Hopefully by now you’ve managed to get most, if not all, the digging done. That’s the hard part. The rest of it is easy, especially the last bit: where you get to eat the results of all your hard work.
If you’re new to gardening, stick with things that are easier to grow. Nothing boosts confidence like success, and nothing crushes it like failure. So don’t set yourself up for a fall: trying to grow aubergines or melons in your first year might be pushing it. Lettuce, tomatoes, peas, beets, chard – these are all really easy and very rewarding. Even better, if you want you can probably save your own seeds from them for next year.
Don’t worry if your seeds are a few years old. Some of them may be past it, but some of them probably aren’t. I haven’t bought any seeds at all this year, deciding to rely entirely on what I already had. And that has given me a couple of surprises. I’d thought for years that leeks and parsnip seeds only lasted for about a year, after which they were too old and wouldn’t germinate. So i’ve been buying them every year for ages! But this year I sowed some parsnips that were 3 years old, and leeks that I bought for last year. And loads of them came up. Swiss chard that I saved from our own plants back in 2013 still came up with what looks like 100% germination. That’s amazing. Yesterday I gave some seeds to my sister, who has a nice little raised bed all ready to grow – and nothing to grow in it!
Some seeds have an incredible lifespan. A friend once cleared away an old sheep shelter which had occupied the same spot for roughly 100 years, leaving just a patch of bare earth. Shortly after that it was covered in foxgloves. As there were no foxgloves anywhere nearby the only conclusion we could reach was that the seeds were there in the ground before the shelter was put up – and now their day had come. If you’ve ever seen foxglove seeds, you’ll know how tiny they are – and that, for me, makes it even better.
We’ve been growing a particular variety of pea now for about 15 years, after I got 10 seeds from the Heritage Seed Library during my first year of membership. This is a great resource that allows people like us to acquire seeds no longer available in the shops – heritage varieties, sometimes from many, many years ago.
This variety is called ‘Prew’s Special’. Prew was Lord Portman’s gardener, and Lord Portman’s best friend was Lord Carnarvon – the same Lord Carnarvon who ‘discovered’ Tutankhamen’s tomb with Howard Carter back in 1922. Apparently he asked Lord Portman to see if ‘his man’ (Prew) ‘could do anything with these…I got them in the tomb.’
Personally I think he got them from Cairo Market, as I just can’t believe any seed can remain viable for that long. But, wherever he got them, they’re great – and not like any other pea I’ve ever seen.
Peas ‘breed true’, as the flower is already self-pollinated before it opens. By the end of the pea season I’ve always got a few pods on the vines that somehow escaped being picked and are now too old. They’re the ones we keep as seed for the following year.
Tomatoes are almost as easy. Use a kitchen knife to separate seeds from the mass and carefully put one every 5 cms or so onto a strip of paper. Once it’s dried out, you’ve got your very own seed tape for next year. Jut store it in a cool, dry place until it’s time to plant it.
If you want to get serious about saving seeds, check out the Real Seeds website. They focus on unusual varieties that you can’t buy anywhere else, and all of them are ‘open pollinated’ so you can save seeds from them. And, so long as your’e careful not to let plants cross-pollinate (which can be tricky with things like runner beans, cucumbers and courgettes) they’ll breed true.
Don’t worry about things like, ‘how deep should I plant them?’ Just put almost all of them about 1cm down. That works for lettuce, tomato, carrots, chard, beets, coriander, turnips, loads of things. The general rule is, the bigger the seed, the deeper it can be planted. So, maybe 2 cms down for peas. Give them a sprinkle of water each day for about a week to make sure the earth stays damp. Once they’ve germinated, they’ll quickly put roots further down into the earth and begin to fend for themselves.
I usually grow things far too close to each other, but it can be a big mistake as overcrowded plants won’t produce a crop. So, do try to give them enough room. Seed packets usually tell you how much space the plants need.
If you sowed the seeds too thickly – which is easy to do with things like carrots – no problem. Just wait until they’re big enough, then carefully reach in and cut the extras off with a pair of scissors. Don’t pull them out, especially if the earth is wet! If you do that when they’re small the chances are you’ll disturb the roots of the other seedlings nearby.
Plants are slow to start, but grow quickly. You know that story about the chessboard and the grains of rice? One grain on square one, two on square two, four on square three, eight on square four, and so on. I’ve heard that there isn’t enough rice in the world to deal with square 64. Growing your own vegetables is a bit like that. You plant this tiny, tiny little seed – a tomato, perhaps – and a few weeks later have this huge (in comparison) plant, with ripe tomatoes hanging off it. And, they’ll be the best tomatoes you ever tasted! Fantastic! What are you waiting for? Get sowing!