Choosing seeds and varieties
Which seed variety to buy – these have worked for me, over several seasons.
Firstly let’s consider seed quality, of what you may buy.
Seed Sourcing and freshness
Companies like Plants of Distinction, Real Seeds and biodynamic growers Seed Co-operative (greenhouses in Lincs) and Bingenheim Saatgut, offer a good range. As I understand it, apart from Real Seeds, Bingenheim, Franchi (Seeds of Italy), the excellent Sativa Rheingau in Switzerland, and Seed Co-operative, most seed has similar origins in multinational seed houses. The seed may be older or younger, according to how much stock of old seed is carried by each operation. Unfortunately, the buyer cannot know that – the only information you see is “packeted year ending”!
- UPDATE AUGUST 2019 I have had more problems than usual of poor germination this year. I always notify the seed company and urge you to do the same if your seeds do not emerge: I think there is too much old seed being sold. This is often why seeds do not germinate, rather than you the gardener being at fault.
Also worth a try is eBay!
Every year I suffer poor germination from one or more company’s seed, easily confirmed as I often sow two different lots of the same vegetable at the same time. Comparing germination reveals the duds, and it’s usually because the seed is old.
If this happens to you, I suggest you send an email. Officially they will assure you that germination tests showed more than 70% success, which I believe is the legal minimum. However this is in perfect, laboratory conditions. I am sure that notice is taken of all complaints and I speak to so many gardeners who suffer germination issues.
One thing is for sure: fresh, home saved seed is far more vigorous and reliable: my Saving Seed video has advice on this. See also my archived September 2008 blog, also October 2011 for saving seed of runner beans and Borlotti. Mostly it is difficult and skilful work to save good seed, and time must be available at certain key moments. Real Seeds offer good advice and excellent seeds as well.
Hybrids or open-pollinated
“Open pollinated” means natural breeding has happened to produce that variety of vegetable, and you can save seeds from it. Breeders need to maintain these OP varieties by selective cross-breeding every year. Unfortunately this earns them less money than breeding F1 hybrids and in my experience, the maintenance of OP quality sometimes slips.
- For example Gardeners Delight tomato in the 1980s was a small, sweet cherry, whereas many ‘Gardeners Delight’ seeds now grow larger and less sweet fruit. The seed packet has the same name, but results are different.
- In 2019, many of us have experienced disappointment with Greyhound cabbage, which was not inclined to make the tight heart it used to, even after waiting and waiting.
- Be wary of the word “heirloom”, which means only that a variety originated x years ago, and does not guarantee quality, or even flavour sometimes.
“Hybrids”prefixed ‘F1’, are from two inbred lines of breeding to achieve desired results, which are then cross-pollinated in isolation. They grow into fine vegetables, of a uniform size and maturing uniformly – this may or may not be what you wish for
Do not save seeds from hybrid vegetables, because they do not grow true and plants are nothing like the parent plant.
Choosing a decent variety/cultivar can make all the difference, and chicories for hearts of radicchio are a good example. I had this comment from Wim in the Netherlands, which echoes my experience. The variety I recommend is 506TT, see below:
In one of your videos you mention a variety of radicchio from Bingenheimer Saatgut. As we are very fond of Palla Rossa chicory I grow it ever since I had my allotment. But often the heads were diseased or even rotten before they were big enough. This year I ordered some Bingenheim seeds: what a difference! Very large healthy heads and not a brown leaf showing! Since I discovered your site and videos gardening is much easier and more fun! And, a bit reluctantly, your ideas are also spreading among my fellow gardeners.
My recommended Varieties
An asterisk (*) indicates vegetables that grow in half a season (in southern Britain, zones 7-8 roughly), so they can be grown before or after other half-season vegetables. For example, carrots then oriental leaves or endives, lettuce then beetroot or bulb fennel, autumn sown beans then leeks or kale, second early potatoes then leeks or broccoli. Italics are for varieties I strongly recommend.
Best grown under cover. I struggle more often than succeed, in SW England our summers are rarely hot enough. However, in the last seven summers I have enjoyed good harvests from Black Pearl F1 and even bigger ones from grafted plants of the same variety, purchased for approx. £2 from www.organicplants.co.uk. Mostly I don’t rate most grafted plants, these are my exception!
Boltardy has good flavour and grows well in all seasons except winter, especially from early sowing, as early as February in plugs or pots in warm conditions. I have been successful with early Boltardy since 1983. For later sowings from mid April you can sow Boldor and Touchstone Gold for a lovely flavour and yellow colour, Chioggia gives pretty pink and white stripes when cut, while Cheltenham Green Top is long, sweet and stands well in winter. For winter use, sow from early May to mid June.
For sowing in autumn to overwinter, Aquadulce Claudia is reliable and develops great flavour if beans are allowed to mature until white and creamy. It also crops well from sowing by early March. Masterpiece Green Longpod has tasty green beans, sown from February, and Green Windsor has arguably the best flavour of all.
Monica or de Monica grows a smaller plant 1.2m/4ft high, with pods of 4-5 pale coloured, sweet beans. Broad Bean Wizard, from Real Seeds are great over winter, and produce a tasty crop in May, with many small pods.
Broccoli (also see calabrese below)
A common broccoli in climates with mild winters is Purple Sprouting to overwinter, and sowing in June is good for this. I grew Early Purple Sprouting for many years, with fair results. Then I tried Claret F1 and have not looked back – large main heads in April, followed by many secondary broccoli shoots, finishing by mid to end May.
- Try also Kaibroc and Brokali, for small plants which are very fast at heading into small spears. Sow as late as the end of July, for cropping in October onwards, even into winter.
Fresh, well grown Brussels actually have lovely flavours all the time, with less bitterness than is sometimes found in bought buttons. Doric F1 has always grown well for me as a late cropper from December to March while Marte F1 is excellent for cropping September to December. Noisette is reliable, of good flavour and appears less palatable to caterpillars than F1 hybrids. Groningen is a very tall open-pollinated variety. Flower Sprouts (F1 hybrid cross with kale) have open buttons of sweeter flavour and are less prone to caterpillars.
I am wary of caterpillars in hearting autumn cabbage but using mesh over June plantings, for nine weeks, makes it possible to have some good hearts. Or spray Bacillus Thuringiensis if you can buy it. Try Piacenza and Quintal d’Alsace from Real Seeds, while Filderkraut from Mr Fothergills and Bingenheim makes large, pointed hearts which are tender and delicious in coleslaw or for sauerkraut. In November 2011 I harvested hearts of 5-6kg (24 inch spacing) and they were so sweet, but 2012 hearts were only 1kg because I planted them too late (10th July) in a cool summer.
For red cabbage I like Rodynda and Granat. They both keep for 2-3 months in my shed from a harvest in late autumn.
Sow autumn cabbage for hearting in mid May for planting by mid June. For spring cabbage sown late August, all varieties I have grown have performed well, more for leaves than tight hearts.
Savoy cabbage Paresa F1 can be sown June, planted July to harvest in late winter, when greens are so welcome. Savoy hearts are frost hardy.
For large, tight heads try F1 hybrids such as Belstar and Marathon. More stem and smaller heads over a long period come from Apollo F1. Harvests of smaller shoots and over a longer period are given by open pollinated varieties such as Green Sprouting.
Bingenheim seeds do an excellent open pollinated variety, Calinaro. In 2015 I sowed it June 20th and planted after broad beans, for heavy crops in October.
Early Nantes, for early and later sowings, grow vigorously to a fair size, with good sweetness. Raymond Blanc’s tasting team gave it top marks in a 2014 trial of 32 varieties. Berlicum and Autumn King varieties are good for sowing by mid June, to store through winter. Coloured varieties have variable vigour: yellow ones grow easily, purple ones are more tricky, all have different flavours.
For winter harvests of great flavour and storing quality, try the stump rooted Oxhella, best sown in June.
A large trial at Raymond Blanc’s garden revealed few differences in flavour and growth. I find that Prinz has slightly healthier autumn leaves (less Septoria) than Ibis, although both grow to a fine size. In 2015 I tried Monarch and Mars, finding both to be good, and the Mars in particular carried on growing into November, with healthier leaves than other varieties which can suffer septoria (“late blight”) from about August in wet summers and autumns. Giant Prague matures late, with flatter roots of fine flavour.
Chicories for hearting
Leaf chicory is rather bitter so I concentrate on bitter-sweet hearts, mostly for salad, sown after mid June, to reduce bolting. A last sowing around 12th-15th July is good to have hearts in November even December, in Somerset. Fine red radicchios should develop from Palla Rossa varieties, especially 506TT from Bingenheim, which also stands well.
I find Marzatica from Seeds of Italy makes variable heads and bout half are firm. They are complemented by amazing pink and yellow colours from varieties such as Lusia and Romea (Seeds of Italy) and Castelfranco (Sativa), but these do not stand well, tending to rot. Be wary of Treviso which does not really make a heart, is better for leaves or for forcing, see January 2014. However, Bingenheim/Sativa’s hearting Treviso 206TT really does heart!
I like Seeds of Italy’s selection, which emphasises how all shapes, colours and sizes are possible! Genovese and Striato of Naples have grown well here. Early Gem F1 has grown well for me since 1984, as has Defender F1. F1 varieties produce more fruit and less plant!
I find that yellow varieties are less productive. Remember that courgettes are simply under-grown marrows, of the summer squash family: see winter squashes for Butternut et al. Pumpkins are different again, see below.
All-female cucumbers for growing undercover are expensive in seed, and highly productive. I like Carmen F1 for whole size fruits and Passandra F1 for half-size cucumbers, and I grow them up strings. Outdoor cucumbers need less training and fruits are less regular, especially La Diva, while Tanya cucumbers are more even, and prickly like many outdoor (‘ridge’) cucumbers – just peel the skin before eating. Home grown are tasty, you should notice a big difference compared to what you can buy.
For large leaved scaroles, try Bubikopf and Diva, which keep healthier than many others (less browning at the margins). Bingenheim’s Diva is excellent for this.
For a frizzy endive, try Frenzy (seeds on EBay) for a long season of picking, then cutting and plants can crop for 12 weeks from a June sowing. Also I like Fine Maraichere for its abundant green leaves, pickable of outer leaves like lettuce, Aery F1 for high yields, and Bianca Riccia da Taglio (Real Seeds) for luminous and tasty leaves, of a bright yellow, highly decorative colour. Of all these my winter favourite is Aery F1, for its amazing vigour.
Some I like include Tree Spinach (Simply Vegetables), which has beautiful magenta shoots all the time while it grows up to five feet high by August, watercress for its (invasive) vigour and flavour, and lime basil for stunning citrus aromas and tastes. Trials of oca in 2013-15 were successful, though be wary of mice eating the tubers in late autumn, and yields were not high.
Sweet potatoes are worthwhile only undercover – Carolina Ruby was my most productive variety, see October 2013. In 2019’s warm summer and in the polytunnel, I harvested two wheelbarrows of leaf and stem, but only 4kg of sweet potatoes.
Yacon is worth growing if you can buy a plant, order in winter for spring delivery eg from Real Seeds. I harvested 10kg from two plants, tubers are sweet but low in calories.
There are two seasons of harvest, separated by flowering in June. Sowe either on a windowsill in February, or in July, even in late July or early August. Zefa Fino is reliable. In 2013 I trialled five varieties and found few differences except for Solaris F1 bulbing better from the June sowing.
Perfektion from Bingenheim is now my favourite and bulbed nicely in 2018 and 2019, from early module sowing, and then bulbed in October-November from a sowing in late July.
Climbing beans come in many shapes and colours. Blauhilde has lovely purple pods, Fortex (Seaspring Seeds) has surprisingly long ones of good flavour, Cobra is a green all rounder and crops all summer, really nice beans. My favourite dwarf beans are Cupidon for long, green pods, Safari (see photo above) for cropping thin, long beans over a long period and Sonesta or Orinoco for waxy, yellow pods.
Purple Tepee grows flavoursome beans that appear to go from too small to too large in as little as 3 days but do not appear to be tough or stringy.
Fruit – apples
In terms of disease resistance here, I am mostly concerned about apple scab. Flavour and crispness of fruit is equally important! Check for local varieties which should be adapted to your weather, and see if you can find some to taste before committing to planting a tree, because it is such a long term commitment.
My favourites are Sunset for eaters October-December, small and sweet, Ribston Pippin for russeted fruits of great taste and density which gives it longevity over crispness, Lord Lambourne for sweet eaters in October-November, and and Kidds Orange Red for exquisite flavoured fruit which may keep until February.
Red Windsor and Cevaal are excellent in Sep-Oct, gorgeous colour and healthy. Court Pendu Plat keeps well through winter as does Falstaff. Jupiter has large, red, tasty eaters until Christmas, and grow Bountiful for large, green cookers from September, which turn yellow and become sweet in December. Both resist scab and Bountiful is especially clean, and high yielding.
Once you have a harvest of bulbs that you like, I recommend keeping the largest bulbs to separate into cloves to re-plant in early October. See my garlic video for advice.
Flavourwise I like Solent Wight which also stores well.
Hardnecks make slightly smaller bulbs, harvest about two weeks later than softnexks, and are easier to peel.
I grow almost none of these, preferring instead to plant or sow second crops of vegetables in July, August and until about mid September. Then I sow any spare ground, from about mid September to mid October, with mustards or broad bean Aquadulce Claudia, which provides an early crop if it survives the winter, otherwise it will have helped provide soil cover. White mustard (Synapsis alba) is the only green manure I occasionally sow in September, it is killed by moderate frost of -5C/23F, so there is no mulching or digging-in needed.
Chervil is delicious and misunderstood, best not sown in spring. When sown July to mid August, it crops for a long time through autumn, and sow mid August to early September for growing under cover through winter and until it flowers in early May. Coriander likewise – look for Cruiser, slow to bolt and with fleshy leaves.
Dill grows well from a February sowing indoors, planted early April under fleece and cropping by May, giving a long harvest until flowering in late June. Or sow July for autumn cropping. A plant or two of summer savoury, set out in May, is great for extra flavours.
Basil needs warmth and not too much wet on its leaves, sow in warmth from April, or buy pots of basil seedlings in the supermarket, divide and pot on. I recommend any sweet basil, and lemon basil such as Mrs Burns.
For tenderness and eating raw, try Red Russian or Sutherland (Real Seeds). For lovely red colours, grow Scarlet or Redbor F1 (expensive). Probably the tastiest kale is Cavolo Nero, less frost resistant than curly kale but sweet and tender. Red Devil grows looks like Cavolo Nero, with tasty leaves and red stems.
For kale forever (well, 6 years or so) find a plant or cutting of Taunton Deane or Daubentons perennial kale, truly amazing plants, so productive and delicious.
New varieties of kale are exciting. This summer from Mr Fothergills I grew Afro, Candy Floss, Emerald Ice and Midnight Sun – all good in different ways and highly ornamental.
Lambs lettuce/corn salad
Mostly this disappoints me with its small size, meaning one needs to endure a lot of winter weather and cold fingers to harvest a decent amount. Best so far is Valentin, and Trophy looks promising.
Excellent hardy plant with good flavour produces leaves all winter without protection – just remember pigeons like it too. Sow July-August because it flowers in May-June.
The early varieties Swiss Giant, Zermatt and King Richard grow large in autumn, but have less frost resistance than Autumn Mammoth which itself has less frost resistance than Musselburgh, Bandit etc. Read the small print to be sure of having a variety suitable for the season in which you want to be eating leeks. Sow them all at the same time in early to mid April (seed bed outdoors), or late March indoors in modules. For main harvests October to Christmas, I recommend Philomene or an Autumn Mammoth variety, including Oarsman F1 and Haldor, then Bandit for March-April harvests.
Philomene from Bingenheim shows some resistance to rust.
In 2018 I trialled a variety Malabar claiming ‘rust resistance’ and found it suffered as much rust as other leeks, plus it has a much shorter stem – that was not mentioned on the seed packet.
So many choices. Remember that Batavian and Romaine (cos) varieties can be picked of outer leaves as leaf lettuce, although they can also be left to grow hearts, while the seed packet may suggest they are for hearting only.
For winter lettuce, I must mention Grenoble Red (google Rouge Grenobloise for more results), for its abundant virtues – resistance to frost, slugs and mildew, and an ability to grow for longer than most varieties when its outer leaves are repeatedly picked off. If allowed to heart, it needs plenty of water to avoid tipburn.
For cos I like Tesy (red), Valmaine, Freckles, Bijou, Paris Island, Jabeque, Little Gem including Amaze and Intred, and Winter Density, Maravilla di Verano and Saragossa: all great from spring or July sowing. Lollos (try Tuska) offer prettiness though they are not the easiest, and Navara plus Cantarix for gorgeous red leaves with some resistance to lettuce root aphid.
Onion fly is increasing and mildew has become more common so I am growing onions from seed to avoid risk of contamination from sets. Sturon is good for even growth and long storage, Stuttgarter has strong flavour and keeps well, Long Red Florence is mild and does not keep beyond Christmas. Red Baron is good but all red onions are more prone to bolting than white ones from sets, and cost about twice as much to grow; however from seed, they are cheaper and bolt little compared to plants from sets. For mildew resistance try yellow skinned Santero which stores well too.
For spring onions, my favourite continues to be White Lisbon. And Lilla grows nice red spring onions, as well as bulbs.
A big subject! Sow after the summer solstice, to make more leaves and less flowers, (early August is best date here) and they like moist soil. The mustards are pretty and of great flavour, especially Green and Red Streaks/ Frills. Green in the Snow for top pungency, Red Giant is good for stir frying, Red Dragon for salads.
Pak choi is adored by slugs but worth a try, while leaf radish is the most vigorous of all, with mild, hairless leaves that keep growing until December outside, sometimes. Mizuna is vigorous in late autumn but prone to slug damage. See CN seeds for excellent choices here.
White Gem is reliable, Gladiator F1 and Albion are longer and resist canker to some extent, making them good for heavy soil, and both have excellent flavour. Buy fresh seed every year. Tender and True is reckoned to have best flavour but I find that all parsnips taste good.
Pea and pea shoots*
Tall varieties in general grow 6 feet (2m) or higher, and crop more heavily than dwarf ones. They also crop for longer: heirloom variety Mr Brays, grows an abundance of creamy peas for about six weeks and Alderman is my favourite tall pea. These tall varieties are also good for pea shoots.
Try Oregon Sugar Pod for classic mangetout, with plants 5 ft/1.5m tall, and Hurst Greeshaft for one metre high plants with tasty podding peas. In 2019 I had a long season of picking from Cascadia, sugar snap pods on 1m high plants.
Like aubergines, best grown under cover. Sweet Banana bears many fruit, long and of pale colour, ripening to orange. Sweet Baby Orange is good for containers. Hungarian Hot Wax is an intriguing mixture of pepper and chilli. Roter Augsburger from Stuttgart is great for cooler climates, eventually ripening to red.
First earlies in order of maturity Swift, Rocket and Casablanca.
Second earlies Charlotte, Gourmande, Estima, Wilja, and Ratte (salad)
Maincrop: Sarpo varieties for blight resistance, King Edward
Pumpkin (not squash)
Rouge Vif D’Etamps is a typically straggling plant capable of covering a large area and making medium sized, flatter, reasonably tasty fruits. They are of much less flavour than winter squashes – and pumpkins’ softer skin means they also store less well. For enormous fruits, grow Atlantic Giant.
Timperley Early keeps producing lovely red stalks by late winter and throughout spring, over a decade or more. Gardening Which? in 2013 trialled many varieties and found The Sutton to have best flavour.
Produces well through winter, good flavour but small leaves in winter (as all salad leaves, because of low light levels mostly). Best sown early August for autumn abundance, and I find that standard salad rocket is good, especially the selection from Bingenheim.
Spinach for salad in winter can be had from Medania (excellent variety) and Red Cardinal sown in August outside, or early September to grow under cover. Sow Medania or F1 varieties in March, to crop by early May for six weeks: harvest by pinching off larger leaves, see video.. To have green leaves in summer it is more reliable to grow leaf beet or swiss chard.
Sweet Nugget F1 has been around a while, always matures nicely and I find it sweeter then older varieties, also it retains sweetness after picking. For open pollinated we are impressed by Bingenheim’s sweetcorn, I sowed some of their early, mid and late varieties for a long period of cropping in 2015. Tramunt the late variety has performed best of the three.
Sungold orange cherry has a fine, refreshing sweetness and ripens early. Sweet Aperitif F! is the only variety to surpass it in 2013 taste trials, but crops later and gives smaller yields. Honeycomb F1 is like Sungold, and less inclined to split.
Sakura F1, a red cherry, offers great flavour and larger fruits. Matina and Ace give red, medium size fruits. Marmande is ever reliable for beef tomatoes, Black Russian/Krim are great for tasty dark fruit, Feo de Rio is excellent for beef tomatoes and Yellow Brandywine for top flavour. All do best under cover in most of Britain, unless it is a hot summer.
For outdoor tomatoes in temperate climates, try Crimson Crush F1 for juicy flavour and blight resistance. I have had top results from varieties offered by Culinaris in Germany, and here is a catalogue in English. Resi, Primabella, Primavera and Dorada all have good points, depending on your taste. They are all cherry tomatoes and grow well in cooler conditions, with resistance to blight.
Red (or Uchiki) Kuri trails and makes red fruits of excellent flavour, which manage to ripen in damp summers. Crown Prince‘s blue-grey fruits are of superb flavour, ripening a little later. Butternut’s tasty fruits are hard to ripen unless summer is hot: their skins need to be brown and hard if you want best flavour, and to keep them through winter. On the whole I would go for Kuri.
Also Tromba d’Albenga from Seeds of Italy. They happily ramble amongst climbing beans and sweetcorn or fruit bushes.