Pink dandelions, cucamelons, edible lupins: seeds to plant now for a delicious summer

Not much happens in the January garden but it's a good time to find summer inspiration in seed catalogues

Now is the  time to rifle through the pages of the new crop of seed catalogues. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Now is the time to rifle through the pages of the new crop of seed catalogues. Photograph: Richard Johnston

 

January- that mournful month of small, grey days and an invalid sun that hangs low and weak in the winter sky - is never an easy time of the year for gardeners. We pine for signs of life. New growth. Fresh flowers. For the tangy whiff of recently-mulched soil, and the giddy business of spring. Yet I’m always grateful for the one great consolation these long, dark evenings do bring us, which is the opportunity (and time) to rifle through the pages of the new crop of seed catalogues.

Seeds of hope. Seeds of greatness. Seeds of change. Seeds of possibilities. All expressions born of the fact that seed-sowing is as much an act of faith and creativity as it is a horticultural one. Or as the great American author and gardener Henry Thoreau put it, “Convince me that you have a seed there and I am prepared to expect wonders’.

Which seeds to sow? That all depends... Do you dream of tomatoes so flavoursome that their succulent, juicy flesh melts in the mouth? Sweet peas filled with the fleeting perfume of a perfect summer’s day? Or new potatoes so delicious in their paper-skinned, newborn freshness that unearthing each one is akin to discovering a nugget of gold? Perhaps you wish to grow seasonal, scented flowers for an upcoming family celebration or nectar-rich blooms for the bees and butterflies. Or maybe you dream of growing stranger things from seed. Sweet pepinos, for instance, whose juicy flesh tastes of cucumber and melon combined (suttons.co.uk). Or cucamelons, perfect for adding pep to a summer cocktail. Or fruity-flavoured Peruvian black mint . Or edible lupins . Or pink- yes, pink- dandelions (Taraxacum pseudoroseum, from jelitto.com) . Seed of every one of these species are available to buy either from specialist online suppliers or from one of the many great garden centres around the country, all of them stored like so many magic spells in small paper envelopes, just waiting to be used.

What’s out there?

Run by botanist and organic farmer Madeleine McKeever and her daughter Holly, the certified-organic, west Cork-based seed producer Brown Envelope Seeds (brownenvelopeseeds.com) is known for its outstanding selection of open-pollinated seed of heritage Irish varieties as well as modern cultivars sourced from some of the world’s most innovative vegetable breeders. This is the place to buy seed of tomato varieties best suited to our increasingly unpredictable climate including the new, highly productive, yellow-fleshed, cherry-type variety known as ‘Sunviva’, which its 2019 catalogues describes as “the world’s first tomato variety with an open source seed license”.

Also new to the Brown Envelope Seed 2019 catalogue is ‘Pineapple Physalis’, a compact, pineapple-flavoured variety of Cape gooseberry (Physalis edulis) ideally suited to container cultivation.

Similarly, the Clare-based association Irish Seed Savers (irishseedsavers.ie) puts the focus firmly on the preservation of open-pollinated rare and heritage varieties of vegetables, fruit and flowers best suited to the vagaries of the Irish climate. ‘Robinson’ peas (a particular favourite of BBC gardener Monty Don), the golden-stalked ‘Orange Oriole’ chard and the sweet, earthy flavoured ‘Rotunda’ beetroot are among its staff and volunteer’s top picks for 2019. 

UK-based Real Seeds (realseeds.co.uk) is also known for its extensive collection of seed of unusual, open-pollinated varieties including the aforementioned edible lupin, known as the ‘Dieta Lupin’, which is grown for its edible, protein-rich seed rather than its ornamental blue-and-white flower spikes. Bred in the UK specifically for human consumption, its seeds don’t require any pre-soaking or specialist treatment unlike the traditional lupin seed crops grown in South America where the plant is known as ‘Altramuz’ or ‘Chochos’. Real Seeds also stocks seed of a huge collection of different tomato varieties including the ultra-early cropping, compact heirloom variety known as ‘House Tomato’ ideally suited to growing in a pot or container.

Well-known organic kitchen gardener and author Klaus Laitenberger’s range of vegetable and herb seeds, Green vegetable Seeds, is also an excellent source of garden-worthy varieties selected for their productivity, disease-resistance and ability to withstand the Irish climate, from the delicious summer squash varieties  known as ‘Sunburst’ and ‘Delicata’ to tree spinach and the bolt-resistant variety of coriander known as ‘Leisure’ (greenvegetableseeds.com)

Viburnum x bodnantense in winter flower
Viburnum x bodnantense in winter flower

Flowers

A half-hardy annual traditionally available in shades of lime green and wine, amaranthus is increasingly popular with Irish gardeners for its feathery, colourful flower plumes. In particular look out for the variety known as ‘Hot Biscuits’ , one of the stand-out stars of all the best cutting gardens last summer  (sarahraven.com). So were snapdragons, especially varieties in bronze and apricot tones such as Antirrhinum majus ‘Chantilly Bronze’ (chilternseeds.co.uk). The Chinese aster (Callistephus chinensis)is yet another must-have flowering annual easily raised from seed sown early this coming spring.

Last summer I grew the apricot-flowered variety known as ‘Tower Chamois’ in our flower farm and fell in love with its old-fashioned, flouncy beauty as well as the fact that the blooms have a very long vase life. Seed of many different varieties of Chinese aster is available from a wide range of suppliers including Plants of Distinction (plantsofdistinction.co.uk) and Galway-based Seedaholic (seedaholic.com).

If edible flowers are your thing, also make sure to sow some of the many hugely decorative, pollinator-friendly assortment of nasturtium varieties (Tropaeolum majus) this summer . Examples include the compact, peach and raspberry-coloured coloured ‘Ladybird Rose’ (perfect for a pot or container, and the trailing ‘Gleam Salmon’ (floretflowers.com).

Last but most certainly not least, now is also the month to order seed potatoes, while stock of hard-to-get or unusual varieties is still high. Cork-based Fruithill Farm always carries a fine selection of organic, blight-resistant varieties including the newly-introduced ‘Vitabella’, an early salad variety, and the hugely flavoursome, maincrop variety known as ‘Carolus’. The excellent Dublin-based Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) also carries a wide stock of seed potatoes and are agents for the reliably good Thompson & Morgan seed range, some of which is produced in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Britain’s National Trust.

This Week in the Garden

If you didn’t get around to sowing seed of sweet pea last autumn, then January is a good time to do so. For best results, use fresh seed  (recommended specialist online suppliers include somersetsweetpeas.com). I like to ‘chit’ the seed by putting it in a small, lidded container or jam-jar lined with damp kitchen paper and placed indoors in a spot that’s warm but not broiling (10-15C). Once I spot signs of germination (usually within a week), I then quickly but gently sow each seed into its own small, deep pot or root-trainer filled with a good quality multi-purpose compost, making sure to avoid damaging the emerging root radicle or shoot. Sow each seed to a depth of no more than a half- inch/ 12mm deep before watering gently with a watering can.  The pots/root trainers should then be placed in a cold glasshouse, cold frame or in a bright but sheltered spot outdoors, making sure to take very careful precautions against birds and mice ,which love to steal the freshly germinated seed (a fine-mesh garden netting works well). The young sweet pea plants can then be transplanted into their permanent position in late March/ early April.

 Take advantage of this relatively quiet time in the gardening year to winter-prune fruit trees and bushes. Examples of species/ types of fruit trees/ bushes suitable for winter-pruning include frees-standing bush or standard apple and pear trees, gooseberries and currants. Always use a clean, sharp secateurs to prune and try to chose a dry day to minimise the risk of disease entering through the pruning cut. For specific advice on suitable pruning methods, see rhs.org.uk or pick up a copy of The Fruit Expert by Dr Hessayon (readily available from most good garden centres).

 If you want to add some seasonal sparkle and scent to your garden, consider growing some of the following winter-flowering shrubby plants, all of which are available to buy from good garden centres at this time of year: Witch hazel (Hamamelis), winter box (Sarcococca), Viburnum x bodnantense, winter honeysuckle (Lonicera elisae and L. x purpusii), daphne, the silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica) and wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox).

Dates For Your Diary

January 25th is the new extended deadline for applications for the Energia Get Ireland Growing Fund 2019, which will be split across three categories: ‘Sow’, ‘Grow’ and ‘Harvest’. Awards range from €500 to €2,000 plus a single special €5,000 grant for a group project. The fund, which will support at least 86 community food growing groups from all across the island of Ireland, is administered by GIY. For further details and to submit an application, see giy.ie.

On Saturday February 2nd (9.30am-5pm) at the Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow in Co Carlow, ‘Snowdrop Gala & Other Spring Treasures’ with guest speakers including Scottish nurseryman and galanthophile Ian Christie, and the Scottish garden blogger, plantsman and photographer Ian Young. Tickets cost €70 and include lunch at Mount Wolseley plus a tour of Altamont Gardens (pre-booking essential, through Hester Forde and before January 30th, 086 8654972, hesterforde@gmail.com).

On the previous day (Friday 1st September, 7.30pm) at the same venue, ‘A Celebration of Corona North’ will be held to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of the late plantsperson and former owner of Altamont Gardens with an evening of talks by Altamont’s head gardener Paul Cutler and Irish gardener and plantsperson Assumpta Broomfield. There is free entry to the event for Snowdrop Gala Ticket holders, otherwise admission is €10. Booking essential, contact sales@altamontplants.com / 087 982 2135.

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