In preparation for sowing seeds in flowerpots, with a view to growing more vegetables in the small, paved garden in London, I opened my ancient toffee tin of garden seeds to see what was inside.
Some used packets had been bought recently, like climbing French beans, broad beans and parsley. Other seeds, taken from the previous year’s crop, like tomatoes, clung to the kitchen paper on which they were dried. Others were tied in plastic freezer bags, like rocket and chillies.
But there were seeds there of unknown age and origin, some loose - all later to be cast haphazardly in open urban ground.
In looking through a 1962 diary, where I have, since then, recorded the rotation of crops, arrival of house martins, first cuckoo notes and other observations of nature, I found my list of seed viability.
Now, by nature, my life is made up of experiments. This manifests itself, especially in the kitchen, where nearly every dish is contrived differently from that cooked previously, and in the garden.
In gardening, like cooking, we are inclined to believe what we are told by “experts”, or have learned from, and believed, the printed word. When some sage has pronounced (perhaps erroneously) on a subject, and, right or wrong this has since been perpetuated, we believe it.
So when I wrote an unpublished work on vegetable gardening, a proposed section was to be the viability of seeds with some original input.
It struck me that merchants might possibly suggest that their seeds did not remain viable for as long as they actually did (quite untrue, I’m sure), and that “Packed in the year ….” did not necessarily mean the year harvested. And I had noticed that some packets of seeds sold in foreign countries suggested longer viability than those sold at home.
So, with a combination of discovering packets with the longest seed viability recommended at home and abroad, and my own experiments over many years, I drew up a list. It has been very popular among my gardening friends.
One point to note is than when compiling it many years ago, there were few, if any, F1 Hybrid seeds on the market. These do not necessarily produce a good crop from saved seed. So my list is for non-F1 Hybrid seeds – old-fashioned, normal seeds.
Another point is that the following viability list depends on seed gathered and dried by your self, with the following year for planting being recorded as year one.
As a note of interest, it is not always necessary to dry tomato seeds – though I usually do, especially to keep two excellent unknown strains going. Once, when eating a splendid salade tomates in France in springtime, I extracted some tomato seeds from the vinaigrette dressing and planted them on my return to England. I was eating those very same tomatoes that summer. This year I have grown plants successfully from the fresh seeds of two kinds of mini tomatoes.
A final point is that the seeds in the following list may well last for longer – some much longer – than here recommended (we learn quite often that seeds from ancient civilisations have been germinated successfully).
Here they are, with the years of their viability, all in a line to save space, and in the original order from my book:-
CUCUMBER 6, CELERY 6, PARSNIP 2, MARROW (AND PRESUMABLY COURGETTE) 6, CABBAGE 5, RADISH 5, LETTUCE 5, SPINACH 2, CHARD 5, CARROTS 3, LEEKS 3, ONIONS 3, TURNIPS 2, PEAS 2, BEANS 2, TOMATOES 5, PARSLEY 3, CELERIAC 4, BEETS 5, KOHL RABI 4, SALSIFY 2, SWEDE (RUTABAGA) 2, AND PEPPERS (UNRECORDED).