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 Mr Fothergill, Plants of Distinction, Real Seeds and biodynamic growers Seed Co-operative (greenhouses in Lincs) and Bigngenheim 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, its probably 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 84% success, which I believe is the legal minimum! They cannot admit any less but I am sure that notice is taken of all complaints and I speak to so many gardeners who suffer germination issues, making me think that companies really do need to know and sell seed that is viable in a garden as well as a laboratory.
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 2018 ‘Gardeners Delight’ gives larger and less sweet fruit. The seed packet has the same name, but results are different.
- Be wary of the word “heirloom” which only means that a variety originated x years ago, and does not guarantee quality, even flavour sometimes.
“Hybrids”, often prefixed ‘F1’, have been inbred and then pollinated in isolation, to give a desired result. They often grow into fine vegetables, of a uniform size and maturing at the same time – this may or may not be what you wish for
Should you save seeds from hybrid vegetables, they do not grow true and plants are nothing like the parent plant.
My recommended Varieties
An asterisk (*) indicates vegetables that grow in half a season (in Britain), 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. 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 three summers I have enjoyed good harvests from Black Pearl F1 and even bigger ones from grafted plants of the same variety, purchased for £1.90 from www.organicplants.co.uk. Mostly I don’t rate most grafted plants, these are my exception!
Boltardy has good flavour and grows well at any time of year, especially from early sowing, as early as February in plugs or pots in the greenhouse. I have been successful with early Boltardy since 1983. For later sowings from mid April you can sow Boldor and Tiughstone 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 is Purple Sprouting to overwinter, 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.
- 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, likewise Trafalgar F1 and Nautic F1. 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 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.
For large, tight heads try F1 hybrids such as Belstar and Marathon. More stemmy, 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.
A large trial at Raymond Blanc’s garden revealed few differences in flavour and growth though they like Prinz. I find that Prinz has healthier leaves than Ibis, although both grow to a fine size. In 2015 I tried Monarch and Mars, finding both to be excellent and the Mars in particular carried on growing into November, with healthier leaves than other varieties which can suffer septoria from about mid October. 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 develop from most 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) 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’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 is a half-size hybrid, 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, while sweet potatoes are worthwhile only undercover – Carolina Ruby was my most productive variety, see October 2013. 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.
Best not sown until June, 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 earlier, June sowing. Perfektion from Bingenheim bulbed nicely in 2018 from sowings in early March (greenhouse modules) and then bulbed in October-November from a sowing in late July.
French Bean (*dwarf)
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 three long established 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 some larger cloves to re-plant in early October, unless you have eaten them all for breakfast (good on toast). See my garlic video for advice.
Flavourwise I like Solent Wight which is also stores well.
Hardnecks make slightly smaller bulbs, are easier to peel and store a little less long in spring.
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 leaf radish, for possible use as a salad, 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.
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.
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. This winter (2018/19) I plan to buy some DUNKELGRÜNER VOLLHERZIGER 2 from Sativa Rheingau – they promise it has large, dark green leaves!
Excellent hardy plant with good flavour produces leaves all winter without protection – must 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 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 over 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.
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 year’s end, albeit slowly by then. Mizuna is another banker for late autumn leaves, resisting most frost before winter becomes too earnest, and Red Mizuna is pretty. See CN seeds for excellent choices here.
White Gem is reliable, Gladiator F1 and Albion are longer and resists canker to some extent so good for heavy soil, 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 peas.
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
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.
Timperley Early keeps producing lovely red stalks by late winter and throughout spring, my crowns are now sixteen years old and doing well. 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. Sakura F1, a red cherry, offers great flavour and larger fruits. Rosada F1 has red cherry-plum fruit of top flavour. Matina and Ace give red, medium size fruits. Marmande is ever reliable for beef tomatoes, Black Russian/Krim are great for tasty dark fruit 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, 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 excellent 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.