Using Older Seeds


Chard going to seed (see the developing seedhead just about in the center of the picture?

This is the time of the year when thoughts turn to seed saving – at least, that’s the case around here. Veggies are getting ripe, lettuce is bolting under the pressure of the heat and the beans are plumping up their pods. I’ve written a number of blogs about the why of seed-saving and a bit about the how. One thing I haven’t really talked about, however, is seed storage and the use of older seeds.
What are older seeds? Depends on your definition. If you look up the issue of seed saving, you’ll see most sources tell you that seeds are almost never good past five years. In the case of onions, the standard is supposed to be one year. And that’s assuming they’ve been properly stored. Tell that to the onions currently sprouting in my garden from seeds that were at least three years old. Or the summer squash from seeds saved in 2011. These seeds didn’t have any special storage conditions, either. They were in the plastic totes I keep in the bottom of the bedroom closet, which has neither heating nor cooling vents. That means summer temperatures as high as 90°F and winter temps around 60°F.

Mammoth Melting snow peas going to seed.

Seeds have much better potential longevity than people give them credit for. Nita Wilton recently noted in her Throwback at Trapper Creek blog that she had Red Russian Kale seeds sprouting in a recently cleared lawn area. Kale had not been planted there for at least 15 years. Anasazi beans come from seeds reliably dated to be at least 1,500 years old. They were stored in a clay jar sealed with pitch found in the southwestern American desert. And scientists have been able to germinate wheat seeds stored in the Egyptian pyramids. In the latter two cases, a big factor in seed longevity was probably the dry environment.
The basic keys to seed storage are temperature, light and humidity. Makes sense, when you consider that those three factors are what encourage seeds to sprout. Of the three, humidity rules. Once moisture penetrates the seed coat, even if temperatures aren’t ideal, that seed is going to try and sprout. I store my seeds in paper envelopes, sorted into categories in old cardboard shoe boxes, and in plastic totes with locking lids. I scatter desiccant packets throughout the boxes and the closet in which they are stored is not exposed to moisture. Although the light is turned on inside the closet at least once a day, my seeds are well-protected. The ideal temperature is supposed to be between 40 to 50°F. Obviously, I don’t achieve that ideal…

Rattlesnake pole beans. Probably developed by ancient Hopi Indian tribes – good survival genetics.

Now that you’ve read this, I suspect you’re going to use those older seeds. If you’ve been growing your own for a while, you usually have a pretty good idea of how many you need to plant. Since you do save your own seeds, you aren’t constrained by the cost. I usually have at least three times as many seeds as I need for this year’s crops, plus enough left over for next year. Plant thickly – if I’m supposed to seed every four inches, I seed every one-and-a-half or two inches. With onions, I pretty much carpet the row; the seeds are usually touching each other. You can do germination testing ahead of time, if you want to be precise, and I often do test just to see what I can expect. But with my plant-them-close method, even if germination is 30%, I should have enough plants to make a crop. Older seeds may take a week or more longer to germinate, so be patient. I note which ones germinated first and looked healthiest at germination. I try to make sure I include seed from those plants when I save for next year.
So, Grasshopper, go forth and sow older seeds. They don’t really have expiration dates.

Seedheads for next year’s calendulas.

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The Ants Go Marching


Picture Credit:
Summer is ant season. The pesky little beggars come sneaking in every crevice they can find. We are currently dealing with regular house ants and the little black ants, aptly named Monomorium minimum. In addition to being a nuisance, both bite (or sting). “Expert” sites will tell you the minimum ants have a stringer, but it’s too small to be effective. Not true; it’s like having a small needle jabbed into your skin. So I’m currently on the warpath against ants. Years of experience have taught me some useful strategies.
First, ants are attracted to different food sources. House ants generally go for the sugar or other sweet foods. However, they also like commercial dry cat food, in my experience. The minimum ants like grease, oil, meats, fruits and corn meal, but they’ll also eat sugar. Obviously, one way to keep them from invading is to make sure you always have food put safely away and to clean up spills, crumbs and such immediately. But the other thing they’re looking for is water, and that’s a little tougher. The worst place for minimum ants in my house is the kitchen, where they hit the sink. Third, most ants travel on scent trails, which is why you see them marching in line. To get rid of them, you have to attack on all fronts.
Some people tell you to always feed your animals outside. Not at my house. That just attracts meat bees – which hurt a lot worse than ants – raccoons, feral cats and bears. Oddly, the ants in the house don’t pay much attention to the pets’ food dish, but the ones outside make a beeline for the open bag of cat food in the wash house. So I focus on spraying scent trails and put out bait. The two most successful sprays I’ve found for scent trails are plain white vinegar (full strength) and peppermint spray. For the peppermint spray, add about two teaspoons peppermint oil to a mixture of two cups vodka or gin and one cup water. Shake well before using and periodically as you spray. The peppermint spray will even kill the ants if you douse them thoroughly. Peppermint tends to linger longer than vinegar. I can spray twice a day instead of three or four times a day. A mix of borax and powdered sugar – one part borax to three of sugar – makes a good bait. They eat some of it, but they also carry the borax back to the nest, which eventually kills other ants. It also kills the queen, which is the one you really want to get rid of. You don’t need much. A teaspoon or so in a pill bottle lid or similar small container placed at strategic points along their trails is sufficient. Don’t place these where your pets or kids can get into them, however. Those plastic strawberry baskets with something like a saucer on top allow the ants in but keep cats from taste-testing the bait.
Be patient – expect that it will take a week or two of consistent effort before these tactics are successful.

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Carrying Capacity


Every rancher understands carrying capacity. Put too many animals on a pasture and they will overgraze it. They’ll trample the soil in the watering areas and increase the erosion. The animals at the bottom of the pecking order will go short on food. Manure will build up and not be able to break down because there’s so much of it. They’ll start to eat things they wouldn’t normally eat – weeds, sometimes poisonous – seedlings, leaves. What they don’t eat is often trampled or rooted up as they search for food. Eventually the land dies and so do the animals.

Old Ma Nature, as Gene Logsdon was fond of saying, is also Old Bitch Nature. She is unforgiving and harsh. She doesn’t care about the latest fad or the amount of money you have for bling. Mess with her, she’ll kill you quick. Ignore the basics of biology long enough and it will come back to bite you.

We humans seem to be getting close to the carrying capacity of earth. We may have already hit it. If we continue down the road we’re traveling – causing increasing pollution; wasting resources; killing the soil with excessive plowing, herbicides and pesticides; killing off our fellow travelers: birds, mammals, reptiles, plants – I can guarantee it will not end well. Even in the last few years I can see the signs of accelerating problems all around. Trees are dying that should have had another 30 to 50 years of life. Bird populations are down – I almost never see western meadowlarks on the way to town any more. There used to be one on darned near every fence post. We don’t have as many orioles as we used to. I see fewer honeybees.

I would like to think that my grandchildren will have enough of the basics – personal and political freedom, productive land, fresh water, wood to heat and build with, high-quality food – to live long, happy, productive lives. But with every year that passes, it seems more unlikely.

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