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Re: Organic Gardening...Why Organic is Better
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Published: 14 years ago
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Re: Organic Gardening...Why Organic is Better

Organic Gardening: Starting from Seed

Starting from Seed: Choosing a Seed Source

[Adapted from Finding Great Garden Seeds by Barbara Pleasant, Mother Earth News April/May 2005]

Twenty years ago, it was virtually impossible to buy organically grown seeds. Among the more readily available seeds, many varieties were treated with toxic fungicides that commercial growers — and most gardeners — thought were essential to success. But today we know better, and so does a new generation of seed sellers. Companies such as High Mowing Seeds and Seeds of Change offer all organically grown seeds, and other companies, such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, specialize in nonhybrid heirloom varieties, which often excel in flavor and nutrition. Even the largest and oldest seed companies, such as Burpee, Park, Harris and Ferry-Morse, are adding more organic seeds and heirloom varieties to their offerings. This trend also extends to the retail racks of Botanical Interests and other companies that sell seeds in stores.

We surveyed the current garden seed catalogs and chose 21 companies for the 2005 Sustainable Seeds Honor Roll. You’ll find a wealth of exciting varieties and great advice in these catalogs, and most of them are free for the asking. Here’s a closer look at three of those companies in Maine, New Mexico and Missouri. Taken together, they tell an interesting story of where the seed industry has been, how far it has come and where the future of garden seeds is going.

The current trend toward sustainable seeds comes as no surprise to Rob Johnston Jr., founder and chairman of the 32-year-old Johnny’s Selected Seeds. From its first 16-page seed list, Johnny’s has grown into a thriving company that now offers 150-page color catalogs and employs more than 80 people on 40 certified organic acres in central Maine.

“There’s always potential in any business for new enthusiasm, and specifically in the seed business,” Johnston says. Early on, working on a tight budget, Johnston opted to channel his enthusiasm into breeding squash and pumpkins — high-nutrition niche crops. This year’s retail catalog lists eight pumpkin varieties developed by the Johnny’s team, 13 squash varieties — including ‘Bonbon’ buttercup, a 2005 All-America Selections (AAS) winner — and ‘Diva’ cucumber (AAS 2002). The latter owes its creation to breeding work done by Johnston’s wife, Janika Eckert. Over the years, Johnny’s has accumulated an impressive list of AAS winners, including bright-orange ‘Sunshine’ winter squash; beautiful, multicolored ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard; and ‘Baby Bear’ pumpkin with thick, pie-worthy flesh and roastable seeds.

Johnston opened his seed business after working at a natural foods co-op and as a market gardener. His company’s listings still reflect that market gardening background — he includes herbs, green manure crops, ornamental grasses and long-stemmed flower varieties sought by cut-flower growers.

His special interest in grains shows, too. “I’ve had my own flour mill for 25 years,” Johnston says. One of his favorite grains is ‘Polk’ spring wheat — a high-gluten variety that makes great pancakes and wonderfully crusty bread — which is also available through the catalog.

Many of Johnny’s varieties are hybrids, chosen for special characteristics such as earliness (crucial in Maine) and disease resistance. Almost all of Johnny’s varieties are untreated (meaning the seeds are not coated with synthetic fungicides), and more than 100 are organically grown.

And then there is Johnston’s philosophy on service, which motivates his staff to send orders out within hours after they come in.

“It doesn’t take much more work to stay caught up than it does to get a couple of weeks behind and hold it there,” he says. “So why not stay caught up?”

While Johnny’s has evolved slowly for more than 30 years, a very different seed company, Seeds of Change, took off like a rocket 10 years ago. In addition to the largest all-organic garden seed listing in America (83-page catalog that lists more than 600 varieties of open-pollinated, organically grown vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers), its orbit now includes certified organic foods sold in supermarkets and health food stores around the world and a six-acre research farm near Santa Fe, N.M.

In a roundabout way, the fuel for the Seeds of Change rocket came from candy bars that have been around since 1911, when Frank and Ethel Mars created the first Mars bar in their Tacoma, Wash., kitchen. The Seeds of Change company, which its visionary founders, Gabriel Howearth, Kenny Ausubel, Nina Simons and Alan Kapuler, hoped would become the first all-organic seed company in the United States, got its start in 1989, but struggled to get off the ground. It had talent, expertise and commitment, but was crunched for cash.

“I guess starting a seed company was an absurd thing to do at the end of the 20th century,” says Howard Shapiro, an early investor and now the vice president of agriculture for the company. “We needed a business partner, and we had to find more like-minded people.”

This problem was clear to 22-year-old Stephen Badger, who worked with Shapiro for more than a year, helping recruit new farmers to grow organic seed, calling every farmer he knew from working on area organic farms and at the People’s Food Co-op in Portland, Ore.

Soon thereafter, Badger decided it was time to commit. Bringing in the vast resources of his family’s business, Mars, he provided capital and business expertise to move Seeds of Change onto the fast track. Badger now keeps a low personal profile but maintains a high ethical influence within the company.

“If done with integrity, business can be a great thing for the environment,” he says. “If done with a conscience, business can be a force for good.”

It is hard to browse through the Seeds of Change catalog without agreeing that a force for good is flourishing within the company. For the past eight years, Rodale Institute veteran Steve Peters has been orchestrating the work of more than 50 organic seed growers. “They’re the unsung heroes, the heart and soul of Seeds of Change,” Peters says. “There’s always been a sense that anything was possible. Not only were we helping to preserve something invaluable, but we were, and still are, creating something truly significant that is bigger than any of us.”

That significance is now symbolized by the easy availability of previously unknown crops ranging from amaranth, an ancient grain species revered by the Aztecs, to yacon, a Bolivian root crop related to sunflowers that bears clusters of sweet, crunchy tubers.

Jeremiath Gettle was 7 years old in 1987 when he began collecting seeds, 16 when he joined Seed Savers Exchange and 18 when he sent his first catalog — a 12-page list of 70 varieties — to 550 customers. The next year, 1999, Gettle’s fledgling company, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, spread from one room in his home to the entire second floor. In 2000, he built a 2,000-square-foot store, which has expanded twice since then. This year, he expects to send out 70,000 catalogs — offering more than 1,000 varieties — and he will employ 15 people at peak season.

Such success isn’t bad for a guy who started with an interest in heirloom poultry and then became alarmed when he saw how quickly irreplaceable vegetable and flower varieties were disappearing. “We’re trying to preserve things that are different, like white cucumbers and yellow watermelons,” Gettle says. “We’re also trying to preserve ethnic varieties from remote cultures that are facing pressures to give up what they have.” He has traveled to Thailand, Cambodia and Mexico in search of near-extinct seed varieties.

There’s a spirit of generosity flowing through Baker Creek, which may spring from the support Gettle received when he decided to start his company. Glenn Drowns, Kent Whealey and others who work with the Seed Savers Exchange helped Gettle, and now he is eager to help other young companies that share his preservation goals.

“They have varieties we don’t have, and the main thing is to keep people growing these varieties. We all need to work on saving seeds and keeping our food supply as safe as possible,” he says. “Grow what you can, and buy locally whenever you can, too. That keeps our food supply in farmers’ hands.”

Gettle says he has been challenged to meet the technical demands of his fast-growing business, but he’s had little difficulty finding growers to supply seeds. He uses two acres of his own land for seed production and a neighbor has put 15 acres into production for him. Other growers for Baker Creek are scattered from Maine to California.

“One of the side benefits of having all these farmers growing things for you is that you get good food,” Gettle says.

To spark enthusiasm among his growers, customers and the public, Gettle stages Baker Creek festivals at his farm where those who attend can share gardening stories and seeds, and have a good time. At this year’s Spring Planting Festival in April, exhibitors will show such items as portable solar panels and handmade herbal soaps, as well as their produce. Gettle says he even expects a display of restored covered wagons, including a functioning 100-year-old chuckwagon from Texas.

Seed companies are as diverse as gardens and gardeners, which brings us to the power of choice. When you choose seeds, you are choosing more than a variety. You’re choosing to support a company that shares your values. You’re choosing what you’ll eat for dinner — over and over again. Perhaps you’re choosing a starting point for selecting a strain that is uniquely adapted to your back yard. Well-chosen seeds are the channel through which Mother Nature’s healthful energy will flow easily and naturally through your hands and your garden, onto your table and into your body, helping you create your own circle of sustainability.

These seed companies all offer a good, varied selection of open-pollinated vegetable and flower seeds, as well as untreated and/or organically grown seeds. All share a commitment to refrain from knowingly selling genetically modified varieties. These companies also have earned very high ratings for customer service, in the database maintained by Garden Watchdog ( Be sure to check out companies close to home to find regionally adapted varieties. (New laws restrict the shipping of seeds between the United States and Canada, so if your order could be affected, be sure to check with the seed company.)

1. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
(866) 653-7333

2. Bountiful Gardens
18001 Shafer Ranch Road
Willits, CA 95490
(707) 459-6410

3. Cook’s Garden
P.O. Box 5030
Warminster, PA 18974
(800) 457-9703

4. FEDCO Seeds
P.O. Box 520
Waterville, ME 04903
(207) 873-7333

5. Heirloom Seeds
P.O. Box 245
W. Elizabeth, PA 15085
(412) 384-0852

6. High Mowing Organic Seeds
813 Brook Road
Wolcott, VT 05680
(802) 888-1800

7. Johnny’s Selected Seeds
955 Benton Ave.
Winslow, ME 04901
(800) 854-2580

8. Natural Gardening Co.
P.O. Box 750776
Petaluma, CA 94975
(707) 766-9303

9. Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Old Salem Road NE
Albany, OR 97321
(800) 422-3985

10. Peaceful Valley
Farm Supply
P.O. Box 2209
Grass Valley, CA 95945
(888) 784-1722

11. Salt Spring Seeds
Box 444, Ganges
Salt Spring Island, BC V8K 2W1
(250) 537-5269 (inquiries only)
*Unfortunately, Salt Spring Seeds can no longer ship to the United States.

12. Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87592
(888) 762-7333

13. Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA 52101
(563) 382-5990

14. Seeds for the South
410 Whaley Pond Road
Graniteville, SC 29829
Fax: (803) 232-1119

15. Seeds Trust
4150 B Black Oak Drive
Hailey, ID 83333
(208) 788-4363

16. Southern Exposure
Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460
Mineral, VA 23117
(540) 894-9480

17. Sow Organic Seed Co.
P.O. Box 527
Williams, OR 97544
(888) 709-7333

18. Terra Viva Organics
8480 Dayton Court
Richmond, BC V6Y 3H6
(866) 599-2847

19. Territorial Seed Co.
P.O. Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424
(800) 626-0866

20. Underwood Gardens
1414 Zimmerman Road
Woodstock, IL 60098
(815) 338-6279

21. Victory Seeds
P.O. Box 192
Molalla, OR 97038
(503) 829-3126


Hybrid seeds are becoming more available as organically grown or untreated, but even when the seeds are clean, hybrids have a drawback for home gardeners. If you grow seeds produced by hybrids — which are planned crosses between different parents — the likely result is plants that resemble their grandparents rather than the plants that produced them. This is often a step backward in crop quality.

Open-pollinated (nonhybrid) varieties are much more genetically stable, and they stand a good chance of improving from one generation to the next if you save seeds from your most vigorous plants, or if you select for additional characteristics, such as earliness, flavor, color or superior tolerance to heat or cold. Best of all, when you save seeds from your best open-pollinated plants, you are on your way to developing a variety with the best adaptation to the unique soil and climate in your garden.

Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of saving seeds — it really is a rewarding and fun activity.

Starting from Seed: Indoor Methods

[Adapted from Starting Seeds Indoors by Gail Damerow, Mother Earth News February/March 1993]

Growing plants from seed may seem a bit outmoded. After all, started seedlings are readily available at every nursery, as well as many grocery and department stores. But growing vegetables from seed offers a number of advantages. For one thing, you'll know exactly what you're growing. Store-bought seedlings aren't always clearly identified. For another, your bedding plants will be healthier. Many Store-bought seedlings have weak, spindly stems and most of them have gone through extended periods without water. And then there's the matter of taste. Nearly all of the started plants you'll find in stores are hybrids, the result of deliberately crossing two or more plant varieties. Hybrids are developed to solve the problems of large-scale food production. They produce larger crops, they ripen all at once for mechanical harvesting, and they have tough skins that hold up well during long-distance shipping. Notice that flavor is nowhere near the top of the list.

We gardeners, on the other hand, like fresh vegetables for their tenderness and good flavor. We prefer extended harvests that give us fresh produce over a long period of time and that don't require marathon canning sessions. In short, we prefer standard (non-hybrid) varieties. Standards are rarely available as started plants, but instead must be grown from seed.

When you start from seed, you have another advantage over planting seedlings—you can sprout the seeds indoors to get a jump on the season for an earlier harvest. If your growing season is short, planting indoors buys time for slow-growing varieties that otherwise may not mature before fall's first frost—eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes among vegetables; impatiens, petunias, and snapdragons among flowers. And if your climate, like mine, goes too quickly from frigid to sizzling, cool-weather Cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) started indoors can be handily harvested before the onset of summer heat.

Compared to seeds planted outdoors, those started indoors have a better germination rate because they're pampered more. You can enjoy greater variety by planting just a few pots of several different things, then selecting only the healthiest plants for transplanting. But the real reason we die-hard gardeners like to start seeds indoors is that it lets us get dirt under our fingernails long before the soil is warm enough or dry enough to garden outdoors.

To start your own indoor nursery, here's what you'll need:

Seeds. Decide what you want to grow and purchase the seeds in plenty of time. Mail-order houses offer the widest variety of seeds, and will supply them when you want them.

Containers. Those of us who enjoy indoor planting invariably set up in-house recycle centers tilled with milk cartons, potato-chip tubes, juice cans, yogurt containers, and anything else that's at least 3" deep. The best planting containers are either tapered—like yogurt containers—so plants can easily be slipped out, or are made of paper-like milk cartons and juice cans—so they can be torn open for plant removal. Flats (shallow trays) may offer more planting space than individual pots, but you're more likely to disturb tender roots at transplant time.

To prepare containers for planting, wash them well, rinse in warm water laced with a little chlorine bleach, and dry them in the sun. With a nail, poke one or more small drainage holes in the bottoms of all containers so you won't drown your seedlings. If money is no object, save yourself the bother of cleaning containers by buying pots designed specifically for sprouting seeds. Seedlings started in pots of pressed fiber or peat can be planted in the garden, pot and all. Some seed —starting kits come with their own planting mix.

Planting mix. Seeds sprout best in soil that drains well, that doesn't easily compact, and that's free of competing weed seeds, fungi, and other organisms that can disease young plants. Sterile planting mixes, available at any garden center, are relatively inexpensive. If you buy a mix containing soil, be sure the label says it's been sterilized.

Most mixes blended especially for germinating seeds contain no soil at all, but are a mixture of sphagnum moss (decomposed moss mined from swamps), perlite (a form of volcanic ash), and vermiculite (mica expanded with heat, like popcorn). This blend holds water well, but is difficult to initially moisten. To dampen it sufficiently for planting, put some into a plastic bag, add water, and knead. Because this mixture is low in nutrients, you'll have to fertilize seedlings from the time they achieve three weeks' growth, using half the strength solution you'd use for mature plants.

If you run out of planting mix at a crucial moment, or you prefer not to spend money on someone else's mix, you can make your own by combining equal parts sphagnum moss (available from most garden centers), sifted compost, and sifted garden soil. To eliminate soil-borne organisms that cause plant problems, pasteurize the sifted soil and compost by lightly moistening it and heating it in a 180°F oven for 45 minutes. Since cooking soil doesn't exactly smell like freshbaked bread, place the mix in a broiler bag (of the sort you'd use to cook a turkey) and spread it on a shallow tray. Stir in the sphagnum moss and cool well before planting.

Labels. Since newly sprouted plants look pretty much alike, labels will help you keep track of what's what. If something doesn't come up and needs replanting, you won't have to guess what it was. You can buy bona fide nursery labels, save up popsicle sticks, or make labels by cutting a liquid bleach container into 1/2" vertical strips and trimming a point at one end. Some planting containers (like containers from yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream) are easy to write on with an indelible marker, eliminating the need for separate labels.

Light. Plants started in a window sill soon grow leggy and topple over—perhaps because, at this time of year, the sky stays cloudy for days on end. A light for your seedlings therefore makes a good investment and can be used year after year. You might enjoy the prestige (and expense) of a specially designed "grow" light, but you'll get the same good results with inexpensive fluorescent tubes and a fixture from the local discount store.

Cool white ("daylight") 40-watt tubes throw even light of the sort plants thrive on, and they don't get hot enough to burn tender leaves. Select a fixture (or combination of fixtures) that's the right size to cover all your pots, placed directly below the light. Hang the fixture from chains so that you can raise it as plants grow, keeping the light about 1" above plant tops.

Warmth. Most seeds germinate best in a warm, draft—free place. Where the temperature is a little high, plants will grow fast and become leggy. Where the temperature is a little low, plants will grow slowly and have strong, sturdy stems; however, if the temperature is too low, seeds won't germinate at all. If the area where you plan to start your seeds is much cooler than 70° to 75°F, find a warm place such as the top of the water heater or refrigerator. After the seeds germinate, place the pots under the light.

Now all you need to know is the date of the last expected frost in your area. If you aren't sure, call your county's agricultural extension office. Start seeds for slow-growing plants like cabbage, eggplant, head lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes eight weeks before the last-frost date. Start fast-growing plants like Chinese cabbage, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash four weeks before the last frost. You don't want fastgrowing plants to outgrow their pots and get root-bound while you wait for your garden soil to warm up or dry out enough for transplanting. As a general rule, it's better to start seeds a little too late than a little too early.

Fill each container with planting mix to within V," of the top. Press the mix gently to firm it up without packing it solid. In each container, arrange two large seeds (such as cucumber, squash, or pumpkin) or three small seeds (such as tomato or cabbage). If small seeds stick to your fingers and are hard to place, pick them up with tweezers.

Cover large seeds with soil to no more than three times their thickness. Press small seeds into the soil without covering them, since otherwise they might get buried too deeply to germinate. To avoid washing the planting mix away from the seeds, water the pots with a spray bottle filled with warm water. To keep the soil from drying out, lay a piece of newspaper across the tops of the containers.

Water the pots daily, taking care to not let the soil get too soggy or dry. Different seeds take different amounts of time to germinate. The label on your seed packets should tell you the germination times for the varieties you plant. As soon as little green sprouts appear, remove the newspaper and turn on the grow light. Turn the light off each night to give plants a rest. Continue watering daily so soil stays evenly moist.

When plants have four true leaves (not counting those first nondescript round leaves all plants start out with), thin plants to one per pot. Don't pull out the weak plants or you'll disturb the roots of the remaining plant. Instead, use scissors to snip off all but the strongest single plant in each pot. Water a little less often from now on, allowing the soil's surface to dry out between waterings.

Before your plants get big enough for the great outdoors, they should be transplanted into larger pots at least once. Transplant peppers and tomatoes twice. Any plant needs transplanting if it outgrows its pot while you're waiting for conditions outside to be right for the big move. Putting plants in bigger pots stimulates root growth, thanks to new soil with fresh nutrients and greater room for roots to spread.

Whenever you transplant a seedling, make sure to thoroughly water it first. Then run a butter knife around the edge of the pot to loosen the root ball. Hold the pot in one hand and tip it upsidedown onto your other hand, so the root ball lands on your fingers and the plant falls between them. (If you planted in fiber or peat pots, break away the bottom so roots can get through, then replant the pot and all.) Add enough planting mix to bury the stem up to the first true leaves. Press the mix firmly around roots and then water the plant once more. Transplants may droop but should grow upright within a day or two.

When the time comes to move your plants outdoors, avoid an abrupt move that will shock them and retard their growth. Instead, let your plants gradually adjust to being outside through a process called "hardening off." One week before transplant time, place the seedlings outdoors in a shady spot that's protected from any wind. If the nights are still cool, bring the plants inside before the sun goes down. Gradually move the plants until they're getting full sun during the day. (Watch that the sun or wind doesn't dry them out—you may have to water more often than you have been.)

Cool-weather varieties such as sole crops may be moved to the garden as soon as the soil can be worked and the danger of heavy frost is over. Warm-weather plants like tomatoes shouldn't go out until all danger of frost has past.

The best time to move seedlings to the garden is on a warm, windless, cloudy day when light showers are predicted. Unfortunately, the weather doesn't always cooperate. Chilly nights, not to mention the drying effects of wind and sun, can quickly wipe out all those little plants you tended so carefully.

Garden centers carry protective devices, called "hotcaps," of every shape, size, and especially price. To save money, you can protect seedlings with large mills cartons, inverted cans, or anything else big enough not to touch a plant's leaves. Hotcaps hold in heat during the night, but in sunny weather they must be removed during the day so they won't collect the sun's heat, cooking new transplants.

If you've got lots of little plants, setting out hotcaps each evening and gathering them up each morning gets to be a hassle. And while the hotcaps are off, seedlings have no protection from wind and unrelenting sun. Pondering these problems, my husband and I hit on the idea of fashioning plant protectors from white plastic trash-bag liners. We slit the bottoms open and cut each 20" by 28.5" liner into three 20" x 9.5" strips. We used our food-pouch heat sealer to form tubular pockets along the two folds. Into the tubular pockets we slipped two slender stakes, which we poked into the ground as an anchor.

We used a third stake to pull the plastic out into a right angle corner, creating a protector with two walls oriented to shield a plant from both sun and wind. In seasons when the wind whipped around from several directions, we opened up the plastic and added a fourth stake to create a box with four walls. 'these plastic protectors could be reused several times in one season, but they don't hold up well enough to be stored for future seasons. To us, that seemed a tad wasteful.

So we looked around for something that could be saved year- after year and discovered fiberglass sheeting, a recycled product left over from the manufacture of paper and used to shield gamebirds from wind. The fiberglass comes in rolls of various widths—the 2' roll turned out to be ideal for protecting plants.

Using scissors, we cut the fiberglass into 1' strips, fashioned each strip into a 1' high tube stapled to two wooden stakes. When the stakes are pushed into the ground on either side of a plant, the tube surrounds the plant and protects it from all directions. The white fiberglass does not collect and hold excess heat, and is porous enough to allow air movement but not drafts.

Fiberglass is durable and does not rot or rip. The protectors can easily be threaded onto a length of rope and hung from the rafters of a storage shed. A 2' wide roll containing 100 feet costs $30, but you can buy only as much as you need.

Both the one-season plastic protectors and the more durable fiberglass kind will keep plants warm throughout the night unless unseasonable frost threatens. In that case, slip a paper bag over each protector late in the afternoon, before the sun goes down. In blowing wind, put a small stone or dirt clot on each bag to keep it from blowing away. Avoid trapping excess heat by removing bags in morning soon after the sun comes up.

Starting from Seed: Saving Seeds

[Adapted from MOTHER’s Handbook: Saving Seeds by Nancy Bubel, Mother Earth News September/October 1987]

Gathering garden seed gives me a feeling of kinship with our ancestors who for centuries depended utterly on home-saved seed. For thousands of years, harvesting seed was a vital, often sacred, ritual. It was not until the early nineteenth century that seeds were packaged for sale in small envelopes and, soon after, sold through mailorder catalogues.

Today, filling out the seed order is a happy duty for the wintered-in gardener. Even so, I never fail to keep and use seeds from certain crops of my own.
Harvest lettuce stalks with a bag to keep from losing their seeds.

Why? First, for quality. There are seeds money can't buy. Good ones. One of my favorite tomatoes, for example, is an extra-meaty Italian variety obtained from a friend, for which I could never buy seed if I let the strain run out.

A home gardener can also create superior cultivars in a back-yard plot. Want bigger fruits or more productive plants? Save seeds from outstanding parents. Want to develop locally adapted strains that will perform better in your particular microclimate? Propagate the seed from your hardiest, most frost-resistant plants.

Second, for fun. Gardeners who enjoy experimenting will find a world of challenge and satisfaction in trying different seed-saving and plant-crossing techniques, in watching subtle changes in the varieties they save and in keeping an eye out for unusually good new developments. It was an observant elderly gardener out for a walk who propagated the now popular Henderson Bush Lima — after discovering a volunteer specimen growing by the road.

Third, for preservation. When a certain old food-plant variety dies out, we've lost a part of the gene pool from which we might have retrieved valuable traits for breeding into new generations. Some hardy varieties of tomatoes, for instance, have been developed by introducing genes from small-fruited, seemingly worthless wild strains that carried genes for hardiness.

Then, too, if you prefer to plant untreated seed, or would like to increase your gardening independence or simply save money, seed saving should be high on your list of skills to learn. And it's not difficult to do. After all, generations of people who had no choice but to be self-reliant managed to keep seeds going with fewer resources and less understanding of the process than we have.

What kinds of seeds should you collect? Eliminate hybrid plants right off the bat. Hybrids are created from two different parents in a special selective (and often intricately mechanical) process unlikely to be duplicated in natural random fertilization. Plants grown from the seeds they produce will not duplicate the good qualities of the original specimens and may, in fact, be greatly inferior. Except for some frankly experimental ventures, seed savers work with open-pollinated (also called standard) varieties. These can be bred true to form by naturally occurring pollination.

Hang on here for a bit of elementary botany that will make the whole seed-forming process easier to understand. Flowers exist to produce seed. The flower's pollen-bearing, fertilizing (male) organ is the stamen, which consists of the stalk (or filament) and anthers, the pollen-bearing sacs on the tip of each stalk.

The seed-nurturing, receptive (female) parts of the flower, called carpels, are composed of the ovary, the eggbearing capsule, the style, the tube leading up from the ovary and the stigma, the pollen-receptive tip. When a grain of pollen lands on a receptive stigma, the grain extends a living thread through the style to the ovary. This unites with a ripe ovule, or egg, forming a single living cell—which then begins the multiple divisions that start it on the journey to becoming a tiny but marvelously intricate seed embryo.

Not all flowers contain both male and female parts. Those that do are called perfect flowers. Plants with separate male and female flowers may be either monoecious (the separate blooms occur on the same plant) or dioecious (each plant bears either male or female blooms).

Some perfect blossoms are self-pollinating. They accept their own pollen without any help from wind or insects. (Some self-pollinate before their flowers even open). These are the easiest kinds of plants from which to save seed, because you don't have to isolate them to prevent them from accepting pollen from other, different, varieties.

Some common self pollinators are tomatoes, lettuce, peas, snap beans, soybeans, lima beans, endive and escarole. Barley, wheat, oats and cowpeas also self-pollinate. Peppers do, too, but they will cross when insects bring in pollen from other kinds of peppers. (If you want to get technical, all self-pollinators can cross with other varieties of the same vegetable in from 0.1% to as much as 5% of the plant populations, but for ordinary back-yard seed saving you don't need to isolate them. I've saved tomato and lettuce seeds for 15 years, and the plants have always come true.)

Most other vegetable plants are cross-pollinated: They need to receive pollen from others of their kind. Some, like beets, spinach, Swiss chard, corn and rye, are wind-pollinated. They have tiny flowers that produce a great many grains of fine pollen to up the probability of successful encounters.

A large group of cross-pollinated plants depend on insects to transfer the pollen. These include asparagus, cole crops (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale and kohlrabi), carrots, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, onions, parsley, parsnips, pumpkins, radishes, rutabagas, squash and turnips.

Don't worry about your cabbage crossing with your carrots; plants will cross only within their own species. The tales you might have heard about weird "watercumbers" or "cantagourds" are myths. It is true, though, that some kinds of pumpkins, gourds and squash can cross—often resulting in tough (but edible) fruit. More about this later.

To prevent unwanted cross-pollination of those crops that do cross readily, you can either keep blossoming plants at recommended safe distances from each other (isolation in space) or plan your plantings so the different crops don't bloom concurrently (isolation in time). You could, for example, keep seed from both an early and a late corn, because the two plantings would tassel at different times. A third way to control pollination is to cage blossoming flowers in fine wire or netting to keep out unwanted influences. (You'd need to do the pollinating yourself or put a piece of maggot-infested meat inside to produce flies for pollinating.) An often-easier alternative is to bag and hand-pollinate individual flowers.

With most cross-pollinated crops, you should save some seed from five or more individual plants (even if you only need a small amount of seed). If you repeatedly keep the offspring of only one plant, over time the inbred seed will most likely run down, i.e., lose vigor and become more susceptible to disease or other problems. Self-pollinators don't lose vigor from their natural inbreeding, so you can safely save only one plant's (or a single fruit's) seed from them if you wish.

Another breeder's technique you can adopt is roguing, culling weaker plants before they can afect the seed you want to save. You need to rogue plots of cross-breeding plants before they flower, to prevent them from possibly pollinating the ones whose seed you want to keep.

In your first season as a seed saver, you'd probably be wise to work with only a few crops. Be sure to choose your parent plants carefully, selecting seed only from superior examples. What should you look for? Whatever's important to you. If you'd like early tomatoes, save seed from the first fruit that ripened. If it's size you're after, save seed from the plant that produced the most large fruit. And consider the plant as a whole in addition to individual qualities.

Be sure to mark your parent plants with stakes, bright labels or wild-colored cloth strips. This is especially important if more than one family member is likely to be picking vegetables. It's no fun to find that your earliest-ever pea pods just disappeared into the soup pot.

Beans. Snap bean blossoms self-pollinate before they open, so there's very little chance they'll cross-pollinate. (If you have a rare old heirloom strain that you want to be sure of keeping pure, plant it 100 feet away from any other blossoming beans.) Bean seed matures about six weeks after the pods are good for eating — when it's ripe, you can scarcely dent it with your teeth. Leave the pods alone until the plants are dry, often leafless, stalks rattling in the wind. Then pull the stalks and stack them in a protected, airy place to dry for another week or two.

You can shell small amounts of beans by hand. Thresh larger collections by spreading the pods on a clean sheet and whacking them with a rubber hose, broom or flail. By the way, if your seeds ripen slowly and unevenly, your soil may be short on zinc.

Lima beans, dry beans and soybeans should be treated like snaps. Bumblebees like lima flowers, so the plants are likely to cross-pollinate with other limas. But they won't cross with snaps, peas, soybeans or other related legumes.

Eggplant. This crop self-pollinates but it may also be cross-pollinated by row-hopping insects. If you intend to save seed from more than one variety, grow them at opposite ends of the garden. Leave the fruit on the plant until it has lost its glossy sheen and firmness — well past the point when you'd want to eat it. Eggplant seeds can be scraped and rinsed free of pulp without much difficulty.

Escarole and endive. Spring plantings of these biennials may perform like annuals and go to seed in summer heat. However, the leaf quality is best in fall crops. Keep autumn starts alive till spring by covering them with a deep mulch (applied when crowns are dry) or a portable cold frame. Each small seed fleck has a wispy parachute which you can rub off if you wish when you package the dry seeds.

Lettuce. This self-pollinator goes to seed once the weather turns warm. First the heads elongate. Leaves turn coarse, dull and bitter, as though to protect the reproducing plant from being eaten. Then a seedstalk emerges from the leaf crown and soon bears clusters of small yellow flowers. After two or three weeks, when the blossoms change to tufts of fluff, pull off the down with its attached seeds. One stalk on a large lettuce plant can produce up to 30,000 seeds. (One of the most useful traits for which you can select is late bolting, so always save seed from the last lettuce to go to seed.)

Okra. This usually self-pollinates but will sometimes cross. Let okra pods dry on the plant, but catch them before they shatter (dry and fall), then shell the rounded seeds and let them air-dry for another week or two before packaging. Select for early- and heavy-bearing plants.

Peas. In the tangle of the viny pea row it's hard, if not impossible, to distinguish between separate plants. For this reason, most seed keepers designate a stretch of row for seed production and let all the pods in that section mature. You can expect about one pound of seed from each 15 feet of row. Pods should dry thoroughly before harvest, and even then it's a good idea to pile the pulled vines loosely in a dry, well-ventilated spot to air-dry further before threshing. Regular peas will only rarely cross with Sugar peas, and this isn't common enough to concern the home gardener.

Peppers. Even though peppers normally self-pollinate, it's not at all unusual for insects to carry pollen from hot pepper blossoms to those of sweet ones. So keep your pepper varieties 50 feet apart. Aside from the crosspollination possibility, peppers are a snap to save. I just shake or scrape out the seeds from several shapely fruits that have turned red-ripe, and then dry them on newspapers for a week before packaging.

Sunflowers. These cooperative seed producers are a good choice for your first season of seed keeping. You might want to tie netting over the ripening heads to keep birds off: On our farm, goldfinches can strip the heads in no time. Shell the heads by rubbing them over a coarse hardware-cloth screen. Then dry the seeds, and seal them securely to keep out mice.

Sunflowers that cross repeatedly with nearby wild sunflowers will produce less-desirable plants with each generation. It's usually easy, though, to find and chop down any nearby small-seeded wild plants that might interfere.

Tomatoes. Because tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable and are available in many wonderful open-pollinated varieties, you'll probably want to save some. I simply scoop out the seeds from several top-quality, overripe fruits, removing as little pulp as possible, and spread them on several thicknesses of newspapers to dry. I even store them right on the paper (labeling the sheets with the variety name) and, the following spring, scrape them off as I need them.

Tomatoes are less likely than their pepper and eggplant cousins to be cross-pollinated by insects, but such random crossing does happen in about 2 to 5% of close multivariety plantings. Flowers of older tomato varieties also have a long style which is more likely to be touched by bees than the shorter-styled recent cultivars. So if you want to keep seed of a valuable heirloom tomato truly pure, plant it 25 feet away from other varieties. (Separate modern short-style cultivars by 10 feet.)

Some gardeners ferment their tomato pulp before straining out the seeds. There are two reasons for this: 1) the seeds will then separate more easily from the flesh, and 2) the treatment kills the seed-borne bacteria that cause some tomato diseases. To ferment tomato pulp, press the flesh into a jar, add 1/4 cup of water, and keep the mixture at room temperature for several days. Seventy to 80°F is best; fermentation proceeds too quickly at higher temperatures. Stir the brew each day. By the second or third day, you'll be able to pour off the rotten pulp and "clinker" seeds that float on top, and retain, rinse and dry the good seeds that have sunk to the bottom.

Spinach. This hardy annual has tiny, scarcely noticeable wind-pollinated flowers which can cross with other blooming spinach plants as much as one mile away. If you can avoid crossing problems, though, spinach is an easy plant to grow to seed. You might try selecting for later bolting by roguing out small, early seeders — and, of course, by getting your seed from plants that produce the latest seedstalks. Harvest yellowed or browned plants when the seed has matured. Rub off the tiny seeds while holding the stalks in a grocery bag.

Corn. Pollen from the tassels of this wind-pollinated crop land on the silks that line the ears. Popcorn, field corn and sweet corn will all cross with each other. To keen strains pure, then, plant seed varieties that tassel at the same time at least 1,000 feet apart. (Technically speaking, 1/4 mile is ideal.) Or you can avoid crossing by bagging ears you want to save. Before the silk emerges, cover each seed ear with a paper bag closed with a rubber band. When the tassels shed pollen easily, cut a tassel from one plant, rub it over the ear from another plant, and replace the bag. Leave the bag in place until the silks brown, replacing it whenever it gets too wet.

Leave seed ears on the plants until they're quite dry—about a month after they're good for eating. Then pick, peel back the husks, and hang them up — leaving air space between each ear — to dry for several more weeks.

Corn is prone to run out if repeatedly inbred, so save ears from at least 25 plants if possible, and mix seed from those ears before planting. Some of the easiest corn traits to change by back-yard selection are earliness, lateness and ear height. Flavor, yield, nutritional quality and insect resistance are more difficult to improve.

Cabbage family. Cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi and kale cross with each other and with turnips, rutabagas, radishes and horseradish. (Chinese cabbage and mustard greens won't cross with their leaf- and heading-cabbage kin but will cross with each other and the root-crop crucifers.) You need to keep flowering seed crops 200 feet apart or, if space is limited, intersperse rows of sunflowers or other tall plants with the crucifer seed rows to deter pollinating insects. Remember, too, that most crucifer seeds stay viable for as long as five years under good storage conditions, so you can save seed of one or two varieties each year and keep rotating them.

Excepting broccoli (an annual), all crucifers are biennials — they have to make it through one winter before they'll produce seed. Kale and Brussels sprouts are the easiest biennial family members for seed saving, because these hardy plants can overwinter in the garden even in cold areas. They'll then send up their seedstalks the following spring. Most of the other biennials need to be dug up — roots and all — stored in a root cellar and planted out again the following spring. (In some regions, you may be able to overwinter them under mulch or in covered trenches.) Many growers make an inch-deep vertical cut in replanted cabbage heads to help free the plant's growing point. The tall seedstalks that emerge sometimes need to be staked to prevent breaking.

Probably the trickiest member of this family to save seed from is cauliflower, because it doesn't keep well either in the ground or in root cellars. Often the best way to treat it is to start plants in early fall and overwinter them in a cold frame.

Cucurbits. This large group embraces fruits as diverse as cucumbers, gourds, melons, pumpkins and zucchini. In all cases, blossoms are pollinated by insects, male and female flowers are separate, and crossing between varieties that accept each other's pollen occurs at distances up to at least 100 feet. (Indeed, commercial seed breeders keep related cucurbit crops 1/4 mile apart.)

Since plants can cross only within a species, and cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes and pumpkins all belong to separate species, they can't cross with each other. Zucchinis and gourds are members of the same species, so they can produce some crazy crosses. Buttercup and banana squash will cross as well.

How can you keep it all straight? Follow this rule. In any one year, you can save seed — without bothering to separate the varieties — of cucumbers, cantaloupes, Watermelon and any one member of each of the following:

Cucurbita pepo. Members of this group have deeply grooved, ridged and prickly five-sided stems and include striped and warted gourds, Lady Godiva, Small Sugar and Connecticut Field pumpkins, and acorn, cocozelle, crookneck (summer), scallop, spaghetti and zucchini squash.
C. maxima. Stems are round, hairy and somewhat soft. Members include Hubbard, turban, delicious, banana, marblehead and buttercup squash.
C. moschata. The smoother five-sided stem widens at the base. Moschata members include golden cushaw and butternut, cheese and melon squash.
C. mixta. The vines resemble those of C. moschata. Members include cushaws (except for golden cushaw), Tennessee sweet potato, Japanese pie and mixta gold.

All seed cucurbits should be allowed to remain on the vine until the skin hardens, so the seeds can mature. Most seeds will be more viable if allowed to after-ripen in the fruit for 20 days past maturity. Rinse off the pulp and dry the seed on screens before storing.

If your garden is close to others where cucurbits grow, if you want to keep seed of several related varieties in the same year, or if other people will be depending on the purity of your seeds (for instance, if you're part of a seed-savers' exchange), you should hand-pollinate your cucurbits.

First, examine the flowers of a healthy, productive plant. A male flower has a slender stem, while the base of a female flower has a small swelling of undeveloped fruit. Work only with blossoms that have not yet opened. (Once the blossom has opened, you should assume that it's already been pollinated.)

Tape several perky but still closed male and female flowers shut, or fasten small bags over them. Then when the flowers have opened (probably the following morning), uncover one male flower and several female flowers from different plants. Pick off the male's petals, then gently but firmly touch its pollen-laden anthers to the stigmas of the females. Next, recover the pollinated females with envelopes or small bags, and carefully wire them shut.

Leave the protecting covers on for several days. Then remove them so the fruits won't rot or develop abnormally. Don't forget to label the pollinated flowers!

Overwintered parsnips will bolt late the next spring and produce loads of seed by July.

Root vegetables. Like the cabbage clan, all root crops (except annual radishes) send up seedstalks in their second spring. Unless you live in a mild-winter area where root vegetables will not freeze if left in the ground under mulch, you'll have to winter your beets, carrots, winter radishes and onions in a cool, damp root cellar and replant the best ones the next spring. (On the other hand, if you live in a very warm climate, you may need to chill your root crops for a couple of weeks in a refrigerator to convince them to go to seed.)

As the exception to this rule, parsnips are the easiest root vegetable for seed saving. They're so hardy, you don't need to dig them up. Here in south-central Pennsylvania, I leave parsnips in the ground under mulch all winter, dig some for spring eating till around the end of April and then give in to their seed-forming intentions. The tall, coarse-lace flowers are cross-pollinated by insects, and dry seed is ready around the end of July. Two plants will produce all the seed you need unless you plan a parsnip plantation.

Most radishes are another exception because spring-sown plants will produce seedpods by summer. Let the pods dry on the plant, but pick them before they split and scatter the seed. Such biennial radishes as Japanese daikon and China rose should be overwintered in a root cellar and replanted 12 inches apart in spring. They'll produce seed by early summer.

The dusty-fine pollen of beets (like that of spinach) can be carried a mile away by the wind. Garden beets will also cross with Sugar beets and with Swiss chard, so keep your seed beets isolated from other blooming relations (or grow Swiss chard and beets in alternate years). Plant your firmest, shapeliest cellar-saved roots about 18 inches apart in spring. Six to eight of these will produce plenty of seed for a family garden by summer.

Insects pollinate carrot flowers, so make sure blossoming carrot varieties are planted at least 200 feet apart. (Serious savers will separate flowering carrots by 1,000 feet to assure seed purity.) Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot) crosses freely with cultivated carrots, with disastrous results. If you want to save carrot seed in an area where this lacy wildflower is common, fasten net bags over the carrot blooms to keep insects out, and pollinate the blossoms yourself by picking several from one plant and rubbing them over the surface of flowers on your seed plants. Carrot seeds shatter about two months after flowering. You can tie a small paper bag over drying seed heads to catch more of the seeds.

Some onions do go to seed the first year, but those aren't the ones you want to reproduce. Instead, choose bulbs that have kept well in cool, dry winter storage. Replant them a few inches apart in early spring. Separate different varieties of this insect-pollinated crop by at least 100 feet. Onion seed also shatters readily, so watch closely for the black seeds to form, then collect the seed heads promptly.

Growing herbs and flowers to seed is a whole other story, but I can't resist recommending a few easy savers here. Basil, dill and parsley are all worth keeping. (Biennial parsley needs to overwinter in a pot indoors if your winters are severe.)

My favorite flowers for saving are balsam, calendula, California poppy, cleome (spider flower), columbine, cornflower, cosmos, lunaria (dollar plant), flax, gaillardia (blanket flower), hollyhock, Johnny-jump-up, larkspur, marigold, morning-glory, moonflower, portulaca, scarlet runner bean, Shasta daisy, snapdragon, sweet William and zinnia.

No discussion of saving seed would be complete without mention of Kent Whealy's Seed Savers Exchange, a wonderful grassroots network of gardeners who keep and trade seeds of homegrown vegetable varieties. Kent started the exchange soon after his wife's grandfather died. The old man had recently given the young couple seeds for tomatoes, beans and morning-glories that his forebears had saved since emigrating from Bavaria four generations before. Realizing how close his family had come to losing this unique legacy, Whealy wondered how many more heirloom varieties were in an equally precarious position.

The Seed Savers Exchange Kent organized to help preserve such heirlooms works on two levels.
"Nonlisted members" can buy the two annual publications for $12, then order seed from members for $1 per sample. "Listed members" (those who offer vegetable seed for trade) can get seed free from other members by sending postage with their requests. I'm proud to say I'm a life member of the SSE. My all-time favorite lettuce variety, the Mescher, comes from an SSE member whose family has saved it since the early 1800s.

No matter what kind of seed you're collecting, be sure to pick it when it's dry, not green. Green seeds may contain incompletely developed embryos or may lack sufficient endosperm (stored nourishment) to survive until planting time. Green seed is also more likely to spoil in storage. (If you bag heads of plants that ripen their seed gradually, cut a few slits in the bag for better air circulation.)

If at all possible, gather seeds on a dry, sunny day — and preferably before the weather gets too cold. Frost itself won't hurt most seeds, but the condensation of moisture caused by alternate freezing and thawing might shorten their useful life span.

Even seeds that look and feel dry when you pick them should be spread on newspaper to air-dry for up to a week before packaging. Large seeds like beans and corn benefit from several weeks of air-drying before storage. Never dry seeds in an oven. Prolonged temperatures over 95°F can damage or kill them. And be sure to label your seeds as soon as you can after collecting them, so you don't mix them up during the drying process.

Beans and many grain seeds must be threshed to knock off the pods. You can eliminate much of the chaff — pieces of broken pods, leaves and stems — that remains by winnowing. To accomplish this pleasant harvest ritual, pour the seed several times from one container to another in a stiff breeze or in front of a fan. The light, dry stuff will blow away as the heavier seed falls straight down.

Some diseases like bacterial spot are seed-borne. If you've had trouble with such blights in your garden, you might want to heat-treat your seeds to kill the bacteria. A 20 to 30 minute soak in water maintained at 122°F is effective. Use a double boiler (a pot set in a water-filled electric frying pan works well), and keep stirring the seeds throughout the treatment period. Then drain and dry them well.

I wouldn't recommend heat treatments, though, unless you've had a recurring problem with disease. Seeds are alive — every one contains a living embryonic plant — and exposure to moisture and heat will shorten their life span. So it's usually best to simply seal your well-dried seeds in moisture-proof containers and keep them in a cool place. Jars with rubber gaskets, metal film cans or other taped-shut cans all work well. (Don't forget to write labels!) Seed keeps very well in the freezer, especially if packed with a dessicant to absorb extra water. Silica gel works best, at a ratio of one part gel to 10 parts seed. When you remove any pack of freezer-stored seeds, let it dry to room temperature before opening, to prevent condensation of warm air on cold seeds.

My own seed-keeping methods are simple. At season's end, I bundle up all my labeled envelopes and small jars of seed, pack them into an old lard can with a tight-fitting lid and stash them in the cold barn over winter.

Then at spring planting time, I follow that final but crucial law of the seed keeper: Always save a portion of your seed, no matter how old it is. Then in case of a crop failure, you can replant. A single plant or two from that reserved seed supply can restart your seed collection. That way you can keep alive the personal strain you've bred to suit your own back-yard garden.

Organic Gardening: Feeding Plants

Feeding Plants: Compost

Without question, the key to our growers' soil fertility successes is that gardeners' god-send . . . compost. Kerry and Barbara (who make almost 15 tons of homemade humus a year!) work an inch of the soil enricher into the top half-foot of a bed every time they plant a new crop. They use this substance to supply nutrients . . . add the organisms that make for a healthy, living growing medium . . . and create a loose and friable—yet water-retaining—soil. So whether or not you ever intend to cover-crop, rotate plantings, or double-dig, you'd be wise to imitate our growers' use of this remarkable "soil superizer". To help you do so, here—for the first time anywhere—is the Sullivans' formula for brewing batches of brown gold.

Fork up the soil where you intend to build your compost pile. This will allow good drainage from the heap . . . promote air circulation (remember that you're after aerobic, not anaerobic, decomposition) . . . and make it easier for indigenous worms and bacteria to move up into the pile.
Put down a layer of the coarsest plant material you have. Cornstalks, old cabbage plants, sunflower stems, straw, large plant stalks, or other similar materials will work fine. This rough layer is set on the bottom to help air circulate into the pile from beneath.
Sprinkle on a light splashing of biodynamic compost starter solution. This substance—which helps introduce friendly bacteria into the pile—is not essential for composting success … but Barbara and Kerry have found that it increases the rate of decomposition so effectively that they now need turn their piles only once instead of twice, and the quality of the finished product is noticeably improved, as well. After mixing up the solution according to the packet's directions, simply sprinkle the liquid on with a big brush.
Add a layer of manure-filled straw gathered from some livestock animal's bedding. The excrement contained in this material will contribute much of the nitrogen the pile's bacteria will need to make humus, while the straw will add some carbon. To assure adequate airflow in the heap, fluff up the bedding with a fork—and break up any large animal "pies"—before adding it. And try to keep the edges of all your layers neat and straight as you work, so you'll be able to make a large pile.
Sprinkle on another smattering of compost starter.
Add a layer of fresh garden gleanings. Weeds and crop thinnings, as well as pathway and cover-crop skimmings, are all perfect for this application. Such high-cellulose material will add most of the necessary carbon (a good compost pile has an approximate 30-to-1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio). If some of the weeds still have bits of soil attached to their roots, that's all the better . . because the dirt will add its own beneficial bacteria to the heap.
Repeat the previous four steps—sprinkling starter, adding the manurestraw mix, sprinkling more starter, and adding a carbon layer—until you run out of material. Obviously, you'll be able to produce a bigger pile if you've gathered most of your building materials in advance. (Keep them stored under black plastic until you use them.) And while you're working, remember to fluff up the layers and keep them thin-around three inches to five inches deep each-to promote intermixing. If the matter seems somewhat dry, water the layers a bit with a hose. (You're after a pile that has the consistency of a wrung-out sponge . . . but you don't want it to be too damp.)
Cover the entire pile with black plastic. This will help the mound retain moisture and warmth while keeping rain from leaching out any nutrients.
Wait. Your pile should now start to heat up. In fact, it should get so hot (160°F or higher) within a week or so that it would be impossible to hold your hand in the center of it. After two weeks or a month—the Sullivans recommend waiting a month to give the heap time to complete its early decomposition stages—the temperature will come down to about 115 °F (i.e., still hot to the touch, but not unbearably so). At that point you can remove the plastic.
Turn the pile. To do this in the smallest amount of space (and with the least amount of hassle possible), simply turn one three-footwide section over onto the soil, next to one of the mounds . . . flip the next "slice" over into the gap created by the first turning . . . and so on until you've completely inverted the heap. Then cover the pile again and let it sit another month.
Use it. Your compost should now consist of friable, lightweight, dark humus. It should have absolutely no offensive smell. What's more, you shouldn't be able to even recognize its original ingredients. (Indeed, when Barbara and Kerry show a handful of their fresh compost to Eco-Village visitors, many of the people can't believe the pleasant loam was made from dead plants and animal waste!)

A Few Compost Pointers
Now that's precisely how MOTHER's master gardeners make the lush brown gold that, itself, produces their abundant crops. You can amend their system somewhat, if need be, to fit your personal situation . . . and still make an excellent soil additive. For instance, if livestock manure isn't readily available where you live, sprinkle a handful of blood meal over each of your organic layers to supply the pile's needed nitrogen. Likewise, you can incorporate freshly cut lawn grass, fallen leaves (chop them up with a lawn mower first), and household—non-meat—kitchen scraps into the heap. If you don't have enough material to make as big a pile as the Sullivans construct (their heaps are frequently 4' X 6' X 12'), add ingredients as you can to a three-foot-square area. Once that section gets to be three feet tall, treat it like a little compost pile . . .and start building a new mini-mound right next to it. And you can sprinkle some soil on each layer—to introduce beneficial bacteria—if you don't want to use the biodynamic compost starter.

Although composting is a relatively simple science, there are a few things that can go wrong with it. If your pile doesn't heat up properly, first check to see if it's too dry or too damp. If the former is true, water it a bit and cover it back up. If it's too moist, mix in an extra helping or two of dry ingredients. If your would—be compost still doesn't heat up after you've adjusted the moisture level, it probably needs more

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