Gardening book review: Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland

Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland

Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland

To pick my first book for a review, I closed my eyes and picked one from the bookshelf at random. There’s more chance involved than it sounds at first as we’ve been moving stuff around and my bookcases are currently arranged by (a) size and (b) whether you can shove a few more on sideways on top of a row that’s already there. This could have been cross-stitch, The Secret Adversary or an ordnance survey map of Derbyshire. My bookshelves would give a librarian some memorable nightmares.

I was pretty pleased that Back Garden Seed Saving was the first selection then, and I was pleased to have a reason to reread even though I’m not doing any seed saving this year. I think it’s likely I bought it from Real Seeds, and they still offer it at an excellent price: because they want to encourage people to save and pass on seeds they sell.

The introduction covers the Heritage Seed Library’s research and Seed Search in the 1990s, but the author warns that organisations like this don’t have the resources to safeguard all varieties of plants. When a lot of seed saving is a fairly straightforward practice with many advantages to the home gardener, it makes sense for as individuals to do their bit too.

The next chapter is a short history of seeds and plant breeding, with a focus on vegetables (rather than fruit, flowers or trees).  In many books I would skip over these background chapters but this one is worth reading to remind you that it’s only for a relatively short period of our history that people have automatically bought seeds for their garden or farm, rather than saved, foraged or swapped. Seed saving was the norm for much of history because people had very little choice. The history comes through the heyday of Victorian catalogues and the Dig for Victory campaign, through to industrialised growing and then European legislation in the second half of the 20th century, leading to a period where it was technically illegal to sell any varieties which weren’t tested, proven, and “maintained” on a national seed list.  The expense and effort involved meant many varieties were lost or at least made much harder to find. That pressure has lessened since the 1990s but there are still varieties which can only be obtained and protected by seed savers.

When you get to “Why save your own?”, if you’ve been doing this for a few years you’ll probably be nodding and saying “right on, Sue old bean” at intervals (I’d hope she’d take old bean as the compliment it’s intended to be). If you’re new to it, I think the arguments in this chapter make so much sense you’ll be nodding and going “ah, of course”.  The first one presented is one I often forget even though I love experimenting with old and quirkier varieties – being able to grow varieties only suitable for gardens. For example, thin-skinned tomatoes that won’t suit supermarket “bang on a conveyor belt, in to a washing tank, in to a punnet, on to a trolley, in to a truck, move it several hundred miles, bang it back out again, shove it in a warehouse, pay someone minimum wage to truck it about a store, leave it for a week on the shelf and hope it doesn’t start rotting before the customer gets it out of the boot of their car”. Even commercial seed growers, while not under those constraints, will choose varieties with the widest appeal and that might not include varieties that suit you or me best. Several other advantages are covered here, including saving money, preserving history, and biodiversity.

The next chapter is a very practical overview of seed saving skills and processes, including basic tips on sowing seeds with seed saving in mind (and the importance of labelling, and growing enough plants of each variety), dealing with biennials, purity and isolation and how to achieve them, harvesting, cleaning, storing, and testing your home saved seed. This sounds quite an overwhelming list summed up like that but I’d definitely say the information is very accessible and reassuring – I can’t do it justice in one paragraph!

Finally there are 20 chapters on different types of plant – mostly what we think of as vegetables, I think the one exception is melons. In some chapters, biologically siblings are grouped together even though in the kitchen we treat them differently: chard and beetroot, or celeriac and celery. On the other hand, where the growth habit varies, similar plants have separate chapters – for example cucumbers and melons. I think it’s a pretty comprehensive selection of the food plants most of us would grow, and overall I think all the principles and questions you might have are covered (I didn’t reread all the variety chapters for this review).

Potatoes are specifically excluded because they’re normally propagated by tubers and this involves a whole different set of disease risks to seed saving, so they were left out (the pests and diseases section in the previous chapter goes in to more detail on this, shallots, and other tubers).  Each type of plant has an introduction followed by details on growing and roguing, pollination, isolation, harvesting, and cleaning, plus any unusual techniques like propagating leeks from pips or overwintering runner bean root balls. A few individual varieties are described for each type which can start you off on your seed saving adventure with some which are particularly worth hunting down and saving, along with their stories and special qualities.

The book is black and white and although photographs are always nice, the line drawings (by Susanna Kendall) of flower heads, seed heads and seed shapes are really useful for identification if you’re not familiar with the whole life cycle of a particular type of plant. The drawings of vegetables themselves or of limited use as you can only really see the shape of a vegetable from a drawing, not the texture or colour, but along with the old-fashioned seed packets they add interest and are lovely in themselves.  (Pictures below of Susanna Kendall’s drawings in the lettuce chapter; with kind permission of publisher eco-logic books).

The last few pages cover community seed saving ideas and how to organise seed swaps, followed by a useful chart of how easy it is to save seed by vegetable type, based on time, space, difficulty of keeping varieties pure or harvesting seed.  There’s an index of named varieties covered in the book (but not a normal index), a short glossary and useful page of addresses of seed companies and seed saving groups, plus a bibliography. One tiny point I actually really like is after the author’s usual acknowledgement page – a list of people thanked for donation of seeds to the Seed Search. Seeing these names (some of which I recognise) is one of the reasons I like seed saving as it reminds you that everything you grow is part of a long history, and one that will hopefully continue long after we become compost, as long as we save and share seeds ourselves.

Back Garden Seed Saving by Sue Stickland (eco-logic books, 2008, ISBN 978-1899233151, available from the publisher at

(I see these disclaimers on blogs so in case anyone reads this and wonders: I bought this book with my own money several years ago, and I’m reviewing it because I’m trying to start a regular useful feature on this blog to practise writing more often, encourage me to look at books on my shelves in more detail and possibly help other people decide whether individual books are what they’re looking for too).


Yet more blogging fundamentals, don’t worry, we’re nearly there…

Day Eleven: Make a Prompt Personal 

Well, I’ve looked through a few of these and very few of them speak to me, and those that do are mostly too obvious, so I’m going to ignore this one. Combined with some of the other ideas of taking an inspiration from somewhere else (another blogger, newspaper etc) sounds like something to note down for future ideas when I’ve not been doing much that’s worth talking about.

Day Twelve: Make Some New Connections

This involves following up on your prompt-prompted post from Day 11, so I’m not playing this game either.

Day Thirteen: Build Your Brand

Um, I’m not Tesco. Yet. However I quite like the idea of a little icon and I didn’t know you could do this with so I’ve had a go. Haven’t done it properly but at least I know where the settings for it are.

Day Fourteen: Create Your Own Feature

This is something I’d like to try – I did have a go before and even still have the Google alerts coming through for it, on news stories about vegetables. A story about growers, professional or amateur, is always bound to catch my eye. Some of them are astonishing, some have a point or two of interest, and some really just are a waste of molecules of whatever the paint is that makes the letters on your keyboard. I’d considered doing that again. Alternatively I’d rather like to go through my (fairly extensive) bookshelves and try to review some of the relevant books I have. This might be useful for someone somewhere someday, and it could be good for me to consider which of the books I have are useful, reread some I’ve not touched for years, help me choose new books more effectively in future, and (this is very unlikely by the way) even choose some to pass on that I don’t want any more. (Books are like gold. Keep them. Stroke them, like beans! We didn’t have a lot of books when I was growing up, not sure why, and I think my need to squirrel them away and add more to them when possible is probably something a psychologist could do a lot with).

I’m really tempted to do both – book reviews and round ups – but knowing my inability to stick to a oooh I think that butterfly chrysalis has gone from the eaves outside the window surely it can’t have hatched I wonder if something’s eaten it or if was parasitised after all might just go and take a look…




Very slightly unusual uses for a bee hat #1

I think this will be a short series, but educational and bringing joy to, well, me.

I love my bee hat from Simon the Beekeeper – we bought this pack of five in order to have some spare for visitors (nobody ever visits us, but we live in hope). Now at this price I do worry a bit where they’re made and who by but we weren’t really in a position to splash out at the time and weren’t sure how much use we’ll get out of them. I tried one of these hats at a beekeeping course to observe a very brief top bar hive inspection from a distance. It would hardly have been worth putting my whole suit on, but at the same time I didn’t fancy a bee up my nose like someone else on the course. So I came home and ordered one.

They are a bit rubbish in the wind, as they’ve got no elastic or tie around the head, and have a very shallow crown so they just sit loosely on top. This means any gust will lift them and give you a light but not particularly dangerous garrotting. But as I have long hair, and I am paranoid about bees in it (or indeed up my nose or in my eyes or arrrrgh not the throat noooo help! I have an overactive imagination at times) this is brilliant for quick checks and allows you to get close to the hive without having to worry too much. Just hold on to it in windy weather or if you want to bend over to look under the hive (which you will do when your bees keep trying to swarm).  For the price, I can’t complain, and I’ve worn the same one pretty much daily all summer, with my lovely assistant also using it to top up the feeders, and it’s still in decent shape.

Anyway the unusual use, probably obvious. The hat is always kept handy (because at any given moment over we will either want a peaceful moment watching the bees or a panicked moment wondering what the hell they’re up to now). Today, windows open on a sunny October day – hello, tortoiseshell butterfly. Big or small, you shouldn’t really be fluttering around my bookcases and ceiling. You’re looking a bit panicked and I don’t want to hurt you. Using my hands is asking for trouble….what I need is some kind of net. Aha. Take hat, open drawstring, place over butterfly resting place, wait for butterfly to panic again, gently draw drawstring, allow hat to dangle from drawstring making perfect roomy butterfly cage, take outside somewhere sunny, take photo so can go on about it a bit on blog and pretend to be good human even while wondering if tortoiseshell wants to hibernate in house and I have just doomed it, hope not, open drawstring, wait, wave butterfly on way.

Butterfly being transported to freedom in a bee hat

Butterfly being transported to freedom in a bee hat

Apart from possibly rigging up some kind of hatstand cake protector next summer that might be it for this short series of useful things you can do with a bee hat.