Making sense of wild seeds

I’m not quite sure what it takes to sprout Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). Last year I posted a fairly certain observation that a couple weeks in cold temperatures does the trick, only to find in the comments from the ever apt Wooddogs3 that she had sprouted quite a few straight out of the packet in warm weather.


Scratch that idea. I figured something else must have deterred my Turkish rocket sprouts; but then, in later conversation, Heather mentioned that more Turkish rocket sprouted after the pot sat out over winter. (?)

I think the fact of the matter is we are working with fairly wild, unselected seeds. With them, variance is the standard. At the same time, it offers several little known benefits.

Varying the time of germination increases the likelihood at least some of the seeds will sprout in a ‘sweet spot’ of a season, or at least avoid catastrophes, and make it to adulthood. What if an unusually late frost hits or some animal nips off the tender sprouts?

This is a very helpful character for love-in-a-puff vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) which I’ve grown on a large scale for the last couple years. It’s a warm climate plant, and can’t take frost. I nevertheless plant it in mid April, when we still have a chance of frost. While a few will come up as early as three days after planting and get nipped, the majority of the plants take about two weeks to sprout, and will continuing sprouting up to three months after.

Cardiospermum sprout back when I tried growing them in flats. Because their sprouting time was so varied,  I watered the flats a lot longer than expected for all the seeds to sprout. They don’t transplant very well anyway, so I now direct seed.

The mechanics that govern this variance can vary, but are usually based on the activity of certain enzymes releasing nutrients necessary to wake up and nourish the embryo that will become the new plant.

Health conscious readers may be familiar with the discussion of improved nutrition in sprouted or soaked grains because the phytates present in these seeds have been removed (see here for more info). This is because in the seed, phytates bind up nutrients -phosporus in particular- keeping them off limits for the embryo (1). Water is one factor that initiates the enzyme phytase, which is responsible for breaking up the phytates (2). In the right temperature range, phytase completes the breakdown of the phytates, releasing the nutrients the embryo needs for growth. In most cases, the need for adequate water and longer durations of certain temperatures ensures the plant can grow to maturity once it sprouts.

Of course, many of our perennial vegetables also need cold, moist temperatures, or dry and warm temperatures, in addition to a later stage of warm moisture to successfully sprout. Phytates are one example of the mechanics generally at work in seeds -enzymes releasing nutrient.* Differences in the genetic makeup can dictate the time each seed takes to activate these enzymes, and release the nutrients for sprouting. Its variance in genetics that often gives such extreme variance in sprouting time, and what conditions are necessary to induce germination.

Most of our garden vegetables were the same way at one time, with lots of variance. They’ve just been selected. If over the next ten years I only saved seed from cardiospermum that sprouted two weeks after planting, this character would soon be the norm.

Although it’s nice to have an idea what’s going on in those drab looking little seeds as they deny us a happy sprout, what can we do to improve the likelihood that we, at some point, actually get a sprout?

Heather had the right idea leaving her Turkish rocket in the pot to see if any more sprouts would show up. Just give the seeds time, and changes in temperature.

I know from experience that keeping a little empty pot of dirt safe for seasons at a time is not easy. As a first step, designate a spot where seeds are protected -by mandate of heaven -or whatever works for you. Tell this to anyone that might come along thinking your untidy plant-keeping needs tossed in the trash.

Rodents seldom care about the mandate of heaven, so cover the seeds with some mesh, or build a hanging tray well above the ground, as Martin Crawford does, to keep them out. I hung some trays in our greenhouse last year which did the trick keeping mice out of squash seeds. The only problem with hanging trays I find is their fluctuating temperature: pots placed on them can easily dry out on a hot day.


Seeds are more likely to stay moist and live if they’re in more temperate climates surrounded by bricks in a shady corner. My favorite spot for sprouting is on the east side of our garage, or on the north side of our greenhouse. I’ll bring the trays from these temperate spots once in a while to the hot greenhouse. For a short time here, I watch them, and keep them watered, while transplanting any sprouts that appear. Once the sprouts stop appearing, I move them back to the less intense climate.

This system is very effective at getting around the errant nature of our prized perennial vegetables and trees. With such complexity, it’s better to just offer a variety of situations to seeds, and wait, rather than trying to guess what’s going on in those drab little seed’s dreams.

*There are even several kinds of phytase. See here for more info.

Practicality -Edible Dahlias part 3

The model in my mind of an edible dahlia seeds itself abundantly, and grows tenaciously; tubers just spontaneously generate over summer for fall harvest; the tubers you don’t care to dig freeze, so never become a perennial problem. I really do think this is a realistic vision, but it might take a little species trials to find the right one.

Cultivariable has done some excellent work gathering a collection of dahlias they consider edible, and are harvesting the seed for further selection. I read through an excerpt of his very informative book on his website which I subsequently grabbed a copy of (link below if you’d like to to check it out. It covers far more than dahlias) but saw no mention of self seeding.

He is already sold out of this year’s available tuber and seed stock anyway, so I looked deeper.

The species he raises are Dahlia pinnata and coccinea. Pinnata is the species most often cited as edible, and actually grows wild in the lower southeast US according to the USDA Plant Database -Mississippi and North Carolina in particular.

This was helpful when looking at my next best option -“Bishop’s Children” mix. I’d seen it many times in seed catalogs because it’s commonly grown as an annual from seed. It’s the progeny of “Bishop of Llandaff” -hence the name, and is believed to be cross between pinnata and coccinea.

This background information seems to originate from a single article profusely circulated and cited in Wikipedia articles. But the characteristics I see in pictures agree with the story. I think it’s worth believing. The seed is widely available so why not try them anyway?

The plan is to get the seed and sow some for carefully potting up and transplanting, the rest just spread around in opportune patches in the food forest to see how easily they take. Assuming they form plenty of tubers (most dahlias are daylength sensitive, some forming only small, and very few, tubers before frost) and assuming they taste good, they may become a prominent citizen of Mortal Tree, and perhaps find their way into my client’s gardens as delicious, productive little gem mines.

Above: The same heirloom dahlia in the opening photo, now harvested, with tuber harvest laid on the aerial parts which are now mulch.

The book I mentioned: The Cultivariable Growing Guide: Sixteen Rare Vegetables for the Pacific Northwest

Success for your plant purchase: Top 5 tactics

FYI, the frantic Black Friday deals for plants is during July -September, not November, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some major cuts on your “consumption” of resources (I mean that in an environmentally responsible, as well as haphazard money saving way) using these time-refined strategies for getting, and successfully establishing, productive plants.

1. Plants or seeds?

This one is huge. Some plants really sprout easily from seed, providing stronger, less expensive plants, for which you have lugged far less material around the globe to get; other plants are a regular joke to sprout from which you should by no means expect an actual plant.

This is because the perennials parents grow for years, and don’t want their progeny choking them out. As a result, the seeds aren’t really meant to sprout, and do so only after their puzzlebox-like seeds have been unlocked, which can take years. Many have germination rates which, even in synthetically pumped conditions, soaked in gibberilic acid, only reach single digit percentiles. You might be fighting a losing battle per the dictum of the parent plant.

My general rule is that potted, already established plants are the golden ticket to abundance. With perennials, I study their habits, and usually opt to get just one really healthy plant (or two if they need a pollinator) and let the plant self seed, or harvest the abundant, free seed to carefully plant myself, or propagate by divisions etc. in time. The long span of time, and higher price, are often better choices than the smaller, reoccuring price of seed year after year.

This is not just thoery. I have several plants with whom three years of seeds marked equal cost to getting the plant. After these serial failures, I just got the plant and started gathering succesful progeny in a year. In effect, I’ve payed double. Just pay up front for plants, and take this post as a 50% discount code for your future self.

There are few, but dramatic, exceptions to this rule, which I can’t ensure will be the same for you (that’s the hard part), but here you go.

Crambe cordifolia has been sky high on my want list for quite a while, and I payed matching prices to get my hands on two year old plants from the few sources that offer them.

I have forgotten how many I even got. They invariably died. None even made it through their first winter.

This year I begrudgingly tried seeds, which I read take years to finally bloom, are small, and all that dreadful stuff. I already had bad experience with the closely related sea kale (Crambe maritima) from seed. The success it had with Eric Toensmeier catapulted it into what I consider an extremely inflated fame. It’s meant for the rocky shoreline.

I half expected the same with cordifolia, but got some hefty, thick little sprouts resulting in two plants astronomically larger and healthier than the older, far more costly plants. I have no worries about them growing through the winter. What’s more, I see how luscious these plants are, and can’t wait to share my experiences on cooking and eating them. Their leaves are like green steaks.

So do homework, but in general, get plants.

2. Don’t let it get out of hand

There is a funny little principle that the fewer things you put your energy into, the more effective the energy. The result? You get more with less. You’re not a saviour of the planet letting your paycheck evaporate into a pile of tree seeds if all they do is evaporate back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

My rule is don’t let the number of new/risky plants you try exceed the number of fingers on your hand -five. You’ll really progress much faster this way.

3. Get promiscuous plants

I love weeds. They are astoundingly efficient, little (you hope) masters of the growing edge, and I adore every one of them. One of my foremost jobs as a designer is just weedling out their true service for mankind.

Any potential problem can almost always be rendered a potential power source. It’s when a plant is weakly and does nothing in either direction that you have no potetial at all -and far more potential of your single plant dying.

Lambsquarter (Chenopodium alba), for instance, is a lovely vegetable weed that come up on its own. The vegetable mallow I wrote about lately is a fantastic leafy green that comes up gangbusters on its own in the fertility of late season tilled (or properly mulched) gardens.

All the malvas below self seed. Read about them here.

Always pay attention to comments on how easily a plant self propagates. If they say it’s invasive, find out how. Often, different conditions will render a horendously invasive plant sterile, so consider carefully whether it will actually be a propagation monster.

If it is, use it. We have thousands of uses for soybeans and corn -not because it’s useful, but because we figured out a thousand ways to use it. The whole reason for figuring these uses was because we had it, and a lot of it. It’s a pretty smart tactic.

4. Focus on where it will grow.

I have a confession to make: I tried to grow kudzu. Yes, the plant that ate the south is actually a crazy powerhouse of nitrogen fixation, which, if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for.

It died.

The most ferocious plants will at best do nothing if planted into a chink of grass-covered clay out back. A major component of a plant’s success is figuring how it will be worked into a guild, in cleared, fertile ground. Everything else -the decisions of what kind, what form, and what stage of plant/seed to get, comes after.

One bed a year is wise -or whatever your mulch supply can handle. This, for me, makes one bed I then plan my puchases around. Is it sunny? Shady? Sandy? Get plants that will grow in those conditions and use the niche of fertility and moisture the fresh mulch will provide, getting a good groundcover in place, and you are ten times more likely to succeed in establishing your plants and never order them from a catalogue again!

5. Look close to home.

Unfortunately, perennial vegetable and rare fruit enthusiasts are still too rare to be on every street corner. A not so rare occasions is when desirable ornamental and edible goddess type plants meet, making it far more likely to show up in the popular skin-deep ornamental garden.

Keep an eye out for what grows in your friend’s and neighbor’s yards, considering what plants might be of use, that you could trade for, or that are rank weeds somone else wishes were gone. The many insanely sweet possibilities here are amazing, especially if you posses the techiques to handle the plants well. Check this post here for one of them.

When I am glutted with a ton of plants, the ‘getting out of hand’ rule often applies. Taking up the resources and time to plant all you removed from someones yard (sometimes the deal for getting the plants is that you remove them all ) can lead to none of the plants living. It seems heartless, but sometimes picking out the one that looks best to plant and mulching around it with the others is the surest way of success.

It in a way combines all the former tactics, using all your resources for the single most likely specimen, and working towards propagating multiple plants from that one as soon as possible. It’s the biggest bang for your metaphorical -and literal- buck.

Mulling over Malvas

Out of all the plants you can grow for luscious leafiness, Malvas are the best. Some even surpass lettuce in my opinion, since they don’t get bitter in heat. When you add on the perennial nature of some, there’s just nothing that can beat them.

I just wish they contained all these characteristics in one species. M. moschata is perennial but the leaves a bit too fuzzy. Malva (sometimes Althea) officionalis, the marshmallow plant, so named because the Egyptians made the first rudiments of today’s marshmallows by boiling the mucilage-rich root, is about the same, often too fuzzy.

From left to right: Malva verticillata, officionalis (marshmallow, and not the biggest specimen, but what I could find in this late season), sylvestris, and pusilla.

There is hope for these fuzzy characters as a leaf crop, especially marshmallow. You see it seeds quite well, its progeny often making a regular mat of green beneath it. These small sprouts can grow as much as three feet or more in their first year. For a while in this first year, the leaves of most specimens have no fuzz, and are quite tasty. Considering their tendency to mob their neighbors, you need to rip out a few anyway. The parent will make plenty more appear next spring. If managed this way, it really is a good cooking or salad green.

What plants you miss for leaves are very good for roots. Although growing in a number of directions, with a central ball, the taste and texture of the root, when cooked, is hardly different from carrots. The texture is, if anything, a little more moist than carrots, due to the mucilage in Malvas.

Although the tender little seedlings of marshmallow are good, the best Malva for leaves is M. verticillata, commonly called vegetable mallow. They’re huge, usually 6-8 inches across with ruffled edges. Fuzziness is hardly to be found, even on the mature leaves, and the slightly mucilaginous texture is pretty enjoyable on the palate.

Vegetable mallow salad I had the other day with “Matt’s Wild” cherry tomatoes, chickweed, and some sliced welsh onion.

Unlike lettuce, this has enough substance that it doubles as a really good cooking green, maintaining texture, and, due to the mucilage, staying moist in a light sauté. I like to add it to mixed greens including lambsquarter, and amaranth, which have similar textures.

The biggest downside is it’s annual, so I have to plant it every year. It does self seed, but in the food forest that doesn’t help much because they need the fertility of annuals, and I can only get them to grow in first year beds. The second year they appear, they can hardly compete with marshmallow seedlings in size, so why bother.

The young plants are also frost sensitive, so early sprouts get frosted. I usually start a flat of seedlings in April to be planted out in late May after frost is gone.

The real place these shine is self seeding in fertile annual gardens. Below is a row that popped up on its own in our CSA gardens after tilling for fall carrots in July. They are quite luscious. In these conditions, they can easily reach 6ft. If planted in a greenhouse, these can easily get 8ft tall.

Vegetable mallow self seeded in the late fall CSA gardens.

Stephen Barstow mentions in his fantastic book that some perennial versions have popped up in the gene pool. I’m still looking.

The middle of the road is Malva sylvestris. Not overly fuzzy but not large leaves, and can come back perennial.

A first year M. sylvestris in the “For example:” garden

It’s also quite popular as an ornamental, so is easy to find -varieties like “Zebrina,” or “Mystic Merlin” mix, for instance. They self seed, and usually grow about 3 ft or smaller.

A slight step down that takes care of itself entirely is M. pusilla. In my area, this is a weed that grows in cement cracks and tilled garden soil alike. Unlike the vegetable mallow, it doesn’t have a dramatic preference for either; it’s just a little larger in garden soil.

It is a creeper, rarely rising over a foot before crawlIng away to the next crack in the cement. I wish it covered the ground more thickly so I could call it a ground cover, but the leaves are too sparse.

One very happy, healthy M. pusilla at the feet of the vegetable mallow pictured above.

This is in part because the leaves are small; usually they can’t push much farther than an inch and a half across. Although they aren’t especially fuzzy either -being worthy of a mixed, hearty salad in my opinion, but not alone. Just be sure you have correctly identified the plant before making your evening meal from the cracks in your back patio. Economical, I know, but please do your research.

All being in the same genus, I keep hoping some of the specimens I keep close together will mix and give rise to the ideal, luscious, huge, hardy, long lived perennial Malva mashup of my dreams. I haven’t seen a seedling showing signs of a mix yet. Until that time, I can get quite a descent salad from the array growing themselves, I just need to manage their ecologies.

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If you would like to learn the real details of taking good food pictures from Lindsay Ostrum over at Pinch of Yum, click to check it out. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

Shoot -shoots!

Excellent news! The small sutherland kale I suspected was a rooting from the bigger one has been transplanted to the food forest, grown happily, and even survived the winter!

I cut it back around September to invigorate its growth. Young growth is much more resilient than old, which I figured would increase its chance of living through the winter. It seems to have worked.

I covered it with a plastic barrel greenhouse though; and the winter was exceedingly mild.  I wouldn’t say this kale has proven itself ‘hardy’ yet.

Unfortunate news is it’s sending up flower shoots -profusely. Considering its supposed clone-parent hardly gave a flower, I doubt it really is a clone and is more likely a seedling -an especially stocky seedling.

Even biennial kales can have their life extended by prohibiting seeding. I harvested the shoots along with the asparagus spears pictured and some early turkish rocket buds and cooked them up for a very tasty lunch.

It was just a quick saute with some black pepper and fish sauce sprinkled over it. Once on the plate I sprinkled on some white balsamic vinegar and it was perfect.

We’ll see how perennial this kale turns out to be. But if the cold doesn’t get it, and its longevity is only a matter of keeping it cut back and clean of shoots, it will live a long time.

The better broccoli

Broccoli I worked hard to plant in February, transplant to larger pots in March, transplant outdoors in early April is just getting established, and will still need weeded at least once before I get a harvest in another two months.


 In contrast, Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) which I did the work of planting years ago, has had some very nice flowerbuds for the same use as broccoli for several weeks. What’s more I should be able to depend on this same production for several years with only a little spring weeding, if even that.

GKH growing happily with a ground cover of (edible) mache (Valerianella locusta).

I got a sizable handful of flowers last year for the first harvest from my GKH’s, as pictured below. It has a slight bitterness compared to broccoli. It’s that kind of bitterness people call a nuttiness or richness though, not the herbal caricature-wrenching bitterness.


Throw them into boiling water until they go limp, remove,  run some cold water over them, and eat like any other broccoli.

Screen shot 2015-05-19 at 4.40.53 PM

The cold leftovers I chop up and throw into scrambled eggs or the like.

This is only the beginning though. Up next: Turkish Rocket!

A roundabout way to perennial kale.

Perennial kale is what everyone wants. At the same time it is what everyone can’t get (or keep once they get it).

‘Kosmic’ kale

The problem is the known world of perennial kale is just way smaller than what it really is, because while everyone tries to cram through the overly tiny front door of Daubenton’s (and ‘kosmic’), the broad back door of perennial kale from seed remains unknown.

‘Sutherland’ Kale. Seemingly perennial, definitely grown from seed.

I don’t mean seed harvested from perennial kale, which is more or less an uncommon happening; and good luck getting it. I mean seed from certain kinds of biennial kale who’s genetics teeter on the border of perennial and biennial. With these, it can be as much of a fifty fifty chance each plant will be perennial.

‘Western Front’ kale (just the bluish leaves down low, not the tall orach) is said to have a fifty fifty perennial regrowth. Unfortunately, after growing it I can’t say for sure. The cultivar is selected from the hardiest kale the breeder, Tim Peters, could get, all of them surviving a very cold western front storm. Apparently Ohio winters can be colder. It died. I like the variation in leaf shape though, some showing a frilly Russian look, some a more rounded shape. I’ll try them again, in the greenhouse.

That is only for select cultivars such as ‘Pentland Briggs, ‘ ‘Western Front, ‘Sutherland.’ I’ll do some more research this year with some other varieties rumoured to have the elusive talent of immortality. So, in about two years, I’ll let you know the results. Until then, if you are in a dire straight to gain eternal kale, I would recommend you set an area aside for a lot of kale, and try the varieties mentioned as an alternative, roundabout way of getting it.