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My New Year’s Resolution: conduct a seed inventory

In January and February I carry out one of my New Year’s resolutions:  I take inventory of my seed collection.  First, I gather up all of the seeds that I’ve squirreled away in a variety of places like the refrigerator crisper, the pockets of jackets and sport coats, and dresser drawers.  Then, over several evenings and weekends, I decide what to save, trade, or toss out.  Strengthening my resolve is the constant flow of seed catalogs into my mail box which boast about vegetable and flower varieties that are “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better.”  I just have to make the room.

To help me decide what stays and what goes into the compost heap, I ask myself several questions:

  • How old is the seed? Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time.  Here are the ballpark ages of several vegetable seeds that when stored under cool, dry conditions should be expected 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.

•  Is the seed viable?  Perform a simple germination test.  Count out at least 20 seeds 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.  Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated.  If few seeds germinate, you may want to discard the seed and buy fresh seed for the upcoming gardening season.

•  Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save? If the vegetables are self-pollinated like beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes, expect to have true-to-type varieties.  However, expect surprises when planting the seeds from insect- or wind-pollinated varieties.  Cross-pollination will occur between different varieties of insect-pollinated vegetables such as cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin.  The same goes for wind-pollinated beets, sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard.  You may want to discard these seeds.

•  Was the seed collected from a hybrid?  Hybrid or F1hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties.  If you preferred the original hybrid, discard these seeds.  The offspring from an F1 hybrid will be a mixture of plant types, most of which will be inferior to the original parent.

•  Do you have any seeds or varieties that a fellow gardener would be willing to swap for?   In the eyes of some gardeners, a “Mickey Mantle” or “Joe DiMaggio” could take the form of a Sweet Baby Blue corn or a Super Italian Paste tomato.  Perhaps you can save these seeds and trade them for something else.

When I answer these questions, I find that very few seeds ever get composted.  Probably because I always ask myself one final question:  “Are you really sure that you can’t find any room for this little packet of seeds?”  The answer is always, “But of course.”  My wife has eight dresser drawers with plenty of room!

Bob Polomski (c) 2015

Jujube: an uncommon fruit

On a visit to central Florida several summers ago, I became acquainted with the jujube or Chinese date (Ziziphus zizyphus). Although it has been cultivated in China for more than 4,000 years, I began cultivating it in my own garden for the past 12 years.

This deciduous tree is completely hardy in our area. In fact, it’s hardy from USDA zones 6 to 10, and fares best in the warmer part of this range.

Jujubes are relatively low maintenance, drought-tolerant trees that prefer a well-drained location in full sun or partial shade. They can become large shrubs or small trees, reaching a height of 15 to 35 feet with a spread of 10 to 30 feet. Zigzagging branches eventually give the tree a spreading, irregular crown. Their shiny green leaves turn yellow in the fall.

Many cultivars are thornless, although suckers arising from the roots often bear menacing spines. Unless these suckers are removed, they can result in a nearly impenetrable thicket.

In the spring and sporadically thereafter, fragrant, inconspicuous white to greenish-yellow flowers emerge along small branchlets, which can be mistaken for compound leaves. These flowers are self-fertile, not requiring cross-pollination for fruit set to occur. However, yield is sometimes improved by pollination from another variety.

The oval green fruits that follow range in size from a cherry to a small plum. Green at first, they eventually turn whitish and develop mahogany blotches, which indicate ripening. By late summer or early fall, the fruits turn completely dark red and become wrinkled. At this stage they can be harvested by vigorously shaking the tree. Even when picked at the whitish stage, however, they will continue to ripen normally.

The flavor and texture of fresh jujubes is akin to a sweet, somewhat mealy apple. High in vitamin C but low in acidity, the fruits can be stored in refrigerator for two to three months, or dried to resemble dates with a sugar content of 70 to 80 percent.

More than 400 varieties of jujubes are cultivated in China. ‘Li’ and ‘Lang’ are the most popular fruits in the U.S. I am growing ‘Li’ and ‘Sherwood.’ ‘Li’ is an early-ripening cultivar that produces the largest fruits of any jujube. They range from 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. ‘Sherwood’ originated as a seedling from southern Louisiana. Its fruits are smaller than ‘Li,’ but it ripens later in the season.

For more information about jujubes, visit the California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. web site. If you’d like to know even more about them, purchase a copy of the Jujube Primer & Source Book by Roger Meyer and Robert R. Chambers (CRFG [ISBN 0-9675198-1-0]).

Pawpaw: the native American fruit

Prolific pawpaw

‘Prolific’ pawpaw, Aug. 15, 2014.

When it comes to growing fruit at home, nothing could be easier or prettier than the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). This deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree can reach a height of 15 to 20 feet. Its 6 to 12 inch long, tropical-looking leaves turn yellow in the fall. Purple, one- to two-inch wide flowers appear in the spring and are pollinated by flies and beetles, undoubtedly attracted to the irresistible carrion-like scent of the blooms. Cross-pollination must occur for fruit set to occur, because an individual pawpaw is incapable of fertilizing its own flowers. They give rise to large bean-shaped fruit, which grow to about three to six inches long and one to three inches wide. The fruit has a fragrant aroma, a custard-like texture, and a banana-like almost tropical taste. Over my lifetime I’ve eaten several pawpaws and encouraged many friends and acquaintances to try them as well. In short, you either like the flavor and texture or you don’t. Recently  I discovered pawpaw’s laxative qualities, which led me to call it another common name:  poopoo.

If you’re willing to experiment with pawpaw, choose named cultivars such as Shenandoah, Susquehanna, and Rappahannock. If price is more important than quality, purchase seedling trees.

Pawpaws are difficult to transplant, so select container-grown cultivars to improve your chances at successfully establishing them in your landscape. Choose a moist, well-drained location in full sun or partial shade. Water the newly planted trees regularly during their establishment period.

pawpaw fruit cut in halfPawpaw leavesOnce pawpaws settle in, their horizontal roots create sprouts that emerge some distance from the trunk. Mowing will suppress these emerging shoots from becoming an unmanageable thicket.

 

July is National Watermelon Month

No matter how you slice it, there is no summer without watermelon.   Royal Sweet or Icebox, seeded or seedless, I’m not finicky about watermelon.  According to USDA estimates, each American consumes about 15 lbs. of watermelon a year.  By July, I’m way ahead of that mark.  Because  July is National Watermelon month, according to joint resolutions passed by the U. S. Senate and U. S. House of Representatives in 2008 and 2009, respectively, I feel that must support the consumption of this delectable fruit.

SC-Watermelon-Map1

Leading watermelon-producing counties in SC. Credit: SC Watermelon Board and SC Watermelon Assoc.

Watermelons can be cultivated in any home garden in South Carolina, however,  major commercial production* is concentrated in counties in the Sandhills and Lowcountry, notably Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, and Hampton counties. Chesterfield county leads production in the Piedmont. Most of the watermelons are seedless, which comprise about 70 percent of the melons produced in South Carolina.

I do like the convenience of seedless watermelons, but I miss the crunchiness of the seeds and the opportunity to show my kids that their dad may be old, but he can still spit a watermelon seed farther than them.

Have you ever wondered where the seeds of seedless watermelons come from?  Seedless watermelons were first developed at Kyoto University, Japan in 1939.  The parents are two seeded varieties. The male is a diploid variety, that is a watermelon with the ordinary number of 22 chromosomes.  The female parent, however, is a tetraploid variety, one that has been treated with colchicine to double the chromosome number to 44.  The resulting hybrid seed is a triploid with a chromosome number of 33.  Although these triploid seeds will sprout, the resulting watermelon plant is sterile. The vine flowers and makes fruit, but these fruit are seedless.

Sakata Seed America

‘Citation’ watermelon. Credit: Sakata and National Garden Bureau.

Breeders select diploid and tetraploid parent lines separately for desirable traits, such as taste, flesh color, size and shape, rind thickness, productivity, maturity time, and others. Once the parent lines breed true, that is the offspring exhibit consistent traits, which may take ten generations–the crosses are made. As a group seedless watermelons tend to keep longer in storage since there are no seeds to serve as focal points for the decay.

Growing seedless watermelons is somewhat more challenging than raising ordinary watermelons.  Seed of the latter will germinate at 75 degrees. Seedless watermelon seeds, by contrast, need at least 80 degrees and preferably 85 degrees to sprout.  The thick seed coat sometimes sticks to the cotyledons on the emerged seedlings requiring them to be carefully removed by hand, though sowing the seed so that the pointed end is down  reduces this seed coat-sticking problem.

Seedless watermelon flowers must be pollinated to set fruit, but because the plants produce no pollen of their own, a seeded watermelon variety must be grown nearby.  When you buy seedless watermelon seed, a few seeds of another variety are typically included.  Plan on growing one of these seeded plants for every three seedless ones. These seeded watermelons will set fruit of their own, but these are usually selected to have a different shape or rind color to make it easy to distinguish the seeded and non-seeded fruits.

To learn more about watermelons, check out the National Garden Bureau’s 2013: Year of the Watermelon.

*Commercial watermelon producers should come to the Edisto Watermlon day on July 10.

The start of summer and the tomato sandwich

tomato_sandwichFor me, the first day of summer begins when I harvest the first a vine-ripened tomato of the season, slice it into thick slabs, slather Duke’s Mayonnaise (Hellman’s up north) on a slice of honeywheat bread (I know, it should be white Wonder bread), and then gently lay down the tomato slices on their bed of mayo. This is what the legendary Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson was talking about in 1820: gustatory bliss!

For watermelon lovers only….

Watermelon2 No matter how you slice it, there is no summer without watermelon.   Royal Sweet or Icebox, seeded or seedless, I’m not finicky about watermelon.  According to USDA estimates, each American consumes about 15 lbs. of watermelon a year.  By July, I’m way ahead of that mark.

The flesh can be any color–red, yellow, or orange-as long as its ripe.  If you grow your own, knowing the variety and the days to maturity will give you a ballpark idea as to when you should begin checking for maturity.  Then, look for signs of ripening on the both the vine and the fruit.  The tendril closWatermelon1est to the stem end of the melon will turn brown as the fruit ripens.  Also, the underside of the watermelon where it rests on the ground will change from green to a yellowish-white.  Finally feel the skin. As the melon ripens, the shiny skin turns dull-colored. It will also feel slightly rough, and as you run your hand around the melon’s center you may notice a certain irregularity.

Some people can pick a ripe melon by the sound it makes when you thump it. The “thump test” is a more subjective indicator of maturity and requires a good ear.  Immature melons have a metallic ringing sound after being thumped.  A really deep thud usually indicates a melon that’s overripe.

If you eat more watermelon than the average American, visit the SC Watermelon Board web site. It’s for folks like us.

Pawpaws: a native ornamental and edible

When it comes to growing fruit at home, nothing could be easier, prettier, or tastier than the pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  This deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree can reach a height of 15 to 20 feet.  It’s 6 to 12 inch long, tropical-looking leaves turn yellow in the fall.  Purple, one- to two-inch wide flowers appear in the spring and are pollinated by flies and beetles, undoubtedly attracted to the irresistible carrion-like scent of the blooms.  Cross-pollination must occur for fruit set to occur, because an individual pawpaw is incapable of fertilizing its own flowers.  They give rise to large bean-shaped fruit, which grow to about three to six inches long and one to three inches wide.  The fruit has a fragrant aroma, a custard-like texture, and a banana-like taste.

For quality fruit, choose named cultivars such as Shenandoah, Susquehanna, and Rappahannock.  If price is more important than quality, purchase seedling trees.

Pawpaws are difficult to transplant, so select container-grown cultivars to improve your chances at successfully establishing them in your landscape.  Choose a moist, well-drained location in full sun or partial shade.  Water the newly planted trees regularly during their establishment period.

Once pawpaws settle in, their horizontal roots create sprouts that emerge some distance from the trunk.  Mowing will suppress these emerging shoots from becoming an unmanageable thicket.

For additional information and links concerning pawpaws, visit http://www.pawpaw.kysu.edu.