Real Seed Catalogue
We’re enjoying the summer here at Real Seeds, and hope that all your vegetables are growing well. So far we’ve had a reasonable mix of sunshine and rain . . . we’re keeping our fingers crossed that this continues and that perhaps we might even get a bit more sun to ripen things up nicely.
Like most gardeners, we always seem to be short of space and time to grow as many different things (and as much seed) as we would like. However, we shouldn’t find this so hard from now on – we have rented a whole new field, and we now have a nice baby Kubota tractor to help us cultivate it. At the moment the field is covered in lots of brambles and bracken, but hopefully in future it will be full of lots more exciting new seeds . . . more on that below!
The 2009 Growing Season
This year we had a pretty good year in the gardens - some things did better than others as always, but the lettuces and apples were particularly good.
We had a really good hard cold snap in winter, so had much fewer problems with slugs and insect pests this year.
We've really noticed that when the winter is mild, there is a bigger population of eggs and larvae in the soil the following spring.
We didn't grow quite as much as other years, because of moving (see below) . But most things that we did plant were quite successful. In the large tunnel we grew loads of our fabulously popular Kaibi pepper, lots of Wautoma cucumber, and a big number of our long-awaited White Volunteer courgette.
The plants have been doing great, except when we got a bit distracted by the chaos of moving house, and were struck by a plague of cucumber-loving rats, and then a bit of trouble with red spider mite.
Traps set with peanut butter sorted out the rats, and the spider mite are being brought under control by misting with soft-soap solution, then introducing a biological control in the form of a different carnivorous mite.
The biological control we used last year to get rid of the aphids (a small aphid-eating insect called aphidoletes from the biological control company 'Defenders') had obviously laid lots of eggs in the soil at the end of last year , as this year we didn't have a single aphid at all. We were really impressed by how successful they were, and will do this again in the future if necessary.
We've moved a couple of miles down the road to a house in the nearby village of Newport. It was a hard decision, but the work of helping run an 85-acre farm, as well as the seed growing, was just too much along with everything else that we want to fit into our lives.
We had been looking for a smallholding for ages, but eventually came to the conclusion that it was simply never going to come up in the right place or at an affordable price.
So we thought we'd try instead the model that we've seen in Spain - a house in town, and a field a mile or so away on the outskirts.
This proved almost as hard to find as a smallholding! But eventually we did find a house in town, and some land to rent. (Many, many thanks are due to Mrs Green for renting us her field.)
In theory this new setup could have some of the advantages of both village and country life, so we will see...
Oh yes, for now the office is still at the farm, so those of you who like to order by post can carry on using the old address. We'll change it on the order form and catalogue when we get a new office in town.
Our New Field
For the moment we are still cultivating crops on plots at the farm, but we have rented a field nearer town and once we have cleared that and fenced it, then we will switch our seed production there.
As you can see from the pictures, the field - although good agricultural land - has been abandoned for about 15 years and was covered in self-sown trees and scrub. (That's our dog Basil in the picture, not a wolf!)
A few days heroic work by Mav, Adrian & Dylan (all armed with chainsaws) sorted out the scrub, but that is just the start.
There remains digging out the brambles, restoring the hedgerows and fixing the fences and gates, then of course turning heavy matted sod into nice crumbly seed beds.
So this is all a big new project for us. Lots of new skills to learn - fencing for a start! Although it's a bigger area, it will be only a small change in our way of growing.
Until now we have done our growing in lots of small beds in different places, mostly by hand, plus a small rotovator once a year to turn it over and break in new/resting beds.
We aren't changing our methods too much - the field will simply let us grow longer rows of things, still with weeding and most groundwork by hand - but it became really obvious that it's slightly too big to cultivate or incorporate green manures by rotovator.
Our New Tractor
So, we have upgraded to a tractor. Almost all modern tractors are huge things - awkward to use on small plots, & impactful on the soil. We spent ages looking for a good solution - we considered getting an old smallholders tractor such as an MF35, but most of these are now about 50 years old. Even though we found a source of rebuilt ones, they still are a bit big and heavy for our needs.
So in the end we settled on a baby Kubota, with a 1.1 litre engine giving about 25 horsepower, and some rather special miniature implements from Italy to go with it.
There are lots of small market gardeners in Italy and there they still make good implements for the smaller plot - the tractor and the bits are all only 4 foot wide, which is the same width as our standard seed bed.
The implements were manufactured by an agricultural-equipment cooperative called "Sicma" and were made to order for us over the summer, as we wanted their heavy duty models but without all the fancy hydraulic options. We waited very impatiently - we wanted to start cultivating the field!
They did arrive on exactly the promised day - a bit of fettling was needed to shorten the driveshafts but apart from that they fitted perfectly and we were really impressed by how well they were made. We hope that Josie will inherit them when we retire.
One implement we have that you may not have come across is a "spader". This attaches to the back of the tractor and through an ingenious collection of cams and levers, powers 6 spades to dig the soil as you go along!
Spaders are the bees-knees of low-horsepower cultivators, and were popular in this country sixty years ago, before farming became just another high-energy industrial process.
It is supposed to be better for the soil structure than rotovating - especially in wet conditions - and the digging/chopping motion should be better at incorporating green manures as well.
We first found out about spaders from Eliot Coleman's excellent book 'The New Organic Grower' several years ago, and are really excited to have managed to find and import one.
New things in the garden this year
As most of our customers will have noticed, we are very fond of kale – we eat a lot of it, and we think that everyone should grow it. So, we were very pleased to have several interesting new kales to trial, one from the north of Spain, and two others from Portugal.
In fact, one of them is not, really, a kale, but instead a form of Tree Cabbage from Asturias, sent to us by our friends Becky & Paul.
It is absolutely enormous - and it grows very much like a kale, in that it grows on a tall stalk, doesn’t form a head, and you pick leaves a few at a time to eat over a long period rather than taking the whole head. But the taste is much more like a cabbage – the leaves are more substantial, and not so soft as a kale.
Interestingly, Becky told us that as well as planting seed, people take root cuttings to get new plants.
Not only that, if you cut the plant right back when it flowers it will make fresh new growth (rather than making seed and then dying).
So, we tried this with one of our overwintered trial plants this springtime (not all of them, of course, as we want lots of seed!) and it worked beautifully. The 2 year old plant has happily continued to grow new leaves through the summer.
We’re not sure how much of our kale we would want to grow that way – hard to keep the rotation going – but I reckon a few overwintered plants could be an ideal addition to the garden to help get us through the hungry gap.
Next spring we’re going to trial the other two new kales from Portugal, sent to us by Russell Parry. Again, he says that if the flowers are removed the plants will grow on through a second summer, saying: "I normally keep mine until new greens start harvesting in June, but I’m assured they will go on and on until they are too tall to manage."
We got a kilo of seed from our bed of Paul and Becky's Tree Cabbage, which we have cleaned up and winnowed - it looks really good now and will be on the website this autumn. We think it should be popular - it's a really easy way to have a continuous supply of cabbage leaves through the hungry gap, and in fact, pretty much throughout the year.
New Things in the Catalogue this autumn:
We are pleased to have a few new things for the catalogue this autumn which are either completely new or have been absent for a few years:
Shungiku for Salads
We love increasing our collection of nice salad ingredients and have now added 'Shungiku' - otherwise known as edible-leaved-chrysanthemum.
This is very popular in Japan and the far east - a really easily grown plant (related to the decorative Chrysanthemum we all know from the flowerbed) and we think it is great added to a mixed salad.
"Cheyenne Bush" - an early orange 'pumpkin'
This was a great success in our trials a couple of years back but hasn't made it into the catalogue until now.
It's a very early proper 'pumpkin'-type winter squash; it was hard to find one that does well in the short summers we have in the UK but this one was remarkably early, making lots of medium round pumpkins in time for Halloween. It also cooks well - we'll add Ben's grandmother's pumpkin pie recipe to the growing notes.
"Purple Beauty" sweet pepper
This was one we discovered at the same time as our other really popular early peppers.
Purple Beauty is one of the very, very few early-ripening purple sweet peppers there is.
It makes sweet blocky bells that really are such a deep purple they appear almost black. When you slice them open there's this amazing contrast with the bright flesh inside. They're great both cooked or raw - and we will have some seed available this autumn.
"Kailaan" stem broccoli
This is a useful & very easily grown green we are adding to the catalogue this year.
Kailaan is from China and Japan, and it's a similar plant to our normal broccoli and calabrese, in that it has been bred for its unusual flower shoot shape. The difference is that this has been selected for juicy, succulent thick stems rather than huge buds.
It can be picked small (20 - 30 days old), taking whole plants at a time. Or you just leave it to grow large (about 60 - 70 days), in which case you can get 3 cuts from it: take the main stem and it will grow new ones from the side-shoots.
This is a really useful vegetable that can be sown in mid-summer or early spring to give a quick yield of juicy shoots that are cooked and used just like calabrese.
"Champion of England " Tall Pea
With a bit of luck, this pea will be available this autumn. This is a really good, traditional tall pea to 8 - 10 ft, dating from the 1840's, when it was available in both tall and dwarf forms.
Some seed of the tall version was sent to us in 2007 by Robert Woodbridge. We'll let him give the history in his own words:
"I am going to send you some seeds of a Pea called Champion of England, my grandmother grew it in her very large garden in the village of Pickworth Lincs, I promised that I would always grow it and keep it going.
She got the seed from the head gardener at a big country house during the war where my grandfather worked as a carpenter repairing wooden greenhouses and cold frames.
As to the pea it grows to ten foot high and the peas are 8 to 10 per pod and you start picking from the bottom and work your way up, it prefers to be sown at the end of April to avoid the pea moth maggot and takes about 100 days to reach 10 ft."
For us this was an amazing find. It's the genuine tall strain, well maintained over the years, and we even know the location it came from.
We've now multiplied it up and there should be a few packets available on the website when the new catalogue comes out.
"I think the world is going to end next month . . .
so I want a pile of seeds to put in the freezer"
Every time you read the paper at the moment it seems as though everything is falling apart, if it isn’t the financial crisis and the banks then it’s the latest swine flu reports. Understandably, a lot of people who haven’t gardened before are starting to think about growing their own food. That makes lots of sense to us – regardless of anything else, growing your own vegetables means that you’ll get better tastier food, and almost certainly will have less of an impact on the planet too.
But, we are also finding that we’re getting more and more phone calls along the following lines: "I’d like to buy lots of seeds to store because I’m worried about food security/swine flu/peak oil/the economic crisis, how long will they keep?"
Now, there are two problems with that question. The first is that it is almost impossible to answer. Different species of vegetables have very different seed life, ranging from the Liscari Sativa which we only sell from harvest til the following March, because by the summer the seed will be dead, through to melons, where some older gardeners swear by using 5 year or older seed because they believe it gives more fruit.
The more serious problem is that, in our opinion, there is not much point having seeds in a freezer, particularly if you’ve not done much gardening before. To put it bluntly, by the time you’ve figured out how to grow them, if you really need to, then it will be too late.
What makes much, much more sense is to start with a reasonably small number of seeds, grow them, and learn to save your own seed. Once you have vegetables growing in your garden and you can save seed from them, you have a pretty much guaranteed supply for ever – not only do you not need to buy lots of seeds to start with or store them, but you get lots of food along the way as well.
So – our message for the financial crisis – save your own seeds, save money, and have lots of lovely vegetables, even if the rest of the world is falling apart!
But how long can I keep my seeds for?!
Ah, and just to help those who have left over seeds once they’ve planted up their garden, or who found a stash of packets from last year and want to know whether they’re likely to grow, the table below gives a very rough indication for the most common vegetables of potential seed life.
Do be aware that the way in which seeds are stored will affect their life – the following times assume that the seeds have been stored somewhere cool, dry and dark. If seeds get damp or are kept in warm conditions they will keep significantly less well. You'll only reach the top end of the seed life shown below if the seeds are really dry and kept somewhere in an airtight sealed packet (not paper) that stays at a steady cool temperature.
Also, germination is not an on/off state, what will generally happen is that as seeds get older the percentage that germinate will start to drop off, and then at some point will fall to zero.
Type of vegetable
Rough estimate of seed life
3 to 5 yrs +
Beetroot, chard & leaf beet
2 to 3 yrs
Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussels, turnips etc)
3 to 7 yrs
up to 3 yrs
Courgettes & squashes
2 to 4 yrs
Cucumbers & melons
up to 10 yrs
2 to 5 yrs
up to 3 yrs max
up to 3 yrs
2 yrs max
3 to 5 yrs +
Peppers & aubergines
up to 5 yrs
up to 8 yrs
One final thought, if do you find an old packet of seeds, and wonder whether they are worth sowing, you can always test their germination yourself.
Put a couple of layers of damp kitchen towel on a saucer, sprinkle a few seeds on it, and wrap it loosely in a plastic bag (so that it stays damp but is not airtight). Put the saucer somewhere warm - an airing cupboard is ideal – and check after a few days. If your test seeds have germinated, then you are fine to go ahead and sow the rest, sowing more thickly if only a proportion of them grew. If nothing is happening, then you need new seeds . .
I'm a total beginner at gardening, what vegetables should I plant?
This is another really regular question from people who are just starting out with their first vegetable garden. In some ways the best answer is to ask 'What vegetables do you like to eat?' because of course the most inspiring garden, and the one that is most fun to work in is the one that is full of all your favourite things.
Having said that, there are a few points to bear in mind that might help with a first vegetable garden. Firstly, its probably best to avoid some of the vegetables that don’t really like British weather and have to be coaxed to perform well. So I would tend to stay away from sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines and melons/watermelons for the first couple of years. All of these need to be started off indoors in warm conditions, and really need a greenhouse or polytunnel to get good results in most of the country.
More positively, most vegetables are really easy to grow, although some – like the old standbys of lettuce and radishes - are quicker than others to produce (hence why they are often recommended for a child’s garden).
If I were forced to choose a selection of basic vegetables for a first garden, it would probably include:
- Mangetout peas - ordinary peas are also easy, but mangetout produce more and for longer
- Courgettes – which need starting off in a pot somewhere warm, but really do produce vast amounts from just one or two plants
- A nice selection of Lettuces, particularly the looser headed varieties where you can pick a few leaves at a time
- Chard or leaf beet – not a vegetable that you often see in the shops, but a sowing in late spring or early summer will produce endless spinach-like greens from late summer right through to the following April or May
- Climbing french beans, like the courgettes best started off in pots somewhere warm, but again will produce huge amounts in return for a little effort.
- Beetroot, and also Radishes for those that like them – both quick and easy to grow
- Kale – another real standby that will produce leaves for cooking from mid summer right through to the following spring.
- and finally, possibly, Tomatoes – but only (as a beginner) if I lived in the south-east and/or had a sunny patio to grow them on
I’m sure every experienced gardener will look at that list and add or take from it, and it does, mostly, include vegetables that will crop in the summer & autumn, but I think for a small plot and a first attempt it would provide a good selection and reasonably fast results.
My other immediate recommendation for any beginner would be to get hold of a copy of Joy Larkcom’s book Grow Your Own Vegetables (which hopefully most libraries should stock – and if not, you should ask them why!).
Once you’ve got started with growing vegetables, you’ll almost certainly want to expand and extend your growing so that you have something to harvest all year round.
For a few tips on things to grow for winter and spring, have a look at last year’s newsletter article on Beating the Hungry Gap.
I can only grow in pots - what can I grow?
Lots of people don’t have access to a proper garden, but do have a patio, balcony or other outdoor space where they can grow plants in pots. Not all things will grow well in pots, but given the proper care and situation there are plenty of vegetables that will do really well.
There are a few questions to think about before deciding what to sow:-
- Light . . . how much sunshine will your plants get each day? If you are lucky enough to have a good south facing spot with no shading then it really helps. However, even in a less ideal spot, so long as there is sunshine for at least part of the day then you can grow lettuces and other leafy greens that don’t mind a certain amount of shade. Equally, a sunny, sheltered south facing balcony or patio can provide ideal conditions for peppers, tomatoes, chillies and aubergines which often struggle out in the open in British summers.
- Space . . .what size pots do you have? At one end of the scale you can grow herbs and cut-and-come-again salads in small pots or troughs and get good results. Cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes will all do well in a growbag. If you want to grow courgettes, peas & beans and vegetables with deeper roots like carrots and beetroot you will need to look for larger containers. These don’t need to be brand new, plenty of people grow excellent crops in old bathtubs and sinks reclaimed from the dump.
- Feeding your plants . . . if you sow in bought compost (we would suggest ideally an organic peat free variety) you will need to feed your plants weekly after the first 3-4 weeks of growth. There are plenty of good organic approved commercial plant feeds available. You can also make an excellent high-nitrogen home made liquid feed from nettles (stuff a bucket really full of nettles, fill with water, rot down for a month then strain into bottles, dilute 1 part of feed:3 parts of water to use, but do be aware that it is very smelly). Comfrey feed is even better, but nettles are easier to scrounge from waste ground and parks! I’ve never used a worm compost bin, but lots of people with limited space for composting swear by them as a good way to produce compost for their plants and deal with food waste at the same time.
- Using vertical space . . . climbing peas and beans are much more productive for the same ground area compared to dwarf varieties, and cucumbers grow well up a trellis.
A few suggestions for vegetables that should do well under different conditions:
Less sunny spots
Lettuces, mizuna, orach, cress, kale for baby leaves
Full sun for most of the day
Carrots, beetroot, radishes, cucumbers, beans, peas, coriander, parsley, courgettes
Particularly warm sunny areas
Tomatoes, chillies, sweet peppers, melons, basil, aubergines
What Next for Real Seeds?
(Answer: Small is Still Beautiful)
We've been having this discussion for some time now. Our seeds are really popular, and although more and more of you are obviously saving your own seed, there also seems to be an almost infinite demand for real seed from us, with more and more people requesting seed every year.
So, one option would to deliberately set out to become much bigger. Not huge, but not a tiny specialist organisation any more either. For an example of what we could do, "Reinsaat" in Austria is a really nice, ethically-run seed business that employs about 15 people and specialises in organic, open-pollinated vegetable varieties. They have a huge farm, and big shiny steel barns and an office and no doubt accountants and office managers and trial managers etc etc.
Real Seeds probably has the potential to become the UK equivalent of this - get a huge bank loan, buy a farm, employ some more people, do some high-profile publicity with a nice glossy colour catalogue, and end up sending loads & loads of orders out every year to pay for it all - but we've decided we don't want to.
We'd just end up managing all the employees - and not having any time out there growing and trialling and breeding vegetables any more. We don't think it would be the same; being small, we all know what is happening with every plant, and our seed shows it.
And the economic crisis, coupled with the looming catastrophe of climate change, has really put things in perspective for us. Thinking about it, why is there this expectation that all businesses should grow?
To be honest, the whole problem with our society is that we have been brought up to expect Economic Growth all our lives. The whole 'success' or otherwise of our country is measured in terms of its Economic Growth. Its drummed into us all the time - every news bulletin even tells us how much the Stock Market has risen (or otherwise!)
But if you consider it, this is really stupid. How can it be possible for more and more people to each make and buy more and more stuff , every year , year after year, on a finite planet?
In fact, with a rapidly increasing population, we should be consuming less and less stuff each year.
Can't we be happy with reaching a comfortable level of production, whilst doing something useful - or at least harmless? Why are we persuaded to follow this insatiable drive to do 10% more business every year, regardless of whether its a good or bad thing in the long term?
But that is a difficult message to sell to people who have been told from birth that all progress stems from 'growth' - increased personal and national consumption every year compared to the previous one! (Did you know that every year since 1976 the UK population has been more & more miserable - despite having more & more stuff every year?)
Ben keeps having surreal conversations with advertising salespeople:
- Ad Salesperson (very cheery): "Good Morning Mr Gabel. Can I call you Ben? How are you doing today? Look, let me . ."
- Ben (busy working on the Kale seed ): "What are you selling?"
- AS (slightly thrown, but recovering quickly): " . . .um, yes. . Can I just tell you about this exciting new opportunity to . . "
- Ben: "I'm really sorry, but if you're trying to sell advertising we don't want to do any extra."
- AS (persistently): "Oh? No? Why not?"
- Ben: "Well, we don't want to send out more & more seed each year. We're happy as we are."
- AS (getting desperate): "But this is a great chance to grow your business! Look, we're launching this new . . ."
- Ben: (resigned) "Sorry, we don't want to grow the business."
- AS: (completely flabbergasted): "But - but, if you sell more and more things each year you can , you can - make more profit and employ more people, and, and, and .. grow the business and, and - become richer, and . . .. "
- Ben: (sadly) "No, you see, I don't believe in economic growth as a, as some sort of over-reaching life goal. I think its wrong that we've all been trained to expect more and more, bigger & bigger, living on a finite planet."
- AS: "Um, thank you for your time Mr Gabel . . . <click> . . . . "
So, we don't want Real Seeds to grow. We think its great as it is. If it got bigger it wouldn't be the same. We'll keep on searching out new varieties and making the old ones available - and no doubt we will slowly supply more people - but we're not setting out to deliberately 'grow the business' because we'd rather be growing vegetables.
Unusual Tubers Update:
Those of you who read last years' newsletter will know that we are working on Oca and Ulluco as two 'new crops'. This year we've not grown much for the catalogue due to the move - but we have been multiplying and breeding new varieties, so I think we probably have the second biggest Oca collection in Europe.
Here are some of our oca tubers all ready for planting out this spring:
(Our friend Frank has the biggest oca collection, definitely, but he's not doing all the other seeds too, so that's cheating :-)
The Ulluco has been very disappointing this year in term of yield and we are not sure why!
Maybe it liked the wet spring last year?
Month by month sowing guide
Over the past couple of years, we've gradually been adding sowing calendars to all our varieties, showing when you can sow and harvest the different vegetables.
To make it easier for beginners to plan their sowing, we're now working on a month by month sowing guide to be added to the website with ideas of what you could be sowing throughout the year. We haven't included absolutely everything that you could potentially sow (see Joy Larkcom's book Grow Your Own Vegetables for a more comprehensive guide), but we think that it should be helpful.
That's it for 2009!
Now the newsletter is done, we're starting to process all the seed in the gardens and type up the new catalogue. At the same time we're taking photos and making notes from the trials, and getting ready to put the descriptions of the new things on the website.
The catalogue will come out some time at the end of September if all goes according to plan - there are some really great new varieties in it, and we hope you'll enjoy it. (You'll get a copy automatically if you bought seed by post in the past year, and if you ordered over the internet you'll get an email letting you know when its available, so no need to request one.)
We hope you have a really good gardening year and that you manage to save some of your own seed at home.
Ben, Kate & Catherine, August 2009
(If you've enjoyed this newsletter and you're new to Real Seeds, you might like to have a look back at our earlier newsletters which have lots of articles and some nice recipes in them too.)