We sow the seeds!

A little about seeds

Seeds are made up of two major parts.  Firstly the embryo which includes the roots and the shoots.  Secondly the food source.  Seeds are so bloody clever they pack their own lunches!

It also explains why seeds and grains are energy-dense sources of food for us big brained mammals.  To grow, seeds need to absorb around 60% of their body weight in water.  Additionally they also need access to air. So when growing seeds it’s a balance between moisture holding growing mediums while also having excellent drainage.  You can assist the water absorbing process by pre-soaking your seeds before planting for a day or so.  Soaking below are some purple king climbing beans.

I tend to only pre-soak large seeds as smaller seeds are too fiddly.

Direct in garden or seed raising mix?

For root vegetables (carrots, beetroot, parsnips etc.) I’ll always sow directly as the large tap root is susceptible to damage when transplanting.  Peas,  beans and corn I’ll also usually sow direct – the large seeds making it a straight forward process.  Most other herbs, brassicas (think cabbages, broccoli asian greens) tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers…well pretty much everything else, I grow into seedlings before transplanting.

How deep to plant?

It is very tempting to plant seeds deeper than they need to be.  While working for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, I found kids always wanted to plant the seeds far too deeply.  It certainly seems to be our default setting.  Generally speaking seeds are planted to the depth of their width.  So broad beans around 1cm while lettuce and cabbage seeds barely need covering.  I dare you to simply spread some lettuce seed across the surface of some seed raising mix and just water without covering.  In around 10 days they’ll germinate and anchor themselves nicely.  We all know how wonderfully weeds grow, and nobody is sowing them at a specific depth.

Caring for seedlings and feeding

Seeds germinate well in dappled light (especially in summer) and this will also prevent the seed raising mix drying out too much.  You will know it’s too shady if seedlings grow ‘leggy’ i.e. thin and tall.  Temperature is the other necessary factor in germination, with most seeds only coming to life when the soil temp is close to 20 degrees.  Professional seedling producers use heat pads to artificially raise the temperature of the soil, leading to subtropical growth in temperate climates.

Use a fine spray of water initially as you don’t want to move the seeds with large drops of water while they’re trying to take root.  A hand-held pump sprayer is perfect.  As mentioned above the seed provides the required nutrition to germinate but once growing a weak liquid feed is a good idea every 10 days using worm juice or a seaweed concentrate.

Where to source seeds

Here are some links to seed providers who specialise in heirloom or old variety open pollinated varieties.  This means you can save the seed year to year and your plants will turn out true to type – something not always possible when saving seed from hybrid plants common in nurseries.

www.diggers.com.au

www.thelostseed.com.au

www.edenseeds.com.au

www.greenpatchseeds.com.au

www.theitaliangardener.com.au

Seed raising mix recipe

Most of these ingredients are readily available at good nurseries or landscaping suppliers (river sand and loam) and will save you lots of money if you’re propagating a lot of your own seeds.

One part river sand

1/2 part vermiculite (this is a naturally forming mineral that is a great insulator and holds moisture)

1/2 part weed free garden loam

1/2 part compost

Handful of blood and bone fertiliser

Mix together and keep in a sealed bucket.  Moisten before use.

Remember you can re-use this seed raising mix after planting out your seedlings by adding it to your next batch – don’t throw it out!

Unbeatable Beetroot!

Varieties and growing tips.

Two varieties that grow well in our cooler climate include Bulls Blood and Boltardy.  If you’re not one to usually grow from seed, try beetroot.  It’s a good vegetable to start with as the seeds are large and germination is quite reliable.  Several varieties are also available in a seed tape product helping you to get the spacing spot on.

Beetroot likes a pH of about 6.5.  Any higher than 7.0 and the soil alkalinity starts to prevent the uptake of boron which is essential for the edible root development.  Caution also needs to be taken with soils too high in nitrogen as you’ll end up with wonderful leafy growth but small beets!  Please don’t think this all has to be a complicated process, as once your garden is established it just becomes part of the natural flow.  Simply plant beetroot after a heavy feeding crop such as cabbage, lettuce or asian greens.  This way those previous crops will have taken up large amounts of the nitrogen in the soil.  Simply add some well rotted compost and water once established with a seaweed based liquid fertiliser.  If you’re starting in fresh soil, avoid adding large amounts of high nitrogen fertiliser such as poultry manures (especially pigeon) instead favouring compost, worm juice and liquid seaweed products.

The beetroot seeds themselves can lead to some confusion as they are actually a cluster of seeds all stuck together (kind of).  What you’ll find is that you’ll get several seedlings growing in the spot where you diligently only planted one seed.  Treat this as a gift from nature and when big enough to pinch with your finger, remove the weaker seedlings (leaving the most vigorous) and use them as a micro green in the kitchen.  If this backyard Darwinism isn’t your cup of tea, you can try replanting – but it’s very difficult not to damage the very fine taproot while they’re so young.  Nature can be cruel folks.

As the beetroot grow you’ll see the root become more visible.  This is actually pretty handy as you can see how big your beetroot are growing, so fight the urge to hill soil around them as you would with leeks etc.  Leaves can also be picked on younger beetroot and added to salads.  Just take a few from each plant as you don’t want to slow the growth by removing the plants’ energy source!

Beyond tinned beetroot (sigh)

While traveling in Eastern Europe a decade ago I was amazed at how much beetroot was used in local cuisines.  At Polish bar mleczny (direct translation is ‘milk bars’ – but more accurately described as vegetarian cafeterias) salads made from boiled grated beetroot and beetroot soup were staples.

The latter in Poland is called barszcz and I was reliably informed by a local that Polish ‘borscht’ recipes came from the Ukraine not Russia.  You know I’d never buy a Polish-made car, but I’m pretty sure no-one makes better soup.  The idea of sweating a few onions, adding some chopped beetroot and stock and creating a soup in an hour would be laughed at.  Even seemingly vegetarian soups such as barszcz start with pork of some sort, creating the stock in situ.  Always made the day before consuming there is plenty of time for flavour to develop depth.

Beetroot is also fantastic when simply grated raw.  I first tried this at Wholefoods Cafe in Geelong back in the 1990s where they added it as a standard to their salad sandwiches and awesome tofu burgers.  The Poles also make a cooked and grated beetroot condiment which when mixed with horseradish becomes “cwikla z chrzanem” – check out how to do that below.  It also goes wonderfully with the pierogi I made a little while back when discussing potatoes.

 

Another recipe that we collectively remain indebted to Stephanie Alexander for is chocolate and beetroot muffins.  I’ve modified the recipe slightly using olive oil instead of vegetable oil for nutritional reasons without noticing the taste coming through at all.  I mean chocolate and beetroot – what hope did the olive oil have?

Chocolate and Beetroot Muffins

60g organic butter, softened

1 large beetroot, peeled and grated (250g net)  A food processor makes this a whole lot easier

175g Plain Flour

1 tps baking powder

2 tbs organic cocoa

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup local olive oil

1/4 castor sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar (well packed)

12 squares dark chocolate or milk with minimum 30% cocoa

Method

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 180C and grease a 12 hole muffin tray.

2.    Sift the flour, baking powder and cocoa into a large mixing bowl and set aside.

3.    Lightly mix the eggs and milk together and set aside.

4.    In a bowl or mixer process the butter, oil and 2 types of sugar until nice and creamy. Gradually add the milk and egg mixture and process until combined.

5.    Add the wet batter to the flour mix and fold together. Stir in the beetroot, until well combined.

6.    Spoon the mixture evenly into the holes and press a square of chocolate well into the centre each muffin.

Cooking time is about 20minutes depending on your oven type.  The tops should be springy but the centre will remain a lot more moist than normal muffins due to the beetroot, so be careful not to mistake this for them being underdone.

Save your own tomato seeds!

These fine examples are destined to make sure next year’s crop is even more successful and disease free than the one just finished.  This process of propagation is called seed saving and it’s allowed us to improve our fruit and vegetables year after year since we started agriculture in its current form over 10,000 years ago.

So why bother saving seed when you can just pick up some seedlings at the nursery next year?  For starters you’ll be amazed at how many seeds come out of just a few tomatoes, and if you follow the below steps on saving them, you’ll have enough seedlings next year for you and your neighbours.  Plus you’ll be growing plants that are evolving to perfectly suit your soil and your specific climate.

Start by cutting your tomatoes in half and scooping out the seeds.  I like to do this as you then get to save the best and eat them too!

tomatoes 2-web

 

tomatoes 3-web

Scoop the seeds into a nice clean jar and add a dash of water

tomatoes 4-web

Loosely pop the lid on or some plastic film with a few holes in it, place the jar in a warmish place and wait a few days…

tomatoes 6-web

tomatoes 7-web

Yes, yes, it now looks really disgusting and will have other household members wondering what kind of sick science experiment you’re playing with but trust me, this bit is important.  You see the tomato seeds are designed to rot prior to germinating which is why they just love popping up your compost heap from time to time.  By putting the seeds through this fermentation process we prepare the seeds for a proper germination and also reduce the incidence of disease.

So next we scoop of the nasty stuff (just ignore the funky smell) and discard it. Don’t worry if you take a few seeds with it as the more viable seeds tend to sink to the bottom anyhow.

tomatoes 8-web

Then clean the rest of the seeds through a sieve, gently scrubbing the jelly like surrounds from the seeds.

tomatoes 9-web

Leave to drain, then spread out the seeds in a single layer on a non-porous surface to dry.

tomatoes 10-web

This usually takes at least four days in normal indoor temperatures after which time you can press firmly on a seed with your fingernail.  If the seed just dents it’s not dry enough, if it breaks then the seeds are ready for storage.  Store in an envelope in an airtight container or in an old vitamin bottle or glass jar.