28 Jan 2018

Sorting seeds for success




It's still cold, even in London, but these past few days there have been glimpses of blue skies that make me think about summer ahead in the garden. (And, ooh hello, it's only eight weeks until British Summer Time! There, that doesn't sound too bad now does it? Glass half full gal, here.)

Drawing the plot
Where to start? My plot is too small to stick to a strict rotation plan but it's useful to look back year on year to see where crops were planted and try to give the soil a breather. So I always start by drawing up rough plans for both allotment and veg patch as I can't see either garden from indoors. Being naturally optimistic, I've a tendency to overestimate the number of plants I can grow in the available space. With a sketch, I've got the garden to hand whenever I need it; I map out the perennial plants, see what needs to be moved or replaced, and plan where to plant this year. If I've only got 30 minutes to get outside, I know exactly what I can achieve in that time.

Yes, I know I could walk the plot and get an idea that way but that goes right out the window when ordering seeds - just now when looking online at sweet peas, I was totally distracted from my purpose by seeds for a caper plant. I resisted because, in a few months time, I'll be wondering where I'm going to plant all these seedlings. This way I can at least try to keep it real.

Making a list
So I've got my garden plan on paper. (Actually, i-pad, which I love.) Next, for both the veg patch and allotment, I've made a list of all the food I want to grow this year and then plotted those foods onto the plan, checking them off my list as I go.  I was quite surprised to see how much I could fit into my relatively small growing space - the veg patch is just 10 metres x 3 metres (32ft x 10ft). I'll sow fast growing carrots inbetween slow growing onion sets; spinach likes a shadier spot in the summer so will grow under climbing beans; kale and broccoli will be planted out when the broad beans come out, a border of spring onions can line the path. Tomatoes are companion plants for asparagus. Etc. You get the idea.

So now I know what to grow and where to put it. Now I can think about seeds. There are a few seeds that can be sown in February (under cover, of course), otherwise it's the perfect time to empty out the seed box and see what I've got before I settle down to mark up seed catalogues.  I find it incredibly easy to be tempted into overspending - I currently have four types of spinach, 6 types of beans ... I could go on but I've said enough.


Seed box detox
So, first off, I went through all my seed packets and steeled myself to discard any that were past their sow-by date. That's a tough one as seeds can be expensive but it's important. As with any living matter, seeds age (especially if they're stored in an old box on a warm shelf), and with it a significant reduction in the likelihood of successful germination. Who needs to watch soil for signs of life only to find two or three weeks later that it's a major fail?

The Real Seed company, who positively encourage seed saving, have a page which gives the estimated life span of certain seeds.  Very useful. That page is here.

Favourite seeds past their best that need to be reordered I put into a separate reminder pile.  Seeds where I couldn't see a best before date or remember how long I'd had them went onto the 'chuck' pile.  I found that several companies put no dates on their packets; others indicate only when the seeds were packed. This means seeds labelled as packed in 'year ending March 2016', could have been packed in April 2015 so are unlikely to be viable in March 2018, although it might be worth a try. Growers choice. Having walked that path before with limited success, I'd rather replace those seeds.  This year I'll be writing the purchase date on every new packet to give my future self a huge clue.

So now I have a pile of viable seeds. Do I want all of them? Probably not. Most of the free seeds from magazines or trade shows will go to a seed swap. There's also seeds that didn't do well for me (Cherokee Trail of Tears beans) or the end product didn't justify the time and space. Or I've seen a new variety that I want to try, so the current ones won't get used. These are all valid reasons to reassess what I've got. Topped up with regular rounds of hot drinks and toast, it's a very cathartic exercise for a wet (or snowy) afternoon when I don't fancy being outdoors.

Getting organised
With a decluttered seed box and a list of what to order,  finally I turn to the seed catalogues. I'll always want to try more seeds than are on my list but, armed with a wishlist to make notes and The Plan, I'm far less likely to succumb to temptation.

I've noticed that a few magazines have got calendars of when to sow and harvest crops.  This is very general and depends on the weather and soil temperature where you live but my next job will be to organise my seeds by their sow by dates and note that in my garden diary.

How about you? Do you reorder everything fresh each year or try to use what you've already got?






17 comments:

  1. We tend to order most things fresh rather than risk failing - we need to stack as many odds in our favour as we can to try and mitigate things over which we have no control. I used to find free magazine seed annoying as invariably ithey offered things we had already bought or didn’t want and then we would feel that we had to sow them so we cancelled all the magazine subs.

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    1. I've arrived at that same opinion, Sue. Better to be sure and buy fresh rather than chancing it. Our British summers are short enough without having to cope with seed failures as well. The harvests that you and Martyn get validate your practise. I've also cancelled magazine subs - not necessarily for the annoying seeds but because so much of what's written is common sense or common knowledge. Better to check what's in them first, although so expensive to buy as one off purchases; more economical to buy a second hand book!!

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  2. I find it soooooooo hard to chuck out seeds that are past their past, but sowing them normally doesn't do any good! And then you have to try really hard not to by too many fresh ones, so you're in the same boat a few years down the line. With a smallish garden I can use what I've already got most year, only buying fresh seeds as I use up a packet or want to try something new :)

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    1. I'm the same, Emma. It takes great resolve to chuck out seeds and I do slightly despair when I see packets containing 100 broccoli seeds. I mean, who grows 100 broccoli plants every year! On the other hand, I used all my squash seeds last year, five to a packet, so feel that's more thought through and that company wins my support.

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  3. It does vary hugely seed by seed. I remember I had a bag of mangetout that were still germinating five years on from their packaging date. Spring onions, for me, barely last a year.

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    1. I thought the same about pea/mangetout seeds but had no luck trying to use up "old" stock for pea shoots last year. And I have the opposite of you with spring onions. They seem to go on. Although having put that in writing, I'll no doubt be proved wrong this year as I've rescued a packet from the unknown date pile.

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  4. I've recently completed the annual stocktake/chuck out of the flower seeds and must get on with the veg so I can place any orders that I need to make. I get irritated by the seed companies that do not give a rough seed count or put the sow by dates on so I tend to avoid those companies. I usually write the date I sowed seeds on the back of the packet so that gives me some clues as to age. I'm probably not as ruthless as I should be when it comes to 'old' seed but sometimes have pleasant surprises. Love the seed heart at the top of your post.

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    1. I've done it the other way round, Anna! I find it easier to prune out old veg seeds as I have a much clearer idea of what I want to grow. Flowers present me with too much choice so that seed box will be done last; currently there are far too many packets in there with several varieties of cosmos, sunflowers, poppies. At least I can always chuck them around on spare ground outside of the veg patch and create a 'meadow'!!

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  5. An interesting read. I don't generally keep seeds year to year so buy or save new. It helps that I don't need or use many so usually manage to keep control. xx

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    1. Thank you, Flighty. That sounds very sensible, especially saving seed. I read that saved seed produces stronger plants as the original plant has already adapted to the growing conditions. Have you found this and which seeds do you save?

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    2. As I grow self-seeded, saved and bought often all mixed I haven't noticed that but it's an interesting observation. I usually only save flower seeds. xx

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  6. I usually write the date I sowed seeds on the back of the packet so that gives me some clues as to age. I'm probably not as ruthless as I should be when it comes to 'old' seed but sometimes have pleasant surprises. Love the seed heart at the top of your post.

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  7. It's good to read of your plans, this is the perfect time for making them. I am going to use the seeds I have this year, my main focus is to plant the back garden and courtyard and try to get the front straight. xxx

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  8. That is actually such a cute photo haha. I'm Sommer from growingwithmer. I'm not one for organisation in my life but I really am with my plants.... I put all my seeds into categories the other day, it was rather exciting haha

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  9. HA! I see that you also "try" to keep it real when ordering seeds - "try" being the operative word! I have yet to ONLY purchase what I set out to purchase - and that not only applies to the season in general but every store or site I order from - there are always a few extras (or more than a few!). Good thing most seeds last for several years!

    I most definitely do NOT order fresh each year, except perhaps for alliums. I quite enjoy growing a few different varieties of many veg - some tried-and-true and some new-to-me (7 varieties of carrots this year!) so that would likely cost me a small fortune. Before I pack away any new purchases, I use a black Sharpie marker and write in large print the year on all my seed packets for easy reference - makes the winter sort (which I LOVE too!) so much easier.

    I'm rather sad, though, that Cherokee Trail of Tears don't do well for you - they are one of my favourites.

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  10. Great tips for me to follow especially sorting out the old seeds before buying new ones! Sarah x

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  11. This is all very well, but for those of us who can't actually bring ourselves to throw away out of date seeds, there is also the archive tin. Yes I know it doesn't make sense, but I can't cast them aside.... who knows when I'll need moneymaker seeds circa 2005?

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