Advice Cottage Garden Project Plot #59

Now’s the Time For Your Annual Seed Audit

January 2017 seed packets
It’s seed sorting time!

Don’t you just love this time of year? Okay, the weather can be pretty atrocious – the ground tends to swing from too wet to walk on to frozen solid – and maybe there isn’t much colour around to speak of. But hey, that’s just outside. Plenty of time for outside later in the year. Now is the time when you have the perfect excuse for some inside jobs (with hot beverage of preference and biscuits of choice to-hand). And right now, one of the most exciting inside jobs you can get on with is… your annual seed audit!

Trust me on this, there’s nothing like sorting through your seed box on a cold, dark, February evening to get you excited about the horticultural year ahead. All those brightly coloured packets, so full of the promise of wonderful things to come. Here’s your favourite variety of runner bean – remember how fresh they tasted, picked and steamed within half an hour? – and those tomatoes that actually managed to stay blight-free, and a few seeds left from that squash plant that did so well, and oh, yeah, there’s that paper wrap of “special herbs” you picked up at the farmer’s market… er, maybe the least said about that the better. Look, leeks! (You’re on much safer ground with leeks). And beetroot, and courgettes, and callaloo, and calabrese, and okra, and physalis, and kale, and cabbage, and spinach, and… and…

You get the picture. So many seeds. And the best thing to do with them right now is give them a proper sort out. Otherwise, how will you know what you need to go seed shopping for..?

Here are some general, rule-of-thumb criteria that I apply during my own seed audit, offered as a starter-for-ten.

Criteria #1 – Did You Grow These Last Year and Did They Taste / Look Good?

If Yes: You’ll probably want to grow those again, then. If you have any seeds left, move to Criteria #2. If you’ve kept the empty packet to remind you to buy more, add them to the shopping list. Unless you’ve found another variety that’s likely to taste even better, or just fancy a change, of course.

If No: Let’s face it, life’s too short and space is probably too tight to grow crops you know you’re not going to eat (unless you’re growing them for someone else) or flowering plants that just aren’t as attractive as you’d hoped they’d be, or don’t fit in with your overall schemes and plans.

Put them aside and then, when you’ve been through your whole seed collection, donate the unwanted ones to someone who might be able to make good use of them. There ought to be a local school, charity garden, Incredible Edibles group, youth organisation or someone who’ll put them to good use.

With everything that’s left (probably still at least 90% of the total…) move on to:

Criteria #2 – Did You Pay Good Money For Them?

If Yes: You probably had an idea at the time that this was something you definitely wanted to grow. Or, like me, you thought that it would be interesting / challenging / too bizarrely wonderful-looking to pass up on. Whatever your reason, you should really make an effort to sow them this year, before they do go out of date and fall victim of Criteria #3.

Do your research: read the instructions on the packet, or the printed sheet that came with your order, or Google sowing methods, and then make a few notes. Plan ahead so you don’t miss the best sowing window and get those seeds in when the time is right. The results could be amazing.

If No: Magazine freebie? Donation from a well-meaning friend / neighbour / fellow allotment holder? A momentary whim that you’ve de-whimmed on second thoughts? Again, if it’s surplus to requirements, add it to the donation pile.

Criteria #3 – Are the Seeds Still in Date?

Now Then: I know a lot of you folks will swear that stored seed can and will last a lot longer than the dates on the packet and yes, this is probably true in a lot of cases. But having done a couple of RHS courses and been taught a fair bit about plant biology, I’ve learnt that there’s such a thing as ‘seed viability’, which varies according to the type of seed, its ripeness at picking and the conditions in which it has been kept.

If a seed is viable, it should germinate under the right conditions, unless it’s dormant and needs to have its dormancy broken by scarification (scratching the seed coat) or stratification (a period of cold treatment), or soaking prior to sowing. If it isn’t viable, nothing whatsoever will make it germinate, because it’s dead.

If Yes: If a packet is still in date then there’s a good chance that the seed inside should be viable.

If No: If you take best-by dates on seed packets as a general guide then yes, you might get away with sowing them a year or two (or more) beyond the suggested ‘sow by’. Or you might not. The safest way to tell, if you have enough seed, is to perform a seed germination test. Which is very easy to do, and all fine and good, but depending on how many packets of older seed we’re talking about, and how many seeds are left in the packet, germination testing might not be practical.

By way of a compromise, I’d suggest re-buying or swapping for new stock of your very favourites – why risk disappointment? – running germination tests on anything you’ve got spare seed and time for, and then anything you’d like to grow but won’t be upset if you miss out on, you can just sow anyhow, and see what happens.

Don’t Forget to Organise and Take Notes!

Checking through your seeds obviously offers the perfect opportunity to organise them into some sort of order and compile some sort of a ready-reckoner to help you remember just what’s in that overflowing seed box of yours, and when you need to sow it.

2017 seed box
A well-organised seed box is a happy seed box…

I think the easiest way to organise a seed collection is in rough sowing-date order, with monthly dividers to give you a clue as to where you’re up to. At the end of the month, simply move everything you haven’t sown yet that’s still within its sowing window into next month’s section. Leave everything you’ve sown, or honestly aren’t going to get around to sowing, in the current month’s slot, for sorting out in next year’s seed audit.

You may prefer to organise by lifespan (annual, biennial, perennial), height, colour, the section of the garden they’re destined for, or something else entirely. Whatever works for you is fine, of course.

As for the ready-reckoner, my favourite method is to set up a Google spreadsheet and record the pertinent details: veg type, variety, sowing dates, and any specific germination conditions, temperatures, stratification requirements and so on.

If you’d like to take a look at my seed list for 2017, you can visit it here. It’s locked for editing by anyone other than me (no offence, I trust you really, but accidents will happen) and if you’d like to ask questions about anything you see on there, please do feel free via the comments below.

Finally, it’s Time to go Seed Shopping

Of course, the best part of taking stock of the seeds you’ve already got is working out where the gaps are. This gives you the perfect excuse (as if one was ever needed) to start browsing through the seed catalogues, looking for replacements for that all important favourite variety you’re now missing. And while you’re there, it’s a chance to see what’s new and interesting, which new varieties look like they’re worth a try, which old heritage varieties have been rescued from obscurity and might be good to grow.

Here’s a quick link-list of some of the seed suppliers I’ve bought from in the past, or know of from Twitter or online browsing. You’ve probably heard of most of them, but there might be a few independents that you haven’t come across yet. And of course, if you’re a seed supplier that I haven’t become acquainted with yet, or your favourite online seed shop didn’t get a mention, then please do feel free to add a link in the comments, below.

(All suppliers listed are UK-based unless otherwise stated. Links provided for information only – inclusion in the list does not constitute a personal endorsement of a particular supplier.)

Larger Suppliers

Smaller Independents

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