As the coldest days of the year are supposedly still ahead, it is difficult to picture lush gardens and long sunny days just yet. But now is the time to get going if you want to get ahead of the curb on the growing front. Even more so if you are giving seed saving a go, as some plants – especially fruits – will need to be extra ripe to be harvested for seeds.
If you are new to seed saving, stick with the four easy crops that are true to type and less likely to cross. This means that the seeds you will harvest from them will grow into the same plant as the one they came from, they won’t be a cross between the mother plant and whatever pollen the bees have picked up. The four ‘go to’ seed saving crops are tomatoes, peas, french beans and lettuce. I’ll focus on peas and tomatoes here.
All of them can be sown from February onwards, albeit a bit differently. For the best germination rate, sow your seeds at the right depth: sow seeds the depth of the seed itself, so a pea seed will be 1/2 inch deep or so, and salad or tomato seeds will be almost right on the top of your tray with some soil sprinkled on top. Use a good peat-free seed sowing compost, and sow your seeds on a warm, bright windowsill or propagator.
Once you have sown seeds, cover your tray with a plastic bag, or a lid if your tray came with one. The water from the seeds coming to life (and breathing) will condensate on the cover and self water your tray, so keep the lid on. If needed, water from underneath by resting it on water. Check it daily and as soon as green shoots come out of the soil, take the lid off and resume normal watering.
So, when do you transplant your seedlings? A rule of thumb is to not transplant in the ground anything that has less than 4 true leaves (these are leaves that look like the adult plant leaves, as opposed to the cotyledon, the first two leaves that often look quite different from the adult leaves). Peas and lettuce can be planted out quite early (e.g. March), as long as they are covered (fleece or mini polytunnel) and protected from hungry slugs (plant rings, wool protection or similar- please no slug pellets!). For tomatoes and french beans, it’s a later affair- after all they come from central america. Tomatoes and french beans will benefit from a longer time indoors, and I plant mine out in late April- May. This means I will transplant the seedlings in bigger pots indoors in the meantime though.
Peas come in a variety of sizes and shapes. For shorter peas that will grow as a bush, I like ‘Havel’- it’s also early, so you might get a first crop as early as May. Taller peas are a delight to grow as they will climb and cover whatever frame you give them, and they are very ornamental. I had fantastic results with the heritage variety ‘Ne Plus Ultra’, which grew so tall we had to get a chair to harvest it. The beautiful ‘Latvian Soup Pea’ had gorgeous purple flowers and pretty mottled pods. Finally, if you are a sugar snap fan, I’d recommend the very reliable ‘Sweet Horizon’. And if you forget to harvest them early, they’ll just turn into peas. It’s a win-win situation!
Over the years I have moved towards smaller, sweeter varieties of tomatoes as they tend to ripen well and produce a lot over a long period of time. For very small varieties, I really enjoy ‘Yellow Pear’ because of it’s lovely shape and unusual colour. ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Chocolate cherry’ (available from the London Freedom Seed Bank) bear stunning dark purple fruits that tend to be very sweet. None have ever made it to my fridge as I kept just eating them from the vine. I am intrigued by Centiflor Tomatoes: a variety that produces hundreds of small fruits (¾ inch across) on big truss – I’ll try these this year! For bigger fruits, I have had great results with the ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Red Zebra’, which are both stunning and surprisingly sweet.
Check what the London Freedom Bank has available or check good seed retailers like Real Seeds, Vital Seeds and the Heritage Seed Library and start picking some great unusual varieties to eat and to save. Happy growing!