Margaret Lauterbach: Winter-hardy kale a bonus for gardeners

Special to the Idaho StatesmanApril 18, 2014 

If your kale survived the winter this year, try saving the seed. That seed might survive future winters and it's a treat to have fresh greens from the garden during our colder months.

To save the seed, make sure you do not have another cole crop - such as kohlrabi, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, Piracicaba, or another kale - flowering in your garden at the same time as the kale. Those flowers could cross-pollinate the kale you want to save, and the plants would not be the same as their parents.

In order to get seed to set, you also need at least two plants of the same variety of kale that survived winter. Individual kale plants are self-sterile; they need to be pollinated by another. If you had a third plant of a different variety survive, use some inexpensive nylon net and cover the odd plant (or less desirable variety) to bar insects from cross-pollinating and contaminating the seed.

The folks at Great Boise Kale Seed Roundup, including Casey O’Leary of Earthly Delights farm, are collecting kale seed from plants that have proved hardy here to develop varieties that are reliably acclimated to this area.

If you're saving lettuce seeds, make sure there's no prickly lettuce weed blooming in the vicinity while the garden lettuce flowers are open because they also are subject to cross-pollinization.

'TRUE' POTATO SEED

If you've ever grown potatoes, you've probably noticed blossoms on the plants, followed by marble-sized balls. Those balls contain seed, known to seedsmen as "true potato seed" or TPS. Some of the blue potatoes are especially reliable for setting such seed.

I'm growing some this year out of curiosity. Advantages of TPS over certified seed potatoes are that the seed doesn't contain disease, whereas some certified seed potatoes may carry disease, and true seed is very lightweight, reducing shipping and product costs. Planting an acre of potatoes from seed potatoes will require about 2,000 lbs. of potatoes, but planting that acre with TPS will take less than an ounce of seed, the seed costing far less than the seed potatoes.

Certified seed potatoes are only available in spring, but true potato seeds may be planted at any time of year. Once mature seed balls are harvested, they remain viable for quite a long time.

Disadvantages are that you won't get potatoes of edible size in one growing season, the plants may still be vulnerable to airborne (splashing water-borne disease such as early or late blights), and the seeds may not perform true to their parentage. My friend in Ireland who always grows his potatoes from true seeds hasn't had blight in potatoes for 20 years because he "inoculated" his field with blight-afflicted potato plants.

Plants grown from true potato seed produce small tubers in one season. Those then may be planted the following season, when they will produce edible-sized potatoes. Or, do as my friend in Ireland does: Let the new crop come up from the tubers left in the soil over winter. He is not a farmer of commercial crops, but grows food for his expanding extended family, does not rotate his potato crops from one site to another, and has had no problems arising from that practice.

If you've grown potatoes, you've probably noticed volunteer potato plants vigorously growing from a marble-sized tuber overlooked in the previous year's harvest. The size of the tuber that starts a potato plant has no bearing on the eventual size of the spuds produced.

Plants growing from TPS are more fragile and susceptible to frost than those volunteers, however. TPS can be grown in containers or trays, then mini tubers selected for color or shape to be planted out for the main crop, or plant a diverse selection of tubers.

I bought TPS from Tom Wagner, the plant breeder who developed the Green Zebra tomato. Wagner moved his operation from California to Monroe, Wash., a few years ago, where he's using potatoes from all over the world for breeding lines. See his Tater-Mater.blogspot.com or tatermaterseeds.com.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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