Feeding beans and peas?

julieann_growSeptember 7, 2006

I often read here on forums that beans and peas really do not need much in the way of soil ammendments (compost, fertilizer, nitrogen..). Is this because?

a) it is not necessary and the plants will grow fine w/out the ammendments, but will really thrive if you feed them well.

b) the ammendments are a waste because the plants will do the same with or without them.

c) they are finky about what they are fed and do well w/out ammendments so it is best not to feed the soil.

d) some other reason

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jimster(z7a MA)

This is a good topic, so let's see if we can get some clarification. I can't provide all the answers, but I can get it started.

Legumes are thought to increase soil fertility, rather than deplete it. That's because they have nodules on their roots where bacteria live which 'fix' nitrogen from the air, making it available to plants. I think 'fix' means converting the elemental (plain, gaseous, atmospheric) nitrogen to a soluble nitrogen compound (a nitrate). This is off the top of the head folks, so jump in with corrections.

This nitrogen is produced over the course of a season. So, it won't be there at the start. Therefore, I think beans can benefit from some nitrogen fertilizer at the start of the season, if the soil hasn't received nitrogen from the previous years legumes or some other source, such as compost.

That is only the nitrogen part of the scheme. It says nothing about phosphorous, potassium and other necessary minerals. Legumes have pretty much the same needs for those as other vegetable crops. So I would say feed the beans.

Your post raises the question of 'ammendments' vs. 'fertilizer'. My thinking is that ammendments are long term improvements, which include improvements to tilth, moisture, drainage, etc. as well as nutrients. Fertilizer provides only short term nutrition.


    Bookmark   September 7, 2006 at 7:36PM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

I agree with Jimster. It is usually stated that beans do not require additional _nitrogen_; but since N is a major component in most fertilizers, this has been over-simplified by many to state that beans do not require "fertilizer"... which is not necessarily true.

If your soil has other major nutrient deficiencies, they should be targeted _specifically_, rather than just adding commercial N-P-K mixtures. Since you are most likely to discover such deficiencies through a soil test, follow the recommendations given.

Soil _amendments_ (such as organic matter, sulphur or lime to correct pH, gypsum, or rock phosphate) are meant for long-term correction of soil deficiencies, and are as helpful to beans as to most other vegetables. Since they are basically "first aid for your soil", they are never wasted effort if needed.

When discussing nodule development, consider "the big if"... IF you have the proper symbiotic bacteria already in your soil, or add it while planting, legumes require very little (if any) additional nitrogen.

Theoretically, without the bacteria, beans would be as affected by nitrogen-poor soil as any other vegetables. But with or without inoculant, legumes are less "finicky" about soil nutrients than most other vegetables. You are far more likely to experience problems from too much N, than with too little. There are already many GW threads on this issue, of fertilized beans that have thick, lush growth, but few beans. I generally recommend against using nitrogen fertilizer (including manure) in areas where beans will be grown - unless you are growing them for their leaves . ;-)

I strongly recommend the use of bacterial inoculants where they have not been used previously, on new ground, or when first growing a new legume species (such as cowpeas, or garbanzos). These are _not_ fertilizers. Every legume species has a unique nitrogen-fixing bacteria that has adapted to it; it is an evolutionary partnership. All legumes will perform at their best when the proper bacteria is present.

There are mixtures widely available ("garden combinations") that contain the proper inoculants for peas, and for most beans (common, lima, and runner). These come in both powders & granulated forms. Soybeans, peanuts, cowpeas (or Southern peas), and garbanzos require special inoculants; these can be ordered by mail.

This is not to imply that you will not have success without them; but the plants generally have greater vigor & better yield if inoculant is used. Personally, I use them every year, and have great results with no additional _fertilizer_.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2006 at 12:16AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Great diferentiation, Jimster, between fertilizer and amendments. With one addition: amendments can also contribute to the long-term fertility of the soil as well as its physical health. This is particularly true about the micro-nutrients all plants need.

As to the original question, Zeedman pretty well answered it. I would, except in very rare instances, never even consider adding extra nitrogen to beans. Other nutrients should be added on an as-needed basis. But they won't be needed in most garden soil.

Zeedman and I do disagree over the use of inoculant. Which is one reason everyone should read the on-going inoculant thread; and if possible take part in Zeedman's proposed test.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2006 at 6:21AM
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My soil has been tested and is in pretty good shape, except low in nitrogen and potassium. When I go to plant an individual plant, like a broccoli, I have this mix I use to throw in the bottom of the hole or spread on top of the ground for leafy plants. The mix is: worm castings, composted chicken manure, blood meal, a bit of kelp meal, handful of organic 5-5-5- fertilizer, peat moss (my soil is a bit alkaline), then mixed together with some dirt. I will use an innoculant, approriate for peas and/or beans.

Money and time are not too much of an issue for me, so I probably do go overboard (without TOO much) to try and maximize the health of the plants. All of the plants seem to like it as they are very vigorous, but the bean and pea question came up because of the diverse information here about whether "to ammend or fertilze or not to".

    Bookmark   September 8, 2006 at 10:14AM
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veggiecanner(Id 5/6)

I have found the best thing for beans is good even moisture. So I just try to work in lots of organic material to hold moisture and try to keep them watered. But with no rain for 3 monthes here,and not being able to mulch because of slugs. we are just now getting enough beans to can. that's because of cooler nights and less blossom drop. the heat had been causing lots of distorted pods.
I don't really put compost on the bean bed, just some grass clippings and old hay a couple of weeks before planting seeds.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2006 at 12:42AM
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I have a related question. Twice now, once last year, and again this year, but with different varieties. I've had beans refuse to flower altogether. Last year, before we moved from NJ, I planted an extra early planting of our favorite Tennessee Cutshort. By the time we moved on August 9 they still hadn't flowered. This year, I planted several poles of Black Greasy Pole Bean, of which my supply has gotten dangerously low. I planted them after danger of frost and they have grown quite well. But...they have refused to flower! As I have thought about it, I wonder if I didn't add too much high nitrogen material when preparing to plant. Anyone here have any ideas or comments?

Tahlequah, OK

    Bookmark   September 12, 2006 at 9:03PM
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George I wish I had a good answer for you. I know there is a balance in nitrogen use and to what point is too much when it comes to nitrogen I can't say diffentivly. I would not intentially add any nitrogen to legumes only admendments which would add small incidental amounts. The books say If too much nitrogen sacrifice yield for vegetative growth and this applies to most vegetable crops. But I would think sacrifice yield would mean less and not none. When you say there has not been any flowers I assume you mean just that and not flowers with no beans which could be several other problems such as heat, drought etc. I will say my soil is pretty rich do to years of adding lots of organic material and using legume cover crops in the winter. I do have a lot of vine growth on my beans but never a problem with no blooms. I try to follow my beans in areas that I grew corn or some of the cole crops previously in an effort to minize the amount of nitrogen for the beans and to replenish the nitrogen in those areas. But I grow so many legumes this is not practical. So I have rambled here and not offered any answer other than I think it is something other than too much Nitrogen. Rodger

    Bookmark   September 12, 2006 at 11:44PM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

George, if you were growing tropical varieties brought back with you from Mexico, I would suspect daylength sensitivity; but that should not be the case for the varieties you mention. Like Rodger, I am somewhat mystified. You should have had _some_ blossoms by now, regardless of your soil ammendments.

What did you add to your soil, and when? When I lived in San Diego, I would cover my entire plot with 2-3" of composted horse manure after the summer harvest, turn it under, and plant a cover crop (sometimes edible) for the winter. So by the time I turned the cover under to break down in early Spring, the nitrogen content had been reduced to reasonable levels. My beans were lush, but still bore heavily.

I would _not_ recommend such full-coverage application of manure, without the cover crop stage to act as a buffer. Organic matter such as compost, yes; but not manure.

George, when you say your beans have grown quite well, could you be more specific? Can you find any young flower buds emerging on new growth? Do the leaves appear normal?

    Bookmark   September 13, 2006 at 12:53AM
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Well, the leaves and vines look very normal. They are nice and green and look very well. They simply haven't had even a single flower bud...zilch. In 2005 I remember seeing one or two flowers. I don't know if the Tennessee Cutshorts of 2005 ever produced, as we moved away. The Black Greasys, this year, have had not a single flower. Now, since this was a first year garden, dug out of sod, I suspect I may have dug a shovel or two of fresh horse manure (was all I had) into the soil under each pole, when I planted (back in April). "Wince wince" under one pole I may have buried a marauding bunny. But these are four poles and none are blooming.

I have two poles planted of Oaxaca Cream, a bean I did bring back from Mexico, and which barely produced seed in NJ in 2004, and that was only because our first frost was Nov. 7. This one is daylength sensitive. It hasn't started to flower here yet either. But I expect it to at any time now.

Thanks for the input!


    Bookmark   September 13, 2006 at 3:07PM
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jimster(z7a MA)

Excess nitrogen gets blamed for a lot, and maybe deservedly so. I can't say one way or the other based on personal experience. I'm thinking of doing an experiment next year to find out just how high the nitrogen level must be to become counterproductive.


    Bookmark   September 13, 2006 at 3:35PM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

Jimster, that sounds like another great experiment! There have been many posts this year about beans not bearing, and upon investigation, nearly all have fertilizer application in common. But as you questioned, how much is too much?

I have two photos I hope to post soon (finally borrowed a digital camera - stay tuned!). There is a flowering mallow that I grow to attract pollinators; I usually don't fertilize flowers, but I fertilized a few of these this year during transplanting.

The results are dramatic. The fertilized mallow is big & bushy, deep green, large leaves - and very few flowers. Other mallows, only a few feet away, are covered with blossoms.

Since mallows do well on poor soil, they may react to excess nitrogen in a similar manner to beans.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2006 at 1:33AM
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Last night I got home before dark and went out to look at the Black Greasies. I found 4 flowers. Perhaps they'll start setting on some pods.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2006 at 11:23AM
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Good news! My black greasies have burst into flower! They have a lot now! Hopefully they will make seed before frost.


    Bookmark   September 19, 2006 at 7:20AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

When is your average first frost, George? I'm also in 6B (not that that means much), and ours is October 10.

I'm sure you know this, but just as a reminder, if the pods fill out at all many of the beans will be viable as seed. Shuck 'em like fresh shellies into baskets, and let them air dry thoroughly. Then handle as usual.

I've always said that Black Greasies are one of the prettiest beans you can grow. But I've never found seed for them. I'm wondering if late production is the problem?

    Bookmark   September 19, 2006 at 7:57AM
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Thanks gardenlad, if I didn't know about saving those thin seeds, I'd need to know :)

I don't believe that late production is inherently a problem with this bean, but I've kept it going, usually while pressed for time and space, since 1999. That year, while growing it in Mexico, it produced within a normal range for a pole bean. Since that time I had gotten it in the ground at least twice, but always late, still harvesting seed. In 2002 it was late and my seed wasn't as filled out as it could be. This year I planted on April 17, and I put in 4 poles, since I wanted not only to multiply seed, but also eat some beans!

There is some question in my mind as to the origins of this bean. My very first contact with black greasies was in the hot dry Indiana summer of 1985. That year I obtained seed of Large Early Greasy from Seed Saver Exchange member Tom Knoche. This is a white seeded variety, but, he noted in his description that it was from a larger sample of seed with a lot of diversity. My Early White Greasies grew beautifully in our hot, dry Indiana weather that year. I planted three or four 7 tripods of them. They produced like gang busters. We ate and canned a lot. After about a month of production my plants started to dry down. I got a whole quart of dried seed! In that quart I found about two tablespoons of black seed. My family and I were headed for the mission field soon, and couldnÂt do a garden in 1986. So I sent this seed, and most of my other bean seeds to Mark Futterman, also a Seed Savers Exchange member, in CA. Mark maintained all of it for years. In 1999 I wrote and asked Mark for a sample of another bean, and he sent me several of my old varieties as well. ThatÂs how I got it back. I assume that it's the same bean. But, in my less than perfect records I don't find mention of sending him this seed, even though I can't imagine not sending it to him. I essentially sent him every bean I had. Also, on that 1999 seed packet from Mark, there was nothing indicating that, for sure, this came from me. So, I'd say that there is some room for doubt.

Anyway, I'm going to put this one on top priority and cover it if I have to, to get the best seed possible. I'll also grow it again next year, without any special soil preparation ;)

Last year, our first in Tahlequah, our first frost was October 24. Nights are cooling quite a bit already.

Oaxaca Cream, a native Mexican greasy I brought back from Mexico, hasn't started flowering yet. I'm hoping! When I first grew this one out, in NJ, I planted it June 9 and harvested viable, but slightly immature seed on November 8. We had a very late frost that year. I'm hoping it'll make seed this year. It was an impressive bean and again, my seed supply is low.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2006 at 10:09AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

There's a lot of confusion over the Black Greasy, George.

I've only actually seen them once, before I was into seed saving. I've since been told that they actually are a recent commercial introduction. But none of my references list it.

Indeed, there is no reference to it in the SSE Yearbook, either.

In fact, it's only on lists and forums such as this one that I've seen any references to it. Plus, of course, during conversations at meetings like the AHSC Fall Conference.

Is a definate puzzlement.

I'm very intrigued with your comments about the Oaxaca Cream. I have never heard of a greasy bean coming from anywhere except the mid-South. In fact, such an origin could throw all our previous discussion re: the source of greasies into a cocked hat.

Do you have any more info on the Oaxaca?

    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 11:44AM
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Well, I received seed for it, in 2000, from a friend named Aurelio Cruz, who carried the seed up from the Sierra of Oaxaca, probably from one of the villages near the one called El Rincón, a little further out from the state capital (Oaxaca) than the town of Ixlán de Juárez, birthplace of Benito Juárez.. Though living in Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo (same town as I was), which is quite a ways from Oaxaca, Aurelio, I believe had relatives on his wifes side, from the Sierra of Oaxaca. Aurelio knew how I like to garden and save seeds, and one day he showed up with a large bag of snaps and a little bag of seed. He told me that this was a bean that they had brought up from the Sierra of Oaxaca and that he and his family grew it in their patio. Usually they would plant it under a pomegranate or lemon tree and it would grow up into the branches, producing an abundance of snaps.

Originally I sent some seed to Merry Youle, a SSE member in HI. I dont know if she ever grew it out. I dubbed it Oaxaca Cream, after the color of the seed. As is usually the case among indigenous folk in Mexico, they just called it something like "that nice big snap bean which so-and-so brought back from Oaxaca." After sending seed to Merry I stuck the little bag of seed in my seed box and forgot about it. Of course there was a lot going on in our lives. I had came down with Typhoid and battled with it, on and off for over a year, and my home church in NJ started talking about calling us home to pastor there (which they did, in 2001). Anyway, I completely forgot about this bean. Then, in 2004, while rummaging around for seed of Tennessee Cutshort, to do a second planting, I came upon this little sack of beans. By that time, their skins had oxidized enough to look like Tennessee Cutshort seed. So, I planted them all. But though they grew and grew they didnt flower until sometime in September! When they formed pods, I knew I had accidentally planted another bean, and thenI remembered Aurelios gift!

This variety has purple flowers and very round meaty pods with heavy strings. Some pods are pretty much purple and some are green drying down pale green/yellow. Mature pods are up to 7" in length.

This variety is excellent for snaps, shell or dry, as the seed shells out easily. However it id definitely day length sensitive. It only started flowering in September. I harvested the pods, still not dried down, at 151 days after planting, on November 8, 2004. Im pretty sure I sent out a couple of samples, under the name of Mexican Greasy Cutshort. But this year I found my old correspondence with Merry Youle, in which I had called it Oaxaca Cream. Id rather stay with this name, as now I understand that it is probably not a true cutshort..

Over the years I was able to collect WAY more stuff than I could ever grow out and its only been in the last couple of years that Ive begun to keep good records. Usually, knowing that I couldnt possibly grow the stuff out, I would send samples to the Seed Savers Exchange, and often, to other interested seed savers.

Day length sensitivity is a real problem. I have seeds about to expire, which just wont produce this far north. Presently I have a couple of Mexican pole lima (very rare, even in Mexico) which are not flowering in my garden. If they dont flower very soon, they will die without making seed, and no one has requested and reoffered these seeds. One lima I have was once THE bean for the Aztecs in the region of Tamazunchale, San Luis Potosi. Now, it has been almost completely supplanted by other varieties. It took me years to locate it, but, apparently Id have to be in South Texas, Florida or Louisiana to reproduce seed in the USA.

Sorry for the rambling!


    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 3:07PM
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George, I'm looking for a good lima which I can grow this next year. Where can I locate some of that Aztec bean? I would like to try and when is a good time to plant?

    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 4:01PM
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jimster(z7a MA)

"Sorry for the rambling!"

Sorry. No forgiveness will be given for rambling. That would be unecessary and inappropriate. Instead, I will thank you for rambling. I get a lot of great, interesting information from a ramble. I'm sure I speak for the other members.


    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 5:02PM
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feldon30(N Houston (8))

The day that historical information about a bean variety is not welcome on the Beans, Peas, and other Legumes forum will be a sad day.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 6:39PM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Y'all beat me to the punch. George, your rambles are a lot better reading, and more informative, than many a stick-to-the-point post. So keep 'em coming.

>"that nice big snap bean which so-and-so brought back from Oaxaca." Been my experience that, as often as not, it's the same way in rural America. Or at least it is in Appalachia and the Ozarks. Tomatoes are referred to as "that yaller one," and beans as "them stick beans we got from your great uncle Joe." If there ever was a variety name it's been long forgotten.

The oldest documented variety in my collection is the Whippoorwill cowpea. The line from which mine came has been in the same family since 1820. But they just call it "stock pea."

    Bookmark   September 20, 2006 at 9:43PM
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You know, Gardenlad, that brings me to a point I've been pondering for years now. The Seed Saver type, of which I am one, seems relatively new on the gardening scene. I believe there have been Seed Savers (collectors) down through the years, but the ones who have done the most for preserving the old varieties the longest, have generally been country folk that simply like what they grow and have a life style of saving seed. As you and I have corresponded privately, we've both commented how fragile a variety can be when in the hands of such people, since they often don't appreciate what they have.

On the other hand, I remember when I first got into the Seed Savers Exchange. In less than two years I had collected more varieties that I could hope to maintain. It got worse when I took my family to Mexico. Suddenly, on almost any given week, I could dig up a new find, such as would have had me dancing for joy when I lived in Indiana. It brought me to a crisis, so to speak. There was no way I could preserve all those varieties, and, when I sent seeds to the SSE I usually didn't hear back from them. If the seeds resurfaced it was going to be many years later. I offered seeds through the SSE, and have seen only a few actually maintained and reoffered. (But I still love the SSE and believe they're doing a great work.)

On top of this, I began turning up varieties which couldn't be reproduced outside of their respective latitudes and climates. At one point I wrote to the SSE and told them that I believed the only viable way to truly preserve genetic resources of seeds in places like Mexico would be to establish a number of centers, where they could be grown out, in their proper climate and latitude. (Never heard back on that one. Imagine the $ involved!)

Finally, I came to a couple of conclusions. Here are three out of four:

1) I can't save them all, no matter what I do. So I need to come to grips with that and move on.

2) I need to put a priority on MY heirlooms. That is, things which are important to, and perhaps find their origins with my family. I can't count on anyone else to do this. Now we have some heirlooms which actually come from our family roots. But over the years we have also come to adopt some varieties as "our" family heirlooms. For instance, I've grown Sunray VF tomato since 1983 and one of my kids won't eat any other tomato. So, that's in our garden every year. Whenever she moves out on her own, guess what seed she's going to get from me? There are a couple of things which we picked up in Mexico which are now part of my family's heritage. Also, over the years, certain varieties have been given to me by other seed savers and for one reason or another, they've become special to me. I have Flossie Powell Pole Lima which Harold R. Martin of Hopkinsville, KY (a SSE member) sent me in the early 90s. I didn't ask for it. It was simply his all time favorite garden variety and an heirloom he inherited from his Aunt Ethel Martin. I got a real kick out of growing it that first year because I was probably the only person on the planet growing a lima bean with at least 50 miles of isolation distance! But that bean has done wonderfully for me, anywhere I go. My wife, Jerreth hates limas, so I rarely get to eat it. But it is special to me, not only because of it's qualities, but also because of who gave it to me, and the fact that Harold probably can't garden anymore. I have a whole 'nother story about the Calico Willow Leaf Pole lima, which I have, and first got from Jack E. Rice of Laurinburg NC. I waited for over 12 years, after I last offered it, never seeing it reoffered, before I broke into a lamp base my dad had made, with beans from my pre-Mexico collection, and rescued 6 seeds. I only got two to sprout in the desert, where I was then living, and a kid yanked them and ran off with them, when the seed as still green! But I tracked him until I found where he dropped about 2' of vine, with a couple of pods on it. From that, I got the variety back! That's an heirloom for me. As I do what I can, I have to keep sanity by focusing on "my" heirlooms.

3) All is lost if I don't "make more seed savers." If I only kept and maintained ONE variety, but discipled two or three others to do the same, and to teach others, I would have accomplished more for this cause than saving 100 varieties on my own; for they will probably be lost when I'm gone, unless I leave a number of others behind who will preserve them. Early on, I found that most peoples' eyes will roll up and under their eyelids if I start cold, extolling to them the value of seed saving. But it seems patently true that one can give gardeners a taste of seed saving, discretely, without being pushy, and sometimes get them started. Also, we live in a time in which gardening is on the decline among Americans and Mexicans alike. So, I try to helps someone new get into gardening every year that I can. During the last years we lived in Mexico I actually taught a class, in the Bible Institute, where I worked, on gardening and saving seed. Since returning to the US I have simply kept alert to people who would like to get into gardening, and made it a priority to help them. Last year, arriving in Tahlequah in August, I was still able to give about four people samples of a couple of my favorites, just as teasers. I believe this is of highest importance.

One last point about "making seed savers," I would rather see lots of seed savers who are dedicated to long term growing, use and promotion of a couple varieties, than a few who have huge collections. Big collectors have their place. But the reason we have most of our heirlooms is because of individuals and their families, maintaining a couple varieties, which they loved and used, for generations.

More ramblings from Tahlequah!

    Bookmark   September 21, 2006 at 10:32AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

I pretty much agree with everything you say, George.I think there are growers and there are collectors. The problems begin when a grower becomes a collector.

Its a typical scenario. Somebody discovers heirlooms and jumps on the bandwagon. Every time they hear about a "new" variety they just have to have it. Pretty soon their collection far outstrips their ability to grow what they have.

Too many seeds, not enough land! I doubt if theres anyone on this forum who hasnt felt that way.

I was the same. Got to the point where, as youve heard me say over at HGG, that I would need to buy Rhode Island in order to have enough room for everything I wanted to grow. I knew I had to focus.

I decided that collecting and growing only Kentucky heirlooms made sense. But even that can be overwhelming. In the first two years as a "Kentucky specialist" I had amassed more than 30 varieties of common beans, several cowpeas, five or six tomatoes, etc. And I was part of an informal network of other gardeners who also focused on Kentucky varieties. Eventually we formalized that network into what became the Appalachian Heirloom Seed Conservancy.

AHSC does things a little differently than most seed saving organizations, because we believe that the best way to preserve a variety is to assure that somebody, somewhere, is growing it. With that in mind, we are the only seed saving group that automatically provides free seed with membership. And we started our Living Seed Bank project, in which members become curators of varieties to assure that they are being grown, and the seed distributed as widely as possible.

>There was no way I could preserve all those varieties, and, when I sent seeds to the SSE I usually didn't hear back from them. If the seeds resurfaced it was going to be many years later. I offered seeds through the SSE, and have seen only a few actually maintained and reoffered. (But I still love the SSE and believe they're doing a great work.) I dont discuss SSE publicly because of my personal concerns with the organization and the policies it adopts.

>On top of this, I began turning up varieties which couldn't be reproduced outside of their respective latitudes and climates.This is, I believe, a very real problem that has hardly been addressed. People into ornamentals are more aware of it, I think, than are vegetable growers.

While I cannot document it, I am convinced that there are varieties and subspecies that are so completely adapted to their environment that they will not grow anywhere else unless those conditions are reproduced. Yet a Dna scan would identify them as the same species.

>1) I can't save them all, no matter what I do. So I need to come to grips with that and move on. A hard lesson to learn. Im not sure I have fully come to grips with this myself.

>2) I need to put a priority on MY heirlooms. This is, I believe, the key to rational collecting. Most of us, despite what we collect, have distinct preferences for particular varieties. Maybe its because of the personal history collecting it. Or perhaps something as simple as taste. But more of us need to focus on growing that handful we really like, and cure ourselves of variety greed.

For those with plenty of land and plenty of time, this is less of a problem. The difficulty is with the typical home gardener, who hasnt enough of either.

Another aspect of variety greed is loss of purity. Most people do not want to be confined to growing only one type of something at a time. But, by the same token, they wont make the effort to isolate. Net result: Widespread cross pollination and dilution of purity. Pretty soon we have the problem found with peppers; as much as 80% of home-grown seed (even from SSE members, who supposedly know better) has been crossed. The solution is the same: Grow fewer varieties, but grow those well.

>3) All is lost if I don't "make more seed savers." If I only kept and maintained ONE variety, but discipled two or three others to do the same, and to teach others, I would have accomplished more for this cause than saving 100 varieties on my own;This should be condensed into the form of a bumper sticker and attached to every heirlooms enthusiasts vehicle. What you have identified is the one true way to preserve a variety. It doesnt matter how many pounds of seed are stored in freezers. If nobody is growing the variety it may as well not exist.

My approach has not been to preach seed saving. Instead, I preach heirlooms, on a very personal level. Here, try this bean. They fall in love with the bean (or tomato, or whatever), and I give them seed. Then I teach them how to save seed for themselves, because they cant buy that variety in the garden center. I might do that with ten or a dozen people in a year. If only one of them catches the bug, then I consider it successful.

Lately, of course, with heirlooms becoming mainstream, Ive been much more successful converting gardeners. And, as is true with converts to anything, they spread the word. If each of them converts just one other gardener then the whole bio-diverse world benefits.

Meanwhile, it would behoove those with huge collections to bequeath them to seed saving organizations. SSEs bean and tomato collections are, to a large degree, the result of such bequests.

Collectors should consider the nature of the organization. If you have an eclectic collection, SSE is probably the best home for it. If you have a collection of seed from the mountain south it should logically go to AHSC or the Southern Seed Legacy. If you are heavily into southwestern edibles, then Native Seed/SEARCH might be your beneficiary.

Nor do you necessarily have to wait until you die. Theres no reason you cant bequeath all or part of your collection to such groups right now. Indeed, that might be a way of actually preserving varieties before its too late.

>Also, we live in a time in which gardening is on the decline among Americans and Mexicans alike. I keep hearing that, George. But I wonder if its really true? I actually see more gardens, lately, then ever before. But that could easily be a localized thing.

>But the reason we have most of our heirlooms is because of individuals and their families, maintaining a couple varieties, which they loved and used, for generations. Which is exactly what makes them heirlooms. And I agree with you entirely. Our goal should be to replicate that with modern gardeners. To get them to establish one, or two, or a handful of varieties as their own family heirlooms, and concentrate on maintaining those instead of building huge collections of seed that never gets grown out.

I remember when I first began trending towards becoming a bean guy. I had, maybe, six varieties Id collected and met a lady with 80-odd. At the time I thought that was a huge number. Anyway, I asked her how many she grew in any particular year, and she said "two, or at most three." Think about that. If she stopped collecting right then, and grew new varieties every year, her grow-out rate would be once every 40 years. Makes SSEs ten-year target seem fast.

But all it really means is that shes collecting bean seed, not preserving heirloom varieties. And its precisely why we feel our Living Seed Bank project is so important.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2006 at 12:18PM
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jimster(z7a MA)

"More ramblings from Tahlequah!"

Good one, George. Way to go! And you too, Gardenlad.

Making a sharper distinction between growers and collectors may be the most interesting thought I picked up from this conversation. I'm still pondering how today's gardening differs from that of our ancestors and how that difference affects the practice of maintaining heirlooms. Gardening today is mostly an avocation, not a practical necessity as it used to be for many. So, unless each generation passes the interest along, there will be a break in the family seed lineage. On the other hand, seed sharing now is facilited by the type of communication we have today. That is a difference on the positive side.

I guess this topic is important to me because the ramble also made it clear that I need to be a grower, not a collector. So, now I will be more clear about my role in the scheme of things.

This is the sort of conversation which is invaluable to those like me, who are attracted to seed saving and growing heirlooms but lack the years of experience some of you have. You've thought through some of the questions I'm starting to face. Reading your ramblings will help me avoid some detours and dead-ends in my progress.

Keep on rambling.


    Bookmark   September 21, 2006 at 3:33PM
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Thanks Jim. I still feel new at it. "...a fools voice is known by his many words." Ecclesiastes 5:3 When I write so much I sense that I'm just going to stick my foot in it soon!

Gardenlad, different regions vary on gardening. In the hill country, in Mexico, I saw that even agrarian people had largely failed to pass on the knowledge for growing more than their main crops: beans, corn, and coffee; and they didn't maintain anything. But many of these folk were hurting nutritionally while living in a perfect climate for producing their own veggies. They even had the land to do it! But they didn't know how.

In NJ I was astounded to see supermarkets selling "six packs" of bush bean seedlings...for a dollar! They did this with corn too! And people bought them! We had people from home school groups wanting to visit our home because they thought it was like going back in time, maybe to the Ingal's place in Walnut Grove. I know people out that way who have an acre of lawn with nothing growing which they themselves have planted, and they wouldn't know where to begin if they wanted to. It was a real thrill to introduce some folk to the wonder of growing their own veggies and herbs.

Here in Tahlequah I see more gardens. But I haven't met many local gardeners. At this point it seems like most of those gardens are either put in by senior citizens, or by farmers of the "specialized tradition." That is they have the idea that food should be produced by specialists. Their gardens are "fast and dirty" production operations, so that they can eat some fresh tomatoes and sweet corn, etc., and perhaps can some tomatoes. I don't sense that they really enjoy it. And again, they just plant what they can get at the supermarket (Walmart). I don't know this area that well. Hopefully there are a lot more out there. I know there's one farm market here, called Burgess'. The owner of that place really knows and loves her gardening, especially tomatoes.

Still, I am not seeing many young gardeners here. The "young ones" are in their 40s.

>>Also, we live in a time in which gardening is on the decline among Americans and Mexicans alike. >I keep hearing that, George. But I wonder if its really >true? I actually see more gardens, lately, then ever >before. But that could easily be a localized thing.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2006 at 4:57PM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

Wow, has this thread taken a right turn! There are now two great topics under discussion. My 2 cents+ on the second...

As a disclaimer, most of you already know that I am a member of the Seed Savers Exchange. This does not place me in complete agreement with their policies, or their politics; but they remain the single strongest advocate of preservation. Much more still needs to be done; but we must not overlook the great contributions that SSE has made. They are still the tip of the spear.

This does not mean that they are the only answer to the loss of our vegetable heritage. There are many others, some of which (such as the AHSC) I only became aware of through GW. And of course, GW itself. ;-)

I am one of the "Seed Saver types" George referred to, fairly new to seed saving (but certainly not to gardening). The land I have available allows me to grow & preserve quite a few varieties, and I am still in my collection-and-trial stage. But I will eventually reach that plateau mentioned here, where I must decide which varieties to continue growing, and which to abandon. It is difficult, but as George has said, no one person can save them all. Ultimately, I must focus on those that have practical applications, and try to educate others about their taste & advantages.

Since Wisconsin doesn't have the rich vegetable heritage of the Southwest, Pennsylvania, or the Appalachians, the varieties I choose to preserve will be those that have desirable traits, and prove best adapted to my conditions. Each year, I find a few more "keepers". The history of a variety is not always available - many of my seed swaps come in a plain brown envelope - but I maintain it with the variety when I can find it.

There seems to be some concern out there for "types" of seed savers. I don't believe there should be. No matter the degree of our involvement, we are all foot soldiers in the same cause. Organizations, collectors, gardeners - all play their role in the total effort. And _all_ will be needed, especially as the baton gets passed to the next generation.

The points about varietal purity, however, are well taken. Whether a variety is lost through extinction, or through unintentional crossing, it is still lost. This is where I feel the mantle of responsibility falls most heavily on the seed saving organizations. Greater efforts should be taken to educate prospective seed savers on the importance of proper isolation. On this point, I think SSE in particular should focus far greater effort. Just selling books is not enough. They could easily add a few articles in their publications, or on their website, and provide constructive criticism where needed to growers sending out impure seed.

There are some large collectors out there who overlook proper isolation, in an effort to offer as many varieties as possible. This is a problem, all the more vexing since I believe that they know better, and have chosen to take shortcuts. When I grow seed that turns out to be impure, I send a polite postcard to the source, informing them of the problem. My assumption is that they were unaware of the contamination, and I stress the importance of corrective action to preserve the variety. The responses have been very positive thus far. But sometimes these large collectors are the only source for a variety, and all you can do is grin & bear it, and try to salvage the variety through selection. The problem with that, of course, is that you may end up with a variety with different genetic material, but the same name as an established variety... so it is my last resort.

>The problems begin when a grower becomes a collector.Undoubtedly true in many cases. I have found a good formula that lets me have the best of both worlds. Rather than focusing on varieties, I focus on _types_, and on application. For example, I will plant paste tomatoes, but the varieties will change from year to year. Same goes for one lima, one runner bean, one cucumber, etc. My trials are still ongoing; but eventually I will settle on a rotation of those varieties that perform best for me. Of course, I lean most heavily toward the rarest varieties; given a choice between a commercial variety & an heirloom that is closely equivalent, I will preserve the heirloom. This has not proven very difficult; I have replaced nearly all the vegetables in my garden with high-quality heirlooms - except my hybrid sweet corn (dernit!). With this method (and proper storage techniques, which is another issue), even those who are space-challenged could maintain fairly large collections.

I agree with Gardenlad; a variety is best maintained when grown on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this is not always practical. Some of the most popular heirlooms are that way for a reason; they excel in one way or another. Many equally wonderful varieties fall by the wayside because they have an Achilles heel. Perhaps they are only suited to a particular application, have smaller yields, store poorly, or are highly vulnerable to insects or disease. If a variety is not reliable, it wont be maintained for long by gardeners.

As to the decline of gardening in general... I think that it is real, and that there are many factors in play:

(1) The decline of private land ownership, and the reduction in size of the average holding. I believe this is chiefly due to the escalation of property taxes, which make land ownership more financially difficult than it once was. Also, the migration toward the cities, and away from the agrarian lifestyle.

(2) Our more mobile culture; children are far less likely to stay where they were born, or to follow in their parents footsteps... or to raise their parents vegetables.

(3) The increasing distance between the average person & their food supply. Its not just gardening either; hunting, trapping, fishing, animal husbandry, food preservation - all are becoming lost skills. My DD Grandmother made wonderful pickles; years of effort on my part have been unable to duplicate them. The accumulated survival knowledge of centuries is disappearing in the space of a few generations. This I believe is the single greatest threat, and the major reason that so many varieties (both vegetable & livestock) are disappearing. As a society, we have become less self-reliant, surrendering control of our food supply to grocers & large corporations.

My grown children still have dinner at my home each week. They have grown up eating a wide variety of vegetables, and would like to grow a few of their favorites; but they all live in apartments. I grow enough for the whole family, but that could change, quite literally, in a heartbeat. _My_ challenge is to maintain a seed bank for them to use in the future, and to teach them the importance of self-reliance. When/if they make that choice, I want them to have the seed available. Ultimately, if we to fail to instill self-reliance in the next generation, too many of our heirlooms will vanish.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2006 at 11:44PM
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All good points Zeedman. Hope I didn't communicate opposition to all "collectors." Glenn Drowns is one of my all time favorites :)

Growing a variety enough to keep it going is better than not growing it at all. I've grown white seeded Moom & Stars Watermelon, roughly on a five year rotation since '85. Black Greasy is one I haven't been able to grow every year. But I hope to start. By the way, I've got little pods now.


    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 6:58AM
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I'm a seed saver wanta be. My goal is to find a couple of beans, squash, tomatoes, etc which do well in my backyard and grow them year to year. I might try something new once a year. My goal is to limit the amount of seeds I have to buy but find heavy and good tasting producers. You guys who rotate seeds every 5 years are way beyond me.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 10:57AM
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gardenlad(6b KY)

Go easy on yourself, Belinda. Everyone has to start somewhere. And not everybody has the same goals and aspirations.

But the basic fact is, all fellow travelers are welcome on the voyage, and we're happy to have you along for the ride.

Your particular goal is just as important as that of SSE's or AHSC's. And, indeed, you are closer to the way varieties were originally saved than are those of us with large collections. The reason a variety became an heirloom is because 1. it was available to a family; 2. they liked the way it performed and tasted; 3. they passed it down to their children and grandchildren. It was very rare than anyone, back in the day, grew more than one or two varieites of a type.

The danger you face is something called "run-out." If not enough plants of a variety are grown to contribute seed you lose genetic vigor. What happens is that the complete genetic make-up of the population isn't saved.

Sometimes this isn't a problem, as with tomatoes, because they are highly in-bred to begin with. So if you save seed from just a couple of plants (and assuming there are no mutations or crossbreeds) you're ok. Beans should be saved from a minimum of 20 plants; again, not much of a problem.

Squash, though, are outbreeders. As such, you should be saving seed from a minimum of 30 plants. And that is often a problem for backyard gardeners.

One solution I've found is to form a network among your friends and relatives. Everybody grows the same variety. Seed is saved by each. Then the seed is mixed up and redistributed.

The fact is, if each of 5 people saves seed from 5 plants that is the exact same thing as one person saving it from 25 plants.

Those rotational plans that are beyond you now can make sense as you experiment with varieties. Certain species are very prone to crossing. So, when you are tight on space, the best way to isolate them is to just grow one variety at a time. Squashes fall into this group, as do cucumber, etc.

If you save enough seed this year to meet your needs for the next few years you can then experiemtent freely. Next year you grow a different variety. Maybe the third year yet another new one. The fourth year you could grow all three together, if you wanted to, and not save seed because you've already banked pure seed.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 12:25PM
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belindach, go to my member page and, from there, send me an e-mail. On another thread you asked me something and I never heard back from you. I'd be happy to correspond.


    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 1:25PM
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zeedman Zone 5 Wisconsin

>If not enough plants of a variety are grown to contribute seed you lose genetic vigor.Belindach, if you intend to grow only a few varieties, the solution to "runout" is fairly simple. Besides getting help from others, you can spread the required population out over time.

Conserve your original seed as much as possible, planting only as much as needed to ensure a good crop. Save seed from that planting; but continue to plant the original seed each year, until it is exhausted, saving seed each year.

Once the original seed is gone, mix all the saved seed together, and use that for future years. Provided that the seed is dried & stored properly (a topic deserving of its own thread) you should have enough for many years. When the germination rate begins to diminish, repeat the cycle.

But lest we forget that we started this thread talking about beans... ;-) saving bean seed from just one year is sufficient.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2006 at 4:41AM
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dancinglemons(7B VA)

Just searching and found this thread again. Very interesting and FULL of great information.


    Bookmark   June 17, 2012 at 2:34AM
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"Conserve your original seed as much as possible, planting only as much as needed to ensure a good crop. Save seed from that planting; but continue to plant the original seed each year, until it is exhausted, saving seed each year."
I have a small home garden so I have been doing this. I want to maintain seed stock with good genetic diversity. But I wonder how much diversity is in the original seed packet? When possible I have bought seed of my favorite varieties from other seed sources in order to add diversity.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2012 at 4:25PM
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