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What I learned from Vandana Shiva, Part II: Eat as if Life depends on it, because it does

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photo: Satya Murthy via Flickr Creative Commons

In part one we left off with Dr. Shiva saying that if we want to stop Trump (a.k.a. the accelerating destruction of the earth, rising inequality, and corporate co-opting of our democracy), we should start saving seeds and eating a biodiverse diet. I likely intuited your response:

“Wait? So she’s saying that if I want to bring down oppressive regimes and create an abundant economy grounded in care for the earth and care for people, I can do that by eating a diet of diverse foods? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is….I wasn’t born yesterday!” Am I right?

Of course that’s not all we have to do. After explaining to her audience one night that we must build the world we want with one hand and push back against injustice with the other, Dr. Shiva said, “That’s why I love Hindu Goddesses–they have so many arms! They can do so much!”

Still, I think the concept that biodiverse eating is remarkably powerful is worth fleshing out a bit. Barbara Kingsolver says, “Food is the rare moral arena where the most ethical choice is also the one most likely to make you groan with pleasure.”

Consider that over 90% of the varieties of seeds available in seed catalogs in 1900 have been lost. We are losing biodiverse farming at an alarming rate, and with it goes the seeds, wisdom, tools, and processes that make it possible.

Closer to home, during the weekend with Vandana Shiva, I sat on a panel discussion about seeds with Brett Stevenson, a young barley

Credit AgriLife Today, flickr Creative Commons

farmer from Bellevue. She has taken an active interest in heritage grains, citing their nutritional benefits as well as their increased biodiversity and ability to thrive in less “ideal” growing conditions. Brett talked about the rise in gluten intolerance in folks, and how many times if people who have a hard time digesting wheat try breads or other goods made with ancient wheats like Emmer, Einkorn, or even just pre-WWII wheat varieties, often their bodies have no problem digesting the food. Dr. Shiva connected these dots further for us. When you have an industrial agriculture that needs uniformity to function (to harvest, to process, etc), what you get is a very genetically uniform strain of plant. When we eat this variety, our bodies, our digestive systems, are just getting hammered with molecule upon molecule upon molecule of the exact same thing, and they freak out.

Wheat has an enormous genome, containing five times the DNA than the human genome. Crazy, right? We all know that if you hook up with your cousin and have a baby, and then that baby hooks up with its cousin and has a baby, it doesn’t take long before those kids are, well, to be PC, unfit to thrive. Purebred dog breeds experience all sorts of health problems because of their highly inbred genes. Plants are the same way. You can look at a huge field of very uniform modern wheat as the Poodle of agriculture–and just as dog lovers are increasingly turning to Labradoodles and Golden Doodles, farmers like Brett Stevenson are looking to more biodiverse strains of wheats. The ancient wheats might be more like the pound mutts in this analogy. Goofy looking, all over the map, but extremely resilient, healthy,

Doug Brown, Dog Park Action! (2013), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

and adaptable. Imagine a field of wheat that looks like a brimming full dog park, with some Poodles perhaps, but also that crazy Basset Hound/German Sheppard cross that looks like a raked low-rider and that obsessive Border Collie mix that won’t leave the ball alone. Some are wrestling, some laying in the shade, some biting at the sprinkler, some obsessively sniffing for God knows what on the ground. That’s what a field of biodiverse wheat is like.

So while our bodies are better off eating a more diverse diet, that diversity also creates resilience in the field. In a biodiverse field, some plants might sprout early and get nipped by a late frost but there will still be some later-sprouters in the field that will be fine. Some plants might be too tall and get blown over by a big wind storm, but their shorter sisters will still thrive. Some may be more drought-tolerant than others, able to withstand a longer period without rain, and that could make all the difference. When a field is extremely uniform, it must have the exact conditions that variety needs to produce. While in good years the harvest and payoff is remarkable, in bad years, it can be abysmal. Usually a large amount of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water is used to attempt to guarantee the uniform field of plants will have exactly what it needs to produce. Some Native American pueblos have been farming in the southwestern United States for thousands of years using the biodiverse model, taking the opposite approach and saving seeds from “All their children”, as Hopi farmer Leigh Kuwanwisiwma says in the film SEED: The Untold Story.

So what does this have to do with us as eaters? As consumers, we have enormous power. If we incorporate more diverse foods into our diets, this demand will encourage farmers to plant more of them. At his famous Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, chef Dan Barber offers a “Rotation Risotto” on his menu. He had been buying heritage wheat (Einkorn) from Klaas Martens, a skilled organic farmer, for the restaurant’s bread. When he visited the farm, he realized that Klaas had to grow a large number of other crops just to grow the wheat. He had to rotate the wheat year after year with a nitrogen-fixing legume, a phosphorous accumulating buckwheat cover crop, a weed- and disease-suppressing ryegrass, etc. All so the wheat could grow well, with ample fertility and lower weed and pest populations. Barber realized he needed to learn to cook with all the crops in the rotation to support the healthy farming practices of the farmer economically, so he started making the risotto to do just that.

At Earthly Delights Farm, we’re engaged in a grand collaborative project with Dave Krick, proprietor of Bittercreek/Red Feather restaurants. His new restaurant Diablo will feature a “masa menu” of several different types of corn masas for tortillas. We’re trialing dozens of varieties to figure out which ones grow the best here, and then working with farms of varying scales to scale up through a gorgeous corn ladder. We can grow a handful of seeds into several pounds of them, and then pass them along to Peaceful Belly or another mid-sized farm, who can grow a few acres, which will produce enough seed for a larger-scale farmer to grow 200 acres, and voila! A new variety of corn finds its way into the diverse diet of Idahoans through the collaborative efforts of farmers, breeders, and chefs. So freaking exciting! And all we have to do as eaters is show up and eat delicious tortillas and this biodiverse agriculture can thrive!

Flickr: Tinos Tacos, Roseburg, Ore.

During the same inspiring weekend with Dr. Shiva I had the pleasure of getting to know another, closer-to-home hero: Thumbs Heath, who has made it his life’s work to cultivate and care for hundreds of varieties of seeds in the vast majesty of the forests surrounding the Salmon River. He laughs about the myths that have been created around him: he lives totally off the grid, growing all his own food like an iconic hermit Mountain Man and Johnny Appleseed all in one. “What I’m trying to do is to learn how to grow what I eat and eat what I grow,” he says simply. He still buys bags of oats from Azure standard, but he’s also growing several dozen varieties of oats, learning their ins and outs both in the field and in his kitchen.

There is real power in what we choose to eat. While it might not seem possible to do as Thumbs is doing and grow 27 different oat varieties

thanks Wikimedia commons!

alongside hundreds of others, we can all make an effort to seek out diversity in our food choices. If we continually choose Hamburger-French Fries-Coke, we create a uniform hamburger-fry-coke corn palace of monoculture on our farms and we contribute to the loss of biodiversity. If every time I cook beans, I simply buy a can of black beans, I am supporting black bean monoculture. But if I choose black beans sometimes, but other times Pintos, Tiger’s Eyes, or Navy beans, I’m encouraging more biodiversity in the field by welcoming it into my kitchen. The final part of this series offers more concrete actions we can take to promote and preserve biodiverse agriculture.

Dr. Shiva told me that we must first connect the seed with the seed. That is, we must learn to save seeds and create that beautifully abundant, regenerative system. But for it to really take hold, in a society, in a culture, in an economy, we must connect the seed to the food. We must do that Thumbs has dedicated his life to: we must learn to eat what we can grow (or what can grow in our bioregion). When the seeds become embedded in the food that forms the fabric of our cuisine, that’s when we will have succeeded in creating a sustainable food system. In place of an industrial-chemical agriculture, we will have a biodiverse, life-sustaining model that creates greater health, for people and planet.

I for one think that sounds delicious. Let’s dig in!

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What I Learned from Vandana Shiva, Part 1: Gandhi, Resistance, and Seed Freedom

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Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance peeps with Dr. Shiva

Last weekend brought one of the greatest honors of my life–I got to spend part of three days in the company of Dr. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist inspired by Mahatma Gandhi to dedicate her life to working for seed freedom. Which is, of course, crucial for human freedom.

For those who have been out of school and in the nose-to-the-grind real world for too long, here is a refresher on what made Gandhi such a people’s hero:

Gandhi resisted the oppressive tyranny of British rule by inspiring a movement of peasants to disobey unjust laws forced onto them by the British that stood to impoverish Indian people for the benefit of British businessmen. Sounding familiar in these times? When the British tried to make it illegal for ordinary people to make their own salt so the British East India Company could sell it to them at a profit, Gandhi and his compatriots resisted by continuing to make salt as they had for centuries. When the British attempted to exploit Indian labor to turn parts of India into

Gandhi spinning

textile factories, Gandhi found an elderly woman who had a spinning wheel in her attic. He asked her to show him how to use it, and then he travelled around the countryside teaching other folks how to spin their own cloth. The spinning wheel worked as a tool for liberation, Gandhi said, precisely because it was so small. Anyone could use it.

We now live in a world of global trade, commoditized and subsidized toxic agricultural systems, genetically engineered seeds, and exploitative politics in the name of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the God of limitless growth. In the last year, six of the largest corporations on earth merged, leaving in the wake of that tsunami 3 corporations–Monsanto/Bayer, Dow/DuPont, and Syngenta/ChemChina–in control of roughly 70% of the world’s seeds. However, they are not seed companies. They are chemical companies. Their job has always been to sell chemicals, and after wartime munitions plants shut down, they looked to agriculture as a potential new market. We haven’t always farmed with chemicals. In fact, the experiment of chemical agriculture has only been in going on for last 70 or so years, while our ancestors farmed without them for 10,000 years or so, and many folks (like us!) still do today.

Photo courtesy of GWP via Flickr Creative Commons

But if you’re a chemical company, your job is to figure out how to sell chemicals. Thus ramped up, in Dr. Shiva’s words, the “War on the Earth”. The Poison Cartel, as she refers to these now-3 chemical corporations, led a successful campaign to convince governments, educational institutions, farmers, banks, and consumers that indeed the ONLY way to “feed the world” is by dumping ever more toxic chemicals onto the soil. Period. And when the living seed got in the way of that agenda, they modified it to either contain a poison or to be able to withstand being sprayed with a poison. In her keynote this weekend, Dr. Shiva said, “We do not have a seed industry–we have a chemical industry at war with the seed.” Now we’ve got a 6,500 square mile dead zone at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River, simply doing her duty, has carried poisons from thousands of chemical farms downstream. Poisoned groundwater, an epidemic of diet related diseases, family farmers in bankruptcy, rising inequality, and a government willing to throw its citizens under the bus have converged into the mess we find ourselves in today. They’ve poisoned the soil. They’ve poisoned the water. They’ve poisoned the seed. They’ve poisoned our bodies. And they’ve poisoned our democracy.

Whew. Time to get back to Gandhi. Dr. Shiva describes her moment of enlightenment as she puzzled over this huge nest of interconnected environmental, political, and health problems, all of which point to the humble yet powerful seed.

As Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance director Bill McDorman says, when you choose a seed, you choose an entire agricultural system. If we want to be free, the seed must also be free, because we are literally of the seed, alive only by the gift of her sustenance.

Vandana Shiva defines seed freedom as 3 things:

1. The freedom of the seed to evolve.

As agriculture has become more mechanized, we have replaced farmers with machines. If the farm is to be as efficient as a factory, it must be standardized and uniform. Seeds are of course not inert–they are alive, and their health comes in their diversity and adaptability. A seed is remarkable in its ability to take in information about its environment and pass down adaptations to its seed children. As we grow seeds in Idaho, each season they are adapting to our little corner of the earth.

Monoculture crops. Photo by Jan Tik via Flickr Creative Commons

The problem with having multinational corporations in control of our seeds is that they approach agriculture like a multinational corporation. If the goal is huge-scale industrialized, mechanized monoculture, the seeds that make that system possible will need to all germinate at the same rate, be uniform in size and days to maturity, respond positively to industrial inputs, and work well in industrial harvest and processing systems. When such big money is poured into breeding plants with these characteristics, it keeps seeds from being able to evolve on their own terms. As Dr. Shiva says, “Life is self-organized, and nothing self-organized tends toward uniformity.” So they’re shoving the seeds into these genetically narrow boxes which make them less able to perform under diverse weather or biological conditions, which are certain to become more prevalent as climate change accelerates.

By saving seeds in a “low-input” system like ours where we are not adding synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, the seeds are evolving to thrive in that system. As small-scale seed producers and farmers, we are not interested in complete uniformity, we are interested in plants and populations of plants that continue to produce food for us in varying weather, water, and cultural conditions so we always get some food from our fields.

2. The freedom of farmers to use, grow, save, and exchange seeds.

The simple fact that for thousands of years farmers have saved and replanted seeds each year is a real problem if you want to make money selling them seeds (and the chemicals that go with them). For years, activists like Dr. Shiva have fought to keep the so-called “Terminator technology,” a process that makes the seeds in a plant sterile and unable to reproduce (thereby forcing farmers to buy them anew each year), illegal. Still, patents on seeds effectively do the same thing, requiring farmers to pay royalties to the corporations that sell them the seeds each year. All over the world folks have had to vigilantly resist proposed laws which make saving or exchanging seeds illegal.

This was one of the most profound but difficult insights I gained this weekend. These corporations are ABSOLUTELY in the business of taking away the rights of people around the world to save their own seeds. I suppose I knew this, but I didn’t totally believe it until Dr. Shiva hammered us with example after example of that very thing. She explained that natural disasters where farmers lose their seeds make them exceptionally vulnerable to predation by multinational corporations. She talked about a gift of seeds she and the other farmers at her Navdanya seed cooperative put together at the request of Nepali farmers after the terrible earthquake, that sat at the border for a month waiting for government clearance to get through. They were told there were laws that wouldn’t allow the seeds to come in, but when she actually looked into it, there were no such laws on the books. Rather, Monsanto had made an official-looking form and distributed it to customs officials at the border prohibiting the entry of seeds. These companies see natural disasters as a way to open up new markets, to lock farmers into the treadmill of having to buy seeds from the company every year rather than saving their own as they have done for generations.

There is so much more to document about these issues, including laws that prohibit seed libraries (in the United States), laws that require people to pay hundreds of dollars to register seed varieties in a national database before they can be offered for sale (in Europe), and IMF/World Bank laws that force countries to grow industrialized commodity crops for export markets rather than food for their own people (in much of the developing world). For more information about the very real struggle for seed freedom, along with many uplifting and fascinating stories from the seeds and their caretakers, check out the superb documentary Seed: The Untold Story.

3. The freedom of the eater to have access to biodiverse diet of healthy food.

It’s common knowledge at this point that our food system is very broken. As consumers, we are kept in the dark about many aspects of what goes into the bringing of food to our tables. As a rule, we do not actually know what we are eating. If a corporation is in business of convincing us we need chemical agriculture to feed ourselves, it must also work to assure that we nearly exclusively have access to the food they control, regardless of how it affects our health or communities. As a result, we are suffering from an epidemic of diet-related diseases due to lack of access to healthy food and skewed education about which food will actually bring us health. The US government’s own website states that over half of the adult population suffers from one or more diet-related diseases. But it is not only the nearly $400 billion these diseases cost us that we’re paying for. Through our taxes, we pay billions of dollars a year in agricultural subsidies to this exact, broken system, with 75% of them going to less than 10% of farms. This, plus all the money we pay in taxes that go to subsidies to the fossil fuel industry have created a system where somehow it is cheaper to buy a package of Doritos, which contains 20+ ingredients, all gleaned, processed, and combined from various corners of the world, put in a pre-made shiny package which itself contains whatever ungodly number of materials, all mined and trucked from somewhere, than it is to buy a bunch of carrots grown in your own town. This is not because local farmers are greedy, money-hungry snobs who are trying to rob you of your hard-earned cash. It is because there is no such thing as a “free market”, and we do not live in a democracy. We live under an oppressive regime of, by, and for 1% of people at the expense of the 99% and the earth…in my humble opinion.

 

So what do we do about it?

 

An easy start to that answer is quite simple. Dr. Shiva articulated it this way:

Photo: Flickr / Creative Commons / Toni Fish

“You want to stop Trump? Save seeds.”

“You want to save the earth? Eat a diverse diet.”

 

Right about now, you might be thinking, “Wait! So she’s saying that if I want to bring down oppressive regimes and create an abundant economy and world grounded in care for the earth and care for people, I can do that by eating a diet of diverse foods? Sounds too good to be true, and if it sounds too good to be true….I know a scam when I see one.”

Well, for some much-needed context, check out Part II of this saga!

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Symphony of the Seed, Part II: The Spawning of the Seed

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As our end of the Earth tips closer to the sun and the frost migrates southward, the gardeners among us begin transplanting our coddled babies outside. One by one, we tuck them into freshly prepared soil, give them a hearty drink of water, and reluctantly retreat like nervous parents waving good-bye on the first day of Kindergarten.

The world is immense for a tiny seedling as the shelter of the greenhouse gives way to the outside world beyond it. Now, it is literally a baby in an orchestra that becomes, in Wendell Berry’s words, “a music so subtle and vast no ear hears it, except in fragments.” Delicate, bright white roots touch the soil of their new home for the first time, tickled by literally millions of teeming soil micro-organisms. The harsh sun baptizes its leaves and the wind whips at its stem. So much could go wrong in such a vulnerable state.

It learns, as all beings must, how to occupy a seat at this incomprehensibly interconnected table with strength and grace. It must etch food from rocks and to grow strong but flexible in the wind, like the hardened trunks of trees that still sway in the breeze. To share of itself, but not too much.

We humans have a distaste for bitterness, so we have over centuries bred it out of our beloved garden vegetables, transforming bitter, wild plants into sweet, cultivated ones. As we’ve taken away our plants’ natural bitter defenses, we too must play an important role in protecting them. Thus, we’re inducted into the concert as our cultivated gardens become members of the orchestra, working alongside the ladybugs and mantises to keep someone besides us from eating our dinner.

By D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

Sun-eating leaves multiply rapidly when roots can drink from the soil, and our baby plants soon grow voluptuously large. Their breath and ours intertwine in the elegant exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Yet the seed has a higher purpose–to make more seeds.

The method the plant employs is the stuff of sonnets, the very definition of beauty for some. While some plants like tomatoes can pollinate themselves, the majority of our cultivated vegetable crops need help. Without the ability to move, a plant must lure in an unwitting accomplice to aid it in the act of copulation, to move its sperm to another plant’s egg.

Thus, plain green stems birth garish flowers splaying petals, pistils, and stamens open for the taking, wafting alluring scents into the air, hoping to catch the attention of a passing pollinator. Guided by ultraviolet maps on petals unseen by human eyes, a pollinator reaches the sweet cache of nectar the plant generously provisions, in the process covering her hairy body with sperm-filled pollen. Plants don’t get insects to do their bidding through force or violence–they do it through irresistible sweetness and beauty.

And through unique mechanics. Umbellaceae family plants like dill and carrot shoot up umbrellas of tiny flowers on tiny stems, attracting tiny pollinators like solitary bees and small flies. Big squash flowers are better suited to big pollinators like honey bees and squash bees. Scrophulariaceae plants provide a little pedal of a petal for the bee to land on, releasing the pollen-drenched anther on a long filament to bop her on the bum while she drinks. Tomatoes shed pollen only for bumblebees who can buzz correctly. Thus the intrigue continues for the curious gardener, who passes awed summer hours observing the ingeniousness of flowers and the industriousness of bees.

Often we think of germination as something that only happens to seeds, but pollen grains germinate too! When a pollen grain lands on the sticky stigma of the female flower, it grows a pollen tube that stretches down the style of the female, unleashing the sperm to swim in and fertilize the eggs inside. The fertilized eggs will grow to become the seed babies of the plant, housed variously in an ovary as large as a pumpkin or as small as the button of a chamomile flower.

Now that the sexy work of pollination is done, there’s nothing to do but wait for the seed to ripen, which is the very definition of summer’s bounty. The juicy tomatoes, spicy peppers, and buttery squashes we covet are simply the houses for hundreds of ripening seeds, seducing us as the flowers seduced the bees into doing their bidding. We feast in their excessiveness as we await the autumn’s chill.

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Symphony of the Seed, Part 1: The Sprouting of the Seed

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At first, the process is intimate. You, alone in your greenhouse, bundled up against the cold, seeding alliums. Outside the window, the world is still sleeping. A brave bird calls forlorn, oddly exposed on a naked branch, perched over the patchy snow. You scatter a small scoop of hard little lumpy seeds across the top of each pot and cover it lightly. The whole thing just seems so implausible, flat after flat of plain brown soil stacking up on the shelves.

“There’s no way this can work again!” you think.

You water and wait. A week goes by, sometimes more, and you’ve almost forgotten there was anything in those pots. But then, a single blade, bent against itself, pushes through the soil, like a lone oboe squeaking out clearly in a quiet theater while the entire orchestra waits in captivated silence behind it. It creeps taller, millimeter by millimeter, finally breaking free, heaving the shell of its seed out of the ground and lofting it overhead like a  trophy. Others follow, first timidly, then boldly by the thousands, waving the black pompons of their seed skeletons in the air like chaotic fireworks dancing in chorus. Flat after flat, they sprout and grow–Brassicas, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, filling the shelves and saturating our dull winter eyes with impossible vibrancy.

Of course, the real magic happened underground, before that first blade showed itself to the world above. As the water seeps in to soak the soil around the waiting seed, it begins to soften the seed’s protective shell. The parched seed, which has lain dormant and thirsty for so long, starts to drink in water through its hilum bellybutton. As the water quenches the seed, its radicle root starts to grow, and soon it busts through the seed coat, springing the plant to life once again. That radicle plunges deep into the soil, anchoring it and beginning to slurp up food from the soil. The plumule shoots steadily upward until it bursts through to the light, unfurling its cotyledon leaves to bask in the sun and be nourished. And thus, the seed is born a plant.

Seeds have a  way of knowing when the time is right. It’s a matter of life and death, whether the world is ready to support the seed once it sprouts, so each seed carries a built in intelligence to know when it’s time. Some seeds in the desert will lie dormant for months, years, or even decades, waiting for the perfect conditions to make a go at their one chance at life. Garden seeds, having co-evolved with doting human caretakers, are more trusting. As long as we place them at the right depth, and provide them the right temperature and moisture, they’ll sprout, throwing their survival into our hands. “I trust you,” they say with each sprouting cotyledon. And so we engage in the centuries-old dance between faith and doubt that is agriculture, partnering across vast kingdoms of life to nourish another species.

                It’s happening outside now, too. Spring is the whole world waking up, sprouting seeds dotting every available surface, from the furrows in the fields to the cracks in the sidewalk. It’s such a blindly optimistic thing to do, putting hard little lumps into rows of bare brown ground. Yet here they come, by the hundreds, then the thousands, almost invisible at first. Then one day you arrive at your farm and the whole thing wears a blanket of soft green. The symphony is in raucous crescendo now, all the horns and the toms and the violins have joined in fully and are climbing toward the joyful cacophonous climax of summer.

Charles Darwin once counted 527 individual seeds in a single teaspoon of pond soil, each with the potential to create millions more of itself over generations. Though each one is precarious in itself, as a whole, the process is unstoppable, seeds cracking open and leaves climbing insatiably forward, eating the sun and multiplying ever more surely as roots do the same. It’s one of the grandest feats on earth, and one of the most miraculous for the gardener to behold–the humble seed splitting apart and bursting forward into the light.  As author Cynthia Occelli describes, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. For someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

And yet all around us, countless spring seeds coming undone bring the promise of another bountiful season. Thanks be to the sprouting seeds!

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Spring Planting Guide

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Tips for your best garden yet!

I sure can grow ’em, but where the heck am I gonna put all of them?

For gardeners old and new, the first sunny days of spring incite an industrious fervor that can border on insanity. If ever there was a way to bite off more than you can proverbially chew, it’s planting a garden after a long winter’s amnesia-inducing nap. Weeds? What are those? Canning? It’s heaven on earth!

So you rip up half your lawn and start buying seeds. As paychecks disappear into mountains of seeds and plant starts and bags of compost, may these tips help your (huge) gardens grow, well, huge…

 

What to grow:

  1. Grow what you like to eat. Seems simple, but many folks plant what they think they’re supposed to plant rather than what they actually want to eat.
  2. If you’re short on space, consider skipping things that are inexpensive to buy from local producers and/or that take up tons of space (cabbage, onions, potatoes), and focus on stuff that’s either expensive (kale, greens, herbs) or that tastes infinitely better homegrown (tomatoes).

 

When to plant:

Gardeners classify crops into cool- or warm-season crops. Cool season crops can handle frost and are generally planted in spring. Warm season crops can’t be planted outside until after the danger of frost has passed.

Some crops are “direct-seeded”—seeds planted right into the ground—while others are generally started indoors and transplanted outside later. The list below tells you which common garden crops are cool or warm season, and which should be direct seeded vs. transplanted.

 

Direct Seeding Tips:

  1. Don’t seed too deeply. Plant small seeds no more than ½” deep.
  2. Keep the ground moist until seeds germinate. Be patient—carrots especially take a long time to come up (sometimes 3 weeks!).
  3. Be sure to thin! Root crops like radishes especially need space to grow. Be a ruthless thinner, or you’ll end up with lots of leafy tops and no roots! Seriously, THIN like the dickens! Don’t feel bad!

 

Starting Indoors Tips:

  1. Light is crucial. It’s the biggest reason home gardeners end up with spindly plants. You can use a regular shop light (no fancy bulbs needed). Suspend it just a few inches above your seedlings and raise the light up as they grow. A window (even a south-facing one) is generally not enough light to avoid leggy seedlings! Keep your light on for 14 hours a day.
  2. Use potting soil (not regular soil). It is sterile and full of compost to help your plants grow strong!
  3. Keep seedlings moist, but cut back water if you notice mold growing on the surface.

 

Transplanting Tips:

  1. Harden seedlings off by setting them outside for a few hours a day for a few days before you transplant
  2. MAKE SURE TO WATER YOUR TRANSPLANTS! Transplanting is stressful on your plants, so make sure they have plenty of water in their new homes or they will surely perish with their tiny little roots.
  3. Make a small depression in the soil around the plants as you plant, like a moat, and then fill it up with water to get plenty of water to the tiny roots of your plants. Water deeply and often for at least 2 weeks to help them root deeply. You can also add compost to help feed them!

 

Planting Timeline:

Dates are for Treasure Valley. For other areas, look up your last frost date and work backwards from there. Some crops are listed for both direct seeding and starting indoors because they work well both ways.

 

Spring/Cool Crops 

Direct Seed (plant directly into the dirt outside) as soon as the ground can be worked in spring (March-April)

Peas

Radishes

Carrots

Beets

Turnips

Rutabagas/parsnips/other roots

Potatoes (protect tops from frost)

Scallions

Onion sets

Dill

Greens like spinach, arugula, mustards

Lettuce

Fava beans

Cilantro

Chard (April or later)

 

Start indoors early (Feb, or one month before ground thaws) and transplant outside in spring (March-May)

 Brassicas like broccoli, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage

Alliums like onions, shallots, leeks

Head lettuces

Chard

Mustards

Parsley

Perennial flowers

Celery

Fennel (transplant Apr-May)

 

Summer/warm crops

 Direct Seed (plant directly into the dirt outside) after danger of frost has passed (late May/June)

Squash (summer and winter)

Basil

Beans (pole and bush)

Melons

Cucumbers

Corn

Soybeans/edamame

Sweet potatoes

Calendula

Short-season annual flowers

 

Start indoors in spring (March-April, or 6-8 weeks before last frost) and transplant after danger of frost has passed (late May/June)

Tomatoes

Eggplant

Peppers

Basil (start 4 weeks ahead)

Tomatillos

Ground Cherries

Long-season annual flowers

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The Life of a Snake River Seed: A Photo Blog

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Do you ever wonder how all those tiny seeds get into all those colorful garden seed packets?

It depends on what kind of seed company you buy your seeds from; the main distinction is a matter of scale: big companies likely don’t grow their own seed but buy it, and machines are used to fill packets and pull orders.  (for more details on the way bigger seed companies, check out this previous post).

Well, our small human-scale company’s seeds live a very different life than most commercial seed companies.

Here’s a little photo journey through the Life of a Snake River Seed…

Growing

Of course, a seed starts with a seed…sometimes into a flat to sprout in a greenhouse, and sometimes directly into the ground…

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When they sprout, we transplant them outside!

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Since much of Idaho has dry summers, watering is a must, whether by drip tapes, hand lines, or even, in a pinch, with your thumb on the end of a good old fashioned hose.

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We hoe and hoe, and walk our fields to select only the best plants to go to seed, and we rogue (pull out) the rest!

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Growing Plants for Seeds

The best part of growing seeds is the opportunity to see the plants go through their whole life cycle. On a vegetable farm, we would pull radish bulbs to eat…But as seed savers, we get to watch our radishes go through the rest of their crazy-wonderful life cycle!

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First, the radish roots get REALLY, REALLY big, like the size of your forearm sometimes, and then they grow taller and taller until they start to flower! The pollinators LOVE their flowers……

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After the pollinators pollinate their flowers, they grow these CRAZY seed pods which turn a rainbow of colors before drying out completely so we can harvest them…

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Once they’re dry, we harvest the seed stalks to dry further out of the field. For bigger lots, we might harvest them onto tarps or for smaller ones, into pillow cases…

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Dry Seed Process

Then we put them somewhere out of the elements to finish drying…

img_1173drying-seedsOnce they’re dry, we start cleaning them. Bigger growers have mechanized equipment to do a lot of this, but at Snake River Seed Co-op, our small family farmers use small, hand-scale equipment. It might not be as quick as machines, but it works very well and makes seed production accessible to smaller scale growers since they don’t need to buy expensive equipment.

First we THRESH our seeds, usually by dancing on them in a bucket.  This results in lots of seed mixed up with broken up stem & pods.

Then we WINNOW them using fans and screens. The fans are surprisingly effective: when you pour seeds in front of them, the good seeds are heavy and they fall into the first tub, while the immature ones and the chaff are lighter and they fly into the second one or beyond. Voila’!

 

 

 

Then we further separate the seed from the chaff by pouring the mixture onto a screen, shaking it and the seeds stay on the screen and the chaff falls through.

Wet Seed Processing

Seeds that grow inside a wet fruit take a slightly different route to get clean: we break up the fruit by slicing, blending, scooping or grating it…

Some things, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons, go through a fermentation stage as well to break down the gelatinous sack surrounding the seed….

After they’ve fermented, we decant them by adding lots of water to the seeds and pulp mixture. Again, the good seeds are heavy and they sink, while the immature ones and the pulp are lighter and they float. We pour off the immature seeds and pulp and repeat until we get down to just pure, clean seeds at the bottom of the jar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then we pour the clean seeds onto plates to dry in the shade.

 

Once each grower has processed his/her seed crop into clean, dry seeds on their farms by following similar procedures, they bag them up and deliver them to Snake River Seed Co-op so they can be prepped for the upcoming seed season.

Mike Sommers of PURPLE SAGE FARM delivering his seed crop for 2017!

In the fall and into the winter, we intake seeds from all of our 17 farmers by weighing them, doing additional cleaning if needed, and backstocking them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Germination Testing

Then we start the process of germination testing to ensure the seed’s viability.  We do this by arranging 50 seeds of each lot onto damp paper towels and then load them into 3-ring binders. We put the binders in the conditions right for each crop: hot crop binders go on a heat mat while cold crop binders stay in our seed room. After 2 weeks (or so) we count the seeds that have sprouted to determine their germination percentages.

After we’re sure the seeds are viable and germinate well, they are packed into glass jars, labeled, and put into our seed storage vault while they wait for the season’s first orders to start trickling in.

Seed Packing

Once an order has been received, we individually pack the seeds into packets on-demand, to ensure you receive the highest quality, fresh and viable seeds every single time.

(Of course, designing and getting the packets printed is a whole process in and of itself, but that’s for another day…)

All of our seed packing is done by hand in old fashioned “packing parties” – no machines, conveyor belts or robots here! We stamp each packet with a lot number and pack date. Then we fill them with a specific teaspoon or tablespoon amount – depending upon the size of the seed and quantity per packet.

By the time a Snake River Seed Co-op seed packet has gotten into your hands, it has passed through a minimum of 12 times by doting seed stewards and seed packers.

Happy Planting!

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Why are our seeds so expensive…or, such a great value?

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Why are our seeds so expensive such a great value?

a.k.a. The Seed Creates the System

Garden crops going to seed
Garden crops going to seed

Seeds are mysterious. Even many avid gardeners couldn’t tell you much about the life a seed has had before they shake it from the packet into moist soil. Everything from how plants actually make their seeds to where the seeds were grown to all the steps required to harvest, process, clean, dry, germination test them, and pack them into packets are largely absent from our consciousness when we line up in front of seed racks full of colorful photos and choose our hopeful summer bounty.

In the same way consumers are waking up to the stark differences between factory farmed feedlot beef and animals raised on healthy pastures, seeds deserve our critical eye. The ways different brands of seeds find their way to our shelves create vastly different agricultural and economic systems in their wake.

Most large-scale seed companies, even ones who offer “organic” seeds, source their seeds from all over the world, shipping seeds from China, industrial organic hybrids from Europe, etc. So while we might grow local food to reduce our carbon footprint, the seeds we’re using have already got some serious food miles on them. The packet tells you nothing about where the seeds were grown–only where the company is headquartered. We can assume the seeds have been purchased from large-scale farmers who will grow them for the cheapest price.

Once they arrive to be packed, most of the process is automated. Big hoppers are filled with a certain seed lot and a machine fills and seals the packets. With the really cheap seeds, multiple companies’ seed packets are filled in the same warehouse with the same poor-quality seed, slapping different companies’ names on the same seed. The machine simply replaces one company’s packet with another and keeps filling. But even integrous seed companies like Seed Savers Exchange have automated seed packing equipment. A video posted on Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ facebook page just recently  shows their shiny, new warehouse full of conveyor belts and computers to pull orders for shipping to every corner of the world.

Mike bringing in his seed crops!

Our seeds are literally a world apart from this global food chain. For starters, we only work with small-scale growers in our own bioregion. Our seeds are born and raised in and around Idaho, and over 95% of them remain here for sale in our independent retail partners’ garden centers and co-ops.

We are working to get more local farmers involved in growing seeds on their farms,

Krista winnowing seeds with box fans
Krista winnowing seeds with box fans

and offering them a viable marketing outlet for this important work. The cost of production is built into our seed prices. In order to create a viable localized economy, farmers have to be able to make a living. We pay our farmers often ten times more for their seeds than large-scale seed companies will pay, because that’s truly what it costs to produce these crops. As farmers, we work hard and pour our hearts and souls into our farms and our seeds. We will not support the system that keeps farmers in poverty so the rest of us can have cheap food. Seeds provide an additional winter income stream, allowing us to mitigate gaps in our farms’ financial solvency and helps keep us farming!

All but one of our growers is small enough that we harvest our seeds by hand and clean them with small-scale equipment like fans and screens. This takes longer but allows more farmers to participate, because they do not need lots of land or fancy, expensive equipment. We germination test and pack the seeds by hand in a small shed on one of our farms. It is truly a labor of love, and we are putting people to work with important, low-tech, community-sustaining jobs. The independent garden centers and food co-ops who carry our seeds are also doing this in a way big box or virtual online stores don’t.

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Hand-packing seed packets

So when you’re comparing the prices of different companies’ seeds, remember that THE SEED CREATES THE SYSTEM! With each packet of SNAKE RIVER SEED COOPERATIVE’s  seeds, you’re getting enough locally-adapted seeds to grow at least 250 delicious carrots, or 175 Broccoli plants, or hundreds of Black Krim tomatoes, all for $3.25 cents! All the while, you’re supporting an entire local economy that begins with healthy soils on small, sustainable farms and travels through happy, well-compensated farmers and thriving locally-owned retail nurseries and into your own lovingly-tended garden. How’s that for a value-packed bargain?!

The Earthly Delights Farm crew processing wet seeded crops.
The Earthly Delights Farm crew processing wet seeded crops.

THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF OUR HEARTS for supporting our cooperative by buying our Idaho-grown seeds!

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2016 State of the Seedshed

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PrintAs we busily thresh and winnow the last of the 2016 seed crops under the 70 degree November sun, I heard a climate change denier has just been appointed to head the EPA. Perhaps our future offerings will include figs and olives!

Nevertheless, the close of the 2016 growing season and the start of the 2016/17 seed slinging season brings me great pride and comfort. Hundreds of jars of locally-grown seeds are now tucked safely inside our walk in cooler, awaiting their journey into your hands, your gardens, and your kitchens to claim their place in the tapestry of your culture.

Each seed my mentor, I marvel at how much a small group of conscientious growers, retailers, and

consumers can collectively change business as usual by spending some portion of our time doing very small, impactful things. A tiny seed will come completely undone, cracking itself open and plunging upward in the hope of finding light and nourishment. When it does, it will grow and flower with everything it has and make hundreds of seeds where just one was planted. A tiny gardener, choosing to plant a seed that was grown in her own bioregion, sows not only a season of bountiful food but a viable livelihood for her seed farmer, who can continue to grow seeds for her neighbors for years to come. An independent garden center who chooses to carry locally-grown seeds sees the impact of their choice multiplied ten-fold in the economics of their community.

Many of our growers at the Flicks screening of SEED: The Untold Story
Many of our growers at the Flicks screening of SEED: The Untold Story

Last year, 17 local farmers expanded their farm models to include growing seeds for Snake River Seed Co-op. Together, we grew and sold over 25,000 packets of seeds around Idaho. That’s 25,000 packets of seeds that didn’t exist 5 years ago. This year, we worked with 17 local farmers to steward 258 varieties of seeds, which with each generation of planting, selecting, and saving, are becoming more adapted to our unique place on earth. This year, we expanded outside the Treasure and Magic Valleys, adding excellent growers from Moscow, Orofino, and Twisp, Washington, and we’ve been expanding our efforts into the northern and eastern parts of Idaho to unite us in the beautiful work of growing seeds!

It is not easy for these farmers to include seed production in their already full farm schedules, but we are making the effort and doing it because we appreciate the reality of where we are at, seed-wise:

-We’re losing seed biodiversity–over 95% of the seed varieties that were commercially available in 1900 have been lost, or abandoned in favor of more lucrative and uniform industrial hybrids that require more synthetic fertilizers and by nature require the farmer to buy new seed from the company every year.

-We’re losing bioregional seed companies–in 1970, there were over 3,000 seed companies in the US. Now, with impending corporate mergers, three multinational chemical/seed companies will own over 75% of the world’s seeds. Snake River Seed Co-op is part of a growing movement to put seeds back into the hands of the farmers and gardeners in our communities who are better able to steward them like the treasures they are, ensuring the future of our bioregional food security.

-We’ve lost our connection with our food, and especially our seeds. Even though the local food movement is picking up steam, we largely still see seeds as just another faceless input that can be bought from wherever. Without locally-grown seeds, we don’t have a viable local food system. As we’ve worked to expand access and production of seeds right here, we’ve learned the crucial lesson–locally-grown seeds react to our place, adapting themselves each year to better grow in our unique climate and soils. Every year we save and replant a seed in the Intermountain West, we bring it that much more into harmony with our farms and gardens, so every year we grow better and better gardens and better and better seeds!

Each of our growers has contributed in vital and unique ways to the co-op, amid the ever-present challenges of farming.

Growers Kyle and Cassie from Eat-A-Turnip-Garden
Growers Kyle and Cassie from Eat-A-Turnip-Garden

James Loomis of Salacia Farm brings us Mammoth Basil and Marketmore Cucumbers despite half his crop being lost in a fire that consumed a large Acai berry hedge at his farm this summer. Anaka Mines of Twisp River Farm grew Yellowstone carrots and Hungarian Blue poppies while growing a baby–she’s due December 15th! Mike Sommer of Purple Sage Farm showed up with a veritable haul of Dragon Carrots and Culinary Sage amid building a certified kitchen on his farm. Earthly Delights Farm trained 6 new interns in the art of small-scale seed and produce production. In the midst of my husband’s work accident and recovery, they learned how to plant, isolate, rogue, harvest, thresh, winnow, decant, and dry over 75 varieties of seeds in the middle of Boise. Lori Bevan at Field Goods Farm gained, lost, and regained farmland this year, contributing Dwarf Scotch Blue Curled Kale and Armenian Cucumbers despite her uncertain situation. Carrie Jones at Draggin’ Wing Farm managed to grow Cuore di Capra Tomatoes and King of the North Peppers in addition to starting graduate school and raising her daughter as a single mom, and her mom Diane helped her clean her remaining seed crops amid her own ever-expanding offerings of native and drought-tolerant flower seeds to the co-op. Dana Rassmussen at Fellowship Farms nervously waited out a solid month of excessive rains in Paul, Idaho, to thresh his windrowed bean seeds.

All of our farmers make extraordinary efforts to bring us the food and seeds they grow each year. Each seed in our collection comes with it a remarkable history, from domestication through countless generations of hands who have cared for and improved and passed it down to the next steward. Each seed carries bold, shining hope for an abundant future of delicious nourishment and lively culture. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for caring about these tiny seeds and choosing to support our efforts by planting them in your farms and gardens. In the uncertain future ahead, we will continue to plant these little bundles of hope, and by their generosity we will collectively reap what we sow.

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SEED: The Untold Story movie screening!

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Join co-sponsors Snake River Seed Cooperative & Treasure Valley Food Coaliton for….

**a One-Night-Only showing of SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 20th 6pm at the Flicks in Boise!

**Meet BILL McDORMAN who stars in the film in-person (big thank you to the Boise Co-op for kicking down $$ to help bring Bill here)!

**Learn about efforts to create a ROBUST REGIONAL SEEDSHED and meet the seed growers / farmers who supply garden seeds to Snake River Seed Cooperative!

Identify and celebrate some of the local businesses who choose to buy locally-grown seeds!

SNAKE RIVER SEED COOPERATIVE, our Boise-based cooperative of garden seed growers, will be hosting a Q&A with Bill McDorman who stars in the film and is also director of ROCKY MOUNTAIN SEED ALLIANCE (Ketchum, Idaho) and Casey O’Leary, founder of SNAKE RIVER SEED COOPERATIVE (Boise, Idaho), and other special guests before the film begins.

At 6pm
Mingle with Idaho’s local garden seed growers

At 7pm
Film starts

After the Film enjoy a short Q&A about the film with Casey, Bill, and other special guests

Proceeds from the film benefit the Treasure Valley Food Coalition
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FILM SYNOPSIS

SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY is an award winning documentary about the loss of seed diversity and the future of our food, from the creators of the award winning Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? and The Real Dirt on Farmer John.

Few things on Earth are as miraculous and vital as seeds, worshipped and treasured since the dawn of humankind. SEED: The Untold Story follows passionate seed keepers protecting our 12,000-year-old food legacy. In the last century, 94% of our seed varieties have disappeared. As biotech chemical companies control the majority of our seeds, farmers, scientists, lawyers, and indigenous seed keepers fight a David and Goliath battle to defend the future of our food. In a harrowing and heartening story, these reluctant heroes rekindle a lost connection to our most treasured resource and revive a culture connected to seeds.

SEED features Vandana Shiva, Dr. Jane Goodall, Andrew Kimbrell, Winona Laduke, Bill McDorman, and Raj Patel.

SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY, is directed by Taggert Siegel (Portland. OR) and is Executive Produced by Marisa Tomei, Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine), and Phil Fairclough (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams).

Awards:

Discovery Channel ENVIRONMENTAL AWARD at Sheffield Doc/Fest in England, GRAND JURY PRIZE at the Nashville Film Festival, BEST IN FESTIVAL at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, and the GREEN PLANET AWARD at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
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TICKETS

A limited number of ticket are for sale at The Flicks before the show. (Flicks box office opens at 4:30pm m-th, and noon on fri/sat/sun)

Or online at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2603243

We anticipate the 130 tickets will sell out, so buy yours quickly!
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*Watch the documentary trailer here: https://vimeo.com/97882647

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Fall For Seeds!

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NOW is the time to seed your winter veggies and spring flowers!

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Q: Why can’t I get poppies to grow?

A: Because poppies, like many other beloved perennial flowers, need a series of frosts to “break dormancy” and sprout, so fall is the best time to plant them!

 

 

Yes, it’s true! Many of our most beloved garden perennial flowers, including many of our Idaho native flowers, need winter freezes and thaws to germinate. These flowers do best when thrown outside in fall or early winter and lightly raked in to the soil surface. All of the flowers listed in our Snake River Seed Co-op Fall Planting Guide (check it out below! Nice work, Lori!) will benefit from being fall seeded:

SRSC THEfall planting guide

Salad Mix MesclunAdditionally, fall is a great time to seed cool-season veggies for late fall eating, and some will even feed you through the winter and into next spring if you do it right! Many of the same crops you’d plant early in the spring can be planted in the fall, and some, like cilantro, fennel, and spinach, actually do BETTER planted now because the weather isn’t going from 60 to 90 overnight like it’s known to do in the Intermountain West.

Get the skinny on some of our favorite fall planted vegetables in the Fall Planting Guide above!

 

Here are a few more tips for successful fall planting!

To time your planting, follow these steps:
*Add 30% onto the days to maturity of each variety you intend to plant. The shortening days make things grow a little slower than they would in the spring, when days are getting longer.
*Decide when you want to be able to eat your crop. All of the varieties in our Seeds For Fall Planting web store section can handle some frost, but as we all know too well, our falls can be erratic, so it’s best to plan to eat your crops by Thanksgiving at the latest, unless you have protection like a greenhouse or cold frame. Some varieties, like Winter Giant Spinach and Cold-hardy Kale, seem to be able to make it all the way through most winters!
*Count backward to determine the planting time for your crop. Now is the time to plant pretty much anything, so don’t delay!