With seed swap season in full swing, many of us are swooping up all kinds of seeds with visions of nutritious vegetables dancing in our heads. But what if those seeds don’t yield what we’re expecting? How does one test seeds to make sure they’ll grow into edibles? During Chicago Botanic Garden’s recent seed swap, Lisa Hilgenberg, a horticulturist there, demonstrated a simple seed germination test that anyone can do. Watch the video to see how you can, too.
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This is the time of year for seed swaps around Chicago. Several groups have swaps of all sorts planned this weekend and next. Chicago Botanic Garden Seed Swap Sunday, Feb. 26 2 to 5 p.m. Details: Featuring Diane Ott Whealy co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange and author of “Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver.” Diane will give a lecture and sign books from 2 to 3 p.m. Her presentation will be illustrated with photographs from her cottage–style garden at Seed Savers Exchange’s Heritage Farm.
From 3 to 5 p.m. everyone is invited to bring saved seed or excess seed packets to participate in the two-hour exchange. You don’t need to bring seed to swap (taking seed home works, too) and there will be a variety of demonstrations on starting seeds, saving seeds, seed germination testing and more.
The Eco Collective seed swap Sunday Feb 26 2pm-5pm in Pilsen RSVP for the exact address firstname.lastname@example.org $5 donation (benefits Eco Rooftop garden) Details: Come swap seeds with other gardeners to improve your garden's variety this spring & learn a couple of new things about growing. Bring seeds that you have saved over the growing season, “still viable” seeds that you have left over from last season, or new packs you've purchased for this season. And, bring a dish or drink to share with everyone, because snacks are always good.
The Peterson Garden Project annual seed swap Sunday, March 4 2 to 5 p.m Swedish Covenant Hospital’s Galter Pavilion Second Floor 5140 N. California Free admission Details: Trade your eggplant for zucchini, your cucumber for tomato. In addition to the seed exchange, there will also be opportunities to learn about planting, edible seeds, heirloom vegetables, and more. Peterson Garden Project volunteers will be on hand to discuss their three new community gardens for 2012. Details on sign-up to reserve garden plots will come mid-March; sign up for the Peterson Garden Project newsletter or follow their Facebook page for the latest information on the 2012 growing season.
By Nancy Traver Spring is getting on here in northern Illinois, and now is the time to get going on your garden. Your effort will pay off later when you’re enjoying the fresh lettuce, radishes and — much later — delicious tomatoes from your garden. There is nothing better than going into your yard, picking your dinner from the ground, cleaning it and enjoying the feast. And it requires so little labor, you have to wonder why more people don’t do it.
But that brings up the challenges in gardening. Here is what I hear from most of my friends: I don’t have good sun, I don’t have good soil, I don’t have time, I don’t like dirt, worms, weeds, etc. All valid concerns!
A lack of sunlight is a serious issue in our northern climate and short growing season. A couple of years ago, a friend decided to put in a vegetable garden and planted it between two houses. It never received any direct sunlight! I was amazed that anything actually sprouted. What came up from her garden were lanky, spindly, unhealthy looking cucumbers, small green tomatoes and very sketchy zucchini. She put the tomatoes on her windowsill to ripen and, when she tried eating them, they tasted like mush! Even worse than the cardboard variety you get in the grocery store. That was her last attempt at gardening.
In northern Illinois, you need at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight to successfully grow a garden. I’m blessed with a backyard plot that receives full-day sun. Many of us don’t have that, however, with the older, beautiful shade trees in our yards. To get around this problem, I’ve seen many people in Evanston rent a community garden plot (cost: $37 per year!) or plant in their parking area alongside the street. Surprisingly, even though your crop of tasty tomatoes is highly visible to passersby, few people steal your yield. (I guess tomato theft is below most people.)
After you’ve found your way past the no-sunlight problem, there is the soil issue. Most gardeners in northern Illinois have too much clay in their soil. This must be broken up, but it’s easy to do. Go to any gardening center and buy bags of compost or manure. Manure is even cheaper than compost and it is wonderful for growing vegetables! Besides breaking up the clay in your soil, it will add vital nutrients. To grow vegetables, you have to enrich the soil every year. An even better way to improve your soil is to add compost from your kitchen, but you have to start making that before spring planting time. (Watch our composting video.) Simply shovel a layer of manure or compost on top of your planting area and then work it into your soil. Voila! You’re ready to plant.
Once your soil is prepared, the fun really begins. Plan your garden around what you like to eat. A friend recently was discussing this with me and said someone had urged her to grow lots of eggplant because it is a beautiful plant. The leaves are a delicate shade of purple, and the flowers are lavender. Only one problem: My friend hates eggplant! Instead, she planted chard (which I dislike), lettuce (and lots of it), green beans, snap peas and carrots. She has three children and those are the vegetables they like. Don’t let your produce go to waste: Pick the vegetables that appeal to you.
Early crops go in first: peas, lettuce, spinach and radishes. I call them my “winter crops” because it’s so cold in northern Illinois in April that it often feels like winter. These crops will sprout, however, despite the cold temps, rain and even snow. Spinach, especially, seems to like the cool weather. If you wait to plant till June, your spinach will not do well. It’s easily discouraged, it seems, by heat. All of these crops are planted by seed. You can also plant zucchini, squash, pumpkin and other vine plants by seed.
Some vegetables and herbs are best launched in your garden using small plants or seedlings. Go to any garden center and pick out healthy looking eggplant, tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, strawberries, etc. Other herbs such as rosemary and tarragon are also best to start with seedlings.
Some gardeners will tell you that the best-tasting tomatoes are the heirlooms. These include the Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and other types. While the heirlooms have some dazzling names and are growing in popularity, I’m still a fan of the hybrids. An especially good hybrid for northern Illinois is the Early Girl. Early Girls were developed to ripen in areas with limited summer heat like we have in northern Illinois. They are sweet and a bit crunchy compared to other tomatoes, which makes them perfect for tossing in salads and eating out of your hand with a sprinkle of salt. My sister is an heirloom fan and will plant only heirlooms in her garden. However, she enters her tomatoes in a taste contest every year and guess what wins: the hybrids every time. They are simply sweeter and have a higher sugar content. Go, Early Girl!!
As I said, there is nothing more satisfying than picking your dinner out of your backyard plot. You are feeding yourself, your family, and you are saving the planet by not driving your gas-guzzling car to the grocery store and buying food that has been trucked in from distant locations and displayed in plastic bags. So get with it and start gardening!
Would anyone be remotely interested in the garden-variety Burpee seeds I wanted to swap? Would the swappers be tripping over each other to get their hands on a package of exotic, hard-to-find seeds? Would there be anything new to learn about seeds?
Yes. No. Most definitely.
Seeds are fascinating little unborn plants, and gardeners of all levels, I’ve found, love to cradle and fuss over them. And, a seed swap is a great place to cultivate a deeper appreciation of those little babies we want to help grow to maturity. Luckily for many of us, the committee that organized the Forest Park swap thought to make a seed starting demonstration part of the afternoon. They also provided catalogs from some of the country’s top seed retailers for us swappers to take home and swoon over later.
Master gardener trainee Debbie Kong, an avid and resourceful suburban farmer, presented the seed demonstration, assisted by her daughter, Kara, who she calls Little Green Girl. Packing their demonstration with lots of practical information, they explained the characteristics and germination schedules of popular seeds.
We asked Debbie to tell us one of the most important facts we should know about seeds. “Seeds should not be more than two years old (this varies on the type of seed) because their germination rates declines,” she said.
And what kinds of seeds are urban gardeners looking for today? “Gardeners are now buying seeds from smaller companies that specialize in heirloom seeds for their quality and unique varieties,” Debbie explained. As for her own seed source preferences, she said, “I like buying my seeds at Renee’s Garden, Seeds from Italy, Botanical Interests, the Hudson Valley Seed Library, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I also recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange, which is a 35-year-old non profit organization working to preserve heirloom seeds.”
You don’t have to miss out on Debbie’s demonstration. Seeding Chicago recorded it for you. Watch Parts 1 and 2 here:
The snow may keep coming down here in Chicago, but we know the growing season is coming, too. To help gardeners get ready, communities and organizations are hosting seed swaps this month. In the last few years, seed swaps have become popular in the U.S., and they’re growing trend in the U.K., where Seedy Sunday — UK's largest seed swap — took place Feb. 6 (also known as Super Bowl Sunday for many here).
“Seedy Sunday has blazed the trail for UK seed swaps over the past decade: it is the must-be-there event for seed swappers, conservers, developers and newcomers,” the event’s website says. “It exudes innovation, creativity and common sense. It shows up the idiocy of draconian seed laws and the Gene Giants’ restrictive practices: in this warming world we need to exchange more diversity of uncontaminated plants to secure future food. Seedy Sunday builds solidarity among all of us who respect our collective rights to save, sow, swap and sell seeds grown in our gardens and farms: it gives strength to seed law busters.”
If you’re in Chicago, though, and searching for a hard-to-find vegetable or flower seed, check out two upcoming seed swaps. Urban farmers and gardeners can exchange seeds of different varieties to enrich their gardens with more diversity.
Saturday, Feb. 12, from 10 a.m. till 12 p.m., Lurie Garden is hosting a seed swap on the first floor Garland Room of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Experienced seed savers/swappers and curious newbies are invited. Lurie Garden staff who will be on hand to provide seeds and tips for planting and germination. Representatives from One Seed Chicago also will be on hand for those who want to cast vote for one of this year’s seed choices. NeighorSpace has donated some seeds for the swap. So, even if you don't have seeds to swap you will not leave empty-handed. RSVP by calling the Lurie Garden at 312.742.8497 Space is limited.
Here are some tips for packaging seed saved in your garden to swap: *Package seeds in paper coin envelopes or plastic baggies. *Label seed packs with botanical and common name. *Five seed-per pack minimum for larger and common seeds. *Thirty seed-per pack minimum for smaller seeds. If you don't have small coin envelopes or want to buy little plastic baggies, you can use junk mail envelopes to hold your seeds.
On Sunday, Feb. 27 from 1 to 4 p.m., the Forest Park Community Garden Seed Swap & Seed Starting Demonstration will take place at the Park District of Forest Park, 7501 Harrison St. An RSVP is required because space is limited. Master gardener Debbie Kong will lead the seed starting demonstration. If you know of other seed swaps in the Chicago area, drop us a note and we'll help you spread the seeds, uh, the word.