by Paige Puckett—
In the spring, I invent reasons to go to home-improvement stores so I can slip a couple of seed packets into the cart, hoping I don’t get in trouble with my husband. He’s not stingy; he just knows I have a shoebox full of seed packets already. However, one of my goals of applying permaculture principles to our small kitchen garden means it isn’t enough for me to start from seed; I want to buy those seeds only once. Extreme? Maybe. Fun? Yes. I have been saving tomato and flower seeds for several years now, and last year I started saving lettuce seeds, too
The lettuce was bitter from the getgo this spring (I probably should have tasted it before donating several bags to the Food Shuttle), so I pulled most out to compost, leaving only a couple heads of each kind to keep growing. Those remaining heads have finally flowered just in time for fall planting. This week, I had my preschooler help me pluck the flowers that had already “poofed” and we scattered them in a newly turned-over section of the garden. Most of his seeds were lifted by the breeze and landed on the path, but he loved participating and explaining what he was learning. The way he phrases it is, “Those seeds want to become plants, right?” He’s learning right along with me.
The trick to saving flower and lettuce seeds is making sure they have time to fully develop. This was our first year to grow cosmos, and I’ve been deadheading it all summer to keep the blossoms coming. I knew at some point I had to let it go to seed so I could enjoy the plant next year. I didn’t know what to expect, so I kept plucking off seedheads and opening them to see if they were ready. This evening, I discovered that it is quite obvious when they are ready. They poof, just like the lettuce!
Paige Puckett and her husband Joe, both in Land and Water Engineering fields, grew up with hands-on experience helping parents and grandparents in vegetable gardens and creating wild adventures in their expansive backyards and nearby creeks at their respective country homes in Tennessee and North Carolina. Now that they have two boys of their own, they try to engage them in the outdoors despite the obvious confines of downtown living in Raleigh, NC. Paige shares their lessons learned, garden projects and photos at her Love Sown blog.
In spite of Mother Nature’s plan to skip spring in Northeast Iowa, May still arrived on the calendar. I waited awhile to begin poking around the asparagus bed at Heritage Farm, but this week I was hoping to find a few brave little spears. No such luck. I ended up weeding out the Creeping Charlie, some stinging nettles and remembered that asparagus is the Patron Plant of Patience.
This particular bed, planted over 20 years ago, is a testament to that fact. The story began with a letter from an Ohio gentleman in the mid eighties. He mentioned his father always grew asparagus from seed. Although it had no name he maintained the spears rivaled any commercial variety. I have a special affinity for asparagus and rhubarb (both are my spring tonics). Plus reading his claim set off my seed saving gene—I just had to request a sample.
Opening the mail at SSE, I had become accustomed to receiving small samples of seed sent in the mail in recycled creative packaging. Seeds often arrived in matchboxes, pill bottles, church offering envelopes, folded handkerchiefs and nylon stockings. But when a three-pound Folgers coffee can appeared filled with beautiful red asparagus seed, I was taken aback.
It was the summer of 1985 and SSE had its first Iowa garden in a five acre field of fertile river bottomland. I planted long rows of the seed about two inches deep and about three inches apart in sandy rich soil. The germination was slow but eventually rows of delicate ferns resembling Baby’s Breath appeared. Seeing those “nanospears” made me realize this was going to be a long process. When these seedlings were about six inches tall, I thinned them to about two inches apart. I cared for these fat toothpicks for two years. Because they were still planted too close together the crowns had to be transplanted and spaced wider apart and about a foot deep in a permanent home. By that time SSE had purchased Heritage Farm, so I dug enough small crowns to fill the current patch in front of the barn.
Normally you wait about three years before harvest after the crowns are planted, by that time they have developed a strong root system. I had already invested two years with the seedlings and lost one year for transplanting—I would be at year six before I could expect a taste of my “coffee can” asparagus.
By year six or seven we harvested only the spears that were larger than a pencil in size and had enough for a small feast. Today some 25 years later, patience has paid off, and there is a magnificent bed of “coffee-can” asparagus. After harvesting for 7-8 weeks, I let the patch go to seed. Visitors pass by the bed and always comment on the beautiful ferns with the red berries, because not many folks ever see asparagus going to seed. Birds spread the seed and I find miniature asparagus plants placed perfectly in the gardens, the delicate ferny foliage always complimenting what is growing around them. Just this morning I passed by three fat spears in the flower beds in front of the Lillian Goldman Visitor Center. I smiled knowing the “coffee can” asparagus was taking care of itself these days.
Patience does have rewards. And one comforting thing about growing older: your asparagus patch gets better.
Photo of Diane: Jim Richardson