JANUARY is always a quiet time at the plot, as it was always at our home gardens in Guernsey… summer’s sun is a distant memory and now warming cups of tea, a slice of cake and a roaring fire are a very welcome treat.
Outside, the weather is damp and cold, the soil the same – and sometimes frozen in London. Growth rates across the board are negligible, though there were and are always a few shards of bright green growth erupting from some Bunyard’s Exhibition broad bean plants or early sown Meteor peas. At the allotment just now, the broad beans are struggling against critters trying to munch them – signs, I fear, of the climate crisis and recent milder winters. This year’s shards of life that dazzle lime-green in bright winter sun are coming from our three types of garlic – Thermidrome, Messidor and Primor, together sounding like a trio of Mexican bandits.
However, just because things are still and quiet on the plot doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. The last three weeks I’ve been checking my seed box umpteen times – and I really do mean umpteen times. It will happen again, and again, as I make sure I have all the seeds I need for this coming sowing season. Some is old seed, some is new, and a fair amount of the peas and beans I’ll be sowing are seeds that I’ve saved myself – letting them grow to full maturity, drying completely, freezing for three days, and then stored airtight in glass jars with a silica sachet for company. All the seeds I have are stored in glass jars or a Tupperware in our fridge, nestling up against Cheddar cheese and one or other type of bought salad veg. The seeds in jars are happy in our very own seed bank deep within our under-stairs cupboard.
I guess in my seed foraging, I am more eclectic than dad ever was. Dad very much grew what he liked, and liked what he grew, though that never stopped me asking the perennial question, ‘Dad, can we do spaghetti squash this year?’… it never happened, though I think that was because dad was never a big fan of spaghetti.
In my youth, January was the month for getting excited about the post – the letterbox was a source of joy as that is where I’d get my first glimpse of that year’s seed catalogues. Most would come plainly wrapped, especially Mr Brown’s, which was then always my favourite as it harked back to Victorian kitchen garden days – days of excitement of growing new things, whether in hothouses or Heath Robinson set-ups as often the delicate new veggies and fruits weren’t naturally equipped for Channel Islands and UK climes.
As the ’70s pushed forward, catalogues became more vibrant, with more and more pages splashing with colour and enticing us in with new F1 varieties and ‘newly-discovered’ New World vegetables. Also, out would come The Reader’s Digest Complete Library of the Garden, a three-volume boxed set all pale-greens and browns with a fern motif. It had everything there was to know about growing and gardening in the late ’60s and into the ’70s… I still have the complete set today and the heartbeat of exhilaration it brings me now still pulls me back decades… even if the style of gardening today is all No Dig and the Percy Thrower and Peter Seabrook modes seem old hat. Though in my mind, a well-worn old hat can still be a good and a favourite one.
Today, my seed purchases are all online, with none now bought using the multi-lined order form of an old paper catalogue, and in some ways I miss this. The pages being turned in a paper catalogue bring about anticipation that the scrolling of a webpage never can, in my humble opinion. I do, however, love the ease the internet brings of researching rediscovered heirloom and heritage varieties, whether from nearby or far afield. I now use smaller seed companies such as Vital Seeds, Beans & Herbs, Pennard Plants and Tamar Organics for most purchases, and their encouragement to save seed from our own grown plants is something I respect and honour – each year needing to find less and less seed as I’m able to save so much myself. However, I am still searching for seed of the great Guernsey tomato – that mainstay of Guernsey commerce for almost a century. New varieties and new ways of selling through supermarkets demanded change of our Guernsey growers and whether that change was necessary is still a moot point for me. I once saw a sealed-plastic packet of tomatoes in an M&S produce aisle emblazoned that it was ‘Grown for Taste’ – to this day I wonder what the point is of growing food if not for this reason.
The other work I’ve been getting on with this month has been sitting, and thinking, and writing, and planning. Notebook in hand. Excel spreadsheet at the ready. Combining old ways and new. When shall I sow the first seeds? What successional sowings will I be doing? Will we have hard snow in March? Will this year be the one I manage to grow salad leaves all year round? Is it worth growing purple sprouting broccoli, which takes a whole year to come to harvest? Once the early potatoes are out, what will go in their place? Do I need to rearrange any of our growing spaces? Into what beds will our bean-frames go? Will summer’s sun be gentle and warming or harsh and drought-inducing? And will tomato blight take hold this year like it did last, completely ravaging our tangy, tasty, tomato harvest? On this last one, I certainly hope not… though in ripping out almost 80 tomato plants last July we have instead today a fine array of brassica leaves which will keep us going through until April.
So indeed, while January has been a quiet time at the plot, there has been much time spent in thinking of the coming season, of summer’s sun, seeds and sowing of plans.
And on that perennial question I asked of dad into my early-teens… ‘Dad, can we do spaghetti squash this year?’… a few years ago I did eventually grow spaghetti squash – and dad was right again. It is one veg that the plot is unlikely to ever see again.
Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot. www.richardandpaul.com