- Nancy Redfeather
Seed Magic: Starting Seeds – Storing Seeds
Blog #5 – May 2020
By Nancy Redfeather
Remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Jack went to town to sell a cow for his mother and was talked into accepting a handful of “magic beans” in payment that when planted, grew high into the sky. There lived an old unfriendly giant in his castle, and Jack ended up finding many things once stolen from his family and a goose that laid golden eggs. He escaped by climbing down and cutting down the beanstalk as he went, the giant fell to his death and the family prospered. So much can come from a single seed!
Seeds are magic. If you hold a seed in your hand, and imagine the plant it will become, you can glimpse the hidden forces of growth that lie dormant inside until exposed to the right elements… kind of like us. As we plant, observe seed, and learn to save seed, many wonders will unfold. Yes, it is the foundation of our food system, and yes it can be stored and used later but only with care. Treat each seed as if it were precious gold, and a single packet will last you for many years. This Blog will discuss starting seeds and storing seeds both important factors for the success of the Home Gardener. But first, a short comment about seed in general.
Did you know that by 2005, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 93% of all agricultural seed varieties that were grown in 1900 were either gone or unavailable? That is hard to imagine. Those are the varieties that our Kupuna grew to feed their families. As time moves forward, we have lost a huge amount of diversity in seed and food crops, diversity that we will need as we grapple with climate change and begin developing a more local food system. The more diverse your garden is, the more chance you have of finding balance in your ecosystem, and having something to eat! More information from National Geographic on loss of seed diversity: https://www.fastcompany.com/1669753/infographic-in-80-years-we-lost-93-of-variety-in-our-food-seeds
Let’s talk about storing seed first, because when you get your seed packets in the mail it may be a little while before you plant. In the semi-tropics we need to care for our seed properly so it will last many years. Keep seeds out of direct sunlight in a cool spot with a fairly consistent temperature – think cool, dark, and dry.
Seed purchased from the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network has been properly dried and is ready for use or storage. Many people keep their seed in a refrigerator in a tight Tupperware container, but if you use a refrigerator you must make sure your container is sealed. I have been storing my seed like this for over 40 years and have not had any problems with that system. You could also keep your seed in a sealed container, or a sealed jar with silica crystals or in a small bucket with an Eva-dry unit and a tight fitting lid. Silica crystals absorb moisture and then turn color when they need to be dried.
That’s why I like the Eva dry unit (the Eva-dry Mini is $11). When the crystals turn green you plug it in until the crystals are orange and ready to dry again. Be sure to use silica crystals that can be dried and used again. If you put seed packets in zip lock bags, make sure there is NO moisture inside when you zip them closed.
If you have old seed and wonder if it will still germinate, try a simple test on your kitchen counter. Count out 5-10 seeds and place them on a damp paper towel, and roll the towel up and keep it damp. Check your seeds daily for 3-10 days and observe how they are doing. MOST seed will germinate in that time period but some seed will take longer or need other germination tricks. If your seed is still viable, mark that on the seed packet. Germination Test/date/% germinated.
Some seeds prefer to be sown directly into the soil or container, and others like to be started in a smaller pot or cell, and then transplanted when they develop 2 sets of mature leaves. Very often, “direct seeded” vegetables, flowers, or herbs have a tap root that needs room to grow properly and prefers not to be transplanted. Here in Hawai’i, we don’t have to worry about frosts and cold weather, but there are “seasonal” preferences for some vegetables and others can be grown year round.
Directly Sowed Seeds
Here is a list of seeds that “prefer” direct sowing. Direct sowing into your garden soil could be in a furrow or row, a mound or a hill, or the seed could be “scattered” or broadcast into a bed.
Carrots – Beets – Daikon – Radish – Melons – Pumpkin – Cucumber – Beans – Peas – Squashes – Annual Flowers – Turnips – Potatoes - Corn Scallions – Most Flowers
Some people also direct sow spinach, lettuce, chard, and kale seed, but I prefer to bring them up and then transplant them. I’ll talk about this below.
Then there are varieties of seed that prefer to be started in a smaller pot or cell and then “transplanted” into your garden bed when they are mature enough. Those seeds are:
Celery – Eggplant – Collards – Kale – Broccoli – Kohlrabi – Leeks – Onions – Peppers – Tomatoes – Most Herbs
There are many methods for doing this, I’ll share a few of them.
Sometimes I start a small amount of seed in a “community pot.” It could be a 3-4 inch pot filled with a mix of potting soil and a little compost. Experiment with your potting medium as some potting mixes work better than others. If you have enough fine sifted compost you could also use that, but I never seem to have enough compost for everything so I prioritize using a small amount with seed starting mixing it with an organic potting mix and use the rest for planting. I don’t need a lot of plants at any one time because I am a home gardener, so I can control the amount of seed I use if I LIGHTLY sprinkle (one at a time) my seed into a “community pot” and then cover with a small handful of potting mix pressing it down gently with my hand. If you use a small amount of compost in your potting mix you will not have to feed your plants until they are transplanted into the soil. If you don’t have a compost pile yet, it’s time to start one. We will address that in a future Blog.
Some seeds, like lettuce or cilantro, I start in a community pot and then transplant them into a flat and bring them up for transplanting into the garden. If you don’t have a lot of garden space this will also buy you some time. Other seeds I start in 4 packs (because I have a lot of old ones) or in cells. If you don’t like to water every day, make sure your cell is large enough. Seeds need to be kept slightly moist, so it’s better to not start them in a full sun area. However, plants need light to grow, so don’t place your starts in too dark an area either. You will figure all this out as you experiment with different systems.
Here is a great short tutorial on starting seeds by sowing directly in the soil or starting in a smaller pot or cell and then transplanting.
Either way, take time to prepare your bed before you plant. Sometimes I prepare the bed one day, and then sow and/or transplant on another day. Preparing the bed could entail, removing rocks, grass or weeds and composting them. If the soil has not been used before you might want to loosen it with a garden fork or shovel. You can experiment with a flat bed or one with soil that is slightly “rounded.”
Seasonal Vegetables in Hawai’i
We are very fortunate to be able to garden year-round in Hawai’i and we are fortunate to be able to be outside every day in nature. I have observed over the past 45 years of gardening here that some crops like to be planted in the cooler time and others in a warmer one. Also, some crops grow better when planted in the rainy season and others prefer the dry season. But all this is relative as we are experiencing unprecedented change in weather patterns. This year in Kona, we didn’t have a “dry season”, it just kept raining. Also, your elevation and “place” will affect the growth of your crop.
In Hawai’i, we have 11 of the 13 micro-climates, so if you live in Waimea on Hawai’i Island (2,500 ft. elevation) you have a cool and sometimes wet environment, especially in the winter where the temperatures can dip down into the high 40s. Or you might live at a low elevation where the air temperature is warmer day and night. It’s that cooler night time temperature that allows us to grow more of the cool season vegetables.
Cool season vegetables like Broccoli or Shelling Peas seem to prefer the Winter months, but all gardeners in Hawai’i need to experiment with varieties and times of year. Talking with home gardeners in your area about what works for them can be VERY helpful. Experiment – Experiment – Experiment! It’s also helpful to keep a Garden Journal of your observations because it’s difficult to remember details from one year to the next.
Here at Kawanui Farm at the 1,500 ft. elevation in Mauka Kona, we plant our corn (popcorn, flour corn, and sweet corn), pumpkins and squashes, and our dry beans especially ones in the Vigna Family (tropical dry beans) in the rainy summer months. Our rainy season is “typically” from April to October BUT, we are experiencing all kind of variations. We plant them then in order to “catch” the afternoon rains as it is hard to keep these crops properly watered during the dry season.