Tuesday, May 15, 2012

May Rain

I said earlier that May is supposed to be our rainiest month. Well, it looks like this year won't be an exception after all! We've had lots and lots of rain in the last couple of weeks, and the month is still young!

We're leaving for our honeymoon tomorrow, and it looks like I won't need my cat-watchers to water the garden as well. It's getting a good soak!

The rain barrels are overflowing even though our new house doesn't have rain gutters (that's on the long to-do list we have for this house). One of these days we're getting some of those big water tanks that hold like a thousand gallons to collect rainwater. Weather like this could probably fill it up.

We're still under official drought conditions, but this weather is certainly helping.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rogue Peppers

One of these peppers is not like the other. One of these peppers just doesn't belong...

Actually I've got two pepper plants that don't belong, but that's how the song goes. Looks like there was a little bit of a mix-up with some of my pepper seeds.

One of the varieties I planted is Emerald Giant, a bell pepper from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I noticed a while ago that one of them looked different, with much smaller leaves then the others. Here you can see the oddball on the left, with a normal looking one with large leaves on the right (and more behind).

I thought maybe something had happened to that one. Maybe it got damaged or chewed on by bugs or something that stressed it out, causing it to grow smaller leaves.

Well, now that they're setting fruit, I'm sure that's not what happened. Here is what all the other plants in that patch look like, with small bell peppers growing.

And here's the fruit on the one with the small leaves. Definitely not a bell pepper. Looks like a Cayenne, or some other long, very skinny pepper.

So Baker Creek got a seed of some kind of Cayenne-like pepper mixed in with my Emerald Giants. I've heard of these sorts of things happening before (mistakes are bound to happen at seed companies), but I've never had it happen to me. The thing that worries me is that I was planning on saving seeds from those Emerald Giants, so I wonder if they've cross-pollinated by now. At least now I know what to look for if I do try to grow a second generation of these.

But that's not the only "wrong" pepper out there. Meanwhile, in the Lemon Drop patch, I noticed a while ago that one of them was much taller than the other plants. It's a little hard to see in this picture, but one of the plants towers above the rest. So I thought maybe that plant also had something happen to it to grow more vigorously. Maybe all the other plants got stressed and that one didn't. It also has larger, darker leaves.

Here are what normal Lemon Drop peppers look like. When they set fruit, the fruit sticks up in the air, and doesn't flop over until it gets big and heavy. With most peppers I've grown before, the fruit grows down from the beginning.

Here's the fruit from the much taller plant among the Lemon Drops. It's another long pepper, but much bigger and fatter than the small-leaved pepper, so it's yet another mystery pepper different from the other one. The fruits also point down right from the beginning, and the fruits are a darker green. I really don't know what kind of pepper it is.

At least the Lemon Drops are a different species of pepper from the others, so cross pollination isn't a worry. I got the Lemon Drop seeds from a trade online, not a seed company, so that shows you that it's not only seed companies which can make these mistakes.

The lesson I've learned here is that different varieties of pepper plants can look a lot more different than I expected. I never grew this many different pepper varieties before, and I thought that all the plants pretty much looked the same, and it was just the fruit that looked different. Well, now I know better. I've heard of "roguing for off-types" when I've read about seed saving, so I guess that's probably what I should have done with these odd-looking pepper plants before they flowered, but I had assumed it was an environmental, not genetic, difference. After all, these poor plants have been horribly abused by me (being planted in pots in fall, then kept over the winter, pruned until they're practically bonsai, then chewed on by a caterpillar infestation), so I expected that to have some effect on them.

I don't have the heart to pull the mystery peppers out now, though. I want to see how they end up tasting. This also makes me even more eager to grow a big variety of peppers next year and see more of the variation between them.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Greening Moon

Tonight's full moon is also a Supermoon! The moon is the closest to the Earth that it gets on its orbit, and will be 30% brighter than a usual full moon.

The full moon of May, in the local moon naming scheme I use, is called the Greening Moon, because May is supposed to be the rainiest month of the year, at least on average. Well, we haven't gotten any rain yet this month, and April was pretty dry too. There is rain in the forecast for next week, so here's hoping we get some. I'm really afraid we're going to have another summer like last summer. It's already been in the 90's most days. Today is supposed to get up to 94.

When I went out to take pictures, there was a Velociraptor standing on the woodpile! OK, not quite, but close. When I think of what Velociraptors might have been like, I think they may have been very similar to roadrunners. Roadrunners are pretty ferocious, and are known to get together in pairs or groups and kill rattlesnakes. They're actually a giant, ground-dwelling cuckoo. We have another species of cuckoo here, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which I've been hearing lately. Their "song" (if you want to call it that) sounds to me like someone trying to start up some sort of motor (like a lawnmower or chainsaw) and having trouble getting it going. I guess European cuckoos must be the ones that sound like cuckoo clocks. Roadrunners actually sound more like cuckoo clocks than the smaller, Yellow-billed cuckoos do, though with a much deeper voice.

The roses are starting to fade, but the Esparanza is taking over for them. These are also known as Yellow Bells, but I like their Spanish name better. I'm really glad we have some in our new yard. They're a really great plant, that blooms right in the heat of summer.

The bluebonnets have gone to seed now, but we've got some other blue/purple flowers showing up other places in the yard, though not as many of them, so I hope they increase. We've got one of these purple flowers growing, which I always hear people calling just "verbena", though I know there are many species of verbenas, so I'm not sure which one this is. The ranch near our neighborhood has a huge patch of them that look like a sea of solid purple from a distance. They like heat and full sun.

Then we've got these flowers coming up in the shade of what's going to be our Sacred Grove, a nice grove of oak trees in the back with a lovely circular shady spot underneath. These are called Blue Curls, which is a very good name for them, because the flowers are on this curly inflorescence. I see these growing in the shade in lots of wooded areas around here.

I started a tray of basils a while back that need to be put in bigger pots. I have Cinnamon, Thai, Napoletano, and Ms. Burns Lemon. I also planted some Purple Ruffles basil, but it never came up, so I guess the seeds were bad. There is also some Asia Red Amaranth and Fenugreek in this try, but they aren't doing so well. I probably should have direct seeded them instead. I might try doing that with the rest of my seeds if we get a good rain.
Out in the garden, I want to show you my Squash Vine Borer Exclusion Device! This is a tip I got from my CSA farmer on how to get a crop of squash despite the dreaded Squash Vine Borers. He said I need to get floating row cover, the most lightweight kind that's for keeping out insects, and put that over the squashes until they flower. Then it has to be removed so bees can get to the squash, but by then hopefully the squash has gotten enough of a head start to give a crop before the borers kill it.

I have the row cover held up with PVC pipe bent and stuck over short pieces of rebar that are driven into the ground. I then held the cover down to the ground with rocks. In hindsight, I should have made 5 hoops instead of 3, because the cloth is sagging a lot between them. I also should have put a soaker hose under there with the end sticking out to water them. I have trying to water them through the cloth, but even though the cloth is supposed to let water through, a lot of it still beads up and runs down the side.

Underneath I have Kamo Kamo and Jarrahdale squashes planted. The first is a C. pepo and the second is a C. maxima which are the two species of squash most susceptible to borers. So we'll see if the cover helps them.

The squash coming up under the cloth looks about like that right now,but this is not a squash, but a San Juan melon. It's a type of melon I got from Native Seeds/SEARCH and is supposed to be a netted muskmelon with green flesh. I think in the future I'm going to be buying a lot more seeds from that company, since their seeds are adapted to hot, dry conditions.

I also planted a lot of Rattlesnake pole beans, which is supposed to be a heat tolerant pole bean, though last time I planted them they still didn't make it. I made bean tepees out of bamboo from the old house, tied down to railroad spikes my husband found out somewhere.

The tomatoes and peppers are coming along. They're all blooming now, though I checked, and last year at around this time, I was already getting green tomatoes. Everything is behind this year because of the move.

The only nightshade that has fruit so far are the Lemon Drop peppers. They're supposed to ripen to a bright yellow. I'm excited about these because this is the first time I've grown peppers that weren't in the Capsicum annum species. Lemon Drops are C. baccatum.

Towards the back of the garden, I have three Boothby's Blonde cucumbers that didn't get eaten by caterpillars. In the empty slots, I planted Luffa gourds, which are starting to get their first true leaves.

The garlic is starting to look run down. It should be time to dig them up in about a month, maybe less. I hope the move didn't stress them too much, and they managed to make some kind of a bulb down there.

Finally, at the back of the garden, where I still have a lot of wild plants growing, I found some more poison ivy. Here it is mixed in with another annoying native plant, which I've always heard called Beggar's Ticks. However, when I looked up Beggar's Ticks in Google, I found more than one plant that have that common name, one in the Aster family, and one in the Legume family, but that's not what these are. These are a plant in the carrot family, with feathery leaves, taproots, and umbel flowers, like most plants in that family. Those flowers then turn into these annoying, velcro-like seeds that stick to your pants, shoes, cats, etc. The seeds stuck on you look like some kind of bugs on you, hence the name.

This is the problem with common names. You can have the same common name referring to lots of different species, or one species with several common names. Does anybody know the scientific name for the carrot family beggar's ticks?

Anyway, they're very annoying, so I'm trying hard to get rid of them or at least greatly reduce their numbers. I've had socks and shoelaces completely ruined by them before, because once the seeds work their way into the fabric, they're pretty much impossible to get out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

This Spring's Seed Saving

Seed saving seems a good topic for Beltane, since it's all about new life and fertility, right? I've been meaning to post more about my seed saving efforts, so here's my first big bout of seed saving for 2012. I got into seed saving pretty fast after getting into gardening in general, and own probably the two best books about the subject out there: Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe. I recommend both books for any gardener who wants to save their own seed (and any gardener who's as much of a nerd as I am about biology and genetics SHOULD save their own seed! It's lots of fun!). The two books compliment each other very well. Have Seed to Seed on your shelf as a reference book to look up specific data about isolation distances, pollination, storage life of seeds, etc., but sit down and read Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties to get inspiration for all the seed saving projects you'd like to try out in your own garden.

This latest seed saving effort was done sort of opportunistically. Our old landlord wouldn't let us get out of our lease early, so we've been stuck with our rent house ever since we moved. This month is the last month of our lease, so we visited one last time the other day to get the last of the cleaning done. In my abandoned garden, a lot of my poor plants had died, but several had gone to seed. I wish I had gotten a picture, because it was a pretty crazy sight. People aren't used to seeing things like mustard and lettuce in a reproductive state. I think it makes them look much wilder and weedier than they do when they're normally harvested.

With all this plant sex going on, it seemed only fair that I, their neglectful gardener, save their progeny they worked so hard to produce, to bring with me to my new garden, even though I hadn't really planned on it.

The Tall Telephone peas were the easiest things to save. Legumes are nice that way. The pods had completely dried down to tan, papery things. I picked a whole bunch of them, and then spent an hour or two popping them open in front of the TV and letting the dry peas plink out onto a plate. Something about shelling beans or peas is kind of satisfying to me. It's like popping bubble wrap or something. I then spread out the peas on a plate and am letting them sit out for a week or two to completely dry out. This is very important to do with large seeds.

After they're completely dry, legume seeds need to be frozen, even if you don't plan on keeping them that way for long. There are bugs that like to lay their eggs on the seeds, and freezing kills them. If you don't do this step, and just put them in a jar at room temperature, you might come back later to a jar full of bugs and chewed up pea dust. I can't remember how long you have to freeze them for, but two weeks should probably do it.

This is my second generation of saved Tall Telephone peas. I really like this variety because it gets so HUGE. This variety gets vines that rival pole beans in length, at 6 feet or more, while most peas get more like 3 feet high. That translates to lots more peas for the space, and the peas themselves are bigger too, which makes shelling them more efficient. The only disadvantage I discovered this past winter, growing them with Lincoln Shell, that they started making pods a bit later than Lincoln Shell. I guess that makes sense that a larger plant will mature later than a smaller plant. However, Lincoln Shell also died much sooner than Tall Telephone. I will definitely continue to grow Tall Telephone as my main pea crop, but I might consider trying out some more smaller, earlier pea varieties to extend the harvest a bit.

Next came the mustard. I planted two varieties of mustard over the winter. One was from a GardenWeb seed swap and was simply labeled "Curly Mustard" and the other was from my CSA farmer, something he called "Horned Mustard". I didn't intend to save mustard seeds at all, but when I came back to my old garden, the Horned Mustard had completely dry and mature seed pods ready to harvest. The thing is, it's highly likely they crossed with the Curly Mustard, since unlike peas, Brassicas are outbreeders. In fact, Brassicas are one of those crops that suffer quite a lot from inbreeding depression, and you have to make sure you save seeds from enough plants to have a big gene pool.

On the other hand, Carol Deppe has convinced me to not be too fussed about keeping things pure. I know some seed savers are very particular about saving pure seed, making sure no other varieties cross with them, and I can see how that's important in some situations, like when you're trying to preserve a rare variety, or if you're sending seed to someone who is expecting a certain variety. But I only had 6 Horned Mustard plants to begin with, which isn't even enough to prevent inbreeding depression, so maybe it's OK they might have crossed with the Curly Mustard. I decided to collect the seed anyway just as an experiment.

Brassica seeds are also kind of easy to save, but not as easy as legumes. They get these thin little seed pods on them, but unlike the peas, these guys were ready to just pop open on their own with only the tiniest bit of jostling. As I picked the dry plants, mustard seeds were flying everywhere! I crammed them into a plastic grocery bag, and when I got home, the bottom of the bag had already collected quite a bit of the tiny, dark seeds. I dumped the contents of the bag into a plastic tub and started scrunching it around to get the rest of the seeds to come out (I put on gloves after my hands started getting irritated by the fine little plant fibers). After running the results through a sieve from the kitchen, I ended up with about a quarter cup of seeds for very little effort.

A quarter cup of mustard seeds is a LOT of seed for planting! That seems to always happen when I save seed. I'm always surprised about how much I get, more than I can ever use myself.

When it comes time to plant them, I think I will just sprinkle a bunch of these seeds directly in the garden somewhere and see what comes up. If they are crossed, I might get some interesting hybrids coming up. And I have enough seed that pulling out any crosses that turn out to be not-so-tasty won't seem like too much of a waste.

The Red Romaine lettuce was the biggest pain to save. It was the only lettuce that had matured with seeds ready (all the other lettuce varieties had died from neglect), so I felt it deserved it, but it was a lot more work than the pea or mustard seeds. If you let your lettuce flower and go to seed, you can easily see why it's classified in the same family as dandelions. I scrunched around the dry plants the same way as the mustard, but this time I got a big bowl of lettuce seeds with almost as much fluff and other debris mixed in. Shaking it and blowing it around didn't help, because the seeds blew around just as much as the chaff (unlike the mustard seeds which sank to the bottom of the pile while the chaff stayed on top to be skimmed off). Passing them through the sieve helped a little, but I still ended up with lettuce seeds that have a lot of other stuff mixed in.

I finally gave up, and started wondering how important it really is to have perfectly clean seed. I spread the lettuce seed out on that yellow plate you see in the top picture.

While I was in seed-saving mode, I also went ahead and finished cleaning the Ms. Burns Lemon Basil seed I saved last summer. I had picked off the tops of the plants, but had a lot of trouble separating the seeds out of their little capsules. After asking online, I was told maybe they weren't dry enough, so I crammed them into a paper bag, and that paper bag has been sitting in the garage every since. With gloved hands, I rubbed them around in the plastic tub, and did get some seed to release, but now I'm worried that maybe I picked the seedheads too early. A lot of the seeds still didn't want to come out, and the ones that did aren't all black like basil seed is supposed to be. Some of them are brown. I'm worried that the brown ones may not be mature.

Good thing I still have some of my original Ms. Burn's Lemon Basil seed left, in case this seed is no good. I should probably do a germination test on this seed to see. Maybe it's fine, but next time I save basil seed, I guess I'd better leave it on the plant longer.

So to recap, here are the seeds I have saved so far this year...
Tall Telephone Peas
Horned Mustard (possibly crossed)
Red Romaine Lettuce
Ms. Burns Lemon Basil

And in my freezer are seeds I've already saved before...
Vates Collards (from only 6 plants, so probably not enough genetic diversity to maintain for long)
Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas
Jalapeno Peppers
Chihuahua Landrace Cushaw Squash
Black Cherry Tomato
Hawkins Plum Tomato
Mortgage Lifter Tomato
Pink Ponderosa Tomato
Red Brandywine Tomato
Rio Grande Paste Tomato

Of course I plan on saving even more seed later this year, from more tomatoes, peppers, squash, and beans.