The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Tag: seeds

Seed Handling

When planting large seeds, such as squash, pumpkin, beans, etc., it’s easy to just grab a small handful of seeds and set them in the soil. If you’re using a row planter, it picks up one seed at a time and spaces them out quite nicely. When it comes to handling small seeds and placing just one seed in a pot or a soil block, how do you pick up and move that one tiny seed? I have tried several methods and have settled on some tools that work well for me.

I have been using the Gro-Mor Mini-Wand Vacuum Seeder for several years now, and it still amazes me how such a simple tool can make such a big difference. The vacuum seeder uses a vacuum bulb to pick up one seed at a time and then release it when needed. It comes with several tip sizes that can be used for different size seeds.

There are several different designs, and I’m confident that there are others that work just as well as the one that I’m using. The important point is that you need a specialized tool to efficiently handle tiny seeds. You don’t want to waste seeds, and you don’t want to plant more than one seed in a single hole. A good seed dispenser will solve that problem.

I am using a different soil mixture for this batch of seeds. This is two parts ordinary potting soil with one part Perlite.

Using the Gro-Mor vacuum seed dispenser to plant bell pepper seeds.

Using the Gro-Mor vacuum seed dispenser to plant bell pepper seeds.

A small number of seeds are placed in a cup. The seeds are then picked up and moved, one at a time, into the seed holes.

A small number of seeds are placed in a cup. The seeds are then picked up and moved, one at a time, into the seed holes.

A different type of seed dispenser being used to cover the seeds with medium Vermiculite. I then use a misting nozzle to wet the surface without disturbing the seeds.

A different type of seed dispenser being used to cover the seeds with medium Vermiculite. I then use a misting nozzle to wet the surface without disturbing the seeds.

A Different Way to Start Seeds

My standard method of starting seeds has been to use soil blocks – a molded block of soil with no container to keep it together. I have excellent results with them, but they tend to be rather fragile and require extra care to make sure they don’t fall apart. In addition, the process of making them is a bit more labor-intensive – not a lot, but it’s enough to cause planting to be put off until a larger block of time is available.

Yesterday, I planted a tray of 50 seeds using 2″ cube seed pots (Note that although the product is great, their delivery time is very slow). Unlike so many seed starting containers, these are a heavy duty plastic that should last for many years with decent care. Fifty of them fit perfectly in a standard 1020 (10″ x 20″) seedling tray.

After filling and compressing the soil into the seed pots, I soaked the soil well. After an hour to let the moisture work its way through the soil, I used the end of a Sharpie marker to push a small indentation into the soil in each pot. The seeds were added (one per pot – I try to avoid multi-seed planting), and then covered with some medium Vermiculite, then lightly watered again.

This batch included 20 Bell Peppers (California Wonder), 20 Egg Plant (Black Beauty), and 10 Squash (Early Prolific Straight Neck). As I usually do, I drew up a diagram of the seeds in the tray so they would not get mixed up. Popsicle sticks mark the borders between different seed types. The trays are now setting on the seed heating pad and covered with a clear plastic top to retain moisture, so I should see green in the next few days. As soon as they begin to sprout, the tray will be moved under the lights.

Like much of what I do here, this is an experiment. I mixed a small handful of organic fertilizer in with a 5 gallon bucket of ordinary potting soil. There was nothing precise about this – my goal was to have a quick and easy way to plant the seeds. This was an experiment of necessity, since this should have been done at least a month ago.


Commercial vs. Homemade

“But of course a commercially formulated growing mixture is going to be better than something I make at home.” How many times have we said, or at least thought, this same thing? I certainly have. The assumption is that what is commercially available has been well researched and thoroughly tested. As much as I try to stay focused on the basic concepts of Southern Agrarianism, the influences of modern-day American society are a powerful force to overcome.

Several weeks ago, I started this year’s garden project – to plant several varieties of tomatoes and decide which variety I will be focusing on. As usual, the seeds were planted in soil blocks. I would be taking careful notes throughout the life of the plants. Unfortunately, a careless mistake a few hours after planting resulted in losing track of which variety is planted in which block. I ended up having to start over. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I had already prepared a commercial seed starting system for another project. I decided to press that into service for the tomato project.

I ended up with two groups of tomato seeds. They were planted hours apart using seed from the same seed packets. Although it wasn’t part of the original plan, this would be a good opportunity to see how my homemade seed starting mixture and soil blocks compared to a commercial seed starting system, since all other factors were the same.

Commercial seed starting trays and commercial seed starting mixture.

Commercial seed starting trays and commercial seed starting mixture.

VPC seed starting mixture formed into soil blocks.

Homemade seed starting mixture formed into soil blocks.

In this case anyway, homemade clearly wins over commercial. The seedlings in the PVC (Peat/Vermiculite/Compost) mixture and soil blocks are over double the size, have twice the number of leaves, and have much thicker stalks than those started in the commercial mixture. They were watered at the same time and the same rate, and were set side-by-side under the grow lights and timer. Here are the details:

Commercial System:
• Ferry-Morse seed starting plastic trays
• Jiffy Organic Seed Starter Jiffy-Mix

Homemade PVC (Peat/Vermiculite/Compost) mixture:
• 2 parts Peat Moss
• 2 parts medium Vermiculite
• 1 part Mushroom Compost
The Peat Moss and Mushroom Compost were sifted to remove any stick or large pieces.

I suspect that much of the difference comes from the Mushroom Compost that I added. I suspect that Black Cow composted cow manure would work just as well. Since this was used in soil blocks, the physical consistency was also important, and the compost helped hold it together as well as providing nutrition to the seedlings. The instructions in the commercial mix call for applying fertilizer after the seedlings have been transplanted into the ground. It is clear to me that this is a much better way to start seedlings than using a commercial mixture in the plastic trays. If I were inclined to use the plastic seed starting trays, I would try them using my PVC mixture in the plastic trays rather than the soil blocks, but I see no advantage in using plastic rather than soil blocks.

The PVC mixture is nothing special. It was not the result of careful research – it just seemed like a good mixture adapted from what I currently use in our raised bed garden. I am planning other test mixtures, but that mainly involves improving the handling characteristics of the soil blocks rather than the nutrient levels. Most of the soil block seed starting mixtures I have seen are a lot more involved than my PVC mixture. I wanted something simple to put together using readily available materials.

I have since started another batch of seeds using the PVC mixture and soil blocks, only this time they are carefully identified as to which variety is planted where. I’ll publish the results of my testing later this year.

Carol Deppe’s Seed List

I have written previously about Carol Deppe‘s books – The Resilient Gardener and Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. She has a new seed list of varieties she has developed on her own. She is located in the Pacific Northwest, so I suspect that her seeds would probably not be the best choice for those of us down here in Dixie; however, you really need to read the seed descriptions so you can learn her thought process for selecting and developing the varieties in her garden. It also demonstrates the focus she has on matching local conditions to the varieties you select. Let me take this opportunity to again highly recommend both of her books. They should be in the library of anyone interested in growing and developing their own food.

The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving

Seeds – Hope for The Future

Survival Blog featured a great quote today about seeds:

“For thousands of years storing seeds has been an essential part of the survival preparations made by millions of prudent people fearing attack. Seeds are hopes for future food and the defeat of famine, that lethal follower of disaster. Among the most impressive sounds I ever heard were faint, distant, rattles of small stones heard on a quiet, black, freezing night in 1944. An air raid was expected before dawn. I was standing on one of the bare hills outside Kunming, China, trying to pinpoint the sources of lights that Japanese agents had used just before previous air raids to guide attacking planes to Kunming. Puzzled by sounds of cautious digging at about 2:00 AM I asked my interpreter if he knew what was going on. He told me that farmers walked most of the night to make sure that no one was following them, and were burying sealed jars of seeds in secret places, far enough from homes so that probably no one would hear them digging. My interpreter did not need to tell me that if the advancing Japanese troops succeeded in taking Kunming they would ruthlessly strip the surrounding countryside of all food they could find. Then these prudent farmers would have seeds and hope in a starving land.”
– Cresson H. Kearny, Nuclear War Survival Skills

Gardening in West Africa

This is a follow-up to a previous post in which I mentioned that some of the seeds that I have been collecting from my garden would be sent to Sierra Leone, West Africa with some of our missionary friends. These photos are some that they sent of their garden.

Although okra was originally brought to America from Africa, the variety of okra grown there today is typically a very primitive type. There is very little attention paid to developing improved varieties, so the best route was for them to bring seeds back from America and hope that they will serve as the foundation for a strain that will be well-suited for the West African environment.

In West Africa, the climate is tropical, but the dry season is influenced by the Sahara, to the north. The dry season is very dry and the rainy season is very rainy. In the words of Joseph, their local helper, “Sista, let de rain meet your seeds in de soil.” Very simple words from very simple people, but containing much wisdom.

Part of the garden. In the background is the classroom building where native men are trained in The Bible. The tree in the center is a Moringa tree - an incredibly useful tree that I hope to get growing here.

Okra from our garden now growing in West Africa. The variety is Clemson Spineless.

Blue Lake Bush beans getting started.

Soil Blocks Update

On the Starting Seeds page, I showed how to use a soil block mold for starting seeds. After much experimenting, I have made a few modifications to the process.

  • I no longer try to pack the soil mixture in tighter than I can get by just pressing down several times. I had even tried using blocks of wood to pack it in tighter. While that gave good results, it was pretty tough on the hands, so I went back to the method recommended by the manufacturer. I still try to pack it in as tightly as possible, but only by pressing the mold into the mixture.
  • I no longer use a bucket to press the mold into the mixture – I now use a stainless steel warming tray that I bought from a used restaurant supply store. This is much easier to work with and it allows me to make much better use of the wet soil mixture than I could with the rounded sides of a bucket.
  • I have added galvanized hardware cloth in the bottom of the seed trays. Previously, the blocks would get damaged when I had to move the trays. The stiff, flat bottom that the hardware cloth provides keeps the blocks from bumping into each other.

Hardware cloth lines the bottom of the tray to keep the blocks stabilized when moving the tray. This is a big help in keeping the blocks from being damaged.

The work area. From front to back: water bucket to clean blocker between moldings, stainless steel warming tray where the blocker is packed, seedling tray where blocks are placed when finished.

Packing the growing mixture into the soil blocker.

A garden knife is used to cut away excess from the bottom.

Wipe away excess from the sides using your fingers.

Four soil blocks being extracted from the mold and onto the seed tray.

The soil blocker is rinsed off between uses. Keeping it clean helps make the blocks uniform.

When the blocks have been extracted from the mold, it is not uncommon for part of the block to separate. Use a metal putty knife to gently press the block back into shape.

Use two putty knives together to separate the blocks. They need to have enough air space between them to keep the roots of one block from growing into an adjoining block.

Saving Eggplant Seeds

Eggplant seeds are processed much like tomatoes. The main difference is that tomatoes are allowed to ferment in the same liquid that is used to separate the seeds, while eggplant fruit is rotted first and then added to water to separate the seeds. Fair warning – rotten eggplant has a really nasty smell (the seeds, of course, are completely odorless).

Processing the eggplant to remove the seeds is very much like panning for gold. The seeds are heavier than the pulp, and they sink to the bottom while the pulp and other trash is poured out from the top. After a few rinse and pour cycles, you are left with nice clean eggplant seeds.

Yes, this is far more seed than any gardener could possibly need, but there are two reasons why I process so many:

  • Eggplants are an in-breeding variety. Even though you may only need a couple of plants to supply all your needs, if you are saving seeds, you need to plant as many as possible (six is considered the absolute minimum) in order to maintain genetic diversity in your plants and their seeds.
  • Part of the joy of saving seeds is being able to give them away. A large quantity of seeds from this batch was carried to West Africa by missionary friends who will be planting them in their garden and sharing them with the natives in their village. They also carried a number of other seeds from our garden and seeds that others have shared with us.

Probably the single best reference book for saving seeds is Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth. Sub-titled Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners, it is filled with detailed information about the best way to process and store seeds for maximum long-term viability. It is an essential book for any Southern Agrarian.

Eggplant fruit thoroughly rotted and ready for seed harvesting. One is not sufficiently rotted and was not used. A slotted seedling tray was used to hold the fruit as it rotted.

The eggplant fruits are added to a bucket of water where they are squeezed into a slurry.

Remove any chunks of eggplant that are large enough to pick up. These will be added into the compost pit.

Carefully pour off the water and the pulp. The seeds will have settled down to the bottom of the bucket.

Continue pouring until just before the seeds start to pour out. The pulp that accumulates can either be added to the compost or washed into the grass with a hose.

Add water, swish it around, and pour. Continue cleaning the seeds until you can't remove any more pulp, then carefully pour out as much water as possible.

Air dry the seeds until they no longer clump together.

The semi-dry seeds are spread on a sheet of parchment paper in the dehydrator and dried for about 6 hours at 100° F. The steel nuts are used as weights to keep the parchment paper flat. A better method is to use binder clips from an office supply store, but in this case, I only had enough clips for one of the three trays I was using.

After the seeds have been fully dried, pour them into a clean, dry canning jar and screw the lid down tightly. They should be stored in a cool dark place.

The dehydrator that we use is the Excalibur large 9-tray, Model #3926T. It is a forced air unit and has a timer and adjustable temperature control. A good dehydrator should be a part of any homestead. We have been well pleased with our Excalibur.

The Need For Light

Seedlings need light – lots of light. This photo was taken on March 2, and shows two tomato plants that were both raised under artificial light, 18 hours per day. The plant on the right was transplanted about 3 days before the photo was taken. You can see how much darker the plant on the left is, having received 18 hours of bright full-spectrum light, while the one on the right received much less light during the relatively short daylight in early March.

Before I had the lights and timer, my seedlings were tall and spindly. They were not strong enough to stand up straight and take full advantage of the sun. With a full 18 hours of light, the plants grow very sturdy stalks and make a much healthier plant.