Archive | January 2016

Saved seed? Test before you sow

AI seed photo1

Provided that you stored your seed in a cool, dry place, it’s important that you test its viability or ability to sprout with a simple test.

Whenever I purchase seeds vegetable and flower varieties that are advertised to be “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better,” I usually end up having lots of leftover seed.  I don’t have enough room to accommodate them in my garden, nor do I want to grow one hundred plants of the same variety.  So, besides trading some seeds, I often end up storing most of them.
The best place to store seeds is in a cool, dry location, since the two most important factors affecting their longevity are temperature and humidity.  Sorry, but squirreling away seeds in dresser drawers and the pockets of jackets and sport coats is not an option.  Place the seeds inside air-tight containers with a packet of silica gel desiccant to ensure dryness.  Use a screw-type container that has a rubber gasket, such as a peanut butter jar or canning jar.  Then place them in the refrigerator.
For longterm storage, seeds will survive for the longest time if they are frozen.  Seed banks in the business of preserving germplasm store seeds at subzero temperatures.  However-and this is an important warning–the seeds must be completely dry or they can be damaged by the formation of ice crystals.  An indicator of sufficient dryness is brittleness.  A dry bean, for example, should shatter when struck by a hammer and not simply be mashed. Most of us gardeners are probably safer storing our extra seeds in an ordinary refrigerator.
Whether you stored your seeds in the fridge or stashed them in in a cubbyhole in your crawlspace, consider testing their viability with a simple germination test. But before you begin, answer these three questions:
1.      How old is the seed?  Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time.  When stored under cool, dry conditions, expect these seeds to produce a good stand of healthy seedlings:  1 year or less:  Onions, Parsley, Parsnips, and Salsify; 2 years:  Corn, Okra, and Peppers; 3 years:  Beans, Cowpeas (Southern peas), and Peas; 4 years:  Beets, Fennel, Mustard, Pumpkins, Rutabagas, Squash, Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelons; 5 years:  Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Eggplant, Muskmelons, Radishes, and Spinach.
2.      Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save?  Expect true-to-type varieties with self-pollinated beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes.  However, surprises abound with insect-pollinated varieties cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin, or wind-pollinated sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard.
3.      Was the seed collected from a hybrid?  Hybrid or F1 hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties.  If you prefer the original hybrid, discard them.
If your seeds are worthy of being sown this Spring, perform this simple germination test. Count out at least 20 randomly picked seeds (50 is better; professionals use 100) and space them out on two or three layers of moistened paper towels.  Roll the towels up carefully to keep the seeds separate and place the roll in a plastic bag.  Keep it in a warm location between 70 to 80 degrees F.  Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated.  Wait at least 3 weeks outside of the normal germination time for most seed varieties.  If the germination percentage is very low, you may want to discard the seed to make room for those bigger, brighter, and better varieties.


Bob Polomski  © 2016


Properly pruning hat-racked crapemyrtles

On a recent road trip to Dallas, Texas, I encountered an assortment of “hat-racked” crapemyrtles along the way.  It was not until December 30th when we visited the home of the Dallas Cowboys– AT & T stadium in Arlington–did  I find an attractive planting of well-pruned crapemyrtles with full canopies and thick, wide-spreading limbs. Interestingly, none of my Facebook “friends” commented on the grove of well-managed crapemyrtles behind me. (Most of them made remarks about “Jerry’s World”  and how I should have turned left instead of right to get to Sun Life stadium and the Orange Bowl instead of the Cotton Bowl.)

Hat-racking or topping crapemyrtles—or any trees–is an unacceptable practice. Sadly, it’s strictly not confined to the U.S. Recently a former student studying landscape architecture emailed me photos of topped trees in Barcelona. Sadly, no one realizes that when you cut the trunks back to an arbitrary height, you committed “crapemurder.” The large open-faced wounds that result from this mutilation do not “heal” or callus over rapidly. They provide entry points for fungal organisms that can infect and kill limbs and trunks. The butchered crapemyrtle doesn’t die immediately; a few parts die over a period of time–a limb here and a trunk there.  Eventually, the hat-racked crapemyrtle looks so miserable that it begs to be pruned at soil level.

For years I’ve advocated for the proper pruning of crapemyrtles. However, I’m convinced that people who hat-rack their crapemyrtles find beauty in crapemyrtles that resemble sawed-off broom handles.  Interestingly, these butchered trees produce spindly shoots that emerge from nooks and crannies around and below the cuts to transform its appearance to the “Medusa-look”:  a tangled, snakelike collection of loosely attached shoots and stems that bear a smattering of undersized flowers.

If you prefer to exercise your inalienable right to prune your crapemyrtles any way you want, then go ahead and do the wrong thing the right way: pollard them. Pollarding is a safe alternative to topping.

Pollarding has been practiced in Europe for centuries to produce firewood with the added benefit of controlling tree size.Several trees can be pollarded, including London planetree, linden, oak, mulberry, catalpa, and tulip-poplar.

To pollard your crapemyrtle, cut back the long, wispy shoots (1 to 3 years old and less than one inch diameter) close to their point of origin on the trunk. In the Spring, dormant buds will sprout into long, slender shoots. In subsequent years in mid- to late winter, remove the dormant sprouts as close to the original cuts as possible; they will be replaced with a brand new collection of shoots.

After many year of repeatedly cutting back the sprouts to the same position each year, swollen tissues called polllard heads or “knuckles” form. This head or knuckle is rich in starch and contains buds, callus tissue, and branch collars; it becomes the site where vigorous new shoots emerge every Spring. Unlike topped trees, pollarded trees benefit from the annual production of growth rings that keep the sprouts strongly attached to the stem or trunk.

While pollarding crapemyrtles is the healthy alternative to topping, you may be a traditionalist who enjoys thevase-shaped canopy of upward-arching branches growing from the center and long, thick limbs bearing 6- to 12-inch-long clusters of flowers in the summer. If that’s the case, then follow the instructions in the “Crape Myrtle Pruning” fact sheet at the Clemson Extension Home & Garden Information Center (  You’ll find that pruning your crapemyrtle this way takes a little bit of skill and a whole lot of patience, but the rewards this summer will be priceless.

Bob Polomski    2016 ©

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