Every good gardener knows that the only true tonic to grey winter days is seed catalogues. They hold the promise of future harvests, new finds, lost loves and new beginnings. The trick is to not order everything.
Be ruthless, draw up a long list and whittle it down to the ‘actual’ list. This is only after you’ve got round to going through your own seed collection and removing everything that’s ten years out of date, open, or unidentifiable.
The actual list should consist of seed you have room for and will use. You mustn’t be swayed by the packaging. Brace yourself though. There are lots of great seed companies offering everything from the recherché to the prosaic. The good ones have descriptions written so well you can go to bed with them, or you will be seduced by brightly coloured packets, full to the brim with economic good sense.
Here’s a guide to my favourites.
Tel 01227 731815
Association Kokopelli is a collector’s dream. The list comprises non-commercial varieties collected from around the world. The order form can be baffling, but once you get on top of that, you can go to town on seeds that you won’t find elsewhere. I am fond of the tomato list and have had success with the ‘Early Aurora’ outdoors.
DT Brown & Co
Tel 0845 371 0532
DT Brown often gets overlooked, falling somewhere between the multinationals and the small, family businesses. But there is a lot of research that goes into its list, and it offers interesting new varieties and always has a strong emphasis on flavour and homegrown productivity. It offers young plugs, which have always come to me in immaculate condition, and an interesting young fruit plants section. Check out the honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea) as a great alternative to a blueberry.
Tel 01229 581137
Winter isn’t winter if you can’t snuggle up and read the Chiltern catalogue. Its veg collection specialises in heirloom seeds offering everything from the ordinary to the forgotten (‘Nine Star Perennial’ broccoli is surely ready for a comeback). Some good seed mixtures are on offer, such as the edible flowers mix.
Tel 0844 701 7625
Dobies is a reliable supplier with a wide range of varieties, a good amount of seeds per packet and no frills. I am impressed with its mini-veg series. There has been a lot of hype over vegetables suitable for smaller spaces and this is a considered list. Take the parsnip ‘Lancer’ – tender carrot-sized parsnips are produced in half the time the bigger boys would take.
Tel 01843 600972
Nicky’s Nursery won the Which? trials for highest germination rate of UK seed companies; high praise. Packets are competitively priced with some tomatoes offered for 65p a packet. There is an interesting and unusual list of flowers and veg, with a good range of microgreens, including herbs such as fenugreek. The nursery specialises in tomatoes, offering a lot of rare varieties.
Tel 01460 57934
Thomas Etty is the home of rare and ancient seed and the lovely brown seed packets make great presents. The catalogue is great for those reproducing a period vegetable garden, and for the rest of us, there’s plenty to learn from history. I love its brassicas. Try the Portuguese cabbage ‘Couve Tronchuda’ as an alternative to hearting cabbage. It can be picked for longer, making it good for small spaces.
Mr Fothergill’s Seeds
Tel 0845 371 0518
Mr F is reliably good: plenty of seeds, great germination, free mail order, good prices. Buy the basics here and remember to order more than five seed packets as you’ll get a free guide to sowing, and this company knows an awful lot about that.
Heritage Seed Library
Available for members only
Tel 024 7630 3517
Membership to the Heritage Seed Library is an amazing present. It allows the choice of six varieties a year and a chance to become a Seed Guardian, where you take on the responsibility to produce seed of a certain variety. You can also find seed specific to your location – there’s nothing like growing a ‘Kenilworth’ tomato when you live there.
Tel 01376 570000
Tel 01376 572456
Kings has been around for over a century and has two divisions: Suffolk Herbs, a leading organic seed supplier (and home of some of the first oriental green salads, courtesy of Joy Larkcom) and Kings Seeds Direct, the commercial arm that sells seeds in larger quantities for clubs, societies and box schemes.
The Organic Gardening Catalogue
Tel 01932 253666
The Organic Gardening Catalogue is home to all things organic from seeds to feeds, books, plants, sundries and all that’s good and green, and the seed packets tell you if they have been organically produced or not. It’s a comprehensive list, but the real finds are in the organic green manures. You can get hold of several different types of clover, both annual and perennial, and they come in decent quantities. I’m also very fond of the Pictorial Flower Mixes to bring the bees in.
Tel 01239 821107
The Real Seed Company is a family-run business in Wales. I love the detail that goes into the packets, such as in the honest descriptions, for example that the carrot seed that won’t last long, so you might as well use it up this year. And the packets reseal easily too. But the detail that really gets me is that they tell you exactly how to save your seeds so you might never have to buy them again. This is where I first found Salsola soda, a salad vegetable
so good that I advise you get your order in quickly. I also recommend trying out achocha, a cucumber-like fruit that can be grown outside and is delicious fried or added to soups. ‘Fat Baby’ is specifically for outdoor use.
Tel 020 8427 5020
I once lost my heart to an Italian. Thankfully, Seeds of Italy turned up, and now I can just lose my heart to its fantastic seed packet covers. But it’s not all about pretty pictures; these are generous packages filled with heirloom Italian seeds chosen specifically for the flavour, and the catalogue comes with fantastic recipes. I like many things from here, but you can’t go wrong with the cut-and-come-again salads, or the extensive range of radicchios.
Tel 01985 845004
Simpson’s is a small company with a big heart as it puts plenty in the seed packets. Known for its chillies and tomatoes (the tomato list is epic and even has varieties for arthritis sufferers), Simpson’s cares so passionately that you can actually go and taste them in September.
There are not many seed companies that offer a ‘try before you buy’. I recommend ‘Rosada’ for a small red tomato.
Tel 0844 922 0606
Suttons Seeds is a multinational, a testament to its reliability. It is another place to go to for the basics, the new and the old reliables. I appreciate the good information on the back of the seed packet and it’s a good place to buy peas and beans, and if you want a broad bean, go for ‘The Sutton’. You might as well get it from its namesake.
Tel 01579 371087
Tamar Organics is a leading supplier of organic seeds. It started life as a market garden and is committed to producing wholly organic seeds. The list is growing all the time with more traditional varieties finally being offered under organic production, such as ‘Resistafly’ carrots. There isn’t much information provided on the seed packet, but they are competitively priced.
Tel 0844 248 5383
Thompson and Morgan is another international seed company that has built its reputation on reliable seeds. If it says it has guaranteed germination, then it has. It is a seed catalogue you could get lost in, so make sure you keep to your list. The website offers very comprehensive growing instructions worth looking at.
Tel 01364 652233
Tuckers is one of the oldest independents in Britain, supplying seeds for the last 175 years. It has a great selection of unusual garlic and lots of seeds both for the kitchen and market garden, plus a shop selling a wide range of locally made beers!
Tel 01480 443395
Unwins Seeds is a reliable large company offering value for money, good germination and packet information and a wide choice. Another one for large orders.
Alys Fowler studied horticulture at Wisley and is now a regular presenter on BBC Gardeners’ World television
Pictures courtesy of Garden Museum
020 7401 8865