Grow veg

Vegetable seeds – the lure of the catalogue and what to sow when

If the weather conditions are bad and we can’t get out into the garden as much as we’d like, we can still plan what we’ll do once we do get out there. Traditionally December and January are the time to get online or leaf through catalogues to order seeds. Which leads to that other well-known tradition; getting overexcited when faced with the number of fantastic plants we could be growing and buying far too many packets of seeds. Or maybe that’s just me.

Once the seeds have arrived, and I’ve recovered from the shock of seeing how many packets I’ve ordered, I like to sort out a rough sowing timetable. This involves three different tins for veg seed. The first is for seeds I’ll sow indoors early in the year (Feb-March). The second is for seeds I’ll sow indoors in April-May and the third for seeds I’ll sow direct in the ground. There are other tins for flower seed, but I’m not going into those for this blog!

I don’t work out a strict sowing timetable for the allotment because I’ve been growing a long time and the tins cover it, but if you’re new to growing its a good idea to be that bit more organised so you don’t miss anything completely. Planning is also part of the fun. You can write your timetable down, put it in an excel spreadsheet or just line your seed packs up in order in an old plastic punnet. Timing of sowing can make a difference to the result so it is worth trying to get it right. You’ll find my rough suggested timetable a bit further down the blog .

Remember – what you are aiming for is plants that grow steadily to maturity without having any serious interruptions.

Some people start sowing in January but there aren’t any veg seeds I’d start that early, mostly because the light is still too low but also because I don’t have a heated greenhouse so start a lot of things off on the kitchen window ledge. If I start too early I know I’ll end up with lanky plants that have spent far too long in poor light. Better to start a bit later when I know I’ll be able to get them out into the greenhouse, during the day at least, while they’re still compact and healthy.

Free seeds

Free seeds! Looking forward to trying these.

As I work in the horticulture trade I often get given seeds as well. Mostly this happens when I go to press events or trade shows, but in current circumstances those are thin on the ground. Recently I received this lovely mix of seeds from Thompson & Morgan who were sending them out to members of the Garden Media Guild. I believe they also send out seed samples to members of their Gardening Club, so it might be worth checking that.

As you probably know, you can often get free seeds attached to magazine covers, too, so keep an eye out for those. With garden centres closed a lot of what I grew in 2020 came to me this way and made me expand my repertoire. I hadn’t grown turnips for years, but I had the seed so I used it and they did well and got used regularly in casseroles so I’m definitely going to be growing them again.

Trying new things is always a good idea, whether it’s just something new to you or a brand new introduction. Breeders are constantly working on new varieties of our favourite veg. The sort of improvements they’re aiming for are usually things like resistance to diseases (blight resistant tomatoes are vital for outdoor growing in many parts of the country), being able to cope with our climate (sweet corn used to be considered impossible to grow in this country), giving you a bigger crop, developments in flavour (often sweeter) or just offering something a bit different like kalettes (imagine a very long stem with open, leafy sprouts along it if you haven’t seen them). They don’t always get it right (I have never yet grown a spinach that didn’t bolt in warm weather) but when they do the results can be very good.

What to sow when

I’ve covered some of this in an earlier blog, so I’ll keep this brief. Bear in mind there are a million caveats when it comes to seed sowing. For example, are you sowing your peas direct outside or indoors? If sowing direct, have you warmed the soil with plastic? Are you using a cloche? Are you sowing on cold, wet clay soil or a lovely well drained loam? Whereabouts in the country do you live? You need to learn your about your own conditions and set your own timetable. It’s a good idea to take notes of sowing time, germination and planting if you’ve got time, so you can look back and see what worked. I make a quick note about the variety as well, so I don’t have to find the seed packet again when I’m potting up or planting out (and also because I write a blog).

Late Feb – early March

Tender veg that needs a long run up before it produces something edible, so tomatoes, cucumber, aubergines and peppers. Broad beans and peas if you’re starting them under cover, chard, first sowing of lettuce

Late March – April (some of these can be sown more than once, up to May)

Brassicas – kale, cabbage, calabrese, purple sprouting broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohl rabbi, collard greens etc

Runner beans, french beans, courgettes, all types of squash, sweetcorn. More lettuce and more chard

Direct sowing

For me, this is mostly root veg and I’ll make the first sowing in March or early April, depending on the weather and how much rain we’ve been having. You don’t want to sow into cold, wet soil but you can use a cloche to dry and warm the soil and protect seedlings if you want to get things underway sooner. I sow carrots, parsnips, beetroot, turnips, radishes (just a few, I’m not a huge fan) and spinach. For everything except parsnips I’ll make second and third sowings up to early June. Parsnip germination can be poor in warmer weather so I wouldn’t normally sow later than around mid-May. In May I’ll sow florence (bulb) fennel direct.

If sowing reasonably hardy things like broad beans and peas direct, this should be done from around late March depending on soil and weather, and if sowing runner beans, courgettes, squash, sweet corn or anything tender direct, this should be done in May after the last frost.

How long can you keep your seeds?

Some seeds lose viability very quickly. Parnsips are notorious for not germinating if the seeds are more than a year old so there’s not much point buying more than you’re likely to sow in one year. Other seeds will last for several years. The packing date and the date they should be sown by will be printed on the packet so if you don’t use all the seeds you’ll know whether it’s worth keeping them for another year. Store them carefully, though, somewhere cool and dry, such as in a tin! And if you have leftover seeds in a pack nearing it’s final sowing date, or you have packs you haven’t even opened, you can always give them away or swap them with other veg growers.

And finally – open pollinated versus F1 hybrid – what is the difference?

You’ll see these terms either on packets or referred to when people are talking about seeds, so I thought it was worth giving a bit of explanation

The term open pollinated sort of speaks for itself – these are seeds which have been pollinated outside ‘in the field’ in a natural way by insects or wind for instance. This process allows plants to adapt to local growing conditions over generations and to some extent allows them to adapt to changes in the environment. You can save the seed, sow it the following year and the results that will be ‘true to type’. In reality they’ll be slightly variable, but similar enough to the ones you grew the previous year. This is being talked about a lot at the moment as it’s the way a lot of older vegetable varieties were kept going. As fewer people save seed there’s a fear that the genetics of these old varieties will be lost.

F1 means first filial. The seeds are the product of two distinct varieties that have been deliberately cross pollinated under cover and allowed to set seed. Those seeds will have a certain set of characteristics that have been inherited from the parents, so they’ll be very uniform in how they look, how they grow and when they mature – useful for commercial growers though slightly less so at the allotment where you’ll need to stagger sowing times if you don’t want all your plants to mature at the same time. The plants will usually have hybrid vigour which means they’ll be bigger and more fertile than either of the parents, but if they set seed the plants from those seeds won’t be ‘true to type’ because they’ll inherit different characteristics from their parent plants. Hybridising is a way of breeding in specific traits like resistance to disease, although since the resulting F1 plants are all genetically identical sometimes this resistance can be overcome by the diseases when they mutate. Blight resistant tomatoes were an example of this – early plants were initially resistant but became less so as the disease changed over time. Breeders have overcome the problem by breeding in a second resistant gene from wild tomatoes so newer varieties should continue to be resistant – though I have to admit my understanding of this complicated process is slightly hazy and I don’t know if it will prove to be permanent.

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