It’s Spring, I have a brand new plot to clear and (hopefully) grow some veggies on, and I can’t think of a better place to start than with seed sowing. I apologise if you’re all experienced green fingers, but I’d like to start from scratch and get any newbies who are perhaps a little nervous to try and get growing. Maybe start by sowing some herbs in a window box, or get a wildflower meadow started.
I’ll write about seasonal jobs to start, and try to address any popular areas if you want me to. I will also try to make everything as inclusive as possible and give you alternatives to try if one method proves to be tricky. I would love to hear your ingenious ideas that help you to keep gardening, or any tools that you wouldn’t be without as well.
What you sow is entirely up to you. If you are new to gardening, try sowing some herbs or bedding plants in trays, and when the plants have grown a little, plant them in a window box or out in the garden. If you have a bare patch in your garden, try sowing a wildflower or annual mix straight onto the soil. I’ll show you how.
There are a few things to consider for successful seed sowing: Firstly, it depends on the freshness of your seeds. To get the best start, your seeds should be in date, or collected in the previous year. While it’s lying dormant, the tiny seedling uses its food reserves to keep itself alive until it germinates, and the more of these reserves it uses, the less energy it will have to germinate strongly.
If you’re storing seeds, try to keep them in their original packets or wrap them in greaseproof paper, and keep them in a nice, clean, dry, airtight container. I save silica packets and throw them in there as well. The less moisture the seeds are exposed to, the more dormant they will remain.
If you do find an old packet stuffed in a drawer, though, there’s a quick and very general test you can do to see if there are any worth trying – drop the seeds into a cup of water, and plant those that sink. Any floating seeds have used up their reserves and are just full of air now. I did read a couple of years ago that a rare seed found in a shipwreck from the 19th century successfully germinated, so sometimes you never can tell.
When sowing indoors in trays, seeds are extremely susceptible to fungal diseases, and it’s sadly not unusual to have whole trays of healthy looking seed suddenly wilt and die. This is called ‘damping off‘. One of the the best ways to help prevent this is to practice good hygiene, and make sure your trays and tools are clean.
You don’t need to go out and buy propagators or special seed trays; as long as it’s clean, just recycle what you have. I’ve discovered that clear plastic egg boxes with holes poked in the bottom make great modular seed trays. If you sow one larger seed in each section, you can watch for the roots growing, and just lift the plant out when you see them coming through strongly.
To prevent damping off, you can also use a good free-draining compost, and if you sit the trays in water until the surface glistens and then remove them, you won’t overwater. Mixing a standard, peat-free compost mixed at 2-1 with perlite, vermiculite or grit makes a nice, light, airy mixture. I’ve found coir-based compost is starting to become more widely available. It’s super-lightweight and expands about 3 times in volume when water is added, so you don’t have to lug heavy bags around.
Coir doesn’t have much nutritional value, but for seedlings, that doesn’t matter. Seedlings are lazy, you have to force them to grow strong roots and find their own food, and they’ll grow stronger later for it. If you suffer from any condition that affects your breathing, though, coir is very dusty, so it might be better to stick to a wood-based or home-made compost (I’ll cover compost making in the next blog).
That’s the theory behind seed sowing, next I’ll show you the best way to use your containers and how to prepare the soil if you’re sowing straight into the ground.
Sowing in containers
Containers are normally used to germinate seeds that need a little extra protection before planting out; tomatoes, squashes, sweetcorn for example.
* Fill the container completely with compost, and using a circular motion, ‘massage’ the compost to even it out and get rid of big air pockets.
* Using an old book or a CD case (anything that fits the container), press
the compost to get a smooth surface.
* Immerse the container up to the brim in water and leave it until the surface glistens.
* To broadcast sow small seeds, tip some seeds into your palm, and gently tap your hand with your finger. This method gives you more control over their spread. Here I am using
salad leaf seeds.
* Poke holes in the compost for larger seeds, place them in and close the compost over them. Here I am using squash seeds.
* Cover the pot with a clear plastic bag & remove it once the seedlings appear. They germinate better in moist conditions, but damping off fungi and bacteria like those conditions too.
This, I know, seems like making work for yourself, but it gets the air & water distribution in the soil just right, and each seed has an equal chance at germinating. There is no harm in completely filling the container and then pressing it firmly, that will do just as well.
If you struggle to pick up smaller seeds, you can fold a piece of paper in half, and use it as a chute, it might give you a bit more control.
If you think that you will struggle to transfer your tiny seedlings to their final location, try using the cells from an old cardboard egg box or toilet roll to plant into, these can just be planted out pot and all, and are a lot easier to handle than young seedlings (I’ll talk about ‘pricking out’ shortly).
Alternatively, plant the seeds where you want them once the weather has warmed.
Sowing into the ground
Ideally, you want to have some nice, loose textured bare soil to sow into. Some seeds are pretty tough and won’t mind if digging and raking are not for you. Try a wildflower mix, Calendula, California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica), Woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis) or some herb seeds if you aren’t going to prepare the soil. There are plenty of seeds that are tough as old boots, and can hold their own without a bit of extra cosseting.
Using a fork, turn over a lump of the soil and hit it with the back of the fork to break it up. Do this in rows so you know you’ve dug over the whole site. Try not to stand in soil you’ve dug over, or you’ll undo all your hard work!
Rake the soil level, breaking up any lumps, rake out stones, and you’re ready to sow.
You can broadcast sow, or if you want to make weeding easier, trace out shallow rows that are at least a hoe’s width apart and sow sparingly into those. You can give the space in between a quick lick over with the hoe when you need to, and once the plants have grown, they won’t look regimented.
Lastly, give the site a good water if the weather is dry.
The last thing for you to try is ‘pricking out’. This is where you use a dibber (this is just a stick, I use an old chopstick or a pencil) to pop out seedlings shortly after they sprout, and then re-plant them in bigger pots right down to the leaves. This seems pretty fiddly, and isn’t essential if it’s too much trouble.
Alternatively, if you plant the seeds in a shallower layer of compost, once they’ve sprouted, you can use a fine riddle (sieve) to cover the seedlings very gently in another light layer of compost. They should find their way out to the light again. This way is a bit hit and miss, so I’d use it with caution, and only on a crop you don’t mind losing a few of.
The reason for pricking out is that the stem of a young seedling has the potential to sprout roots, so if you plant it right down to the leaves, you get more strongly rooted and stable plants.
If you have chosen to broadcast sow, you can help your plants along by simply removing the weaker seedlings and giving them more space.
There is a tried and tested technique to pricking out – Hold a seedling leaf (never the stem; it’s too fragile) with one hand, and push the dibber into the soil under the seedling. Using the dibber like a lever, pop the seedling out & keep hold of it by the leaf while you use the dibber to make a hole in the new pot. Sink the seedling as deep as you can, leaving the leaves above the surface, and firm the soil back around it. Water the pot, and you’re good to go!
If you’re planning on planting your new plants outside, leave it until the end of May to make sure any threat of frost has passed – ‘don’t cast a clout until May is out’. If they’re tender plants like tomatoes, ease them into outdoor life gently by putting them into a cold frame or greenhouse if you have one, or pop them out for a few days and bring them back in at night if you don’t.
I’ll write again soon and cover feeding and watering, maybe a bit of lawn care & cover some Summer jobs. I should have some pictures of my veg garden by then as well. I’ve sown courgettes, tomatoes, pumpkins and sweetcorn ready to plant out. I hope this has at least been interesting for you, and has given you some confidence to try some seeds out for yourself.
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