A Glimpse into the Garden: February 2014

A monthly gardening update by OSV staff horticulturist Roberta McQuaid

This behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Village gardens will explore a range of topics including what’s growing in our gardens and the culture and history of specific heirloom plants. We hope that you will find this monthly online feature informative and perhaps it will enrich your next visit to the museum - maybe even adding to your own gardening adventures at home.

Preparation for seed sales in full swing

Since mid-January volunteers have been busy packing seeds one morning a week.  Depending on the weather, the size of the group can vary, but the job is always the same:  measuring out a designated number of seeds, putting them in a pretty envelope, adding an insert that describes how to grow the plant and its history and sealing the packet.  When all 125 varieties are complete, the kiosk at the Museum Gift Shop will be stocked and open for the 2014 season.

The seed sales program began in the mid 1990’s, as a revenue making program.  But more important than the money it made, selling seeds served an important service to visitors- here, in one place, they could purchase many of the varieties they see growing in the Village gardens.  Amy Murray, Coordinator for Horticulture in the Museum Program Department had this to say:  “The seed packaging program is an excellent opportunity to take a unique part of history home to the garden while promoting and preserving heirloom varieties.  We are proud to be able to offer unique and hard-to-come-by varieties to home gardeners so they can bring the timeless beauty and enjoyment of our heirloom vegetables, flowers, and herbs into their own homes, and serve as a unique reminder of the Village as well.”

Amy noted that the Heirloom Greens Mix is the best seller of all varieties offered for sale- a whopping 60 packets of the three lettuce blend sold out.  In general, heirloom vegetables are popular; thirty of the forty-eight varieties available also sold out, albeit lesser quantities were packaged. Least popular vegetables, or the “hidden gems” as Amy refers to them, include Asparagus Pole bean, Rutabaga and Citron Melon.  Amy has seen a direct correlation between popularity and garden representation:  if the vegetable isn’t grown in a Village garden that year, fewer packets sell.  In terms of rarity, Red Wethersfield Onion, has been increasingly hard to come by in commercial trade.  This season, Amy has enough seed to fill only 9 packets- get them while you can!

Sometimes a particular variety doesn’t sell well and is removed from the inventory.  Quaking Grass will not be offered for sale this season, since none at all sold last year.  Amy wants to give Scarlet Cypress Vine another chance, however, because it is such an interesting climbing annual.  Maybe a quick mention of its uniquely “toothed” foliage and tiny but numerous bright red flowers will encourage readers to give it a try and more than a single packet will sell!  See it this summer at the Fitch House children’s garden.  It, along with other climbing plants, makes a unique covering for the birch arbor in the center of the bed.

Seed selling season will begin at the Museum Gift Shop in time for the Garden Workshop on March 22nd. 

The easiest seeds to save

My wintertime obsession has been to learn all I can about seed saving.  For the last couple of summers I have been experimenting- saving the seeds of my favorite open-pollinated  beans, tomatoes, peas and lettuce.  Well, with a little research behind me I now know I did some things right and some things, well…not  exactly right.

I remember the shoe box that my mother kept on the small set of shelves in the stairwell to our basement.  Inside the shoe box were numerous tiny glass jars that housed her seeds.  When I was a kid we had a large garden of flowering annuals and she saved flower seeds from year to year: zinnias, marigolds, nasturtiums, calendula and the like.  

As I grew up and began to garden on my own I rarely saved the seeds of anything- I guess I figured that they were cheap enough to buy, and the varieties from the store shelves would make my upcoming garden new and different form the year before.  Unfortunately the days of ten cent (yes, even in the 90’s I found them that cheap!!) seeds are mostly over; on average a decent size package will cost between $2-3.00.   Economy is just one of the great reasons why folks have jumped on the seed-saving bandwagon.

The first time I saved seeds in more recent history was in the summer of 2009.   I had my second daughter just months prior and it was safe to say that the garden was in a semi neglected state.  As my two year old and I foraged among the weeds, we found numerous dried bean pods.  I collected them in an envelope marked “Hannah and Mommy, Miscellaneous Beans, 2009.”  For the fun of it I planted a few in a pot just last year, and at 3 years old they all popped up.  So, I sowed them in my garden and they turned out great!  My biggest mistake was not labeling them; that however, did not affect the taste one bit!! 

I saved my first tomato seeds the summer before last.  They were from a variety dubbed ‘King George’ in honor of the horse and carriage driver here at Old Sturbridge Village who is attempting to conserve an heirloom of an ailing friend.  The extra-large, meaty paste tomato originally came from Italy. I fermented the seeds and dried them, and grew a couple in my garden this summer.  They came true to type and I again saved a couple random tomatoes for seeds.  This tactic was OK, but I could have done better, been more strategic.  Research dictates that I should have installed 6 plants and harvested the earliest, best tomatoes, from the healthiest plant.  Why?  To pass on these beneficial characteristics to next season’s progeny. 

I grew some low growing peas by the name of ‘Little Marvel’ in one of my raised beds here at the new house.   Reportedly these required no support to grow a decent crop.  Well, they produced pretty well, but the plants could have benefitted from a trellis.  When I was pulling the vines up in preparation for the next crop I noticed numerous dried pods that I missed at their peak- so you guessed it; I harvested some pea seeds.  When I thresh the seeds from their pods I will be sure to only use those that are large and nicely filled-out, again to pass on these good traits to the next round of peas I pick.
The last vegetable crop I experimented with was lettuce.  I grew a mix called ‘Farmer’s Market Blend’ and by the heat of midsummer it tasted bitter.  I left it in place and eventually some bolted into flower. Before I knew it the seeds had formed and were ready to fly away on their puffy white parachutes.  I threw a few seed heads in a paper bag, and when I dumped them into a pie plate the chaff was easy to separate from the seed by simply blowing on them. 

The vegetables that I speak of flower in one season of growth and are mostly self-pollinating.  In other words, insects or bees won’t generally take pollen from another variety of pea for example, and cross them, although this can happen.  My recommendations to potential seed savers would be to start out slowly-grow one variety each of these plant species to end up with seeds that are true to type. 

Seeds from open pollinated flowers are also fun to save. I spent an afternoon last fall harvesting the seed heads of my calendulas, bachelor buttons, marigolds and cleomes.

I simply clip off the heads and lay them out in a warm spot to be sure that every bit of moisture is out of them.  Once I am sure that they are dry, I break open the heads and store the loose seeds in sealed envelopes marked with the variety name and date until I am ready to use them next spring.  Here too, I grew just a single variety of each flower type; the seed is harvested from multiple plants.

From “super-easy” flowers and veggies, why not branch out to biennial vegetables like carrots and onions whose roots need to be replanted each spring and isolated if another is grown nearby. Finally, try members of the cabbage and cucumber family, where isolation or hand pollination are absolutely necessary to end up with the same seed you planted. 

By learning how to save the seeds of your favorite heirloom vegetables and flowers, you will be continuing the legacy the Old Sturbridge Village seeds sales program has encouraged from its very beginning.

Special thanks to Amy Murray for her assistance with this editon.