Saturday, 19 December 2015

Heirloom Vegetable Seeds Australia

After moving twice in a year, plus the birth of my youngest son, I was not selling many vegetables or seeds for a while but have gotten back into it.  All of the perennial vegetables for sale that I currently have are listed on my For Sale page.  I am adding some new perennial vegetables and herbs there.

I have had a few people ask me where to buy seeds or they have asked my opinion of different companies so I thought I would write a post about some of them.  Some of these companies have bought seeds from me in the past, some I have bought seeds from, others I have heard about from other people.  I have probably forgotten to include some, if I remember them I will try to add them later.

Please note that I am not affiliated with any of these companies and that the views expressed are based on my personal experiences.  I am in no way liable if they do not live up to expectations.  This is based on past experiences and they may or may not treat you better or worse than they have done to me in the past.

Inspirations seeds
Range:  Extensive range of rare heirloom beans and other vegetables
Based:  Tasmania
Prices:  Reasonably high, but they are well worth it.  Postage is free which helps to lower the overall price
Seed numbers:  Good
Service:  Excellent, possibly the best service I have ever had.

Useful seeds
Range:  Limited (for now, but increasing) but what he does have are rather rare and/or amazing
Based:  VIC Australia
Prices:  Reasonably high, but you can not buy many of these varieties anywhere else and the quality is excellent so the high prices are more than justified
Seed numbers:  Good
Service: no idea as I have never bought from him but I know him and he is a good guy.  He has given me seeds in the past and they were of very high quality.  I assume he would provide excellent service as he loves what he does

The Seed Collection
Range: good, nothing particularly rare
Based:  VIC Australia
Prices:  Low to very low prices, but you get what you pay for
Seed Numbers:  Great
Service:  Good.  Germination rates can be rather variable, seed quality is sometimes very low and many seeds are crossed and do not grow to type.

The Dwarf Tomato Project  
Range: small range of newly bred, various colours, dwarf tomatoes
Based: Australia
Prices: Low prices, they are simply trying to recover costs instead of make a profit.  They have given their seeds to some seed companies who sell them for almost triple the price of the Dwarf Tomato Project
Seed Numbers: Good
Service: Excellent, Patrina bred many of these varieties and wants them to be more popular.  She is willing to answer questions and offer advice.

Range:  Good, some rare things
Based:  VIC Australia
Prices:  Variable, some things are too expensive for what they are
Seed Numbers:  Good
Service:  Good

Range:  Great
Based:  QLD Australia
Prices:  Good
Seed Number:  Good
Service:  Good

Range:  Great, they sell seeds, plants and other garden products
Based:  QLD Australia
Prices:  Good but postage is high
Seed Number:  Good
Service:  Great

Phoenix Seeds
Range:  Great, some very interesting and rare varieties
Based:  Tasmania
Prices:  Good but postage is high
Seed Number:  Varies
Service:  Variable, sometimes good sometimes unresponsive

Diggers club
Range:  Great, they claim to be interested in saving rare varieties but they often rename things to make them more marketable.  They also make erroneous claims of exclusivity to appear better than they are.  Descriptions of varieties are often fanciful and embellished
Based:  VIC Australia
Prices:  High to extremely high, postage cost is unreasonable for smaller orders
Seed Number:  Often extremely low, but it does vary
Service:  Really Dreadful.  I try not to buy from them.  They have sold me out of date seeds as well as bulbs covered in mould and then tried to blame me when they failed to sprout!  They have also sent the wrong seeds and getting replacements or refund from them was a nightmare.  They have sent me seeds that were not isolated as they were hopelessly crossed.  Hopefully this changes as they are one of the best known heirloom seed sellers in Australia

Range:  Only sell chilli and capsicums, they have a great range of these.  Some they have bred themselves
Based:  America - only some species are allowable imports into Australia so please check AQIS BICON database prior to ordering
Prices:  Great with free postage to Australia!
Seed Number:  Good, extra seeds in each pack
Service:  Great, they even include extra seed packets in each order

Range:  Varies from time to time.  Beware: many seeds listed don't exist
Based:  All over the world
Prices:  Varies a lot
Seed Number:  Varies a lot
Service:  Varies.  Beware that many seeds sold on Ebay are for things that do not even exist (such as multi coloured blue roses and black strawberries) and they are stealing from you.  You will get seeds, but by the time you grow them and work out what has happened it will be too late to get back your money.  I have also bought some great seeds from excellent sellers through Ebay.  Please do your research prior to ordering anything from Ebay to ensure what you are buying actually exists.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Yacon Pineapple slaw

I love yacon, it is sweet and crunchy.  I mostly eat yacon raw, I just peel it, slice it thinly and eat it.  We have tried eating it a few other ways and most were good.  It tends to take on the taste of whatever it is in with so is reasonably versatile.  I have even used some of our yacon roots and water kefir grains to make yacon water kefir which was nice enough even though I prefer regular water kefir.

I normally leave the yacon in the soil until I want to eat it, if I happen to leave it for too long the plant simply gets larger and stronger and returns a larger crop next time.  Recently we have moved from our property into a rented house in town, as such I dug up a small number of yacon plants to grow as well as a heap of the tubers to eat.  Being so hot and dry out here the tubers do not last overly long.  I wanted to find a few new ways to eat yacon as I can not stand the thought of wasting it.  I looked on the internet and stumbled across yacon pineapple slaw.
Yacon growing in a pot - it belongs in the soil
I found a nice sounding recipe, then changed it a fair bit, and made it with a group of school children.  It was delicious and super easy to make.  I am putting the modified recipe here partly to share it and partly so that I have it saved somewhere so I can make it again.

Yacon tubers, 1 large tuber or a few small ones
1 can of pineapple (or a real pineapple peeled and cut into small pieces)
The juice of 1 lime or a lemon (lemons are the poor cousin of the lime, but they are cheaper)
1 chilli (this can be left out)

1) Juice the lime (or its poor cousin the lemon)
2) Peel the yacon tuber
3) Grate the peeled yacon
4) Add lime juice to the grated yacon.  Mix together.  You have to do this as soon as possible otherwise the yacon will turn black
5) Cut pineapple into tiny pieces, add pineapple and any juice to the yacon
6) Remove the seeds from the chilli.  Cut up the chilli into tiny pieces
7) Mix it all together and serve

It really doesn't get any easier than this, and it tastes great.  It would be easy enough to add other things to this too as long as they are cut up tiny.  I think something crunchy and relatively tasteless such as shredded cabbage would bulk this out nicely.

Some of the more tropical and fruity tasting chillies could also work well in this as they would add taste but would still be crunchy.  There are a heap of tropical tasting chilli varieties, some have no heat while others are super hot, but few are available unless you import the seeds and grow them yourself.  One great place I have found for chilli seeds is pepper lover, they seem to love what they do and tend to include extra seed packets with orders.  Only some species can be posted to Australia so please do check the AQIS BICON database first.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Overwintering vegetable plants

We have some perennial vegetables which I decided to overwinter.  We moved in Spring so I have not had time to make a post about them until now.  We had the coldest winter since we have lived here and lost a lot of frost tender plants that I normally can overwinter with no effort.  I took a few pictures of some of the survivors.  Most of these plants are far larger now.

Kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica)

This is a heat loving tropical perennial leaf vegetable which is often grown as an annual in cooler climates.  It grows well from seed, but I wanted to see if overwintered plants were larger than seed grown and it appears that they are.  It has many common names and is related to sweet potatoes.  I am not overly fond of leaf vegetables, but I like kang kong.  Unlike many other leaf vegetables it never goes bitter, it can be eaten raw or cooked.  I have only eaten it raw and it tastes nice, apparently cooked it tastes a lot like spinach.

I grew it in too small a pot so it did not reach anywhere near its potential last summer.  I tried to grow it in a fish talk as a floating water plant but there was not enough sunlight and it appears to prefer at least some soil for its roots.  It tried to flower but then winter came and the cold cut it down to a stump.  I do not want to save and plant seed each year if there is an easier way and this plant grows easily from cuttings.  I am glad that this can be overwintered as it is simple and the plants are larger than seed grown.

Once the warmer weather came along it started to grow fast again.  I wish I knew about this plant years ago as it is great.  It dislikes the cold weather and dies back badly even without frosts but survives and grows very fast once the days are warm.
Kangkong resprouting in late winter, it dislikes the cold air even when protected from frosts
The same plant in Spring after being cut back a few times
Chilli - Trinidad Scorpion Butch T
Most varieties of chilli available to home gardeners can be overwintered easily enough.  Super hot chilli are a lot more finicky than regular chilli and capsicums from what I have heard.  Being the first time I have grown the super hot chilli I decided to try and overwinter it rather than start from seed again.  Strangely it went very well and was very easy.  I tried to keep it out of the frost at night and put it in the sun during the day when I remembered.  I accidentally let it get a bit of frost a few times and forgot to put in in the sun more often than I remembered and all three survived nicely.
Trinidad Scorpion Butch T in tiny pot
Super hot chilli in late winter - not many leaves
Strangely healthy chilli in winter
The same plants after the weather got warmer
Trinidad Scorpion Butch T
Indeterminate tomatoes
Most indeterminate tomatoes are simple to overwinter if the frost can be kept off them.  This year was colder than most and I lost most of the tomatoes I had planned to overwinter as I did not look after them all that well.  I grew one seedling far too late  in the season last year so decided to try and overwinter it.  Mid winter, with no heat, just moving it inside at night to avoid frosts the plant started to flower.  The flowers all fell off as it was too cold for pollination to occur but the plant was mature.  This meant that it is easy to plant them out when the weather warms and have them set fruit almost right away.
Tomato plant mid winter
Micro Tom tomatoes
Micro tom is a great little tomato variety that needs more people to grow it and save its seed.  I grew one on the kitchen window over winter to see how it would go.  Apparently they grow just fine over winter if kept inside and this one started to flower when the nights were still frosty outside.  They have such a short lifespan that this particular plant flowered, set fruit and died before Spring came.  What a great plant, while it may not be the tastiest tomato variety it was a lot better than any cherry tomato I could buy from the supermarket at that time if year.  They are not terribly productive but being so small means that it can grow in a tiny pot and not need much space to provide a crop.  Being able to bring them indoors at night means that it is possible to get them to set fruit in Winter, I never would have thought that getting fruit in Winter was possible for a tomato that is not parthenocarpic.

I also planted some Micro Tom seeds mid winter to see if they would germinate in the cold and they did.  Being such tiny plants the kids adore them.  They are even more happy to eat the tomatoes and they tend to carry the tiny plants around talking to them and treating them like pets rather than plants.  The more I grow Micro Tom the more I discover about them that shows me how good they are.
Micro Tom tomato flowering in mid winter
Vietnamese Coriander (Persicaria odorata)
This perennial herb has many, many common names.  It smells a lot like coriander and is far simpler to grow.  It does not bolt to seed like real coriander and does not even flower often outside of the tropics.  It appears to love water and I grow it as a bog plant or an emergent water plant.  It does not like frost, mine got frosted a few times but they all came back in the warmer weather.  Over winter they look terrible, as soon as the warmer weather returned they sprang back to life.  Cuttings strike very easily in water so once it warmed up I cut one plant into many pieces, the original plant grew back and each cutting grew roots within a few days.
Vietnamese coriander leaves turn a bit red in cool weather
Water Celery (Oenanthe javanica)
This is another emergent water vegetable, it is grown for leaves and stems that taste of celery or parsley.  Like many of the vegetables I grow this is a perennial vegetable that rarely flowers or sets seed.  I have the variegated form of this vegetable, while it is prettier than the regular green one it is also not as aggressive in its growth.  I would like to track down the regular green version one day and see just how strong it will grow.  I would prefer a productive vegetable to a pretty vegetable.

My plant grew with no winter protection, the top of the water was covered in ice many times.  It certainly did not love being covered in ice and died back somewhat, the smaller plants that were grown with protection from frost looked a lot healthier at the end of winter.  As soon as the heat returned it was very fast to recover.

Water Celery surviving winter with no protection.
Where to get perennial Vegetables
I have been selling perennial vegetable plants and some seeds for years.  Unfortunately we recently moved to town and do not have any land so will not be selling anything for a while.  We do plan on moving again very soon, when we have settled I hope to sell perennial vegetables and vegetable seeds again, they will be listed on my For Sale page when the time comes.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Moving to town

Recently we have moved to town.  We had to sell the property for a number of reasons.  I will miss a lot of things about the property but unfortunately selling was the right thing to do at this point in time.  We are now renting a nice house in town.

Moving to town has been difficult, we have had to sell our animals and alpacas and they are sorely missed.  Our daughters were born in our old house and I developed Immali corn and a few other varieties of vegetables there.  It has a lot of memories and moving was far more difficult than I thought it would be.
In our last few days someone stole our firewood and someone else broke into the mud brick house and cut/took the antenna cables (yet didn't steal anything).  We know who did both of these things but unfortunately can do little about it.  That made moving even harder and more emotional.  I have been praying that I can forgive them, yet I find this very difficult.
Babington's leek bulbils
Babington's leek flowering after the move
We have also been very lucky, we asked our new landlord if we could keep two guinea pigs and he allowed us to keep them.  This has made the transition far easier for the kids and they often sit outside holding and patting the guinea pigs.  I think guinea pigs are amazing little animals and very under-appreciated pets.  I should write a post on guinea pigs at some point.

We also asked if we could keep some chickens and the landlord graciously agreed.  I truly appreciate being allowed to keep them.  This has been great as we still have eggs.  It has been many years since we have had to buy eggs and I dread the thought of that ever having to buy them again.  I don't have a rooster so will not be hatching any eggs in the immediate future.
Araucana cross and silkie cross chickens
We took our last two sheep to the butcher and they are now in the freezer so we will not have to buy meat for some time.  I doubt we will be growing our own meat here in any way.  Perhaps I will get some quail or be able to set up a small aquaponics system and raise some edible fish when we move next.

This rental house is very nice and the street is pleasantly quiet, but it does not have a vegetable garden.  I don't understand how people grow food without a vegetable garden.  I am at a loss here.  I guess they pay someone else to grow all their food and simply buy it from a supermarket?  That seems odd to me.  There are so many things that I like to eat which I can not get from a store, other vegetables are so much better fresh.  What I would give for even a tiny plot.  They are a bit precious about grass here so I can only grow things in pots which I have to keep on concrete or pavers in fear of damaging the lawn.
Vegetables but no land in which to plant them
The same vegetables from the other end
Duck potatoes, they grow well in a bucket
I dug up some of most types of vegetables/herbs and brought them here with us.  I could not take many of each, just enough to start again.  Some things do well in containers, others do not.  Many plants have died in the move and many more are looking weak.  I hope that we get to move somewhere with a vegetable garden before many more things start to die.
Micro Tomatoes - unfortunately not all survived the move
Chilli seedlings from rare imported seeds
When I get set up somewhere with a vegetable garden I plan to grow and sell vegetables and seeds again.  I miss having a garden.  I may have some Babington's Leeks and perhaps some other things things for sale soon but can't get too serious or have too many spare plants when growing in pots.  When I do start to sell vegetables again I will list them on my For Sale page.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

OSU Blue tomato

I have grown a lot of interesting tomatoes over the past few years, one of the more interesting tomatoes I grew last year was the OSU Blue tomato.  I have had a lot of questions over it so thought I would write a blog post.
OSU Blue tomato
OSU Blue was one of the first high anthocyanin tomatoes, it was bred using conventional methods (ie NOT GM).  In case you were wondering "OSU" is an acronym for Oregon State University.

From what I have read this tomato was developed by Jim Myers, OSU's Baggett Frazier professor of vegetable breeding and graduate students Carl Jones and Peter Mes.  The genes involved in producing the OSU Blue tomato are Aubergine (Abg), Anthocyanin fruit tomato (Aft) and atroviolaceae (atv), these genes came from the wild species Solanum lycopersicoides, S chilense, S cheesemanii, respectively.

This means that, just like every other domestic tomato, the OSU Blue is a complex yet stable hybrid.  I am happy to say that this is a very stable hybrid just like many other types of tomato and seeds are simple to save and they grow true to type.  Being derived from the wild tomato species I had hoped it would be resistant to a bunch of diseases, at this stage I don't know if it is or not.

On a side note I rather like S cheesemanii but they are as rare as hen's teeth in Australia, if you happen to be growing any please talk to me as I would love to get some seeds from you.

The anthocyanin is the same colour that is in eggplants and it is a rich antioxidant.  The fruit ripens to a dark blue/purple/black colour wherever sunlight hits it, anywhere the light does not hit ripens red.  If a leaf or calyx or whatever is on the fruit it gets a shadow of red.  If you were to put a sticker on the unripe fruit it remains red underneath allowing for all sorts of sillyness such as spelling out the names of your kids one letter per tomato.
OSU Blue Tomato, not overly large
 The plants grow and look much like any other tomato plant.  They are indeterminate and grow a regular leaf, the flowers are yellow and much the same as any other tomato.  The leaves and stems may take on a little purple colour if the temperatures are low and the light intensity is high.  When the days get too hot the plant does not colour up as much.  The fruit takes on more colour with low temperatures and high intensity light.  People who grow these to sell seeds on Ebay and such use grow lights to get the fruit to take on more dark colour.  The colour seems to be variable even on the same plant, my plants grew a range of dark to super dark fruits.

The fruit are small, but not too small, about 4cm across.  The dark colour is mainly concentrated in the skin and a little in the flesh just under the skin.  The flesh remains red and the seeds look much like any other tomato seeds.
OSU Blue Tomato
OSU Blue with some skin removed
One question I get about the OSU Blue tomato is about the taste.  If you read about any of the high anthocyanin tomatoes on the Oregon State University web page they sound like they taste absolutely terrible.  In reality they taste ok,  certainly not the greatest tasting nor the worst tasting.  If I had to choose one word to describe the taste it would be "underwhelming".

They tasted slightly better than an average store bought tomato.  Tomatoes from the shops are pretty dreadful at the best of times so this is not a glowing review.  If you are expecting a great tasting tomato because it is home grown then you will be disappointed, other than that they are ok.  It does taste better than other tomatoes I have grown such as apollo (or possibly roma) so are not all that bad.

They lacked any real depth of flavour, they were not very sweet and were not very sour.  They were not overly insipid which was a positive, but they really didn't make a memorable impression on my taste wise.  I have certainly eaten a lot worse tasting tomatoes.
Unripe OSU Blue tomatoes
The blue colour starts long before the fruit is ripe, the unripe tomatoes look very nice while you wait for them to ripen and become edible.  The plant itself is nothing spectacular, it does not crop all that heavily and is not overly robust.  That being said it was not a weak plant and did return a reasonable yield in far less than ideal conditions.
OSU Blue tomato in Australia

I saved a reasonable amount of seed from my plants and do plan on growing this variety again.  I have a few breeding plans and would love to incorporate the colour into a better tasting, higher yielding variety.  I have seen some people use this to breed a great tasting tomato that has the black/blue skin but is yellow on the inside, I have also read about someone who grew tomatoes that were red and had dark stripes like a tiger.  Lots of fun.  There are many options and I only have so much space/time to pursue them.  We will be moving to town  shortly so I may not be allowed to grow many vegetables for a while.

I have also been asked how OSU Blue Tomatoes got into Australia.  I have no idea how this variety found its way to Australia, it was bred after they closed the doors on the importation of tomato seeds.  Perhaps a university or the CSIRO imported them legally and they leaked out from there, perhaps some private grower or a sneaky large seed company imported them on the sly and was able to evade quarantine (please do not try this).  Perhaps someone or some company payed a small fortune to get the right tests done in order to legally import them.  The person who I got the seeds from initially received them unsolicited from another grower and asked no questions.

I guess I will never know how they got into the country, I also don't particularly care.  Now that they are here I can grow them, distribute them and use them in all kinds of tomato breeding projects.

OSU Blue Tomato seeds for sale in Australia
I may sell OSU Blue tomato seeds, and/or I may breed some new type of high anthocyanin tomato and sell its seeds.  If I do they will be listed on my for sale page along with other annual and perennial vegetables that I sell in Australia.

Benefit Cost analysis of growing vegetables in the backyard

People often tell me that growing vegetables costs too much, or that they are cheaper to buy from the shops, my reply to them is "you are doing it wrong".

Growing vegetables will save you money.  If you are spending more than you save you are doing something wrong.  Grow some food, it will save you money. 

If you have a back yard you should grow some vegetables.  I grow and eat plenty of things that I could never afford to buy.  It is simple and it will save you some money.  I will tell you how I used to grow vegetables cheaply in suburbia with limited space and give you an idea of how much money it saved us.
Heirloom tomatoes - one day's harvest

Growing Vegetables in the backyard to save money

When we first bought a house with a small yard I put in a small vegetable garden, I sat and thought before each purchase as I wanted to save money.  I tried to make sure that everything I bought would return the investment in 3 or less years, if anything would not return that investment I asked myself if I really wanted it.  Sometimes the answer was still yes.  Why did I choose 3 years, I can't remember, it is just the rule that I go by when making purchases.

When I was about to start that garden I looked for something to make it from for free.  We had a sandpit in the lawn left behind by the previous owner, I dug out the sleepers and used them as the vegetable garden edging.  I dug over a section of lawn that was out of the way, put in the sleepers as edging, and included some of the old sandpit sand to improve the drainage.  It cost me time which I otherwise would have spent in front of the television, and I bought a cheap spade and wheelbarrow (which I needed to buy for other projects), but other than that it was free up to this point.

I needed to buy some vegetable seeds or seedlings to plant, this was my first real cost.  I decided seeds were cheaper than seedlings and offer the best return on my investment.  A packet of tomato seedlings costs about the same as a single tomato plant and can be used to grow many tomato plants over several years.  I also decided that any seeds I bought must be of things that I could grow out and save seed from each year or of something perennial that would not need replacing each year.  This makes seed buying a once off expenditure so even if they never break even they will still be providing me food for years to come.  At that stage I had no intention of ever selling seeds or breeding my own superior varieties, I was only planning on saving a little money by growing vegetables in my spare time.  Saving seeds lowers costs dramatically, you should save some seeds for yourself.

I normally don't include costs and things in blog posts as they vary from place to place, but to demonstrate how growing vegetables in the backyard is far cheaper than buying them from a shop I am going to include some dollar amounts here.  I am also going to try and be realistic and include things where you may lose money.
Yellow pear tomato, seeds are cheap and yields are high

Benefit/Cost comparisons of growing vegetables in the backyard versus buying vegetables

I payed $3 for a packet of tomato seeds so I wanted to get at least $3 of tomatoes in less than 3 years.  That was my goal, everything had to break even within 3 years.  I can't remember how much each plant produced, or how many plants I grew that first year, but all together they returned about 12 kg of fresh tomatoes.  According to this site one kilogram of tomatoes costs about $5.  Not surprisingly one single tomato plant returned a lot more than $3 worth of tomatoes in a single season.  I am not talking organic gourmet tomato prices (even though I grow everything organically and I probably have what is considered gourmet varieties), I always calculate using the cheapest vegetable I can find.  I then saved seeds from those tomatoes and actually still have that variety today.  That was 12kg of tomatoes the first year for $3.  Already, with that one purchase of tomato seeds, I had lowered the costs of my fruit/vegetables a tiny bit.  I was already ahead.  We were already saving money by growing vegetables.

If you are not breaking even in under 3 years you are doing something wrong, perhaps you are growing the wrong variety or perhaps tomatoes or whatever it is are not suited to your climate and you should grow something else.

When I payed $7.50 for a kilogram of seed potato that first year I wanted to get at least $7.50 worth of potatoes in under 3 years.  The first year that 1kg of seed potatoes returned 20kg of good sized potatoes plus a few kg of smaller ones that I saved to plant the following year, the second year they only grew 15kg of large potatoes plus some to save, the third year they yield 8kg.  That's right, I keep pointlessly accurate records of things like this.  So for an initial $7 investment I got 43kg of potatoes over 3 years, not too bad.  Again, if you are not at least breaking even you are doing something wrong.  The average price of potatoes is around $3.78 per kg, so around 2kg breaks even.  The $7.50 for seed potatoes was well worth the investment especially considering the 20kg return the first year.  It is not difficult to save money by growing your own food in a small backyard garden.

That first year we spent $10.50 on tomato seeds and seed potatoes and ate around  $135.60 worth of fresh produce.  It is not difficult to see how much money can be saved by growing a few vegetables at home.
Perennial leeks, plant once harvest forever
We grew a few other things that first year, almost all of them returned far more than I payed for them.  Beans and snow peas grew tremendously well that year and I saved seed to grow in following years.  As well as providing a delicious crop, being legumes they also sequestered nitrogen from the air and made the soil more fertile and productive which was an added bonus.

Some seeds I bought did not provide great yields in that tiny vegetable garden.  It is important to know that this is going to happen too.

I bought multi coloured carrot seed, they grew well but when carrots cost $0.65 per kg I did not get $3 worth of carrots out of them that first year due to lack of space.  I probably got about 50 cents worth of carrots.  I saved some of their seed and planted the following years, to be honest I don't think I ever got $3 worth of carrots from them and should have probably stopped growing them.  You need to grow a lot to break even when they cost so little from the shops.  Space was the limiting factor there.  I was not saving money by growing carrots so I stopped growing them and used the garden space for more productive and worthwhile crops.

I bought an apple tree in our second year to plant by the fence, after counting and weighing the apples that we ate from that tree (I can't help but to weigh, measure and record certain things) and factoring in the cost of apples of the same variety from the shops I found that I broke even part way through the second year.  There is no point using the cost of organic apples as I would not buy them, I would buy the cheaper ones.  

I was also given some strawberry plants which performed wonderfully, it is difficult to work out how much they saved us as I would never buy strawberries because they are too expensive and do not taste very good.  These plants did replace other "afternoon tea" and "dessert" type foods so actually did save us a decent amount of money.  Considering that they cost me nothing to begin with I was more than pleased.
Herbs are worth growing, but they probably don't save you money
I also bought some herbs, this is where costing got even trickier.  Normally I would never buy fresh herbs as they are too expensive, so no matter how productive the plants were they would never truly break even.  This is ok when you factor it in with other things that actually did lower costs.  It is good to know that there will be things that are worth growing that will never break even, it is wise to make informed decisions about such things.  Lets be honest here, growing ornamental flowers never breaks even yet they are a multi-million dollar industry in Australia.  I think growing a few herbs is a great idea as they taste great, it should be a once off purchase as many herbs are perennial and it is simple to save seed from most annual herbs.

Then I bought some things that I had never seen in the shops, things like yacon.  I figured this was dead money as it was not replacing anything I would (or even could) buy.  I was willing to proceed as everything else had grown so well and lowered costs.  The trick here is not to ensure that each individual plant breaks even, but to make sure if something will lose money that you are aware of it before hand and have accounted for it somewhere else.  

The yacon grew amazingly well, the kids and I love to eat it.  It had saved us no money as it was not even replacing some other fruit or vegetable.  Yacon roots secrete sugars into the soil and attract and feed beneficial soil life such as earth worms.  Everything that grows near yacon seems to be larger and healthier, so it probably does save us money in some way that is too difficult to calculate.  Yacon is a perennial vegetable and I still have that same yacon growing today, it is one of my all time favourite vegetables.  I believe it was money well spent.

Production costs of growing vegetables in a small suburban backyard

People often complain about all the 'hidden' costs which I have conveniently ignored so far, what about fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, water and most importantly time?  Again I say if you are not saving money by growing vegetables then you are doing it wrong.  Lets look at these hidden costs.

People often complain about the cost of fertilisers when growing their own food, I have never used them.  You don't need to use them in a backyard, it is cheaper not to.

When we lived in town I would compost the lawn clippings as well as tea bags, egg shells and whatever vegetable scraps we had and use that as fertiliser.  It was virtually free as we were using an otherwise wasted resource and the vegetables grew tremendously well with that as the only fertiliser. The soil got richer and more fertile each year, this cost us nothing.

After a while we got chickens and also used their manure and bedding as fertiliser.  Someone gave us their old guinea pig, this little guy worked tirelessly eating weeds/grass and turning that into manure.  He lived a long life with us, reaching a ripe old age of about 7 eating nothing but grass and weeds and producing high quality fertiliser for us.  I miss him, he was a hard worker and a placid friend for my children.

There is no need to spend money on fertiliser as you will have something around that you can use for free.  I can understand large acreage buying fertilisers, but if you are spending money on fertiliser in town you are doing it wrong.
Chickens, a great source of manure (don't worry they did not live like this for more than a few minutes, we were only carrying them from the incubator to the brooder and this tiny box was the safest and easiest way)
People often complain about pesticide costs, again I have never used them.  If a plant gets hammered by insects then perhaps I should grow something else.  There is no point beating a dead horse, sometimes it is wiser to cut your losses and grow something else. 

Some pests can be beaten using other means, others sadly can not.  Cabbage white butterflies for example do not like to like to lay eggs where there are a lot of other white butterflies.  I tie some string running along the length of the bed next to the brassicas.  I then cut white plastic bags into small rectangles and tie them in their middle along the string.  The end result looks like a heap of butterflies fluttering along the crop in the wind.  Don't be fooled,  this does not eliminate the pests, but it does reduce them to a sensible number.  We went from several dozen caterpillars per leaf of every plant, which I was removing each day, to only 1 or 2 per entire row of plants.  This cost me a little time, an old plastic bag and a length of old string that I found in the garage. 

I keep slugs and snails away from seedlings by surrounding them with crushed egg shells.  Apparently the slugs/snails find them too sharp and do not go over them.  This has to be reapplied every now and again as birds or something steal the pieces of shell.  Egg shell is virtually free, my chickens and ducks lay eggs which we eat or hatch and I use the shells either in compost or to protect seedlings.
Crushed egg shells protect seedlings from slugs and snails

People ask me "what about weeds and weed control?".  In a back yard you should not have weed trouble that you can not dig out easily enough.  Large scale broad acre farms may be different, but in a back yard if you can not dig out a weed something has gone wrong.

If you have chickens or guinea pigs they can be put on a vegetable plot between crops to eat out weeds and fertilise the soil for you.  Chickens can be very destructive in the vegetable garden so I would only use them between crops and I would be careful they do not scratch all the soil out of your garden.

I don't see the point of using a herbicide in a small backyard vegetable garden.  If you do not have chickens or guinea pigs then pull out the weeds yourself, don't spray them.  If you can not pull out the weeds yourself due to ill health or something consider mulching heavily with newspaper or something.  People will give you piles of newspaper for free if you ask.

People often drone on and on about how much they will spend in water if they grow vegetables, in a small backyard this is not the case.  When we lived in town water cost $0.55 per kiloliter, I don't know how many thousand liters I would have used watering my tiny patch but all up it would have added up to maybe a few dollars each year.

The cost of water is undoubtedly a lot higher these days and would certainly vary from town to town, even so you would probably be looking at the cost over an entire year in single digits.  This is not a large cost and can easily be factored in to a productive vegetable garden.  There is certainly no point complaining about such a small cost each year when the financial benefits are so great.
Duck potatoes growing in a bucket.  Water is cheap, duck potatoes are expensive
I can not put a dollar amount on your time, I also can't tell you how long you will spend gardening each week or total over a year.  This will depend on how much time you are willing to spend out there.

People often talk about how gardening is great exercise and excellent for good health.  Others tell me that they find gardening therapeutic.  Some people claim that the clean, organic, nutrient dense food they produce will save them medical costs, doctor visits and give them greater quality of life when they are older and less sick.  I don't know about this so can not comment.

I can't tell you the benefit/cost ratio regarding time in growing your own food in the backyard.  I don't know anything about that, but I do often think perhaps my time is better spent growing my own food rather than working so that I can pay someone else to grow it for me.  When we lived in town the time I spent in the garden was just time I otherwise would have spent in front of the TV.

I can grow a lot of things that I can not buy in the shops, and I can grow other things that are best fresh.  Some things such as sweet corn only taste their best when eaten within 15 minutes of being picked.  After that the sugars convert to starch and you lose a great deal of quality.  The time it takes to drive home with your 'fresh' corn from the shops is enough to stop it tasting its best.  I find that the small amount of time required to grow corn is more than worth it when it tastes so good.
Sorrel, you don't find this at the shops
Yacon, more than worth a little time to grow this at home

How much food can you produce in an average backyard?

Back in the old days most people grew most of what they ate, but back then life was easier and the world was a vastly different place.  House blocks were generally a lot larger and people had a great deal more spare time, it was quite rare for both husband and wife to have payed employment outside of the house.  Producing meat in your backyard was seen as pretty normal back then, today if you even consider butchering a chicken you would be frowned upon.  Back then people rarely bought much food, unfortunately times have changed.

If you wanted to you could probably produce all of your fruit and vegetables in your yard, but few of us have the time, the space or the inclination to do that.  Your yard would no longer be useful for anything other than producing food.  You are better off just growing some things that you like, still having a pretty normal looking yard that is still functional, and saving a heap of money along the way.  A 1m by 4m plot along the fence can be tremendously productive.
When we were in town we had two vegetable plots which were just under 2m x 2m, about 7.5 square meters together.  That small amount of land produced about 10% of our vegetables.  For 5 weeks each year we did not buy vegetables at all, then we got a few handfuls of vegetables throughout the rest of the year.  You can see how such a small amount of land can save you rather a lot of money.

I personally think that if you are not saving money by growing food then you are doing it wrong!  If you have tried and things are not going well talk to someone who may be able to help.  Just like the carrot example above you may need to change your plant choices.

Where to get heirloom vegetable seeds and perennial vegetables

There are many places that sell seeds and perennial vegetables.  Whenever buying please look at things that will either be perennial and grow for multiple years, or things that you may be able to save seeds from.  By doing this you will lower your costs as they will be a once off purchase.  Some things will be too difficult or time consuming to save seeds, that is ok too as long as you are aware of it and are saving seeds from other things.  Try to pick varieties that are different from what you can buy, many varieties that are available in shops are excellent for large scale farming and distributing over large distances but are not great for home gardens.  The aims of a home vegetable garden are different to that of a broad acre monoculture.

I sell some perennial vegetables and heirloom vegetable seeds through my for sale page and can post at cost to most of mainland Australia (not Tasmania or WA).  There are many other good small home seed sellers, as well as some larger ones that are good.  If you deal with the smaller family run seed sellers they are more likely to offer advice if something goes wrong as well as give you fresher seeds.  One of the largest and most well known heirloom seed sellers in Australia is dreadful, and ebay is very hit and miss, so do some research prior to buying anything.

You have little to lose and a lot to gain, grow some vegetables and save some money.

1 Thessalonians 4:11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you,

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Why Save Seeds?

I grow mostly perennial vegetables at the moment.  They have a lot of benefits when compared to annuals as well as some negatives.  I also grow some annual vegetables and save seed from the very best each season.  

I am slowly starting to realise that I should sell some seeds each year as the varieties I am growing are amazing in one way or another.  Some are rare, some I have bred myself, others are extremely common, but they are all worth growing and saving seed from each year.  I have also taught people how to save seeds, a skill that I taught myself over many years through trial and error.
Purple mustard, very HOT

How I started to save seeds
Recently my mother came to visit with my kids and saw me fermenting tomato seeds, she asked what I was doing and I told her that I was saving seeds to grow next year.  She asked why I bothered as I could buy seedlings next year.  Not wanting to get into a discussion over it and knowing full well that she would not understand I replied with "Oh ok" and then continued what I was doing.  That got me thinking about how I started saving seeds.

When I was a preschool aged child I remember spitting out a tomato seed, then carefully putting it somewhere safe to plant.  From memory I did this several times a year and I never once planted the seeds or even remember finding them again after they had been put "somewhere safe".  My mum would purchase vegetable seedlings each year to plant out when the weather warmed up, I often asked why we did not just keep some seeds from the tomato or other things we grew and plant them the following year, I was told that it just didn't work that way.  Being so little I just accepted what I was told.

I distinctly remember my mother growing radishes when I was very young, then some flowered and she began to pull them out and throw them away.  I asked why she was killing them and was told that they go woody and are no good to eat when they flower.  I asked why she did not let them flower and plant their seeds (even before reaching school age I had a good understanding that plants flower to produce seeds, and that seeds would grow into plants) and was told that it just didn't work that way.  I convinced her to leave a few to go to seed, I remember carefully collecting the seeds and happily scattering them in the garden.  I have no idea if they grew or not, or if they spouted and were weeded out, I was just too young and my memory is not all that clear.  I am pretty sure that for one reason or another nothing came of them.
5 year old Nanuq carefully collecting mini blue popcorn seeds
Now that I have young children myself, I save seeds of heirloom vegetables (as well as saving seed from new varieties I am breeding myself) and I teach my children to save seeds.  They all help in one way or another, even my one year old helps collect hardy seeds such as broad beans.  I save these seeds for quite a lot of reasons including cost, variety selection, genetic drift, preserving rare varieties, having control over what I eat, breeding new varieties, improving existing varieties to suit my needs, and so on.  I have some varieties which I purchased as seeds prior to having kids, other things I planted the first seed with my first born in one arm when he was a few days old and I have saved seeds each year since then so I save them partly for sentimental reasons.  

I have a few varieties of vegetables which are not currently grown or saved by anyone else in Australia, I need to grow them to save their seed and distribute it otherwise they will go extinct here.  Some of these are great varieties, others have unique genes that could be well used in breeding programs to create improved varieties.  I am growing them for conservation reasons, as soon as I have enough seed I plan to distribute it.  Some heirloom varieties have been given to me on the provision that I do not distribute them to anyone until the person who gave it to me has died.  I will follow these wishes and conserve these varieties until I am allowed to distribute them.  Hopefully you can begin to see why saving seed is important.
Micro Tomatoes don't get any larger than this and are virtually unheard of in Australia
As I teach my kids or anyone else about saving seeds I can't help but to think back to my mum telling me that "it just doesn't work that way".  Now that I am older and have greater experience and education I now understand what she was getting at with that phrase.  She was not referring to cytoplasmic male sterility, she was not referring to F1 plants not producing true to type offspring, she was not referring to problems associated with producing accidental crossing of varieties, she was not referring to inbreeding depression resulting from small gene pools and tight genetic bottlenecks, or any other reasonable explanation, she was simply referring to the fact that one is told to buy seeds or seedlings each year and that is the way things are done.  It really is very sad.
Speckled Roman tomato
I find that view of "it just doesn't work that way" interesting as it is the prominent view when regarding vegetable seed even among many who grow heirloom vegetables.  It is limiting, it is controlling, it is enslaving, it reduces the variety we have avialable to us, it makes good varieties go extinct and many people have made their fortune from people who hold this view.  Even people I know who have been growing vegetables for decades hold that view close and are wary of anyone who attempts to stray from it.  

I even hear new gardeners complain that they grew some amazing variety last year and now they can not find it for sale anywhere.  I used to ask them if the variety was so good why they did not save seeds themselves, after a blank stare they usually reply with that mantra of "it just doesn't work that way". I no longer bother to ask any questions.

If you are confused let me tell you, it most certainly can work that way and it will work that way if you can be bothered. 
Skirret - delicious and practically extinct

Saving seeds is for everyone

I am not suggesting that you should save seed from everything that you grow.  Not everyone has the time or space to save seed from everything they they grow.  That is just a simple fact of life and there is no way around it.  

Some things are just easier to buy each year.  When we move into town I will not be able to save all our own seeds, or I may find a way to make it work.  If it is not practical then I will only save seed from some things and I will probably buy others.

Leaving a biennial plant such as beetroot in the bed for 2 years so that it can go to seed, ensuring that it does not cross with any other type of beetroot or silverbeet in your neighbourhood, and ensuring that you keep enough plants to reduce the impacts of inbreeding impression, is not for everyone.  It takes a lot of time, space and a few difficult techniques if you happen to have neighbours over the fence who are doing the same thing with a different variety. When we move to town I seriously doubt that I will ever save beetroot seed again.
Crimson flowered broadbean, this would be extinct if not for ONE lady who saved seed
Crimson Flowered Broadbean seeds

Saving seed from other things is far simpler.  Other things can take almost no time, no effort, no cost (in fact they save you money as you never buy seeds or seedlings of that plant ever again), and end up giving you a superior variety that is better suited to your purposes.  I want to encourage people to save seed from these easy things.
Reisetomate tomatoes, difficult to find anywhere but simple to save seeds once you have found them
Saving seed from a coriander plant for example is simple.  You grow your coriander as normal, you eat the leaves as normal, when it flowers and goes to seed you rip out any substandard plants (or at least kill the plants that flower first) and allow the rest to do their thing.  Then you can let them self seed and you are done, no real effort on your behalf other than ripping out some plants which you were going to do anyway.  Or you could collect and store the seeds somewhere until you are ready to plant again, and that is all.  That wasn't too hard and didn't take much time and certainly didn't cost anything.  

By killing off the first plants to flower you are selecting for plants that will be slow bolting and produce over a longer period in your garden.  If you buy seeds or seedlings each year you can rest assured that they have been selected for fast bolting and high seed yields, those are the traits that make money for the commercial seed farms, they do not care about the quantity or quality of the leaves.  You may have to be careful if you grow more than one variety or you have a close neighbour who is growing a different variety, you may eventually run into issues with inbreeding depression if you save seeds from too few plants over too many generations (there are a few ways around this though), but if you grow coriander and are happy with a variety I think you should save the seeds for next year.
In my opinion, if you are the type who wants to grow something, and has the space to grow something, then you should save some seeds from something.  While you may not save seed from everything you grow you should at least save seeds from one or two things.  Many balcony farmers can easily save seed from an annual herb such as coriander or basil if nothing else.

Are home grown seeds as good?

People often ask me if seeds you save yourself are as good as "the ones you can buy".  The short answer is yes.  Any seeds you save yourself are just as good as any seeds you can buy.  

The longer answer is that seeds you can buy the seeds that I save, but seeds that you save yourself are likely to be far superior to anything you can buy anywhere for quite a number of reasons. 
OSU Blue tomato - you don't see these at the supermarket
If you save seeds you should get higher germination rates, this is due partly to the fact that the seeds will be fresher, seeds that you buy may be a few years old before you purchase them.  I write the year the seeds were collected on seed packets, I know of no one else who does this, they mostly write an arbitrary date of expiration or the date that they were repackaged.  I dislike companies who write the repackage date as who knows how old the seeds were before they were repackaged and sold.  I dislike the arbitrary best before dates for a number of reasons.  I want to know the year they they were grown, that is why I write that on my packets.

Your home grown seeds will have been stored in reasonably stable conditions in the cupboard or wherever it is that you store seeds, anything you buy may have been stored in variable conditions as it goes on trucks, gets stored in warehouses, hangs on the wall of the shop in direct sunlight etc. The seeds I sell are the same ones that I will plant if they are not sold, so I take as much care as possible with them and store them as best I can
Freckles lettuce and purple mustard
If you save seeds you know that they are clean, at very worst they will only have diseases and pests that are already in your garden, you will certainly not be introducing any new horror.  Many heirloom seed companies import seeds from overseas.  One well known heirloom seed company which sells a range of 'organic' seeds imports almost all of their seeds, they try to trick customers into thinking that they grow their own seeds by pointing to the fact that they are an Australian owned and run company.  The only seeds that they sell which were grown in Australia are the ones that they are no longer allowed to import.

Ever seen white tomatoes in the shops?  You must save seeds if you want to grow and eat them
If you are growing vegetables to reduce your carbon footprint or lower food miles then it does not make sense to buy seed each year that was grown in Mexico, shipped to somewhere in the USA, shipped to Sydney, transported to Melbourne where it is stored in bulk and repackaged (stamped with the repackage date) and stored again, then posted to you.  Producing and saving your own seed each year makes far more sense.
More importantly than any of this, each time you save seeds you are adding selective pressure for plants that are suited to YOUR garden's climate and have the traits that YOU want.  If a plant is not suited to your climate it will not survive to produce much seed, if you buy seed it is likely that it has been grown in conditions that are not at all like yours.  It is also likely that seeds you buy will have been selected to produce seed, home grown plants are selected to produce large crops, crops over an extended period, delicious crops, disease resistance etc.  

Most seed companies spray crops many times throughout the growing season, even organically certified farms tend to spray with all kinds of horrible "organic" chemicals.  Many of these organic poisons are highly residual.  All of this is selecting for plants with lowered resistance to whatever it is that will attack them in your garden.  

In my garden we do not use poisons, if a plant get attacked by pests or diseases I pull it out and do not save seed from it, in this way I am selecting for pest and disease resistance.  You can easily do the same in your garden when you save seeds.
Golden podded snowpea seeds - it is simple to save pea seeds
This year I grew over 2 dozen different types of tomato, all seeds were planted on the same day, all seedlings were planted out in the vegetable garden on the same day, and all of them have been given the same conditions.  One variety, my yellow pear tomato, has been with us for many years now and we have saved seed from the best plants each year.  

My climate, just like everywhere in Australia, can be rather hostile.  Out of all the varieties I am growing the yellow pear plant is about 4 times the size of the next largest, it is absolutely covered in flowers and is setting fruit long before everything else.  Many of the other varieties are meant to be far more vigorous, many are meant to fruit several weeks earlier, and many are meant to grow larger plants than the yellow pear.  Given ideal conditions the yellow pear should not be anywhere near as large or fast or have as many flowers as many of the other varieties.

But my garden does not have ideal conditions nor does yours.  This strain of yellow pear tomatoes will produce fruit until the frosts kill the plants, then I will collect any green fruit that is still on the dead plants and ripen it indoors.  Clearly over the years I have been selecting for plants that not just survive but thrive in arid hostile environments as well as growing large quickly and producing early crops.
Yellow Pear tomatoes

You should save some seeds

I do sell heirloom vegetable seeds as well as perennial vegetables and a few other things through my for sale page.  While I will happily sell you seeds each year and profit from doing so it is in your best interests to save at least some seed yourself after growing out some plants.  After all, you have little to lose and very much to gain.  There is no reason to buy seed each year, buy once and save seed if you like that particular variety.
Immali Corn, I am developing this variety myself
Start with something simple, do NOT start with beetroot or corn.  Start with peas or tomatoes or some annual herb that you enjoy.  Every time you save seeds that variety will be slightly different from the last time, even if you make it your desire to keep the strain exactly how it was it will still be slightly different, it will be slightly better.  By saving seeds you will also be saving money.

There is no way to stop these slight changes, you can slow them considerably but these changes will never actually stop so you may as well have the variety change for the better.  Add some deliberate selective pressure, kill off the undesirable plants and only save seed from the ones that do best for you.  Perhaps you want compact plants to utilise space better, then only save seeds from your most compact plants.  Perhaps you want tomatoes that have more uniform shape, then only save seed from these plants.  Save seeds from the fruit and plants that you want to see more of.  The difference you will make in a few years is amazing.
Heirloom tomatoes, many rare and delicious varieties in this basket
If you do not know how to save seeds and are worried about doing it wrong, read some books, ask some people, or talk to me and I can offer some advice.  You certainly do not need anything too high tech and do not need botanical or horticultural training in order to be successful.  Lets face it, people were saving seeds back before we knew anything about genetics, they have done so all over the world for many generations, if they could do it then so can you.   

These vegetable seeds are gifts from the ancestors who developed them, preserving at least some of these varieties and improving them is the only sensible thing to do.

1 Peter 4:10  Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms