Category Archives: Tomatoes

Talking Seeds On Permaculture Voices Podcast

In December I was a guest on the Permaculture Voices podcast.

I spoke with Diego Footer about

  • the profitability of growing seeds for sale,
  • differences between growing seed crops and market vegetable crops,
  • and how much space a seed crop actually takes.

You can listen to the podcast here.

This podcast is a lead up to one of the workshops I’ll be giving at Permaculture Voices 3 this spring. At that event I’ll also run a workshop about crop planning for farm profitability.

Planting Tips For Wet Springs

We are currently in the midst of one of the coldest and wettest springs in my 14 years of farming. As such we have been behind on a number of field tasks.

Here are some of the strategies that I’ve found helpful:

ENSURE ADEQUATE SOIL PREPARATION

some bed prep is better than none

Some ground preparation is better than none. Minor problems can always be smoothed over later.

MINIMIZE FIELD WORK WHEN GROUND IS WET

Soil moisture

A boot sinking 4″ into the soil is borderline dry for this year.

AVOID PLANTING INTO WEEDY AREAS

Under wet conditions, you should properly identify weed pressure. Under current conditions, the following is not considered weed pressure:

Weed pressure 1

This qualifies:

Weed pressure 2

In fact, can you identify what is crop and what is not?

In such situations, some form of intervention may be warranted.

Weed Pressure 3

That’s right, it was a tiny tomatillo plant!

BE PRECISE

Precision is important

USE APPROPRIATE TOOLS

tools

BE SATISFIED WITH A JOB WELL DONE

Done!

And with that, the last of our seed tomatoes and tomatillos are planted. Only a few more peppers to go!

I hope you too have found ways to cope with your spring calamities.

Visiting Greta’s Organic Gardens

This post is a little late coming …

On August 25th, 2010, the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network (ECOSGN) hosted a field trip to Greta’s Organic Gardens in Ottawa, Ontario. The visit was broken up into

  • A little about Greta,
  • A field walk,
  • A tomato taste test,
  • A peek inside Greta’s seed workshop, and
  • A seed cleaning demonstration.

A Little Bit About Greta

Greta Kryger is a staple at most Seedy Saturdays and Sundays across Quebec and Ontario. Her seeds are also available through her on-line seed catalogue. Greta grows all her own tomato, pepper, eggplant, and melon seed in addition to as many other species as she can fit in to her gardens.

Greta’s Organic Gardens began as a market garden in 1991. She began saving seeds and  selling at the Ottawa and Toronto Seedy Saturdays in 1992-1993. In the late nineties, she switched from market gardening to 100% seed production. Her production has been certified organic since 2003.

Greta has also been on the ECOSGN steering committee since its first meeting in March 2008.

Field Walk

The morning began with a walk across Greta’s fields.

A few cucurbit species on black geotextile (for weed control).

Tomatoes.

Some of Greta’s seed crops are also grown in tunnels. This adds heat and isolates plants from  other pollen sources.

These guys make good use of any seed cleaning byproducts (i.e squash and tomato pulp).

Tomato Taste Test

Greta is known for her huge selection of tomatoes. With a couple of volunteers, Greta set up 30 or so sampling stations of different tomatoes.

Tasters rated each tomato from 1 to 5 on different aspects such as taste and  appearance.

A Peek Into Greta’s Seed Workshop/Greenhouse

This greenhouse is Greta’s seed wonderland with an aquatic garden and heat loving plants.

The controlled climate let’s Greta collect seed from many plants that might not set much seed in our climate.

In one corner of the greenhouse, tomatoes are fermenting.

Tomato seeds are placed on screens (these are actually pepper seeds.)

Then stacked to dry.

Greta also brings seed crops into the greenhouse to dry out of the rain.

Some seed crops are hung in pillow cases to dry.

Seed Cleaning Demonstration

Greta uses a set of seed screens (also notice the colander collection in the upper left corner) to remove most of the chaff from her seeds. The final cleaning of most crops is done with this air column:

Dirty seeds go in the top right pipe. Lighter material (dirt, dust, chaff) is blown out the top of the long pipe. Heavier material (seeds and maybe stones) are collected from the bottom of the pipe.

The air column is powered by a bathroom fan with a dimmer switch.

(Compare this with Patrice Fortier’s air column.)


Thanks Greta for a great farm tour and a great farm lunch – the turkey meat balls were especially good!

ECOSGN is currently planning more great seedy events – more details soon …

Plant Seed Crops on Time – Seed Production Planning Part 4

This is the fourth part of a series on crop planning for seed production. Seed production planning part 3 covered calculating how much to grow to meet your farm and marketing demands.

The next step is choosing when to plant your seed crop to get a reliable seed harvest. (Most of this article was originally posted on its own last spring but I thought it fit nicely into this Crop Planning discussion.)

WHY PLANT SEED CROPS ON TIME?

My first seed harvests were from vegetables that bolted and didn’t make it to market. This worked well for a bit, and then it didn’t . I learned that if you want a reliable seed harvest, the crop has to go into the ground with that goal in mind. This means planting at the right time.

When you plant a seed crop too late, you run the risk

– The crop simply won’t have time to set seed before fall showers, hard frosts and then snow compromise harvest opportunities and seed quality.

– Or the crop might return to vegetative growth as the day-length gets shorter. In mid-August, I’ve been caught with little seed when kale and some lettuces  quit producing flowers, stop maturing seeds and begin to sprout new leaves.

HOW EARLY CAN YOU PLANT?

This depends on how well a crop tolerates cold and frost. Here are three ways to divide crops:

– The hardiest crops can be seeded as soon as the ground can be worked. This includes lettuce, peas, dill, cilantro, fava beans, overwintered roots (carrots, beets, rutabaga, onions)

– Hardy crops (but a little less hardy than the hardiest) occasionally bolt after sudden spring cold snaps. It is usually safe to seed these crops by early May directly in the field. You can plant these crops a bit earlier if you use row cover for cold protection or  plant hardened off transplants instead of seeds. This category is mainly filled with annual brassicas like  short season broccoli and cauliflower and leafy greens like arugula, tatsoi, and  mustards.

– Frost sensitive crops need to wait till after the last frost. Waiting a week or two longer, until the  soil warms up, will create better conditions for these crop to establish. But don’t plant so late the crop won’t have time to mature before fall frosts! Row cover and plastic mulch can speed up soil warming. Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants), Cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, and melons), and beans are the main frost sensitive crops.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Planting any seed crop in less than ideal conditions will reveal which plants and varieties can better tolerate adversity. Recurring selection under these conditions will make the crop hardier. If you walk this road, though, be prepared to lose some crop as you learn.

And of course not all crop and varieties will be successful on all sites or in all climates.


This year’s wet weather has delayed a lot of our spring plantings. Many of our earliest seed crops have been planted a couple of weeks later than I would like. I’ll keep you posted on how that affects our seed harvests this season.

Shortly I’ll wrap up this seed production planning series with a post on crop rotation.


Seed Production Planning Part 3 – How Much To Grow

This is the third part of a series on crop planning for seed production. Seed production planning part 2 covered calculating how much seed to harvest to meet your farm and marketing demands.

The next step is determining how many plants you need to grow to produce the amount of seed you need. We’ll look at the basic math to calculate how much to plant and two examples.

CALCULATING HOW MUCH TO GROW

This is the basic equation:

Harvest Targets x Safety Factor ÷ Yield = Bed Length to Plant

Harvest Targets: This was calculated in Seed Production Planning part 2.

Safety Factors: Weather, pests, diseases, and weeds can dramatically alter what you can expect to harvest. Seed yields are more variable than vegetable yields. It’s good to target growing 25% to 75% more seed than you need to compensate for the potential losses.

Yield: The amount of seed you can expect to harvest on average from a certain number of plants or area of crop. Last spring I wrote a blog on seed yields that goes further into the subject.

Here is an updated chart of some of our seed yields at Tourne-Sol farm.

Crop Rows/Bed Inrow spacing grams/bedft*
Beans bush – 2 pole – 1 6″-12″ 75-100g
Beets/Chard 2 12″ 100g
Brassicas 2 or 3 12″-18″ 25-100g
Cucurbits 1 24″ 25-100g
Lettuce** 3 12″ 10-28g
Onions 3 12″ 25-50g
Peas bush – 2 pole – 1 6″ 50-75g
Solanacea 1 or 2 12″-24″ 3-10g

* A bedft is a one foot long slice of your growing bed.

** Our lettuce yields are lower than what is possible in drier climates.

EXAMPLE 1 – HOW MUCH TATSOI SHOULD I GROW?

In Seed Production Planning part 2 we estimated 6720g of Tatsoi seed would meet our hypothetical farm and marketing needs. From previous experience I know my Tatsoi seed yields about 50g/bedft but that the yield can vary greatly from year to year.

Harvest Targets x Safety Factor ÷ Yield = Bed Length to Plant

6720g x 1,5 ÷ 50g/bedft = 201 bedft

If I grow 200 bedft, I should be able to meet my Tatsoi seed needs. If the weather cooperates and I harvest before much seed shatters, I could potentially harvest much more seed than I need.

EXAMPLE 2 – HOW MUCH JAUNE FLAMMÉE TOMATO SHOULD I GROW?

Harvest Targets: 321g would meet our hypothetical farm and marketing seed needs.

Yield: I usually get about 7g/bedft of seed from small to medium-sized tomatoes like Jaune Flammée.

SF: On our farm tomato yields don’t vary as much as brassica greens. I’ll only use a 1.25 SF.

321g x 1,25 ÷ 7g/bedft = 57 bedft

I should meet my Jaune Flammée seed needs if I grow 60 bedft of plants.

———————————-

In my next post, I’ll tackle when to plant seed crops to make sure you can harvest on time. And later, I’ll cover some seed crop rotation basics.

I also plan on posting some of what we’ve been doing during this rainy spring.

Hope it’s as sunny as you would like it to be wherever your skies are …

Seed Production Planning Part 2 – Calculating Seed Needs

This is the second part of a series on crop planning for seed production. Seed production planning part 1 covered growing small trials to evaluate whether a variety was worth growing to seed on your farm in your climate.

Once you’ve decided the varieties for  this year’s seed production, you need to determine how much seed you would like to harvest.

GROWING SEED FOR MULTIPLE  YEARS

Under good storage conditions most seed will last a number of years. You can grow enough in one year to cover your seed needs for multiple years. This has a few benefits:

  • Growing fewer varieties gives you more space for better isolation distances to avoid cross-pollination.
  • Growing a larger number of plants of on variety provides more plants to observe and you can better select the most fit individuals. Large population also maintain a broader genetic pool that ensures more resilient varieties.
  • Cleaning bigger seed lots is easier than cleaning small seed lots.

For most varieties, I aim to grow enough seed for at least a 3-year supply. (This is not possible for all varieties. I.e. parsnip, leeks and onions lose germination quickly after a year in storage.)

(You can read a previous post about isolation distances and population sizes.)

HOW MUCH SEED DO YOU NEED?

Consider all the ways you sell or use seed, and estimate the needs for each use. This includes

  • Seed you use on-farm. This is calculated from your crop plan – basically the rowfoot you plan to grow multiplied by a seeding rate. (The crop planning for organic vegetable growers handbook covers this.)
  • Seed sold through a seed catalog (in packets or in bulk). This is projected from the previous year’s sales records.
  • Seed sold to other seed companies. This is based on how much seed they need.

Then make a chart to summarize this information. Here are two examples loosely based on our farm.

EXAMPLE 1 – TATSOI SEED NEEDS

Tatsoi is a leafy green from the Brassica rapa species.

At Tourne-Sol farm, we seed a lot of Tatsoi to sell bunching or as part of our salad mixes. We also sell Tatsoi seed as packets to gardeners and in bulk quantities to other farmers.  And our seed company clients purchase regular amounts of our Tatsoi seed.

 Purpose 2012 2013 2014 Total
Farm Use 120g 120g 120g

360 g

Packet Sales 100g(50pkts x 2g) 120g(60pkts x 2g) 140g(70pkts x 2g)

360 g

Bulk Sales 1kg 1kg 1kg

3000 g

For Other Seed Companies 1kg 1kg 1kg

3000 g

TOTAL

6720 g

We’ll need to harvest about 7 kg of Tatsoi seed to meet our projections for the next 3 years.

EXAMPLE 2 – JAUNE FLAMMÉE TOMATO SEED NEEDS

We need significantly less tomato seeds than Tatsoi seeds. Since we transplant tomatoes, our on-farm needs are low and we only sell packets through our seed catalog. Our seed company clients purchase a significant volume but they usually buy enough seed for multiple years at once.

 Purpose 2012 2013 2014 Total
Farm Use 1g 1g 1g

3 g

Packet Sales 5g(50pkts x 0.1g) 6g(60pkts x 0.1g) 7g(70pkts x 0.1g)

18 g

Bulk Sales

0 g

For Other Seed Companies 300g

300 g

TOTAL

321 g

We’ll need to harvest 321 g of Jaune Flammée tomato seed to meet our projections.

——————–

In our next seed production planning installment we’ll figure out how many plants to grow to meet these seed needs.

How I Started Selling Seeds – Part 2

Last post, I wrote about how Tourne-Sol started offering seeds to other seed companies, and how tomatoes were the crop they bought.  But my  seed story didn’t start with tomato seeds; it began with the first couple pounds of arugula seed I harvested (you can read that story here). This arugula seed started a relationship with brassica seeds that kind of got out of hand.  The ensuing surplus of seed created another way we developed our relationship with our seed company clients.

GROWING TOO MUCH SEED FOR OUR OWN SALAD GREENS

Tourne-Sol grows a lot of salad greens for market and CSA, and these salad greens consume a large amount of seed. From a coulpe dozen brassica plants we were able to meet all our Tatsoi seed. A few dozen more placed elsewhere on the farm, and we had all the Mizuna seed we needed. The same with a half dozen other varieties of brassica greens.

Simultaneous to this I was reading up about plant popuplations, cross pollinators and maintaining genetic breadth and resilience (I posted a bit about that here). This led to growing more plants of each variety, which then led to harvesting more seed. To be honest, another reason I wanted to grow larger volumes of seed was to be able to run my fingers through bucketfuls.

As quantities increased, I moved to growing brassica on a 3-year rotation since the seed kept so well and I wanted to avoid cross pollination. But when I started to harvest 5-7 pounds of seed per variety, there was more seed than we could use up in three years. I needed to do something.

So I called up the seed companies who already bought our seeds and asked whether they were interested in brassica seeds? A couple said yes. Then they asked how much I was selling it for.

PRICING OUT SEEDS

Until then, the  seed companies I had dealt with had set their own rates for seed. I wasn’t sure what to charge. I asked them what they thought was fair ? One person mentioned they’d bought some brassica seed for $20/ounce. That gave me a starting point.

After I hung up, I took out a pen and paper and crunched some numbers starting with what weight I’d harvested from what growing area. Then,  I looked at all the seed catalogues in my collection and listed the different ways they priced bulk brassica green prices. I realized that  $20/ounce was a great price but that with my seed yield, I could afford to ask for significanlty less. With a lower price, I figured I could sell more seed.  I went back to my seed clients and offered them a range of prices  with larger seed volumes at proportionally lower prices. ( Here is a detailed post on how we price seeds.)

GROWING SEEDS ON CONTRACT vs. SPECULATION

Essentially, the two ways Tourne-Sol sells seed to other seed companies is on contract and on speculation. To highlight the difference between these two options, let’s compare how we plan and sell tomato seed (contract) and brassica seed (speculation).

TOMATO SEEDS: In the spring,  there is a flurry of e-mails back and forth with each company to whom I sell tomato seeds. We select tomato varieties together and determine what quantities they would like to reserve for the fall. I like to have a harvest target since tomato seed takes time to harvest, squish and ferment in large quantities. Since the bulk of our tomato seed is destined to seed companies, the number of tomato plants I grow for seed depends mainly on quantities these companies commit to purchasing.

BRASSICA SEEDS: Currently, I try to grow as much brassica seed as space permits in one year to use over the next 3 years.We use a lot of brassica seeds on farm and we do sell bulk salad green seeds through our own seed catalogue to farmers and gardeners. At present, I usually run out of brassica seed before the next production cycle comes around.As such, we don’t need a solid commitment from our seed company clients to determine what we will grow. Of course, every spring I do give them a heads up of what I am growing so they can plan accordingly. If they want to reserve some seed, I am happy to do that. However, if they want to wait until the fall to tell me what they need, that doesn’t drastically change our production goals.

THE MORAL OF THIS STORY

Now the moral of this story is not to grow out a large quantity of seed on speculation and then try to sell it. That’s a great recipe for a lot of seed in your closet. Rather, grow the seed that you use and experiment with larger quantities. When you feel comfortable, approach seed companies with what you know you can do and find out what they want. Don’t start off with too much ambition – growing a lot of great seed is not easy. Develop a relationship with the folks who buy your seed and gradually increase quantities as you gain proficiency.

OTHER NEWS

My co-farmer Fred received a grand prize for Tourne-Sol farm from Quebec’s finançière agricole contest Tournez vous vers l’excellence. Click here to see the contest’s video profile on Fred and the farm (note – it is in French).

Next on Going to Seed, less words and more pictures.