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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Saving Tomato Seeds

Striped German - Heirloom tomato
One of the missions of the Sharing Gardens is to educate people about the importance of seed-saving and to offer techniques to demystify this process. Today's blog covers the practical steps necessary for saving one of the home-gardener's favorite fruits: the tomato! If you're new to seed-saving tomatoes are good to start with because of their relative simplicity.

In order to save seeds that will "grow true" and produce fruit similar to the one you saved seeds from, you must start with an "heirloom" or "open-pollinated" (OP) variety (not hybrid). Hybrid seeds are artificially created by seed companies to produce plants with unique qualities (early ripening, bug resistance etc). The problem is that they don't "breed true". If you save seed from hybrids, next year's plants may or may not be what you want. If you wish to save seeds, choose seeds or starts that say "open pollinated", OP, heirloom or non-hybrid.
"Heirloom" tomatoes come in all types: here are large paste-tomatoes called "Long Toms"
OK, so lets say you have grown some beautiful heirloom tomatoes and you're ready to save seeds. If you have more than one plant to pick from, choose the plant that is healthiest, most robust, earliest to ripen and with the largest and/or best-tasting fruit. Then, pick one or two fruits that are the best examples of these same qualities.. If there are other people who harvest from your garden, put a twist-tie, or in some other way mark the fruit so no one picks it prematurely. We often use onion or citrus bags (plastic, stretchy netting) so we can actually cover the fruit, making it clear that it's not to be picked. Let the fruit come to fullest maturity possible. It's OK even if it starts to rot a little.

Black Krim (below) and Striped German
Here are two heirloom tomato varieties we saved for seed this year (right). We saved them as beautiful examples of color, juiciness and size. That's a Black Krim on the bottom and a Striped German on the top.

In saving seed, you wish to mimic nature's process. Have you ever noticed what happens to the tomatoes left in the garden after the first frost? They turn to a slimy mush, with the fruit eventually dissolving away from the seed. In the following year, robust little volunteers emerge from where the tomato rotted. The way we mimic this process: Remove the stem from your chosen tomato and put it in the blender with enough water to fill a quart jar. Whiz it in the blender, at a low speed, just long enough to separate seeds from fruit. Don't worry about the seeds. They have a protective gel that keeps the blades from harming them. Pour them into a wide-mouth glass jar. Be sure to swirl the blender as you pour the last liquid out so no seeds are left in the bottom. If you're processing more than one tomato variety in a row, rinse the blender well so you don't mix seed varieties. Label the jar so you remember the variety of seeds you're saving.

The next step is to leave them to "rot". To minimize fruit-flies secure a piece of cheese cloth over the opening with a rubber-band or canning-jar ring. Leave them in the open jar for 4-7 days. When it's warm outside, the process will go faster. Stir them once or twice a day with a chopstick to help separate the seed from the pulp. The pulp and non-viable seeds will form a layer at the top. The healthy seeds will sink to the bottom. Look for a nice scum to form on the top. Mold is OK. The picture on the left is of two varieties of tomato seeds in process. The ones on the right were just blended so no layers have formed. The ones on the left have been sitting a few days. The other picture shows the quality of the scum that has formed on the tomatoes once they are ready for the next step. Notice the bubbles which indicate a mild fermentation process.













The last step is to dry the seeds. Spoon out the scum and pour off most of the water. The viable seeds will have sunk to the bottom but be careful not to pour them out with the pulp/water. Add more water, allow to settle and continue to pour off excess flesh. Repeat this process till you've removed the majority of the flesh. Then pour the seeds through a fine-mesh strainer and rinse them in the strainer. Let them drip-dry and then tap them onto a piece of tin-foil, a jar-lid or other non-porous surface. We find that the lid to a plastic tub (like a yogurt container) works best as it's flexible and we can "pop" off the seeds after they've dried. Seeds will stick to paper towel or napkins. Transfer your label to the drying seeds and leave them to dry for a week or so. Be sure they are thoroughly dry before storage so they don't mold in the bag, envelope or jar.

Each seed-saver has his or her preference for containers to store seeds in. We use clean, small plastic bags or recycled plastic pill-bottles or other small jars. The most important thing is to keep your whole seed collection in a dry, dark environment with moderate temperatures, in air-tight containers. Avoid freezing or excessive heat. Stored well, tomato seeds can remain viable for many years.

Tomato seeds drying.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Enough and to Spare, To Give and to Share!

Cindy sorting beets and carrots. 

Harvest totals and garden update:

Hi folks - We had a beautiful post almost finished when we lost it to a computer glitch. Arrgh...We'll recreate it soon but the gardens have really kicked into high gear in the last couple of weeks and we've been harvesting and weeding and watering like crazy! Here are the harvest totals so far this year, some pictures of many of the wonderful people who help to grow the food and some recent pictures of the gardens so you can enjoy the beauty and abundance. Much love, Llyn and Chris

So far, we've been sharing produce out of the gardens for 18 weeks. Depending on when the first major frost hits, we could be past the half-way mark of garden productivity but the next 15 - 20 weeks will also be way more productive in terms of how many pounds the gardens will yield. So, we could be looking at a record year! (For those of you who are new to the Sharing Gardens, here's a quick overview of our project.)

Donated to S. Benton Food Pantry: 507#
Donated to Local Aid Food Pantry: 455#
Donated to THIP class being led by our local Health Clinic ("Total Health Improvement Program"): 268#
Shared with Share-givers (volunteers): 284#
Used in canning projects so far: 36#
Potatoes harvested so far (that weren't counted in other totals): 94#
CSA member-boxes: 408

Grand total so far: 2,052 pounds!

Huge thanks to all the contributors who are helping to make this, our 11th season, such a success!

We love it when Cindy and Jim's grand-kids come to The Gardens. Here are Adri, Kaylynn and Jace helping Llyn harvest cucumbers, one of their favorite snacks!
Cindy, Rook and John, weeding. On our volunteer days, we often team up and swarm a whole quadrant of the gardens together leaving no weeds behind! This massive amount of weeds is put in our compost bins where the heat of their decomposition kills a majority of the weed-seeds.
This picture was taken July 31st. The gardens are in full bloom!
Here's Becky, weeding beets. Becky is one of our newest 'share-givers' (volunteers). She brings a friendly and playful spirit.
Jace (left) munching on a carrot, to keep up his strength for the potato harvest. We harvested 30 pounds that day off of six plants and they're looking beautiful. Our best year for potatoes yet (and we still have many more plants to harvest, well into the Fall).
Here's one quadrant of the garden in late July. Provence squash, cabbage, Delicata squash and  four rows of blue corn. All but the cabbage will provide storage-food to get us (and the Food Pantry) much of the way through the winter.
Megan, our youngest 'share-giver' (who also started this year), teamed up with 'young-at-heart' Jim - who's been coming since 2011. Here they are trimming the tops off onions.
With this team of guys, weeds don't stand a chance! Our motto is: "Weed 'em and reap!"
A late-July photo taken of the NE garden-quadrant. From top-left to bottom-right: Blue-corn (dried and ground for cereal and baking), red potatoes, a mixed row of celery/collards/kale, a row of cucumbers and a row of kidney beans which we dry for soups and chili. (Marigolds and Cosmos flowers in the foreground.)
Jim harvesting soft-ball sized Elephant garlic. We filled that wheel-barrow, mounded high, twice.
Adri helps Grandpa Jim and Chris with a potato harvest. Kids love this job because it's like hunting for eggs on Easter; you never know how many you're going to find!
Bean tipi at entrance to garden and Sunship greenhouse. The beans are called Giant Greek White beans and we got the seed for them out of the bulk-food section at our local natural foods store. They had made the beans into a salad for their deli and were delicious! We like them as much as Scarlet Runner beans for flavor and grow to be 2-3 times the size! (LINK to Scarlet Runner Bean post)
Cindy with an early crop of onions and greens. Cindy's been coming since 2010 and never misses a garden-day if she can help it. We love her cheerful, 'can-do' spirit!
Dear Rook, in his third season, has fallen in love with being in the garden (and we've fallen in love with him)! He loves to help people and to serve, and has come to embody the spirit of the Sharing Gardens. "Gee, it's great to be alive!"

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Why growing sunflowers is great for bees...

...and how to grow and process sunflowers for birdseed and sprouts.

Sunflower Pollen - Pro-"bee"-otics for Bees!.
This is a post about the varieties of sunflowers we choose to grow, how we grow them and process them for winter use.
 
In reading an issue of National Wildlife recently, we came across an article about the health benefits to bees of sunflower pollen. With populations of many bees on the decline, they need all the help they can get! Apparently sunflower pollen reduces the infections of some varieties of bees from two widespread parasites. Previous research had "linked both types of parasites with slower colony growth and greater mortality rates". Scientists compared the effects of sunflower pollen with other "monofloral" pollens, from different types of flowers - (sunflowers are "multi-floral") and "none of the other pollens had the same effect".

But, "while sunflower pollen may provide (the above mentioned) medicinal benefits, it is low in protein and some amino acids," say researchers in Scientific Reports. They conclude that sunflowers should be supplements rather than the main source of the insect's diet. "Bees do best," the scientists point out, "when they have access to a variety of flowers". *Source below.


A border-row of Mammoth Russian sunflowers.
Sunflowers are one of our favorites. They're beautiful and easy to grow. They provide wonderful pollen for insects and home-grown bird-seed for our feathered friends. And, the seeds can be used to grow delicious, nutritious sprouts for winter greens.

Planting Sunflowers - direct seeding: Sunflowers can be directly sown, a few weeks before the expected last hard freeze (a light frost won't bother them). Push them into soil about 1/2" - 1" deep. If you have jays or crows in your neighborhood, you might need to cover the starts with row-cloth or some other protector until they're rooted as birds do love the seeds and, if they watch you planting, they may wait till you're not looking and dig them up (we've had this happen to us in the past). In order to avoid this problem, we usually start our sunflowers in pots and transplant later.

We've had young children help us plant large patches of sunflowers. It's a fun garden activity that's hard to get wrong. You may need to thin out your patch after they germinate so each plant has enough room to grow (3'- 4' between each plant on the tall varieties!).
Planting Sunflowers - transplanting from pots: We usually start our sunflowers in pots and transplant them out. This way they can have a strong head start. We plant two seeds in each 3" pot, at opposite corners and, after they germinate, either pinch one off, or carefully re-pot them so there's just one plant in each pot. Plant seeds about 1/2" deep. If you're going to divide and re-pot, don't wait too long as sunflowers have extensive root-systems and you risk damaging the plant if the two starts' roots become intertwined. Keep plants in a place protected from wind and full sun for a few days while they adjust to their new pots.

When you are ready to transplant outside, put plants outside your greenhouse for 5-10 days so plants are "hardened-off by exposure to wind and cooler nights before you put them in the ground.
Plant 'starts' in the greenhouse. Zucchini plants in foreground.
The tall varieties of sunflowers we grow need full-sun, wide spacing (3'-4' between each plant!) strong staking - so they don't fall over and shouldn't be over-watered.

Placement: If you plant a whole row of them, keep in mind that they will shade smaller plants, and block overhead sprinklers for watering. We almost always plant ours along the edges of garden beds so they get watered along with our other crops.

Watering: Sunflowers, if planted early enough that they can follow the water-table downwards through the summer, they can do well without much supplemental watering. Beware of over-watering as they can grow too fast, get top-heavy and fall over.

Staking: The tall varieties of sunflowers will almost certainly need staking.

Sometimes we'll drive an individual stake in the ground next to them; a 4'-6' metal stake is best. Drive it deep into the ground. Tie sunflowers to stakes with cotton strips.

Sometimes we'll erect a bamboo tri-pod and tie two, to three sunflowers to each one.

We've also grown sunflowers in long rows between tall stakes with heavy wire run between them. Attach wires at 3' and 6' heights and tie sunflowers to them with cotton strips.

Sunflowers can also be tied to fences with cotton strips to keep them from toppling.
This is a trellis we made by stretching strong wire between two fence posts. Here, Cindy is tying up bamboo poles to trellis bean-plants but this same kind of trellis would work for a row of sunflowers. For sunflowers, stretch the wire about three-feet above the ground. Once sunflowers reach this height, tie them to the wire with strips of cotton-cloth.

A bean-tipi (with scarlet-runner beans) and Mammoth Russian sunflowers growing beside it. They are each tied to a separate 4-foot wooden stake.


Varieties of sunflowers we like: Most years we just grow two varieties of sunflowers: Mammoth Russians and Autumn Beauties. The Mammoth Russians make good bird-seed for bluejays and other large seed-eating birds, and they are also great for growing sprouts, a delicious and nutritious source of winter "greens" (LINK to post on growing sunflowers sprouts). They can get extremely large (10' or higher) and will usually require staking so they don't topple in the wind when their heads are heavy with seed.

Mammoth Russian sunflowers can grow huge! You can see why it's important to stake them so the don't fall over when they're heads are full of ripe seeds.
Autumn Beauties also make great bird-seed for smaller seed-eaters and their range of colors from yellow through orange to a russet-brown make a beautiful border "hedge". They have many heads on one plant that ripen over the course of the season and though their individual flower-heads are quite a bit smaller than Mammoth Russians (6" vs 12" - or more) the plants themselves can get as tall as the Mammoths and will also require staking. They too need three to four feet between each plant. Autumn Beauties also make great cut flowers if you have a heavy, deep vase but beware, they drop a lot of yellow pollen on whatever surface they rest upon.

Autumn Beauty sunflowers...So beautiful against a blue, autumn sky! A favorite for bees and birds alike.

Saving seed: Sunflowers easily cross pollinate. If you want to save seed to plant next year's sunflowers, be aware that they are quite prone to cross-pollinating with other varieties. So, if you were to grow both Mammoth Russians and Autumn Beauties nearby to each other, the seed you save would have a high probability of being a mix of the two varieties. Though we've had good luck with growing pure Mammoth Russian seed, the Autumn Beauties (even if they don't cross with other varieties) tend to become less colorful with each generation. For these reasons, we usually just buy fresh seed each year.

When to harvest seed: If you're just growing the flowers for their beauty and you don't care about saving the seed, you can leave them standing for as long as you like, well into the winter. Birds enjoy them for winter perches and will happily eat the seeds right off the heads. But, if you wish to save seed to feed them later in the winter when natural forage is harder to find, here's how to do it:

Processing the seed: As autumn approaches, it is important to regularly monitor the ripeness of the seed. Sunflowers ripen from the edges in towards the center. Periodically pull a seed out and crack it open to see if the seed inside is fully formed. Notice if the birds are starting to eat them. If the birds are starting to eat them but they're still not ripe most of the way to the center, we sometimes cover the heads with a paper sack or a mesh onion-bag.The onion-bag is preferable because it allows the pollinators to continue to have access to the less-ripe seeds and more of them will be pollinated.

Onion-bags are great to protect seeds you're saving from being eaten by wild-life, or fruit from being harvested before the seeds are ripe. (Pictured: green-peppers ripening for seed).
Processing Autumn Beauties: Once the seeds are ripe, we cut the heads off and lay them on shelves in our greenhouse and turn them up-side-down or cover them with screens (to keep the birds from getting to them). We leave the Autumn Beauty heads to dry completely without removing the seeds. Then, over the course of the winter we place the dried heads outside for the birds to enjoy.

Llyn, laying Autumn Beauty sunflower heads face-down (to protect from birds) to dry.
Processing Mammoth Russians: The Mammoth Russian seeds we remove right away. This is easier to do before the heads dry. Remove the ripe seeds by rubbing them free with your thumbs. We usually use gloves as it can be a bit rough on the thumbs!

To remove seeds from head, use your thumbs to rub them into a tray.
Another reason to process the seed soon after harvest is that the seeds can mold due to the high moisture content of the flower heads. If it will be awhile before we can process them, we often cut off the fleshy backs of the flowers heads. By the way, this is a very relaxing process and a favorite autumn task for share-givers (volunteers) to enjoy while sitting around in the shade at the end of a busy morning out in the gardens.

Processing sunflower seeds is a favorite autumn task. (Crates of Delicata squash in the background.)
Even young people enjoy this quiet meditative task.
The Mammoth Russian seeds will almost certainly need more drying after they've been removed from the flower head. Be sure they are thoroughly dry before storage or they will mold and be ruined. Small quantities can be dried in a food-dehydrator. If the air is not too humid in your greenhouse at time of harvest, spread the seeds on screens or in shallow card-board boxes but be sure to protect them from birds and rodents while they dry with screens on top too. We've also put the seeds into shallow baskets and dried them on shelves above our wood-stove.

Feeding the birds: Autumn Beauties: Just put whole heads out on your table-feeders, or string them on a wire between two posts or trees.

Mammoth Russians: We buy millet in the bulk-food section and mix it with the sunflower seeds and put it on a table-feeder or directly on the ground.

Chickadees love sunflower seeds!
(Photo credit: www.wallpaperup.com/45606/sunflowers_1920x1200_wallpaper_Animals_Birds)
Growing your own sprouts: Here is a post we wrote about growing your own sunflower sprouts.

Sunflower sprouts for winter "greens". You'll need a sunny window or greenhouse but their delicious, sweet, nutty taste and high nutrient-content are worth it!
Herbicide contamination: Sunflowers are very susceptible to certain herbicides (see our post about herbicide contamination from un-composted horse manure).

Hopefully this post will inspire you to add some sunflowers to your summer garden. These glorious plants have given us much pleasure and they're sure to please you too!

* Source: National Wildlife - Feb/March 2019, p 8.

Friday, April 26, 2019

"Sharing Gardens" for Local, 'Plant-Based' Food Security


 A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance while building stronger communities.
Sharing creates abundance! Greenhouse full of plants in mid-April. Chris spreading grass-mulch in paths.
We've been watching the dramatic weather world-wide: floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves and record snows! In recent years, every country that grows food has experienced repeated significant crop-failures. Pests, weather and super-weeds are all taking their toll. It seems more important than ever for people to learn to grow, at least some, of their own food. At the Sharing Gardens (MAP), we demonstrate a style of gardening that builds soil fertility using locally-generated, renewable and sustainable materials - like leaves and grass-clippings - that are commonly considered waste products. This model also fosters trust and a sense of community at the neighborhood level; relationships that can be called upon in times of social, or environmental stress. It by-passes "business-as-usual" in that it generates a bounty of "organic" fruits and vegetables feeding far more people than it takes to run it and no money ever changes hands. We call it a "Sharing Garden".
Sharing the bounty - garden helpers "shop" for their week's vegetables. 
What makes these Sharing Gardens unique is that, instead of many separate plots, that are rented by individuals, we all garden together. All materials and labor are donated. The food we grow is shared by all who have contributed in some way. All surplus is donated to local food-charities (like Food Banks and Soup Kitchens).
Lettuce and other vegetables being donated to a local food-charity.
This model is easily replicated anywhere there are vacant lots with a water-source, and people with enough gardening experience to oversee the project and does not require a large input of money to make it work. It can be adapted to many different scales of gardening; from a few families who live and garden on the same block, to a multi-acre production farm. "Sharing Gardens" help keep materials out of burn-piles and the land-fill (garbage dumps) through re-using, re-purposing and encouraging people to share their surplus.

Overview of the Sharing Gardens
Benefits of a Sharing Garden 
Harvest Totals - 2012
Using Leaves and Grass-Clippings to Create Soil-Fertility
Making your own potting soil in greenhouse paths
Grow Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans
Grow Your Own 'Blue Corn'
 Wish List - To Donate

To view videos about the project, LINK including the the Peak Moment video: The Giving is Growing.
To read articles about the project: Click Here
 
Volunteers from our local university help the gardens thrive!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Kale joins the "Dirty-Dozen' list: and How to Grow Your Own Kale

Kale - a generous plant!
In recent weeks we've seen several headlines announcing that kale has made it onto the "Dirty Dozen" list for the first time in ten years.  The "Dirty Dozen" list is compiled each year by testing thousands of samples of fruits and vegetables from different sources to see which have highest concentrations of herbicides and pesticides LINK. And the farm chemicals are not just showing up on the vegetables themselves, studies have shown that, people being tested have increasingly been found to have these chemicals show up in fluid samples such as blood and urine (see links below). It is unfortunate that kale has returned to the "Dirty Dozen" list as, in the past few years, it has shown a surge in popularity. Its recent following is not surprising as it tastes similar to broccoli (a favorite on American plates) and it is at the top of another, more favorable list - The Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), that rates foods by their nutrient density. Kale has the densest concentration of nutrients, per calorie, of a wide range of foods tested. (PDF of 72 tested foods) (explanation of chart). On the positive side of things, people who have switched to an all-organic diet have been able to reduce these chemical residues in their bodies by as much as 90% in as little as two weeks LINK.
Kale is the most nutrient-dense plant tested! (PDF of 72 tested foods)(explanation of chart)
So, if you'd like to incorporate more organically grown kale into your diet  and you're on a budget (we've noticed that prices for organic kale have really risen in the past few years...) perhaps you'd like to try and grow your own!

Kale is very easy to grow! Here's our POST on growing kale.
Grow your own kale: Kale is super-easy to grow and 2-4 plants will easily keep a family fed over the course of the summer. If your climate isn't too harsh you can grow a second crop that will produce food through the fall and winter too (though at a much slower rate). Here's our POST on growing kale.
Our CSA provides delicious, nutritious food May to November.
Or,  if you live in our area, you can join our CSA and receive a large box of delicious organic produce on a weekly basis - including copious amounts of green-leafy vegetables. We still have some CSA "shares" to offer. Over six-months of vegetables and fruits for $700. More info HERE.
How we grow our food at the Sharing Gardens: Because we are not a commercial farm, all our labor is provided by volunteers and we are under no pressure to produce food on a forced timeline to get it to market ahead of the other farmers in our area, our food is slow-grown, with less water-weight and hence more nutrient-dense. We fertilize primarily with compost derived from leaves, grass, weeds and food scraps, wood-ash from our wood-burning stove and with worm castings we harvest from the paths of our greenhouses LINK. We do not use commercial fertilizers. The wood-ash and the composted tree-leaves both provide re-mineralization of our soils because the tree-roots pull up minerals from deep within the soil. Without forcing our plants to grow fast with high-nitrogen fertilizers, or animal manures, they are more resistant to diseases and insect infestations that are caused, in part, by the thinner cell-walls of plants forced to grow unnaturally quickly.

Or, if you live in our area and would like to eat the kale we donate to Monroe's Food Pantry, you can shop weekly for free at the South Benton Food Pantry (some income-criteria required).

Sign posted at the Food Pantry to encourage more kale-eating.
Related links:
Kale rejoins the list of Dirty-Dozen list as one of the most contaminated with pesticides:

Not-So-Superfood! Pesticide residue found in 70% of U.S. produce & 92% of kale

What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food - The Guardian

Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary pesticide levels in U.S. children and adults - Science Direct  

Now, doesn't that look yummy!

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

No-Fail Kale: Growing Kale and Saving Seed

"The King of Vegetables; 'Kale' to the Chief!"

Cathy, Danielle and Llyn with "bouquets" of Red Russian kale to share at the Food Pantry.
Early spring in the Pacific NW is a time of joyful anticipation of the coming growing season. We already have hundreds of seedlings started in our greenhouses and, in a few short weeks we'll be able to transplant many early-season crops outdoors. But one of the great culinary pleasures of this time of year is the kale that wintered over from last season. Kale is one of those plants that when touched by a kiss of frost, becomes more sweet and tender than when growing at the height of summer.

Eat your kale for healthy skin, hair, bones and teeth!
There are many articles on-line about the nutritional benefits of kale and recipes for its preparation.  You will not find as many articles on-line about growing kale, using it as a cover crop, or saving your own seed which is what this article is focused on.

But, before we get into growing kale and saving seeds, in researching this post I discovered two important facts: Kale has the densest concentration of nutrients, per calorie, of a wide range of foods tested. (PDF of 72 tested foods) (explanation of chart).

And secondly, it is extremely important that, the source of the kale you eat is organically grown.
"The health benefits of kale greatly depend on the source you buy it from. Whenever you shop for kale, make sure to get organic kale, as it’s one of the most heavily pesticide-sprayed crops. Two-thirds of produce sampled in recent evaluations were poisoned with pesticides and non-organic kale ranks among the world’s most heavily polluted crops."(source)

How to grow it: Kale won't grow well in the tropics or arid regions but it's perfectly suited to a moist, temperate climate such as the Willamette Valley of Oregon where we live. There are several varieties available. The main two we grow are Toscana (or dinosaur) kale. With its greyish-green leaves (without many frilly edges) and mild-flavored tenderness, it is perfectly suited to make roasted kale chips (recipe below).


Toscana (or dinosaur) kale
But for ease of growing and hardiness through the winter, our favorite kale is Winter Red/Russian kale. This kale actually has the nickname 'hungry gap', after the period in winter in traditional agriculture when little else can be harvested. We've had stands of it survive through all but the most sustained snow and cold, outside and unsheltered through the winter.

Toscana kale is darker green and its leaves are less frilly (far left). Red Winter kale, hardier and more vigorous (easier to grow through the winter) is on the right.
Sign, we put with kale at the Food Pantry as many people were unfamiliar with eating it.
Typically we grow two main crops of kale per year. The first we start in early/mid-February.  We either start them in pots/six packs and transplant them outside (late March/early April) or we start them directly in beds in the greenhouse. We pick from both these plantings all the way until mid-July when a) the leaves become bigger and less tender and b) there is so much else coming ripe that we prefer to eat! In the heat of summer they also usually become infested with aphids and become inedible for this reason. This is also the perfect time to sow the second crop of the season (more on this below).

We start seeds in plastic tofu-containers with holes drilled in the bottom. We fill the containers mostly full of soil and press the soil down evenly with the bottom of another container. After sowing seeds, cover with scant, even layer of soil. Keep moist but don't over-water. These seedlings above are lettuce plants (to show spacing of seeds).
Once seedlings are large enough to handle easily and they have well-developed roots, but before they are root-bound, gently dump out the batch of seedlings and tease them apart, placing one in each cell of a six-pack.

In a few weeks, seedlings will grow and their roots fill the six-pack cells. They are then ready to transplant into garden-beds (18" apart). (Red Russian kale seedlings shown)
We have also sowed the seed loosely over a whole greenhouse bed in February (ideally the seeds are about 2" apart) and cover them lightly with topsoil. The kale comes up thickly filling the whole bed and grows rapidly in the protected climate of the greenhouse. It is easy to harvest whole clumps at a time with a sharp knife or scissors and, as long as you don't cut below where the leaves generate from, the kale will keep growing back all spring until a) you want to use the bed for something else or b) the greenhouse gets too warm for the cool-loving kale and it succumbs to aphids, or mold or gets too tough to enjoy.

Here, Chris is harvesting kale that was sown directly in a greenhouse bed. Using a sharp knife, he cuts off whole handfuls of kale leaving the node where new leaves sprout untouched for future harvests. The leaves will continue to re-grow for many, many months.
The second main crop of kale (for fall and winter eating) is sown in late July. It can be done in pots and transplanted, or loosely scattered as a thick crop (either inside or outside a greenhouse). It's counter-intuitive that you start these 'winter crops' in the peak of the summer heat but the seeds need enough time to germinate, and the leaves need long enough days to gain some height and volume as they will not gain much in size once the day-length shortens after autumn-equinox (Sept. 21 or so). We usually find it challenging to have enough room in our greenhouses at the peak of summer to grow a large kale crop indoors but, since kale does well outside, except in all but the harshest winters, we've had good luck with growing it outside.

Kale as a cover-crop: Below are some pictures of an experiment we did one year with kale as a cover crop. We sowed it thickly along with fava beans (tried to space plants about 2" apart). This was done by scattering the two varieties of seed and very lightly tilling them in with tiller at shallowest depth-setting. The kale did very well and lasted all through the winter. The fava beans succumbed to a sustained hard-frost and didn't survive till spring. After eating kale all winter-long, we tilled the rest in as a source for 'green manure'. This worked fine but we are now moving away from using the roto-tiller in the spring as it really compacts our clay-dense soil but, if you're still tilling in cover-crops and have a lot of kale-seed, it's a great way to go!

Kale and fava beans as a cover crop (planted in Sept., pictured in late October). Kale survived the winter; favas did not (froze). We ate kale all winter and tilled the kale into the soil in the spring as a 'green manure' (for fertility).
The same field of kale in February. OSU students harvesting a tub-full to take home and enjoy!
Springtime bonus: Kale 'raab'
Though there are some annual varieties of kale, most are biennial and set seed in their second season, after wintering over. If you have some kale that has survived the winter, look for the start of flowers forming. The best time to catch them is before the flowers begin to open (below). These kale flowers, called 'raab' (pronounced 'rob') are very tender and have a slight 'sweet' taste. They are loaded with vitamins and minerals.

Kale 'raab' (pronounced 'rob') is the flowers of the plant before they fully open. Tender, sweet and densely nutritious; a springtime treat! (pictured: Red Russian kale-raab) Note: Pick some leaves and stem along with the flowers; they'll still be tender at this time of year.
Here's Llyn picking raab off a Toscana kale plant in March or April.
Bella loves kale, raw from the garden! We prefer to steam it for about 7-min. and eat it with apple-cider vinegar or a touch of butter.
Saving seed: One of the pleasures of growing your own food from seeds is to begin to save your own seeds. With most varieties, it's not difficult and the seeds you save yourself will naturally select/adapt to be more perfectly suited to your local climate and conditions. It also contributes to having a greater sense of local food-security in case there ever comes a time when seeds are not distributed over long distances, or there is a seed-crop failure in another part of the country.

If left to mature, the raab opens up into yellow flowers. Once the flowers open, the plants become more woody and less pleasant to eat.
The flowers are pollinated and become seed-pods. Each plant can produce thousands of seeds! Wait to harvest the seed-pods till they are mostly turning purplish/tan and the pods are drying out (see above).
When ripe, the pods will easily open by rubbing them between your fingers yielding multiple seeds in each.
It's important to find the right time to harvest seed. You want to be sure the seeds are ripe enough that they are fully black and pop easily out of the pods, but don't wait so long that the birds eat your seed, or the pods shatter and spread the seed onto the ground below. Regardless of your best intentions, there are always some seeds that shatter out of the pods so you can anticipate 'volunteer' seedlings to germinate in places you've let kale plants go-to-seed.  We have one place in a greenhouse that has germinated kale plants for a third season in a row since we last let plants go to seed in that spot. That's what we call a 'high-quality problem'!

Mature kale seeds. Each plant is capable of producing thousands of seeds. This is just a small fraction of those saved from one plant.
You need to have some way of catching the seeds as the pods dry and open. After clipping the ripe seed-stalks, slip them gently in a paper-sack and hang in a dry place where birds and other animals can't reach them until the pods are all dry. You can also put them upside-down in a plastic tub or bucket. We have hung them from the rafters of our garden-shed, or on a shelf above our wood-stove, or put them in the greenhouse in a tub, on a shelf, covered by screens (to keep animals from eating them).

Seeds are ready for winnowing (separating seeds and chaff) when the pods are crisp and dry and crush easily by rubbing them between your hands. If it isn't in a tub already, carefully place the stalks of seed-heads into a tub and rub the pods between your hands to shatter them and release the seeds. As each stalk is cleaned, remove it from the tub. In the end you will have a mixture of seeds and dried leaves/pods (chaff). Winnowing is described in the caption below.

Here, Chris is giving a demonstration to Rook and Cindy of winnowing bean seeds (separating the seeds from the chaff). On a lightly breezy day, or in front of an electric fan, slowly pour seeds from one container into the other so the breeze blows the chaff away and the seeds fall into the lower container.
Storing seeds: Often, after winnowing, we continue to dry the seeds on a shelf above our woodstove. It is very important that they be totally dry or they can develop mold during storage. Heat can also destroy seeds so don't dry them any more than is necessary. Store seeds in a cool, dark place (or in your freezer, in an airtight container if you have the room). If you are new to saving seeds, check the plastic bags, jars or bottles a week or two after you store them to check there's no mold growing. We've lost a few batches due to mold which is always a sad thing when you go to check your seeds at the beginning of the next growing season.

Here's a LINK listing all our other posts about saving your own seed.

Delicious and nutritious, spring "greens": Toscana and Red Russian kale flanked by "Red Sails" lettuce.
Kale is easy to prepare and eat. We mainly use it steamed with a little apple-cider vinegar or lemon juice sprinkled on top, or a little butter but it it also good in smoothies (recipes), fresh in a tossed salad (recipe) or baked into chips (recipe). There are many great recipes on line. Always rinse well before using.

In the spring, when plants are small, the ribs will be tender and can be chopped right in with the rest of the leaves. As the plants mature, the ribs become more woody so best to slice them out and compost them.

Kale is incredibly nutritious. A 3.5 oz. serving (100g) gives you 7% of an adult's protein needs for the day as well as 5%- 15% of several vitamins and minerals. It is also very high in fiber.

(LINK: Health Benefits of Kale)

This 'ANDI' chart (below) lists 72 foods, rating them by their concentration of nutrients per calorie. Kale is #1! They're not suggesting that you rule out the foods that are higher in calories and less dense in nutrients (healthy bodies need high-quality fats, carbohydrates and protein) but most of us are deficient in the micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals etc) and fiber, that are essential for all our metabolic processes and optimal health. (LINK: Aggregate Nutritional Density Index - note, kale is #1) (LINK to one-page, printable ANDI chart).

'Rob' with kale 'raab'