Spring 2016 in Karlene's garden

Hi all fellow seed savers, just to let you know some of the things happening in my garden right now in case it inspires, informs and motivates you to indulge in the wonderful pasttime of seed-saving. I saw a webpage recently promoting the new "SEED" documentary that stated we have already lost 95% of the diversity of food crops worldwide over the last century. That is an astonishing factoid and judging by the low or lost seedlist Sharon distributed a few weeks ago, even our combined effort to do something about keeping some of the remaining diversity is in jeopardy. So as we go into spring and you are collecting your seeds up for sowing bear in mind that we can all do this, nature takes care of the work, we just have to plan ahead, be observant, patient and diligent in our cooperation with her, and collect the seeds when they are ready. And we can share, many plants saved for seed still yield some edible parts.

There are a few plants I will talk about that are on the go right now.

Broad beans
Autumn sown broadbeans have grown tall, they have had flowers on them for a few weeks but only now that the weather has warmed up are the little pods starting to appear. Earlier flowers disappointingly drop off. Through the winter I have been using the top leaves in salads, they have a nice mild taste. Leave the bottom few pods on the plants to be your seed stock, being the first to mature they will dry off the quickest and you can harvest the rest for the table. I enjoy eating the beans raw as I walk around inspecting the garden, they are a great addition to things like risotto, and you can make felafel with any that go past their prime and start going hard.

For seed-saving you must wait until the pods go completely black and shrivel so the beans are hard and dry inside. Remove them from the pods and leave at room temperature for a time before storing to make sure they are fully dehydrated. The seeds will remain viable for a few years, the longest of the beans. Different varieties of broadbean will cross with each other so only grow one type per season. However if you can plant some more in spring you can manage to separate them by time. I have grown the seven oaks bean this year and they are very productive, Lance's is another very good one, the beans seem larger and the leaves softer. The red-flowered broadbean is pretty, but the beans are smaller and less on each plant. The red broadbean turns to red as it dries. I also have the Guatemalan purple that i have grown a few times now and will add to the seedlist in due course, they are a lovely colour as dried bean.

Miners Lettuce
This is self-seeding in my garden now, they appear in freshly dug soil in late autumn/winter and are one of the few things that really like the cold. They are just starting to flower. The young leaves are delicious early salad greens, but the older leaves have the flower at the centre, very unusual. The seeds are tiny and black and inconveniently don’t all mature at the same time, you will notice some dropping and then it is time to put something around the plants to catch them, shake the plants around and they will come loose, this is a bit fiddly and I usually wait until i see they are mostly mature and pull out the whole plants to dry in a baking dish and the seeds can be separated from the dried material with sieves.

Corn salad
Corn salad is another early salad green that can tolerate the cold, I often plant this around the broad beans as they are low and can tolerate a bit of shade, it also self seeds for me. It is quick to mature in spring, you can pick off the lower leaves and leave the rest of the plant to do the flower thing. The seeds will be brown and harvested in similar fashion to the miners lettuce.

The loose leaf varieties can be grown over winter and will then start to go to seed earlier than the heading types, The earlier you get these growing the better for seed saving, they take a few months to go through the whole cycle and need warm dry weather to dry off in. You can harvest lower leaves without weakening the plants too much, and letting just a few to go to seed is enough to supply yourself and a few others with seed. Lettuce has a little yellow flower similar to sow thistle and hawkbit weeds. Wait until the bases of the flowers have fattened up, open one or two to see if the seeds are black inside, they will bust open and the seeds will parachute away if you leave them too long, which is alright if you want some to self seed, but you need to either pick off the mature seed individually or remove the whole tops of the plant to dry when mostly mature, do this on a dry day. Once fully dried out they need passing through a sieve to loosen the seeds and then winnowed to remove all the fluff. The Odells lettuce being small doesn’t have a large seed head, and i generally collect all that seed by hand over a few weeks. These are delicious gem lettuce. Loose leaf types like the George Maslin and the red oakleaf are stronger. The heading types you need to be more selective about leaving the best specimens to seed and they take longer to go through the whole cycle. Lettuce will cross-pollinate so you want to separate varieties if you can.

Tatsoi is a good quick crop for spring, it is small so doesn’t take up a lot of room and takes the least time of the brassicas to go through the whole cycle. You can pick off individual leaves to eat raw in salad or to cook and leave the plant to go to seed, as with all brassicas it has nice yellow flowers that bees love, and you can put them in salads. It will self seed readily, but is easy to collect the brown pods before they shatter. It will cross with all other Asian type brassicas like pakchoi, but not kale or mustards.

Kale grows well through the winter, I use it in green smoothies and quick soups like miso and have learned it is delicious braised in a frypan with some garlic and olive oil. I saw a whole cookbook dedicated to this vegetable in the library so it is very versatile in the kitchen. There are a few types in the seedlist and they will cross with each other so try to keep to one per season. The asparagus kale has flat tender leaves and the tall flower stalks that are appearing right now can be picked off as little broccoli. The ragged jack has a stronger taste but is fine picked when young leaves. Bees adore the early goldmine of the flowers, the whole plant gets pretty tall and is generous with lots of seed. You can trim the tops if you want to concentrate on getting just a few branches of mature seed quicker. Wait until the pods are brown and dry and cut the tops off to store until it is all brittle, I put it in a large brown envelope and then crush it, the seeds will collect in the bottom of the envelope for easy collection.

Mustard can be grown year round, young leaves are best to eat, it can get very hot. The seeds can be used in cooking. There are black-seeded types and yellow-seeded types. Green n snow has large serrated leaves, the red mustard grows very huge. Just leave a few plants to go to seed and you will have it forever but they will cross, even with red mizuna which i think is actually not mizuna at all! I am getting lots of variation in the self seeding ones so have to be vigilant to only save from known types.

This is a perennial herb that has pretty blue flowers that bees really love. It starts flowering in late winter through spring and summer. It has a similar growth habit to comfrey but is from the forget-me-not family. very young leaves can be eaten but are a bit hairy, I just grow it for the bees and when the kale and mustards start flowering it makes a nice complimentary colour. The seed is a pain to collect, I pick it off by hand as it turns black, but you can also put newspaper under the plants in dry weather to try to collect that which drops.

Lebanese cress
This cress is one of Henry Harrington's additions to the seed collection and a great thing to grow through winter when nothing much else is fresh, Indoors or under cover is best for eating to keep it clean, the delicately textured leaves can be added to salads, sandwiches and as a soup garnish, with a pleasant peppery taste. I grow it in the greenhouse and it is quick, the flowering and seeding is usually over when the tomato plants are ready to go in.

Happy spring everyone!