourself out of fine mesh organza if you have the sewing gene, or you can buy them online. I like the ones that Seed Savers Exchange offers, they're not too expensive and well made. They work well for things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and even beans.

Blossom Bags from
Seed Savers Exchange
Place the bag over the blossom before it opens, to ensure no other pollen has gotten in. Close the ribbon gently but completely around the stem. You may need to strip a leaf or two off to ensure you can do so and leave enough room for the growing fruit. Some people will tap the plant once a day or so in order to be sure the blossom is pollinated. Be do so very gently, as sometimes that will cause the blossom to fall off.

Once the fruit is formed you can gently remove the bag, and mark the fruit for later collection and saving. (I use a twist tie or piece of a pipe cleaner.) Let it ripen, and once it has, harvest it.

Certain seeds, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, should be fermented for a few days to remove germination inhibitors and soften the gelatin coating that covers them. Doing so is simple, and you can use a mason or other jar. Others, like pumpkins and squash, can just be cleaned and dried.

For wet vegetables like tomatoes, rinse the tomato well in water to remove any dirt or fungus clinging to the skin. Then cut it open, and scrape the gelatinous material that the seeds are in out into a jar. If the tomato is very dry (like a paste tomato) you can add some water, but you don't always need to if the fruit is wet.

I cover the jar with a piece of paper towel secured by a rubber band, and put the date on the jar. You want to let the seeds ferment for several days at about 70 degrees (the top of a fridge is a good place for this.)

Once or twice a day give the jar a swirl, during which you'll notice some of the seeds sink to the bottom. Those will be your most viable seeds, and the ones you want to save.

After three days, put another one or two inches of lukewarm water into the jar, and swirl it around again, then let the seeds settle for a minute or so. Then gently pour the top later of gunk out of the jar, which will take with it some of the seeds that didn't sink. Rinse the remaining seeds several more times using a very fine mesh strainer, making sure there is no gelatinous material clinging to them.

Next comes a step you can skip if you're just saving the seeds for yourself, but you really should do if you're going to sell or give the seeds to anyone else. You want to ensure there are no fungi or molds on the seeds before you dry them, so a quick rinse in a 10% bleach solution is needed.

Be sure to use just a plain old 5.25% bleach, not concentrated or with any fragrance. Just the cheap stuff. Make a ten percent solution by adding 4 1/2 teaspoons of beach to one cup of pure water, or 1 1/2 cups of bleach to one gallon of pure water if you're doing a lot of batches at once. Note, you must discard each batch after use (don't reuse it on another batch), and it will only keep for about 12 hours. So smaller batches works better I find.

Now sources differ on how long to leave the seeds in a bleach solution, some say you must do so for 30 minutes, some as little as a minute. I leave mine in the solution for about five minutes, swirling them around about once a minute to be sure all the seeds make contact with the solution.

Note that some people use a stronger solution (1 part bleach to four parts water), they are the ones who leave the seeds in for the shorter amount of time.
Drying seeds on a paper plate

Once you've finished the bleach soak, rinse the seeds very thoroughly to make sure no traces of the bleach remain. Then dump them out onto a coffee filter or paper plate to dry, labeling it with the type of seed and the date processed. Be sure to spread them out so they dry evenly, and swirl them around on the second day and each day afterwards (they make stick to the filter or plate, if so gently pry them loose and stir.) I leave mine on top of a bookcase for about a week. After that, you're done!

You will want to put them into a small paper envelope for storage, and then into an airtight container like a mason jar (I don't like putting the seeds in small ziplocs for long term storage, although I do use those to ship seeds to friends.) Some people store their seeds in the fridge, I don't have room in mine for seeds so I keep them in my cool basement.

And there you are! Seeds kept from your own plants which you can use to grow more of them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Should You Buy Chickens?

There's been a lot of sturm und drang in the poultry world over the past couple of days, primarily due to a certain woman who blogs about chickens and who has gotten very popular, and a video she made that stirred up the exhibition poultry people (I count myself as one of those even though I am not actively showing at present.) I'm not going to get into all the details and hash it all out here, suffice it to say, the tons of discussion has made one thing clear to me.

There are two basic types of people who own chickens: those who treat them as pets, and those who treat them as livestock.

Of course, there's a lot of grey in there, it's not all black and white. But if you boil it down, that's what you get. Most people who breed chickens seriously treat them as livestock. I am one of those. If you ever catch me kissing a chicken or putting a diaper or sweater on it you will know I've gone 'round the bend and should have my keys taken away.

But either way, there are some cold hard truths that people need to face before they get poultry. And the main one is, what will I do when a chicken needs to be culled?

There's that word, culling. It means, bluntly, usually, to put to death. To remove from the breeding pool. To kill.

And if you own chickens, sooner or later, you're going to have to kill one (or more, more likely, as time goes on.)

There are very few vets who deal with chickens, and the ones who do, generally don't know as much as the seasoned poultry breeder does about the birds. Poultry health is typically not something vets learn in university, and for the most part, most of the medications breeders use on chickens are off-label, as there just aren't that many developed for chickens.

I don't know who said it originally, but I'm pretty sure it was poultry judge and longtime breeder Matt Lhamon who quipped to me early on in my chicken adventures "The best cure for a sick chicken is an axe." And sadly, it's true.

Chickens are peculiar. When they become ill, they hide it very well until they are very ill, and close to death. So once a chicken starts showing signs of illness, they are usually too far gone to do anything about.

As well, there's the problem of the law of averages when it comes to hatching chicks. Give or take, about half of the chicks that hatch will be males. And unfortunately, most people don't need a flock of half males and half females for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a lot of males will fight each other, sometimes to death. I find a good ratio of males to females is about 1 male to every 8 or so females. So then you have to decide, what will I do with all those extra males?

You can try to sell them of course, or give them away, but if you do it's likely they'll wind up being killed anyway to make dinner for someone. No one wants a yard full of cockerels as pets. And I prefer to keep my extra males and eat them myself.

So ideally, before a person gets chickens, they need to ask themselves, "Will I be able to kill a chicken when the time comes?"

If you can't answer that question with a yes, then you shouldn't get chickens, in my opinion. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I am sure there are lots of people who get chickens who don't ever kill one I suppose a vet, paid enough money, will euthanize a chicken, but I know I've never gone that route. But over time that would get relatively expensive, and isn't a really practical way to go.

I encourage friends who have the space for them to get chickens, I think it's a great thing for kids to learn about animal husbandry, and nothing beats an egg warm from the hen when it comes to taste. But anyone thinking about it should also be sure they can answer that question. Because sooner or later, the time will come when you'll have to kill a chicken.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

You Can Help The Bees

These days bees seem to be in the news a lot. People often ask what they can do to help the bees, and one way to do so is to provide them with water during the summer. If you want to go even further, you can make a simple sugar syrup to fee the bees during the dearth (when most sources of nectar are not flowing.)

You can add either liquid to any number of containers: a plain plastic plate with some rocks in it, a bucket with some corks, or a chicken waterer with some pebbles. The important part is to a) ensure the bees have good footing so they don't drown, and b) if you're feeding sugar syrup, to do it right, and change it before it gets moldy.

A small bucket with corks for the bees to perch on,
and a handkerchief for them to suck water out of,
works very well (they won't roll the corks, don't worry.)

Making sugar syrup for bees is easy. You use a ratio of 1 part granulated white sugar (nothing else please, not honey, not corn syrup, not brown sugar) to 2 parts water.

I use an electric teakettle to boil the water (recommended to remove anything that might make the syrup mold faster), pour it over the sugar, stir, and let cool.

A simple plastic plate with some rocks for the bees to perch on.

Another great way to help bees and other pollinators is to plant wildflowers and trees in your yard which provide nectar for them. A long list of these for plants in North America can be found on Wikipedia here.

It's also really easy to sow white clover in your lawn. It doesn't get too tall (cuts down on mowing) and is a good source of nectar for the bees throughout much of the summer.

Even the simplest of things, like a bucket of water with some corks, can a great help. Just remember to change it regularly and keep it clean. And thanks! The bees appreciate it.

Even a chicken waterer with some pebbles works.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Splitting a Bee Hive

Earlier this week I was invited to help a local friend "make a split" of one of her beehives. Beekeepers do this to keep strong hives from swarming and to ensure the bees have enough space to grow.

Bees reproduce by swarming. In nature and in apiaries, sooner or later a strong hive of bees will run out of room, and will feel the urge to swarm. A swarm generally has the old queen with it, who will accompany a large group of foragers and nurse bees to a new location a scout finds for them.

The hive left behind will have newly laid eggs, from which they will hatch a new queen. Every egg laid by a queen bee has the potential to be a queen, it is the nurse bees who decide when to create a new one, either to supersede a queen which doesn't live up to their standards, or to replace one that has been injured or has died.
A strong hive booming with bees

Making a split allows a hive to grow without going through the swarming process. Beekeepers who are paying attention in the spring know that splitting a hive will both a) give the bees the space they need and b) give them yet another free hive of bees!

It's a pretty simple process, but you do have to pay attention. The way my friend N does it is to start by inspecting a hive to ensure it's healthy and has a booming population.

She leaves the queen behind in the original hive body, and moves four frames of new eggs, brood, and nurse bees to a new hive. It's important to ensure you have newly laid eggs, as the bees need one under three days old to convert to a queen, which they do by feeding the developing larva royal jelly and making the cell large enough to hold the larger queen body.
Choose four frames with
newly laid eggs and brood

Once she moves the four frames, N uses sliding dividers in the hive to close the frames up, which ensures the bees don't have too much space to try to keep warm, which can be problematic. Brood needs to be kept warm, and if the bees have to protect too much space as they're doing so, the brood might suffer and the new queen not hatch.

In a week or so N will check the new split to ensure they've made a new queen, and take other steps if they haven't. Simple and effective, making splits is a skill every beekeeper should know how to do.

A finished split

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Planning a Garden

My friend Ame runs a wonderful non-profit, Fox Run Environmental Education Center not far from me, and she recently posted a blog entry which goosed me into making plans for our expanded garden this year.

I had done some research over the past several years, and found some very useful garden planning software at which I decided to start using this past week. I really like the functionality of this software, although the interface is a wee bit slow at times, but that may be my internet connection and not them, hard to say for sure.

I like that I can choose a number of different shapes in which to organize the plants, from square raised beds to round containers, and even triangles for fancy herb garden plots.

I decided to keep it simple for the herb garden this year, as it will be new. I made two raised beds, and two containers. One raised bed will need rich, loamy soil, the other a more dry, sandy environment. And in one of the containers I am going to attempt to grow Rosemary, which is apparently hard to do successfully, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained right?

This is a screen shot from the GrowVeg software.

One of the features of this software I like the best is the ability to create a Plant List, which shows the entire list of plants you're planning to use, as well as sowing and harvesting times (both indoor and outdoor sowing for those plants which need it.

There are a number of other features which I've only begun to explore, but these two alone have saved me a lot of time/effort.

It is a subscription service, and costs $29 a year. I will note, because it wasn't clearly mentioned on the website, that you can only create a total of five plans per year for that price, which honestly seems a bit low (I was able to negotiate an additional five with their support staff, but don't know if they'll do that for everyone, so don't get your hopes up.)

All in all, it's worth the price if you aren't a pen and paper kind of person (which I am not) and it's definitely worth a look-see.

And fwiw, those of you planning to grow onions this year, get them sown into the inside flats, it's time! (Thanks to Vicky Tewes of Thistlehair Farm for reminding me.)