Experiments in small batch onion seed cleaning

We grow scallions, scads, succession planting for continuous harvest throughout the season. Fresh scallions are amazing, delicious, they are easy to use, in everything. So we grow a lot. Evergreen Hardy has become a favorite for both flavor and vigor, and we’ve been saving seed every other (ish) year. We haven’t yet invested in seed sieves and as a result we’re still working on a way to adequately and (time) efficiently clean our onion seed.

Yesterday morning we seeded over 5000 alliums (!) and feeling inspired, we pulled out the paper bag of Evergreen Hardy seed heads that we collected last fall and which have been lurking in the mudroom for the past 5 months. Seed saving references mention winnowing with water (eep!), so we gave it a try. Dunking your carefully tended, harvested and dried seed in a jar of water – even just for a few seconds – feels a bit like steeking a sweater. Not for the faint of heart. (deep breath)

Jerm couldn’t watch.

I broke the flowers off the stems and tossed everything around pretty vigorously in order to make sure the seed was good and out of the flowers. Then, handful at a time, I dropped the seed and chaff into a jar and topped it off with water. The chaffy nonsense floated to the the top along with junky seed and the good seed when right to the bottom. I used a chopstick to stir this around a bit. Decanting a few times left me with a bunch of beautiful seed at the bottom of the jar which I immediately spread out to dry. Quick. Everything expeditiously.Jeremy opted for dry winnowing. Using the two sieves we have (a pasta colander and a smaller, mesh strainer) he skimmed off the big chaff and removed the smaller dusty bits. We use a box fan for winnowing kale, beans and corn – but the onion seed requires a more gentle air current, and one can only do the “blowing birthday candles out” seed winnowing technique for so long before becoming too light headed to continue. So we made a cleaning tool that friends at Meadowlark Hearth introduced us to. A sheet of fabric wrapped around a frame. With this we were able to tap the onion seed away from the stems – real slick! This frame is a great way to clean round seed like brassicas and beets, and we are happy to report: it works well for onions too.

Here’s a short video of 1000 onion seeds bouncing on a bedsheet, accompanied by Kid Koala.Both methods seem to yield equally clean seed. Water-winnowing went faster. Dry winnowing was less stressful. We’ve kept seed from these two methods separate and we’ll try them out in side-by-side plantings to compare germination rates over time.

And a special note for all our fellow Spearfish Seed Enthusiasts: next Sunday (3/11)  is the Spearfish Seed Swap from 1:30-4:30 at the Spearfish Public Library. Come, bring your seeds and your friends, bring home your friends’ seeds!  We’re celebrating FIVE years! Even if you don’t have seeds to swap, come anyway, join with friends and neighbors for an afternoon of gardening camaraderie!


kale grex

Last spring, we ordered a breeders’ kale grex from an excellent seed farm in the Pacific Northwest (originally from Peters Seed and Research, we got it from Adaptive Seeds). A seed grex is a wildly diverse genetic pool, from lots of different varieties which have been allowed to interbreed. Instead of planting a packet of what it bred/selected, hybridized or OP, as one true variety (i.e.  Red Russian, Lacinato, Rainbow Lacinato, Blue Curled Scotch, etc.), the grex is intentionally diverse and used by breeders to develop new varieties or grown by adventurous home gardeners. Here’s a view of our kale grex trial (circa August 2013): OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even as seedlings, with their first true leaves, we observed an amazing diversity between plants. Leaf colors ranging from blue, blue-green, grass-green, dark green, and grey. The stem colors too: green, white, red, purple. Leaf shape and edge – each little plant wonderfully different. In the greenhouse amid trays of uniform(ish) starts, the grex trays were rouge, dissident, where everyday was Hawaiian Shirt Day.

Our kale grex project will allow us to select for preferred variety characteristics and ultimately develop a kale specifically adapted to thriving in this region. A unique kale that conveys the magnificent terroir of the Northern Hills, a Spearfish Valley kale.

In kale, we are especially interested in and will select for flavor, cold hardiness, strong healthy plants that show resistance towards pest and disease pressure, and tolerance for abuse and neglect due to distracted farmers. Kale, being biennial, seeds in its second year. We had a big selection event this winter: extreme cold without the insulation of a snow cover (remember the several consecutive days of -18F in November, and again in December.. and then again in February?). Out of 120 plants, we had 2 plants survive this winter.  The grex trial was planted in a row immediately adjacent to our White Russian Kale, a variety which is reputed to be the most super hardy winter survivalist. We lost all of the White Russian, even they couldn’t take the extreme cold temperatures. But these two plants rallied through. Hardier than the hardiest. Here are photos of the remaining grex (circa last week):kale grex survivors

We’ll collect and save seed from these two to grow out again – some this fall and another round next spring. Over the course of years we will select for the traits that we’re most excited about.

As regards breeding delicious vegetables, here are some words from Frank Morton, a plant breeder in the PNW. We fancy his lettuce.

saving seed: tomatillos

All our seed orders are in and now packages brimming with seed packets are arriving pert near everyday. Our table has been buried for quite some time now in a thick mantle of books, notes, calendars, charts. It’s seed season, our minds are racing with numbers, and our hearts are full of hope.

We’ve got seeds on the brain these days and are extra specially looking forward to the very first annual Spearfish Seed Swap in a couple weeks. Mark your calendar: Saturday Feb 22nd, 2:30-5PM at the public library.

To celebrate the occasion and help muster enthusiasm for the joy of seed saving, I’ve put together a few words on saving tomatillo seed.


How to save tomatillo seed.

Pick out the very best looking tomatillos from your most healthy, strong, vigorous open-pollinated tomatillo plants. Open-pollinated varieties produce offspring that is true-to-type, versus hybrids where  the next generation may not exhibit the same characteristics as its parents.  We usually pick from 4-5 of the top tomatillo plants in order to help ensure some degree of genetic diversity. You’ll know the tomatillo is ripe, and the seeds are ready to collect, when the fruit has filled out the paper lantern wrapper and the paper begins to split/dry at the base.

Remove the wrappers. Cut up the fruit into wedges and pop them into a blender. And gently bbzZzzZzzzzz them up into a cheerful, bright green tomatillo slurry. The seeds are small and robust and won’t be damaged by the blade.saving tomtatillo seed_blender

Then pour this slurry into a tall container and add water. I would suggest using a clear glass or mason jar for this, so you can see what’s happening. Mix this up with a spoon or chop stick. The good, viable seed will sink down to the bottom of the container.saving tomtatillo seed_pouring

Pour off the floating green slurry and any floating seeds, adding water and pouring again until the water is clear and the seeds at the bottom are all that’s left. Then sieve out the seeds and lay them out evenly on a coffee filter or thin cloth.saving tomtatillo seed_drying

Let the seeds dry in a dark place, with good air circulation. Be sure to fuss around with them a bit while they are drying, mix them up so they don’t dry all stuck together. When they are all dry, seal them up in an air tight container and store them in a dark spot. You’ll know they are dry enough for storage when the seed breaks instead of bends under pressure. Just pick one out and bite it, if it’s bendy or soft, let them dry out more. Also, very important: label your seeds! Make sure you keep track of the seed variety and date grown.

Another very important: Share your seeds with neighbors and friends.

Easy! No stinky fermentation process, no winnowing. And just think of next summer’s gloriously refreshing salsa verde! (…and more salsa verde!)


Here are some seed saving resources we’ve found helpful and inspiring:
The Seed Ambassadors Project Seed Saving Guide
John Navazio, The Organic Seed Grower
Suzanne Ashworth, Seed to Seed
Carol Deppe, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties
Organic Seed Production and Saving, the NOFA guidebook
Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground

See you at the Seed Swap!

Work party, cob wall, quackgrass, fine dining

Farm update: The tomatoes and peppers are back out to the greenhouse, and the living room has been reclaimed, once more, for human habitation. The birds are enjoying the increasingly greening grass and growing bug populations. Snakes continue to spur all manor of entertainment, as did a clutch of very baby rabbits. Lolita’s hive is more active everyday, no doubt enjoying the onset of the dandelions and other early nectar flow. We had a wonderfully productive work party descend on the farm this weekend like a troop of superheroes. Cobbing in the greenhouse is off to a good start. After several slightly different recipe ratios, we’ve finally nailed down just the right proportion of clay – sand – straw for a good, solid cob wall. And the asparagus we planted last year from seed have started shoving up. Peas, radishes, turnips, parsley, spinach are now all in beds in the back field. And we’ve just begun harvest of radishes and arugula from the greenhouse.parsley and peas

There must have been a right quick ladybug hatch after the snow cleared. There were several who found us and cheered us on while we flexed our forearms in fisticuffs with the quackgrass this weekend. One significant downside to the no-till sod-flipping technique has been the weed resurgence, especially with the quackgrass which dominates the back field (here is a description of our no-till bed prep method from last year). Quackgrass is a natty-rooted, rhizome-spreading grass. It does a fantastic job of growing quickly, protecting soil from erosion, building soil structure. It’s especially hardy and drought tolerant.  But it’s troublesome in our beds. A conventional way of dealing with this weed is to till up the soil. A lot. And/or spray it with glyphosupertoxicate.

In order to help preserve soil health, we will use other methods to try to manage this. Currently, we are hand hoeing or digging out the quackgrass, trying to preserve root integrity, removing the rootmass (as best we can), and mulching heavily in rows where we will direct seed crops. Rows that will be transplanted into, we will blanket in thick newspaper, followed by straw mulch. This struggle will be ongoing. If you have ideas or experience to share, please let us know. Ultimately, we will need to establish a good mulch/covercrop in the walkways between beds as well. Otherwise, we don’t stand a chance – the rhizomes can grow up to 1″/day which gives our freshly weeded vegetable beds (30″ beds surrounded by walkway rows of quackgrass) approximately 2 weeks of liberty from the clutches of quackgrass.

And finally, heaps of thank yous to our incredible friends, Avery, Craig, and Iggy, who came by the farm this weekend and set immediately to work. In just a weekend of focused energy and merry camaraderie, we were able, together, to tackle several tasks from our ever-growing better-get-this-done-in-a-hurry list… and still make time for siesta.cobbing party

The best bits of the weekend include lots of muddy hands building a cob wall; good friends who work tirelessly …and joyfully; having hot coffee delivered to us during early morning weeding; an ever so inviting pathway through the new herb garden; call and response worksongs, little ditties featuring our favorite good farm dogs; rain tapping on the greenhouse roof during a fancy feast of roasted homegrown chicken and happy birthday ginger peach pie. Many thanks to you, we are feeling super lucky – pert near blessed – to have such generous, inspiring, and insightful friends.

Check out our new herb bed walkway, brick work by master rock artisan, Craig:

…Avery and Iggy, however, are clearly more impressed by the wicked cool tricycle ice cream vending cart our good friend John brought by full of birthday growlers: icecream-tricycle-growler-delivery

And here’s a shot of Cycle Farm’s new fancy fine dining locale:

Farm to table, with love.