I know that a lot of people find the prospect of sowing seeds from scratch daunting but I think that the sight of seeing something first germinate is one of the most satisfying parts of gardening. Growing plants from seed is very cost effective – if you buy plants you have paid somebody else to do all the work of raising them for you.
People can be put off because a few things have gone wrong, so this week I am going to discuss some of the tips for raising seedlings successfully to ensure that you make the most of your precious seed.
Firstly there is deciding what compost to use. My advice for spending money on compost is that it is worth investing most at the seedling stage, as this is the most difficult to get right. The amounts that you use for sowing are much less than when potting on something in a container, so one bag will go a long way. Seed compost is the ideal, it has a finer texture, but I have found I still get good germination in multipurpose compost. It is then possible to scrimp and save on potting mixes later on (more on this in a later blog), and this will result in more effective financial savings when you are dealing with larger volumes of material.
If you are determined, and have a good supply of leaf mould, this is a possible alternative. If it is well broken down, and then sieved, it can have a lovely texture for seed sowing.
Once you have opened your precious compost, fold the top of the bag over and secure it when you are not using it; otherwise you will find lots of little sciarid flies (fungus gnats) will find their way in, lay their eggs, and the maggots will be ready to chomp their way through your seedlings. Sciarid flies are much more of a problem indoors, so if you start to see them dancing around on your seedlings put them outside during the day and you will soon have less of a problem.
A common mistake that people make is sowing things too early as soon as they see the first bit of spring sunshine. Bear in mind that most things germinate very slowly if they are below 10oC, so if you sow beans in early April and leave them in a damp seed tray, chances are they will just sit there and rot. You should also plan backwards from the last frost. We don’t sow courgettes until mid-May, because we know that we will just be left with massive plants far too early to put out when there is still a risk of cold nights.
I have found that peat-free compost requires a little more care over the watering. I regularly check beneath the surface as looks can be deceptive. Sometimes the top looks very dry, when in fact it is pretty moist beneath, so it can be easy to overwater.
If you are relying on growing seedlings on a windowsill, a reflector makes a noticeable difference to the quality of your seedlings. The extra reflected light makes them grow straighter and sturdier. You can easily make a reflector out of some card and tin foil.
Now is the time that you should be getting many of your seedlings ready for planting out. I put them outside in their trays before I go to work (not a long journey at the moment), then bring them in again in the evening. This will make them tougher to handle and less palatable to slugs, well that’s the idea anyway! Learning from my mishaps, I even put a net over them, as on more than one occasion I have found blackbirds have methodically pulled them out to see what is underneath. I guess they are probably looking for grubs to feed their young, but I wish they would look somewhere else!
More about Anton...
Anton is a Knowledge Officer at Garden Organic, where he has worked for 16 years. He is looking forward to writing a series of blogs on how to garden using little resources.
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