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May 2014

Seedy storage: How to store your vegetable seeds

How-to-store-and-organise-vegetable-seeds. Little eco footprints

Unfortunately, it looks like I have killed my stash of vegetable seeds by not storing them properly. In an effort to take better care of my seeds, I have reminded myself of the main culprits for reducing seed viability: moisture, heat and changes in temperature. To store seeds properly we need to keep them dry, cool and avoid temperature fluctuations.

Seeds are perfect packages - tiny embryonic plants enclosed in protective coats. I like to think of them as baby plants packaged up by mum with everything needed for the journey to their new home. They disperse to new locations and wait for the signal that it is time to grow up and germinate.

The aim of seed storage is to avoid germination cues and to slow the metabolism of seeds as much as possible so they live for longer.

For most vegetables, seeds should survive for at least three to 10 years if dried and stored properly. Given my dismal germination rates lately, many of my seeds perished after only a year or two. I did everything wrong. I stored my seeds in a hot shed over summer and exposed them to extreme fluctuations in temperature (by moving my seed box in and out of the fridge as temperatures increased or refrigerator space became tight).

I have refreshed my knowledge of seed storage and am now storing my seeds properly. 

1. Seeds should be stored somewhere cool, dark and dry

A refrigerator is perfect. It is cool, at a constant temperature and modern frost-free refrigerators are dry. But realistically, who has space in their refrigerator for a box of seeds? I naively thought I did, but then had to move them out every time I ran out of space. I now store my seeds in a wardrobe. A pantry or cellar are also good options.

2. Place seed packets in a moisture-proof sealed container.

Seeds will last fine for a year or two in paper envelopes sitting in a cardboard box, but to maximise their longevity it's best to keep them in a moisture-proof sealed container. It is important to prevent moisture from getting in and rehydrating seeds. The simplest option is to place your seed packets in a zip lock bag. Other options include glass jars or plastic containers.

I really like my timber seed box. It is the perfect size and decorated by my daughter. Rather than ditch it for a plastic lunch box, I store my box in a sealed plastic bag.

3. Ensure your seeds are sufficiently dry. 

If you are storing seeds you have saved yourself, you will need to ensure they are sufficiently dry. Commercially purchased seeds have been carefully dried to less than 10 per cent moisture content. Seeds that are not dry enough may not only perish, but may also introduce moisture to the rest of your seeds. If in doubt, store saved seeds in a separate container with a moisture-absorbing substance (such as rice, powdered milk or silica gel crystals) until you are certain they are dry.

4. Organise seeds so that you can find what you need and avoid duplication. 

I once found four packets of rocket in my seed stash. I now organise my seeds into two groups - "in season" and "out of season" - and place seeds in alphabetical order (for example beans, beetroots, carrots and so on) within each group.

I hope that by following these tips, next summer I won't unintentionally kill thousands of tiny embryonic plants.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 18th May 2014.

My two favourite seed saving and storage resources: 

10 creative weekend family projects

One of my favourite ways to spend time as a family is to create something useful or learn a new skill.

Our family projects often go unfinished and sometimes fail. For me, the creative process and time together is whats important, regardless of the outcome. 

Here are a few creative weekend family projects ideas: 

Weekend-family-projects-build-a-cubby-house-little eco footprints.

1. Build a cubby house (Look at what you have available or visit your local tip shop/building salvage yard and simply start creating). 

Weekend-family-projects-build-a-bee-hotel-little eco footprints.

2. Build a bee hotel

Weekend-family-projects-make-a-bow-and-arrow-little eco footprints.

3. Make a bow and arrow.

Weekend-family-projects-build-a-wildlife-nest-box-little eco footprints.

4. Build a wildlife nest box.

Weekend-family-projects-learn-how-to-play-a-new-card-game-little eco footprints.

5. Learn how to play a new card game

Weekend-family-projects-learn-how-to-forage-little eco footprints.

6. Learn how to forage (here's a few leafy greens to get you started). 

Weekend-family-projects-build-a-worm-farm-little eco footprints.

7. Build a worm farm

Weekend-family-projects-make-a-campfire-and-cook-damer-twirls-little eco footprints.

8. Make a campfire and cook damper twirls

Weekend-family-projects-sow-seeds-little eco footprints.

9. Grab an egg carton or make newspaper pots and sow some seeds. 

Weekend-family-projects-build-a-five-minute-instant-raised-vegetable-garden-little eco footprints.

10. Build a 5 minute instant raised vegetable garden

What is your most memorable family project?

I especially love the projects that fail for some reason. They often involve problem solving and a good dose of giggles. Our tepee in the first picture repeatedly blew over in the wind. We loved it so much that we stubbornly put it up again and again, each-time trying to reinforce it. In the end we gave up. But I don't remember the failure. I remember the hours we spent working together. 

Wishing you a creative weekend with plenty of family time. 

Cafe scraps grow ideas (and compost)

David-Sivyer-fedback-organic-recovery-hessian-planters. Little eco footprints

Kitchen scraps and coffee grounds - I can't get enough of them. The coffee grounds are fed to my acid-loving blueberry bushes and the scraps go to the chooks and worms, who convert it into delicious eggs and fantastic compost. I've considered asking local cafes and restaurants if I can have their kitchen scraps, so I was interested when I discovered a Hunter Valley business doing exactly that. Feedback Organic Recovery collects waste from cafes and turns it into compost.

David Sivyer collects coffee grounds and food preparation waste from cafes in and around Maitland and takes it to his family farm where it is composted. The compost is used on the farm, in the kitchen gardens of participating cafes, and can also be purchased by the public.

The number of cafes involved in the project is growing. David lists Seraphine Cafe at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Reader's Cafe at East Maitland library, and the Commercial Hotel in Morpeth as his "champions". "They didn't hesitate and enthusiastically jumped on board straight away," David said.

David tells me his partner cafes typically save about half a cubic metre of food waste a month from going to landfill. "Depending on the type of waste, this can be almost half a tonne," he said.

The benefits don't stop there. David maintains a kitchen garden at each of the cafes and promotes their sustainable waste management efforts through a feedback loyalty card. Each time someone buys a coffee or meal at a participating cafe they get a stamp. Collect 10 stamps and you can collect a "budding hessian planter" from the Feedback market stall at the Newcastle City Farmers Markets. The hessian planters are made from used coffee sacks.

Picnic-blanket-made-from-recycled-hessian. Little-eco-footprints.

David, who only recently learnt how to sew, also makes cushions and picnic blankets from the reclaimed hessian.

Educating the community about food waste and gardening is another benefit. Ben Dennis, a student from Newcastle East Primary School, enthusiastically visits the Feedback market stall week after week. Ben developed an interest in gardening and yesterday he and David gave a market stall demonstration on how to grow herbs in "hessian herb hangers".

I love that this business is growing so much more than compost. It's also inspired me to finally find the courage to ask some of my local cafes if I can have their scraps.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 12th May 2014.

Bee friendly to native bees: how to build a solitary bee hotel

Native-solitary-bee-hotel-made-from-recycled-materials. Little eco footprints

I’ve fallen in love with Australian native bees. A brief encounter with a beautiful Blue Banded Bee has me wanting to encourage these helpful insects into my garden. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to welcome native bees into our backyards.

The benefits of Australian native bees

When most people think of bees, they think of the introduced European honeybee, but Australia actually has more than 1,600 species of native bees.

Australian bees play a vital role in pollinating our native flora and are also increasingly being valued as a pollinator for agricultural crops. Their small size allows them to easily negotiate small flowers and in many cases they are more effective pollinators than honeybees.

Native bees are harmless. Some can’t sting and those that can are typically too small to deliver an effective sting and are unlikely to sting unless picked up. Their non-aggressive nature and ability to thrive in urban areas makes them a safe option for people wanting to enjoy the pollination benefits of bees without the hassle of keeping honeybees.

Australian native bee habitat

Most Australian native bees are solitary. They live alone or in small groups and nest in burrows in the ground, hollow stems of dead plants, or tunnels bored into dead wood by other insects. There are also a handful of social species that live in colonies and build nests in tree cavities and hollow logs.

How to encourage native bees into your backyard

To attract native bees into your garden, plant a diversity of flowering plants, steer clear of pesticides, retain dead wood and provide a source of water. It’s a good idea to set aside a small untidy ‘wild’ area where you leave dead stems and branches. Provide flowers of various sizes and colours and ensure that something is in bloom all year round so that the bees have a continuous supply of nectar and pollen.

Handmade-native-solitary-bee-hotel. Little eco footprints

Solitary native bees can be encouraged by providing nesting habitats. Little Eco and I created a bee hotel (also known as trap nests and bee condos) out of old concrete blocks filled with nesting material. We included bamboo canes, making sure to leave a joint to close the back of the stem; a piece of hardwood with holes drilled in it, each 3 – 9 mm wide and at least 80 mm deep; and naturally holey bits of rotten timber. There’s a roof to protect the nests from rain and it’s placed against a tree to protect the rear. 

Baby-bees-are- growing-our-bee-hotel. Little eco footprints

Much to our amazement the hotel was occupied almost as soon as it was opened. Six holes in the hardwood are now home to bee larvae. The visible plugs of mud indicate that a female bee has deposited eggs before sealing off the chamber.

Enthused by our initial success we’re creating more nesting habitats. We’ll be hanging bundles of hollow stems to attract Reed Bees; creating mud blocks to attract Blue Banded Bees; and drilling holes in some of our old tree stumps and blocks of timber to attract Resin Bees and Leafcutter Bees.

You can increase native bee numbers in your backyard even further by introducing a colony of stingless bees. Native stingless bee hives can be purchased or you can build your own hive and get a colony from another native beekeeper that has split their hive.

If you are interested in keeping stingless bees, native bee expert Tim Heard delivers regular workshops (including one here in Newcastle in October).

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th May 2014.

Pumpkins aplenty: How to store pumpkins

How-to-store-pumpkins. Little eco footprints.

Autumn is peak pumpkin harvesting time. Whether you are picking your own home-grown pumpkins or grabbing a bargain at the farmers’ markets, knowing how to store pumpkins will allow you to enjoy fresh local pumpkins for months to come.

When selecting pumpkins to store, choose hard-skinned fruit that isn’t scratched or blemished and still has an intact stalk. Damaged skin and a missing stalk provide easy access for rot-producing organisms. A creamy coloured patch where the pumpkin has been resting on the ground is fine, but a sunburnt spot elsewhere is best avoided.

Pumpkins can be stored somewhere cool, dry and well-ventilated for months. They should be stored off the ground in a single layer, making sure that they are not touching each other. I’m storing mine on a timber bench and wire shelves in the shed. Storage life will vary, so it’s important to regularly check on your stored pumpkins, remove any rotting fruit and select those that should be eaten sooner rather than later.

If you are picking your own home-grown pumpkins to store, there’s a few extra considerations.

Pumpkin-patch. How-to-pick-pumpkins. Little eco footprints

I’ve had plenty of practice picking pumpkins this year. My pumpkin vines enthusiastically took over my garden and I’ve harvested more than 50 pumpkins so far. Each visitor leaves our home with a pumpkin or two and I’m still laden with plenty of pumpkins that I’ll store and enjoy for up to six months.

A-ripe-pumpkin-ready-for-picking. Little eco footprints

Ensuring pumpkins are fully mature before they are harvested is important. Pumpkins that are picked too early will lack colour and flavour and will not store well. When the pumpkin stalk starts to dry and wither, the pumpkin is mature. The skin of a ripe pumpkin is also hard and will resist entry of a fingernail, and make a crisp sound when your fingernail breaks the skin.

Ideally, leave the pumpkins on the vine until the foliage withers. I tend to harvest early-season pumpkins before the vine withers rather than risk them rotting, and I leave the late-season pumpkins on the vine for as long as possible. Placing a timber board under pumpkins can decrease the risk of rot.

There is conflicting advice regarding the tolerance of pumpkin fruit to frost. Some say that frosts help to sweeten the fruit and harden the skin. On the other hand, I’ve read that heavy frosts can crack and damage pumpkins, making them susceptible to rot. I play it safe and make sure I harvest all ripe pumpkins prior to frost.

When harvesting, cut the stalk using a sharp knife or secateurs and leave at least 10centimetres of stalk on the fruit. The pumpkin will quickly deteriorate if the handle drops off, so avoid lifting the pumpkin by its stalk. I learnt this the hard way, after accidentally breaking the stalk off a handful of pumpkins. Be careful not to damage the vine if there are more pumpkins still on it, and handle pumpkins gently as bruises, scratches or cracks can also encourage rot.

Curing-pumpkins-ready-for-storage. Little eco footprints

Harvested pumpkins don’t need to be washed. Dirt can simply be brushed off after a few days of drying. Before storing pumpkins, it is important to cure them by leaving them in the sun for a week or two. Curing allows them to develop a tough, rot-resistant skin and improves their shelf life dramatically.

I’m looking forward to enjoying pumpkin aplenty over the coming months. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 28th April 2014.