Where to buy seeds and what to look out for
by Tom Moggach
© iStockphoto / MonaMakela
How to buy seed
I bet that your guilty pleasures include a spot of seed shopping, especially as we plan for the season ahead.
After all, it’s such an innocent indulgence. A couple of packs of veg seeds only cost a few quid. And the tempting packets are so easy to buy online, where there’s a world of choice.
Well, hold your horses. There are more pitfalls to this hobby than you might suspect. Here’s all you need to know to be a savvy shopper.
How the Trade Works
A quick bit of background is useful. Rewind the decades, and much of our seed would have been grown in Britain. In 1959, for example, 600 hectares of Essex land was cultivated for broad bean seeds.
Now, like so much else, it’s a global business. Multi-national companies contract farmers in far-flung countries to produce seed, which they then sell on in bulk.
Many large British seed companies will buy stock from these wholesalers, and invest their time and energy in packing, marketing and distribution.
Unfortunately, amateur gardeners like us are typically low in the pecking order, with commercial growers the main customers for the best quality seed.
So shop with your eyes open and bear in mind that only a handful of the smaller companies actually grow the seed they sell.
Where to Shop
In general, it’s sensible to buy online. You’ll find a better selection and the seed is generally stored in superior conditions. Seeds prefer a cool, stable temperature, so the racks in garden centres can be far from ideal.
Seed swaps are an excellent source of free seed. Look out for varieties that have been grown in your area for many years, as they are likely to be well-adapted to your local growing conditions.
Read the Label
Check the small print to see how many seeds are in each pack. When the recession first struck, there were stories in the press about shrinking chocolate bars as companies reduced pack size rather than increasing price. The same happens with seed.
At a plant fair the other day, one company was selling a dozen peas – a heritage variety – for nearly two quid. The Real Seed Catalogue (see supplier info below) sells 200 for the same price.
As I write, Thompson and Morgan, a huge seed supplier, are selling five varieties of parsley, from £1.99 to £2.69 per pack. Yet the contents vary from 750 to 6600 seeds.
The date the seed was harvested and packed is another thing to watch out for. Old seed will be less viable, so check to see if there are any indications of the age of the seed you are buying.
Delivery charges are the final hurdle. It’s not uncommon to be charged nearly two pounds for posting a packet of seeds. So try to plan your purchases and buy in bulk, rather than impulse buying in dribs and drabs.
Here are my favourite seed suppliers for edible plants:
The Real Seed Catalogue
This small company in Pembrokeshire grows a lot of its own seed, and is an excellent supplier of open-pollinated varieties and some offbeat plants such as Aztec Broccoli. The website is a good source of information on how to save your own seed. Particularly good for salads.
Specialist supplier of tropical seeds and plants, with some hard-to-find edibles such as mouse melons, one of my all-time favourite cucurbits.
Heritage Seed Library
This collection, run by the Garden Organic charity, preserves rare and traditional vegetable varieties. They run a membership scheme that entitles you to pick six varieties each year and support their valuable work. I’m looking forward to trying their lablab beans, a prize crop among the Bangladeshi community in my neighbourhood.
B & T World Seeds
A vast seed catalogue of more than 35,000 plants, specialising in unusual and exotic seeds. Search by their common or botanical name. Your best bet if you can’t source a plant elsewhere.
A well-established company with a large catalogue of organic seed. A good bet for favourites such as golden beetroot.
Tozer are plant breeders and cater primarily for commercial growers. But they will also sell their wide range in more modest quantities. The range of oriental leaves is especially strong and includes varieties such as the spicy mustards ‘Golden Streaks’ and ‘Red Giant’.
Your seed will remain viable for longer if it’s stored in cool, dry and dark conditions. I keep my collection in the fridge in an airtight plastic tub. A sachet of silica gel, the type you find with new trainers or electrical goods, will also help to reduce humidity.
By Tom Moggach, author of ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing and Cooking in the City’ (Kyle Books, 2012, £16.99). http://www.cityleaf.co.uk