Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, Organic, or Hybrid – I’m confused!

There can be some confusing information about seeds when choosing to plant a garden. Who would have ever thought there could be so much strong opinion and controversy surrounding the kind of seeds we plant in our gardens! If you’ve shopped for seeds, you may have noticed several terms related to the type and origin of the seeds. These include “heirloom”, “open-pollinated”, “organic”, “hybrid”, and “bio-dynamic”. You might even find some more terms in your shopping!

So what do each of these mean and how do they affect you and your gardening? Let us explain…

Hybrid

Hybrid seeds are those that are derived in the labs of universities or large multi-national corporations. In nature, seed varieties emerge as plants naturally pollinate and the DNA of separate species combine to produce a new species that combine the two. Hybrid seeds are those where that process is purposefully performed in a lab, skipping all the happenstance of nature and replacing it with careful, calculated measures intended to produce a desired result. Furthermore, Hybrid seeds are often created by combining genetic material from species that would not typically combine in nature. This is done to create plants with more favorable characteristics such as color, growing season length, taste,  disease resistance, pest resistance, etc. Because this process occurs in a lab, the typical hybrid result – once grown, is unable to reproduce in kind. Therefore, if one were to keep the seeds of a hybrid variety and plant that seed, the result would not be the same as the parent, but of one of the original contributors of the genetic material of the hybrid seed. This is if the seed grows at all. Oftentimes, these are sterile, or have been “programmed” by the producers to not be able to reproduce.

GMO or Genetically Modified Organism

GMO seeds are those that have been engineered in a lab in such a way that genetic material is modified to produce a certain result. It would be fair to say that all GMO seeds are hybrid seeds, but not all hybrid seeds are GMO. In some cases, the genetic modifications simply mimic nature’s process but in a matter of weeks rather than millennia. Other GMO seeds are far more concerning and at times combine even non-plant genetic material with plant material to produce “super plants” that are resistant to pests and diseases and in some cases even produce their own pesticide! GMO seeds are hybrid and therefore cannot reproduce in kind. It is this family’s opinion that many GMO seeds should be avoided because of the “frankenseed” nature of them. These seeds may contain genetic material that would not normally be found in foods consumed by humans.

Heirloom

Heirloom seeds are simply seeds that are not mass-produced or engineered by large multi-national corporations, but rather come from the slower, manual process of individuals and families preserving the seeds of their best crops over time. . These seeds have been chosen from seasonal crops over many years or decades because of their unique and positive attributes.  Technically, these seeds are not necessarily “open-pollinated” because a farmer of gardener could have manually pollinated their plants in a greenhouse or field for the desired result. Nevertheless, heirloom seeds were produced under circumstances that are harmonious with the natural order of the plant world.

Open-Pollinated

Open-pollinated means that the plant has naturally pollinated in nature without human interruption in a lab. These are varieties that emerged by chance “as the wind blew” genetic material from one variety to another.

Organic

Organic seeds are those that were grown under organic growing conditions and have met the requirements for considering seeds to be certifiably organic. This usually means that the seeds were produced in an environment free of harmful pesticides or chemicals. Some would debate the impact this has on seeds themselves since the resulting plant would not necessarily be effected by the environment in which it’s parent was created. However, others would argue that the DNA of such plants could be damaged or unfavorable altered by being produced under such conditions. In general organic seeds are non-GMO and usually non-hybrid but open-pollinated varieties as well. If you plant these seeds, keep the resulting plant’s seed and re-plant it, you’ll get the same variety of plant. It doesn’t make your plant or garden “organic” all by itself . You’d still have to maintain organic conditions and processes to do so. That’s the topic for another blog – not this one 🙂

Biodynamic

According the wikipedia.. Biodynamic agriculture…

“is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food. As in other forms of organic agriculture, artificial fertilizers and toxic pesticides and herbicides are strictly avoided.

Biodynamic seeds are those that were created under such conditions and/or are intended for those wishing to plant the seeds under such conditions. Usually, this means that the seeds have been certified to be Biodynamic by organizations that define and maintain the standards for such. Most gardeners will not need to concern themselves with using certified biodynamic seeds unless they’re looking to start or maintain a certified biodynamic garden. This is not the interest of the average gardener, but usually a commercial pursuit.

Which is best to use?

We’ve been asked this question plenty of times. There’s no single answer to this question. As a family, we  endeavor to use organic, heirloom, open-pollinated seeds. We do so because we want seeds that were not created in a lab by those driven by profits. We also want to be able to save seeds from year to year in order to maintain a sustainable food production system. However, doing this carries some risk. In general, hybrid seeds are often going to produce higher yields and more resistance to pests and disease than most open-pollinated varieties.

Growing food can be similar to investing in the stock market, some (like us) want a balanced “portfolio” of produce that maximizes reward and minimizes risk. Therefore,  because we try to grow large volumes of our own food, a portion of our planting is often hybrid seed. We still try to avoid most GMO seeds. We choose this mix (at the moment) in order to get more return on our labors and less risk of loss. Were we to plant all open-pollinated varieties, or even single varieties of hybrid seeds, we’d be vulnerable to loss if a pest or weather pattern wreaked havoc on our crop.  However, our “emergency” seed supplies are entirely open-pollinated should we ever need to use them. No matter what you plant, consider planting a variety of the same fruit or vegetable. This minimizes risk and can also provide more enjoyable result.

Conclusion

People garden for a number or reasons. The choice of what seed to grow should be based on the reasons one gardens, the desired outcome, and the convictions of the gardener. We garden to grow our own sustainable food. We also don’t care for the immoral and deceitful business practices of some of the companies who produce hybrid and GMO seeds. We choose what we choose for our environment. At the end of the day, you must make your choices based on your needs. Take the time to learn more about the seeds you buy no matter what kind you decide to use. By doing so, you’ll become a healthier, wiser, and better gardener.

Time to think about gardening!

It’s snowing furiously outside at the moment. It probably seems crazy to think about gardening this time of year, but this is when we start to plan for the upcoming season. Where we live, the growing season us typically from the end of May til the end of September. Gardening, like most things worth doing, takes preparation and advanced planning. There are seeds and stock to buy, beds to build, repair, and manage, plants to start, and much much more.

We’ve recently bought nearly 100 types of seeds not counting seed potatoes and sweet potato slips that we’ll start ourselves this weekend likely (see prior post on growing sweet potatoes). This year we aim to grow several thousand pounds of produce. Yes, you read that right several thousand pounds. Why so much? We aim to grow as much of our own foods as possible. This includes food for immediate consumption throughout the growing season as well as food to store for the winter. We also like to share with others and this gives us the means to do that.

Here’s some of what we’re growing (multiple varieties of each):  Amaranth, Beans, Beats, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Burdock Root, Butternut Squash, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumbers, Eggplants, Jerusalem Artichokes, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Lettuce, Melons, Onions, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Pumpkins, Rutabaga, Salad Greens, Salsify, Scorzonera, Shallots, Spinach, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnip, Watermelons, and Zucchini.

As you can see, that’s not your average salad garden! We’re not sure we’re finished procuring all we’ll plant either 😉 We enjoy variety, color, and diversity in our diet. Many of these items can be consumed this summer and fall and many will be canned, frozen, or sent the root cellar for keeping through next winter.

While we are big believers in organic and open-pollinated seeds, we do not exclusively use them. Why? Because we want to strike a balance between open-pollinated seeds and a good yield. If we grew only open pollinated varieties, we’d likely have less yield. That’s because hybrid plants have been selectively bred to resist pathogens and disease. If we could devote ourselves full-time to this effort, we could get good yields with open pollinated varieties, but it would take time that we cannot commit at this time. A combination of organic, heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrids is the best combination for our needs. We purchased nearly all our seeds from Johnny’s and Baker’s Creek. Both companies offer great selection of beautiful seeds with good germination rates.

We’re having a local nursery business start much of our seeds for us this year. This benefits the local economy and spares us the space and expense of starting seeds. It’s not as easy as many might think. Hopefully, we’ll move to a suitable property where we can expand and setup a small greenhouse to start plants. Until then, having a professional start them for us is a cheaper alternative.

We have several large garden plots on our property as well as several raised beds. To accommodate all we want to plant this year, we’re going to add about 10 4’x8′ raised beds and some additional plot space. There are many benefits to raised beds;  they make managing the soil easier, weeding easier and less frequent, erosion control, they can help control the delicate air/water mixture needed for good yield and a host of other benefits. Additionally, they don’t require digging and can be filled with a growing medium works for our environment. We’ll likely be building ours out of engineered decking planks. These offer rot resistance without chemicals leaching into the soil that could be harmful and should be easier to acquire than cedar.

How bout you? What steps do you take this time of year to prepare for gardening season?

Preserve Razors: Good for the environment and cheap too!

We’re constantly surprised just how much disposable razors cost. They must be made of gold and silver given the prices of the blade refill packs! In our opinion, the pricing structure really encourages consumers to keep buying the razors anew since it’s usually less expensive than buying the refill packs. So much for re-use!

On a recent trip to our favorite grocer – Wegmans – we discovered Preserve Razors and refill packs. These razors are made largely from recycled Stonyfield Farm yogurt cups! Aside from being made of recycled materials, these were far cheaper than any leading brand we could find. We were able to pick up a tripe razor with extra blade for $4.99. We even found 4-pack refill packs for $5! It would appear that these razors cost 50% less than the major disposable razors.

They work much better than the cheap disposable razors (although they’re not so cheap anymore) – the ones that come 6-8 in a pack – the one piece deals.

This might not sound like big news to living simply, but it’s one more way to make a positive difference for the planet and the pocketbook!

Tips for reducing your electric bill by up to 30%

Here in PA, we’re ever so fortunate (sarcasm) to be headed into a new era deregulated electricity. Our utility provider (PPL Electric) has announced that they expect most residential electric bills such as ours to rise about 30%-32%! Somehow, this is supposed to be a help to our electricity cost. We’ve not figured that out yet.

As the old saying goes, rather than curse the darkness, light a candle. If your bill is going to go up by 30%, try lowering your consumption by 30% or more. This will not only keep your cost down, but reducing demand lowers prices for everyone.

So what are some relatively low-investment ways you can reduce your electric bill by 30% or more? Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Setup a clothes line. This is the cheapest way to go solar there is! According to Dept. of Energy statistics, clothes dryers account for nearly 6%  of household electric bills (average).
  2. Go Green One Day – unplugging most of your non-essential electricity for one day a week. This could save most households up to 15% of their electricity cost.
  3. Track down and eliminate “ghost loads” of electricity – appliances that use power when not even on (DVD, TVs, Phones, etc). A Kil-A-Watt is a great way to find these. Conservatively, we think this could save most households 1-2%
  4. Install a high-efficiency, water-saving shower head. Doing so appears to reduce our family’s utility cost. This is not direclty reducing the electric bull by a whopping amount, but reduces our utility costs in an amount that equals approximately 5-8% of our electricity cost. This is roughly the cost of one month’s electric bill! See our recent post for details.

So, the above simple steps could reduce your expenses by up to 31% of your yearly electric costs (by our estimates). None of the above are expensive or difficult to implement or require advanced DIY skills.

Have additional tips? Post em’ in the comments.

Kefir: The dairy “swiss army knife”

One if the things we’re interested in doing is maintaining a good variety of healthy foods, but in a way that is affordable and sustainable. At this time, due to where we live, we cannot  get a cow or goats for milk. Despite this, we still want to be able to produce simple dairy products on our own without having to depend on the market for every dairy product. We still have to purchase milk, which we get raw from a local farmer.

Enter Kefir – an ancient fermented milk drink that has been around for eons. We think that kefir is the swiss army knife of dairy for those looking to be able to use one item to produce a variety of other items. Kefir on it’s own is much like yogurt and offers all the same benefits, but in bigger doses and with less work. If kefir grains are added to fresh milk, they will ferment the milk within 24 hours. Once fermented, the resulting kefir can be left to sit for another 1-3 days during which time it will separate into curds and whey. The curds can be eaten, or further refined into “laban” which can be used as cottage and cream cheese right away. Or, salt can be added to this laban and becomes the basis for harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan cheese. Also, kefir can be fermented to different lengths and strengths producing different tastes and usefulness.

This whole process does not require refrigeration and is a good way of getting usefulness from milk without energy use. Further, the kefir grains are constantly growing and multiplying, thus keeping the owner in a constant supply of kefir grains to eat, use, or share with others.

This is all in addition to many health benefits known to accompany kefir!

If you’re looking to add a “tool” to your simple life arsenal – particularly if you have access to a fresh supply of milk – consider kefir! You won’t be disappointed!

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door

Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop

Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

Harvesting Broccoli

Today we pulled our first head of broccoli out of the garden for our dinner. We thought it would be a good topic to cover.

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Knowing when the broccoli is ready
There are a few ways to determine when broccoli is ready to harvest. First, it must have a head of broccoli of course! Second, the florets (the smallest part of the broccoli that you eat) should be about the size of a match head. Lastly, the color of the florets should be a dark green. If the florets are mostly yellow, your broccoli is either not ready to eat, or it has a nutrient deficiency or disease. If the rest of the plant looks healthy, assume that it’s just not mature yet. The picture below shows what a “ready to eat” head of broccoli looks like. We had hoped for larger heads of broccoli, but we’ve had a weird growing season and our soil was not in prime shape.

Cutting the head of the broccoli

Cutting the head of the broccoli

How to harvest
Harvesting broccoli is very easy. With a sharp knife, make a quick clean cut 5-6 inches below the florets where the stems gather into the main stem of the plant. We like to have an inch or so of the main stem  on the cut piece. This makes it easier to handle and store until used. Once the head of the broccoli has been removed, you’ll likely notice that the remaining stem is hollow. This is normal.

The remaining broccoli plant

The remaining broccoli plant

What do to with the remaining plant
Some might assume that the remaining plant has no further use. Others might assume that the remaining plant will re-sprout a new head of broccoli. Neither is exactly accurate. Assuming favorable conditions (sun, water, temperature), the remaining plant will sprout additional smaller heads of broccoli from the side of where the main head was removed. These are perfectly edible and make a fine addition to salads, or cooked as a side item. These generally will not be very large.

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Things to watch for
In our neck of the woods, we have to deal with Cabbage Worms, which are actually not a worm at all, but a caterpillar. These are the larvae from cabbage moths which are actually not a moth but a butterfly. Confused yet? Anyway, we could spray for those I suppose, but they’re just as easy to pick off the plants (this is referred to as “mechanical” pest control). We take the worms and feed them to the chickens who despite not liking broccoli, enjoy these pests! We like this because we use the worms to our advantage to keep the chickens happy and healthy.

After you harvest your broccoli, check for cabbage worms. They’re easy to spot. They’re dark green and contrast well with the stalk of the broccoli. Just pluck them off. You could also try filling a bowl or pot with water (a little at a time) and inserting the head of broccoli upside down into the water. This should make the worms climb up the stalk where they’ll be easier to remove. If you do this too fast, you’ll just drown the worms and then they’re harder to get off. Of course, you can also look for them after cooking, depending on how you cook. That’s admittedly not such a nice experience ;-).