Wednesday 30 December 2020

Before You Buy Seeds II


The original Before You Buy Seeds article was written in October 2017 and was aimed at new allotment holders who ask the question about where is the best place to buy seeds. This is an update to the original article as one of the most valuable sources of cheap quality seeds is no longer with us. Wyevale Garden centres have been bought out and it appears that the end of season 50p Seed Sale that so many of us used to stock up with seeds is no more!
So it's the end of the year and if you are lucky you have finally made it to the top of the waiting list and you have your very own (normally with one previous neglectful owner) overgrown allotment that you are now working on to try and deal with the weeds and get ready for the growing season next year.

At some stage soon as it's the winter months and that when allotmenteers do this kind of thing, you will be thinking about what you are going to grow and the seedaholic in you will twitch and start to emerge and you will want to start buying packs of seeds.

First thing to do is have a family meeting and decide what it is you actually like and want to eat, what do you eat the most off. Ask your self are there things you would like to eat more off but are expensive like asparagus for example. 

Now having had the family meeting and before you rush out to your local DIY store or Garden Centre and spend a fortune on seeds, here is a little information about seed suppliers and buying.

There are well known and long established seed companies out there like Marshalls, Suttons, Mr Fothergill's etc. So it's worth visiting their web sites and requesting either a paper seed catalogue which is equivalent to an allotment owners porn, of download the catalogues as Adobe or surf them on the internet. 

Subscribe to their news letters and you will be bombarded with offers to save and spend your money, some are good some are not so good, it depends on what you want. They will inform you when postage is free for 24 or 48 hours or there are price reductions i.e. Mr Fothergill's Black Friday offer in 2020 was £1 a pack on 400 varieties, with packs of seeds starting at 49p and some with a massive 76% OFF. 

Be aware of who is part of whom

Westland bought Marshalls/Unwins in 2004 and annual turnover increased from less than £2m to well over £10m. The company trades as SE Marshall, which owns the brands Marshalls (80 per cent of turnover) and Unwins (20 per cent of turnover). We are going to see more of Unwins in 2021 after the Marshalls rebranding last year.  

Fothergill's comprises five main brands: Mr Fothergill's, DT Brown, Woolman's, The Sweet Pea Company and Johnsons. You will find that the same seed is being packaged in different quantities and for different prices between these companies. There are some varieties of seeds that are only sold by either Mr Fothergills or D.T.Brown and if you were not aware of the link one may never suspect they were part of the same group.

I know an allotment owner who always bought his seed from DT Brown, thinking they were a 'bit special'. Now he knows he may as well buy from Mr Fothergills or Johnsons seeds from wilko.

In November 2020 Thompson & Morgan acquired 100% of the share capital of Suttons Seeds Ltd and its 3 brands: Suttons, Dobies and the Organic Catalogue. At the time of acquisition Chris Wright, joint MD at Thompson and Morgan, said Suttons will remain in Paignton, its traditional home.
“The combined horticulture, ecommerce and multi-channel marketing skills of these renowned brands are forecast to generate over £80m in revenues in FY21 dwarfing the nearest online competitor and enabling the group to offer consumers the largest range, best prices and service to the gardener.”
The next thing to know about seeds is that there are different types

F1 Hybrid 
F2 Hybrid
Open Pollinated also known as Heritage  

What is an F1 hybrid? 

An F1 hybrid is a variety that has been produced by the carefully controlled cross breeding of two parent plants specially chosen for their different desirable qualities such as vigour, flower power, disease resistance, uniformity, crop yield, unique colour and so on. 

Bringing together these parent plants transfers these qualities to their offspring combining them to produce superior plants. This involves a complicated and expensive breeding programme by means of controlled flower pollination, often done by hand. A process which has to be repeated each year to create consistent hybrids as it is not possible to simply harvest the seed from F1 varieties. The offspring of F1 hybrids often have less stable and more varied characteristics and may or may not show any of the F1 parents’ desired attributes, these offspring are known as F2 Hybrids. 

Because of the costly production methods F1 hybrid seed can be considerably more expensive than ‘normal seed’. However it is usually the case that the extra cost is more than made up for by the significant improvement in the plants’ characteristics, well that's what the marketing guff says.  

So when you see high cost for 4 - 10 seeds from the larger players in the seed selling business they are usually F1. Not all F1 seeds are marked as such by all the sellers, and they really should be! 

What is an F2 hybrid? 

An F2 hybrid is the offspring from an F1 hybrid. As mentioned above, the seed produced by an F1 hybrid can result in a much greater variety in their offspring. Although this is undesirable in some cases such as vegetables where often the selected characteristic such as uniform, high yields are all important or flowers where a precise colour or form is sought after, in other instances as with flamboyant flower mixtures this diversity can provide a real benefit. F2 hybrids allow a greater diversity and can often produce unique colour combinations that would not be possible from F1 or normal varieties and yet have a good chance of retaining some of the desirable characteristics of the parent plant. This variation can also mean differences in the rates that flowers or fruits mature which can have the added benefit of extending the flowering season or harvest period. 

I have experimented with saving seeds from F1 grown products and growing on. One tends to sometimes get very different looking plants depending which parent plant it takes after on that first F2 year, I have then saved seeds and grown year on year. Sometimes the difference between the F1 and F2 are huge and other times they are very close to the original. 

What is an O/P or Open Pollinated plant? 

Those plants of the same type that grow together and then pollinate each other by natural, more random means are said to be ‘open pollinated’. Most often this job is performed by pollinating insects such as bees or by the wind. New open pollinated plant varieties are selected for the appropriate characteristics by breeders or by natural selection in the case of wildflowers. 

Selections are made as flowers of an open pollinated variety will sometimes show an appealing natural mutation, the seeds of this mutation or ‘rogue’ are collected by breeders and grown to maturity. Those offspring that show the same mutations are then selected and their seed also grown on, this process is repeated in the hope the mutation becomes stable and all offspring eventually show the same appealing mutation. The result is a new open pollinated variety that will pollinate amongst itself by natural means. In the wild these selections are made by the improved survival rates of those plants best suited to their environments and the needs of pollinating insects.

When these seeds are sold you can get 100's of a 1000 seeds for a similar price that F1 Seeds would come in quantities of 10-15 or less smalless I have seen is 4 seeds in a pack 

Heirloom or Heritage seeds are old seed varieties created by centuries of open-pollination by birds, insects, wind, or other natural means. They are often passed down through generations in a family, but can also be obtained from companies or local farmers.

Many of these old seeds have disappeared and F1 and Europe wanting to standardise seed production took hold over the last 40 years, but there are organisations, and companies trying to keep these old varieties alive by growing and seed saving.  

Photo of Wilko setting up grow your own between Christmas and New Year. 

If you have the frugal allotment mindset you may want to leave your seed acquisition until Wilko, Lidl and dare I say it the pound shops have their gardening stuff & seeds in stock. 

Lidl sell 3 small packs for a £1 and 4 Large packs for £2 normally and the pound shop selling 4 packs for a £1. but their range is obviously limited very unlikely to be F1 but ideal for a new plot holder starting out

The Range sell most of their seed from 49p 

In the original Before You Buy Seeds in 2017 I looked at Musselburgh Leeks in terms of supplier, quantity of seeds and cost before any postage and packaging. In this update I decided to look at the humble tomato not an F1 but a standard open pollinated tomato:- 

Gardeners Delight Tomato Seeds 

Supplier                        Number Seed - Cost 

Seeds To Sow            -     10 Seeds -     55p
More Veg                   -      12 Seeds -     60p 
Wilko                          -      75 Seeds -    75p
Growseed                  -       50 Seeds -    76p
Simply Seeds             -   100 Seeds -     99p
Premier Seeds Direct -   250 Seeds -     99p
Seed Megastore        -   150 Seeds - £1.10 
Just Seeds                 -     50 Seeds - £1.25
Kings Seeds              -      50 Seeds - £1.50
Nickys Nursery          -      50 Seeds - £1.55
Dobies                        -   100 Seeds - £1.99            
Simpsons Seeds       -      20 Seeds - £1.60 
Seedaholic                 -     45 Seeds - £1.65      
Just Seeds                 -   150 Seeds - £1.75
D.T. Brown                  -    50 Seeds - £1.85          
Sarah Raven              -     50 Seeds - £1.85
Plant World Seeds     -     30 Seeds - £2.10
Robinsons Mammoth -    20 Seeds - £2.10 
ChilternSeeds            -     35 Seeds - £2.15 
Mr Fothergills             -     50 Seeds - £2.15 
Johnsons                   -     50 Seeds - £2.40
Real Seeds                -     20 Seeds - £2.49
Suttons                       -     50 Seeds - £2.49  
Thompson & Morgan  -    50 Seeds - £2.79 
Marshalls                    -    50 Seeds - £2.99 
Gardening Direct        -    50 Seeds - £2.99 
Just Seeds                 - 1200 Seeds - £6.55

Some of these you can buy from DIY stores and Garden Centres and unless they have a free delivery offer on you will need to add P&P if buying by mail order or over the internet. There is a long list of UK seed suppliers on the left margin of my blog. 

But one need to ask do you really need a pack of even 50 of these seeds? How many are you going to grow a year? There are some seed suppliers who don't give a sow by date in the back of the pack but will give the saved or packaged date. It is so EASY to save seeds from a tomato dry them and use them the following year. 

I have been asked on Facebook groups if there is any explanation for the price differences? and my answer is....

Shareholder expectations in larger companies, Overheads, Research and creation of new F1 varieties, Profit margins, Quantities of seeds supplied, Cost of Packaging. I have bought seeds from all of the companies or brands listed above and on my UK Seed Suppliers list in the bottom of the left margin of the blog and have not really seen any difference of Quality. 

Brand Name is another reason for hiking the price, Sutton and Dobies are brand names from the same group however Sutton (the older and better known brand) have flash picture packs with loads of information whereas Dobies (Basically the same company) is cheaper but seed packs are bland and not quite as informative. There is 50p difference between Suttons & Dobies for the same seeds in the photo below with same quantity of seeds.

Most companies only allow 2 to 3 years from the packaged date as a sow by date. The actual life expectancy of seeds for many varieties much longer if kept in good storage conditions, however one has to expect a loss of germination with each passing year. 

Some of the larger companies like D.T. Brown have now brought in a 99p/ pack seed range where the number of seeds are reduced and have a 99p Vegetable Seed section on their web site for them. In conjunction with this they have a special catalogue Click Here and scroll down the page to order 

  Which comes with a further 50% - 75% Reduction on packs of seeds above and below a £1

Other sources of seeds are off the front cover of magazines, I had a good few seeds from my six months subscription to Grow Your Own Magazine, but got to the point where the magazines were stacking up and most of what's in them is in the books I have. I now only buy the mag is it has seeds on it that I want, like parsnip when is best bought fresh each year. or there is a pair of gloves or other values added item.

One of the other problems with seed off magazines is that you will get seeds for things you have never eaten before or have no intention of growing. Also one tends to get less seeds in the subscription pack than if you buy off the shelf. That upset a lot of subscribers a few years back, but what they call FREE seeds are actually included within the cost of the magazine so if they are offering a discount for subscription of course they aren't going to supply so many of the FREE seeds

I took Kings Seeds and Kitchen Gardener to task recently when they put a RRP on the pack that was 5p dearer than what they were selling for 180 seeds. On the promotion pack on the magazine they only supplied half of the seeds that one would normally get if buying direct. I hate dishonesty in marketing. So remember the Free seeds are not free they are inclusive in the product you are buying and that the value is inflated and the quantity of seed can sometime be halved. 

You will find that once you get an allotment family and friends will buy you books for birthdays and Christmas and you will soon be over run with them. IMHO after a six months subscription one is better off sticking with books and buying seeds you actually need and want.   

Normally on Sundays at the end of the January when there is not a pandemic there are Potato Day & Seed Fair around the UK check out for events near your area.

Then there is Brightons Seedy Sunday which is the UKs largest Seed Swap which again when not in the middle of a pandemic is held on a Sunday in late Jan early February between 10:30 AM - 4 PM  at the Brighton Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College where you can swap seeds, buy seeds, listen to expert speakers, visit more than 50 stalls and enjoy Infinity Cafe's wonderful food

Check out your local Allotment Trading Huts For a small membership fee many large allotment sites have trading huts which enable you to purchase all your gardening needs at reasonable prices and are more convenient than going to your local garden centre as long as your happy to shop on a Sunday morning.

Most of these trading huts are not only open to the plot holders but some are also open to gardeners in the surrounding area. Most are no profit making and are staffed by volunteers any profits go back into the association or get donated to charity. So if you have taken on an Allotment or are growing vegetables from home check out your surrounding Allotments and find out where they are located. 

In terms of seed sales Wilkos' seeds which I suspect are packaged for them by the Fothergill group as they also sell Johnsons sell off their wilco branded packs of seeds at 10p a pack and Johnsons at 30p a pack at the end of the season, but they go very fast and on the last couple of days the 10p packs have been known to go through the tills at 1p per pack. 

Consider saving some of your own seeds or perhaps joining in on a seed circle and swapping seeds.

Remember It always pays to shop around when buying anything gardening related and yes, you will likely find or see it cheaper once you have bought it. That's just Murphy's law.   

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