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Summer news, July growing tips, and the ‘Second Spring’ Sowing

It has been a while since we wrote a newsletter, we have been very busy! 

I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a strange old year weather wise which has had its effects on all of us folk who grow veg. The record-breaking February heat wave was followed by a cold dry patch and then a cold wet stint too. Finally, now we have passed mid-summer it is starting to actually feel like summer, but let’s not hold our breath!

We are settling into our new site now and most of our crops are looking great.  We have now started to harvest our first seed-crop of the year which is Cavolo Nero kale, and we are very excited about it. We have been busy building a large polytunnel for heat-loving crops, and some smaller isolation tunnels to stop some of our outdoor crops from cross-pollinating with our neighbours’. We have been really lucky to have found so many second hand materials to set up our site, including three polytunnels (only one up so far, more to come), and lots of other bits and pieces.
Kale seed drying in the polytunnel

SECOND SPRING SOWING TIME IS HERE! WE’VE PUT TOGETHER A SPECIAL SEED COLLECTION FOR YOU…

I know summer has only just begun but now is the time to start thinking about winter. If you want to carry on eating delicious fresh veg in the colder months then now is the time to start thinking about it.  There are many crops that can be sown between now and winter, in fact, we at Vital Seeds refer to this second half of the summer as the ‘Second Spring’ as there’s so much stuff to get sown. Often winter crops can fit in the garden nicely after early crops have finished.

Seeds that can be sown during the next few months include: oriental salads, kale, rocket, winter lettuce, beetroot, fennel, claytonia ‘Winter purslane’, corn Salad / Lambs lettuce, turnips, spring onions, spring greens, kohlrabi, chard, chicories.

We have put together a limited amount of ‘Second Spring’ seed collections, which contain 10 varieties of veg to stock you up for this period. You can pick one up by clicking on the picture of Ronja below! As with our other collections, ‘Second Spring’ has a 10% bulk discount.

Gardening tips for July

Sowing: beetroot, carrot, lettuce, spinach, spring greens, dwarf French beans, oriental salads, kale, kohlrabi, fennel , radishes
Harvest: courgettes, peas, French beans, lettuce, beetroots, broad beans, radishes

Crop care
Tomatoes – remember to regularly ‘side-shoot’ tomatoes, this is the process of removing the shoots that grow in between the leaves and the stem of the plant. Removing the side-shoots means that you can keep a single vine per plant which is much easier to manage, and the plant can concentrate on putting their energy into making fruit. Its also good to remove the bottom leaves of the plants up to the first truss (bunch of fruit), this allows better air-flow around the base of the plants and helps sunlight to penetrate to the fruits to help ripen them.
Salad – Spring-sown lettuce will bolt soon, so it’s a good idea to keep sowing more. Also now that mid-summer has passed oriental leaves can be sown such as mizuna and purple frills (if sown in early summer they bolt quickly with the lengthening days).
Onions – keep them well watered at this time of year, to ensure good bulb formation
Peas, beans and courgettes – keep harvesting from these to encourage the plants to produce more, if the seeds are allowed to mature in the fruits then the plants can stop producing, as all they really want to do is make seeds! Of course you might want to save some of your own seed…
Seed saving – If you want to save some seed this year from annual crops (peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes) now is a good time to think about it. For peas and French beans, you can choose a couple of your strongest and most productive plants and leave the pods on them to fully ripen. Lettuce will flower soon, sending up a large flower stalk covered in yellow flowers which will then set seed. Its best to not harvest too many leaves from plants you want to save seed from as it will weaken them. Tomato seed is a bit more complicated, and needs fermenting, we will discuss this in next months newsletter as not many people will have ripe tomatoes yet.
Weeding – At this time of year the weeds can quickly take over if you turn your back! Try to keep the ground weed-free, the best time to catch the weeds is when they have just germinated, then they can be hoed off quickly and easily. If left to get bigger removing them is much more work.  You can also use a mulch at this time of year to keep the weeds down, but it must be a few inches thick to be effective. If it’s put on too thin the weeds will grow through it and you can hoe through a mulch.
Watering – keep plants watered while the weather is hot. The best time to water is in the morning or evening so that water does not evaporate in the heat of the day. To encourage your plants to grow deep roots its better to water less often but for a longer amount of time.
Enjoy your garden! – Remember to enjoy your garden, this is a lovely time of year on the veg patch and although there might be loads of stuff on your list to do, make sure you take time to appreciate what you have already achieved.

Thanks and enjoy the sunshine 🙂

Fred and Ronja


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New Year, New Land, New Horizons!

Germinating lettuce

There is something nice about a new year, the feeling of fresh starts, and new opportunities.

Those of you follow us on social media may already know, but we are particularly excited to announce that we will be moving our growing operation onto a new piece of land in the next few weeks, where hopefully it can stay for the foreseeable future. Our patch is based on an existing certified organic farm in Buckfastleigh, in South Devon, which is right where we wanted to be. We cannot wait to put up some polytunnels and get growing!

Our seed collections we released before Christmas have been a huge success, and we will continue to sell these. If anybody has interesting ideas for seed collection themes then let us know we would love to hear. We are thinking maybe colour themed collections, like golden or purple could be fun.

When should you start sowing seeds? Although it can be tempting to sow seeds as soon as possible, we would not recommend sowing many things before March, unless you have access to heat and light, as there is so little sun energy available at the moment for plant growth. There are some things that you can start to sow in February under cover such as lettuce, oriental salads, and onions, and if you have space indoors then this is also the time to start your tomatoes, peppers, and aubergines.

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No matter how experienced you are, no two years are the same in a garden. There are so many factors which can have profound effects on the growing season. Be it a winter two months longer than expected (ahem, sounds familiar) or a record-smashing hot and dry summer (ahem) or one followed by the other (!), we never know what is in store for us. If we did, wouldn’t life be boring?

We love this time of year, as it is a dreaming period. We are dreaming of all the amazing crops we will grow and the satisfaction which that brings with it. We have images in our minds of abundance and flourishing life, which can feel lacking when we look out of the window at the moment (although if you look closely enough there is still quite a lot going on out there).

Of course, reality rarely matches our dreams. As soon as we start to sow seeds we are reminded of how vulnerable we are, and that things may not be quite as easy as they had seemed in our dreams! Mice eat freshly sown seeds, slugs eat freshly germinated seedlings, polytunnel gets too hot because we forget to open it at the weekend, compost dries out and bugs and rabbits share our harvest. Real life is not simple. But we do not let this ruin our dreams, we just have to not be too attached to every detail of our dreams coming true. Yes, we will create an abundant garden, flourishing with life, and yes, we will bring in great harvests. However, there will be complications too, and we must see the value in the complications, as this is where we can learn the most, and if life is not about learning then what it is about? A wise sage once said: “I have learned so much from my mistakes, I think I will make some more”.

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Vital Seeds online seed shop launch and autumn news

Calendula - Zeolights

We are delighted to announce that as of Monday 8th October, our online seed shop is open for business.  We are very pleased with our website, and hope that it will be easy to navigate your way around. We have added a nice feature in the menu where you can view seeds by ‘product tag’ such as ‘suitable for containers’, ‘easy to save seed from’, or ’fun for kids’. We are very open to suggestions on what we can do to improve it so please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Autumn is a time for reflection. As the nights start to draw in and the leaves turn we are taking a few deep breaths and reflecting on a year that we will certainly never forget. We have come a very long way since Vital Seeds was born at the end of 2017. Our planned growing site, connected to an existing organic farm, unfortunately fell through early in the Spring at a very critical time for plant propagation. Fred’s bedroom quickly filled up with tiny seedlings as the search for an earthy home for them re-started in earnest. In the end we were very kindly supported by our friends at two local organisations who both offered us some pieces of land to bed in our seedlings for this season. These organisations are Chagfood CSA (community supported agriculture) in the Dartmoor town of Chagford, and Embercombe, in the picturesque Teign Valley. We are immensely grateful to both of these organisations for allowing us to use some of their precious growing space.

This year we have produced seed of many annual crops, including tomatoes, courgettes, peas, beans, lettuce and squash, and we have planted many biennial crops which we will save seed from next year including kales, beetroot, chives, shallots, leeks and celery. We also used this year to trial many different varieties of veg to see which we would most like to grow and sell in the future. We trialled about ten varieties of lettuce, six sugar-snap peas, three varieties of sweetcorn, and five dwarf French beans.

In May, Ronja Schlumberger joined the team (a team of one up until then!), which has been a huge blessing. Amongst many other things Ronja is responsible for most of the beautiful photos we have on our website. Photographing varieties for our catalogue has been no small task, and we still have more to get next year.

In July we moved into our office space in an old reception room at our friends’ farm in Drewsteignton, it was great fun to give the room a total makeover and get all of our stuff installed in there so we could start packing up seed and germination-testing everything.

We are still looking for a permanent home for the project from next Spring, in or around the South Devon area so if you know of some decent land for seed growing (couple of acres, flat-ish etc) please get in touch, we would be eternally grateful.

There is much more to say but no doubt you are all busy so I will wrap it up there.

We wish you all well

Fred and Ronja

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Tool steel or concrete? – a comparison of open-pollinated vs F1 hybrid varieties

Open-pollination

Open-pollination is the natural way that all populations of wild plants breed. It is also the way that cultivated plants have been bred for the last 10,000 years.  With open-pollinated plants each generation is similar to the previous one, and evolution and adaptation within the population occurs over time, in response to environmental pressures and changes. These pressures may come from human intervention or from natural phenomena. With open-pollinated varieties of crops, their genetic make-up is very malleable and their specific traits can be pushed and pulled in various directions depending on the needs of the plant breeder. They can be compared to a lump of hot iron, being carefully and skillfully worked by a blacksmith into their desired tool. Even once the tool is finished it can be tweaked by returning it to the fire, and can even be quite radically changed if needed. In the extreme the blacksmith can totally remake the tool or even use the metal from two tools to make another. As can the plant breeder working with open-pollinated varieties.Open-pollinated varieties can be accessed by anyone and everyone. You do not need to be a professional plant breeder to play around with changing and improving crops, you can do it in your back garden!

Open-pollinated varieties are to tool steel, what F1 hybrids are to concrete

F1 hybrid varieties do not come from populations, but are the result of a specific ‘cross’ between two genetically homogeneous ‘parent lines’. The parent lines often bare little resemblance to each other and are often very weak due to being highly inbred. The offspring (the F1) bares little resemblance to the parents. As they are the result of a cross between two genetically homogeneous parent lines, individuals within the variety are genetically almost identical which is why they are used ubiquitously in industrial horticultural production. They will grow at similar rates and be ready for harvest at almost exactly the same time, which if you are growing 20,000 cauliflowers in one field for a supermarket is a useful quality. Hybrids also show a quality called ‘hybrid vigour’ which is a poorly understood phenomenon, but that can lead to fast-growing plants. So hybrids do have some useful properties, however there are drawbacks. One is that, as with any tool, hybrids can be used for good or evil. Due to the fact that quality seed can not be saved from hybrids, some seed companies (we’ll not mention names) have undermined local subsistence economies around the world by removing traditional seeds and providing their hybrid seed as a replacement. Farmers who wish to use this seed must buy it from the company every year and are at the whim of their decisions around pricing or whether to even continue the variety. Often traditional varieties, which in reality may be better adapted to the specific growing conditions, are lost forever. Another is that they are an ‘evolutionary dead-end’. As they are not formed of populations the only way to produce them is to return to the parent lines and repeat the same cross. This means that they cannot adapt to changing climatic conditions which in the times we live in now feels like a very important quality. It is this quality which makes them more like concrete than tool steel. Once they are made they cannot be remolded, the only way to change them is to return to the parent lines and re-breed the hybrid. As with concrete, you cannot reuse it once it has set, you must return to the mixer and start afresh. If you have a slab of concrete you cannot rework it, but if you have a lump of steel, all you need is a fire.

Horizontal v vertical resistance

F1 hybrids are genetically brittle. As they are identical, there is no varying genetic resistance to pest and/or disease pressure between individuals, this varying resistance is called ‘horizontal resistance’, and it is found in any diverse population of plants (to varying degrees). Modern hybrid varieties are bred to have resistances to particular strains of diseases this is known as ‘vertical resistance’. These resistances are very solid as they are genetically fixed. However, as we all know nature is not fixed, diseases change all the time in response to our efforts to overcome them. So when a disease evolves (this can be very frequent), this resistance breaks down and the whole population is susceptible to the new strain of disease, and may be wiped out. So the breeders go back to the lab and breed a new resistance gene to the new disease strain and so the arms race continues. Within a genetically diverse population, there will always be varying levels of resistance to disease, and the most resistant plants can be chosen to save seed from to increase this resistance in the next generation. This is part of the process known as ‘maintenance’.

Maintaining open-pollinated varieties

To understand the importance of effective maintenance in open-pollinated varieties let’s return to our raw materials. Any steel tool which is used frequently will need maintenance. A scythe is a good example of this as when the blade is razor sharp cutting grass is easy and you can cover ground fast, but very quickly the blade will dull, as often as every few metres. If you continue to scythe without sharpening your blade, you will start to struggle and it will become a frustrating process, but if you diligently sharpen your blade every few metres, you will continue to cut effectively, ad infinitum (or at least until there’s nothing left of you blade!). Such is the case with open-pollinated varieties, if they are not maintained carefully year after year they will quickly loose their vigour and consistency, and this is exactly what has happened with many varieties. It is in the interest of seed companies to sell hybrids as they can charge more for the seed and people are not able to save their own. So it is also in their interest to not properly maintain their open pollinated varieties to encourage people to buy their more expensive hybrid seed.

The right tool for the job

In conclusion, its all about choosing the right tool for the job. Personally I would much rather be working with tool steel than concrete. I know where I stand with a lump of metal, and I know I can change it if I need to. I also suspect that the concrete suppliers don’t have my (or anyone else’s) best interest at heart even though they might have the opposite message written on the side of their truck. I will not be making my tools out of concrete any time soon!