Wintersowing Tutorial: Upcycle Trash to Make Garden Greenhouses & Start Seeds in Cold Weather

Photo credit: nociveglia via Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: nociveglia via Foter.com / CC BY

What is Wintersowing?

Wintersowing is a method for seed starting developed by Trudi Davidoff. I first heard of the wintersowing method several years ago on Garden Web. The idea is a simple one; creating mini greenhouses out of recyclable materials to use for seed starting outdoors during the cold winter and spring months. I thought that it was a brilliant method that was inexpensive, environmentally beneficial, flexible, and allowed me to keep dirt, bugs, grow lights, and whatnot out of my home.

I also love wintersowing with the kids. We can plant a little bit at a time over the course of the season, which keeps planting fun and manageable. We talk about the stages of growth as we check on the progress of our seeds. We also discuss different aspects of plants and their needs as we create our little growing spaces (e.g., we need holes to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide; the greenhouses hold in moisture and allow the sun to shine through, we open the lids in the warmer weather so that we don’t overheat and cook our seedlings, etc.)

Why Use a Wintersowing Approach?

There are many reasons why I love wintersowing, but the basics breakdown to cost, convenience, and success.

Wintersowing is extremely economical. The containers used are generally free and readily available. Wintersowing eliminates the need for grow lights or any special equipment. A bag of potting soil is typically my only true expense. Some years I also purchase seeds, but not always (see seed discussion down below for many resources for free seeds).

I love the convenience of wintersowing. Because I am sowing seeds in the comfort of my home across a period of weeks or months, I can do a little at a time. I don’t feel overwhelmed by my garden or a need to start all of my seeds in the same small window of time 6-8 weeks before our final frost date. I also really like the low-maintainance of the method. Once I prepare a container for sowing, it just sits outside rain or shine, and there is no mess in my home. There is no need for upkeep until the seeds sprout, and from then on it is fairly minimal. It is important to make sure that sprouts don’t dry out, overheat, or “hit their heads” on the tops of the containers, but these needs can be managed with little trouble (see resources below for tips and guidance on wintersowing). Additionally, since the seeds come to life in the great outdoors, there is no need to coddle them through a hardening off period, they re ready to plant after the final frost date in your area.

The best part of wintersowing has to be the success of the method. Since wintersowing keeps seeds contained and protected, there is little seed loss due to weather conditions or animals, as there can be with direct sowing. Wintersowing also keeps temperature and moisture conditions controlled better than indoor setups in my experience. I find that I have incredibly high germination rates with wintersowing.

What Seeds Work for Wintersowing?

In my experience, just about any type of seed adapts well to wintersowing, with the exception of plants that are notoriously difficult to start from seed under any circumstance (rosemary comes to mind). Perennial plants are very well-suited to wintersowing, but I find annuals to work great as well. I have used wintersowing to grow a wide range of annual and perennial flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables with great success.

Basic Steps of Wintersowing

To wintersow, you will need your potting soil or preferred growing medium, seeds, and your containers. You will also need a knife or other object for poking holes in your containers, a marker to label your containers, and possibly some heavy-duty tape and rubber bands. I sometimes also purchase paper cups to use within some of my little greenhouses.

Wintersowing is generally done using plastic, food-grade containers that have not previously held any toxic or hazardous materials (I stick with old food containers that I would otherwise recycle). You want to look for containers that can hold at least a 2″-3” depth of soil with some head space for your plants. If the container itself is not clear or translucent plastic, you at least want the lid to be a clear plastic to allow the sun’s rays to shine in. Sometimes a lid can be adapted by cutting away a portion of the lid and replacing it with plastic wrap or similar as discussed in the video.

Wintersowing will shift how you look at your garbage and recyclables. Once you figure out your preferred types of containers, friends, neighbors, and others are often more than happy to route their garbage to you. Some of my favorite containers are quart size yogurt tubs, large plastic clamshells from bulk lettuces, and traditional seed starting trays coupled with single-serve yogurt cups and reused large plastic bags. Other people are milk jug enthusiasts,

The video will give you an idea of how to use and modify your containers to create your mini greenhouses.

Wintersowing Resources

Wintersowing is supported by an enthusiastic community. There are many great places to learn more about wintersowing, ask questions, and to see the setup and successes of other wintersowing gardeners. Some of my favorites:

Trudi Davidoff has her own website about Wintersowing. The site is currently under construction but still has some information and pictures.

Gardenweb’s Wintersowing Forum is a great place to post questions and reap the advice of winter sowers of all ranges of experience and from all across the country. It is also a treasure trove of pictures about wintersowing from seed starting to planting, and for the “after” shots of beautiful gardens built from wintersown plants.

The Wintersown Facebook Page is another useful public forum for discussing wintersowing and sharing progress photos. The page has over 9,000 members. The Facebook page is administrated in part by Trudi Davidoff as she continues to share her passion for the method that she developed.

But What about the Seeds?

Of course in order to wintersow, you will need seeds. One of the most exciting aspects of starting seeds on your own versus purchasing seedlings is the exponentially greater range of plant options available to you. I love thumbing through seed catalogs looking at the beautiful and exotic plant varieties. I gravitate toward unusual colors, shapes, and sizes that I would never see at a grocery store, and are a rare find even at the farmer’s market.

Whenever I purchase seeds, I prefer to support companies who are committed to biodiversity and who are against GMO seed. If this is important to you as well, I recommend purchasing from companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, indicating that they will “not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.” A list of companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge can be found here.

I also prefer to grow heirloom and open pollinated plants to allow me to save my own seed over the years; giving me a large stash of seed to work from. See a video tutorial of how I save tomato seeds here. Saving seeds from other plants such as flowers, peppers, peas, and beans is even easier.

I also find that because wintersowing has such high germination rates for me, I waste less seed and can successfully grow older seed. As a result, seed packets go a very long way and I often have extra seed from my own seed saving efforts to share. Seed swaps are another growing trend. I have participated in seed swaps through online communities as well at through my local botanic garden. Seed swaps tend to occur in January or February to allow gardeners to start their seeds in time for spring planting. This list of seed swaps around the country can help you prepare for next year’s events. Local seed libraries are another resource for seeds. See a partial list by state here, or search online for seed libraries in your state to find options local to you.

Wintersowing Final Thoughts

I hope that you find the wintersowing method to be as exciting and useful as I have over the years. After trying and succeeding with this gardening method, I really can’t imagine starting my plants any other way. I’m curious to know if you’ve tried wintersowing before. Do you have any experiences to share? I’m happy to field questions in the comments too so feel free to ask. There’s still time to start seeds for this year’s garden.

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Tutorial: Needle Felted Wool Sachet or Ornament

Crunchy Parent Tutorial Needle Felted Sachets and Ornaments

I told you all that I was felt like I had come up a bit short in the crunchy department when it came to the kids school valentines this year. I thought that it might be nice to do a more natural Valentine’s Day-related craft with the kids on the actual holiday since we had the luxury of having Valentine’s Day fall on the weekend. Alina is especially drawn to doing handcrafts and Asher has become more excited by them over the past year. Eva was spending Valentine’s Day at a friend’s house so I pulled together a basket of wool batting and the younger kids and I needle felted some fragrant sachets together.

Alina, age 9, has been needle felting for a number of years, but this was Asher’s first time wielding a felting needle at not quite six years old. Felting needles are sharp and hurt if you end up getting poked. I supervised him closely on this project, and tried to teach him some of the basic needle felting safety rules. It is clear to see in the video that Asher was very proud of his developing skill and is excited about future felting projects. He did need help to complete this task, but he was able to participate in a lot of the work.

Alina was more independent in her craft, but she asked me to do most of the embellishing for her. As bad luck would have it, our whole family came down with the norovirus within hours of shooting this video, with Alina leading the pack. I think that she was starting to get worn out, which is why she handed the embellishment job over to me. Under different circumstances, I might have set the sachet aside for her to finish on another day, but she really wanted it to be part of the finished pictures for the tutorial.

It is often suggested in Waldorf circles that it is best for young children (especially prior to age seven) to avoid work on needle felting human or animal figures. There can be something disturbing about repeatedly jabbing a needle into something that looks like a person or animal. This project is a great one for new felters, young and old, because it works mostly in two dimensions and in a confined area. The cookie cutter creates structure for the project, and the whole thing comes together quickly.

For the project you will need:
wool roving or batting (colored or natural)
felting needle
felting pad
cookie cutter(s) in desired shape(s)
optional embellishments such as wool yarn, prefelt scraps, curly wool locks, etc.

The supplies can be gathered from many retail sources online and through craft sites such as etsy.com or ebay.com. You may also be lucky enough to have fiber shops or a Waldorf school local to you who may carry supplies. I purchased my felting needles and some of my colored batting through Peace Fleece. I also love shopping at Esther’s Place Fiber Arts Studio, which was my local fiber shop prior to our move. For those who are not local to them, they do sell products online and through Etsy as well.

I have even noticed that chain-store craft stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabric carry a limited selection of needle felting tools, kits, and supplies, wool batting, and roving as well if you wish to go that route. If you are a fan of one-stop, click and receive shopping, Amazon has a large selection of wool fiber for felting in endless colors as well as felting needles and multi-needle felting tools and accessories.

As I also mention in the video, I have purchased upholstery foam from Joann Fabrics to use as a felting pad. It is cut and sold by desired length and if you plan ahead, you can bring one of the ubiquitous 40% off Joanne coupons with you to increase your savings.

The video will give you a good overview of how the project comes together, but I wanted to give a closer look at some of the steps.

I showed several types of cookie cutters in the video. Admittedly, a cutter that is open at the top without any bar or handle is easiest to use for this project, but I showed my process using a less open cutter here. In all cases, you want to begin by stacking several thin layers of wool in the cutter, alternating the direction in which you place the wool (horizontally and vertically). Try your best to keep the wool inside the cookie cutter. It’s okay if some of the wool climbs up the edges a bit; it will get felted down in the process. Because I was working with a more involved design shape here, and with a low-profile cutter with a bar, my wool extended outside the cookie cutter (oops). Not a big deal, it will get fixed later; felting is a very forgiving process.

Poke around the shape in the cookie cutter.

Poke around the shape in the cookie cutter.

1. Poke around the inside of the cookie cutter, forming the shape of the cutter. I rotated the flower cutter here to get better access to my work area. Once again, don’t worry too much about the wool that may have extend outside of the cutter. We’ll fix it in a moment.

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2. Lifting up the cookie cutter, you can see the flower shape roughed out on the foam mat. The loose wool that is extending beyond the felted petals can now be folded in and felted to the flower without the cookie cutter getting in the way. For open cutters like Asher and Alina used in the video, there won’t be much overhang, so they pretty much skipped this step. Once I moved the cookie cutter out of the way, I could also felt down that pouffy center section.

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3. The flower shape is clear now, but some of the curves lack definition.

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4. Carefully using the needle parallel to the foam mat, you can work to define the shape.

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5. Add your fragrant filler (dried flower petals, aromatic herbs, etc.). Repeat steps 1-4 to create a second shape using the same color wool or a contrasting color if you prefer.

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6. Make a sandwich using your two wool layers and your aromatics. Note that you can see some thinner spots on my top flower here. That’s not a problem, more wool can be added as needed throughout the process. Felt around the edges of the “sandwich” to join the front and back securely. Take care felting around the center of the piece to avoid hitting the aromatics in the center. Hard ones like the star anise that I used could cause your needle to break if jabbed too forcefully.

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Once your front and back pieces have been fairly well joined together, you may find it easier to stand your sachet on its side to firmly felt all around the perimeter. I demonstrate that here with Alina’s pink sachet. Of course, you would want to use two hands when doing this, but taking photos calls for some one-handed maneuvers.

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7. Add your embellishments. I used different-colored wool here to create the flower design. On Asher’s and Alina’s sachets, they both chose to make a second smaller object using a mini cookie cutter, and we also used wool and wool yarn to create designs. Wool yarn can be felted to the sachet with the needle just as you would do with the wool fiber.

Finished sachets

Finished sachets

The project can be easily modified to make holiday ornaments, seasonal window hangings, felted play food, pins, hair clips, and more. If the sachet loses its scent over time or just needs a punch of fragrance, you can add a couple of drops of essential oil to the back of the sachet. If you do this, you may wish to take care about where you place the sachet to avoid transfer of the essential oil to clothing or surfaces.

I hope that you enjoyed the tutorial and look forward to sharing more wool and natural crafting with you. What are some of your felting crafts to do with children? What natural crafting tutorials would you like to see?

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Kombucha 101: Grow your own SCOBY

Crunchy Parent Kombucha 101 Growing your own SCOBY at home from store bought kombucha

I remember the first time that I tasted kombucha, a fermented tea beverage. I was at a trade show for the specialty food industry with my mother and some brand representative thrust little cups of this exotic, fizzy, tea beverage into our hands as we walked down the aisles of vendor booths. We each took a sip, turned to one another with expressions that communicated our displeasure, and deposited our little cups into the next trash receptacle down the aisle. This was about fifteen years ago and I have no recollection what brand we were trying, why we found the taste so unpleasant, or how I came upon kombucha again with a more open mind years later, but it is now one of my very favorite beverages to make and to drink.

For those unfamiliar with kombucha, it is a beverage made by introducing a symbiotic culture of (good) bacteria and (good) yeast (known to its friends as a SCOBY) into a batch of sweetened tea. The SCOBY feeds off of the sugar in the tea and releases carbon dioxide throughout the fermentation process, creating a bubbly brew. The fermenting process allows the yeasts and bacteria to multiply into the tea, yielding a probiotic elixir that can do all of the wonderful things for the gut that we have come to understand and expect from probiotics. (See this article for a bit more about which probiotics have been found across kombucha samples). As we have also been learning more about the important connection between our gut and our overall immune system, kombucha may represent another way to introduce robust probiotic populations into our diet and into our gut, resulting in an overall healthier immune system.

I had become interested in kombucha once again when I began to learn and think more about cultured foods as the kids advanced through their Waldorf school. Part of the parent education piece in preschool included discussions about diet and the gut, and featured a lot of conversations about Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, as well as Weston Price, both of whom emphasized cultured foods and gut health. As I played around at home with sauerkraut and other cultured vegetables, at some point a bottle of kombucha made its way into my cart at the health food store. This was a bit odd for me as I am a water and hot tea drinker by nature. I really do not enjoy any other beverages and am not inclined to experiment with them often. That said, I loved the refreshing bite and bubbles in kombucha, and it quickly became another preferred way to hydrate and refresh.

As any regular kombucha drinker knows, a kombucha habit can become costly to support as bottles can run upwards of $4-$5 each at the store. Moreover, although the selection of available kombucha options is ever-expanding as kombucha’s popularity soars, one is still limited to the flavors available at their local markets. Fortunately kombucha is very inexpensive to make on your own, especially once you get your basic ingredients and set up ready to go (i.e., loose tea, organic sugar, good water, a brewing container, bottles, and of course your SCOBY). I knew how to source out the basic ingredients, but finding a SCOBY can be a challenge. I was lucky because one of the teachers at the school at the time brewed her own kombucha regularly and thus had SCOBYs to share (each batch will yield a new “baby SCOBY” in addition to the reusable “mother SCOBY”). I used the SCOBY that I was gifted and its resulting babies to brew and share for years. Unfortunately, with our move and extended time living in someone else’s home, I could not maintain my brewing or my SCOBYs. As soon as we got into our new house, brewing kombucha was high on my list of things to do right away, but despite asking around I could not get my hands on a new SCOBY. I considered several options (purchase one online, drive a distance to a store that sells them fresh, etc.) but in the end I opted to just grow my own.

There has been a fair amount of debate in kombucha brewing circles for a while about the feasibility of growing a SCOBY from store-bought kombucha. I participate in an active kombucha-brewing discussion group and this topic pops up a lot. Some of you may recall that a number of years ago, Whole Foods sent a panic out to their kombucha-drinking customers when they pulled all of the kombucha off of store shelves for months due to concern that the alcohol content in these beverages may have exceeded the 0.5% threshold that distinguishes “non-alcoholic beverage” from “Mommy can’t drink that in the car on the way to yoga class.” As a result of this debacle, many kombucha manufactures modified their brewing practices. It has been speculated that these changes in the brewing process have somehow altered the viability of the kombucha in such a way that it hinders the growth of a SCOBY. The general consensus is that if one is attempting to use store-bought kombucha to grow a SCOBY, they should look for a bottle that is clearly labeled “raw” and that has no added flavoring agents, like juice. To grow my SCOBY, I purchased a 16 oz. bottle of GT’s Original Organic Raw Kombucha. For good measure, I looked for one that had a lot of “gunk” in the bottom of the bottle (which I think is technically yeast, not gunk, but nevertheless having more seems to jump start the process).

Empty bottle. So excited to get started that I forgot to take a picture first.

Empty bottle. So excited to get started that I forgot to take a picture first.

There is not much that is required to grow a SCOBY, but it is important that you keep everything really clean. Because you are working with a fermentation process, you don’t want to have bad fungi or bacteria hanging out and proliferating along with the good. Accordingly, you want to make sure that you use a sterilized, clear, non-leaded glass vessel to grow your SCOBY or a sterile ceramic fermenting container. DO NOT use a plastic container or any glass with additives such as colors or metals as chemicals will leach into the tea and SCOBY during the fermentation process, which means that you’d be sipping toxins with your tea and we do not want that. I used a quart size glass canning jar that I sterilized in my dishwasher and immediately removed to put to use as my SCOBY incubator. You can also sterilize your glass jar in boiling water, in a low temperature oven, etc. I would recommend using a large-mouthed jar if possible to allow for the best air flow and surface area for SCOBY growth. The SCOBY will grow to the exact circumference of the container and you want a good size SCOBY for future batches. Also, if the top of the container is more narrow, it can be tougher to get your SCOBY out of the jar in one piece when you are ready to make your batch of kombucha.

Once you have your sterile glass jar all clean and dry, just open up your bottle of kombucha and dump it in. It’s that simple. You are going to want to let your kombucha breathe while it works to grow that SCOBY since it needs to keep taking in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. That said, you don’t want your jar open to all of what is floating or flying around in the air. I generally cover my jar with a scrap of clean muslin or cotton. In a pinch a scrap of an old (clean) cotton shirt will work, or in the case of having just moved into a new house and not knowing where anything is, you can use a piece of a clean paper towel. Secure your cover to the jar with a rubber band, string, or the band of the canning jar lid (without the lid piece). Next you just want to place your SCOBY jar in some out of the way place. Not too cool or too hot, and not in direct sunlight. You also want to be mindful of the need to breathe, so a counter top is good, but a closed cabinet is not. In my experience the kombucha does not like to be jostled about, especially in the early stages when a new SCOBY is growing. If you do it will disturb the SCOBY growth, which happens along the very surface of the tea. This may cause the growing SCOBY to drop down from the surface and a new one will have to start growing all over again (not a critical error, but annoying). So it really is best to find some out of the way counter space for your SCOBYs growth process, which can take from weeks to a month or so.

The following photos show my SCOBY’s progress:

Here she is after about three days. Not a whole lot going on.

Growing SCOBY from store-bought Kombucha. Slow progress on Day 3

Now we’re about a week in. You can see a thin film starting to form on the surface. That is the new SCOBY growing. From the top it looks a bit patchy, which sometimes makes people freak out (they think that it’s getting moldy). If it is fuzzy, blue, green, or black you may have a problem; but slimy, white, brown, or tan are typical SCOBY traits, and those patches will expand and grow together to make the complete SCOBY surface.

Kombucha progress-Day 7 of growing my own SCOBY from storebought GT's

It’s been about 19 days. SCOBY is starting to thicken up. You can see a couple of layers because there were two occasions when I jostled or moved the jar a bit because I was trying to get a better angle for taking pictures for demonstrative purposes to show you what it would look like. I also was worried that there might not be enough sugar in the tea to support healthy growth, so I added about a teaspoon of organic sugar to it and tried to push down the edge of the SCOBY gently with a clean straw to allow the sugar to dissolve into the tea. The new SCOBY just continued to form over the layers and they had not totally separated from the top so no biggie.

Growing my own kombucha SCOBY from storebought booch. Progress on day 19

Day 30 (today)!!! I can’t believe that it’s been a month already. I really should have unpacked more by now, which has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but goodness a month already!?!

Growing my own kombucha SCOBY from scratch. Progress day 30. Success!

The SCOBY is not quite 3/4” thick and is very pretty, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can see some of the CO2 bubbles trapped below the SCOBY and some yeast “gunk” hanging off the bottom of the SCOBY to the right. I will be brewing up my first batch of kombucha with my new SCOBY soon, as well as using the remaining tea in the jar as the starter tea for the batch. It is still a small SCOBY, so I will need to brew a relatively small batch, but it will get the job done.

If you want to join me in kombucha brewing, start growing your SCOBY now and get your hands on some organic sugar and non-flavored, loose leaf, black tea or you can blend black, green, and/or rooibos tea (unflavored is a must though). You’ll also want a larger non-leaded glass container for your larger brew. I use this type of jar without the lid. They are often sold in 1/2 gallon, 1 gallon, or 2 gallon sizes at stores like Target. Hold onto that kombucha bottle as well because it will come in handy when you are bottling your homemade brew. We’ll talk more about the “why”s of all of those specifics next time, but just trust me for now.

Have you ever brewed your own kombucha at home or grown your own SCOBY from scratch? If you have any tips or favorite flavor combinations to share, I’d love to hear them.

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Barganic Alert: 10 Great Crunchy Giveaways


Newsbie Pix / Foter / CC BY

I can’t seem to wrap by head around all of the great crunchy giveaways that I’m seeing everywhere. If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen me tweet about some of these giveaways, but the Twitter world moves so fast, it can be hard to tweet everything or to catch all of the tweets. I wanted to gather ten of the great crunchy giveaways that I’ve seen recently into one place for ease of entering. Good luck to everyone!

1. A Night For Green Beauty and Goodebox Giveaway: Win all five limited edition Goodboxes featuring skin care, body, and cosmetic items from the amazing ANFGB green beauty brands. Total Value: $1600+ Enter Until: Thursday August 6th

2. Wee Folk Art and A Child’s Dream Giveaway: Win a Wood Doll Making Collection – An exciting assortment of natural supplies for making wood finger puppets, peg dolls and fairies. Included in this giveaway: Holland 100% Wool Felt, DecoArt water-based acrylic paints and paintbrushes, Tacky Glue and plenty of wood doll bases. Total Value: unknown Enter Until: Monday August 3rd, 8am EST.

3. Cottonbabies Giveaway: Win a bumGenius Outing Wetbag and two solid-colored bumGenius cloth diapers of your choice. Total Value: approximately $63 Enter Until: Thursday August 6, midnight EST.

4. Mama Smith’s Fuzzibunz Giveaway: Win a FuzziBunz Sweet Beginnings Cloth Diaper. Winner can select a First Year (6-24lbs) diaper or a One Size Adjustable (10-40lbs). Total Value: approximately $25.00 Enter Until: Tuesday August 11th.

5. Sprinkles on Top and Simba and Mama Giveaway: Win a Simba & Mama Cloth Diaper of your choice. Total Value: $25.00 Enter Until: Tuesday August 11th.

6. Biokleen Prize Package: Win an assortment of Biokleen green cleaning products, gDiaper Sweet Bundle, and one Mama Box from Mama Boxes. (side note, squirting the awesome smelling Biokleen Bac-Out onto the dipes was always one of my favorite parts of washing our cloth diapers). Total Value: unknown Enter Until: August 31, 2015 at 12am EST.

7. My Lucite Dreams and Vickery Giveaway: Win three top-selling products from Vickery’s green beauty brands, Herbivore Botanicals, Lotus Love Beauty, and Farmaesthetics. Total Value: $120 Enter Until: Saturday August 8th

8. TLV Birdie and Graydon Giveaway Win a collection of four Graydon green and beautiful skincare items. Total Value: $120+ Enter Until: Saturday August 8th

9. The Little Foxes and Embody Beauty Giveaway: Win a selection of personally curated green, cruelty-free beauty products from Embody. Total Value: $150+ Enter Until: Wednesday August 5th

10. ConservaMom Tula Baby Carrier Giveaway: Win a Tula Ergonomic Baby Carrier in the Incognito print. Total Value: $149 Enter Until: TODAY Saturday August 1st, 11:59pm EST

**Some of the above may be affiliate links. I’m not really sure, so I’m going with better safe than sorry on this one**

**Barganic Alerts are an effort to spread awareness about affordable crunchy goods and services. They are not endorsements, nor am I compensated in any way. They tend to be time-limited, and often go quickly. To make sure you are always in the know, subscribe to CrunchyParent.com to receive emails of all Barganic Alerts as soon as they are posted**

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Seed Saving: What Seed Can Be Saved, How, and Why?

heirloom and OP tomatoes

Why Bother with Seed Saving?

I have really loved to grow food for as long as I can remember. Flowers and medicinal plants have claimed a place in my gardening heart in more recent years, but food is where it all began. As a young child, I remember that my dad always planted a summer vegetable garden in addition to the grape vines that wound their way up the fences amidst the raspberries and blackberries, and the strawberries that claimed their spot at the foot of the apple and pear trees. He would proudly display a handful of radishes or carrots and proclaim with pride, “Look what G-d and I made!” My Papa (his dad) was a gardener too, growing food his whole life. In his retirement he even coordinated a community garden and organized the donation of their bounty to local food pantries.

I am happy to carry on this tradition of growing food for my family and to share with others. My favorite food of all to grow is a tomato. In particular, I love to grow heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes. They tend to represent a seemingly endless array of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavor profiles. I think that they are beautiful and delicious. They also appeal to my drive to be sustainable and to perpetuate biodiversity in our food because open pollinated and heirloom seeds allow for the grower to harvest seed from the choicest fruit and save it to grow the same variety of plant year after year.

I know that in the weeks ahead gardeners from all around will be selecting and hardening off their plants or getting them in the ground. It is a bit late to be staring your own plants from seed this year, but if you want to plan ahead with the option of saving seed and starting your own plants next season, be mindful when choosing this year’s plants or seed. Moreover, if you are already growing heirloom or open pollinated plants, take advantage of the opportunity to save seed from your favorites to grow again in the future.

I demonstrate how to ferment and save your own tomato seeds in the video below. For more information on types of seeds and which are appropriate for saving (and which are not), keep reading.

Plant and Seed Types

For those unfamiliar with the distinctions among variety types, I’ll break it down:

Hybrids

A hybrid plant is a variety that has been created to have a number of desired characteristics. In the case of a tomato for instance that could be an early ripening, low acid, cherry size, orange, and sweet variety. This hybridized tomato is the evolution of cross-breeding plants with some of the desired characteristics and selecting out the resulting “baby” plants that come closer to the intended end product.

The variety mixing and tweaking goes on until the desired parent plants can be identified and stabilized so that when cross-bred will create the ultimate “blended” tomato. This tomato is their first generation “ideal” offspring and is labeled the F1 hybrid. However, hybrid tomatoes have seed that is unstable. That is to say that if you save and grow seed from this F1 fruit, the seeds will revert back in different and unpredictable ways to earlier generations, perhaps yielding an early ripening large red tomato with watery flavor; a late ripening, sweet, red cherry tomato; and a low acid, early ripening, medium-sized, yellow tomato. Moreover, second generation hybridized seeds also tend to produce less vigorous and more sickly plants.

Open Pollinated

An open pollinated (OP) plant means that the plant is pollinated by natural means such as insects, birds, or wind carrying pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers, rather than being a manipulated cross like a hybrid. As it happens, tomatoes are self-fertile and generally will be fertilized and set fruit without interference from other tomato plant varieties, but it could happen on occasion. If the blossom was to be fertilized from the pollen of a different open-pollinated tomato variety, the fruit would produce seed that would grow into a new and different variety altogether (in essence, an accidental hybrid).

This fact made me wonder how an OP keeps from becoming a hybrid. Generally speaking, these tomato varieties have become stabilized over time by selecting out generation after generation of plant that grows stable from the seed. The commonly held belief is that after 4-5 generations of growing seed from a fruit and saving seed only from those plants of each generation that replicate the initial plant, the variety is now stable and will yield the same tomato from generation to generation assuming that it is not accidentally fertilized by a different variety.

Because these plants are technically open-pollinated, they can yield seed that is a cross between the initial variety and another open pollinated tomato plant should an errant breeze or helpful bee carry over pollen from another plant before the flowers have pollinated by their own fertile selves. In an effort to ensure seed that is true to the variety, a grower would want to either isolate the plant a prescribed distance from other tomato varieties, or (more practical for the home grower) bag the flower blossoms to keep the fruit and seed true to the variety.

Heirloom

An heirloom plant is by definition an open-pollinated variety. The distinction however is that an heirloom variety is one that that has existed and handed down through families for years (I have seen definitions ranging from 50-100 years as the minimum requirement, but suffice it to say it would be an old variety). These tomatoes have become stabilized by years of selecting out the plants that represent the variety and handing these seeds down time and again, as with OP seeds. So in short, all heirlooms varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open pollinated varieties have earned the distinction of becoming heirlooms. If they stand the test of time and familial preference, they may become the heirlooms of the future.

Cliff Notes Version

In summary, a hybrid is a tomato that has been intentionally bred from crossing other varieties. It is unstable across generations so only first generation (F1) seeds should be used. Saved seeds from hybrids will not grow true. An open pollinated (OP) tomato is stable assuming that it does not accidentally become cross pollinated by another variety. This can be avoided by distancing plants or bagging blossoms. An heirloom is an OP variety that has been handed down from generation to generation for a period of 50-100 years or more and is still being grown today. Seed from OP or heirloom varieties can be saved and should grow true to variety except in the rare case of accidental cross pollinating.

Saving Tomato Seeds in Two Simple Steps

So, now that you know that you can save seed from heirloom and OP tomato plants, you just need to know how to do it. The good news is that it is very easy. All that is required is the liberation of the seed from its protective gel sac and then thoroughly drying the seed before storing so that it doesn’t mildew.

tomato seeds in their protective gel sacs

tomato seeds in their protective gel sacs

The second part is easy (just lay out flat and allow to dry). The first part is pretty simple too provided that you have a jar and a few days to allow the seeds to ferment in the tomato’s juice. See the video above for the quick tutorial.

What are some of your favorite tomato varieties? Why do you enjoy growing and eating them?

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Making Herbal Tinctures from Fresh Herbs (Video Tutorial)

Time to Tincture!

Sorry that I’ve been MIA. I was actually off on a fun adventure. I’ll tell you more about that in the days ahead. In the meantime, I’ve been spending lots of time as of late working with and learning about herbs and their medicinal properties. One thing that I’ve been doing is using herbs to make tinctures, which are essentially the beneficial compounds of the plant extracted into alcohol and then dosed with a dropper. You can see a video of the process here:

For those looking for the Cliff’s Notes version, you chop up your plant material into small, uniform pieces and put it in a glass jar with high proof alcohol in a quantity that is double in volume relative to the weight of your plant matter. You shake it up at least once a day, and after a period of time (7-10 days or 6-8 weeks depending on who you’re asking) you strain out the liquid from the plant material, squeezing out those last precious drops. Then you just bottle and label your new tincture. Voila!

Along the way in the video, I mention some helpful resources. The first is to help acquaint you with different herbs and gives some guidance as to the strength of alcohol needed to extract all of the plants’ goodness into your tincture. Some plant compounds can be extracted by lower proof alcohol whereas others need the heavy duty stuff. Mountain Rose Herbs gives the general guideline of using lower proof alcohol for high-moisture herbs and high proof for more resinous herbs and gums. I use high proof for everything during the extraction phase to hedge my bets. This also gives me the option of diluting with distilled water later if I want a less potent extract.

If you are looking for bottles for storing your herbs, you can order smaller amber or blue glass dropper bottles of various sizes from many retailers. I also purchase screw top larger bottles to use as the “stock” bottles to store my tincture and then refill the smaller dropper dosing bottles from them. I have ordered bottles from Frontier Co-op, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Amazon among other places.

As mentioned in the video, you can probably find high proof alcohol at your local liquor store (or at least, I did). If you want a larger array of options, wish to produce a grain-free or organic product, or anticipate needing very large quantities of alcohol, Alchemical Solutions is a great option. Shipping costs can be very high however.

If you are intrigued by the idea of making herbal tinctures, but don’t know where to begin in terms of which herbs to use for what, there are some accessible herbal guides and recipe books that may help you become more confident working with herbs. Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs book, Michael Moore’s books such as Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, or Jesse Wolf Hardin’s books such as A Treasury of Herbal Wisdom: Vital Knowledge & Essential Skills among many others are great for helping you get better acquainted with the use of herbs to support healing. So are you ready to get started?

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TBT: Wet Felted Wool Ball Tutorial with Needle Felting Option (video)

Wet and Needle Felted Wool Balls

I am keeping my fingers crossed that in time we will be able to recover some of the more frequently searched for and referenced posts from the CrunchyParent.com blog in its first version before we lost all of the content from the site (more about that here). It is amazing to me, and very gratifying, that even through I had stopped posting new content to the blog almost seven years ago and it had disappeared from the interwebs completely for five years, people still find their way to the site through old links from other blogs. It seems inhospitable to have nothing to greet them about their topic of interest other than an error message. Fortunately I was at times a contentious blogger, saving my posts as actual files rather than typing the content directly into my hosting site. We’ve saved the hard drive from the computer that I used at the time, so there is still the possibility of finding some or many of my old posts and revisiting them here.

In honor of Throwback Thursday, I’m going to attempt to capture the essence of a video tutorial post that I had made in 2008, back when I posted to the blog anonymously and used pseudonyms for the children and didn’t show my face in videos (I’ve since gotten over all of that). The first video in the two-part tutorial series shows a very accessible way to craft a wet-felted wool ball using nothing more than your hands, wool batting, dish soap, and water (which means that you probably have at least three of the required ingredients already!). These wool balls can be made in any size needed and are great for gentle indoor play for children of all ages (including babies provided that they have direct supervision to ensure that they don’t gum off any loose wool and choke on a hairball). The balls can also be used as cat toys and as wool dryer balls to cut down on drying time and eliminate the need for artificial fabric softeners.

Part Two of the series shows you that by adding a dry felting needle and some imagination to your supply list, the sky is the limit for the complexity and types of designs that you can create. The picture above shows some of the balls that I made years ago, and that my children and their friends have played with for hours and hours.

For those looking for supplies, I have always been happy with the felting needles and colored wool batting that I have purchased from Peace Fleece. I especially like their batting bundles because they give me great color variety and it would take me a long time to go through a full pound of a single-colored wool. For the natural colored wool batting used for the core of the ball, my go-to supplier has historically been West Earl Woolen Mill (their website is as bare bones as one can get, but call them for pricing and ordering information). As mentioned in the video, this type of undyed wool is incredibly useful in natural crafting for needle felting and wet felting, constructing Waldorf style dolls, stuffing soft toys, and more. Of course ebay, Etsy, and Amazon can all be great resources for wool batting, roving, and other felting supplies. I have even noticed that my local chain-store craft stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabric carry a limited selection of needle felting tools, kits, and supplies, wool batting, and roving as well if you prefer to shop locally or just can’t wait for craft supplies to arrive by mail. In addition, you may be lucky enough to have a local fiber, craft, or Waldorf School store nearby that might stock the necessary materials or supplies. As an additional tip, I personally find it easier to wet felt with somewhat coarser wool batting versus finer wool roving, but your experience may differ.

If you try out the process and have any questions, please post in the comments. I’d also love to learn about any wet felting tips or resources that you have to share as well as pictures of your finished projects. Please remember to subscribe to CrunchyParent.com and to the Crunchy Parent You Tube channel for more craft tutorials, cooking demos, “crunchy” subscription unboxings, and lots more.

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