Fire and Life: Burning seeds for better germination
Fire and Life: Burning seeds for better germination

Fire and Life: Burning seeds for better germination

Burning is officially done for 2020.

Why Burn?

Scarification. That is why we burn. What does that even mean? ‘To scarify’ is to modify a seed’s coating so that the seed is able to germinate. Ever wonder why cedar trees and asparagus always grow in fence lines? It’s because the seeds went through a bird’s digestive system before they were deposited under the fence. You get the same effect using fire. Some seeds have such a tough coating that they must go through extreme temperature change to break the seed coat and allow germination.

I love moon vines. Have you ever planted a moon vine seed and waited for it to come up? Spoiler alert: it takes forever. A moon vine’s seed coat is so thick that it takes awhile for the moisture and heat in the soil to soften it enough to allow it to sprout. To get more instant gratification, you need to scarify the seed coat. I always start a flat full of these pretty night-time blooming vines every year (I give away or sell a few after I’ve planted my fill), and here’s what I do: boil a cup of water in the microwave, put the seeds in the hot water for a few minutes, then use a pair of fingernail clippers to chip a tiny spot out of the seed coat before I plant them. This way, I’ve got a plant poking up out of the dirt within a week. Without this scarification process, it would take several weeks to see a plant come up.

When I plant my nasturtium seeds in plugs in my kitchen window, I do the same thing (minus the fingernail clippers). Nasturtium seeds look like teensy tiny little brains. So weird yet fascinating. Their seed coat is very hard, almost woody. I plunk them in boiling water for a few minutes before I poke them down into a plug of starting mix, and they usually come up in less than a week. Otherwise, they would take several weeks to appear.

Parsley is another. It has this hard crazy-looking seed that will take several weeks to germ unless you heat treat it.

Taking weeks to germ becomes an issue when you are trying to sprout your own seedlings in a small space, like my garden window above the kitchen sink. You don’t want dormant seeds taking up room in your little “greenhouse” (you’ve got another round of seeds to take their place once they’re big enough!), and having the moist soil sit there without action for that long will have it breeding fungus or algae on the surface. So scarify those seeds and you won’t have these issues!

Scarification can occur as simply and naturally as leaving a seed in the soil in the fall and letting the temperature fluctuations throughout the winter to break the seed coat.

Simply, scarification is the process of breaking the seed coat. And asparagus requires fire.

Asparagus environment:

We have a big, lovely asparagus bed at the farm. Mom started it probably 20 years ago with half a dozen crowns of asparagus. A crown is the name for a single plant, to the non-asparagus layperson.

Every year, she burns it off, salts it and fertilizes it to ensure it is always growing in size year after year.

Salt, you say? That’s right, asparagus loves salt. We always use stock salt like we put in the cows’ mineral feeders. Just sprinkle a liberal amount (up to 1 lb/sq ft is approved, which seems like a LOT, but 2.5 lbs/100 linear feet of row is also a good rule of thumb) on the top of the ground over the entire bed. The salt serves a dual purpose. The asparagus likes it and weeds hate it. NaCl (Sodium Chloride) helps the asparagus to resist crown rot and root fungus and helps boost the plant’s growth overall. You can apply salt to your patch before shoots appear or after July 4.

I did some research upon taking up the writing of this blog, to be sure my asparagus knowledge was absolutely correct, and some out there say salting is wrong, but we have always done it, as have the ancestors we learned it from, and we have a thriving patch from which we harvest at least 10 gallons of fresh spears a year. So take from this what you will.

A balanced fertilizer like a triple 13 or triple 17 should be applied in early spring before shoots appear as well.

Asparagus likes well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter, so raised beds work well, and a layer of mulch doesn’t hurt to keep OM incorporated into the soil, but we don’t mulch, just burn, salt and feed.

How to harvest asparagus

We start harvesting asparagus once the spears start appearing, and we harvest until June 1. Then we “let it go” for the rest of the year.

When it starts producing in the spring, you have to at least ‘check’ the patch every day. If the temps are cool, you may not see enough growth to harvest every single day, but most days you will need to cut at least a few spears. We use a small paring knife called the ‘Granny’ from Rada Cutlery (affiliate link). This is my favorite garden produce knife due to the short (3″) curved blade. It’s amazing at cleaning sweet corn, cutting the roots from onions and radishes, etc.

When cutting spears, don’t cut them above the ground. Bend the spear to the side a bit, then stick the knife down beneath the soil about an inch or so and nick the stalk; the bending action will break it off the rest of the way. So you aren’t actually ‘cutting’ the stalk all the way through with the blade; you’re merely facilitating a break below the soil surface.

If, like us, you have some stalks that get away from you and shoot up too tall before you are able to harvest them, go ahead and cut those off and toss the aside to keep your patch cleaned off until after June 1. How do you know if they are ‘too tall’? Fresh, tender asparagus will snap when bent. If it doesn’t snap in two, it’s too tough to eat. It’ll be like chewing on sisal twine if you put that stuff in the pot. Some of those stalks that have tough stuff at the top may still have nice tender edible material at the ground end, so just do the ‘snap test’ and keep the stuff below the snap.

Preserve the harvest

We preserve our asparagus in two ways: freezing and pickling.

There’s nothing like pulling a bag of spears from the freezer on a nice day in the dead of winter and cooking it on the grill in a foil pouch with butter. Directly after harvesting, we rinse the spears in a colander to wash any sandy soil away, then we cut them down to fit in a gallon freezer bag. If we don’t have enough in a day’s harvest to require freezing, we will put the day’s harvest in a bowl of water in the fridge and add to it until there’s enough to mess with. You don’t have to FILL a gallon bag with a day’s mess…you can simply start one and add to it as you progress through harvest. While the harvest fluctuates with the weather over the years, we always get at least 10 gallons put away in the upright freezer at the farm each year.

When I get a BIG pick, I like to select the most ideal spears to pickle in quart-and-a-half widemouth jars (affiliate link). These jars are super tall, and are wonderful for pickling asparagus, green beans, and certain cultivars of bell peppers. I have a favorite recipe for pickling the spears, which I will share come asparagus season!

Asparagus seeds clinging to last year’s growth. A good burn will scatter the seeds on the soil and scarify the seed coat so they’ll germinate.

How to get a good burn:

In the winter, the previous year’s growth dies off and turns yellow, then dries up to a nice crispy brown. A nice sunny dry day in late winter is a good time to burn off the patch to remove the old growth and scarify the seeds so they will germinate and grow your patch!

We like to add a layer of dry material, in this case, old prairie hay we have in the hay barn. We spread out and scatter the hay flakes over the entire patch to be sure and get the entire soil surface good and hot so that even all the dormant seeds will germinate.

Set the thing afire and let it burn. Then we make sure we aren’t burning up our raised bed sides. It burns so fast that it leaves behind unburnt material, so I go along with a rake and toss the unburnt stuff so it will catch fire and burn up.

We put a good feeding of balanced garden fertilizer on the whole thing, and followed that with salt to keep the cool season weeds from germinating as the weather warms on up into spring.

It was a beautiful evening for burning, so we cleaned up the ditches and waterways around the farm by burning those too. I love doing these types of family activities because we always see something amazing together. It was such a warm day, the spiders were all hatching and the baby arachnids were ballooning about the countryside, leaving silver wisps of silk hanging from every available tree branch, bean stalk, and UTV operator/rider. Looking to the west, a path of silver stretched to the horizon, luring us toward the sunset.

Burning the ditches and waterways on the farm is a good way to clean them up, including burning up trash from litter bugs. We claim responsibility for the ditches along the gravel roads because no one else maintains them; we pay taxes to the middle of the road, so we maintain the grass in the ditches. Fire also burns up weed seeds that are not resistant to fire, preventing them from proliferating further in the coming year.

As you can see, an afternoon in the life of a little farm can contain a bumper crop of info. I hope this afternoon’s worth of knowledge helped you create something today!

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