Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Great Seeds, Great Growers!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A cold morning here on the mountain with a temperature of +1.2 degrees and an estimated anemometer-less wind speed of 5 mph. The "big" snowstorm avoided us and the three inches of new snow was just enough to cover the now "ice rink quality" paths and driveway. The slippery ice reminds me instantly of Paul Simon's Slip Slidin' Away and a broken ankle in 1992. Now there's a combination of memories!

Saturday afternoon we went to a winter gathering of growers sponsored by High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont. I have this habit of telling people High Mowing is located in Hardwick but I obviously miss by a few miles. Anyway, the event is sponsored by HM founder Tom Stearns and his crew and it's one of those things you absolutely have to put on your "things to do" list for next winter.

High Mowing started as a family business back in 1996 with a total of 28 varieties of seed. Tom's website gives a good history but being inside the company surrounded by seeds and machinery and technology gives a sense of being that is difficult to describe. As I relive what Tom and his staff presented, my mind starts buzzing again. I guarantee that the world of seeds is a bunch different than you probably think and until you have a tour, the responsibility of the world's seeds men does not reflect the importance they are due, the weight they carry as the world continues to be fed and entertained.

The schedule included a tour of the company, a potluck dinner and then an hour slide presentation. Every part of the three hours was interesting, informative, and fun. At the beginning, the group was split with half starting in the seed room and half in the packaging area. We made the seed room cut where Tom went from one piece of equipment and on to the next explaining how seed arrives from the field or from alternate suppliers and how it is cleaned. The type of machine and the process has the same goal but the size, weight and shape of the seed determine where the seed starts a journey that ends with a home or commercial gardener.

Just looking at the equipment and reminiscing about when and where the equipment was manufactured was interesting to me. We have certainly come a long way from the days of hand winnowing but the machines employ some of the same physical actions except with mechanics and electric motors. The Industrial Revolution was a good time and also a difficult time but the tour made me reflect on 200 years of change.

The packaging process begins with primitive hand counting which remains an absolute necessity to set the equipment and verify and reverify seed counts. There are various machines which count seed and send it to an appropriate package but they all rely on the size of the seed and the skill of the staff. But in between the seed cleaning and the seed packaging there is a critical time when seed must be checked for viability. Germination rates are established and seed is inspected to be sure the seed coats are healthy and disease free. The seed lots also have to be checked to insure they are free of weed seed. This is no small task when you look at the size of some seeds.

High Mowing raises a lot of seed and this part was very interesting to everyone. Although they sell about 400 varieties of seed now, they cannot grow all the plants and harvest all the seed here in Vermont. There is a long list of variables involved and it was fascinating to learn the climatic needs for seed production and see familiar plants actually grown for seed production. I have been growing plants all my life and I was hard pressed to correctly identify lettuce and cabbage and spinach.

Because of the specific requirements for optimum production, High Mowing sometimes produces start up seed to its quality/standards and then sends the seed to another grower for full scale production. An example is spinach seed which is regularly produced in the Skagit Valley in Washington State. I sat there pondering the pictures and not being able to figure out what I was seeing. The climate has to be perfect for the plant and seed growth period and then humidity and other factors must prevail during the seed harvesting time. This is very interesting. It became acutely obvious that we should be thankful for the knowledge of the world's plantsmen. Without them, we'd be very hungry in a very short time.

Harvesting is mechanical with specially designed machines made around the world but some seed is not conducive to mechanical harvest and it must be hand harvested. One example is zinnia seed. At Vermont Flower Farm we grow and sell a lot of zinnias but I never thought that the plants mature at different times which precludes mechanical harvest. Workers are given plastic trash cans and away they go, line after line through the fields, harvesting the seed heads that are ripe and then repeating the process again and again, day after day until the harvest is complete.

Quality control is critical and seeds are checked for germination with goals compatible with federal standards. As I listened to this part of the tour I thought about seeds regularly found in ancient pyramids that still germinate. At High Mowing, seed is retested every six months to insure that it is maintaining an 80% germination rate. That rate exceeds federal standards and provides a gardener like you and me with a good crop. HM adds 3-5% more seed to the guaranteed seed count/weight combination just to be sure.

If you have gardened for long you have certainly learned over time how much seed comes in a package and how much you are likely to need to plant for your needs. New gardeners find it difficult to relate those light weight little packages with rows or pounds of produce or bouquets of flowers and as a result neophytes sometimes have half packages of unplanted leftovers. For years Gail and I put the leftover seed in a plastic bag in the freezer but now we know that is the wrong thing to do. Freezing seed (stratification) may be needed to make some seeds germinate but for most seed this expands the inner workings of a seed and leads to poor germination. A dry, cool place is a better idea.

The potluck dinner was an opportunity to enjoy foods from cooks you've never seen before. It was one of the nicest displays I have ever seen and I have to admit I got back in the line again. The chicken dumplings I have been waiting for Gail to make for all our time together were on the table in a big casserole. It appeared I was not the only person waiting for them as the pot was clean when I returned to help myself again.

I didn't take pictures of the event because we were inside someone's company and companies have a degree of privacy that I always respect. Perhaps I could have asked to take pictures but I was more interested in how the company works. When the snow melts and the sun translates cold ground to green rows of various plants, I want to go back and see the fields and walk the test gardens. Seeing it all in person and through the slide show made us happy we made the trip. A big thank you to Tom, his family and his employees for inviting us. It was special!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sunny morning is encouraging the air to warm. A large raven just swiped the last piece of suet from the platform feeder and although Gail says he was hammering on it all day yesterday, the piece he carried off must have weighed more than a pound. They are big birds and the other birds fly away when they swoop in. I have to fly away now and get some real work done.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm,
Vermont Gardens

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