Seed-time

Oìdhche Shàmhna is upon us, summer’s-end eve, the great turning of the year from growth to rest. In the pastoral calendar of the ancient Celts, it was the time when the grass stopped growing and you slaughtered and salted your surplus livestock, feasted, then hunkered down along with as many beasts as you judged you could bring through the winter to thole the dark months. From these great feasts came the idea of a pivotal day in the year when the Otherworld was particularly close and, by long and convoluted paths, the pumpkins, parties and pyrotechnics of modern Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night.

In my more forest-based calendar, it is time for thoughts to turn from growth and harvest to seed stratification and bare-root planting. In other words, it’s time to stop managing the plants I’ve got and turn my thoughts to new ones. After spring, it’s the most exciting time of year, as little packets of seeds start winging their way to my door from all over the globe and I start dreaming of future possibilities. I’m already looking forward to American spikenard, udo, creeping dogwood, black huckleberry, sourtop blueberry, creeping snowberry, American bladdernut, alexanders, scorzonera and northern bayberry, amongst others. In celebration I’ve put together a page on the best suppliers of forest garden plants and perennial veg for the UK.

A lot of forest garden plants need stratification or winter cold in order to get them to sprout. Many of them also need a short warm period before the cold or they will go into a state of deep hibernation which it may take a couple of winters to awake them from. Therefore, if you can get seeds as soon as possible after collection you can save yourself a lot of time and disappointment.

A few suppliers will sell seeds moist-packed nowadays – packed with vermiculite in little plastic sachets and stored in the warm – so that they are in the best possible condition to sprout after the winter. Another possibility is to put your new seeds in a heated propagator for a couple of months before putting them outside or in the fridge for their cold treatment. If you can get your seeds early this fits fairly neatly with the natural cold spell; if you don’t start until later in the winter it all gets very complicated.

If you buy plants rather than seeds, it’s a good idea to try for bare-rooted stock, which you can only get while plants are dormant and not busy using their roots. The advantages are that you generally get larger stock that and you don’t move loads of soil around unnecessarily with the plants, keeping down weight, cost and the chance of moving plant diseases and New Zealand flatworms around. News is breaking as I write this of the discovery of ash dieback fungus in England, which has the potential to be a disaster on the scale of Dutch elm disease. We all need to get better at moving genes around without moving pests and diseases, which means local production first, seeds second, bare-root third and containerised stock last.

Incidentally, it is thought by some that the true derivation of Samhainn is not from Old Irish sam fuin (summer’s end) but from from samoni, an old Celtic word meaning ‘assembly’. It may not be an assembly in the traditional sense, but the connections I’ve made with others in my year and a half in the blogosphere have felt like a gathering together of sorts and are important to me. So Oìdhche Shàmhna math dhuibh and may all your seeds grow strong.

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