Buying and choosing seeds
31 December 2018
Val Bourne is an award-winning garden writer, photographer and lecturer.
The choice offered in gardening catalogues is bewildering, so it's worth doing some research. Val Bourne explains the seed terminology and shares some tips for saving your own seed in future.
Most gardeners will have acquired lots of seed catalogues in the last month or so. They can be very confusing, because so much choice is bewildering, because there are new things on offer. Prices vary, so it’s well worth doing some research, so that you get good value and good varieties in good numbers.
Understanding the lingo
These are always more expensive than ordinary seeds because they’re first generation hybrids between two different plants, so they are more expensive to produce. Generally you can’t save seeds from F1 varieties because the next generation won’t resemble to parents.
F1 varieties are worth the extra cost in my opinion. They have hybrid vigour which means they germinate more easily and grow more successfully. It's really worth investing in F1 varieties of carrot, parsnip and leek, because the germination is so much better than in open-pollinated varieties. F1 hybrids tend to grow at the same rate so you generally avoid having one huge carrot next to one tiny one.
Advances are being made all the time and a new range of hybrid climbing beans, involving runner beans and French beans, has produced self-fertile F1 beans but do well in hot summers. ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Firestorm’ are both excellent. These were raised by Tozer Seeds who specialise in raising commercial varieties suited to the British climate. Check out their seed range on www.tozerseeds.com
These are field grown as a seed crop and many of these are well worth growing because these varieties have been producing successful crops for decades. The pea ‘Hurst Greenshaft’, for instance, dates from the 19th century but it’s still a great variety and my ‘go-to’ choice.
HA - Hardy Annual
Hardy annual seeds germinate very easily, usually within 10 - 14 days and they flower in their first year. Generally they are sown in March or April, because they are hardy. However certain things are worth sowing in autumn, because you get larger plants, and these include umbellifers such as Ammi and Orlaya grandiflora.
Some hardy annuals self-seed very successfully, producing seedlings in the autumn and generally these will overwinter. Nigella and calendula both do this really well, perhaps too well.
You can also save seeds from hardy annuals once they’re ripe. Choose a dry day and collect your seeds and put them in large envelopes with a label. Clean the seeds up at your leisure and store them in a biscuit tin placed in a cool place. Garden sheds are usually fine for this. These seeds can be sown very successfully next spring.
HB – Hardy Biennials
Hardy biennials take two years to produce flowers and they are generally sown in June and July so that they produce a large enough rosette to withstand winter. These can be planted outside in September. Foxgloves, wallflowers and sweet Williams are all raised in this way. They all produce seed after flowering and this can be collected in summer and then you can either sow it straightaway, or keep it until next spring before sowing it.
HP - Hardy Perennials
Hardy perennials live for many years and many of their seeds need a period of stratification, or a cold shock, before they’re willing to germinate. If you collect hardy perennial seeds from the garden, try to sow it straight away. You will have to be patient because it’s likely to germinate in the following spring. If you buy packets of hardy perennial seeds you can sow them and put them in the fridge for a couple of months (in a clean pot that’s covered) and this will prompt earlier germination once you take them out. Hardy perennial seeds are probably the trickiest packeted seeds of all to get to germinate.
Know your catalogues
It's always worth using a vegetable specialist for vegetable seeds because generally they offer better value and better varieties. Many of them offer special terms for garden clubs and allotment societies so a group of people might be able to band together and get a good discount.
I always look at Kings Seeds first for vegetables, because this Essex-based seed company, founded in 1888, offers excellent value principally because they’re still a seed company. There are no gimmicks or frills, so prices begin at 95p and stay low. Their well laid out and illustrated catalogue marks the AGM varieties with a trophy cup logo and adds useful information such as ‘best for early sowing’ or ‘stores well’. You're not overwhelmed with the word ‘new’ because, as experienced gardeners know, new is not necessarily good. A few things that are ‘new to Kings’ are added every year.
Kings cater for the exhibition gardener, who’s growing for the show bench, and those growing for the kitchen. Kings also sell flower seeds and they specialise in sweet peas and have the largest range of any of the general seed catalogues. The ones with the most ticks are the most highly scented. They also sell flower seeds and they have a sister company called Suffolk Herbs.
Seeds of Italy
Italy isn’t as balmy as you might imagine and many Italian varieties do well in this country. Large, good value packets on offer.
Good value products and no-frills policy.
D. T. Brown
A catalogue for the vegetable gardener and allotmenteer.
Lots of choice on offer and a go to company for edibles of all sorts.
Flower and vegetables combined
Set up by Jeff Fothergill forty years ago, this Suffolk-based, family-owned business has assembled a highly-skilful team and they’ve come up with some good ranges of flowers and vegetables. These are trialled in Suffolk, so their suitability to the British climate can be assessed, and this is important because most seed raising takes place in much warmer climates. Quality and choice are very important to Mr Fothergill’s because they are principally seedsmen. There’s an Award of Garden, or AGM flower and vegetable range, a David Domoney vegetable range. Mr F have also developed a new non-chemical seed priming treatment that uses only water, called Optigrow. This primes the seeds, helping to break dormancy, and prompts easier germination.
Thompson & Morgan
This innovative seed company, based near Ipswich in Suffolk, is often first to take up new vegetable varieties and flower seeds. It’s diversified into plants, and seed prices tend to steeper and quantities are often lower too. It’s still well worth looking though.
Mainly flower specialists
If a flower produces seeds, it’s almost certainly bee-friendly. If it’s an annual or biennial it’s very survival depends on being pollinated, so it’s really bee-friendly. Growing flowers from seed will help your bees.
Most of the flower seeds Sarah Raven sells are good in a vase. She also sells dedicated colour mixes, such as blue clary rather than the confetti mixtures most seed companies offer. It’s a mouth-watering selection and Sarah also has her own range in Johnsons Seeds.
Started by Douglas Bowden, who was a fanatical seed sower and now run by his daughters, Heather Leedham and Sally Redhead, this is a real gardeners’ catalogue. You’ll get plain packets, minus any glossy pictures, but the upside is you’ll find unusual things not available anywhere else – and at good prices. Their dedicated team will also answer queries and their timing is immaculate. The new catalogue just the doormat just before Christmas – the perfect antidote to too many family visits.
Heritage and organic seed companies
Older varieties are still popular with some gardeners and Thompson & Morgan sell a heritage range of vegetables.
The Real Seed Catalogue
This small Pembrokeshire seed company has an extensive range of older varieties, many not available elsewhere. These are seeds that are suitable for saving from year to year and their range is designed for the small grower, or home gardener. Instructions on saving seeds are included in every order and there are some weird and whacky things on offer!
The Organic Garden Catalogue
Not every seed listed is organic, but many of them are. More importantly every seed has organic or non-organic in brackets by the picture, so it’s easy to see which ones are. Strong ranges in traditional ranges including winter squashes, kale and carrots.
Storing your seeds
Keep them dry and cool – a biscuit tin with a tight lid is excellent. Place it somewhere cool – not in the fridge.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.