The autumn fall is magnificent in its beauty. I think that beauty stems from its fleeting quality, as inevitable as any other fall from grace. The leaves on my rooftopvegplot have begun to turn crisp and brittle. The green seeps out of them. Their colour goes from russet, through purple, to orange and gold. A few bright nasturtiums beacon red and yellow in the gloaming of the evenings. Red tomatoes glow on browning vines. They taste delicious at this time of year. Is it their scarcity that we savour?
But however beautiful autumn may seem, it is always sad. I try to console myself with hopes of spring.
Fruitfulness at this time of year is far more positive. It is not the fall of leaves, but of seeds that brings optimism. On my desk, casually laid out upon a hand-written recipe for madeleines are a few withering rose-hips. A spray of paper-thin pea pods have loosed their grey-green wrinkled seeds, which roll about as I type. The pre-printed home-grown seed packets have been unleashed from their wrapper. I have already dried industrial quantities of wild celery. Newly labelled packets groan with hundreds and thousands of tiny round black baubles, each one a potential plant.*
Outside the bronze fennel has been seeding for weeks. No doubt we will get volunteers all over the plot. (I don’t mind, I love their delicate burnished fronds and buttery umbels.) A few weeks ago we had an Antirrhinum incident in the greenhouse, when a stray snapdragon plant decided to bombard its tiny seeds all over the floor. Again, I don’t really mind. The odd snapdragon in the greenhouse will look wonderful next year and will certainly attract pollinators. Most of the pole beans will now be left to seed. Even the courgette and cucumber are hardening up, as if willing me to save at least one or two fruit for procreation.
I’m not an avid seed saver. I prefer to let nature take its course, to allow the seeds of nasturtium, morning glory, calendula, and cornflower to take root where they will. That way I am, to some extent, assured of the survival of the fittest seeds.
My vegetable seeds are generally purchased from reputable suppliers. In such a small garden as this I’m willing to overlook the cost of a packet of seeds in order to ensure a good crop next year. In home seed saving, it is far too easy to save the weak along with the strong. Last year I replanted my biggest, juiciest garlic globe from the year before. The individual bulbs all grew strongly, but when I lifted them, none had separated. I got twelve big individual cloves, only about double or triple the size of the ones I’d planted and tended for nine months. This year I’ve ordered a variety of hardnecks from the Isle of Wight garlic farm. http://www.thegarlicfarm.co.uk/Hardneck-Seed-Pack.aspx If one variety doesn’t work for me, I’m hoping the others will. And even if the crop is poor, with hardneck varieties I will get a bonus crop of scape (the shoots and flowers) to stir-fry in midsummer.
However I admire some of the extraordinary amateur seed savers around. My grandfather was the original. He’d have no sooner paid good money for a packet of broad bean seeds, that he would have run naked through the streets of the Suffolk market town where he lived. I found his attitude alive and well, in our recent trip to the low countries. My forays into garden centres revealed a paucity of seeds. Had they already been sold, I wondered. No, people don’t use purchased seeds as much as they do in England or France. I wandered through the verdant allotments in Doesburg (Netherlands) where we stayed. The plots were rich with spinach, cabbages and fat pumpkins. Winter salads were already sprouting large. The row covers were stacked, gleaming and clean, at the ready, in case of an early frost. But of seeds packets – I saw none.
I think that our modern preoccupation with seed saving comes from our revulsion in the face of sterile hybridisation and our suspicions of the adulteration of seeds with sprays and mould inhibitors. Where can we be sure to find really good quality seeds?
Unfortunately it seems to be that quantity is quality in our seed industry. After experimenting with different sweet pea varieties for several years, I’m going back to an old fashioned packet of mixed sweet peas from the supermarket. The very best crop I even had, originated from a packet found in our local ironmongers. Similarly I love my Gardener’s Delight tomatoes and my Salad Bowl lettuces. Hundreds and thousands of packets of these staple seeds are sold every year. It stands to reason that the ones I buy are likely to be fresh and fecund.
I like to buy from Thompson and Morgan and their French sister company Vilmorin. Perhaps I’m a sucker for advertising, but the French packets seem so much more alluring. There’s even a Vilmorin seed boutique in Paris, that is on my radar. http://www.vilmorin-jardin.fr/histoire/10/boutique-historique-vilmorin/ I buy Kings seeds, who sell very serviceable planting strips, which kurb my enthusiasm for over planting, I use Suttons and Mr Fothergill.
But there are more specialist seed suppliers whose unusual seeds are excellent. This year I had excellent results from a packet of borage seeds purchased from The Edible Flower Shop. www.theedibleflowershop.co.uk
Chiltern seeds have long been favourites of mine, partly because of their tall, slender veg seed catalogue, which is light on images, but packed with information. When you read their catalogue, every word convinces you that you are gleaning real seed knowledge and that you are not only in the company of an expert, but a poetic expert at that! www.chilternseeds.co.uk
Chiltern Seeds was set up in 1975 by Douglas and Bridget Bowden, keen amateurs, I think they were true children of the seventies. It was a time of plummeting currencies, the oil crisis and the miners’ strike and many people were propelled, sometimes by redundancy, sometimes by ethos, into trying to live the good life. Now their daughters, Heather and Sally have brought the business back to the Chilterns, occupying a barn conversion near Wallingford. They don’t grow all their seeds, sourcing them instead from established growers all over Europe. I’ve never had a duff packet or a failure in germination from them and I’ve been purchasing their seeds, off and on, for over twenty years.
What a shame that we can’t import seeds from the USA. The heritage seed business over there is big business, but many of the suppliers are delightfully micro. My absolute favourite is www.amishlandseeds.com
I’m clearly not alone, because when I searched online for Lisa von Saunder’s company, her website came up, right at the top of the list. Her garden in Reamstown, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is situated in level fertile land, studded with vestiges of the old deciduous forest that provided building materials and fuel for the god fearing Amish people who populated the county. In her own section of this Garden of Eden, Lisa has begun to grow heirloom Amish varieties that were in danger of extinction. She visited old ladies, wrote letters and generally begged and borrowed seeds, until she can now boast an extraordinary range. Many of these varieties come from the old world. Sometimes I look though the catalogue and something we consider quite standard will be feted on her site. On other occasions seeds of quite unknown varieties or even species, hail from Lithuania, or Poland or the Balkans. The original Amish settlers, like my grandfather, took their seeds with them, wherever they grew.
But seeds are not just to be sown. Holding within their shell the kernel of life, they are packed with goodness and flavour. They can be eaten raw, like poppy or dill. They can be ground like coriander or celery seeds, or they can be cooked whole. Here are the first of my harvest of delicate pale green runner bean seeds or flageolet, as the French call them. At this fresh stage they require about ten/fifteen minutes in boiling water. Once dried, they will need about twenty or thirty minutes to soften. Thrown into a casserole, at any stage of their drying, they are fabulous. Home gardeners don’t often grow protein crops. Legume seeds are one of the few crops that are high in protein, the stuff of life. I like to serve the flageolet with a delicate cream and parsley sauce alongside buttery mashed potatoes. Mmm, delicious and very positive!
*Quite a few friends have asked for a few wild celery seeds, so I’ve written a sheet with culinary and cultivation information, to extend the text I can scribble into one miniscule space on the seed packet. If you are interested, download the Download 01 Wild celery Apium graveolens here.