Sunday, 17 March 2013

The seeds of thrift




This is a musing on all the things I learned the hard, expensive way over the last few years, about that most frugal garden ingredient - seed. Tubers, bulbs, roots are a whole different animal and I am not confident my pocket is tamed enough in regard to those creatures to offer any solid advice. But seeds...seeds are simple. Once you have several years of mistakes behind you, of course.

It begins long before the first sowing. Gardening catalogues are promises of luminous shiny wonder (that you can buy! Heaven!) - and the promise of purchasable shiny wonder is ruinous to the pocket. They usually arrive during the gardening lull of winter, which makes them even more potent. So, take a step back and breathe. Think about the things you actually like to eat or look at; and then narrow it down further to things you will actually be able to grow in the space, soil and climate you have available. Even better, before you buy, see what seeds you can scavenge from gardening friends. Later on, when you have seed of your own, you can participate in seed swaps in your community or even online.

Where to buy seed is an interesting question. I have had excellent germination rates from cheap value ranges  and I have had very poor rates from some of the large seed merchants. I am not convinced that branding and price indicates good viability and so I would suggest starting with a few of the cheaper ranges if you are not particularly concerned by variety.  I wonder if anyone has ever tried to cash in on money back guarantees when they have a particularly poor show? There are also ethical considerations such as organic accreditation and heirloom rescue that the are only taken into consideration by a a handful of smaller niche companies; as always there is a balance to be struck between personal resources and personal ethics.

Once you have your seeds, before you even open the packets - you need to know how to look after your seed. I really didn't realise that even mild but frequent temperature fluctuations were ruinous to seed viability. With the exception of a handful of species, seed can be kept for more than one season if properly stored. There are several handy tables online if you Google 'seed viabilty table', many of which contradict each other and will eventually be contradicted by your own personal experience. The basics of seed storage are as follows:

Cool - In the fridge (not freezer!), or cool spot of the house. Too high a heat will dry seeds out too much, requiring special coddling to get them to germinate. 

Dry - I save those little silicon sachets from parcel deliveries and keep one or two in my tin. Fridges especially encourage condensation.

Dark - The fridge once again, or a cupboard, or an opaque tin.

Organised - Securely stored and labelled with variety, production/collection and sowing dates.

Consistent - All of the above conditions need to remain constant.

Unless space is really at a premium, don't be afraid of sowing 'expired' seed, but sow them more generously than you otherwise would to increase the chances of some seedlings developing. I have Tomatillo 'Violet' seeds that expired 3 years ago and 2 out of 16 seeds I planted this year have germinated. Hopefully I will be able to save more seed if those two seedlings survive. Which they should, because this gardener's shadow is cast across them at least 10 times a day, checking in on them like an anxious new parent.

Saving seed is advanced horticultural magic. The book Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland is a very good introduction to the pleasures and problems of this topic. I am halfway through and recommend it if you want to save your own seed. Whilst for most varieties it is isn't difficult, some easily cross pollinate or need to be encouraged to set seed. We save the easy ones on a small scale - a sunflower head, a couple of lettuce plants and rainbow chard, a few tomatoes left on the vine and a handful of bean pods. This will save money in the long run and obviously has many other benefits in terms of genetic diversity and species resilience.

I know all of this sounds very simple, but these are all mistakes I made. We grew 4 different courgette varieties just because they were productive - and neither of us really like courgettes. I took the seed tin out in the rain for a few minutes and the resulting condensation turned several packets to mouldy spores. I left unlabelled, open packets in the bottom of our seed tin and came back to a mess of unidentifiable seeds. All expensive, frustrating mistakes when you add them up that I have learnt my lesson from. So, whilst I hope I have all this seed stuff down, is there something I am yet to learn?

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