When it comes to growing your own then there’s a simple rule of green thumbs, which is sow what you want to eat. With spring in the air, now’s the time to get outdoors and get that veg growing, writes our new Lush Times columnist and the founder of Permaculture magazine, Maddy Harland
One of my favourite activities is sowing veggie seeds. I dream of outdoor garden play in the cold winter months and it gets me through the dark days. I think it all started at primary school. Do you remember putting rolled up blotting paper in a jar, dampening it with water and carefully adding a bean seed? The bean would swell and out would grow a miraculous (to me) green shoot and a radical root. A real life Jack and the Bean Stalk!
Growing your own, even if it is just a little produce, has many advantages. First you know what you are getting – it is super healthy, organic with no added chemicals and fresh from your garden. It is seasonal, there are no food miles, and not only does it save you money, it also limits plastic packaging from supermarkets.
We have a very late Spring this year and so it is not too late to sow even some of the earlier crops. Tomato seedlings will quickly catch up. Depending on how many plants you want, sow just a few seeds in a small pot and germinate them on a warm, sunny windowsill. Prick them out into separate pots when they are large enough to handle. If they are a little leggy you can bury the stalk a little deeper in the compost. It will soon root.
A Quick Note on Compost
Go for peat-free compost. There is no such thing as ‘sustainable’ peat. It is not renewable. You may compromise slightly on quality of water retention but your conscience will be clear. Peat bogs - which are a unique habitat for acid loving plants and their associated insect life - are in decline (mainly due to the horticulture industry). We really don’t need to dig them up. They also lock up carbon dioxide and methane. These are both greenhouse gases but the latter is up to 30 times more potent as an atmospheric heat-trapping gas. So leave those wetlands alone.
I sowed my broad beans direct into the soil last November. They have been battered by the snow and dug up by hungry blackbirds, so I have resown in modules. These are small plastic trays. Plastic! I know. But they are not single use and can be reused if stored carefully for decades … The advantage of sowing veg in modules, hardening them off and planting them out once they have established strong roots rather than sowing direct is that they have a chance to ‘get away’. Slugs love nothing more than a tender, freshly germinated seedling, so if I can I sow indoors in a propagator and then plant out once they’ve grown bigger and the weather has improved, they have a better chance of survival.
I have mentioned the ‘S’ word … Slugs. The bane of a veggie gardener’s life … I will return to the subject in a future column, offering you a host of slug solutions to deal with these pesky critters.
Meanwhile, other modular-sown veg are celeriac (great for a lower carb mash); beetroot (Borsch, roasted, raw … it’s a veg that you can have growing for much of the year); leeks; sweetcorn (treat their roots tenderly when you transplant as they don’t appreciate being disturbed); brassicas (cabbage, kale, broccoli); pak choi; French beans and runner beans … And of course, all those delicious cucurbits and squashes benefit from being germinated in modules and planted out after the risk of a frost has passed.
We sow direct spinach, salads (including Oriental greens like mizuna and mibuna), root crops like parsnips, turnips, carrots, radishes … all the kind of crops that you can sow and then thin but do not appreciate being moved.
Good Seeds, Bad Seeds
The obvious tip is grow what you like to eat. This is especially true of salads that come rinsed in chlorinated water in plastic bags from the supermarket but are delicious fresh from the garden. Cut and come again salads like land cress, corn salad and rocket take up little space, are easy to grow and will save you a lot of money.
Do not sow seeds that are past their sow by date. Even if they do germinate they will often make weaker plants and produce lower yields. Also make sure you store your seeds in a cool, dark place. This will also affect the viability.
I tend to sow a variety of crops. I do sow F1 hybrids (commercial varieties bred for taste and yields which are ubiquitous). They are not self-fertile so you can’t save the seed for next year. I also grow fairly standard non-F1 varieties that I know I like. But every year I like to also grow unusual crops and experiment with veg that I have never eaten before. This year I am trying an Italian green called Salsola Soda. Apparently it is delicious stir fried as a side dish (if you can get it to germinate).
I also sow heritage seeds. Garden Organic has a club that gives away members’ varieties each year to try. Members only get a few seeds but they are old or rare varieties that you would never find in a seed catalogue. This year a friend gave me her allocation of seeds and I have found that almost 100% of them have germinated. I also like to support small organic seed suppliers rather than buy seeds from the bigger commercial seed suppliers you find in garden centres. Some of my favourite suppliers are listed below.
Then there are seed swaps. These can either be informal sharings of excess seeds and plants between friends or organised community events. Every year we have a seed and plant swap at the South Downs Green Fair in May at the Sustainability Centre (www.sustainability-centre.org/the-south-downs-green-fair.html). It’s fun to come home with something unexpected. Look up seed swap events in your local area. Like potato days, they can be useful events to link in with your local green-fingered network.
The Indoor Garden
In the winter months we grow alfalfa on the window sill and eat it most days. All you need is a glass jar with the opening covered with a muslin or net cloth. You rinse the seeds twice a day, leave to drain and you will be rewarded by lots of delicious fresh seedlings within a few days. Other seeds that can be sprouted indoors are mung beans, fenugreek and mustard. You can also grow wheatgrass in trays for juicing and salad crops (micro greens) all year as well.
There is nothing quite like a few home grown crops, however small a space you have. Nothing beats the freshness, taste, and the sense of achievement when you serve up a morsel from your garden.
Maddy Harland is the co-founder and editor of Permaculture magazine – earth care, people care and future care – and the author of Fertile Edges – regenerating land, culture and hope.
Photo credit: Don Wood
Real Seeds http://www.realseeds.co.uk
Franchi Seeds of Italy https://www.seedsofitaly.com (big packets, so share with lots of friends!)
Seed Cooperative http://www.sh-organic-seeds.co.uk
Heritage Seed Library https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl