Category Archives: The Garden

The Attack of the Squash Bugs

The Attack of the Squash BugsSquash bugs can devastate garden cucurbits in an amazingly short amount of time. While they typically leave the melons and cucumbers alone (unless they’re really hungry), the pumpkins and squash of all varieties collapse and die as massive amounts of squash bugs suck their juices. As they feed, the bugs also release bacteria that further weaken the plant. Squash bugs may even ruin squash fruits by poking them full of holes with their needle-like mouths.

One female squash bug can lay up to 40 eggs at a time. Multiply that by the number of female squash bugs in your garden—or not. Crushing the squash bug causes it to release a disagreeably pungent odor. Picking one up will stain your hands an orange-ish color.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, some gardeners report that the squash bugs continue to make themselves a nuisance during the winter months by moving into the house.


Where Did They Come From?

The squash bug’s native range extends from the Atlantic to the Rockies and from Canada to South America. For reasons that remain unclear, squash bugs are becoming increasingly prevalent across the entire United States. They can occur anywhere a garden can be found and are now considered a real threat to squash in most states.


Preventing Squash Bugs

Garden sanitation is an essential line of defense against squash bugs. Any dead or diseased plant matter left lying around the garden will attract them, so prune and compost anything that is not green and healthy. Keep the weeds cleaned up, as well. At the end of the season, destroy the old squash plants and let the chickens pick through the soil.

Row covers will physically block squash bugs from plants. However, they must be secured well to prevent access. They will be ineffective if placed on the plants later in the season, as the chances are pretty good that there will be bugs hiding in the soil or mulch.

Growing your squash vines vertically on a trellis helps to some degree, as it provides fewer hiding places for the squash bugs to lurk.

And, of course, remember that bugs are far less likely to infest healthy plants than weak ones. Maintain plant health in your garden through proper watering and soil nutrition.


Controlling Squash Bugs

The most effective method of control on an existing squash bug population is to hand-pick and destroy as many bugs and eggs as possible—every single day. Washing the soil around the plants first will drive the bugs up off the ground into the open where they are more easily discovered.

You can increase your chances of success by combining this technique with the use of diatomaceous earth (DE). A generous coating of DE will kill squash bugs. Sprinkle it liberally on all of the plants and also across the surface of the ground to deter new bugs from moving in. A solution of dishwashing liquid will also work, but has the potential to severely damage the plants if not completely rinsed off the foliage after the bugs have died.

Unfortunately, once an invasion begins, it is very difficult to control, so prevention is the best solution. As long as the cause of the recent national squash bug invasion remains unidentified and unaddressed, however, American gardeners will likely be doing battle every summer.


Helpful Resource

A useful tool for applying diatomaceous earth in the garden.

3 Reasons to Mulch Your Garden

3 Reasons to Mulch Your GardenIf you are new to gardening, you definitely need to give mulch some consideration. There are good reasons that many experienced gardeners use mulch. In short, mulch is good for both you and your plants. Here’s why.


Reason #1: Mulch Keeps Weeds in Check

Mulch covers up bare soil and keeps weed seeds from germinating. If any weed does manage to sprout, it stands a good chance of being smothered. And as for those few weeds hardy enough to poke their leaves up through the mulch, they will be spindly and rooted in moist, loose soil, and therefore easy to pull.

For this reason, mulch is a must around and in between all garden plants. However, it is important that by mulching you don’t introduce the very problems you are trying to solve. Choose a quality source—hay with weed seeds in it, for instance, is likely to give you a headache in the long run. Whatever type of mulch you choose, apply it thickly. A dense mulch such as wood chips can be spread on 6 inches deep; a light, airy mulch such as dry straw will need to be a foot deep to be effective.


Reason #2: Mulch Improves the Soil

Bare soil is typically not healthy. If it contains any clay in it, lying exposed to hot suns, drying winds, and pounding rains is a sure recipe for hardpan. In fact, the weeds that spring up on bare soil are nature’s tools for healing it and providing it with a protective cover.

Mulch works to improve the soil in both the short term and the long term. In the short term, it prevents the soil from hardening into a brick, thus providing an immediate improvement in soil structure and aeration. It also moderates the soil temperature, creating a more friendly habitat for garden plants and soil-building earthworms.

In the long term, mulch decomposes and adds vital nutrients and organic matter to the soil. It is staggering how much healthy soil can be built over one gardening season just by the use of mulch and compost. As your soil grows and improves, your plants will become healthier and more vibrant, better able to ward off the attacks of insect pests.


Reason #3: Mulch Keeps Soil Moisture Even

In wet weather, mulch is a useful tool to keep your plants from being drowned. As rain falls, the mulch intercepts the drops, preventing them from compacting the soil and forcing them to trickle down slowly to root level. In the process, the mulch itself will absorb some of the excess moisture. The organic matter added to the soil by decomposing mulch will also help out by allowing any surplus rainfall to drain away from the level of the roots, ensuring that the plant has adequate oxygen.

In dry weather, mulch is a must because of its water-conserving properties. Mulch protects the soil from rapid drying due to sun and wind. Without mulch, you may have to water your entire garden every day in the summer. With mulch, you can water less frequently, promoting deeper root growth that will in turn make your plants even more drought-hardy.


Are You Sold on Mulch?

Give it a try for one gardening season—you won’t go back!

For best results, we recommend cedar mulch around perennial plants, such as berries, asparagus, and some flowers. In parts of the garden where you will be rotating crops frequently, such as in the vegetable beds, use weed-free wheat straw.

And remember, apply your mulch six inches to a foot thick for best results.

How to Test Seed Germination Rates


How to Test Seed Germination Rates

Spring is only a month away, and with spring comes gardening season. Now is a good time to check the germination rates of those seeds you have stashed away in the basement—before you need to plant them!

You Will Need

  • Seeds.
  • Paper towel.
  • Large Ziploc bag.



  1. Lightly moisten a square of paper towel. (Take care that it doesn’t get soggy.)
  2. Line up 10 seeds from the same packet on the paper towel, close to the edge but not so close that they are likely to roll off.
  3. Fold the paper towel over the seeds.
  4. Carefully slide the paper towel into the Ziploc bag without dislodging the seeds.
  5. Seal the Ziploc and set it in a warm location where it won’t be disturbed.
  6. Check on the seeds daily to watch for germination and to moisten the paper towel if it starts to dry out.
  7. Once all the seeds have stopped germinating (maybe after a few days for fast-growing plants like beans or up to two weeks for slow-growing plants like carrots), count how many sprouted. You now have a germination rate.
  8. For a more accurate test, follow these instructions using 100 seeds. You will need more paper towel and a larger Ziploc bag to do this.


How to Use This Information

If your germination rate was 70% or more, you’re in luck! Your seeds are still fresh and vigorous. You should be able to plant one seed for every hole and avoid wasting seeds through needless thinning.

If your rate was more along the lines of 50% to 70%, your seeds are still quite usable. In fact, these lower rates may even be normal for some vegetables, such as carrots. However, you will want to compensate by planting two to three seeds in every hole.

If your rate was below 50%, you will have to decide if you want to bother with that particular seed packet or not. You may be able to get a little more use out of it by planting four or five seeds per hole. However, you may decide, particularly if they sprout in a tardy fashion, that it’s more worthwhile just to buy new seeds.

10 Gifts for Gardeners

10 Gifts for GardenersChristmas is just around the corner! If you are looking for a few ideas to bring a smile to the face of that gardener in the family this year, allow us to make a few recommendations.

  1. The Family Garden JournalThe Family Garden Journal. Our garden journal is a great way for a gardener to celebrate a year of growing plants. It features 366 pages with room for to-do lists, observations, harvest records, and other notes, and it even includes a shopping list, a map, a planting table, and other useful tools for planning a garden. Makes a great keepsake. Read more.
  2. Heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are sure to delight! Choose varieties with a compelling story and an attractive appearance. If the seeds come from your own heirloom garden, that makes them even more special.
  3. The Christian Kids’ Gardening Guide. Looking for a gift for a budding green thumb? This delightful little book offers both practical growing tips and fun activities to foster a love of gardening. Read our full review.
  4. All New Square Foot GardeningAll New Square Foot Gardening. If your fellow gardener does not already have a copy of this revolutionary book on gardening, do him a favor and get him one. Even those committed to traditional row gardening can pick up many useful tips for making the garden more productive and attractive. Read our full review.
  5. Oxo Good Grips trowel. Every gardener needs a trowel. If the trowel has a comfortable handle, a sharp stainless-steel blade, and handy measuring marks, so much the better. (Update: Sadly, our favorite trowel may no longer be available at Amazon; you may have to search around a bit for a similar product.)
  6. Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Another classic work on gardening that deserves a place on every gardener’s bookshelf. This one is an indispensable reference for those who garden naturally. Read our full review.
  7. Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test KitLuster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit. Does your gardening friend know how to test his soil for pH and NPK? If not, this kit will make it easy for him. Read our full review.
  8. Gardening gloves. Even a gardener who already has a pair probably won’t mind an extra pair.
  9. Seed packets. This is another good choice for an heirloom gardener. These seed packets seal to protect their contents, and they can be used with a home inkjet or laser printer.
  10. Sweet potato beetle. This hilarious craft is a great way to use that overgrown sweet potato! Warning: The laughter will be heard for miles around!

Onion Disease Guide

Onion Disease GuideIn some years, onion harvest time is troubleshooting time.

There are many things that can go wrong when growing onions, especially when growing them in irregular weather patterns. Identifying the various problems can be quite difficult, as they tend to manifest themselves in the same way—rot.

This onion disease guide offers a thorough and well-photographed look at the many problems that plague onions. However, it is also brief and concise, going straight to the most important points of each disease.

For each onion disease, you will learn:

  • Symptoms.
  • Conditions for disease development.
  • Control methods.


While the recommended treatments tend toward chemical control, there is still plenty of useful information here for organic and home growers, particularly when it comes to disease identification and prevention.

Pros and Cons of Cold Composting

Pros and Cons of Cold CompostingNow that you are familiar with the pros and cons of hot composting, are you eager to get started? Or are you overwhelmed just thinking about all that preparation and turning?

If you fall into the latter category, don’t give up on composting altogether just yet. First consider cold composting.


Introduction to Cold Composting

A cold compost pile can be started with whatever materials are on hand. The pile can be built gradually over time.

While a precise balance of “greens” (organic matter high in nitrogen) and “browns” (organic matter high in carbon) is not needed for success, incorporating both into the pile will help the decomposition process go faster. Likewise, large pieces of material, such as sticks, can be chopped for faster composting, but this is not necessary.

As with hot composting, air is a requirement to avoid the accumulation of smelly anaerobic bacteria. Air can be introduced by periodic turning, but again this is not essential. One way to allow air circulation in the pile is to pay attention to how ingredients are layered. For example, some coarse (but not too long) sticks in the center will help. Also, soggy materials that stick together like fresh grass clippings or wet leaves should be allowed to dry slightly before going into the pile. If for any reason air flow becomes a problem during the composting process, air holes can be driven into the pile with a stake or piece of rebar.

As decomposition progresses, the moisture content should be monitored. If persistent rains are a problem, the pile should be covered with a tarp to avoid drowning and subsequent anaerobic decay. In dry weather, a periodic sprinkling with a hose will be beneficial.

Cold composting goes very slowly. How slowly just depends on the size of the ingredients, the ratio of greens to browns, and the frequency with which the pile is turned. These variables also affect the temperature that the pile will reach. A maintenance-free cold pile may never even hit 90°F. Piles that contain green material and are turned periodically may get somewhat warmer.

The bottom of the compost pile decays first, usually leaving large pieces of materials intact on top.



  • Simplicity. Getting a compost pile to heat up is not easy. Conditions have to be just about perfect to make it happen. If gardening is not your full-time job, you may appreciate the ease with which a cold compost pile can be built and maintained.
  • Flexibility. One of the biggest advantages of cold composting is that it can adapt to your needs. Don’t have much to compost? Just toss on what you do have and wait for another opportunity. Don’t have time to turn the pile today? It’ll wait until tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Ready to cut the process short? Throw away the larger uncomposted pieces of material and dig out the finished compost underneath to use immediately.
  • Fewer material requirements. With hot composting, you have to have three, four, or five cubic feet of organic matter (properly balanced between greens and browns) ready to go at once. With cold composting, you can add materials as you accumulate them. One day, you can add the grass clippings. A few days later, you can throw a banana peel on top.
  • Compost year-round. Many gardeners become frustrated after trying to get a compost pile to heat up in cool weather. With cold composting, you can let the decomposition process continue all year. Even in January, freeze-thaw cycles and periodic introduction of moisture in the form of snow will help mechanically break down materials, long before the microbes awake from their winter slumber.
  • Minimal turning. Let’s face it. Not every gardener can find the time to turn a bulky compost pile every few days. With cold composting, you can simply turn the pile whenever you have a spare half-hour or so. Or you can let it go from start to finish without ever picking up a shovel. This also makes cold composting a great option for an older gardener who wants to garden naturally but finds hot composting back-breaking.
  • Nature’s way. Where in nature have you seen a hot compost pile steaming away, with obliging creatures turning it at just the right time? Probably nowhere. Nature makes compost slowly.
  • Beneficial organisms. Many microscopic forms of life can survive in the lower temperatures of a cold compost pile. This includes beneficial fungi and bacteria that thrive on moderate temperatures. These are exactly the microorganisms that your plants need to stay healthy and fight disease. Some gardeners speculate that the preponderance of fungi in cold compost is just right for raising trees.



  • The ugly factor. As much as natural gardeners love good soil, a half-rotted compost pile may not be something they want to see out their kitchen window every day. While a hot compost pile can do its work and be hauled away in a matter of a few weeks, a cold pile will likely be sitting in the same place decaying all summer long. Choose your location accordingly.
  • Space requirements. A cold compost pile will be taking up space for many months at a time. When choosing a place to build a pile, find a corner of the garden that is out of the way, but not too far from the beds to be convenient.
  • Slow going. Cold composting takes about six months to a year—sometimes longer. While you can speed up the process by adding ingredients faster or by turning the pile more frequently, if you need compost fast, you definitely need to consider hot composting.
  • Anaerobic decomposition. Cold piles can collapse over time and loose their ability to circulate air, especially if they contain things that tend to stick together like wet grass or leaves. A smelly bacterial mess that draws flies can be the result. With a hot pile, the frequent turning is sufficient to introduce air into the center of the pile. Cold compost piles should also be aerated from time to time; of course, this means they are not exactly maintenance-free.
  • Pest attraction. Bugs and mammals love cold compost piles. Chances are, you are going to see a lot of flies and rodents. Fencing can help keep larger pests, such as raccoons and stray dogs, away.
  • Chemical persistence. Heat is necessary to break down any chemical residue, such as pesticides and herbicides, remaining on compost ingredients. If you use chemicals on your lawn, do not add the grass clippings to a cold compost pile.
  • Weed survival. Weed seeds will make it through the low temperatures of cold composting intact, guaranteed. If you composted pulled weeds, you can expect them to put in a second appearance after you apply the compost. For best results, never compost invasive weeds or noninvasive weeds that have gone to seed.
  • Disease survival. Most diseases can also survive the cold composting process. If you will not be maintaining a hot pile, you should definitely avoid any diseased plant material. Either ship diseased plants out with your trash, or burn them.
  • Nutrient leaching. Depending on how long the composting process is drawn out and on the weather conditions at the time, nutrients can leach out of the pile with every rainfall. Using a composting container will help contain all the valuable nutrients your plants need. Covering the pile with a tarp in wet weather is another possibility. Also, you can periodically dig out the finished compost from the bottom of the pile to use immediately.
  • Uneven decomposition. Remember, the compost will decay from the bottom up. While you’re waiting and waiting for the organic matter on top of the pile to break down, there is good compost that you could be using accumulating underneath. Even when finished, there will likely be large particles remaining, resulting in a coarser final product than is achieved with hot composting.



The reason that busy gardeners often choose cold composting should be obvious by now—a cold pile can be as low-maintenance as desired.

While this is an important consideration, there is another factor that should be given some thought, and this is the quality of the finished product. Cold composting is definitely a more natural method than hot composting, and it definitely fosters more of the beneficial organisms necessary for plant health. Under optimal conditions (i.e., if not dragged out too long or flooded by repeated rainfalls), it may even contain more nutrients.

However, there are certain circumstances under which cold compost will be of doubtful quality. If any of the ingredients contain chemicals, disease organisms, or weed seeds, these contaminants will be perpetuated in the compost. Therefore, gardeners who have doubts about the ingredients should either discard them or use the hot composting method.

Finally, time is also a factor. For those who don’t mind waiting several months for finished compost, cold composting is a viable option. Gardeners who need to build and amend the soil quickly will benefit from the hot method.


Helpful Resource

The Complete Compost Gardening GuideThe Complete Compost Gardening Guide
This book may convince you to give slower methods a try, as well as point out some of the many variations cold composting can take. Read our full review.

Pros and Cons of Hot Composting

Pros and Cons of Hot CompostingMost gardening books focus primarily (sometimes exclusively) on hot composting methods. They describe elaborate procedures for turning out the perfect batch of compost, including balancing nitrogen content and monitoring temperatures.

There is another way to compost—cold composting. The most obvious difference between the two methods is the temperature of the pile.

Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, making each one suitable for different circumstances. This week, we will examine the key features and pros and cons of hot composting, giving you an idea of the best applications for this technique. Next week, we will tackle cold composting.

Let’s get started!


Introduction to Hot Composting

Key to the process of hot composting is achieving the right balance of ingredients. Every hot compost pile needs some materials high in nitrogen (called “green materials”) and some materials high in carbon (called “brown materials”). The green materials feed the microbes that will do the work, thereby fueling the whole process. The brown materials add bulk and air flow, preventing anaerobic decay from taking over and creating a foul smell. Experts vary in their opinions of the proper balance between browns and greens, but a ratio of two browns to one green or even one to one has consistently been proven effective for most home gardeners. For faster, hotter decomposition, all of the ingredients should be chopped small. Layering greens and browns is not essential.

Most gardeners also like to add an activator of some sort to the pile to ensure that the necessary organisms are present and ready for work. Many expensive preparations are available for purchase, but good-quality soil is quite sufficient for the purpose. Yarrow leaves are also beneficial, as they add minerals that can help the process go quickly and efficiently.

The compost pile should be a three-foot cube to allow the center to hold heat efficiently. A four-foot cube is even better, while a five-foot-cube is about the maximum size for effective composting.

Once the ingredients are properly balanced, special microorganisms take over the pile and begin the process of decay, emitting heat in the process. The heat builds up quickly in a well-made compost pile, ideally reaching temperatures between 120°F and 150°F.

From time to time, the microbes will use up all of the oxygen in the center of the pile, causing the temperature to drop. For this reason, the pile needs to be turned once a week or more, giving the tiny creatures access to fresh air and bringing organic matter from the outside of the pile into the center for processing.

At the same time, the moisture content of the pile should be considered. It should be moist, but not soggy. In dry weather, you will probably have to spray the pile down with a hose while turning it. In wet weather, you may want to place a tarp over the pile or make your compost in a fully contained bin to avoid drowning the microorganisms.

After about a month, the compost should look dark and crumbly (think chocolate cake crumbs), with no recognizable remnants of the former ingredients. At this point, the pile will no longer heat up when turned. The compost is technically finished, but it will benefit from one or two weeks of curing. This allows beneficial organisms a chance to repopulate the compost.



  • Speed. Hot compost does its thing in short order, making the finished product available within three to four weeks.
  • Reduced space needs. A hot compost pile can be built when you need it and removed in as little as a month. A cold compost pile can take up garden space for as long as a year, requiring a commitment in advance.
  • Full control. Some gardeners like the amount of control hot composting gives them over the finished compost. They can easily adjust the temperature or decomposition speed by just turning the pile. To them, monitoring the pile is not a chore; it is an art.
  • Sterilization. This is probably the #1 reason that gardeners choose hot composting methods. As the compost pile heats up, many pathogens and weed seeds get fried.
  • Toxin degradation. Are you using ingredients that were not grown organically? Hot composting can break down and neutralize the pesticides present on that orange peel and the residue of any medications you might have administered to your horse that are now lurking in the stable bedding.
  • No pests. Assuming the composting process is working correctly, that is. Most insects and rodents will leave a hot compost pile alone. A poorly made compost pile can still attract every type of pest from ants to raccoons.
  • Helpful heat. The heat put out by a good compost pile can be put to work. One of the most common uses for this composting byproduct is heating a greenhouse.



  • Difficulty. After unsuccessfully battling a compost pile that simply refuses to heat up or that smells and draws flies, many gardeners are tempted to give up on composting altogether. Hot composting is part art, part science. It takes practice. (Here’s a hint—make your compost in summer, when naturally hot temperatures will give you a head start.)
  • Need for ample resources. A hot compost pile cannot be built in stages. You must have all of the necessary ingredients on hand and in the right balance from day one.
  • Time and effort. A hot compost pile needs quite a bit of supervision. Besides weekly turning and watering, it will need to be monitored to ensure it is not too hot or too cold.
  • Lack of natural equivalents. Most gardeners who use compost are already focused on growing healthy plants naturally. One question that recurs periodically is why hot composting is so widely advocated if there are no equivalents in nature. It appears that most of the composting done in the wild uses the cold method. While we do not know the answers for certain, it may be that there are benefits of cold composting that are lost in the process of hot composting.
  • Microbe and worm death. Any small organisms that don’t like heat will die or escape the compost pile as it heats up, including worms, beneficial fungi, and some lower-temperature bacteria necessary to fight garden disease. Proper curing can remedy this, but it is important to recognize that hot compost still tends to be biased toward heat-friendly bacteria instead of the diverse, fungus-based biology commonly found in natural decomposition processes. Some composters feel that bacteria dominance makes the finished compost better suited to grassland plants than woodland plants. If the compost pile gets too hot (over 150°F) for more than a couple of hours, the problem is compounded significantly.
  • Nutrient loss. Valuable nutrients are definitely lost if the compost pile overheats. If you smell a strong odor or see clouds of vapor rising from your pile, you can probably assume that most of the valuable nutrients are escaping into the atmosphere. Some gardeners feel that a certain degree of nutrient loss occurs in hot composting even if the temperatures stay below 150°F.
  • Fire hazard. While not a common occurrence, spontaneous compost pile combustion can and does occasionally happen, for the same reason that wet hay bales sometimes burst into flames. Avoid this problem by monitoring the temperature and keeping it no higher than 150°F; making sure there are no pockets of dry material helps, as well. Also, if using wood ashes, make sure they are completely cool before adding them to the pile.



There are two main reasons that some gardeners prefer hot composting:

  • To destroy weed seeds and pathogens.
  • To have finished compost in a short amount of time.

In exchange for these two primary benefits, the gardener must devote considerable planning, attention, and effort to the project. For a very busy gardener, this is sufficient reason to turn to cold composting.

If, however, you have the time and resources to have a go at it, you may find hot composting to be rewarding and effective, especially for disposing of materials with potential chemical, disease, or weed seed residues. However, don’t let your pile get over 150°F, and allow it to cure for at least a week before using. This will help ensure that the finished compost retains as much of the nutrition and biological activity necessary for plant health as possible.


Helpful Resources

How to Build a Two-Bin Composter
Directions for building a compost bin that will make all that turning much easier.

The Christian Kids' Gardening GuideThe Christian Kids’ Gardening Guide
This fun book for children contains step-by-step instructions for making hot compost. Read our full review.

Seeds From the Tombs

King Tut's SeedsMany gardeners know that cool, dry, dark places are ideal for long-term seed storage. Many gardeners cite the seeds found in ancient Egyptian pyramids as evidence. According to the popular story, these seeds, after lying dormant for thousands of years, sprouted when planted.

While most scientists would agree on the perfect conditions for storing seeds, most deny that seeds found in Egyptian tombs have ever germinate.

Mummy Seeds

The story that seeds from pyramids were sometimes viable was born sometime in mid-1800s England, a time and place definitely in the grips of mummy mania. Archeologists, both amateur and professional, were unwrapping mummies at every opportunity without compunction. In this process, they frequently uncovered small surprises rolled up with the bodies, including seeds. Seeds were important in Ancient Egyptian funeral rites because they symbolized burial and resurrection.

The first known instance of someone claiming to have sprouted ancient Egyptian seeds was published in 1843 in The Gardeners’ Chronicle of London. The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported that some wheat seeds were found in the hand of a mummy unwrapped in London. A crop was raised from one, and the next generation of seeds was available at exorbitant prices. The Lurgan, Portadown and Banbridge Advertiser and Agricultural Gazette shed some additional light on the story in 1849, reporting that the seeds were brought to England by Sir William Symonds and were then being grown by Francis Fforde of Ireland. In 1857, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine ran an article by T.E. Thorpe on wheat, noting its exceptional longevity and mentioning this incident as an example. The article also observed that the wheat tillered prolifically—“fifteen stems…sprung from a single seed.” For comparison, note that most American farmers hope for two or three tillers per plant; British sources (navigate to page 10) note that under ideal conditions up to 35 tillers are possible. Thorpe went on to speculate:

From this great increase it is naturally suggested that wheat now grown is a degenerate class of the same species formerly common in Egypt; else, it is argued, how could the Egyptians have supplied the Assyrian, Grecian, and Roman empires from their superabundance above their own wants?

A separate instance came to light in 1844. In this case, the story was that Thomas Pettigrew, a famous unroller of mummies, had found some wheat and pea seeds in a vase in a sarcophagus in the British Museum. The wheat all failed to germinate, as did many of the peas, but W. Grimstone of the Herbary in Highgate reportedly managed to coax some of the peas to life.

In the early 1850s, or possibly even earlier, more reports surfaced of Egyptian plants sprouting. In this case, Lord Lindsay of Britain claimed that he had found a root in the hand of a mummy he had unwrapped in Egypt. After being planted, the root grew into a dahlia.

In 1856, a Dr. Deck supposedly received part of a dried resurrection flower from a group of Arabs. These Arabs claimed to have taken the flower from a mummified priestess about ten years before. Dr. Deck found that the resurrection flower could revive when wet, albeit temporarily.

Science and Seeds

Scientists began experimenting with the germination and viability of seeds as early as the mid-1800s. Most researchers could keep their seeds alive for only 10 to 15 years at the most. A theory was formulated that the maximum lifespan of a seed was 30 years.

In June 1921, the New York Times ran an article on the reaction of British scientists to a claim then current in American that morning glory seeds found in the hand of a mummified girl sprouted. J.L. North, curator of the Royal Botanic Society, listed three reasons for doubting the claim before proposing an alternative theory:

In the first place, though grains were frequently buried with a mummy to provide food in case the corpse came to life, they were always baked to prevent germination. We have in our museum some such grains, burned black. Secondly, the morning glory is a convolvulus. The plant inhabits moist districts and not dry localities like Egypt. Thirdly, no seeds of the convolvulus last a very long time.

What really happened, I think, is that seeds of the morning glory happened to be in the soil in which the ancient grains were planted, and developed in normal fashion.

Many of North’s statements are can now be regarded as either doubtful or simply false:

  • There is relatively little record of pre-baked seeds found in tombs. In fact, some seeds, such as coriander, were actually planted in tombs and allowed to germinate. (It is worthy of note that some Egyptian seeds have carbonized simply from old age.)
  • A plant remarkably like a convolvulus (probably a bindweed, still a problem in Egypt today) is often portrayed in Ancient Egyptian art, sometimes in wreaths but also shown in marsh habitats, climbing up papyrus stems. The fact that a convolvulus can regenerate itself from just a small fragment of root may have been symbolic of rebirth in Ancient Egyptian culture, and its clinging habit may have been associated with femininity.
  • Most farmers and gardeners with the misfortune of being familiar with weeds in the bindweed family know that convolvulus seeds can last for incredible lengths of time, even under suboptimal conditions. Field bindweed seeds have been scientifically proven to live for a minimum of 50 years, outstripping other noxious weeds.

In 1933, a series of experiments were made on some wheat from Egyptian tombs. Every possible method of inducing germination was attempted, including an effort to use colored glass. All were in vain. The seeds merely crumbled to dust.

Scientists say that all viable seeds that come out of the tombs today are probably interlopers transported by rodents. Other instances may be hoaxes that salesmen love to market to tourists.

Unfortunately, scientific trials of seed longevity rarely last for any considerable length of time. Most experiments are abandoned after 20 or 30 years. Furthermore, no one botanist can continue the work alone, assuming the working lifespan of a botanist is 50 years at maximum.

What scientists have determined is useful, however. As a general rule, weed and agricultural seeds last the longest. Barley seeds, for instance, remained viable at 123 years of age in one study. Vegetable seeds are rarely viable for more than a few years under normal storage conditions, although when carefully sealed and stored at cold temperatures they can remain viable for at least 20 years. Some species can last 50 (beets) or even 60 years (tomatoes).

How Long Can a Seed Live?

Theories on the absolute maximum lifespan of seeds were shattered when a Japanese botanist uncovered lotus seeds in a layer of peat at the bottom of a dry lake bed in Manchuria. After the find, the seeds went to a museum, where they lay dormant for at least a decade. When a germination test was finally carried out, nearly all of the lotus seeds sprouted.

Scientists were astonished. The peat in the lake bed was thought to date back to the Ice Age. Evolutionists place the end of the Ice Age at 10,000 years ago at the latest. Creationists frequently suggest that the Ice Age occurred shortly after the Flood, probably about 4,000 years ago—still a very long time for a seed. Based on carbon dating results, however, scientists discounted the possibility of the seeds being a thousand years old and suggested that they were more recent interlopers.

Another incredible resurrection of old seeds came in 2005. In 1973, archaeologists recovered seeds from the (then) extinct Judean date palm at the ancient fortress of Masada, the site of the last stand of the Jewish Zealots against invading Romans in A.D. 73. Troubled times resulting from Roman and then Arab occupation reduced the cultivation of the tree, leading to its extinction around A.D. 500.

At the time of discovery, the seeds from Masada were about 1,900 years old. They went into a drawer at a university in Tel Aviv until 2004. Painstaking methods were used to revive them the following year, including a hot-water bath, a dose of seaweed-based fertilizer, and a solution of hormones. On March 18, 2005, the date palm “Methuselah” emerged from the soil, bringing the species back from extinction.

The Truth About Ancient Egyptian Seeds

The fact is, we may never know the truth about the viability of Ancient Egyptian seeds unless repeated attempts are made to sprout them, as germination rates in ancient seeds can be quite low. While the vast majority of the old seeds are undoubtedly long dead, there may be a few hardy survivors that gave rise to the tales of mummy seeds.

Keeping a Garden Journal

Keeping a Garden JournalGardening season is finally upon us! If you’re like most gardeners, you are looking forward to planting seeds with the full expectation of making this the best gardening year yet.

While much of gardening comes down to experience, diligence, and creativity, having the right tools makes a big difference. One handy tool is the garden journal.


Advantages of Keeping a Garden Journal

  • Permanent record. While you can keep gardening notes on loose sheets of paper or sticky notes, the chances of you finding and referring to these notes in the future are slim to none. When your notes are in one place, whether that is a binder or a real journal, you have access to valuable information.
  • Memory aid. Really, are you going to remember what’s going on in your garden from one year to the next? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably not. Write down important information. It will save you a few headaches.
  • Simplicity. Writing in a garden journal gives you an opportunity to condense your thoughts and observations into key information that you can use.
  • Learning tool. By noting our successes and mistakes, we have a road map to use in future years. This helps us build expertise quickly, since we are not wasting time repeating mistakes.
  • Sharpen observation skills. Part of becoming a green thumb is observation. If you have a journal that invites you to note your observations, you might just find yourself looking for new ways to fill the pages. Your powers of observation improve, and so does your understanding of your unique garden.
  • Proof of progress. You really are developing a green thumb, and your garden journal contains proof. A review of past journals can keep you motivated and spark ideas for overcoming current challenges.
  • Gardening memories. If you have gardened long enough, you have undoubtedly made some great memories. A glance through an old journal can bring recollections back as though the events happened yesterday.


What to Write in a Garden Journal

  • Garden plans. Did you know that a garden journal can double as a planning tool? You can use your journal to keep track of seed lists, garden maps, and planting dates. This is an especially good use of a journal, since it keeps all of your gardening information in one place.
  • Frost dates. While you can find average first and last frost dates for your area easily enough, you will have much better results if you track the frost dates in your own garden. After several years, calculate the average. Does your garden tend to be warmer or cooler than the surrounding area? It makes a difference!
  • Signs of the seasons. Let nature be your guide. Every spring comes a little earlier or later than the last one. With practice, you can learn to plant in sync with the seasons. A journal can help you keep track of signs to look for.
  • Crop rotations. Don’t let diseases or nutrient deficiencies build up in your soil! Hang onto your map and planting records. Having access to last year’s information is a big help. Having access to the last three years’ information is even better.
  • To-dos. Keep track of gardening chores and how often they need to be done. While you’re writing down what you observed today, jot notes on what you need to do tomorrow or in a week. Staying organized is suddenly quite easy!
  • Experiments and their results. Are you trying something new this year? Write it down, and be sure to note the results as they arise. Not only does the process of writing cement information in our heads, but even if we do forget we have a permanent record to refer to.
  • Notes on favorite plants. Need to remember when to cultivate the asparagus bed? How to prune the blackberries? Where to plant nasturtiums to take advantage of their pest-repelling properties? Keep pages in your journal specifically for notes on plants that you grow every year. Now you don’t just have a journal—you have a personalized reference book!
  • Favorite varieties. Likewise, keep track of your favorite plant varieties. Note which tomatoes were the easiest to grow and which lettuce tasted the best. When it’s time to buy seeds again, you’ll already know what kinds to get.
  • Pests and diseases. Every gardener (particularly every organic gardener) has a list of “bad guys” that they count on battling every year. Improve your warfare strategy by recording the habits and preferences of the bug or fungus in question, then list ways to deter or destroy it.


A Final Tip

The most important thing to remember about keeping a garden journal is that it should be simple. If wrestling with a bulky binder feels complicated to you, you may very well give up on your journal before the season ends. If writing a detailed essay on your garden every day feels complicated to you, you probably will avoid the task like the plague.

Find a journal that invites you to jot down your thoughts. Then write down only what you are interested in remembering.


Helpful Resource

The Family Garden JournalThe Family Garden Journal
Our 466-page journal offers room for both planning and observing, featuring a shopping list, a planting schedule, a garden map, a maintenance page, a daily journal, and pages for notes on plants, pests, and diseases. Preview sample pages and more information here.

Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit

Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test KitKnowing the state of your garden soil is handy, but if your garden is for personal family use only, you probably don’t feel justified in ordering a professional lab analysis. Fortunately, inexpensive test kits are available online.

This kit by Luster Leaf seems to do a fair job. It tests:

  • pH.
  • Nitrogen.
  • Phosphorus.
  • Potassium.

As you can see, only the bare basics are included. The tests focus on NPK, not trace minerals. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to keep trace mineral levels in balance by regular applications of compost and organic matter.

Using the kit is easy. Complete instructions are included, but the basic procedure is:

  1. Prepare the soil sample.
  2. Dilute the soil sample according to the directions.
  3. Put the solution into the test container.
  4. Add the appropriate powder to the solution.
  5. Compare the color of the solution to the color chart on the container.

Did you detect a problem with your garden soil? The instructions offer advice on how to remedy the situation.

One word of advice: The powder may lose some of its efficiency over time. Keep the powder capsules stored in the included airtight bags in a cool, dry, dark place. Try to use the tests within about 18 months for the most reliable results.

Simple and inexpensive—perfect for the budget-conscious gardener.