Saving Tomato Seed

by Sandy Swegel

To get the best tomato plants, you need the best seed.  If you want to save your own tomato seeds, you need to select from the very best tomatoes this year.

Timing is critical. My friend Frank is a wonderful market farmer who has taught many of us a lot about organic growing. Yesterday, he emailed us an alert saying,

“So pick your best, most ripe (even to the point of over-ripe) tomatopepper, etc., and save and dry the seed. Choosing an over-ripe veggie will ensure the seed has fully developed. If you wait for a frost or freeze before you pick the fruit or veggie, most of the seed will not be developed enough to be viable next year. “

That makes perfect sense, but many years it’s not been until the first frost that I remember that summer is over and I’d better save some seed.  Although I’m not as bad as my friend who had planted a mixed pack of heirloom seeds and just realized she had served the last of the best tasting of those tomatoes in a sandwich to her daughter.  Dear daughter still tells the story of crazy mom running across the room to yank the sandwich out of her hand and claim the tomato for its seeds.

Once you’ve selected an overripe tomato to be next year’s seeds, be sure to taste the tomato to make sure it’s the perfect tomato.  A restaurant critic I know calls this the Platonic Tomato….the tomato that in its very form and essence defines what a tomato is.

You’ve probably read lots of online info about saving tomato seeds…you need to let them ferment a bit in a saucer before letting the seed dry and then save it in a cool dry place for next year.  Even though this is easy, I have to admit most the time I let the organic farmers who grow for us at BBB Seed just do all that work and I buy the seed in the cute packet in January.

That said, I’m off for my morning breakfast of slices of tomatoes with my morning egg from my backyard chickens with some melted Swiss cheese.  It doesn’t get better than this!!!





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De-weeding the Compost Pile

by Sandy Swegel

Playing in the dirt is, of course, the most fun reason to garden. This week I’ve been playing in the compost which is doubly fun because I get to play with the earthworms too.

De-weeding the compost pile

My compost style is very passive. I keep three big bins going. Starting the bin is easy. I make sure there’s a couple of inches of finished compost at the bottom to inoculate the pile. Every week I clean up something in the garden and throw it on top of the compost. I generally don’t put in sticks unless I feel like cutting them up into smaller pieces. The most important addition to the pile is vegetable scraps and greens like grass clippings. I put those in the middle and tuck them down under the dried up spent foliage. The vegetable and green scraps invite earthworms in so my pile is breaking down in the traditional way that browns and greens break down and earthworms are doing their thing at the same time. Sometimes if there’s too much organic matter, I throw in a shovel or two of soil. I water the pile if we haven’t had rain. In Fall I throw some leaves on but also have separate bins for straight leaf mulch.


This is Cold (or Warm) Composting. This is not the fancy layering and turning that extension services advise composters do to kill all the seeds and disease. The pile gets hot in the middle, but without the regular turning and fine-tuning of ratios of browns and greens, my weed seeds don’t all get killed. I don’t put diseased foliage into the pile. But with a minimum of work, I get a lot of compost.

So what do I do about the weed seeds?
Basically, I get them to germinate then cut their heads off. De-weeding the compost pile.

Sometime in August or September, I scrape off the completely uncomposted material and put them into another bin. Then I vigorously turn my pile and mix it together. It’s about 80% finished. I leave it alone except to water it if needed. Each week all the weed seeds germinate into little green plants and I shovel up that top two inches of little weeds, breaking their necks and put them back into the compost pile. The next week, more seeds have germinated and I break them up too. Usually, after about three weeks, the weed seeds have mostly all grown out and the compost is ready to get spread on the garden after the soil freezes.

Easy and not much work.

Plant Some Mustards

by Sandy Swegel

Did you have fungus problems in your garden this year? Maybe powdery mildew on the squash? Or fungal blight on the tomatoes? One very natural way to treat your soil (rather than try to kill the fungus once it’s on next years’ leaves) is to plant mustard plants. Mustard planted now or in early spring, and then cut up and turned into the soil, acts as a “biofumigant” that can kill the unhealthy fungus that has made a home in your soil.

A big plus of planting it now is that you might get cute little plants now that will be a lush cover crop for winter. Some mustards turn a pretty purple once it gets cold. Some plants will die if you are in a very cold or dry area, but often mustards manage to survive and put out yellow flowers in Spring that are excellent first foods for bees.

Another excellent reason to plant mustards now is that just a few spicy leaves go a long way to making a salad interesting. I especially like the curls of the Japanese mustard mizuna. Mizuna pairs beautifully with the richness of feta cheese, some red onions, and a sweeter vegetable like cucumber. Yesterday a friend served a wonderful mustard salad with the last red raspberries of the year.



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Fall Pruning: Don’t Do It

by Sandy Swegel

September is the time of year I like to tell you to quit working. I want you to leave some leaves and debris on the beds to give ladybugs and lacewings a place to overwinter. I want you to have seed heads for birds to eat. And I want you to enjoy the “winter interest” of an abundant garden of grasses and flowers frozen in place.

Another big don’t do it is Fall Pruning, especially for those of us in colder climates. It is so tempting to tidy up the garden by doing the pruning you didn’t get around to in the Spring, but for most plants, it’s better to wait until they are dormant or just emerging next Spring. Studies have shown than Fall Pruning can reduce winter hardiness in plants. If you cut the plants now, they are going to put their energy into vigorously regrowing instead of just settling into dormancy.

What Not to Prune Now
Spring Bloomers. If you prune lilacs or azaleas or forsythia now, you’ll be cutting off flowers buds that have already set for next year.

Rose Canes. I know the rose garden can look unruly and untidy in winter. But winter always kills back the canes at least a little. Better to have the canes die back from five feet high than from one foot high.

Trees. The National Arbor Day Foundation advises specifically against fall pruning: “Because decay fungi spread their spores profusely in the fall and healing of wounds seems to be slower in fall on cuts, this is a good time to leave your pruning tools in storage.”

Winter will be here soon enough. Some nice warmish winter day once the trees are dormant, you can get out and prune.

Sure, if a limb is dead or broken you can cut it . . . but only into the dead wood for now.



Fall Equinox

by Sandy Swegel

Fall Equinox is upon us which suddenly spurs me to lament all the gardening I didn’t get done this year. In particular, I don’t have much of a winter garden growing. Am I going to have to start buying store-bought greens? I thought maybe I could outsmart Mother Nature by using row cover and soil heating cables to get some lettuces and kales going, but a farmer friend broke the bad news to me. Can’t be done. Sure I can get some growth. But lettuce and other greens are affected more by photoperiodism, than heat. Huh? I asked. She said Farmers know to get all their Fall and Winter plants going well before Fall Equinox because once the days start getting shorter, plants don’t grow as vigorously. (This, of course, doesn’t apply if you are further South where your days stay longer.) The farmer said I can get the lettuce to grow, but I won’t have the vigor and growth I need to provide myself with enough food for Fall into Winter. Lettuce is what they call a “long-day” plant. This is also the reason, more so than heat, that lettuce goes to seed in the middle of summer….because the days are long.

Who knew? Well, farmers and people who live off the land know. They start their winter lettuce in late summer.

Besides me, there’s another group of people who want to outsmart Mother Nature. Astronauts. One of the obstacles to living in space and inhabiting other planets is food. NASA has run food experiments on the Space Station for years, but now for the first time, astronauts are growing their own lettuces to eat instead of just to experiment on. What a treat for them instead of all those dried space foods.

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Cover Crops for Busy People

by Sandy Swegel

There’s one more thing to plant this year. Some of us are eager Fall gardeners and we’re still planting lots

of greens and crops for fall and winter harvest.  Most people though are feeling kind of done with the whole gardening thing for this year.  There are still lots of tomatoes to harvest, but attention has turned to the projects of Fall and the busy-ness of the school year.

The one more thing to plant is cover crops.  A cover crop mixture of winter rye and vetch seeded now will be up and growing by October and provide a pretty green cover on the garden bed well into winter, prevent weeds in the Spring, and greatly improve your soil over time.

There’s a lot more to know about cover crops, but if you’re one of the people who has gotten busy and is done with the garden for now, just throw some cover crop seeds over your empty garden bed space and let it start growing.  If you wait until the weather freezes and the garden is really done, the soil will be too cold for the cover crops to germinate.

Next Spring, you can start to think about whether to till in the crops or just let them die in place.  Right now….just get the seed in before it gets cold.

If you want to know more now, this fact sheet will help.


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Windowsill Basil

by Sandy Swegel

Two Ways to Have Basil all Winter.

August heat is hard on basil. The plants keep producing seed heads and as fast as you try to cut them back, new flowers start with the warm weather. Once the basil goes to seed you can still use the leaves, but they often have a bitter flavor.

But there are ways to keep enjoying fresh sweet basil all winter, besides the obvious strategies of drying or freezing the herbs.

Start seeds in a small window box planter now. This planter starts outside and comes into a bright windowsill as soon as temperatures go below 40 or so. Strew an entire packet of seeds over the soil. You will be growing the basil to a size somewhere between micro-greens and full-sized. The seed should germinate quickly and with regular watering, young plants will start to develop and should be several inches high by frost. Once inside, you can cut them down to the bottom leaves with scissors and the young plants will keep regrowing. If it gets really cold outside, you have to move the plants away from the window because the basil will freeze if they are leaning again the glass. If the basil gets buggy with aphids, you can bring the entire container to the kitchen sink and give it a shower.

Mason Jar Basil
If you don’t have seeds but you have purchased one of those pricey basil plants with the roots still on from the grocery store, you can keep growing that plant indoors. These have been grown hydroponically so you can put them in a mason jar with water on a kitchen windowsill. It might wilt for a week or so adapting, but will usually revive. Change the water every week or two. Again, harvest down to the bottom couple of leaves and the plant keeps regrowing.

Other greens and herbs like cilantro and lettuce also do well if you seed containers now and bring them in before they freeze. By winter the plants will be much bigger than micro-greens and will provide you with lots of intense flavor!


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