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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Growing Amorpha

Deep purple petal over bright orange stamens of Amorpha fruticosa melt into green, spotted little crescents of seed. These ripen in the sun to a dark brown, then white-gray and hold. I kept thinking these seeds would fall off, but even in January when I lately picked some, they were tightly attached.

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They have a peculiar ability to sprout without cold -unlike most woody perennials that need months of subfreezing temps. They just need heat above 70 degrees F, and up pop little green leaves. Usually I soak the seed for a couple hours before sowing into flats. I start them in February in some years, March in others, but for my climate these both mean heat has to be provided.


I have to be careful with the dry air of indoor heating to keep the seeds wet, so usually cover with some plastic, and water often. We begin heating a small portion of our greenhouse about that time for garden vegetables, so these seedlings can soak up real sunlight from day one.

They are wise little seeds, and spacing their sprouting time -which outdoors would be a fail-safe against late frost and other catastrophes. For me, it’s a great convenience. Out of one ‘source flat’ as I call it, sprouts pop within three days after planting, but keep popping up for several weeks.

Usually I wait until the first true leaves show before I begin transplanting, then clear the flat of any sprouts with true leaves once a week.

Out of the hundreds I have grown, I find it’s best to start the seeds with potting soil, or compost with good levels of nitrogen. From here I separate into small pots or cell flats no larger than 2 inches across, filled with the same kind of nitrogen rich potting soil they sprouted in.

The heat and rate of drying in smaller pots, where the roots can quickly reach the bottom and be air pruned, has given superior results for me. They still develop very deep taproots once in the ground, but this root pruning while in the pot is helpful -in part because it stimulates more branching of the root system. Planting in extra large pots with nitrogen rich soil, many seedlings rot, and must be replaced two or three times over before each pot successfully grows a plant. On the other hand I have tried planting them this early in nitrogen poor soil, and they make little headway.

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I think this best mimics the situation they would find in nature. Forests and grasslands have a thin layer of nutrient rich, fluffy soil on the surface usually, which quickly becomes clay or whatever the base soil of the area. I want to get the seedlings into nitrogen poor soil to induce nodulation (aka hosting nitrogen fixing bacteria as evidenced by the formation of little nodules). This is spurred on by a lack of nitrogen in the soil. The catch is it takes time for the young plants to find the bacteria and get the symbiosis set up.

Nature’s way seems to be nutrient rich soil at first, then less rich soil as the plant gets bigger, the roots deeper. My contrived biomimicry that gives best results is moving the seedlings once they have filled their small pots and gotten a bit root pruned (not pot bound, as in roots turning back on themselves) into larger pots of whatever size you choose, filled with nitrogen poor soil about 1/3 rd coarse sand. I usually mix nutrient-rich rock powders, such as carbonitite or granite, into this before filling the pots.

Usually I transplant into 4inch pots at this point so they are filled with their roots in a couple of weeks -about the time nodules start to form. Usually this is early June -plenty of time for establishment before fall. Those I don’t get in the ground the first year go into gallon pots by August, which they usually have amply filled by next spring.

I try to avoid keeping Amorpha in pots more than a year. They grow best put in the ground as soon as possible after they have acclimated to the nitrogen poor soil. After years of refining this method, I’ve had transplants pushing 5ft by the end of year one -well on their way to exploding every spring with growth, providing some of the best organic matter for fueling your plant projects.

Where to get the seeds? You might have a plant nearby, which I recommend you snatch some seeds from. Otherwise they’re very affordable, and widely available from Sheffield seeds (my first choice), Oikos Tree Crops (They advertise A. californica, but I’ve gotten their seed -and plants, and compared it against pictures and attributes on the USDA plant database, and they have the name wrong. It’s species fruticosa), or even Amazon if you shop there.

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Suiting itself: Turnip rooted chervil

There’s a list more lengthy than I’d like to admit of plants I continue buying the seeds of, pampering to the greatest extent, but I have yet to grow into adulthood.

Turnip rooted chervil (Chearophyllum bulbosum) was very near the top of the list. It was while searching for this seed I became aquainted with Wojchiech who I still have linked on my Seed sources page. For three years I bought the seed, spreading it around in fall, spring, stratifying in the fridge and planting into a flat. I never got so much as a sprout.

Last spring I was showing a friend around the food forest when I came to the guild featured in Fruiting factors and saw some feathery leafed plants in quite a definite patch. Since Wojchiech is very generous with this seed, I have literally spread it any place the grass is cleared away. A single spot growing so thick with the stuff seemed unlikely.

Something must be right in that spot because the stuff grew to over six foot (descriptions site four feet usually) blooming very prettily in late summer with legions of wasps and tiny bees I had never seen. I did check closely and am sure it is C. bulbosum.

The edible roots are best at the end of the first year, which I obviously had missed, so left them all to seed. I made sure plenty of seed was left to reseed the patch, but got a decent amount to spread around in all the other spots I thought it would grow.

I have yet to find a sprout in any of those places, but last year’s patch is coming up thickly fairly with mature looking plants, and lots of sprouts.

The reason for this preference? I really can’t tell. It’s in the guild that excels in about every way though. My best guess is it needs protection from evening sun and wind, which it gets from the garage about 25 ft to the west. It’s out of the sun for maybe an hour or two before the rest of the food forest depending on the position of the sun.

C. bulbosum is a biennial; so I was curious about these larger plants. They might be late rising seeds I originally planted, or early sprouters from last year’s dropped seed; genetics in wild plants especially can vary a lot in their stratification requirements. I had to wonder though if they had made any appreciable root?


Not much. The root was about two inches below the soil and maybe as big around as a dime. I expected it to be a little bigger and will check again in fall of they don’t bloom.

Even if it doesn’t turn out to be an amazing edible, it’s a great insectary. Most important, I can scratch it off the list of plants I, in vain, keep trying to grow. That gets frustrating after a while.

Should Turkish rocket be cold stratified?

Turkish rocket seed.
Turkish rocket seed.

Despite turning up in near every book on perennial vegetable gardening, tips on starting Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) from seed seem scarce.

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I sowed the seed in sifted compost, covered with a flat to keep animals from getting in, and left it in the cold.

I first tried planting it indoors, as the only information I had found said the sprouts appear 4-6 weeks after planting, and got nothing. I assumed the seeds must have been bad.

I tried seed the next year from the only other source I could find, but stratified the seeds outdoors from January to mid-March. This was about two months of subfreezing temperatures and resulted in near 100 percent germination

I’m growing more this year and bought the seed from the first source. I’m pretty confident lack of cold was the only problem.

I wonder how short a stratification is enough though?  Having the opportunity, I’m planting in January again.  If anyone sprouts them successfully with less (on purpose, or by accident), let me know.

Right now Wojchiech Smyzanski, who is a private seed collector that sells seed from his collection, and Restoration Seeds are the only two sources for the seed I know of. If you happen to know of another, or would be interested in selling or trading some of your own, let me know and I’ll add you to my seed sources page.

N fix 3: Caragana arborescens

copyImageBeing so easily grown, supremely hardy, stacking functions by making fruit, attractive flowers, biomass, nitrogen, and growing 10 to 15 feet Caragana  fits well into most designs. Unfortunately it doesn’t always.

My Peashrubs (the common name for Caragana) never grew well. Although in early spring they would burst with the most thick budding and greening, it was only to grow slower and yellow faster as the season progressed. They have eventually weaseled away to nothing.

One of these was a gift from a friend, all the others were the precious few I got from seed. With two successful sprouts out of 100 seeds, I would call that a fail (especially in comparison to Amorpha). Only one made it to my food forest, the other my Mother got as a gift for my graduation (I was home schooled and she was my teacher, so how could I say no?). For all the fertilizer and re-potting she gave it, it has remained green and growing to the extent of its pot. She finally planted it in the ground last year, and we’ll have to see what it does without pampering.

Failing to get good results myself, I purchased some year-old Siberian Peashrubs from Burnt Ridge Nursery that had nodules on their roots when they came, and so far these have grown fine. I found no nodules when moving my pathetic specimens trying to make them happy. Obviously my area is low on the right bacteria for Caragana to fix nitrogen, and I should have inoculated them either as seed, or as plants.

So this year I will have to try inoculating what’s left of my specimens, if any still linger, with just a simple combination inoculant. The main bacteria to infect Caragana are supposedly mesorhizobium species, as several Chinese studies found, so an inoculant that has these species should work. 

copyImage-11343146962554_841_260 Another factor that could affect the growth of Caragana here, is that it seems to like a harsh climate. I came to this conclusion after starting my own from seed and wondering how in nature a plant could get the equivalent of a 180 degree water bath as I was directed to give them. I found that it often grows in deserts where the soil is so much sand, that the sand may blow away leaving the roots exposed to a depth of 4 ft. Talk about drainage! One must consider the seed would land on hot sand for some small stretch of time. So they may get the equivalent of a hot water bath after all.

Take a look at the map from the USDA plant database of where Caragana has naturalized and you’ll notice the majority of it is rather harsh climate such as Montana or the open fields of Ontario. So don’t shy away from planting your peashrubs in an unfriendly situation. They may love you more for it.

Screen shot 2015-03-13 at 12.27.11 PM Of course there are no worries about hardiness. It’s hardy to zone 2. Even its ability to fix nitrogen (about the same amounts as Amorpha, medium) is cold tolerant, staying active as low as 40 F.

Besides fixing nitrogen for the plants around it, it does manufacture some allelopaths. The only clear indications of what it affects is a single grass, Agropyron repens or couchgrass. There are suggestions that it effects many other kinds of grass. But I haven’t heard of anything concrete besides Agropyron. I would personally consider allelopathy to grass a plus unless you’re lining wheat fields and pastures with it. copyImage-11303603922551_875_596

On the flip side, Caragana has been noted in a lab test not to sprout when soaked in the allelopath juglone, which I’ve written about here. One review of this test noted that the juglone they used was in far higher concentrations than what could ever be found in nature. So the results were possibly exaggerated. Given its apparently sensitive chemical nature when its bacteria aren’t happy, I’d avoid guilding the two.

In guilds, Caragana has the excellent ability to grow just to small tree height of fifteen feet. Although when you want nitrogen, coppicing is best. If you don’t, you should be able to let it grow up to the canopy and not worry about shading too much. copyImage-11354787202549_387_375 Thankfully Caragana’s pea-like fruits are hard and so can take falling from heights like this. Perhaps try laying a sheet under the tree and shaking to catch them.

Many people have suggested simply planting where chickens can get under it, and harvest the fruit for you which is a great idea in terms of efficiency. Consider how much the animals would be getting and perhaps read about the Canavanine content of the seeds before trying this. From what I have read, the seeds need to be thoroughly soaked before consumption to remove the Canavanine, among other things.

When giving my seeds their hot water bath, they slowly released a red-brown color into the water and a sweet smell not far off from lentils. Perhaps I can post a more thorough review of the seeds flavor in the near future now that my plants will be on track to do what they are supposed to. copyImage

Growing Beetberry

Beetberry (Chenopodium capitatum) is a delightfully strange little plant. It has edible leaves which can be eaten raw in salads -or cooked like spinach, root, which is similar to parsnip, and fruits, which look very much like raspberries. It was discovered around 1600 in an overgrown, deserted monastery garden, holding its own against the weeds.

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It only grows about a foot tall, so there isn’t much fear of it shading out other plants. Although the weight of all the fruit it makes around August sends it flopping over the plants next to it, or spilling into nearby pathways, which it did here. Very pretty to look at though.

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Small and bushy. Even still, don’t the young leaves look like lambsquarter?

The flavor of the fruit is slightly sweet, although fairly bland. If you really stretch your imagination you could call it a raspberry flavor – a very vegetable kind of raspberry: fairly watery really. Perhaps I could compare it to a quart of water flavored with a single raspberry? When combined with the texture, which is crunchy because of the seeds, the experience isn’t far off from munching a fruity stick of celery. I don’t like eating them straight, but they can really add body, and juicy crunch to salads.

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The leaves are like lambsquarter leaves (Chenopodium album), to which it is very closely related. Both species’ leaves can be cooked like spinach, or used raw in salads. Beetberry leaves are more smooth than lambsquarter leaves though, so I would use them in salads and lambsquarter for cooking.

He roots are said to be parsnip flavored. My plants have never produced I root large enough I thought to be worth eating. In more fertile soils than mine, perhaps they would bulk up a bit more. This, and the flavor of the fruit are both points I think beetberry could be improved.

It’s that beetberry is so easily grown that I like it so much. Because if it is anything like its near cousin lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), then it will generously self seed. If it goes through the trouble of propagating itself, I will be happy to taste some berries, leaves, and the small edible root, and select for more desirable size and flavor: turning to mulch the inferior, making room for the superior.

Starting beetberry myself wasn’t hard either: I read that it needs a short time of cool temperatures to sprout, but mine sprouted very well in the same unheated greenhouse we had our tomato starts in. It gets cool, but not cold; perhaps temperature is something to play with if yours aren’t sprouting.

Of course, looking at its history, beetberry proven it can take care of itself in an overgrown garden in Europe. So unless I purposefully eradicate it (which I won’t) I think this happy little plant is here to stay. Here’s a source for the seeds