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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lettuce: From Seed to Feed - Part 2: Saving Seed

By Llyn Peabody
Saving your own seed is an important aspect of developing local food self-reliance. Relying on commercial seed farmers may become increasingly unreliable as climate change disrupts weather patterns and seed crops falter. Growing your own seed slowly modifies your plants to be uniquely suited to your micro-climate and growing conditions. Networking with other seed-savers in your area builds a sense of community.
Lettuce flowers - close-up.
Seed-saving can seem intimidating at first. I know I felt that way. Many vegetables will cross with their neighbors yielding inconsistent results. There are many questions that must be answered before moving forward. For this reason I definitely recommend Suzanne Ashworth's "Seed to Seed". It is a comprehensive manual that covers all aspects of seed-saving. I am also grateful to my husband, Chris, for all he has taught me from his 40+ years of gardening. He's helped me translate the book knowledge into experiential learning. Saving seed appeals to the outlaw in me, I guess. Like treating illness with herbs I grew myself, there is something empowering about developing skills usually left to "the experts". As it turns out, it's not really that difficult at all.
"Red Sails" lettuce - blooming.
Saving Lettuce Seed: Like most things in gardening, a bit of forethought goes a long way. Ashworth recommends 12' - 25' separation between types of lettuce to prevent cross-pollination (the farther the better). Plan your plantings (and harvesting) to leave sufficient distance between the flowering plants. Though you may have enough time to bring a Fall crop of lettuce to seed, we usually do our seed-saving with the lettuce we plant in the Spring.

Lettuce bolting - Black-Seeded Simpson
 Lettuce is an "annual" crop. This means that the plants will produce seed in one season (without over-wintering). As the weather gets hotter and drier you will notice on romaine or "leaf" lettuce a definite lengthening of the plant. ("Leaf" types form a loose rosette of leaves but not a tight "head). When it lengthens, it is starting to "bolt". Lettuce that is bolting gets noticeably more bitter (probably nature's way of protecting the plant in this important phase of its reproduction). On "head" lettuce (such as Iceberg), Ashworth says it can be helpful to slit the head, forming a cross-cut with a sharp knife, making it easier for the flower-stalk to emerge. She says some gardeners strike the head of the lettuce with the palm of their hand thus breaking the leaves away from the stalk. Without some effort to free the flower-stalk, head-rot from heat and humidity may kill the plant before it can go to seed. So far we have saved seed mainly from "leaf" lettuce. This summer we will experiment with our red and green "head" lettuces to see what works best for us and report back.

Lettuce marked for seed with bamboo.

As we are gardening with a group of people, we have found it essential to clearly mark the plants that we are saving for seed, so they are not harvested by accident. We have made small tipi's with bamboo sticks, tied a red ribbon around the plant or put a small sign on a stake and driven it in nearby. Even a plant that is obviously past an edible stage for harvest is not safe as a well-meaning fellow-gardener may assume the responsible thing to do is weed out your seedy lettuce plant and toss it on the compost pile!

Staked lettuce - the flowers get heavy.

As the flower stalk grows it will produce a big head of flowers. You may need to tie it to a stake so it doesn't fall over. Seed production occurs 12 - 24 days after flowering. Ashworth says you can harvest seeds daily by shaking the stalk over a large paper sack. The ripe seeds will fall into the bag. The method we have used is to wait until the majority of seeds are ripe and to cut off the whole flower head and place that in a paper sack. Leave the sack open in a warm, dry place (like the top shelf your tool shed) until the flowers are thoroughly dry. Be sure to label the bag with the name of the lettuce variety. If mice are a problem and you have the space, try hanging the open bag from rafters.

To winnow the seeds, roll the flowers between your fingers and the palms of your hands to free them . Lettuce seed is challenging to separate because the seeds are not much heavier than the chaff. Patiently drop small amounts of the seed/chaff over a tray, from a height of a foot or two while blowing gently. The seed should drop and the fluff blow away. Some people run the seed through screens but we have not tried this method. Commercially available seed-sifting screens are another option. They have different sized holes.

Put ripened lettuce flowers into a paper bag to finish drying.
Lettuce seed will remain viable for 2-3 years if kept in a cool, dark place, in an air-tight container.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stone Soup, Gratitude and Wishlist

Alpine and Monroe's Sharing Gardens are a unique model of Community Garden. Instead of many separate plots that are rented by individuals, these gardens are one large plot, shared by all. All materials and labor are donated. The food we grow is shared amongst those who have contributed in some way as well as with others who are in need in our community. All surplus is donated to our local food-bank and other local food charities. No one is ever charged money for the food that is grown.

Remember the story of "Stone Soup"? A couple of strangers wander into a town of suspicious people and offer to make Stone Soup. No one believes it can be done, and everyone withholds contributing until a small child, who hasn't been tainted yet by the town's stingy spirit, brings forth a few onions stored in her family's root cellar. One by one the townspeople get caught up in the spirit of sharing and, by the end of the story they all sit down to delicious soup, made better by what each of them contributed.

Cathy Rose, Danielle and Llyn - 2010 with bouquets of kale.
The Sharing Gardens are a lot like Stone Soup. Everything that goes into making it a success comes from the generosity of people near and far. Some people give time, some give money and some bring us surplus materials they don't have need of, or even things like grass clippings, old cedar boards or other things bound for the dump or burn-pile. The gardens become a focal point for giving and receiving -- with each person who donates being blessed with the good feeling that they are making the world a better place through their contributions. And, for those local enough to partake, they're sharing in the bounty of the garden's beautiful harvest as well.

Local kids help with the harvest.
Each week brings new surprises in support and generosity and there are also on-going supporters who help make the garden's success possible.

Most recently we have some new, specific people to thank:

Bob and Cheryl Ballard brought us a dozen full bags of dried grass clippings - great for mulching the potatoes and putting under the burgeoning winter squash so they don't develop rotten spots.

Judy Todd has made a second cash donation.

We are grateful for our ongoing community of volunteers. People help out in the ways they are able; we find tasks to suit everyone's abilities. If you'd like to join in the fun of gardening without use of herbicides and pesticides, and share in the harvest, here is a link that shows our regular volunteer times. or send us an email and we can add you to the list to receive weekly reminders.

It's been awhile since we thanked our on-going supporters. These are people and organizations that help make the gardens possible:

Chester Crowson - owns the land where we have the Monroe site. He lets us use it for free as well as covering the cost of the electricity to run the pump in the well.

Bud Hardin - made a lump-sum donation to cover the cost of a portable toilet at the Monroe garden site for a whole year! The toilet is shared with the Monroe Food Bank volunteers as well. (And thanks to Guy Urbach for approaching Bud on our behalf - it wouldn't have happened without you!)

Best Pots -  is the local portable toilet service that provides a unit at the Monroe garden. They have given us a generous discount on the rental fee.

Weekly harvest - Alpine 2010
Mylrea Estell and Ray Kreth - our landlords - continue to harbor us in a low-pressure and generous arrangement, making it possible for us to volunteer so much of our time to the gardens.

Alpine Community Center - has umbrellaed us under their insurance policy so the activities at both garden sites are covered.

Alpine Pump - Dorothy and Gary give us permission to put the gardens' trash into their dumpster.

Jennifer Revais - empties the garbage cans at Alpine's Chapel Park as an on-going service.

 ...and The Tribune News - our great, local, weekly paper has been very helpful in printing many of our posts and helping us circulate news of the gardens to a much larger audience than we can reach on-line.

If you've been itching to get involved in some way and would like to know how you can add your "onions" to the pot, check out our Wish List below, or come down on one of the volunteer days and share in the "stone soup" garden.

Here is our current wishlist

Garden locations and volunteer times

Happy pumpkin picker - 2010

Harvest Totals - May 23 - July 31. 2011

One day's lettuce harvest!
(Note: I started this post almost three weeks ago and then life took over! Rather than re-write it, just know that it's not entirely up to date...)

We've been harvesting from the garden for ten weeks. The lettuce, peas and broccoli are finished for now. The beets, onions, zucchini, tomatoes and potatoes are just beginning. We started seeds for our fall/winter crops a few weeks ago and have begun transplanting them in the ground.  We weigh and tally all the harvests before distribution. This food is shared amongst volunteers and other contributors, the Monroe Food bank, Monroe's Senior Nutrition Program (bi-weekly lunches at the Legion Hall), Harrisburg Gleaners and Linn/Benton Food Share. Here are harvest totals, as of July 31.

Beets: 21 bunches
Broccoli: 26 pounds
Kale: 127 bunches
Lettuce: 551 heads (a great year for lettuce!!)
Green onion bunches: 23
Peas: 20 pounds
Spinach: 25 bunches

After checking with our local market that sells organic food, we tallied up how much this produce would cost if people were buying it for themselves. The total came to a little more than $2,500.

Gallery of Givers

We've got a really wonderful core group of volunteers showing up once or twice a week now. One day we had three mother/daughter pairs. And another day we had four young people ages 7 to 11. My mom, Judy has been visiting for two weeks and sister, Sue and nephew, Miles, joined in for an afternoon, which was really fun. Here are a sampling of smiling faces, happy helpers and a view of the garden's progress.

Miles plants broccoli
Sue displays an early onion harvest proudly.

Kaitlynn and Kyra with a bucket of potatoes freshly harvested
Christine (Ms Bug) trims tomatoes
Monroe Garden - celery in sleeves on left, lettuce-starts in middle, potatoes on right
That's an 8-pound cabbage!
Judy-mom, Chris and Jennifer - mulching with grass clippings
Kaitlynn watering the lettuce and Brussels Sprouts
Mark building a new compost bin
Niko - our youngest helper, takes a turn at watering.