Seed time and solstice

Things have been a bit on the seedy side here this week, if you pardon the expression. Seeing the spent morning glory vines dripping their seeds onto the ground below, I remembered that I had collected a tray of various seeds earlier in the autumn; surely by now they would be dried and ready to sort and bag up?

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I love collecting seeds, it is such a rewarding thing to do with that promise of good things to come again in the next growing season. With the colourful lure of glossy seed catalogues and online seed shops, it’s easy to forget that there is still very much a place for collecting our own seeds as well as buying new ones. For this reason, I really rate The Real Seed Catalogue and the philosophy of the people behind it: all their seeds are open-pollinated so can be collected to plant again; this might seem like a bit of a loss leader – a seed company that encourages customers to collect seeds rather than buy more?! – but I think it is brilliant and we have grown some interesting crops from their collection (I’m not being paid to say this, just speaking as I find).

The bigger the seeds, the easier they are to collect. The ‘Douce Provence’ peas I planted a couple of weeks ago were saved and dried from the last of this year’s harvest and in the same vein, we have a good bag of white Asturian beans to plant in the spring. No good trying to save seed from the ‘Crown Prince’ or butternut varieties of squash we grew this year as they are all F1 hybrids . . . but the ‘Guatemalan Blue’ is open-pollinated so we will definitely be saving some of their huge seeds. (By the way, we love this squash: it might be a bit of a thug but we had four enormous fruits from one plant and the flesh has a fantastic texture, colour and flavour). I don’t mind sorting out smaller seeds, too; it’s a bit of a fiddle, but well worth the effort. So, back to my tray of seeds and the first thing I realised is what a complete numpty I had been for leaving them in the barn under the house instead of making the effort to climb up to the horreo. Something – I strongly suspect of the small, furry rodentesque type – had scoffed every last one of my sunflower seeds and left just the husks! How rude. I do find this a bit ironic seeing as I left so many sunflower heads in the garden for the wildlife to enjoy but it’s my own silly fault. Luckily, the other seeds hadn’t proved attractive so I had a happy time organising them into seed bags ready for spring.

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Where flowers are concerned, I’m not sure I will need to buy any new seeds at all this year. I have always been happy to let things set themselves around the garden; it’s lazy gardening, I know, but why not? The Big Three – calendula, borage and nasturtiums – seem to go round in constant cycles here so we always have flowers, seedlings and seedheads at any one time. I love them all and would be perfectly happy if nothing else grew! This year, Californian poppies, phacelia and poached egg plant have joined the party and I suspect there will be poppies, cornflowers and sweet peas popping up all over the place, too. That suits me just fine.

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The arrival of our new polytunnel is fairly imminent so I decided it was time to dig the patch over again in readiness. Not wanting to waste such a good (and FLAT) area of garden this year, we planted sweet corn, Asturian beans and summer cabbages and calabrese and enjoyed hearty crops from them all. Latterly, it has been a riot of nasturtiums but unfortunately the couch grass had moved in, too, so time for some serious digging. The invernadero will make a huge difference to us in the garden; yes, we enjoy a wonderful growing climate here, but being able to extend the season (salad crops all winter, for example) and have a cosy shelter for young plants in early spring will be a massive boon.

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I dug over the whole area except for a patch of self-set mizuna; along with komatsuna and peas (also both self-set), it is providing us with some tasty, crisp salads at the moment so it can stay for the time being. It’s also a great example of how allowing seeds to do their own thing in the garden can be hugely beneficial.

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I have a lot of respect for the permaculture principle of paying attention to margins. We have always tried to use the margins of our garden in a way that is beneficial to the whole local environment: planting native hedges including fruit and nuts; planting swathes of native wildflowers; creating ponds and wetlands; making foraging areas for the hens, placing beehives or slipping in extra bits and pieces for the kitchen. As I dug this patch, it was clear that the strip along the lane side was in danger of becoming a useless and messy wasteland once the tunnel goes up: better to tackle that now! I started by digging out the ‘nuisance’ weeds – couch grass, creeping buttercup, dock and the like – but left the established daisies and red deadnettle, both still flowering. I then planted a clump of lemon balm at the barn end; this is a small root from the parent plant but will spread like stink, covering a rough area and binding the bank without causing any shade problems for the tunnel. At the gate end, I planted hyssop and verbena bonariensis, both grown from seed this year. In between, I relocated a couple of self-set hollyhocks and introduced a few calendula and borage seedlings, scattering seeds of the same, too (might as well cover all bases). There are already plenty of nasturtium seeds in there and the little stick of  spring-planted clematis ‘Polish Spirit’ has made a good start up the fence. Hopefully, this will now be an attractive area bustling with colour, life and edible things that will draw plenty of pollinators in to explore the delights of the polytunnel. Even better, it didn’t cost a penny.

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One of the most prolific self-setters we have here is mustard. Put it this way, we are in our second year here and have never planted it yet it comes up everywhere, even in cracks in the concrete. We’ve tried eating it and it’s truly horrid; no good as a veg crop, then, but I wasn’t too disheartened to see a mass of plants colonising the area where we grew potatoes this year. I’ve chopped them down this week and left them on the ground to wilt; next job will be to dig them in as a green manure. No waste here!

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Another thug – second only to the kiwi, believe me – is the comfrey. Remember that indifferent little root I planted a year ago? Oh my goodness, did it grow . . . and grow . . . and grow, which is all very well except it was encroaching on too many things around it, including the asparagus bed. I’ve been waiting patiently for it to die back before moving it but it has ignored my request and instead has started sending up new growth from the centre. Time to get tough. I cut back the older growth and added it to our newly-turned compost heap where it will be a great accelerator, requested Roger’s muscle and a fork to lift it (there is no way I could move the monster) and relocated it next to the pear trees. There it can romp away as much as it likes, bringing great pleasure to the bumble bee population and providing me with a regular source of fertiliser for other plants. With the comfrey gone, I cut back the asparagus stems and mulched the crowns, then cleared the rest of the ‘salad’ patch ready for spring planting (although a little patches of self-set komatsuna, leaf celery and borage remain).

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We have enjoyed some lovely photos this week of our little grandchildren having a wonderful time in the snow, and of course building some very impressive snowmen! No snow here, but we do have a couple of snowman-like features in the orchard . . .

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. . . our young lemon and orange trees, newly wrapped in fleece to protect them more from possible wind damage than anything else. They have grown so well this year after an initial bashing and there is a chance they might even fruit next season, so it’s worth keeping them snug.

Just four days until the Winter Solstice and as always we are planning a candlelit feast to celebrate. I know the coldest months are still to come but I always feel such a sense of immense joy at knowing that the days will soon grow longer and lighter, that spring and seed time will return, that there will be another season of warmth and growth and harvest. Like a handful of seeds, it is a wonderful, wonderful  promise that makes my heart sing, no matter how many times I experience it! 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Seed time and solstice

  1. I like poppies in the self-seeding line: we started with a bagful of mauve poppy seeds and now there are mauve, dark purple, fire-engine red, single, double – you mention it; every year there are new variations.

    And the plant I least like in self-seeding is Sweet Cicely; not only does it spread like Black Death did (and usually with the same effect) but when it establishes itself its roots grow halfway to Australia.

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  2. We have plenty of poppies but no Sweet Cicely and I don’t think we’ll bother if it’s like that (I get into enough trouble with my borage habit). I’m hoping for some granny bonnet seedlings this year, I brought several plants with us and I love the way the bees get in them and create new colours and styles. Meanwhile, I’m on a tea break from trying to get the better of that wretched oxalis . . . 😦

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  3. Yes, self-seeded edibles and flowers are great. Saves so much time, too, and I love the surprise element. The Oriental greens seem to be the best salad leaves for self-setting here and rocket. And in this wet year, we have self-set water cress all around the veg garden – not complaining! The mustard should make a super green manure – as should the borage if you have any spare. That was a bit optimistic leaving a tray of sunflower seeds around! We’ve got nine Douce Provence plants from saved seed in the greenhouse just now, fingers crossed at least half will survive. At least when you’ve saved the seeds it’s not so painful when some don’t make it. Won’t the Guatamalan Blue have cross-pollinated with your other squashes? I thought they were super promiscuous that way. Could be an interesting cross… When’s the polytunnel arriving?

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    • I’m a bit disappointed with the rocket here, I left both the normal and wild stuff to go to seed but none has come back which is a shame. I think a ‘Guatemalan Blue Crown Prince butternut’ would be the perfect squash! Polytunnel should be here soon after Christmas, it’s much smaller than the ones we’ve put up before and comes with ready-shaped polythene so we won’t have to do any of that stretching and pleating. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that in my mind, it’s already full . . . 🙂

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