When gardeners see their favorite lettuce start to bolt, it usually means it’s time to pull it and start over with another planting, but if your favorite lettuce happens to be an open pollinated variety, it can also mean it’s time to replenish your lettuce seed supply!
I’ve made a huge effort these past few years to save more seed from my garden from year to year. I’ve written quite a lot about the various reasons why, like how I am able to free up some of my seed budget so I can try a few new heirloom tomatoes every year, and how I hope to get better results from my favorite varieties from year to year with locally-adapted seed stock, but I think it bears repeating that seed saving is worth your time, particularly if it is a variety that has a permanent place in your garden from year to year. Over the past few years, I have gradually expanding my efforts, adding two or three new seed saving projects to my repertoire each year. After falling in love with Red Romaine lettuce last fall, it was kind of a no-brainer to make saving lettuce seed one of this year’s projects.
Lettuce seed is easy to save, but it does take a little time, space, and patience. A little planning ahead can be helpful if you are limited on space. The time from when the plant bolts until you can start to harvest seed is about one month, and then the seed harvest itself can last another month. During that time you will need to be able to accommodate a lettuce plant that will grow to be several feet tall and about a foot wide. You can harvest quite a bit of seed from one plant, so most home gardeners will be able to get by with leaving a plant or two in a convenient location and pulling the rest.
Always select plants that are slow to bolt and exhibit the best qualities, so those traits will be passed on to the next generation. You also need to make sure that the lettuce is an open-pollinated variety. Seed saved from hybrid varieties tends to revert back to one of the two original varieties that were crossed to create the hybrid, and may not look, taste, or perform as well as the variety you had hoped to grow again.
As the seed stalk emerges, there will initially be a heavier concentration of buds towards the top of the stalk, but you will also start to see additional, smaller clusters of buds start to emerge further down the stalk as well, and eventually each of these clusters will open up and spread out in the circular pattern you see above.
Once the plant starts to bloom, only a few flowers will open each day for a very short time. The flowering window is short–In fact, I missed the fact my plant was blooming for almost an entire week because the flowers didn’t start to open until mid to late morning and had already closed by the time I returned home from work in the afternoon!–but it gets the job done.
Lettuce flowers are self-pollinating, so you almost never need to be concerned about cross-pollination. That said, it can happen, so if you have more than one variety of lettuce going to seed at one time, and you want to ensure that you have pure seed stock, you may wish to separate them with a barrier or a little distance for good measure.
Flowering will continue with a handful of blossoms each day, and will continue for about a month.
You will also probably notice that the lettuce leaves will have changed rather dramatically during this process. They will be very thick and tough, and will excrete a very bitter milky sap if you tear into one. They are no longer palatable, with the age of the plant and exposure to hot temperatures having turned the sap extremely bitter as the plant transitions into seed production. The bud and seed heads may also have some of this same sticky substance (you can see a few droplets of it on the bud next the flower above).
After each flower has bloomed, it will close up once again (the purple teardrop-shaped pods you see in the photos) to develop the seed heads. It takes a couple of weeks for the seed to mature after blossoming, but then, just like the flowers, you’ll start to see the pods open up and reveal the feathery seed umbrellas.
The seed pods will continue to open in the same manner in which the plants flowered, with a handful of new seed heads opening up each day over the course of about a month. There will be some overlap with the flowering time, and there will be buds, flowers, seed pods, and seed heads on the plant all at the same time.
At this point there are a number of options for harvesting the seed:
Some gardeners choose to shake the entire seed stalk into a paper bag or a bucket every few days to collect the seed. It helps to allow the seed heads to sit for a few days after opening so they become brittle enough that the seed easily sheds without too much force. It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it works pretty well.
Others wait until at least half of the seed stalk has gone to seed and then cut the entire stalk and hang it to dry before harvesting the seed (unopened seed pods will continue to mature as the plant dries, but immature buds will not bloom). I tried this with a couple of small clusters, and the key to an easy harvest is to really let the stalk dry out for a few weeks (again, let the seed heads get brittle for easy seed collecting).
But I have found that the easiest way to harvest the seed is to simply harvest the entire seed head as they ripen. I simply pluck each one off (here’s where that sticky sap will get a little annoying, but it washes off easily) and collect them in a jar where I let them continue to dry. I feel like this method gives the greatest control over the degree to which the plants self-sow in the garden (not necessarily a bad thing, but it can but a kink in next year’s garden plans) and it’s also a good way to quickly harvest whatever seed is ready if rain is in the forecast.
The final step is to clean the seed by separating the seed form the other plant material. It separates fairly easily simply by rubbing the seed heads between your fingers to open up each pod and knock the seed out. Taking the task outdoors on a day with a light breeze can also help the process along (lettuce seed is light, so avoid really windy days), as will the use of seed screens if you want to be really meticulous about separating the seed from the fluff.
Lettuce seed is dormant for the first couple of months, so immediate seeding is not recommended. Instead, store your saved lettuce seed in the same manner that you would save your extra seed packets from year to year. If stored properly, lettuce seed will remain viable for at least 5 years.
The view from the garden this morning is pretty dang perfect. Yesterday afternoon, the skies opened up and we had a wonderful soaking rain that lasted for several hours. It has been about 5 weeks since we’ve had rainfall that has amounted to anything, so I didn’t even mind that we happened to be in the middle of an outdoor concert when it happened. Today the rain-soaked garden is vibrant with over-saturated colors and alive with new energy (isn’t it amazing how one good rainfall can do more for the garden than weeks of watering?), and I have renewed hope for the gobs of green tomatoes and tiny peppers that have been in no hurry to go anywhere this summer.
Similarly, I am coming back to the blog with renewed energy after an unplanned break. Life has been busy with other obligations and priorities, and all of a sudden one week turned into two, turned into three (yikes!). I promise I will catch up on all the comments awaiting a response and all of the happenings in the garden. I have some good stuff in the works, which I will humbly offer as a small token of my huge appreciation for you bearing with me during my abrupt absence these past few weeks.
‘Tis the season…
…to pickle just about anything you can fit in a mason jar!
Got a peck of peppers? A pint of beans? A couple of cukes? Pickle ‘em up!
The beautiful thing about pickles is that they give you a lot of flexibility. You can utilize a huge variety of produce and seasonings, work in batches of any size, and choose to refrigerate, can, or ferment. Pickling is pretty much a gardener’s best friend when it comes to creatively utilizing and preserving the harvest.
Now, I will be the the first person to go and on about the wonders of pickled rhubarb or pickled radishes, but deep down, my heart really belongs to the classic dill cucumber pickle. You really can’t beat those perfect little garlicky bites–they’re packed with incredible homegrown and homemade flavor–so when the cucumbers started to come in last week, there was little doubt that a good pickle or two was in the works.
This quick dill pickle recipe is perfect for when the cucumbers are just getting started and you only have enough to fill a pint jar or two, but it could easily be adapted for larger quantities as well.
The flavor profile is pretty straight-up classic, but the mild heat from the red pepper flakes and the extra depth of flavor from using apple cider vinegar instead of plain white vinegar kicks it up a bit (a few years ago my mom wisely told me that distilled white vinegar is for cleaning and apple cider vinegar is for cooking; I’ve stayed pretty true to that advice ever since and have yet to be disappointed by the results). As it is written, this recipe is mildly spicy, but you certainly could take it further in that direction with more red pepper flakes or even mincing a whole serrano or jalapeno pepper if that’s what you have on hand.
Obviously quick pickles are not shelf stable for long-term storage, but when they taste this good, they won’t be around for longer than a week anyway!
Quick Dill Pickles
3-4 medium-sized pickling cucumbers, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh dill
2-3 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 cup apple cider vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoon mustard seed
Thinly slice cumbers and pack them into a clean pint jar. Add fresh dill and red pepper flakes and set aside while you prepare the brine.
Add the remaining ingredients to a small sauce pan and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat and pour brine into the jar until the cucumbers are covered (if it appears that you will have a little extra liquid, be sure to spoon in as much of the garlic and mustard seed as you can to maximize the flavor).
Cover the jar and set it aside to cool to room temperature, then transfer the jar into the refrigerator. Pickles are ready and tasty in as little as 1 hour, but if you wait closer to 12-24 hours, they will be even better!
Meet the Mexican Sour Gherkin, the tiniest little cucumber that you ever will see. This little female bud is only about a quarter inch long, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in vigorous growth. These petite vines have been growing and climbing like crazy! The male blossoms have been actively blooming for a few days now, and the plants are starting to set a heavy crop of female blossoms as well. It shouldn’t be too long before we get our first taste of this unique heirloom variety!
If you’re looking for a good garden debate, look no further than the question of pruning tomato plants. You’ll find no shortage of compelling arguments and strong opinions in both camps. Some gardeners swear by it, others never do it, and both get tomatoes in the end, so how do you decide if you should prune your tomato plants or not?
The good news is that pruning is neither necessary nor harmful (assuming it is done correctly, of course), so you can do it–or not–and still have a successful garden. More important than if you are on Team Prune or Team Sucker, is figuring out what works best for you and your garden.
When gardeners talk about pruning tomatoes, they’re generally talking about removing all but perhaps a small number of the “suckers” that grow where the leaves branch off of the main stem (we’ll get to low-hanging leaves and leaves that show signs of disease in a minute). These little shoots will grow leaves, suckers, and tomatoes of their own if they are allowed to continue growing. This growth pattern is what gives tomatoes their tendency to grow both up and out and eventually into a full-fledged tomato jungle.
The pruning process is pretty straight forward: if the suckers are still small and flexible, they usually just snap off cleanly with a firm grip at the base; if they are not easily snapped off, sometimes a sharp knife or pair of garden shears is necessary to get the job done. Just be sure you are not pruning out the main growth point at the top of the plant!
One of the most common things you’ll hear on the topic is that pruning will result in better tomato production, but there are studies (like this one) that suggests that all things being equal, it may not really make a difference in overall production. Pruning tomatoes can produce larger, earlier fruits, because energy that would otherwise be spent growing foliage is redirected into growing and ripening the tomatoes. However, tomato plants that have not been pruned can produce a larger number of tomatoes because there are more stems producing fruit and more leaves producing energy. In the end, a smaller number of larger tomatoes adds up to be about the same as a larger number of smaller tomatoes.
Of course in the garden, all things are rarely equal, and there are differences in growing conditions, available space, and the prevalence of pests and disease, and the issue suddenly becomes much more nuanced and pruning or not pruning can have a much bigger impact. There are short season gardeners that rely on pruning to ensure their tomatoes ripen by the end of the season and gardeners in locations that rely on un-pruned tomato foliage to protect their harvest from sun scald. Carefully pruned tomatoes make it easier to find and destroy tomato hornworms quickly. Determinate varieties only grow to a certain size and set a certain amount of fruit, so pruning is counter productive. Gardeners with big sturdy cages and lots of space might not have to worry about pruning, but small space gardeners who use stakes or twine trellises to fit it all in do.
As a gardener you really have to get to know your garden and figure out what works best for you and your goals. Are you concerned with managing Early Blight? Do you want to do things as simply and naturally as possible? Do you just really like the way a perfectly trellised row of tomatoes looks?
- To increase air flow + reduce risks for fungus/disease
- To make more efficient use of space
- To make certain types of staking and trellising easier
- It can improve production (larger, earlier tomatoes)
- To expedite ripening by forcing plant to direct energy to fruit instead of new growth
- To cull flowers + fruit that will not mature by the end of the season
- To more easily find + remove destructive pests
- To make harvesting easier
- If you are growing determinate varieties
- To allow the plant to grow naturally
- To allow more leaves to photosynthesize, producing more energy for the plant
- To avoid introducing disease through pruning wounds
- If you are using cages to support your tomato plants
- To provide protection from sun scald
- It can improve production (more tomatoes per plant)
- To keep as much healthy foliage as possible in the event diseased foliage needs to be removed
Of course the important exceptions that even avid no-pruners should make are removing the bottom leaves from the plant that come in close contact with the ground (to prevent soil-borne disease from splashing up onto the leaves) and any leaves that show signs of disease (to prevent or at least slow the further spread of disease), as this is just good practice.
My personal preference is to just let my tomatoes grow without pruning the suckers. I find it to be less fussy and In my current set up, I’ve encountered fewer problems with keeping my plants upright with the use of heavy duty cages than trying to tie everything up to a single stake. I also think it’s best to let the plant produce as much energy as possible, as the whole point of growing tomatoes is to get tomatoes, so in my mind, the more the better (and my own anecdotal experience is that size has a lot more to do with variety selection than anything else). Why mess with what Mama Nature has perfected? The other big reason I do not prune, is that Early Blight is hard to avoid in our humid summers, even with the best preventative efforts. There will come a point in the next couple of months where I’ll have to start pruning out blighted foliage, so I want to keep as much healthy foliage to maintain production and protect the tomatoes as possible.
If I had more time, or a different set up, pruning might make more sense for me, but this approach works really well for me right now. It’s manageable and it leaves time for me to enjoy my time in the garden, which is what we are all going for, right?
I’d love to hear from you: What works best for you and your garden?
A good mix of rain and sun the past few weeks has the garden growing lush by leaps and bounds, which is helping it catch up from a little later than usual start. I’m still waiting to see my first tomato blossom, but a tomatillo flower isn’t a bad consolation prize!
Let me introduce you to some of the newest residents of my garden:
These two little wrens moved into the garden earlier this spring, built a nest, patrolled the garden for insects, hatched a brood, and have provided hours of entertainment along the way.
I started to notice their distinctive song in mid-May, and by the end of the month, both birds were spending their entire day singing and going in and out of the wren house with twigs to build their nest. Though I’ve had the wren house in the garden for over a year now, I have to admit that I really didn’t know much about them or their nesting habits, except that they have a good appetite for insects.
Our wren house is hanging from the arbor on the side of the house where I am working on establishing a permanent herb and pollinator garden. It has been a great location for them, as it gives the wrens (who are very territorial) a little space of their own, and it also allows us to observe unnoticed from inside the porch (if you notice that some of the photos are a little distorted, it’s because they were taken through the screen). I also love having a little life in the garden, as well as the benefits of insect control.
After a while the songs quieted down a bit, and were gradually replaced by a more defensive warning chirp whenever I would be working in the garden. Mama Wren keep a quiet eye on things from inside the house, while Pa Wren started to practice bringing his latest catch back to the nest.
Another couple of weeks later, and we could hear the chorus of chirps from inside the porch whenever one of the wrens would bring back a grub or moth. These guys ate a ton of bugs!
Listening to their chatter was really fascinating. They clearly have different vocalizations to communicate with each other, as well as with the new brood, who would hear the warning call, and instantly go silent.
They also provided a lot of entertainment as they would hop around the garden, gobbling up insects and perching on the fence. I got a real kick out of watching their behavior and learning their personalities. One was pretty chill most of the time, while the other was a little more high strung. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my garden space with these guys.
But of course, babies must leave the nest eventually, and I had my first clue that the time was imminent two nights ago, when I noticed that one of the little wrens had ventured outside of the house:
I watched from a distance on the steps of the deck, as the little guy tried to get his wings to carry him long enough to get back up to the house. It took him a while (and multiple attempts), but he eventually made it all the way up the arbor and back into the house, with Ma and Pa Wren protectively perched above and guiding him with a series of chirps.
And yes, I totally cheered for him when he made it back into the house.
The very next morning, all of the little wrens left the nest. I was off from work and was lucky enough to be outside watering the garden when it happened. At one point I counted 6 little wrens hopping around in the garden and testing out their wings within the confines of the herb garden. A few of them even ventured along the fence over to the vegetable garden I had just finished watering.
After a little while, the adults called them up into the Ash tree above the garden, and before I knew it, most of them had flown into the River Birch trees in our backyard.
A couple of little wrens seemed to be a little less sure about the whole flying thing than the others, and they hung back in the garden for most of the morning. They would fly short distances between perches on the fence and tomato cages, occasionally resting for a while when they were tired out (learning to fly is hard work, you guys!). The whole time one of the adults was perched on the powerline over our driveway, halfway between the garden and Birch trees, calling back and forth with the straglers. By lunch time, the last couple of little ones had joined the rest of the brood up in the trees and the whole family spend the entire day chattering and occasionally testing out their song.
They didn’t return to the nest last night, but we spotted a number of them around the yard as we enjoyed a couple of beers on the deck last night, and I heard their distinctive chatter up in the trees early this morning as I left for work. It feels so quiet in that little corner of the garden now, but it’s hard to be sad when you suddenly have six more little bug hunters patrolling the garden! Plus, there’s also a possibility that we could see another pair of wrens take over the nest and hatch a second brood in the house before they begin their fall migration.
My inner garden nerd is totally geeking out over this second generation variegated Opalka tomato plant.
Last summer, I saved some seeds from this plant, in hopes that this unique trait might show up in my garden again this year. I will admit that I hedged my bets a little bit by starting just one plant with the saved seed, and another from the original packet, just in case the saved seed wasn’t viable or the plant unfruitful, but the second generation plant appears to be good on both accounts so far.
I had almost forgotten just how pretty these variegated leaves are!
Strawberry season may be a fleeting moment in the course of the entire gardening season, but it definitely packs a punch while it’s here. A few weeks of overflowing bowls of sun-ripened fruit, berry stained fingers, and the sweet taste of summer… I just want to
bottle can it all up–and that is exactly what I did last week!
With a few jars of strawberry jam still in the pantry from last summer, I decided to go a slightly different route this year, making two versions of strawberry sauce: a canning-safe version of a fresh strawberry sauce I have been making for a number of years, and a batch of Marisa McClellan’s Strawberry Caramel Sauce.
My own version of a basic strawberry sauce is a great option for beginners. The ingredients and process mirror jam-making closely, so you have a pretty basic recipe and process to follow, but the application is actually easier than making strawberry jam. Strawberries are naturally lower in pectin, which can sometimes make obtaining a firm set jam more challenging if you are just learning the ropes of jam-making (particularly if you are going the no added pectin route), but with strawberry sauce, a product that is a little runny is exactly what you are going for.
The end result is a very bright and fresh flavored sauce that tastes just like you took fresh strawberries and tossed them in the blender.
The process for making the strawberry caramel sauce is a little more involved, but as long as you are comfortable reading a candy thermometer, it really isn’t difficult at all. By caramelizing the sugar first, then adding in the pureed berries, a really rich and decadent flavor develops. The thought of making a fruit-based caramel had never crossed my mind until I discovered this recipe, but now that I’ve tried it, I can’t imagine a strawberry season without it and my mind is already starting spin with different variations to try.
The possibilities are endless with strawberry sauce.
Of course ice cream is at the top of the list (and highly recommended), but it would also work well on any number of desserts (um, hello strawberry caramel cheesecake!), as an add-in to your morning yogurt or oatmeal, as a substitute for syrup on pancakes, waffles, or french toast, and the basic recipe could easily be used to add a burst of strawberry flavor to smoothies, lemonade, and even a well-deserved garden cocktail or as the base for a strawberry vinaigrette.
I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, as I like different qualities about each one, so perhaps a 4th of July strawberry sundae taste test may be order. I wonder where I could find some willing participants for that… :)
4 lbs of strawberries
1 cup of sugar*
2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice
Trim hulls from strawberries and combine with sugar in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until berries are soft. Remove from heat and use an immersion blender to puree until smooth.
Add lemon juice and return to burner, cooking and stirring until sauce comes to a steady boil that can’t be stirred down.
Remove from heat and transfer into prepared half pint jars. Process for 10 minutes in a hot water bath.
*If sauce is not sweet enough for your taste, the amount of sugar can be increased to as much as 2 cups
Well, it’s here: the first “Measuring Up” post of 2014! However, this year’s posts will look a little different. Just as my gardening has evolved over time, I feel it’s time for these Measuring Up posts to evolve as well. Even though I have a good system that has worked really well for me, and even though it only takes a few minutes out of my day, simplicity is appealing to my senses these days, and I kind of like the idea of not feeling as though I have to weigh everything in at the end of the day.
But I also like the idea of documenting the harvest, so I’m going to try out a new format for these monthly posts. I will still include some quantitative measures of what I harvest from the garden, but I probably won’t include it for every crop, every time. Instead I want to focus more on some of my observations about the garden harvest and how I’m using it. I may return to the good old fashioned weigh-in at some point; we’ll see how it goes! If you find one or the other type of post more helpful or interesting, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Dividing the rhubarb patch last year was clearly a good move, because the rhubarb has been unbelievable this year! The leaves are bigger and the stalks are longer than they’ve ever been in the time we’ve owned the house. After harvesting just a few stalks here and there in May, I harvested at least 15 lbs. of rhubarb this month. I could have easily harvested more, but life has been such that I just haven’t been able to keep up with it. As a result, most of what I have harvested has been frozen for future use, but we’ve also enjoyed a few good rhubarb recipes in-season–particularly rhubarb salsa.
Just in the past two weeks I harvested 4 large heads of Red Romaine Lettuce. These heads are from fall-sown seed that didn’t germinate until early this spring. This is the first time I’ve been able to grow heads of any type of lettuce, so I’m quite excited about having a crisper drawer full of beautiful homegrown romaine. Garden salad season is on!
The strawberries came in fast and furious this year! I started picking in mid-June, about a week or so before the local u-pick patches opened up, and picked steadily (usually in the rain) for about two weeks, which seemed like a shorter span of time than in previous years, but the overall total harvest feels about the same (perhaps it was our record rainfall that pushed everything to ripen all at once?) In addition to a few bowls that we ate fresh and shared with my in-laws, I processed a little over 10 lbs of strawberries into two batches of strawberry sauce (stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!).
I’m just starting to harvest a few of the larger leaves of kale. I feel like this is about as big as I want to let the Red Russian get, so I’m going to continue to harvest this one regularly, but I want to let the Lacinato get a little bigger before I start harvesting too aggressively (the plants have had a few setbacks at the hands of the neighborhood bunny population). Both varieties have been very tender and delicious!
I had a really good harvest of volunteer cilantro this month (which ended up in several batches of rhubarb salsa). I also had a nice little handful of thinnings from my winter-sown dill that were a nice addition to a salad. My overwintered mint, oregano, and chives continue to grace the table here and there, and even though it hardly counts as a “harvest,” I have been sneaking a taste or two from some of the still-smallish new herbs I started from seed this winter: summer savory, tarragon, caraway, and sage.
What are you enjoying from the garden right now?
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