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Seed sowing

So we’re well into the main seed sowing period of the gardening year. It’s a time of great anticipation, with compost, trays and seeds at the ready. It’s a crucial time for every gardener, a window in which the plants that will feed us and provide colourful flowers throughout the summer and into the autumn are started into life. It can be make or break for some plants which need a long growing season to reach maturity, such as celeriac and parsnip. If these plants miss their window of opportunity that’s your chance gone for another year.

So it can be incredibly frustrating, to say the least when seeds don’t appear. We’ve all experienced that sparsely populated compost where there should have been a sea of shoots or even worse the completely bare seed tray. Of course, we blame ourselves. We must have done something wrong. Did we sow them too deep or too shallow? Was the compost too dry and too wet? Was it too cold for them to germinate? All of these are possibilities but how many of us think it might be the seed that is the problem? It might be a more likely explanation than gardeners realise.

In recent years the consumer magazine Which has carried out research to determine the germination rates of selected seeds from some of the main seed suppliers in the UK. In 2007 it discovered that significantly high percentages of seeds were actually dead at the time of purchase. One company’s Delphinium seed were found, when analysed, to be 99% dead and  the other 1% were unhealthy and just 15% of seeds of a variety of lettuce produced healthy plants (figures were taken from a report in The Daily Telegraph). Two years later they carried out more tests and found 7 out of 17 seed supplying companies failed to meet minimum germination standards with spring onion ‘White Lisbon’ and only 27% of a variety of pelargonium germinated. They did however praise several companies, including Nicky’s Nursery and Dobies for their overall seed health.

There are legal standards set by the EU for the germination of vegetable seeds. These minimum germination percentages vary according to different plants to reflect the natural viabilities of different seeds, for example it is 80% minimum germination for cucumbers and runner beans and 65% for carrots and leeks. I suppose I hadn’t really given it much thought but it is surprising and sobering to realise that a number of the seeds we buy are already dead, even if they are meeting the legal requirements and as Which discovered many are not even meeting these. Flower seeds are not covered by any minimum standards at all which seems quite shocking to me. I can’t think of any products that we purchase that don’t have to meet some sort of minimum standard. I can quite easily spend £20 – £30 on flower seeds in a year and the thought that I’m not getting what I paid for is annoying.

Larkspur plant - one that did germinate

Larkspur plant – one that did germinate

My own experience so far this year has been mixed. Most of the seeds have germinated well, particularly sweet peas, celeriac and lettuce but I’ve had my fair share of frustrations. I sowed one seed tray, half with blue larkspur and the other half white larkspur. They had exactly the same conditions. The blue larkspur are now good-sized plants hardening off in my cold frame, not one white larkspur appeared though. I resowed and 3 have so far germinated which is not enough for my cutting patch. Sarah Raven, who I purchased the seed from said they knew of no other problems with the seed but promptly sent out another packet and I have now sown another batch. Rudbeckia ‘Cappucino’ is another seed I have had problems with, 2 years in a row. The contrast between this variety and another Rudbeckia variety ‘Prairie Sun’ is incredible, with virtually every seed of the latter germinating and a measly 1 out of 20 from the ‘Cappucino’ germinating.

With my cutting patch I’m trying to grow lots of varieties in small groups of between 6 and 10. With the confined growing space of window sills and cold frames, the problems of patchy germination or complete no-shows are heightened. I, like many other gardeners don’t have the space to sow lots of seed en masse.

Perhaps though, one of the main reasons why this problem seems to be brushed under the carpet is our reluctance as gardeners to complain when our seeds don’t perform as expected. I am guilty of this, too. Some companies are reluctant to admit there is a problem and insist it must be the gardener at fault and what gardener wants their seed growing prowess called into disrepute? Others seem to have a better understanding of customer service, such as Sarah Raven. I was talking to a commercial grower recently who has experienced the vagaries of seed germination and the reluctance of companies to acknowledge the problem and he said we should all complain more. It is only then that the companies would have to take more notice of the issue.

I’d love to hear if you’ve suffered from similar seed germinating problems and whether you’ve complained or not.