Extend your season with containers

container gardening - vegetables

Apples are ripening, mornings are cool, and weeds have slowed, which is natures’ way of telling me that frost is only a few weeks away. As fall approaches, vegetable gardeners are sowing their last cool season crops, ordering garlic for planting in the next month or so, and hoping for a long, moderate fall, so the harvest will continue.

If you don’t have a cold frame or row cover, sowing some cool season veggies in containers is just about the easiest way to extend your season. Manageable containers can be moved to a protected area if frost threatens. Cool season crops thrive in cooler weather and so are the ideal varieties to sow in containers. “Days to maturity” is helpful information, but when growing cool season crops in the fall when the days are shorter and cooler, growth slows, and maturity may take longer, so quick-maturing varieties are a good choice.

Today I sowed some easy-peasy Farmer’s Market Blend mesclun lettuce seed tape, and cute-as-button, round, small Tona di Parigi carrots in some long, window box-style containers. Usually, sowing carrots in containers isn’t recommended, but these small, ball-type heirloom carrots don’t need nearly as much root space as other carrots. They also look adorable at Thanksgiving dinner! My window box containers are light enough for me to move indoors and out for cooler weather if I need to, and also, big enough to keep in moisture. Both of the varieties I sowed can handle a light frost (down to 28°F), but if I am concerned, I can just push these containers up against the house and there is enough radiant heat to keep them warm. Hard freezes (below 28°F) will prompt me to bring them into a garage, porch, or shed for more protection. After being indoors overnight, the soil holds some warmth, and so most of the time, the following morning I can just push these back outside to get fresh air and sunshine before heading off to work. Frost tolerance varies among species, so we wrote a frost tolerance article to offer some guidelines.

Here are some tips on choosing or mixing container soil and choosing a container.

I am an optimist at heart, and at this time of year especially, it shows, or should I say it sows! I sow seeds like frost may never come, because though it may be late, I may continue to bring fresh veggies to our table into late fall. Even if the seeds don’t germinate in fall, I often see them as the first, delicious green things up in spring, so my efforts still pay off.

Happy sowing and harvesting, everyone! Share your late season sowing tips with us!

Carrot Tonda di Parigi   Lettuce Mesclun Farmer's Market Blend

 

Botanical “Outback” (out back in the trial garden)

BI Trial GardenWe love what we do. We love to “play” in the dirt, and watch things grow, reveling in the fact that a cucumber was produced by a tiny seed we tucked into the ground; marveling at the beauty of a blossom from a seed that we casually scattered about in the joy of spring.

To ensure that the seeds we offer are keeping up to our standards, and producing the best specimens, we have trial gardens. One trial garden is right in back of our warehouse in Broomfield, Colorado, where we can keep a close eye on the progress of our gardening endeavors. Many of our employees have been known to sneak out there for a quick, refreshing encounter with nature.

The broomcorn is “high as an elephant’s eye”, as Brandon from our marketing department is demonstrating.
HollyhockWatchman
The Watchman hollyhock with its stunning color is a sight to behold.
SunflrTeddyBear
We wonder how many people don’t know that sunflowers can be this cute. This is “Teddy Bear”, a dwarf, fully double charmer.
Alyssum
Sweet Allure Pastel Blend alyssum is happy as can be in this hot spot. There must be hundreds of blooms.
Zinnia Thumbelina
This is an eye-popping patch of Thumbelina zinnias. They are so prolific, you can’t even tell that we’ve been cutting them for bouquets.
gourd
The birdhouse gourds have spilled over the garden wall and are returning the parking lot to paradise!
PoppiesMission bells
Mission Bells California poppies are especially delightful with their silky petals waving in the breezes.
HyacinthBean
Hyacinth bean pods are really this brilliant! They are excellent as an enhancement to cut flower bouquets, especially white and blue flowers.
Nicotiana Peace Pipe
Indian Peace Pipe nicotiana is an unusual, eye-catching plant with its huge leaves and most interesting flower stalks.
Flower Mat
We are so pleased with the Sunshine Flower Mix flower mat, which we grew in our container trial garden. So many beautiful blossoms; so little effort!
Bulb Companions
Bulb Companions Flower Mix—gorgeous blooms, excellent for covering up browning bulb leaves.

 

What’s so great about seed tape?

seed disc collage
Of course I love gardening and the feel of seeds in my hand, but I also love tools that simplify or make gardening more efficient, like seed tape!

Seed tape, disks, and mats contain high-quality seeds incased in fine, biodegradable tissue paper, which keeps seeds in place, and makes thinning minimal. The seeds are distributed throughout the paper to make spacing a snap, which is helpful for small seeds like lettuce and carrots that are hard to grab. This is especially ideal for children, as it can be difficult and time consuming to sow one seed at a time. Creating a straight line with tape keeps my garden beds looking like a professional did it! The 4″ and 8″ discs fill pots fully in one effort, and the flower mat brings easy color and diversity to planters or garden beds! Tips for using seed tape and disks:

  • Pre-moisten the soil/media, then sow at the correct depth, cover the seed tape with soil/media, and water. Water dissolves the seed tape, making way for the sprouting seed.
  • Tape, disks, and mats should be completely covered with soil/media.
  • Be sure to keep seeds and seedlings moist.
  • Garden soil will still require preparation before sowing seed tape.

See how easy it is!

Four new varieties!

Noveau Fines Herbes Disk Carrot Seed Tape Parsley Seed Disk Viola Seed Tape

Fall sowing made easy!

romanesco broccoli

Summer! I’ve been harvesting my spring-sown crops, and already looking toward the bounty of fall. At our mile-high elevation, our average first fall frost date is near the end of September, just a little over 2 short months away. For a couple of reasons, there are many cool season crops that are more dependable in the fall than in the spring: 1. Fall weather is more reliably cool; 2. Some varieties, like winter radishes, need the shortening days of fall to create a crop; and 3. Many cool season varieties like parsnips and broccoli are sweeter when they have been kissed by frost.

Timing and planning is everything, partly because in our busy lives we will forget to sow the cauliflower and broccoli of our fall dreams, and also because some of these crops need 100 days to grow before harvest. Here is my method to ensure I don’t forget about fall sowing:

  1. Mark your average first fall frost date on a calendar.
  2. Look on your seed packet for “Days to Maturity” or use our Outdoor Sowing Guide for Late Summer/Fall. Soils may be hot, and quick to dry in summer, so you may consider starting some fall crops indoors or creating some shade over the garden bed. Some cool season crops like lettuce and spinach will not germinate in soils over 80°F or 85°F respectively, so you may want to start them inside if the soil is still too warm. However, root crops should always be direct-sown.
  3. From your average first fall frost date, count backwards the number of days to maturity, which will bring you to your ideal sowing date. Move your sowing date up 1 to 2 weeks to accommodate cool growing temperatures and shorter days that may slow growth, unless you plan to use season extension techniques like row covers. Most cool season varieties have a sweeter flavor after a frost, as cool weather increases the sugar content in these varieties in order the help them survive cool temperatures.
  4. Mark your calendar with variety sowing dates, and use it year after year.

Now that we created a handy, reusable schedule, all that is left is the fun part—sowing!

I am so excited about our new, eco-friendly recycled paper pots that I am using them for all my fall indoor sowing. While outdoor sowing is ideal, it is not always practical (as mentioned above), so I am starting some varieties indoors this fall— broccoli, cauliflower, kale, leeks, and fennel, to name a few. These pots are ideal not only because they are made from 100% recycled, biodegradable materials, but also because they are transplanted directly into the ground with the plant! This avoids transplant stress and root disturbance, and I have easy clean up! Romanesco broccoli and fennel are at the top of my culinary wish-list, and they take a bit more time so I started them inside, allowing me to better regulate moisture and temperature. Romanesco has this awe-inspiring, natural fractal pattern, and when cooked, it has a nutty flavor that reminds me of a cross between asparagus and cauliflower. Fennel elevates many flavors in a dish; we even love it grilled (here is a recipe). Once these seeds sprout, I right away start the hardening-off process or put them in the ground, under a row cover for 1 to 2 weeks.

 

On this hot summer day, I sow, and daydream about cool, fall mornings, harvesting a colorful bounty to enjoy even into the holidays.

As gardeners we are always growing; share your fall sowing tips with us!

Sow Your Love

butterfly 2014 (2)

From the food they help produce to the flowers they pollinate that become seeds in our packets, I love pollinators! This year I decided Botanical Interests would take a bigger step in helping pollinators. In addition to our annual contributions to the National Wildlife Federation’s Be a Butterfly Hero Campaign, this year we created a seed packet for the Pollinator Partnership.

The I Love Pollinators packet includes* certified organic, pollinator friendly, and easy-to-grow varieties that bloom throughout the growing season, and all proceeds go to the Pollinator Partnership. Our goal is to help them further their mission of promoting the health of pollinators critical to our food and ecosystems through conservation, education, and research. We appreciate the work this organization does, and we love how their education and outreach makes helping pollinators attainable for anyone, in the same way we like to make gardening approachable and enjoyable for anyone.

The Pollinator Partnership initiated, and now manages, National Pollinator Week, June 20–26, 2016, a week dedicated to raising awareness for pollinators. See their website for events, educational materials, and to donate. Pollinator stewards like you and me can use National Pollinator Week to bring attention to and help pollinators through gardening and other simple actions.

Join us in celebrating pollinators by sowing your love for pollinators with pollinator habitat plants, the I Love Pollinators seed packet that benefits the Pollinator Partnership, or National Wildlife Federation regional Butterfly Collections.

No patch of soil is too small to help pollinators; you can even sow a window box or patio container! Together, our small efforts can make a big impact for pollinator populations!

I Heart Pollinator Packet

*I Love Pollinators contains a mix of certified organic annual and perennial flowers and herbs that provide food and shelter for pollinators throughout the growing season.
In each packet:
Bachelor’s Buttons: Reseeding annual, blooms summer
Borage: Reseeding annual, blooms spring to fall
Dill: Reseeding annual, blooms spring to fall (if allowed to reseed)
Hollyhock: Reseeding biennial, blooms summer
Hyssop: Perennial, blooms summer
Marigold: Annual, blooms summer to fall
Sunflower: Re-seeding annual, blooms summer to fall
Zinnia: Annual, blooms summer to fall

The Virtues of Buckwheat

Buckwheat blossomMy seeds are sown; in some cases, a second and third succession is in. The warm season crops I started indoors have been transplanted out. We are already happily harvesting spring lettuces, greens, perennial herbs, and garlic greens. The birds are joyfully singing and so am I as I dig out my flip-flops and start a jar of sun tea. I am so ready for warm, sunny days.

I usually have a raised bed or two that I leave unplanted or sow a cover crop in every year, allowing the soil (and me) to rest. This year I am going to sow buckwheat both to attract beneficial insects, and as a summer cover crop. Buckwheat needs warm soil (over 55°F) to germinate and warm air temperatures to grow, so it is sown once the soil warms in spring, summer, or early fall, even late fall in the south. I will sow two successions of buckwheat two weeks apart to provide a longer flowering period for beneficial insects.

Buckwheat flowers are valuable to bees; in fact, it has been identified as one of the top 20 honey-producing flowers, and honeybees use it to make delicious, distinctively flavored buckwheat honey. Its flowers may appear as early as 3 weeks after sowing and continue for up to 10 weeks! Buckwheat also attracts predatory insects like ladybugs, hover flies, and minute pirate bugs that feed on pests like aphids and mites. After all, you can’t have a healthy population of predatory insects without something for them to eat!

Buckwheat is fast growing, and unlike other cover crops, it thrives in poor soils. It is particularly good at mining phosphorous from the soil ̶ a micronutrient essential for root, flower, and fruit development. As buckwheat breaks down, it helps existing nutrients become more available to future crops. Buckwheat also works to smother weeds, such as lambsquarters, pigweed, thistle, spurge, and even tough quackgrass. Not only does buckwheat shade and out-compete these weeds and others, but it also stifles nearby weeds’ root and shoot growth by exuding naturally-occurring chemicals. Buckwheat’s fine roots dig down 10” and loosen topsoil, making a nice seedbed with very little labor on my part.

While I would not claim buckwheat to be drought-tolerant, it doesn’t require much water to get established and grow. It’s ready to be cut down and worked into the soil (or mowed) just 30 to 40 days from sowing. If mowed, it will regrow, producing more abundant, enriching, organic material. As with any cover crop, it is best to cut it down before its seeds mature (in this case, harden and turn brown) so it doesn’t reseed where you want to sow food crops.

See why I love this cover crop? By adding a buckwheat to my raised garden beds, I am not only creating an inviting habitat for helper insects, but I am enriching the soil, eliminating time and energy I would otherwise spend weeding. How cool is that? All of the cover crops we offer, including Crimson Clover and Soil Builder Peas/Oats, are great for enriching the soil and are easy for the home gardener to manage.

Those who know me know I love a plant that has so much to offer, and I am always looking for ways to bring more diversity into the garden! I should also mention buckwheat makes a great cut flower. For now, the flip-flops will need to be on standby while I get the buckwheat sown, but this should take even less time than the sun tea will to brew! Happy sowing everyone!

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Everything’s Coming up Sunflowers

Sunflower with bees

Ah yes, summery, sunny, sunflowers—something my garden cannot go without! Sunflowers are excellent for pollinators, drought tolerant, and native to boot! They also make a great introduction to gardening for children, because the seeds are large and easy to handle, quick to germinate, and they can identify the resulting flower.

Native sunflowers have been bred for generations, giving us varieties that produce a single, huge, beautiful head, pollenless varieties for cut flowers, dwarf varieties for containers or the middle of the flower bed, and blooms in many shades of wonderful. Single head sunflowers, (Mammoth Grey Stripe, Mammoth Russian, Snacker, Sunspot) put out one, large to downright giant (14″!) bloom. Because these sunflowers produce only one big bloom, successively sow every 4 weeks for continual color. If you plan to use these as cut flowers, a tighter spacing of 6” rather than 1’ produces longer stems but slightly smaller flowers. Multi-branching types (Autumn Beauty, Drop Dead Red, Elves Blend, Evening Sun, Flash Blend, Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, Goldy Honey Bear, Lemon Queen, Moulin Rouge, Peach Passion, Teddy Bear, Two Queens, Vanilla Ice) display many smaller blooms over a longer period. They also do best with 1 ½’–2’ of space, and have a longer bloom period, which is further extended with deadheading or successive sowing. When harvesting for cut flowers, cutting just as the first petals begin to open will make your cut flower last the longest. I love this stage; the flowers look like they are winking at me! Don’t forget that a clean vase and frequent water changes are key to the life of any cut flower.

Speaking of cut flowers, pollenless varieties (Drop Dead Red, Florist’s Sunny Bouquet, Moulin Rouge, Peach Passion) are perfect for the dining room table, as they have no messy pollen to dirty your tablecloth. They do still provide valuable nectar for bees and butterflies, though. Pollenless sunflowers cannot create seeds on their own, but if you grow them next to pollen-producing types, seeds will still be produced. The flowers I have not cut for bouquets, I leave in the garden for the birds in fall migration.

No matter which sunflower I choose each year, I prefer to wait until a week or two after the average last frost date to direct-sow seeds, since they are sensitive to root disturbance. You can, however, start them indoors in recycled paper pots 2 to 4 weeks before your average last frost, as these pots can be planted directly in the ground, minimizing transplant shock. Starting sunflowers indoors does result in earlier blooms, and avoids having vulnerable, tiny seedlings gobbled up by hungry spring birds. If you direct sow, like I do, protect little sprouts with row cover or another translucent barrier until seedlings are 6” tall, when birds will no longer bother them.

Although it’s commonly believed that all sunflowers turn their heads to follow the sun from east to west each day, actually only the immature and still developing flower heads do that. Once the flowers have fully opened, they stay facing east most likely to protect the seeds from possible sun-scald resulting from the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. Understanding this alone, can help you plan your sunflower bed so your sunny sunflower faces will open toward a space you can really enjoy them, like the kitchen window or a patio.

Happy sowing!

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Corn on the Cob? Yes, please!

corn on the stalk in the fieldNothing says summer like fresh corn from the garden, so sweet you can eat it right off the stalk. Corn of any kind (sweet, popcorn, ornamental, or dent) can be easy to grow if you have sun, plenty of water, and rich soil. Having an understanding of corn pollination helps, too.

Like other grasses, wind, rather than insects, pollinates corn, so it needs to be sown in blocks or parallel rows rather than single rows. This planting technique, along with some wind, ensures the pollen from the tassel will reach each and every silk on the ear. The tassel grows from the very top of the stalk and eventually opens, releasing pollen at about the same time the silks are emerging. This magical timing of tassel and silk emerging to shed and accept pollen is called “nick”, as in, “in the nick of time” (the exact instant at which something has to take place.) Each silk, when pollinated, forms an individual kernel on your soon-to-be succulent ear of corn. If every silk is not pollinated, you’ll see some holes or skips on the ears. To ensure that each silk is pollinated, you can always hand-pollinate. Once the silks emerge and the tassel begins dropping pollen, snap off the tassel and brush it on multiple plants’ silks, and voilá!—pollination has occurred. Sweet corn will be ready to eat about 3 weeks after the silks appear. Look for brown silks (not dried) and, plump ears. Then you can pull back a small portion of the husk to see how things are progressing. Sweet corn is at its peak when the liquid in the kernels turn from clear to a milky color.

Even among sweet corns there are several types. Here is some handy information, which can help you choose the right fit for your palate: Sugary (su) sweet corn is the original type of sweet corn with higher amounts of short-lived sugar than flint or dent corn. Sugary Enhanced (se) sweet corn has higher amounts of sugar and is tenderer than su types. Shrunken/Supersweet (sh) sweet corn seeds are smaller or “shrunken”, and are even sweeter, holding their sweetness the longest.

I don’t stop at sweet corn! I am not one to follow convention, and every year I also add corn to my flower beds as an ornamental; their big strappy leaves add lush texture, and the Striped Japonica variety adds big flare with its striped pink, green, and white leaves. Once I am done using the beautiful Strawberry and Dakota Black popcorn ears for autumn decorations, they get put into the popcorn pan, popping up into traditional snowflake-shaped popcorn. Our newest popcorn is Robust Pop 400MR, a variety that pops up into little mushroom-shaped popcorn, the kind you use for kettle corn. The kids really get a kick out of pulling the jewel-like kernels off the cob and popping them over the stove. I can just about smell the kettle corn now!

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Thinning: I don’t carrot for it.

Buddy eating carrotsWe gardeners love our sweet, emerging baby plants. It is so encouraging to see masses of vibrant green shoot up so willingly. As a new gardener I remember thinking, “I did it! It worked!” I waited three weeks for these carrot leaves to emerge, how can I possibly choose who lives and who doesn’t? From experience I can tell you, just do it! Get those scissors out and thin for the greater good.

Without thinning, plants get crowded. Crowding causes competition for light, moisture, and nutrients, yielding a stressed, stretched, and sometimes mangled crop—especially true for carrots. Crowding also reduces airflow, which is a real problem ‒ it encourages fungal disease. You may be tempted to just reach in and pull plants out, but when seedlings are close, it is best to pinch or cut them at the soil line, reducing disturbance to their neighbor’s roots.

Thinning doesn’t need to be an exact science; it just needs to get done. After losing my tape measure somewhere in the garden, I realized I could use two fingers to equal an inch; my fingers spread wide is eight inches thumb to pinkie tip; and my fingers held flat and tight together took the space of four inches near the knuckles… instant ruler! Some of my cleverer gardener friends mark up spare boards with common spacings on each side so they always have a ruler close by. On each packet, we suggest thinning when plants are about 1” or so, to help determine when true leaves may emerge.

I am sowing carrots this time of year (as soon as this last blast of snow melts). Carrots, like most root crops, are best sown in place outdoors. They take about three weeks to emerge. Often I will grow radishes next to carrots because radishes sprout more quickly, reminding me to keep watering an otherwise uneventful brown soil. Radishes are ready a month or more ahead of carrots, so I can safely pull the nearby row before carrots need the space. The holes that radishes leave behind help water get deep down to the sugary, orange roots of carrots. There are a few different ways to sow and thin carrots.

  • Sow 1” apart, and thin carrots to 1 every 3″, when 1” tall, in rows 6” apart.
  • Make planting holes 3″ apart on a square grid system. Sow 2 seeds per hole; thin to 1.
  • Sow every 1 1/2”, harvesting every other baby carrot in a couple weeks, allowing the remaining crop to get full size. Using this method, I am able to harvest twice (baby and full-sized carrots), using the same amount of space, weeding, and watering.

Two of my favorite things about carrots: They are sooo delicious immediately out of the garden—a flavor that is lost within an hour or so; and carrots can overwinter right in the ground! You can sow carrots two months before your average last frost and store them in the ground over winter, harvesting during warm winter days or in spring/early summer. If you’re going to sow carrots in the fall, they need enough time to half-way mature (keep in mind growing slows with cool temperatures and shorter days); mulch seedlings to help keep them warm, and then they’ll survive the winter. They’ll be waiting for you in the spring! Pulling carrots in spring is a fun way start to the season; even our dog, Buddy gets in on the fun!

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Bring back the fava bean!

fava bean windsorWhat has beautiful flowers, delicious leaves, pods of delightful protein, and makes a great cover crop? Fava beans! This year I am sowing fava beans (also called broad beans) in my garden beds for an early season edible crop, and for soil amendment. Dual-purpose plants? That’s my favorite kind!

Did you know fava beans have been cultivated since the Bronze Age? In the Middle Ages, there was a drought in Sicily that gave fava beans a mystical status. After Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph, they discovered fava beans were the only crop to survive, saving Sicilians, and making favas part of St. Joseph’s day traditions on March 19th. Dried favas carried in pockets and placed in pantries are believed to encourage bounty (you may want to try this also, if you have teenagers).

While they are a staple in Europe, they are quite elusive in the U.S. In my experience, fava beans are relegated to gourmet restaurants and limited availability at specialty grocers and farmer’s markets. They are typically hard to come by because they are fresh for only a short period of time, and because they need cool weather to produce/grow, making them quite seasonal. By growing them at home, I can enjoy them at their peak. Their flavor is nothing like the canned or dried beans. I find fresh fava beans to be a true delight, and I love sharing this incredible crop with friends.

You can eat almost every part of the fava plant. Young, tender pods are edible at 2” and can be enjoyed fresh, much like a snap bean. For mature sized fresh beans, harvest when pods are green and the seeds inside are light green. At this stage, fava beans have a delicately nutty, buttery, and light pea flavor. Boil bean seeds briefly (30 to 60 seconds), then peel the bean’s outer layer, and voila! Beans are delicious simply sautéed in butter with herbs and salt and pepper. Similar to pea shoots, the leaves and stunning flowers are also edible with a sweeter, milder flavor. Cutting or pinching the top leaves off encourages plants to branch. If you know you won’t be able to eat all your favas fresh, you can let them dry right on the plant. Dried beans are ready when pods are dry and brown, and the seeds inside are dry. Harvest the beans and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place until you are ready to use them.

Favas, especially small seeded types like Sweet Lorane Improved, can be used as an excellent cover crop to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Favas and peas literally pull nitrogen out of the air and make it available to other plants in the soil. If you are using favas only for cover crop, cut them down just as flower buds appear, and work them into the soil 3 weeks before planting your garden. You can also cut plants down and add them to your compost pile so that you can sow right away. If you are planning on eating favas, you can work plants into the garden bed or compost pile after harvesting.

Fava beans are cool season champions. They germinate in soils as cool as 35°F and their foliage can handle temperatures in the 20s. I sow favas directly in my garden or an outdoor container 4 to 6 weeks before the average last spring frost or in the fall, 4 to 6 weeks ahead of the first fall frost. Soaking seeds in water for 12 to 24 hours ahead of time helps germination. Their roots are sensitive to transplanting, so we don’t recommend starting fava beans indoors. Fava beans are actually more closely related to a pea than a bean. Their pea-like flowers are white with black specks and whiskers. Plants can reach 2’–4’ tall depending on the conditions. If they get large, you may want to stake them in case of wind.

Windsor fava bean is a heirloom type, which produces 6”–8” beans, each with up to 8 large, light green beans per pod. Sweet Lorane Improved is a small-seeded type with about 6 tanish green seeds in 4”–6” pods. I like to sow both because Sweet Lorane matures slightly faster giving me a longer harvest period between the two.

There is so much to love about favas—from their history, to improving your soil and being delicious. Give fava beans another chance! You won’t be disappointed.

CAUTION: People deficient in an enzyme called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) should not handle seeds, consume fava beans, or inhale its pollen.

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