10: Episode 10 – Planting seeds

How to plant seeds, either direct sowing or in seed starter trays. I use a no digging method in my vegetable bed.

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Planting Seeds

Today, we’re going to be talking about seeds. It’s the time of year when we’re all busy planting seeds. The weather’s just turned; some of us have just enjoyed some lovely hot days
and the summer is definitely just around the corner. Winter, I think we can say, is behind us. I certainly am very, very busy planting seeds, transplanting seeds, some I’m direct sowing already, others I’m putting in pots in the polytunnel.

There’s no mystery to planting seeds. It really can be quite simple. So, I’m going to try and demystify it a little bit here today. The first thing I want everyone to remember is that plants want to grow. They absolutely are built to do a job and that is to grow into the finished plant. A lot of the time, what we really need to do is give them what they need and then get out of the way. We don’t need to be tinkering too much; we just need to make sure we don’t do anything wrong. The plant is already raring to go. We just need to make sure we don’t do anything wrong to spoil it.

Planting Undercover

So, there’s two types of planting: one would be planting undercover in a polytunnel
or under a cold frame or something similar, with a view to planting out once the seedlings are strong enough to be handled and transplanted into their final destination. And then there is direct sowing, where we put the seed where the plant is going to ultimately stay. I’m going to talk quickly about planting undercover first.

There are a lot of seeds you can’t plant when there’s going to be a frost; they will benefit from being planted in a greenhouse or under some kind of protective environment. Now, obviously the information is going to vary from seed to seed. You’ll be able to find that on your seed packet or if you do a bit of Googling about the specific plant you’re going to grow.

Using the Right Soil

If you have a plant that you’re going to start in a seed tray or a small pot and put in a polytunnel or on a windowsill, then the type of soil that you use is quite important. If you are going down the route of buying compost and soil, then make sure you buy a seed starting compost. But if you’re not, you can make your own potting mix, which isn’t particularly difficult and does make quite a lot of difference.

You want to make sure that there’s no weeds and bugs in it. One of the common mistakes people make is that they take soil from their garden, put it in a pot, plant something in it and then put it in the greenhouse. Well, some of the problems that can happen from this is that there’s not just going to be the seed from your seedling in there. There could be something in there from a nearby weed. There could be bugs in there that are currently dormant but are about to be woken up by the lovely, warm temperature in the greenhouse environment, and lots of things of that nature. It’s always best, if you can, to use a piece of soil that has been covered or somehow protected from these things, so that when you introduce it to your greenhouse, then it’s not going to suddenly come alive with things you don’t want in there.

I have heard of people who take the soil and they put it over boiling water to sterilize it. Personally, I think that’s a bit too much work. But, by all means, that may be the way to go if you feel that you’ve got it in you to go to that effort.

You also want something that’s going to be fairly well draining, so you can water the plant
and without it getting waterlogged, but also something that’s going to retain plenty of the moisture. We’re lucky and we tend to just use the compost that we’ve made from the season before and we mix a tiny bit of sand or something with it. But you can buy products, such as perlite, which are designed to hold the moisture in the soil, but not in the soil where your seeds are. The perlite are little white balls that act like mini sponges. They soak the water out of the soil when it’s waterlogged, but they also slowly release it back after it has dried out.

How Deep Should I Plant My Seeds?

Once you have your soil in your pot, you go ahead and plant your seeds. Now, the methods for this are going to vary greatly from seed to seed. A general rule of thumb is that the bigger the seed, the deeper you plant it. So, a tiny little seed, such as that of a carrot, you’re going to plant under just the tiniest bit of compost, whereas a much bigger seed, such as a bean, you’re going to really push down in there with your finger. That’s one rule of thumb.

Monitoring Moisture Levels

Another thing to be aware of is that, once you’ve planted your seedlings, you’re going to need to monitor that moisture level, particularly if you have warm days and you have the pot in your polytunnel or greenhouse, as they’re going to dry out fairly quickly. Through the last week or so, we’ve had some really warm weather where we are and I’ve been watering my seedlings at least twice every single day. There are ways around that – you can place your pots in something that’s going to hold some water. Personally, I just make sure I’m out there checking them, because I’m in the garden anyway.

Knowing When to Transplant Your Seeds

Once you have your seeds planted in your pots and they’re in your greenhouse or other environment where you’re going to bring them on, could be on a windowsill, then really all you need to do is keep out of the way. You make sure that they’ve got the water they need and other than that, you trust that they’re going to do the right thing.

Now, you’re never going to get a hundred percent germination rate, so don’t be upset when you don’t, because no one does. Some of these seeds are not viable; they simply are not viable in nature. So, there’s no way you could make them grow, regardless of how perfect you made the conditions for them.

Once they’re big enough to transplant and when they’re looking sturdy enough that you’re fairly confident you can pick them up, take them out from where they are, and plant them somewhere else, then that’s the time to consider doing so. Now, there are lots of plants that will need to be protected from the frost, so you don’t really want to plant them out until the risk of frost is gone. But even the best gardeners I know – and I certainly I don’t include myself as one of the best gardeners I know, but I do include myself as someone who does plant their seedlings out a bit early – even I don’t like to wait until every single risk of frost has gone, because our last frost can be in May. I like to get things out in the garden before then, because otherwise I feel as though I just lose so much produce by not using that extra time.

So, if you’re like me and you’re going to put your seedlings out before the risk of frost has passed, then you’re going to just make sure you monitor the weather and be prepared to protect them from frost if a frost comes. I’m going to go into some ways of doing that in our next blog post.

Direct Sowing

If you’re going to sow something out directly, then, again, it’s based on the type of seed
and the information will be on the seed packet as to whether and when you sow it directly. But some things you really have to sow directly. For instance, with carrots, the whole thing you’re growing is the tuber, or the root. So, anything with a strong taproot like that, you’re going to want to plant in its final destination. Just bear that in mind.

What I tend to do is I just part the mulch, because all of our vegetable beds are covered all year round in a thick layer of mulch. I part the mulch and I tend to just place my seeds on the soil and then cover them in a tiny bit of compost and then recover with the mulch, but maybe not quite so deep. I do very little digging. I tend to plant everything in the mulch or just at the bottom layer of the mulch, down through the mulch. It saves a lot of back-breaking digging. But also, it actually does your soil really good, because there are a tremendous number of organisms, including the mycelial web, which is the fungi underneath the soil, that actually work like a distribution network amongst all your plants and they will make sure that all your plants get what they need. Every time you dig the soil, you disturb this and it has to start from scratch again.

You’ll find that some people with more traditional methods of growing food, will always say you need to dig; you need to keep the soil dug over and loose. But the method I use is very much a “no dig” method and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that it’s at least as good, if not better than the more traditional vegetable growing methods.

Selecting the Final Position For Your Seeds

Once you have your seedlings in their final position, again, it’s all about getting out the way and letting them do their thing. When you’re choosing their final position, be mindful of that particular plant’s characteristics: some will like shade, some will like full sun, some will need to be protected from the elements such as wind, some will need canes. Just bear all that in mind and make sure that you don’t plant something such as tomatoes on the south side of a big stack of runner beans, because what’s going to happen is that the runner beans are going to catch all that sun and the tomatoes, which are just behind it in the shade, are going to really struggle. So, make sure you plan how and where you’re going to plant things before you actually go out and do it.

Why You Should Save Extra Seeds

There you go – that’s seed planting and the time really is now. Another thing to bear in mind is to plant more seeds than you need. Generally, speaking, they’re almost free and a lot of the seeds that you’re going to plant next year are going to be seeds you’ve saved. Make sure you’re saving extra seeds so you have enough to over-plant. When it comes to seeds, I do this for three reasons:

  1. Firstly, there’s going to be a natural element of unviable seeds, which for whatever reason aren’t going to germinate. So, you’re going to lose some that way.
  2. The second reason is that it means you get to pick the strongest plants, the best looking plants, that are most likely to go on and do well and to be the ones you’re going to place in your garden. They’ll be the ones you save your seeds for next year.
  3. The third one is that you’re able to then sell some seedlings and that generates a small amount of income, which goes back into the homestead. So, make sure you over-plant. Let the seed do its thing and I’m sure you’ll have great success.

Good luck being more self-sufficient this year than last. That’s always the plan, at least, it is mine.