After the fall: crab apples on the grass. Photograph: Ocean/Corbis
After the best part of three years getting to know our farm, I have finally started to build myself a garden. I began in September so that once the work was done there was enough of the season left to heal the scars: the process involved stripping a steep slope of topsoil to help make up a plateau on our hillside.
Everything went wonderfully in the first fortnight. But then the rain came and our heavy soil, now exposed and vulnerable, turned to slip in an instant. The dumper truck, fully loaded, slid off its grip in not-so-slow motion above us and the whites of the driver’s eyes were visible from the bottom of the hill, while his grin tried to reassure us that everything was in control. It was, up to a point, but rain stopped play.
I missed the ideal window to sow my meadow seed but, as I’m learning here, it isn’t such a good idea to seek perfection. Like my orchard, which has since recovered from being stripped bare by the sheep in the first summer, the ground will heal. The seed eventually went down not long after the clocks changed and I will not see that haze of new growth that I was hoping for before the weather closes in, but it will come right in the end. The poppies and some grasses in the mix will germinate in the mild spells and the seed that doesn’t will sit tight and wait until spring.
Some seed benefits from a winter in the ground, because stratification – the process of freeze, thaw, freeze – eventually breaks its dormancy in readiness for spring. Certain seed takes more than one year to germinate, like the seed from the large-leaved Magnolia obovata which I collected when I was in Japan over two years ago – it sat there for two winters before coming up this year.
It might be a waiting game, but the journey from seed to plant never takes as long as you might think. The fruit of my crab apples that I pressed into the compost this time last year are already plants a foot tall. Not much, you might think, in the life of a tree, but in another couple of years they will be in flower and, in turn, bearing their own fruit.
Unless you are sowing half-hardy plants, it is better to get seed in the ground rather than leave it to degrade in storage over the winter. Seed that I’ve harvested this summer is usually sown as soon as it is ripe in a 9cm pot, a loam-based compost and a covering of horticultural grit on the top to keep the slugs at bay and the soil moist but free draining. I cover larger seeds that mice might like with a sheet of glass but otherwise leave them in the frame where I can water them.
Hardy annuals and biennials that are sown in late summer are already up, and though you might think they are doing very little, they are putting on root growth in readiness for the spring. This is why broad beans and sweet peas and poppies sown in autumn make better plants. They are ready for life. The moment the weather warms and the days start to lengthen, they are off.
Seed that you intend to keep over winter can be bagged up and put in a sealed Tupperware container with a sachet of silica gel to keep it dry