My intended hibernation has been brought forward this year, courtesy of the lockdown. As the first seed catalogue hit the mat a few days ago, I am spurred into a very enjoyable and leisurely winter job, that of making up a seed order for the coming year. There is certainly no harm in waiting till January or even February, as long as you have a supply of seeds for early sown crops such as chillies and aubergines (which I put in at the very end of January for the best results—you can use seed from chillies from this growing season that you have dried out, but note that when sowing that early you will need extra light and heat).

In a normal year, seed companies tend to have a plentiful supply throughout spring, but this past season some were running low in April. Garden centres run short even more quickly. A delayed sowing of 2–3 weeks while you wait for the seed you’ve ordered to arrive might mean a smaller crop at harvest. If your sowing is delayed for any reason, there are some tricks to help them develop a bit more quickly, but only to a limited extent. More on that in the new year.

So having more or less decided on my rotation, I am next looking at my leftover seeds from previous years to judge how much to order. Some will be still viable (alive) whereas some older seed may have gone into deep dormancy or died, so the percentage germination will be affected.

A rough guide as to the lifespan of vegetable seeds follows, but if you are in doubt lay 10 seeds from the packet onto a wet paper towel and keep it moist and in a warm place; if after 2 weeks you have less than 50% germination, you might want to get the fresh seed. Or you might want to get some fresh seed for the first sowing when conditions are a bit more demanding and use up the older seeds for second or third sowing. Or sow them more thickly to make up for fewer germinating.

  • Sweet corn, onion, parsley and parsnips should be replaced each year.
  • Leeks, peppers, and spinach will be good for two years.
  • Beans, peas and celery are ok for three years.
  • Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, calabrese, cauliflower, sprouts, et al.) will last up to 4 years.
  • Squashes, marrows and pumpkins are said to last for five years, but I find germination drops over this time.

You can be guided by the ‘sow by’ date on the packet, but be aware this isn’t quite the same as the ‘seeds packed’ date, which indicates what year they were put from the store into packet rather than the year of harvest (which it might be, you can’t count on it). The former date is likely to give you something like an expiry date for good germination. All seed companies will do germination tests on veg seed, the commercial growers require this as they can’t be doing with even moderate germination–they will want as close to 100% as possible. Gardeners can be a bit less demanding, and we can even sow seed beyond the ‘sow by’ date particularly if we are confident that we have stored our seeds well and if we have time for second sowing with the fresh seed (if the worst should happen).

I blush to say I did not store my seeds well this winter, but I have finally got a good container for them. Ideal conditions are cool, dark, and dry, with air but low humidity. A fridge works well, keep them at the back so they aren’t affected by fluctuations of temperature and humidity when the door is opened. A freezer is good too, but only for seeds of hardy plants; take out the quantity you need and allow them to thaw gently at room temperature for a day before sowing. A shed or garage is also good but beware of mice and other seed lovers. A glass container protects them (keep it in the dark), and if the seeds are well dried you can also use plastic containers. Check periodically in case they are getting mouldy as fresh seeds are likely to have more moisture, and they have a greater need to breathe.
Finally, try not to buy too many. That said, I prefer to end up with slightly more rather than run short as I can always use them for second sowing or save them if they will be good next year. The seed catalogues will give you some idea of how many feet of row your packet will sow, or you can look this up. Aim for what you think you need, and perhaps you can link up with a gardening friend to split packets of new seeds if you don’t need a full new packet every year. If you end up with too many seeds of peas, beets, spinach, lettuce and other leaves, you can always sow them in a pot or mushroom tub in the house from now till springtime and enjoy them as mini-greens.

But for me, that’s in the future. Now I am going to make a cup of tea and sit down to browse the catalogues/websites, write down my wishlist (and then cut it in half), making sure I have at least a few new things to try out.

Enjoy your hibernation, when it comes. And have a lovely holiday whatever your circumstances. It won’t be long till the spring bulbs are up!