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A dead liberty: sowing useless seeds

Friday 23 January 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a keen allotment holder, offers some cold comfort for guilt-ridden gardeners whose plants don’t grow: your seeds might have been dead on the day you bought them

THIS is the month when my favourite package of the year arrives in the post. Not one that has missed Christmas by a few weeks, or even my birthday by just a few days, but one which celebrates the coming spring rather than the dull, dark days of winter.

My new seeds are here, ordered in early December from on of the country’s best known seed merchants down on the warm South Coast, and I open my stout cardboard box, crammed with seed packets as colourful as a stately home flower garden, with all the anticipation of a child burrowing into his Christmas stocking.

A dead liberty: sowing useless seeds
A dead liberty: sowing useless seeds

Then I look at the prices on the packets and wince. I grow only veg – my wife does the flowers and shrubs – and the price of top grade vegetable seeds have soared in the past few years: for the first time the World War 11 gardeners are spending more on veg than on flowers.

This is a reflection of the soaring cost of food in the supermarkets, the growing suspicion of some of the nasty chemicals that may or may not have been used, particularly on imported foreign fruit and veg, and the endless number of gardening and cookery shows on the telly.

Gardening is very much the “in” thing and thousands – possibly millions – of people once content with a simple lawn and the odd rose bush are taking it up with a passion. But, I am sad to report, thousands of these new enthusiasts are due for bitter disappointment this spring and summer because their plants won’t grow.

And the reason for this is a damn disgrace: the seeds they are about to lovingly sow in the next few weeks are already dead. They were dead before they even left the shop. But never in my gardening career spanning some 40 years have I ever heard of a prosecution against people selling patently useless goods which, surely, must be against the Trades Description acts.

I have suffered personally from this con trick. I started my veg gardening in a village high in the Lancashire Pennines, a long way from shops or garden centres, so began ordering my seeds via the post from a famous nursery.

And despite being 600 feet up on very acid soil, my veg patch thrived. Then we moved to the Yorkshire Dales and there was a positive plethora of shops, supermarkets, DIY stores and even Woolworth’s selling seeds. What’s more, they were a good deal cheaper than my regular supplier so I stopped my yearly order and began to pick up a packet here, a packet there, as I went about my everyday shopping.

What a disaster. For several years, my crops failed. At first, I blamed my new soil, then the weather, then – finally – myself: my green fingers had turned black. I had lost the knack and this dispiriting discovery came just as I have thrashed into shape (or so I thought) a long abandoned allotment which had been little more than a bramble patch: Brer Rabbit would have loved it!

from my own experience, there are some simple rules which might help. For a start, don’t buy seeds from shops or supermarkets which are not specialist suppliers to gardeners.

Then, two years ago, Gardening Which? Magazine published the results of one of its detailed investigations which made the hair on my head stand up: they had tested hundreds of packets of seeds and found that every single one contained dead seeds. In the best, just 4% were dead but in the worst that figure ran to a disgraceful 99%.

I immediately renewed my order with my long term supplier from the South Coast and my crops resumed their former abundance: not, admittedly, up to show winning class but more than enough to keep five hungry mouths fed all summer with enough left over to give away.

Now there is obviously a problem here for new gardeners because, without scientific knowledge and equipment available to Gardening Which? the only way to discover if your seeds are dead or alive is to germinate them – and by the time you know they were dead it is often too late.

But, from my own experience, there are some simple rules which might help. For a start, don’t buy seeds from shops or supermarkets which are not specialist suppliers to gardeners. I am not suggesting these establishments deliberately sell dead seed but I doubt if their staff have the training or the knowledge to keep seeds properly.

These are, after all, living entities even if they are sold in a dormant stage. They are affected by such influences as temperature changes and humidity and, in at least one large store I know, they are moved in an out from almost overpowering heat into cold storage several times a year, depending on the gardening calendar.

Just how long they have been in the packet or how they were stored and treated before they were actually packaged is almost impossible to ascertain. Some seeds, like brassicas, will keep for several years whilst others, like parsnips, die very quickly, the sort of knowledge common only to the most experienced horticulturists.

So my advice is to shop by mail order from one of a handful of famous nurserymen or go to a specialist garden centre close to home, one you can use regularly. These people rely on their good name to stay in business and have the staff trained to look after seeds properly. You will pay more – but quality has always come at a price!

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