Now that the days are getting longer, the snow has mostly melted away and we can see the first
spring flowers emerging from their winter sleep, all the signs are telling us to start thinking about
choosing seeds for the growing season. Experienced growers will have their seed boxes full of favourite varieties, but if you’re
just starting for the first time, it may be a little intimidating to browse the hundreds of choices in the
seed catalogues and narrow down which ones to go for. There are several things worth
keeping in mind before spending an arm and a leg on seeds, which will help you make the right
I have yet to meet a gardener (including myself), who hasn’t skipped merrily down the road to
temptation; we get terribly excited about certain favourite varieties and then madly over-order,
usually resulting in a crowded and choked forest of disappointingly stunted plants. My first tip would
be to be realistic about the space you have. If you’re dreaming about juicy tomatoes and hot chillies,
but you only have a shady backyard and no greenhouse, then I’m afraid it’s worth reassessing your
dream. Some plants really need the sun and heat to thrive and to produce a crop that will be tasty
and worth our time. Some beginner gardeners try to nurture a large variety of crops, which if not
given the right conditions and care, often won’t perform well and can make the growers feel
disheartened about the whole process. Similarly, if you only have a small space to grow in, say one
or two raised beds, opt in for crops which don’t take too much space and can be planted densely, or
even interplanted with other crops (more on this below). For example, cabbages, cauliflowers and
broccoli take a lot of space, so unless you have a lot of it it’s better to opt for smaller crops like
beetroot, leeks or radishes.
Seeds are not forever
As with most biological creations, seeds have finite shelf lives. Each packet of seeds will have a ‘best
before’ date on, often several years, so it’s easy to think that the seeds which were spare, can be
sown the following year. What the commercial seed sellers don’t shout about (unless you read their
FAQs), is that some seeds are better prepared to last years, and some will have reduced vitality after
just one year. Seeds from the carrot family (that is, carrots, parsnips, celery, coriander, fennel or dill
for example) often show poor germination the second year, and diminish rapidly with each
unplanted season. Carrot seeds are particularly tricky, as they are small and often come in packets
containing 100-300 seeds. If you don’t have a whole field at your disposal, you sow your handful of
carrots in the hope of using the rest the following year, just to see that only a few germinate and the
rest are lifeless. Good practice to avoid disappointment is to buddy up with a neighbour or a friend
and share a packet between you, ordering new ones each year. And if you want to be more self-
sufficient than that, you can leave one carrot in the ground and let it go to seed, which you can then
collect and use the following year – this is the same process that seed manufacturers go through. If
you’re unsure whether your seeds are still ok to sow, you can do a simple trick to check. Put them on
a piece of kitchen towel, fold it, dampen the towel and put the whole thing in a plastic bag to retain
the moisture. Leave the bundle in a warm place for a few days, checking regularly for sprouts. If
you’re lucky and see some seeds sending roots out, pick them out with tweezers and place in a pot
with soil, covering gently. This method will save you the time of filling pots and wasting soil on seeds
which may be already past their best.
Grow what you eat
It’s tempting to try and grow everything! Even if you don’t like kale or Brussels sprouts, if you see
your allotment neighbour giving those seedlings away, it’s hard to say no. Of course, it may be worth
giving it a go in the hope you will develop a taste for them, but often enough some crops are grown
and not harvested, which then attracts pests like slugs and takes this valuable growing space away.
Be realistic and plant what you and your family love to eat, rather than choosing every possible
variety from the catalogue.
Ignore (some of) the seed packet instructions!
I find that there are two main issues with seed packet advice – sowing times and crop spacing. The
dates for sowing are often generic for the whole country, so you need to use your own initiative
here. If you are in the sunnier south, or have a heated greenhouse with artificial lights, you may get
away with sowing tomatoes in January. However, if you are in the colder north, you must adjust for
the local conditions and sow when the soil has warmed up and the daylight hours are longer. Some
varieties, like rocket for example, often carry advice that they are to be sown from March to
September, however in reality it’s best to do so from March until early May, avoid the hottest
months of June and July and then sow again from August until September. This is because a lot of
salad crops dislike the hot weather, which causes them to go to seed, or to ‘bolt’ as it’s commonly
described in the gardening jargon.
As for seedling spacing, many crops can be planted more densely than the seed packet suggests,
especially if you look after your soil and feed it annually with your own compost or animal manure.
You can combine some crops together in one space – for example sow radish in between rows of
leeks, where radishes will grow fast and leeks slower: neither of the plants will overshadow the
other one and you maximise the use of your space. Possibly the most famous companion planting
trio in the world is a mix called the ‘Three Sisters’, where sweetcorn, climbing beans and squash are
planted in the same bed. As well as using the same space, they all benefit each other’s growth –
beans feed the soil with nitrogen through their roots, sweetcorn gives support to the beans to climb
off the ground and the squash provides ground cover and helps in retaining moisture.
Early spring is my favourite time of the growing year, checking several times a day if any seeds came
out. And then the joy that comes with each and every germinated seedling.
If you’ve never grown anything before, I urge you to try something this year, be it some lettuce on the balcony or a
sunflower in the back yard.
But be warned, it is a little addictive.