Sowing Seeds

Share article

Getting the timing right

In nature, all plants start from seeds and under the right conditions manage to flourish under their own devices and develop into lush healthy specimens.   However, when we want to start our vegetable gardens often the seeds need a little help to ensure the conditions are right to get our plants off to a good start.   It can seem a little daunting to start from seed and it can be tempting to let the garden centres do this for us and pick up some seedlings closer to the day when frost is no longer a risk.

The thing is – sowing seeds isn’t all that difficult, and is a lot more affordable with many packets costing around $3 or $4 for up to thousands of seeds.   It is also very rewarding to watch those tiny seeds emerge from the bare soil into the green seedlings that will grow strong and bear the harvest of your garden in the coming months. It can also keep your green fingers busy tending the seedlings indoors while you wait for the spring to be warm enough to plant things outside. 

The first important point is you don’t need to rush and start things early.  All plants have their own sense of timing and often we are trying to get them to do things outside their comfort zone, which can sometimes work to our benefit.  Peppers need a long growing season to produce a good harvest in mid to late summer, so by starting the seeds in very early spring and keeping them safe and warm will mean the plants will be more advanced in their development by the time they are planted out.  They are slow growing, stocky plants and are easily managed indoors.  Pumpkins on the other hand grow quickly and so only need about a month indoors to get going before desperately needing to be planted outside.  And then you find if, when the time is right, you sow a seed directly outdoors at the same time as planting the seedling in the ground – in a matter of weeks you won’t know which is which.  So there is no advantage to starting these early.

Experience can teach you how long plants need between sowing and planting, as you untangle cucumber tendrils from a leggy tomato plant while observing a frozen garden out of the window.  The seed packet may say it can be sown from Early Spring, but it may not be the case in your area.  Find out when your average last frost date is in your area count back start your seeds then.  For most of us it is Labour weekend in October.    As a guide - three months before the last frost sow Eggplant, Pepper and Celery; two months before the last frost sow Tomato, Sweetcorn, Beans, Melons and one month before the last frost sow Lettuce, Beans, Pumpkin, Squash, Cucumber and Zucchini.  

To sow the seeds

The process couldn’t be easier.   All you need is some containers – no more than about 5cm deep with drainage holes in the bottom. They can be specifically for the job or up-cycled from your recycling bin.  Whatever you chose to use make sure it is very clean.  Hygiene is very important.

Seeds come with their own nutrients to get them started so they don’t need a rich potting soil or compost and these can harm the emerging seedlings.  Soil from the garden isn’t recommended as it can host pest and disease that can destroy your potential harvest before it even gets going.  A good quality seed raising mix is the best option as it has been formulated for the needs of the seeds.

Make sure your seed raising mix is moist – not too wet, not too dry – fill your container and gently firm down.

Sow your seeds onto the soil.  There are generally directions on the seed packet as to how deep seeds like to be planted.  Space them out well so they don’t crowd each other as they grow.  Lightly cover the soil with more seed raising mix as per the recommended depth.  The rule of thumb is three times as deep as the height of the seed.  Gently firm down so there is good contact between the seed and the soil.  Don’t forget to pop in a label.

Continue to keep the soil moist – not too wet and not too dry.  A spray bottle is handy for this.  Within 14 days you should see your seeds emerge.  Of course, there are always exceptions.

Don’t feel you need to need to sow all the seeds in the packet.  Work out how many plants you need in the garden and then sow twice that (just in case a seed doesn’t pop up) and then double it so you have a spare set in case anything untoward happens.  You can always give your spares away when you are sure you don’t need them.

Once the seedlings emerge, make sure they are in a warm sunny spot and continue to keep the soil moist.  If you find they are leaning off in one direction on the windowsill, rotate the seed tray every day.  If they start to become long, leggy and yellow, this means you have them too far from the light so try to find a better spot. If they get too leggy, they will never really be healthy plants and it may be best to start again.

Sowing Outdoors

Some plants prefer to be sown directly into their permanent spot and don’t like to be moved, so this means starting them off directly in the garden.   These crops include carrots, parsnips and other root crops.  Beans and sweetcorn can do better if planted directly – if the conditions are right. 

The key is to make sure the soil is warm enough and not too wet and not too dry. Seeds will rot in cold, wet soil, so it is best to wait until the soil temperature is at least 15 degrees or warmer.  Find out what your seeds prefer.  

Good spacing and planting depth is just as important in the ground as it is in a seed tray.  Firm the soil over the seed, making sure the seeds have good contact with the soil and water lightly. 

Seeds sown outdoors need extra protection as they are vulnerable to many pests.  Slugs and snails will gobble them up before you even realise they’ve emerged.  Cats can use your seed bed as a kitty litter box and scatter your seeds and leave a not so pleasant surprize and birds can steal the seeds the moment you turn your back.  There are many solutions out there, and you need to find the one that works best for you in your garden.

Sowing seeds couldn’t be easier and are a great way to start off your veggie growing season.