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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!
I know some of you have been waiting for a new challenge. You’ve been reading seed catalogs, or thinking about maybe growing a nice garden this year, reading books maybe, and thinking about taking a gardening class… Or maybe you haven’t really been thinking much at all about it. Maybe this idea is new to you, or maybe it’s old hat – you’ve been growing for years.
Whatever your history, I challenge you to join me in doing something new.
In a nutshell: Grow 3 crops from seed, and plant the seeds in 3 new people.
1. Grow 3 Crops from Seed this Year. I leave the details up to you, but I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone – even seasoned gardeners. If you are still learning, feel free to grow the easy stuff, or seeds you might have grown before. If this is old hat for you, you might try to grow something new – challenge yourself!
2. Plant the Seeds in 3 New People. In other words, inspire 3 new people to grow crops from seed this year. I know for some of you this means really stepping out of your comfort zone. But you can do it. We’ll all support each other – this is how we change the world, one bit at a time! It’s easy. Let your enthusiasm shine through what you do. Be an inspiration and resource to others!
This could be your neighbors, your friends or family, people in your community garden, people in your book group or parents at school… You can wait until someone asks you, or you can strike up a conversation with them. And you don’t have to do it in person! You can write an article in your local newspaper or community newsletter (I’m writing an article in my local garden newsletter), if you have a blog you can write a blog post about how easy and fun and cheap seed starting is, you can volunteer at a local senior center garden, you can inspire your kids to grow with you….
If you’re more experienced, think about teaching a class at your community center, or a community college – you might make a bit of money at the same time! Or you could teach gardening at your kid’s school (maybe help them grow a garden?), teach someone in your community garden, or participate in an online forum – so many easy ways to spread the word.
3. Tell the Stories About Your Seed Planting Here. We all want to hear your stories! So in the periodic updates here, come and tell us how you’re doing, ask questions, talk about your experiences teaching others, your frustrations or thoughts or ideas or whatever. We want to hear them, and take advantage of this awesome community!
Need More? Go Extreme!
For the Optional Advanced or Extreme Edition, add this step as well:
4. Make it Seed to Seed! Grow 3 crops from seed, and save the seed from each of those 3 crops to grow them next year. That means you do have to buy open pollinated seeds (not hybrids), and learn a bit about the crops so that you save the seed well enough that they’ll produce a good quality crop next year. I’ll be continuing to write about saving seeds in the coming months to help out.
Can you swing it? I’m thinking about ways to reward those who participate in the bonus edition. Maybe a special prize*…
Experienced enough that you still need to up the stakes for yourself? GO FOR IT. Leave your new stakes clearly in the comments below, and we’ll all help you stick to it.
Oh, and once you’ve uploaded the image, check to make sure the link works and the image loads correctly. Feel free to email me if you have any problems and I’ll see if I can help.
To print or download the doodad, click on the image, which will open to a bigger version. Then download by right-clicking on the image to save it to your desk top, or choose print from your file menu.
Check out the loads of content here at Organic Gardening 101. I’ll be adding to that growing list as we move into Spring!
I’ll be listing names right here in this post as people join, so come on and join in the fun!! All you need to do to sign up is leave a comment below with your name, where you’re gardening, and what hardiness zone you’re in!
I can’t help it. I know I should stop my catalogs from coming in the mail because they do waste a lot of paper, but they make me so happy! Really, really happy. It’s my little vice. I don’t have very many, but this is one of them.
I read them before going to sleep, and dream of the spring and summer, when fabulous heirloom fruits and vegetables abound!
Well, it is time to start becoming inspired, and having that little twinkle in your eye. Let your imagination roar with the possibilities now…. before you have to come back down to reality as you begin to plot your garden for the year in just a few weeks. No, you can’t plant 10 apple trees and 25 types of tomatoes in all sorts of shapes and sizes! (At least most of us can’t.) But right now, you can dream.
My Top 10 Favorite Seed Catalogs
These will all be in the US, so for our international readers, please feel free to discuss your favorites in the comments here – you come from all over the world, so it would definitely be helpful to others!
Bountiful Gardens – heirloom, untreated, open-pollinated, these back-to-landers have lovely seeds and supplies as well
Seeds of Change – my first love, these seeds are always predictably good and the catalog is beautiful
One Green World – drool, drool, the fruit! So many you’ve never heard of, so many you want to grow!
Raintree Nursery – our more local equivalent to One Green World (last year we took a trip to buy loads of blueberries, tayberries, raspberries, and currants)
Irish Eyes – our potatoes came from here last year, and we were very happy with the results!
Abundant Life Seeds & Territorial Seed Company – Abundant Life is my preference, as all the seeds are organic, biodynamic, and/or sustainable, but its parent company Territorial Seed has more variety and sells healthy seed starts. I believe in the past Territorial may have purchased some GMO seeds, but they have since signed the Safe Seed Pledge.
Botanical Interests – last year they sent me my free and very successful amaranth, along with a few other samples, in a beautiful box with a cute garden desk calendar – so they have won me over!
Nichols Garden Nursery – from the folks who wrote Bountiful Container, there are some wonderful varieties called out specifically for their ability to do well in containers and small spaces. Also, they’re featuring 6 different seed packets for the 6 different decades they have been around – at the original prices. So summer squash originally from the 1950s is 25 cents!
Some Others I Enjoy:
Renee’s Garden – a good standby, perusing their catalog is like stepping back in time
I will continue to leave these challenges open, so anyone can join either challenge at any time. I’m thinking up a new one for 2010 – please leave a note in the comments if you have an idea.
Participants of The Growing Challenge From Seed to Seed are listed below, and participants of The Original Growing Challenge are listed here. Thanks everyone for joining together and supporting one another as we each learn and grow!
I’ve added everyone’s name, blog, location, and hardiness zone. And again, The Original Growing Challenge participants are all listed here.
In case you’re curious how I did with the challenge, I wrote about one of my seed to seed experiences yesterday: Amaranth, The Wonder Crop. (I still have to work on the seed saving part, but I’m still hopeful!)
Please let me know how it went, everyone, so I can try to make this a better experience in the future!
How did it go? Did you keep up with the challenge?
I’m thinking next year there will be a monthly check-in, since I’m clearly not keeping up with the updates more often, and we all need time to garden!! I’ll try to set up a way for bloggers to more easily include their blog posts as well. How does that sound? Any other suggestions, thoughts, ideas for what to do next year?
And most importantly, will you plant seeds again next year?!
This year I grew amaranth, a crop I’ve never grown nor seen grown before, in the hopes of planting it from seed and harvesting the seed to plant next year. I’ll let you know how that went in a moment. First…
Why Grow Amaranth
I received the seeds back in the spring, in a beautiful care package from Botanical Interests – they asked me to try out some of their new organic seeds and write about it. This particular variety is Burgandy Amaranth, Amaranthus hypochondriacus. As many of you know, I am incredibly busy starting my new business, so I’m always looking for low-maintenance things to grow and cook. Ah, amaranth, I love you so!
Salad Green: When it’s young, and the leaves are just a few inches long, it adds a wonderful color and flavor to salads.
Cooking Green: When the leaves are more mature, they are a very nutritious spinach, often used in Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, Laotian, Malaysian, and Thai cuisines. I’ve seen them called “Chinese Spinach” in our farmer’s markets here. The leaves are a good source of including vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese.
Whole Protein Grain: When the plants are allowed to go to seed, the seeds themselves are one of the most complete proteins you can find. And they’re free of gluten. The seeds are 13-18% protein, according to Seeds of Change, with a high level of the amino acid lysine, an essential amino acid that is usually deficient in plant protein. Amaranth is also a good source of calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamin E, and B vitamins. You prepare it much as you would quinoa.
Popping Grain: According to Botanical Interests, you can also pop the grain like popcorn.
Dye: Apparently the leaves are also a good red dye, used by the Hopi Native Americans.
How To Grow Amaranth
Did I mention it was easy?
Sow the seeds 1/4″ deep, 4-6″ apart in well-aged compost. You can plant them directly in the soil after danger of frost has passed, or plant them indoors 4-6 weeks before your average last day of frost. Germination is best when soil temperatures are 65 to 75 degrees.
The seeds will germinate in as little as 3 days if your soil is warm and moist but not wet. Every single one of my seeds grew, and grew fast!
Plants should be thinned 6-18″ apart eventually, before they start to compete with one another for light. (Eat the thinnings in a salad!)
This particular variety reaches 5-8 feet tall, no kidding. You can interplant small greens or other shade-loving crops beneath them.
Amaranth is drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, and disease-resistant. You don’t need to water them more than about twice a week, even in high summer heat.
Seeds Forming in July
How To Harvest Amaranth Seed
Each head of amaranth holds tens of thousands of seeds, and will yield anywhere from 1 to 8 ounces of harvested seeds. In warm, dry climates, harvesting amaranth is very easy.
Instructions from Seeds of Change:
Cut the seedheads just before they become dry and brittle. Lay the seedheads on a cloth or place them inside paper or cloth bags with heads down and leave in the shade to finish drying. When the seedheads are dry, the seeds can be removed in several ways: by rubbing gently with your hands, by enclosing the seedheads between two cloths and treading on top without shoes on, by beating the seedheads inside of a bag, or by beating seedheads together over a cloth.
Instructions from Salt Spring Seeds:
Amaranth keeps on flowering until hit by the first hard frost. Seed will often ripen many weeks before that, usually after about three months. The best way to determine if seed is harvestable is to gently but briskly shake or rub the flower heads between your hands and see if the seeds fall readily. (Numerous small and appreciative birds may give hints as to when to start doing this.) An easy way to gather ripe grain is, in dry weather, to bend the plants over a bucket and rub the seedheads between your hands.
Unfortunately for me, harvesting in wet climates is not as easy.
According to Salt Spring Seeds, “the best time to harvest amaranth commercially is in dry weather three to seven days after first frost.” Since our amaranth fell over in the wind and rain of a typical Seattle fall, my mother and I harvested the seed long before it was dry, and hung it in the basement to dry. I wish I had read the Salt Spring Seeds article before we did this: “Cutting and hanging plants to dry indoors does not work very well: the plants become extremely bristly and it is difficult to separate the seed from the chaff.” Ooops. We can verify that this is true. Apparently until a killing frost, the plants have too high of a moisture content to be able to dry them before they become moldy.
Next year I think we’ll need to stake up the amaranth and continue to let it dry, and then hope for a drier fall!
Fallen Amaranth in November
Threshing The Seeds
The hulls of the seeds are in no way poisonous, and they are a fine source of fiber in your diet, so there is no need to get every last bit of hull out of our seeds. We did save one head of amaranth in the ground, that is still waiting for the killing frost. So there is hope for us yet. Since we haven’t successfully harvested the seeds yet, I’ll thank Seeds of Change and Salt Spring Seeds for providing the following excellent instructions.
Instructions from Seeds of Change:
Once the dry seeds are removed they can be placed into a shallow bowl and swirled around until the large pieces of flowers rise to the top where they are easy to remove. By tipping the bowl you can rake out much of the chaff that is left. Any small particles of flowers, chaff, or dirt that remain can be removed by shaking the seed through a small mess screen about the size of window screen. Winnowing the seed in a light breeze will also remove the flower and chaff effectively. The seeds are very light so it is important to winnow carefully in light breeze only.
Instructions from Salt Spring Seeds:
My own preferred threshing method is to rub the flowerheads through screening into a wheelbarrow and then to blow away the finer chaff using my air compressor. Cutting and hanging plants to dry indoors does not work very well: the plants become extremely bristly and it is difficult to separate the seed from the chaff…
Here are two short videos that help show what this looks like:
Storing The Seeds
Instructions from Seeds of Change:
Once the seeds are dried and cleaned, it is a good idea to keep the seeds for several days at the temperature at which they will be stored, before putting them into a storage container. If the seeds do not feel damp and do not stick to each other during this time they are probably dry enough for storage. The length of time to dry seeds varies greatly depending on the air humidity, drying conditions, seed size, and how clean the seeds are. Store quinoa and amaranth as you would any type of cereal or grain in a sealed, airtight container out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat.
Instructions from Salt Spring Seeds:
After harvesting, it is important to further dry your crop to ensure it won’t mold in storage. It can be left on trays in the hot sun or placed near an indoor heat source. Stir occasionally until it is as dry as possible. Store seed in air-tight containers in a cool dry place.
Will I Grow It Again?
Yes! Not only is it low-maintenance, nutritious, and tasty, but it is the best community-builder in the garden! Almost every gardener wants to know what that gorgeous plant is, so it was a great conversation starter in our community garden. Plus the Asian gardeners were excited to see us growing, and told us when to start harvesting the leaves for cooking greens.
Thanks, Botanical Interests, for pushing me to grow this fabulous plant. There are 70 varieties of amaranth, so there are lots of varieties to try!
You can plant from September through mid-January, as long as the soil is not frozen. Fall planting, when the soil is around 60F, will yield the highest quality bulbs; and generally speaking, the later you plant the smaller the heads will be. However, don’t worry too much if you plant it late – you can even plant it in late winter/early spring and still get a nice fall crop.
Types of Garlic
There are two types of garlic: hardneck and softneck.
Hardneck Garlic tends to have dramatic and distinct flavors, is easy to peel, and has generally bigger cloves. These also produce edible garlic scapes at the beginning of the summer. These are my favorite, but they generally don’t store for as long as softneck garlic. Can be stored 3-6 months.
Softneck garlic is what you’ll find in most supermarkets – it generally has a milder flavor and smaller cloves. However, it can be braided, and generally stores for much longer. Can be stored for a year or more.
Elephant Garlic is actually a member of the leek family so it’s not really garlic, but tastes similarly. It has much larger cloves, with a milder taste than garlic, and it keeps well. Elephant Garlic is wonderful baked: slice off the very top of the head so that you can see the tops of the cloves, pour a bit of olive oil on top, and bake until soft and browned. Then you can eat it by scooping the cloves with a spoon, or adding the cloves to other dishes.
The looser the soil, the larger the garlic. It will grow in most soils, but garlic prefers sandy loam (as most plants do). Make sure any compost you use is well aged.
How To Plant & Grow Garlic
Simple, simple, simple, and so low maintenance!
Separate the cloves (but you can leave the skin on, it doesn’t matter).
Plant the cloves 1-2″ deep, 4-6″ apart.
Water, and don’t water again until spring.
Mulch – in warm winter areas, a light layer of mulch is enough; in colder winter areas, mulch with 8″ or more. We mulch with straw, you can also mulch with leaves.
Remove the mulch in spring, once danger of frost has passed.
Water. Continue to water whenever soil is dry.
When the leaves begin to turn yellow (in the summer), stop watering for 2 weeks.
Pull up the plant.
Place the plant in a warm, shady spot to cure for 2-3 weeks (4 weeks for elephant garlic); if you have soft neck garlic, you can braid it and hang it in a dark place with good circulation. (Ideal curing temperature is 70-75F.)
Store in a cool, dark place (50F is ideal, with less than 60% humidity).
Where To Purchase Garlic Bulbs
You can grow organic garlic bought in a Farmer’s Market or natural foods store – anywhere that has well-stored, organic garlic. Try to find out as much as you can about the garlic when you buy it, so you know how to store it the following year. You can also buy certified disease-free garlic at an organic seed supply like Seeds of Change, Peaceful Valley, or Territorial Seed. Generally these portions are large, so I highly recommend getting a few to try, and sharing them with a friend.
Every fall since I began gardening, I work to dispel the myth that the growing season is over, and that frosts will kill anything remaining in the garden.
Not all plants are the same. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, and other crops that thrive on hot temperatures are from hot climates. They didn’t need to survive the cold – instead, they needed to protect from heat. However, broccoli, carrots, garlic, rhubarb, and many other crops came from cool climates. Their systems work differently in the cold – not only do they survive cold temperatures, but they taste better when they get cool in the fall and winter!
It’s Not Frost That Kills, It’s Freeze
The night the first frost comes around in the fall, many people rush out to yank their tomato plants and bring them inside. After that night, it often gets warmer and sometimes there isn’t another frost for several weeks! It’s highly likely all those tomatoes hanging from rafters after that first frost would have been just fine outside through the first frost. The reason is that the first frost is often not a killing frost.
What kills the plants is not frost specifically, but is the internal temperature of plant tissue – once it freezes, the plant dies. Have you ever put a bottle of beer or soda in the freezer to cool it down quickly, and then forgot about it, until you heard a loud crash in the freezer several hours later? The loud crash is the glass breaking because the liquid inside the bottle expanded as it cooled. This is essentially what happens to the cells in a tomato plant when it gets cold.
Generally the first frost doesn’t quite freeze the plant because it happens at just barely 32F, and doesn’t stay long. However, the first freeze – or hard frost – often rolls in with much lower temperatures and stays cold much longer, usually killing the cells of tropical plants.
However, many plants do not have the fragile cellular structure of these tropical plants.
Deciduous trees, bushes, and vines go dormant in the winter by losing their soft tissue (leaves), and waiting until spring before producing them again.
Root crops (beets, carrots, radishes, parsnips, daikon, rutabagas) store all of the energy from their leaves into their roots as it gets cooler, and the ground gives them protection against the freezes.
Cole crops (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustards, turnips, watercress) can often survive temperatures below 20F. That means those of us in temperate climates can generally grow them throughout the winter (they don’t grow a whole lot in the winter, but they don’t die and you can continue to pick fresh crop), where others can often grow them with a row cover for protection. These biennial plants are made to last through the winter, so that they can bloom and produce seed in the spring.
Alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, chives) can survive very low temperatures (-30F). These perennials are generally planted 2-3 weeks before first frost, and rely on the spring warmth to start putting their energy into bulbs. Garlic in particular can benefit from a layer of mulch over the winter, to keep them protected through cooler temperatures.
Other perennials (asparagus, rhubarb, oregano, rosemary, sage, jerusalem artichokes, citrus) – there are many perennials that either continue to produce over the winter, or that go dormant over the winter to produce in early spring. I highly recommend checking out some of these, as they are incredibly rewarding when the rest of the garden is sparse.
Other crops I’ve had success growing in winter (parsley, cilantro, dill, spinach, endive, sorrel, lettuces, fennel, fava beans) – the key for many of these is to get them growing before it gets cold, as most plants don’t grow very much in cold weather. Thus, plant them 4-6 weeks before frost, and then harvest throughout the winter.
For More Information
There are many other plants you can continue to grow or store in the garden with often just a bit of protection. Check out “How To Grow A Four-Season Garden” for many tips on how to do this effectively!
Anything To Add?
Avid gardeners, what else would you add here? Other crops you’ve had success growing in winter?
Ok, well now that we’ve aired out our feelings about green…. (sheepishly looks away)… let’s um, talk about our gardens! And how green and beautiful they are in the fall (or spring) rains.
How is your garden faring? Have you saved seeds yet? Are you finding the resources you need to learn how to do what you need to do next? In other words, are you learning to save your seeds, learning when to harvest, learning how to plant fall and winter crops, and so on?
I will tell you I’m scared. Scared to save those amaranth seeds. The stalks are much taller than I am, and they’re falling over due to the weight of the millions of seeds on each one… and I’m actually petrified. They’re so pretty, and yet I have this feeling saving them will be difficult! I’m sure it’s irrational.
Tomorrow night we have a p-patch banquet, so I’ll ask around. And if I don’t find out… hmmm, if only there were a thing with lots of different information where you could just type in what you want to know and it will give you ideas… Oh, yeah… so not doing that (ie not looking it up on the computer) does that mean I’m lazy? Gasp! Ok, off to find the answer….
So in the meantime, do let us all know how your garden is doing, what you’re learning, and all that fun stuff!