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Seedy business

March 06, 2016



‘Sense and sensibility’ tend to fly out of the window whenever gardeners come face to face with those impossible to resist, so temptingly displayed, colourful packets of seeds and, totally irrespective of the amount and variety of seeds waiting to be sown at home, we inevitably end up buying even more and then wonder, in genuine puzzlement, where on earth are we going to grow them.

Accumulating — no, let’s be brutally realistic and admit to hoarding — seeds is, unless it is done with the sincere objective of establishing a ‘seed bank’, part and parcel of a gardener’s psyche. I personally know of gardeners who, for various reasons, no longer have an actual garden but reside in minuscule apartments yet still have their seed hoard intact, continually adding to it because ‘you just never know’ and yes, they are quite right.

The thing about seeds though, is that unless you have access to a purpose-built, temperature and humidity controlled, bunker in which the highly individual storage requirements of individual seed varieties can be met and maintained, seeds both can — and do — expire.

Don’t hoard on or overstock your seeds as they do tend to expire, if not stored properly

It is much better, therefore, to sow away to your heart’s content, utilising every single millimetre of ground space, roof space, balcony / veranda space, pot / container and whatever else is capable of holding soil until your seed stock is — aside from just a few for ‘emergencies’ — well and truly full. When it is full, and you still have seeds to spare then you seriously need to think: will excess seeds, in meticulously sealed containers stored in the salad drawer of the fridge, still be viable when their next sowing season comes around? Can you spare the fridge space? What happens to them when the electricity vanishes for hours — maybe days — on end? Can you simply store them, in airtight packets / jars, in a cupboard / drawer or will the intense summer heat kill them? Can you bear to give them away to friends and neighbours or to barter them for different kinds of seeds ... but that leads back to the storage problem!

Some seed companies purposefully, and for their financial gain, put far more seeds in a packet than a person with an average-sized garden can possibly sow in one season, unless they are happy to grow nothing but cabbages, for example. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with cabbage, eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in, day out for months on end is pushing the culinary limits, plus, the soil / environment will not thank you for mono-cropping either.

With the price of seeds, especially seeds of something out of the ordinary, showing an ever upward trend, it just may be time to re-think seed buying habits by a) Making a check list of possibly viable seed varieties in your hoard and keeping this list with you at all times, especially if you are going anywhere near a seed store, so that you don’t buy something you already have. b) Make a seed sharing deal with a friend, splitting packets and cost 50/50. c) Organise a ‘seed swap’, maybe with the help of your local horticultural club, where all comers can swap their excess seeds for other seeds, no money involved. d) Save your home-grown, home-produced seeds — from heritage varieties only — so that you never have to venture near a seed store again!

And this, of course, is the perfect month to begin your seed saving venture as the vast majority of dazzling winter flower displays will have reached, or be reaching, the seed harvesting stage right now.

Calendulas & ‘tagetes’
Calendulas & ‘tagetes’

Flower seeds tend to be easier and quicker to produce than vegetable seeds; remember, harvest seeds only from heritage varieties as mentioned above. ‘Heritage’ varieties are those old, traditional, favourites, freely pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects with larkspur, dahlias, cosmos, poppies, sweet Williams, sweet sultan, old-fashioned petunias, geraniums, phlox, verbena, pansies and violas being easily recognisable varieties although, and this may not always be a simple matter, you need to be fairly certain that the plants were grown from heritage stock.

If they are of hybrid stock, be they F1, F2 hybrids or otherwise, seed saved from them is unlikely to produce the same quality of flower as that of the plant the seed was harvested from. Heritage plants on the other hand produce heritage seed, and seed harvested from heritage plants results in the next generation being the same quality as the parent plant. If you have grown both heritage and hybrid flowers, say poppies of both types, bees may very well have carried pollen from heritage to hybrid and harvested seeds may not be completely up to heritage standards. It is wise, if you intend harvesting your own seeds, to grow on heritage varieties of all plants.

Producing true to type vegetable seeds is a subject that will be explored in a column in a few weeks time.

Now let’s move on to take a look at what can be sown this month:

In the vegetable garden you can, I’m sure, find room for some more ladies finger, tomatoes and don’t overlook cherry tomatoes as these tend to have less problems, in our climate, than the larger varieties; cucumber, aubergines, radish, spinach, leaf beet / Swiss chard, lettuce, cauliflower, loose-leafed cabbage, green onions, capsicums, chillies, potatoes, courgettes / zucchini, pumpkin / squash, ‘tinda’, ‘lauki’, ‘tori’, spaghetti squash, ‘karela’, ‘kakri’, bottle gourds and climbing beans or ‘tur’.

Herbs to sow include as many different types of basil as you can get, coriander, borage, savoury, nasturtiums, calendula, chives, garlic chives, lemon balm, lemon grass, plecanthrus, chamomile, agastache and start off some ginger too. In partial shade, try thyme, oregano and marjoram.

Fruit: water melons and sweet melons should both go in after the middle of the month. Chinese gooseberries can be sown and next time you treat yourself to a pineapple, select one with a healthy, green top. Twist — do not cut — off the top, remove a few of the bottom leaves, sit on top of (not in) a jar of water with the water level below, not touching, the pineapple base. Roots should develop fairly fast. Let them get healthy, established and then plant the pineapple in very rich, well draining, compost which is high in iron — if in doubt about iron content, place a few rusty, iron (not steel) nails in the base of the pot before adding the compost. Keep in a sunny spot, maintain soil moisture and, hopefully, it will grow and bear a pineapple in a year’s time.

Lastly, some floral summer sunshine: sunflowers, amaranthus, celosia, coreopsis, gompherena, portulaca, petunias, marigolds, verbena, tagetes and the ever popular zinnia which was, earlier this year, the very first flower to bloom inside the American Space Station which makes it, as far as we know, the very first flower in space!

Please continue sending your gardening queries to Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2016