With the start of February comes new hope for things to come, daffodils are showing their first shoots, buds are forming on the trees and the poly-tunnel crops find a new lease of life. The oriental greens and soft herbs in the tunnels are a welcome source of greenery through the darker days of winter, growing relentlessly from October right through to February before the spring sowing commences. Coriander and parsley refuse to bolt and produce lots of lovely soft fragrant leaf for the kitchen.
From the moment I was old enough to understand how a plant grows I’ve been fascinated with the germination of seed. How can something so beautiful, productive and in some cases vast come from something so small? The term seed is applied to many forms; seed potatoes, which are in fact tubers, sweetcorn which is a seed enclosed in a husk or shell and the fabled strawberry with its seeds on the outside, those ‘seeds’ are actually fruits called achenes. Despite common misconception, we all know that we need seeds (of all types) to grow our own food. The variety of seed available to the home grower far outweighs the choice of produce available in even the best farm shops and allows us to be creative with colour and taste.
I feel it’s the responsibility of the smallholder to grow and save seed. Large seed companies corner the market and control what we should grow, so it’s essential that we save and swap seed to keep old and interesting varieties alive. There are some fantastic companies growing and selling real seed and some great initiatives for seed saving co-ops across the UK. Using seeds that are “native” to your area will usually perform better than generic hybrid seeds grown on mass.
The majority of what we grow here at River Cottage HQ is propagated from seed. Some we save ourselves and some we buy from other organic seed suppliers. Quality of seed can vary, so it’s worth cataloguing seeds that germinated well and seed growers that supplied you with healthy viable seed. I tend to buy open pollinated seed as opposed to F1 (hybrid) seed. Hybridised seed contains genetic material from two parent plants meaning that it will grow with vigour in the first year but will not grow true to type. This means it may be stunted and genetically different to the plant you saved the seed from. It can sometimes result in some interesting genetic throwbacks but mostly it will reduce the yield and strength of the plant.
Once you have purchased or saved your seed it is important to store them correctly. Seeds should be stored in cool, dark and dry conditions, this ensures viability in coming years and saves buying new every season. Most seeds if stored well should last 2-3 years, but some, like parsnip seed will need to be bought or saved every year. It is wise to buy what you need so you don’t have lots left over.
Seeds have four main requirements for successful germination; warmth, light, oxygen and moisture. The success of growing your own hangs on getting this right. However it really is quite simple.
It’s important to sow your seeds at the right time of year, this will naturally allow the right amount of light and temperature for your seeds to grow. This is usually indicated on seed packets, although they are only a guideline and need to be interpreted rather than followed. I experiment every year with sowing times, referring to my diary and adjusting according to last year’s results. The amount of water is the bit that is easy to get wrong - too wet and the seed will rot, not enough and it won’t imbibe and germinate. The key I find with propagation is consistent environmental conditions.
‘How deep do I sow my seeds?’ is a common question, this is mainly down to common sense, we sow tiny seed straight on the surface with a thin layer of sieved compost or vermiculite and larger seed about three times the depth of itself. It is a loose instruction but it becomes clear with practice. This method applies to both indoor and outdoor seed sowing. We sometimes sow two seeds per module/pot and once germinated select the strongest seedling, weeding out the other, this method is used for plants that are more difficult to germinate.
I would always recommend sowing seed into a seed compost rather than a multi-purpose one, as it has a finer consistency and contains just the right amount of nutrients required for initial growth. Sowing into homemade compost can be tricky as you will often find it will have weed seed in it which can compete with your seedlings. Once your seeds are sown, avoid watering overhead with a watering can as this can dislodge your careful sowing. Instead, use a water bath and simply place your seed tray/pot in the water and capillary action will naturally draw water up the compost to the roots avoiding disturbance.
February is a great time for getting the propagation space in order. Pot washing is essential, leaving you free from carrying-over disease and old compost from the previous season. Throwing away broken trays/pots saves time in spring giving you a running start. Cleaning glass/plastic on your covered growing areas will ensure maximum light levels for propagation.
Now is the time to sow the first cauliflowers and cabbages inside for a summer harvest. Expect to get your first crop in June. Caulis can cause problems if they become checked in these early stages, to prevent this ensure they do not dry out and plant in fertile, free draining soil giving them lots of room. If space is at a premium, I would suggest saving room for other more prolific brassicas such as kale or purple sprouting broccoli.
Our seeds first break ground in February, with tomatoes, chillies, celeriac, peas and broad beans leading the way. These are sown and germinated in a heated propagator in the polytunnel as the weather is still cold (a warm conservatory or windowsill will suffice). But March is the time when things really get going and it is when you can start thinking about sowing seeds direct into the ground.