Seeds to growing success

HOT TO TOUCH Fauxcracker chilli from Brown Envelope Seeds PHOTOGRAPH: JANE POWERS

HOT TO TOUCH Fauxcracker chilli from Brown Envelope Seeds PHOTOGRAPH: JANE POWERS


GARDENS: Sowing a seed and nurturing its growth is one of gardening’s great pleasures

THIS IS SUCH an exciting time of the year for gardeners. I don’t mean outside, where the big freeze has wreaked havoc on the garden, but inside, by the fire, with this season’s crop of seed catalogues. For gardeners, seed catalogues are not just lists of plants, they also spell hope and optimism, which are in short supply in this dark and chilly month. The business of carefully sowing a seed, minding it and watching its first embryonic leaves hoist themselves out of the compost is one of the greatest pleasures of gardening. Everything after that is a bonus.

So, if you haven’t ordered your seeds yet, now is the time to do so. If you’ve no catalogues, you can still find most seed companies’ lists online, or you can request a catalogue to be sent in the post, using the contact information below. And, if you’ve never sown a seed before in your life, then let this be the year that you start.

The first time I ordered seeds from a catalogue, about 30 growing seasons ago, I blasted through the pages, indiscriminately spraying big red circles around plant varieties, helplessly seduced by the descriptions. As I made my list, I paid no heed to the esoteric symbols and letters that the company had appended to each plant name. The abbreviations HA, HHA, HP, HHP, GP and other two- and three-letter arrangements seemed only to be cluttering up the space, and were easily ignored. In my mind’s eye, all the seed that I ordered would germinate immediately and without special treatment, and the resulting plants would happily coexist wherever I put them in the garden.

How wrong I was, and what a difference two or three letters can make. I had no problem with the HA’s, for these were hardy annuals, the easiest of all plants to grow. The HHA’s – half hardy annuals – were slow to get moving, as I should have kick-started them with a bit of warmth, but they caught up eventually.

My big disappointments were the mysterious truncations ending in “P”. These were, of course, perennials: hardy ones, half hardy ones, and ones recommended only for greenhouse growing. Some demanded soaking; others demanded chilling; still others required soaking and chilling; there was even one that asked to be chipped, soaked and chilled before it was going to even think about poking a rootlet into the world. None of my P seeds flowered in their first year. I don’t remember now if they ever did; it’s all a disappointed blur.

The following year, however, I paid attention to allthe hieroglyphics, abridgments and acronyms. And, if you’re a first-time catalogue person, I recommend that you do too – and save yourself several seed trays of disillusionment.

I’d also like to suggest half a dozen easy – well, pretty easy – plants to grow from seed. There are hundreds of such species to choose from, but between them, these six will give you long-lasting flowers and good food to eat, including something delicious to look forward to in more than a year’s time.

For the flowers, let me commend to you the old-fashioned and long-flowering annuals, nasturtium and cosmos. Both come in dozens of varieties, with different flower colours and formations. I prefer the simple flowers, rather than the frilly, over-bred doubles – or in the case of cosmos, those that have petals rolled up like ice cream cones. Bees also like flowers that look as nature intended: nectar and pollen are either absent or hard to find in complicated blooms.

Every seed company has scads of nasturtiums, so I won’t propose any particular varieties. Some have a trailing habit, while others are more compact, so make sure that you choose the appropriate kind for where you want to grow them. As for cosmos, ‘Rubenza’, introduced last year (Mr Fothergill’s, Thompson & Morgan) has deep red flowers that fade to an old rose hue, and ‘Purity’ (Chiltern Seeds, Thompson & Morgan) is just that, as pure and white as the snow that we’ve been seeing so much of lately.

Food crops can be ornamental too: scarlet-flowered runner beans are as handsome as any decorative climber. A novelty from Thompson & Morgan this year is the bi-coloured (red and white) St George. If you prefer the traditional red flower, Scarlet Empire (Mr Fothergill’s, Thompson & Morgan) is an improvement on the old Scarlet Emperor, with longer and more tender pods.

Coloured-stemmed chard (also known as leaf beet) is a pretty and multipurpose leafy vegetable, with ribs that may be white, yellow, pink, orange or red. Eat it young in salads, or when it’s older, cook it. To me, the yellow-

stemmed kinds are less beetrooty tasting than the red, although all are robustly flavoured. Among the yellow selections are Canary (The Organic Centre), Giallo (Simpson’s Seeds) and Bright Yellow (Thompson & Morgan).

My fourth recommendation isn’t a single plant, but a mixture: salad leaves. Almost all seed companies have several mixtures, for different seasons, or with different tones of flavour. You can grow them in any bit of spare ground, or in containers. Harvest the leaves by picking them individually, or by giving them a mass hair cut. Either way, they will sprout anew.

My penultimate submission for your consideration is my favourite thing to grow on a sunny windowsill, or in a conservatory or greenhouse: chilli peppers. I’m partial to Fauxcracker from Brown Envelope Seeds, with long fruits that start off purple, and eventually become red, via a buttery yellow. But there are dozens available: Simpson’s Seeds have more than 80 kinds, while Thompson & Morgan offer Naga Jolokia and Naga Jolokia Chocolate, which purport to be the hottest chillies in the world. At more than one million units on the Scoville Heat scale (three to 10 times more than a fiery Habanero), they are only for those who see chilli eating as an extreme sport.

And finally, let me suggest purple sprouting broccoli – the seeds of which are available everywhere. Sow it in late spring or early summer, plant it out at the end of summer, and in spring of next year you will be enjoying the succulent buds of this prince of vegetables.


Brown Envelope Seeds, Ardagh, Church Cross, Skibbereen, Co Cork, tel: 028-38184,

Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7PB, England, tel: 00-44-1229-581137,

Irish Seed Savers’ Association, Scarriff, Co Clare, tel: 061-921866,

Mr Fothergill’sseeds are widely available,

The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim; tel: 071-9854338,

The Organic Gardening Catalogue, Deelish Garden Centre, Skibbereen, Co Cork, tell: 028-21374,

Simpson’s Seeds, The Walled Garden Nursery, Horningsham, Warminster, Wiltshire, BA12 7NQ, England, tel: 00-44-1985-845004,

Thompson & Morgancatalogue available from Mr Middleton, 58 Mary Street, Dublin 1, tel: 01-8603674,