Note the ‘sow-by’ date, but don’t swear by it

Some of the successful germinations. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Some of the successful germinations. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

A symbolic first seed-sowing got my gardening year officially under way, and with it came the anticipation of germination, that magic moment when embryonic plants peep above the compost.

It’s these special occasions, and there are several throughout the year, that drive a life-long interest in this wonderful pursuit.

There are occasional disappointments, which prompt us to question our gardening skills: “Is it something I have or haven’t done that’s caused this?”

Best option is to revisit the process followed so many times in the past that led to success. If that does not reveal human error, for example over-watering, there are other possibilities.

Friend Ron has successfully raised show onions from seed long enough to know that the process he follows is sound, so an unexpected germination failure puzzled him.

He considered the conditions – adequate warmth with no great fluctuations in temperature, moisture, the same compost as usual, and seeds sown at the same depth. He’d also waited beyond the 14 days within which most common seeds germinate. Without a hint of germination, who could argue with his conclusion that the seed had been faulty?

This raised the question of viability, a subject reputable seed firms take seriously. Rather like the ‘sell-by’ date on foodstuffs, seed packets carry a ‘sow-by’ date.

Those on popular flower and vegetable packs play safe in quoting a short life-span. Look at those you’ve bought for the current year and few continue beyond 2021. This is not to say they’ll fail beyond that date, but that’s when the product can no longer be guaranteed to perform as it should. It mainly depends on the conditions in which they’re stored.

We are aware of the durability of poppy seeds in remaining viable underground for decades, then some agent forces them to the surface and germination.

When the herbarium of the British Museum was bombed during World War II, seeds stored in its cool, dry conditions were exposed and germinated, most notably an Indian lotus collected 250 years earlier.

So there is hope if you’re saving seeds, but note the conditions required for storage.

Should a 10-year-old, unused packet be found, rather than discard it, run a simple germination test. Fold a kitchen towel, lay it in a saucer with a spot of water, place 10 seeds on the surface and stand in a warm place. When the percentage is revealed decide whether it’s worth continuing. If it’s below 50 per cent, sowing thicker than normal will compensate.