Dig This: Sowing the seed

Down the allotment with Alastair Gilmour

Opening a packet of seeds never loses its excitement and sense of wonder. Peering inside is a joy, tipping the contents into your palm is exhilarating, and recognising their differences and characteristics is pure education.

Beetroot seeds, for example, are nobbly, grey-brown and bogey-sized, whereas if you sneeze over Little Gem lettuce seeds you’ll spread them to the four winds. Cabbage seeds are round and easy to pick up and drop into trays of compost, while plopping dried, wrinkly peas straight from a packet into a hole in the soil couldn’t be easier. Another amazement; the shape, size and colour of a seed often bears no relation to the vegetable that it creates.

I have a terrible habit of ripping open seed packets through the crucial information on the back. But you quickly learn not to take the instructions too literally. When you think about it, seed packets are sold nationwide and a March sowing date that would suit a cold frame in the South East may be six weeks too early for an allotment in Bedlington.

Of course it’s all vital information, but don’t beat yourself up if you happen to be late. I’ve sown things weeks later than stated in the small print and still enjoyed an acceptable crop. Like people, seeds and growing conditions are all different.

And don’t let the planting space instructions confuse you; spacing is a rule made to be broken, so don’t become obsessive about measuring to the millimetre. Do it your way, learn from your mistakes and call it “local knowledge”.

Talk to your seeds, coax them into action, encourage your compost to give them its best, whisper sweet nothings as you transfer the plants into their final growing positions and they’ll reward you. Green fingers don’t exist, but stimulation boosts anyone’s morale, so why should a seed be any different?

Study gardeners on TV like Carol Klein – she doesn’t half get things to respond. And if you’re called Bob Flowerdew, like the Gardeners’ Question Time presenter, you’re off to a head start.

And as much as I love this time of year, my most earnest advice is, don’t let guilt get in your way. Growing from seed is by no means a must for the allotmenteer. There’s no shame in buying seedlings or plug plants by mail order or plantlets from the nursery. Often it can be the best way and you’ll still end up taking pride in your crop.

Seed-sowing is time-consuming, fiddly and frustrating (think Little Gem and sneezing fits), so mix and match between that and buying “ready-mades” until the conditions are right for you, and you alone.

It’s your garden, the end results are your decision, and what you whisper to your seed will always remain a secret between the pair of you.

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