How to grow veg during lockdown

If you want to grow your own veg but you're worried about finding supplies of seeds and plants, our Chief Horticulturist Guy Barter has some top tips for lockdown growing

It's amazing what you can grow from storecupboard and supermarket supplies. Potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and even tasty and unusual microgreens are all easily within reach. So despite garden centres being shut and mail order companies struggling to fulfil orders, there are lots of ways to keep on growing in these strange times. 

Most seeds remain viable for a few years if kept cool and dry. Some, such as cabbage family seeds, can last more than 7 years, but others such as lettuce, parsnip and sweetcorn are best bought fresh each year. Test seeds on some damp kitchen towel in a plastic box placed in warmth to see if they germinate before sowing to avoid potential disappointment.

Many seeds can be found in the kitchen cupboard: marrowfat peas (for pea shoots), chickpeas, coriander, dill, celery (this will be leaf celery), fennel, fenugreek and mustard all make good sprouts or microsalads – or can be grown on as herbs or vegetables.

Seeds offered for bird or pet food, wheat and sunflower seeds, for example, should not be used for sprouting as they may not be food grade and potentially harmful. Sweet potatoes, fresh ginger and yams can be potted and sprouted in a warm place and the resulting shoots rooted as cuttings and used to grow crops of these roots. Many similar crops are found in stores that stock Asian, Caribbean and African foods.

Very ripe tomatoes, especially ‘vine ripe’ ones, yield viable seeds. They are mostly hybrids that may not come true but RHS members report that acceptable plants usually result. The same is often true for red and chilli peppers. Pumpkins and squashes yield abundant viable seeds which, although they may not come true to the original, generally produce very acceptable fruits.

Boxes, tubs, even plastic sacks can be used, especially if they have been used to pack foodstuffs – the polystyrene boxes used for broccoli or fish for example. However, those used to hold petroleum products, paints, wood preservatives and other industrial materials should be avoided.

If you can't get hold of seed potatoes, supermarket potatoes will grow and produce a crop. In fact really thrifty people plant potato peel - the 'eye' or bud on the peel will grown into productive plants if planted shallowly in a pot and set out later. Cut large potatoes into segments each with at east one eye or shoot and plant in the usual way. New potatoes won't grow well, as their buds or 'eyes' are not fully developed. 

Leaving tubers in the light to chit (as in the photo above) is useful but not at all essential. Tubers can be planted as they are, they will just be a little slower to bulk up and mature. Avoid planting potatoes with long pale white shoots that have been left too long in the kitchen cupboard: they'll have been weakened and won't make good plants.

As your potatoes grow, you might see distorted, curled, narrow or mosaic-patterned foliage – this is due to virus disease. Virus diseases will reduce your yield but usually not drastically. Buy British to avoid accidentally bringing new viruses or pests into the country. Seed potatoes sold to gardeners are certified free of virus and always preferable, if you can get them. Good luck!

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