Growing Seed

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One unique project at the Greenbank Farm Training Center this year was growing seed for the retail market. Our farm manager landed a contract with High Mowing Organic Seeds to grow 35-50 pounds of Golden Frill Mustard.  We were to take this specialty green that is typically harvested somewhere between 21 to 45 days and see it through its entire lifecycle. From seed to tender green to bolting plant to full, mature seedpods.  We watched this annual give its best at the reproduction cycle.

We stared in spring. High Mowing Organic Seeds sent us a packet of seeds that we started in cell trays in our greenhouse. At three weeks, a time when Golden Frill Mustard is perfect as a baby salad green, we transplanted the seedlings outdoors. We put three hundred plants in each one hundred foot bed and planted five beds. This put us at roughly 1,500 plants. That is a lot of mustard!

It was an easy crop to forget about.  We weeded and irrigated the mustard of course, but the vegetables we were growing for our CSA stole our attention.  As summer progressed the plants began to bolt, one at a time like popcorn popping in a pan. Suddenly all of the small ruffled greens that were so cute had shot up over our heads, creating a forest of flowering mustard plants. Enormous tubers that looked like ugly kohlrabi showed above the surface. One could see how much energy the plant was putting into setting flowers.

This was bee heaven. A hum of buzzing echoed throughout the mustard square, and when the yellow flowers gave way to long skinny seedpods, the bird moved in.  They wanted what we wanted: ripe, mature seed. Flash tape decorated the t-posts that we put up to help support the voluminous plants, a scarecrow was erected, and a few rocks were thrown to try to keep away the birds as the seed became more and more ripe.

As we inched into fall, our mustard crop became more of a priority. Here was a crop that we had been growing all season long. We had a contract to fulfill, and a good portion of income riding on the success of this seed. Every other day, we checked the maturity of the plants. Were the seeds green or brown?  Were the pods beginning to burst open at the slightest touch?  We watched the weather, as the fall was becoming rainy and wet.   We consulted our friends at the Organic Seed Alliance.  With more bad weather on the horizon, we pulled the plants early with only ten percent of the seed pods filled with ripe seed.  No worries though, several sources told us our crop would continue to ripen indoors.  We cut the plants low to the ground, so that the plants would send the last of its energy up to the pods.  It was final attempt at completing its reproductive cycle.

We moved our 1,500 plants to an attic barn to let them dry for thee more weeks. Then, we had two long days of inside work. First, we stripped the pods from the plants.  Then we stomped on small batches of pods, sending the ripe seed from the pods onto a tarp.  The final step was to winnow the seed and clean it.

We sent a sample to High Mowing Seed where they preformed a germination test.  89% of our mustard seed germinated.  High Mowing was happy and so were we. We let the remainder of our clean seed dry for a few more weeks before the final cleaning. We ended up with 40 pounds of seed.  It was enough to make it worthwhile endeavor.

The 2011 seed catalogues have already started to arrive. Although I have yet to get the High Mowing Seed catalogue in the mail, I know the first page I will look at will have Golden Frill Mustard on the page.  I don’t know if our seed will be divided up into 1/32 of an ounce packets or sold in bulk by the pound to farmers, but I can’t help but wonder into what earth our mustard will be sown. Hats off to his spicy braising green, great in salad or as a garnish! It was a pleasure seeing your lifecycle.