Testing Seed Viability

A few weeks ago, I tested the viability of some older, packaged tomato seeds.  Then I realized that there might be some beginners out there who don’t know how to do this.

Seed packages aren’t too expensive, but when you add in variety – I like to grow seven different kinds of tomatoes at a minimum – buying new seed every year can get expensive.  And tomato seed can last for many years.  But what if you aren’t sure how old they are, or maybe they weren’t stored properly?  You can check.

bean seed sprouting
bean seed sprouting

These are some Emerite Bean Seeds that I saved from 2017.  I didn’t want to buy more if they were viable so I checked.  It’s easy to do.  The seed at the left of the picture is what they look like in the envelope.  To test, just wrap a seed in a wet paper towel, put it in a waterproof container and in a dark, warm spot.  The top of the refrigerator is classic. I tucked mine there under a shelf for the darkness part.  I started checking at about three days.

The picture was taken at more like a week because that’s when I around to getting the camera out. It shows a swollen seed that’s putting out a root system.  You can just see the base of the leaves, breaking out of the seed pod.

Now I know, the seeds I saved from two years ago are fine, and will make bean plants this year.

Some caveats:  Don’t wet the paper towel too much for small seeds.  Check sources to find out how long your seed normally takes to germinate; there is a lot of variation.  Warm and dark works for most summer garden seeds but not all; e.g., some seeds need a cold period before they will sprout.  Check your package or check for special conditions online.

Chlorotic Seedlings 2016

Chlorotic Tomato Seedling
Chlorotic Tomato Seedling

Although I’ve done the same things this year, as far as I know, a lot, not all, of my seedlings have developed these leaves of an unhealthy, pale green.

As usual, I started seeds, one to each 2″ soil cube made with Pro-Mix .  Fertilized with a half-strength solution of Miracle Grow when true leaves appeared.  (Seedlings are supposed to carry their own “food” to this point.)

My favorite theory is that the small soil cubes (like the basil below) dried out on the heat mat and then got flooded when I watered.  That inconsistency would interfere with the plants ability to take up water and nutrients.  It’s my favorite theory because I’m potting everything up, anyway.  As usual, I do that when they have a couple sets of true leaves or earlier, if I see roots at the edge of the soil cubes.

Most of the web sites on this issue are written for mature plants and because the problem is on the newer leaves, most sources would indicate an iron deficiency.  But why this year and not others?

Other theories are a magnesium deficiency, although that would be easy to treat with Epsom Salts, again, why this year only?  And web sites that show pictures of magnesium deficiencies show more damage than just a poor color.

Other years, I’ve had damping off problems and fungus gnats, as well as mice that ate my seedlings, and a cat who ate them and upchucked green goo on my putty colored carpet (sigh).  This is a new one.

So, as I was potting up, I cleaned all of the flats and the watering can with a 10% solution of bleach in water, just in case.  I sprayed the plants with the same fertilizer solution — if for some reason they can’t get food through the soil, maybe they can get it through their leaves.  It has small amounts of both iron and magnesium as well as the usual.

I’m also considering a test where I also spray a few plants with an Epson Salts solution, a teaspoon in a pint of water, because of anecdotal evidence that tomatoes love the stuff.

Doing several things at the same time isn’t a very scientific way of finding out the cause but mostly, I want my seedlings to thrive.

Chlorotic Basil Seedling
Chlorotic Basil Seedling

The Tao of Vegetable Gardening by Carol Deppe – Book Review

The most valuable parts to me

To me, the most valuable parts of this book are where she discusses the reasons, procedures and processes to create our own varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables. The reasons are excellent.  A home grown tomato, selected from the best tasting, and for your garden conditions, is a joy that no amount of money can buy; but you can grow.  This singular accomplishment is threatened by the disease called late blight.  As she points out, programs to develop new tomato strains that are resistant to late blight are likely to start with tomatoes selected for market.  Selected for uniformity, storage and mass growing conditions.

Heirlooms and open pollinated varieties, among others, may be completely lost unless home and small growers do their own work.  She gives concrete, how-to advice for de-hybridizing and creating crosses to come up with tomatoes that have the characteristics that we love in heirlooms plus the genes needed to confer resistance for late blight and other diseases.

She also goes into detail about creating landraces, using seed saving and genetic selection to produce plants that are most productive, flavorful, or colorful – you choose – for your own growing conditions.

Some Surprises

I’ve always thought that seeds were fragile and to keep them viable, they should be kept from getting too dry or being frozen.  Carol talks about using those processes to create a personal seed bank to preserve seeds for periods long beyond what I thought were possible.

Very interesting discussion about tomato taste and when to pick: late day, after the sun has warmed them, for her.  That’s not something that I’ve thought about.  If she’s right, most tomatoes purchased at a farmer’s market and picked the morning they are sold are not as full of flavor as they could be.  I imagine farmers would be overjoyed to find that they could pick the afternoon of the day before, (or a few days before for some varieties) sleep in and have better tasting tomatoes.

A few nit-picks. 

There is nothing wrong with Swiss Chard.  And I’m surprised as Carol really likes greens; it makes a wonderful counterpoint to the sweet winter squashes that she develops and grows.  I would never try to change Carol’s mind but you should try it for yourself and I would recommend you try it in Molly Katzen’s recipe, Pasta with greens and feta.

Regardless of the cover subtitle:  “Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy and Serenity”, it was hard for me to identify the audience that the author had in mind.  It gives some basic cultivation advice but not enough for most beginners to be successful.  That’s all right; there are other books that do this.  She mentions a lot of helpful resources beyond her own books.

The Taoist stories and sayings are amusing and entertaining but in my opinion, amount to a sort of “what ever” from a philosophical viewpoint. But then, the older I get, the more I resist any rigid belief system.  So maybe I am Taoist.  Whatever. <s>  When it comes to joy and serenity in the garden I am a long-time true believer and I can respect anyone who shares that and applaud anyone who wants to share it with others.

Unfortunately, with only room for about a dozen tomato plants; I grow only two or three of each variety (with no ability to rotate where they grow), I can’t afford even the modest space that she suggests to experiment.  So I hope some of you with a little more sunny space will read this book feel inspired. It’s probably less space and trouble than you think.


Tomato Seedling Problem

another shot
another shot
Brandywine tomato with problem
Brandywine tomato with problem

I threw out about two thirds of my Brandywine seedlings yesterday as I was potting up my tomatoes into three inch peat pots.  The leaves were starting to curl, wilt and yellow.  With a close look, I was thinking maybe scale but the fuzz is not something that I associate with scale.  Then saw pictures and descriptions of older plants with early blight.  I’ve never known it to hit seedlings. Any ideas?

10 Reasons to Plant the Tomatoes

Although it’s two weeks earlier than I would like due to risk of cold weather.

  1. They are too big and top heavy to carry in and out without damage.
  2. Every time I try, something flops and threatens to break.
  3. The peat pots wick water unevenly, especially under the influence of sun and wind and I go to work thinking they are well watered and come home to a badly wilted plant or two.  Wondering why only one or two?
  4. They are probably not getting the food they need for this stage of their growth.  Resulting in yellowing of bottom leaves.  Fertilizer delivery mechanisms rely on the uptake of water; see # 3.
  5. When I leave them out at night and temps drop, the small amount of soil in their pots probably gets cold, too.  This morning it was 41 deg F.  The earth has been consistently over 50 deg F for a month or so.
  6. Forecasters are saying days in or near 70s and nights in or near 50s for the next 10 days.
  7. I have remay and know how to use it if they are wrong.
  8. The dahlia tubers that I was planning on working with this weekend won’t come to harm if it takes me another week to plant.
  9. The tomato plants woke me up at 5:00 am saying plant me, plant me.
  10. The formerly floppy SuperSweet 100 that I planted over a week ago looks like this!
happy if cold tomato

LED Lights and Seed Starting

tomato trees
tomato trees

All of the articles that I could find talked about growing things under LED lights were for just that purpose, growing things to maturity.  There were also some cautions about how they could hurt seedlings.  So I dithered about whether to use my old setup with shop lights or try the LED lights that I’d purchased for winter growing.  I think the things that decided me are first, the shop lights are getting old and the recommendation is to use new bulbs.  And second, the LED lights are cheap. My electric bills don’t show the use enough for me to know how much this lighting costs

I did hedge my bets and keep some of the seedlings under a single cool light fixture, but the ones that I put almost immediately under the LEDs did better.  I did keep the LEDs a couple of feet away.  I started lettuces and Piracicaba in the guest room under one light.  When these cool weather plants were ready to go out, I moved the light down to the basement to enlarge the warm planting area where I can provide bottom heat, giving the tomatoes, basil and eggplants more time while the outside temps warm up.

The area over floweth.  In addition to my seed starts, one of the dahlia companies sent me plants, not tubers, so I’m babying them on the heat mats that are no longer needed by the bigger seedlings.

My remaining worry is that the plants are so comfortable in the basement that they will sulk outside.  I’ve been removing suckers and even blossoms, which tells me that they are too happy.  Next year I move back the start date by at least two weeks (the seed went into the cubes on 3/25/2012.)  It’s also a clue that I should probably be using a more limited spectrum of lights for seedlings.  In addition, Supersweet 100 is the plant that wants to blossom so that also suggests a tomato I should try inside this winter, if I want to.  Here’s a shot under normal light for those of us who can’t see through the lurid LED colors.

more tomato trees
more tomato trees

Lettuce under LED lights – the experiment begins

lettuce sprout
lettuce sprout

I started lettuces on 10/23 and they were just showing green, under my usual florescent bulb starting mechanisms, when the power went out for five days.  I was worried that the sprouts would be too leggy and get my trials with an LED array off to a bad start, but after watching for a few days, these look fine.  I guess that the cooler house temperatures also slowed development. 

The light is an Illuminator UFO 5-Band Tri-Spectrum LED grow light.  I vaguely thought that I would start with simple lettuces but the leftovers from last spring didn’t really offer that choice, except for Simpson Elite, a popular leaf lettuce, so I started two rows of it.  And a row each (four 2″ soil cubes) of Australian Yellow (leaf) and Yugoslavian Red, my favorite heading lettuce.  A row of Red Velvet didn’t germinate for some reason, I have had that problem before with that seed; this was a replacement pack. Thus, the empty cubes in the last picture.

In spite of plans to take advantage of extra basement space with a well-designed setup, in my usual haphazard way, I stuck the light in the guest/junk room.  It uses the very sophisticated setup that I use in spring, two cross country skis over the tops of chairs and chains to hang the lights.  I left one florescent fixture in place for times when I want to work with the lettuces.  In just the time it takes me to get from the door to the outlet to unplug the LED array, my eyes are already complaining about the lurid pink glow. And everything is green while your eyes recover.

the setup
the setup

If anyone has advice about how long these lights should be on for lettuce, please speak up.  I keep the seed starting lights on for 16 hours a day but I think that may be too long for these.  Also, I suspect that day length has something to do with lettuce “heading up” so I’m thinking I should plan for some room to increase hours for that heading lettuce when it gets bigger.  I have been warned that lettuces grown under low lights could have dangerous levels of nitrates, and did some reading on that.  I do not know if “low light” applies to LED arrays.  And about the only plans I have to deal with this is to use a low nitrogen fertilizer and get one of my lettuces tested at harvest time.  I’ve also read that foods that have this problem taste bad so, guess what!  I won’t eat them if they taste bad!

lettuce under LED array
lettuce under LED array

Beginner’s luck or persistence?

I’ve read on some reputable blogs that beans shouldn’t be started inside because they don’t like their roots to be disturbed.  With respect, I have been doing it for years.  I have problems with critters, and should also probably credit my cool soil with part of the problem.  Beans wouldn’t germinate, or maybe disappear from the soil before they had a chance.  And those that did come up would get chewed leaves or completely defoliated before they had a chance to get established.  So, not knowing that it wouldn’t work, I planted Emerite beans in my 2″ soil cubes several years ago.  I had such good success that this has become my regular habit.  They don’t need heat or lights.  I start them at the same time I would plant seed in the ground and keep them on my deck.  It only takes a couple of weeks; one for them to germinate and another for them to develop true leaves.

When I was planting them this year, I was wondering if knowing that it wasn’t supposed to work would jinx this process.  There were wads of roots at the bottom of the flat that I had to disturb to separate the plants.  They looked a little wilty right after I planted and I thought Oh, oh.   But when I came home from work they had already aclimated and look fine.  

Now I just need to protect them from the deer that have found my garden (reason for the propped empty trays) and get them started up the mesh that I use for a trellis, before they find the nearby tomato cages.  Yes, I often pick beans from tomato plants at the end of the season.

So I think the life lesson in this is that it’s all about what works for you.  When you find a plant or technique that gives you success, trust it.  No two gardens are the same and even in the same family, say beans, plants differ in what they like or will tolerate.  I would have given up on beans with my early results.  Especially when all you have to lose is an inexpensive package of seed, keep trying; dare to break the rules.

Tomatoes are in the ground

As of yesterday and these may be some of the best starts that I’ve grown.  You can see they have little in common with the ones you buy in sixpacks.  Some of the credit has to go to our weather.  The storm that churned around in the ocean for a week or so didn’t come this far inland but it did create some substantial winds.  Which made for some very sturdy stems on the tomatoes as they hardened off.

So it’s a couple of weeks earlier than I would normally plant them but they look ready and the nights are forecasted around the 50s for the next two weeks.  Days not a lot warmer but warm enough.  With all of the rain in the forecast I need to get them mulched.  I do not have room to rotate tomatoes and most diseases that bother tomatoes are overwintered in the soil.  Mulching will keep the rain from splashing the spoors back up onto the leaves.

As always, I have more plants than room and a couple of the tomatoes jumped into the new asparagus bed when I wasn’t paying attention.  Naughty; naughty. 

The tomato in the picture is Black Krim, a favorite of mine for both color and flavor.  I hope that either the Pineapple or Virginia Sweets will act as a beautiful contrast on the plate.

Varieties I’ve planted

Old favorites:

  • SuperSweet 100
  • Sun Gold
  • Yellow Pear
  • Black Krim
  • Brandywine (Suddith’s Strain)
  • Pineapple


  • Black Cherry (I’ve grown Black Prince but it was a bit larger and slower to ripen than I like.)
  • Green Envy (Never grown a green that I thought was worth the effort.  Trying again.)
  • Lemon Cherry
  • Balls Beefsteak and Chapman (I’m still looking for a reliable, high producing, red beefsteak)
  • Virginia Sweets (a red/yellow bicolor)

Seed starting using soil cubes — Part One

A friend remarked that I was the only gardener she knew who used soil blocks for seed starting, made by these tools, successfully.  It’s been easy for me so I thought it might make a good subject for a video or two. 

[wpvideo X5yPMCkv]

The soil blockers can be purchased from Johnny’s Seeds and Ailsa Craig, a large sweet onion, from Pinetree Seeds.  See “Sources” for link.