You are hereBuying Seed
Which seed variety to buy - these have worked for me, an eclectic list.
Companies like Stormy Hall, Organic Gardening Catalogue, Mr Fothergill and Real Seeds offer a good range. As I understand it many of their (and everyone else’s) seed have similar origins in multinational seed houses. But the seed may be older or younger, according to how much stock of old seed is carried by each operation. Unfortunately, the buyer cannot know that! Every year I suffer poor germination from one or more major seed company's seed, when comparing germination in seed batches of the same vegetable. I suspect this is because the seed is old.
If this happens to you, I suggest you send an email. Officially they will deny any responsibility and assure you that germination tests showed 84% success, which I believe is the legal minimum! They cannot publicly admit any less but I am sure that notice is taken of all complaints and I speak to so many gardeners who suffer germination issues, similar to mine, making me think that companies really do need to know and, one hopes, sell viable seed every time. Viable in a garden as well as a laboratory.
One thing is for sure: fresh, home saved seed is far more vigorous and reliable. See my archived September 2008 blog of monthly work. But it is difficult and skilful work to save good seed, and time must be available at certain key moments. Real Seeds offer good advice and some excellent seeds as well, although I don’t agree with quite all their varietal assessments!
Do shop around and remember that seed is cheap in relation to what it can produce.
An asterisk (*) indicates vegetables that grow in half a season (in Britain), so they can be grown before or after other half-season vegetables. For example, carrots then oriental leaves or endives, lettuce then beetroot or bulb fennel, autumn sown beans then leeks or kale.
Best grown under cover. I struggle more often than succeed, in SW England our summers are rarely hot enough. No hot tips here!
Boltardy has good flavour and grows well at any time of year, especially from early sowing, as early as late February in plugs or pots in the greenhouse. Burpees Golden tastes good and is a lovely colour, while Cheltenham Green Top is long, sweet and stands well in winter. Sow the latter two from early May to mid June. Golden beetroot germinated poorly in 2011, from three different suppliers, making me wonder if they use the same supplier themselves!
For sowing in autumn to overwinter, Aquadulce Claudia is reliable and develops great flavour if beans are allowed to mature until white and creamy. It also crops well from sowing by early March. Masterpiece Green Longpod has tasty green beans.
Noisette (Organic Gardening Catalogue) is reliable, of good flavour and appears less palatable to caterpillars than F1 hybrids. Flower Sprouts (F1 hybrid cross with kale) have open buttons of sweeter flavour, sold by Marshalls.
Early Nantes, for early and later sowings, grow vigorously to a fair size, with fair sweetness. Berlicum and Autumn King varieties are good for sowing by mid June, to store through winter. Coloured varieties have variable vigour – yellow ones grow easily, purple ones are more tricky, all have intriguingly different flavours.
A large trial at Raymond Blanc’s garden revealed few differences in flavour and growth. I find that Prinz has healthier leaves than Ibis, although both grow to a fine size.
Chicories for hearting*
Leaf chicory is rather bitter so I concentrate on bitter-sweet hearts, mostly for salad, sown after mid June (to reduce bolting). Fine red radicchio’s develop from most Palla Rossa varieties, when sown late June to mid July. They are complemented by amazing pink and yellow colours from varieties such as Lusia and Romea (Seeds of Italy). Be wary of Treviso which does not really make a heart, is better for leaves.
I like Seeds of Italy’s selection, which emphasises that all shapes, colours and sizes are possible! Genovese and Striato of Naples have grown well here. I find that yellow varieties are less productive. Remember that courgettes are simply under-grown marrows, of the summer squash family – see winter squashes for Butternut et al. Pumpkins are different again, see below.
For large leaved scaroles, try Bubikopf which keeps healthier than many others (less browning at the margins). For a frizzy endive, I like Plantation for its abundant green leaves and Bianca Riccia da Taglio (Real Seeds) for its luminous and tasty leaves, of a bright yellow and highly decorative colour.
Some I like include Tree Spinach (Simply Vegetables), which has beautiful magenta shoots and grows up to five feet high, watercress for its (invasive) vigour and flavour, and lime basil for stunning citrus aromas and tastes.
Best not sown until June, nor after about mid July. Zefa Fino is worth a try, it grew large in the damp season of 2008. I struggled with Seeds of Italy fennel.
French Bean (*dwarf)
Climbing beans come in many shapes and colours, so read the small print. Blauhilde has lovely purple pods, Fortex (Really Cool Seeds) has surprisingly long ones of good flavour. My favourite dwarf beans are Cupidon for long, green pods and Sonesta, with waxy, yellow pods.
Once you have a harvest of bulbs that you like, I recommend keeping some larger cloves to re-plant in early October, unless you have eaten them all for breakfast (good on toast).
I grow none of these, preferring instead to plant or sow second crops in July, August and until about mid September. Then I sow any spare ground, from about mid September to mid October, with leaf radish, for possible use as a salad, or broad bean Aquadulce Claudia, which provides an early crop if it survives the winter, otherwise it will have helped provide soil cover.
Chervil is delicious and misunderstood. When sown in July to mid August, it crops for a long time if autumn is not too dry. Sow August to early September for growing under cover through winter and until it flowers in early May. Coriander likewise. Dill grows well from a February sowing indoors, planted early April under fleece and cropping my May, giving a long harvest until flowering in late June. A plant or two of summer savoury, set out in May, is great for extra flavours.
For tenderness and eating raw, try Red Russian or Sutherland (Real Seeds). For lovely red colours, grow Scarlet or Redbor F1 (expensive).
Swiss Giant and King Richard grow large in autumn, have less frost resistance than Autumn Mammoth which itself has less frost resistance than Musselburgh, Bandit etc. Read the small print to be sure of having a variety suitable for the season in which you want to be eating leeks. Sow them all at the same time in early to mid April (seed bed outdoors), or late March indoors in modules.
So many choices. Remember that Batavian and Romaine (cos) varieties can be picked over as leaf lettuce, although they can also grow hearts. I must mention Grenoble Red (recent tip from a reader, google Rouge Grenobloise for more results), for its abundant virtues – above average resistance to frost, slugs and mildew, and an ability to grow for longer than most varieties when its outer leaves are repeatedly picked off. If allowed to heart, it needs plenty of water to avoid tipburn. I like Freckles, Rosemoor and Chartwell cos, Maravilla di Verano batavian, Bergamo and Amorina (lollos) and always try a few others.
Until recently, onions were so easy to grow. Mildew has become a problem and I am growing onions from seed to avoid risking contamination from sets. By 2011 I enjoyed healthy growth from all onions and liked Stormy Halls' Sturon for even growth and good storage. Red Baron is a good red onion but all red onions are more prone to bolting than white ones and cost about twice as much to grow.
A big subject! They are best sown after the summer solstice, to make more leaves and less flowers, (early August is best date here) and they like moist soil. The mustards are pretty and of great flavour, especially Green and Red Streaks, also known as Frills. Red Giant is good for stir frying, Red Dragon for salads. Pak choi is adored by slugs but worth a try, while leaf radish is the most vigorous of all, with mild, hairless leaves that keep growing until year’s end, albeit slowly by then. Mizuna is another banker for late autumn leaves, resisting most frost before winter becomes too earnest, and Red Mizuna is pretty.
White Gem is reliable, Gladiator F1 is longer, both have excellent flavour. Buy fresh seed every year.
I love Sugar Snaps, whose fat pods are sweet and edible. Tall varieties in general grow 6 feet (2m) or higher, and crop more heavily than dwarf ones. They also crop for longer: an heirloom variety Mr Brays, grows an abundance of creamy peas for about six weeks, a little longer than Mummy Peas (from the pyramids...). These tall varieties are also good for pea shoots.
Like aubergines, best grown under cover. Sweet Banana bears many fruit, long and of pale colour, ripening to orange. Sweet Baby Orange is good for containers. There are many other good varieties, of chile too (try Really Cool Seeds who bred the Dorset Naga).
Rouge Vif D’Etamps is a typically straggling plant capable of covering a large area and making medium sized, flatter, reasonably tasty fruits – but of much less flavour than winter squashes - and pumpkins’ softer skin means they also store less well.
Timperley Early keeps producing lovely red stalks by late winter and throughout spring, our crowns are now fourteen years old and doing well.
I like Toscane F1 for sowing in March and then to crop by early May for six weeks, when larger leaves are piched or cut off. To have green leaves in summer it is more reliable to grow leaf beet or swiss chard. Spinach for salad in winter can be had from Medania, Fuji or Oriento, sown in early September, and grown under cover.
Sungold, an orange cherry, has a fine, refreshing sweetness and ripens early. Sukaru F1, a red cherry, offers great flavour and yield. Ferline resists some blight and its dark red, medium to large fruits are fleshy. Marmande is ever reliable for beef tomatoes, Rosada F1 is a cherry plum of great flavour and Diplom F1 did amazingly in 2011. All do best under cover, unless it is a hot summer…
Red (or Uchiki) Kuri trails and makes small red fruits of excellent flavour, which manage to ripen in damp summers. Crown Prince’s blue-grey fruits are of superb flavour, ripening a little later. Butternut’s tasty fruits are hard to ripen unless summer is hot – their skins need to be brown and hard if you want best flavour, and to keep them through winter. I would go for any of the smaller, red fruited varieties.