Wild Gourd Farm

Organic Gardening in St. Louis City

Category Archives: How-To

Saving Tomato Seeds

It makes sense to save seeds. We love looking at seed catalogs each year and ordering new varieties or things we’ve never tried before, but it’s even more satisfying to look at our own seed collection. Saving our own seeds each year is economical, plus it gives us the power to select for traits of our choosing. By saving seeds from the best tasting tomatoes, or the ones that ripen first, or those from plants displaying the best disease resistance, we’re breeding from generation to generation the best plants for our purposes and climate. This kind of control has been systematically stripped from lots of farmers through the sale of hybrids and genetically modified crops, from which seeds cannot be physically or legally saved.

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Anyway, saving tomato seeds is pretty easy, if you know what you’re doing. The hardest part of seed saving is ensuring a “true to type” second generation- meaning the resulting plants will be genetically similar to the parent plant(s). The good thing is tomatoes are largely self-pollinating so it’s unlikely you’ll get unwanted hybridization or cross pollination, even if multiple varieties are planted in close proximity. So saving seeds from any non-hybrid or non-GM tomato will most likely result in a “true” plant. The other great thing about saving seeds from tomatoes is that you still get to eat the fruit! Lots of times the crop itself must be sacrificed for the seeds (like allowing greens to bolt), but not tomatoes!

To save tomato seeds, you can simply remove the seeds, allow them to try, and package them up for next year. However, it is highly recommended that you ferment the seeds first. You know that gelatinous coating around tomato seeds? It inhibits seed germination inside the tomato, which normally provides a rather alluring dark, moist environment for seeds to start growing.  Fermenting the seeds removes that coating, reduces seed-borne diseases in the next generation, and helps you separate the good seeds from the bad.

Fermenting the seeds is easier than it sounds! Simply squeeze the seeds and goo out into a small cup or dish (I’ve even used shot glasses). Don’t worry about getting some tomato flesh in there, you’ll get rid of it later. If there’s not much liquid or gel you can add a little water, but not too much!

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Loosely cover each container with plastic wrap. Some people recommend keeping them open or poking holes in the covering, but that can be a recipe for fruit flies. As long as there’s a little breathing room, you’re good.
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 Don’t forget to label! I use a permanent marker to write directly on the plastic wrap so there’s no confusion. Once labeled, put in a draft-free spot out of direct sunlight for a few days.
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Depending on conditions inside your house, you should see a layer of mold begin to form after 2-3 days. You probably don’t usually rejoice at the sight of mold, but this is a good thing! It means that the protective gel is breaking down. In a way, the fermentation process is mimicking the natural action of a tomato rotting on the ground. In nature, the seeds don’t become “active” until after the fruit has rotted.
tomatoseeds1 After the mold forms, you get to start a process of decanting to remove the mold and unviable seeds. Fill your container up with water. The good seeds will sink to the bottom, and any bad seeds will float. Allow to sit for a minute, then slowly pour the water into your sink. You’ll notice you’re pouring off any tomato pulp and bad seeds with the water. Refill with water and decant until you have clean seeds.
tomatoseeds3 The last step is drying. Some people prefer to use screens or paper plates to ensure even drying, but I like to use ceramic dishes. If you move the seeds around occasionally you shouldn’t have a problem with them sticking and breaking, plus the plates allow you to keep varieties separate. I like to label the plates with non-toxic dry erase marker, which cleans off easily. Keep them out of direct sunlight and monitor for moisture daily.
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 You’ll know when your tomato seeds are sufficiently dry. They’ll get a slightly fuzzy outer texture. They should break instead of bending, if you feel like sacrificing one of your seeds. It’s a good test, especially if you’ll be storing them long term (mold was good in fermentation, but not in storage) or in the freezer.

 

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We store our seeds inside biodegradable plastic bags in a dark cabinet in our basement. Many people use paper envelopes to ensure for proper breathing and to prevent moisture buildup. No matter how you choose to store your seeds, it’s always a good idea to label them with the variety, the year, and location of harvest.

Last year I started a free community seed library at Local Harvest Grocery, which you can read about here. Anyone can “borrow” seeds with the pledge to save and return some for the next year. As more people participate, we’ll grow a diverse collection of seeds that thrive in our area. If you live around here, feel free to stop by for some seeds, literature on seed saving, or just a friendly chat 🙂 As you can tell, I love nerding out about seeds!

Frugal Friday: Vegetable Broth

We eat a lot of vegetables. We try to use every last bit of a vegetable before sending it to one of four final destinations: the compost pile, the worm bin, the dogs, or the chickens. To really get the most out of our veggies, we use scraps and peels to make our own homemade vegetable broth.

All you have to do is fill a pot of vegetable scraps with enough water to cover everything, then simmer for a couple hours. We like to keep the water level about 2 inches above the top of the scraps, and add water if needed while simmering. We’ve tried simmering with and without a lid and both yield a decent stock- you will need to add water while simmering if you leave it uncovered.

The great thing is you can use virtually any vegetable scraps, even those you wouldn’t want to put in the compost bin (like onion skins). You’ll definitely want to make sure you use scraps that have been washed and scrubbed clean. We also highly recommend you use scraps from organic produce, as non-organic fruits and veggies can carry high amounts of pesticides and other chemicals in their skins.

We’ve used carrot tops and peels, the tops and bottoms of celery stalks, kale stems, onion skins, garlic peels, broccoli stalks, squash rinds, beet greens, tomatoes, and the like. Some people advise against adding potato peels because they’ll make the broth murky and earthy, but we like it. Dried or fresh herbs like thyme, basil, oregano, and parsley add great flavor, and of course we add salt and pepper toward the end. We’ve even added whole hot peppers or crushed red pepper for extra spice.

After a couple hours of simmering, the water should look darker. Results will vary depending on the amount of water used and the cooking time.  Once we’ve reached our preferred flavor-to-water ratio, we strain out the vegetables with a colander in the sink. Then the broth is poured in containers and frozen.

And here’s a super duper Frugal Friday bonus:

The ladies got to enjoy the warm, cooked veggie scraps on a cold day!

Frugal Friday: Homemade Seitan, a Versatile Meat Substitute

Seitan is a high-protein, vegetarian meat substitute that has, along with tempeh, allowed us to minimize our consumption of processed tofu, which is best eaten in moderation, as there are several studies debating its health effects. Seitan is wheat gluten that has been separated from the starch, leaving a protein-rich, elastic material.

You can buy seitan already formed and flavored (expensive), make your own using vital wheat gluten flour (still somewhat expensive), or make your own from flour (cheap!). We had been following this recipe to make a tasty seitan log from vital wheat gluten until yesterday, when we finally made our own from flour. It was incredibly easy. Here’s how we did it:

dough ballWe followed the process from this how-to on Forkable, though we changed it up a bit. We mixed 12 cups of unbleached flour and 6 cups of water to form a ball of dough, and kneaded it for a few minutes. We put the dough in a large bowl and covered it entirely with water and let it soak for about half an hour. The water turned milky white as the starch started to leach out of the dough. We put the bowl in the sink and kneaded the dough in the water until it started to feel rubbery.

making seitanAfter the underwater massage, we dumped the dough into a colander in the sink and began a half-hour long rinsing and kneading session.

As you knead and rinse to remove the starch, the dough starts to get denser and more elastic. You can control the texture of your seitan by kneading more or less. For our purposes, we wanted a chewier result so we aimed for a texture like the smaller ball at the top right, while the the bigger mass in the middle still needed some kneading.

Most seitan recipes at this point will instruct you to form the gluten into a ball and boil it in broth. Then you can pack it into containers with the broth and refrigerate or freeze it. We had a different plan.

not the most appetizingWe wanted to try an approach more like the above-mentioned seitan log recipe. So once the gluten was formed, we worked in a marinade of tomato paste, olive oil, soy sauce, and seasonings, then oven baked it in a loaf pan at 325°F for about an hour and a half. We had it wrapped in foil like the log recipe but saw the seitan wouldn’t hold its form and the foil began to stick, so we dumped it in the loaf pan, added more marinade, and covered it with foil. Every twenty minutes or so, we stirred and turned the seitan to keep it from sticking to the pan. We also split some of the bigger pieces into smaller chunks to cook more evenly.

seitanWe ended up with about 4 cups of chewy seitan chunks from the original 12 cups of flour. Overall, the process took about 3 1/2 hours, most of which was cooking and waiting time. Next time we’ll try incorporating the marinade and seasonings before the gluten is completely formed so the seitan will be more infused with flavor and maybe achieve the log texture.  To be extra frugal, we’ll also re-use some of the starchy water from the rinsing stages to thicken soup stocks and sauces, instead of letting it all go down the drain.

We love to make protein-rich wraps with sauteed seitan chunks, quinoa, cucumbers, red onion, avocado, hummus, and parsley and salad greens from the garden.

You can use seitan to substitute any sort of meat, or tofu for that matter. Throw it in a stir fry instead of cubed tofu, crumble it in pasta sauce or add it to chili like the commercial soy crumbles, bread it and fry it for a chicken nugget type snack, we might even slice it in strips and put it on a barbecue pizza! With bulk flour from our co-op, we may never have to buy meat alternatives ever again.

Our Half Hoop House, An Overview

Our garden in the side yard is too big to enclose with a hinged cold frame hoop house, like the one we showed in our last post. Last year we came up with the idea of building a half hoop house when we realized that we couldn’t construct a full one due to a large bird house on a pole concreted into the ground right next to the garden plot. Since we’re renting, we decided to build around it.

Just a note, if you’re looking to cover your garden for the winter, it’s much easier to enclose a raised bed garden that has a wooden frame. That way you can attach the PVC conduit pipes to the frame using the PVC U-brackets (like this one) we showed in our cold frame post.

As you can see on the left side of the picture, only one long side of our garden has a wood frame to attach the PVC and U-brackets to. We attached five  7 1/2 ‘ PVC pipes vertically, evenly spaced to form the straight side of the half hoop house.   On the other long side (right) we measured out the spacing and fit the ends of our PVC pipes over rebar we hammered into the ground. These were then bent and inserted into L brackets at the top of the straight side, connecting the two together.

We then added extra support to the structure by attaching PVC pipes horizontally across the frame, using electrical tape. You can see the reinforcement in this picture, taken after we had attached the plastic sheeting. This extra support  strengthens the hoop house so it can stand up to the snow and wind over the winter.

As for the door, we kept it in place during the summer. Last year, we built it by constructing a frame out of 2x4s. Both sides of the door frame were cemented into the ground, and reinforced with horizontal 2x4s. At both points where the door frame meets the PVC pipe at the top, we drilled holes straight through the face of the wooden frame and used zip ties to attach it to the PVC pipe. We made the door out of scrap lumber and slapped on some hinges, then added a handle and lock to secure it when closed. We also added weather stripping to keep the doorway more insulated.

Next we draped a large piece of polyethylene plastic sheeting over the PVC frame.  The plastic was attached to the wooden frame at the bottom (to the left of the picture) using duct tape furring strips and staples, as shown in our cold frame post. On the right side where there was no wooden frame, we buried the plastic and weighed it down using landscaping blocks we scored for free off Craigslist.

The two short ends (front and back) of the structure were then sealed with plastic sheeting, which was stapled to the wooden frame at the bottom and attached to the top with PVC snap clamps (mentioned in the cold frame post).

Note: It’s best to attach the plastic to the front and back first, so the top sheet  overlaps and prevents any rain or snow from getting in.

On the back side we stapled the plastic along the bottom and also to a wooden post in the middle, which was cemented into the ground and attached to the PVC pipe with a zip tie. Snap clamps were used at the top and along the  side.

The end result:

We re-used all of our materials from last year, including the PVC pipe and polyethylene plastic sheeting. While these are not environmentally friendly materials, we’re determined to get the most use out of them as possible. Using the duct tape furring strips and snap clamps allows us to easily disassemble the hoop house and store it for the next year.

Cold Frame, Hoop House Style

We enclosed one of our beds at Dave’s Place this week in preparation for winter. We’ll hopefully be able to extend the growing season of our mixed salad greens so we can enjoy fresh salads all year long.

Here’s how you can build your own hinged cold frame hoop house around a raised bed using non-treated 2x4s, hinges & screws, PVC conduit piping, PVC U-brackets, PVC snap clamps (made specifically for greenhouses, we buy ours online here), polyethylene plastic sheeting, staples, a drill, and duct tape.

First, we made a frame out of 2x4s the same size as the bed and placed the new frame on top.

Then we attached two hinges along the back, so the cold frame can open like this:

Then we attached the PVC pipes to the hinged frame. We used 1/2″ PVC conduit pipes and attached them by screwing the 1/2″ U-brackets (like this one) on either side, making sure to attach the brackets to the hinged frame so it will open.

The next step was to cover the cold frame with plastic sheeting. You can find rolls of plastic at hardware stores, online at garden supply websites, or scrounge it up at garage sales like we did. We draped a long rectangular piece of plastic over the length of the cold frame. We pulled taut and stapled the plastic to the hinged wooden frame using furring strips we made by folding over duct tape. The duct tape prevents the staples from ripping the plastic and makes it easy to remove all the staples at once in the spring when we dismantle the hoop house.

We then covered the short ends of the cold frame with separate plastic pieces, stapling the bottom of the sheet to the hinged frame, and connecting it to the top using PVC snap clamps.

Note: we tucked the plastic sheeting on the short ends underneath the sheeting on top to keep the elements out.

And there you go! A hinged hoop house-style cold frame, hopefully able to keep our salad greens growing all winter.

More Pickling

Last week we found ourselves with way too many beets and cucumbers to eat, so it was time to get serous about preserving our abundance. Like cucumbers, pickling beets is really easy and the results are so good You’ll want to cook them first, either by steaming or roasting. We’ve tried both ways but usually just cut them in half and steam ’em. Don’t worry about peeling the skins, you’ll be able to remove them easily after the beets are cooked.

While your beets are steaming, prepare the brine in a separate stock pot. We boil 1 part water with 1 part vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is our favorite, but it gets pricey so this time we used half white vinegar and half balsamic. Apple cider vinegar is good too. You can also add brown sugar, cinnamon, or cloves.

After your beets are cooked, cool them under water and slide the skins off with your fingers or a butter knife. It should be fairly easy to do, but it does take a little time. Then slice your beets and pack in your sterilized jars.

Ladle your boiling brine in up to 1/4″ of the top of each jar, wipe the mouth with a damp paper towel to ensure a good seal, and tap against a surface to dislodge any air bubbles (some people prefer to scrape a non-metallic spatula around the inside). Close them up and process in your boiling water bath for about 10 minutes.

Once removed, allow to cool before moving to a cool, dark place (we use the basement). You should hear delightful little plinks when the seals form as the contents of the jars cool down. You’ll know they’re sealed when the lid is depressed and doesn’t pop up when you press it.

pickles pickles picklesLooks like we have enough pickled cucumbers to last us through the winter, but we’ll definitely need more pickled beets… we love them on salads and straight out of the jar. Good thing we’re planting more beets at Dave’s place!

Cukes

Our cucumber bed at Dave’s place has been exploding lately! We’re growing a variety of cucumber suited for pickling, though their thin skin and sweetness make them a great raw treat too.

Cucumbers

We pickled about three pints’ worth of cucumbers a couple weeks ago. We cut them into slices and spears and added them to our jars with sliced onions, crushed garlic cloves, and dill (all from our garden).

We then added a boiled solution of water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and crushed red pepper to each jar until mostly full. Then to seal, we placed the jars in a boiling water bath for about 10 minutes. We kept one jar in the fridge and two in the basement in a dark spot until last week.

We’ve already gone through the first delicious jar of our homemade pickles. We’re letting the other pickles age a little more before enjoying them!

In the meantime, we’ve still been harvesting lots and lots of cucumbers. They keep well in the fridge in a bowl of water, and we’ll be pickling again soon.

Luckily, we made a great connection with a local restaurant blocks away from our garden at Dave’s Place. That’s right, you can find some of our cucumbers in the delicious wraps and salads at Labeebee’s Mid-East Cafe on Cherokee Street! They happen to have the best falafel in the city, and we’re looking forward to sharing more of our harvests with them.

Frugal Friday: Clean & Green

It’s great that commercial cleaning products have jumped onto the eco-conscious bandwagon, but there’s an even better way to clean your house without making a huge impact on the environment or your wallet. Plus, you probably already have all the necessary ingredients in your pantry!

Baking soda is a natural deodorant and mild abrasive that helps scrub and whiten in the kitchen and bathroom. We make a paste with baking soda and a little bit of water and vinegar or lemon juice.  Let it sit for 10 minutes, then scrub away!

Vinegar is effective in controlling mold, bacteria, and germs. Make your own homemade all-purpose spray- just add equal parts water and vinegar in a spray bottle, then use it on surfaces around the house and in the bathroom. Don’t worry- the smell will dissipate as it dries. Or you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to give it a nicer fragrance.

Add 1 tablespoon of rubbing alcohol to equal parts water and vinegar to get a quick, streak-free window and glass cleaner! And instead of using paper towels, we’ve found newspaper cleans glass efficiently, without leaving any lint behind.

Frugal Friday: Sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts make a great, crunchy addition to our salads, sandwiches, and wraps, but they only rarely made it onto the grocery list because they’re a bit pricy at the store. Fortunately, we happened to find a pack of alfalfa seeds for about the same price as a container of the sprouts. Here’s how to grow your own alfalfa sprouts from seed:

All you need is a large glass jar, bleach, a cheesecloth or mesh material, a rubber band, an extra towel, and a few days.  The seeds should be kept away from sunlight throughout the process until the very end. 1  1/2 T. of alfalfa seed will yield a large jar’s worth of sprouts!

  1. Place 1 1/2 T. of alfalfa seed in your jar, then soak the seeds in a diluted bleach bath- 1 tsp. bleach in 1 c. hot water for 15 minutes (apparently the seeds can carry E. coli if not disinfected).  Cover the jar with a cheesecloth or mesh material secured with a rubber band instead of the lid.
  2. After soaking, rinse and drain the seeds thoroughly- fill the jar with water, swirl it, then drain completely at least 3 times (the cheesecloth or mesh should strain the water out while your seeds stay in).
  3. Fill the jar with water about 3x the height of your seeds and allow to soak overnight, 8 – 12 hours. Cover the jar with a towel to prevent any light exposure.
  4. Next rinse the seeds, drain the water, and rotate the jar so the seeds spread out and stick to the sides. Then cover with your towel and prop at an angle to promote drainage, and let sit for 3 – 4 hours.
  5. Repeat step 4 three times a day.
  6. Your sprouts should be ready to harvest within 4 – 6 days, when they are about 1 – 2 inches long. Before harvesting, let the jar sit in indirect sunlight so the sprouts will produce chlorophyll and turn green. 
  7. Then rinse, drain, and allow to dry before storing in a closed container in the fridge. Ours have kept for over a week when dried out completely in the salad spinner, though you do lose a few sprouts that way.

  Day 2  

End of Day 1                              End of Day 2                           End of Day 3

End of Day 4, Greening

Frugal Friday: Wrapping Gifts

Newspaper is our wrapping paper of choice for many reasons, but when it comes to gifts for Mother’s Day, it just doesn’t seem special enough. With a little time, you can get creative and add some embellishments that your mom will surely appreciate!

You can easily transform a newspaper print ad into a peacock centerpiece. Fold down the newspaper accordion-style, then fold in half and tape the inside folds together and the outside edges to the gift, like so:

Or make a newspaper rose:
          To start, take a strip of newspaper and loosely roll it around itself to form the innermost part of the rose. Then wrap successively larger strips of newspaper around the center, taping each at the back. Gently fold the petals outward as you go to give them more definition.

You could use pages from magazines or re-use some tissue paper, too.