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Starting Out With Seeds and Seedlings

Save yourself a lot of heartache and start by reading the instructions on the packet

Whether you’ve got a lot of space to work with or you’re simply hoping for a few tomatoes in containers, it can be hard to know where to start with your vegetable garden. Just deciding what to grow can pose a challenge for some, but the best advice anyone could give you is, happily, simple: Grow mainly what you like to eat.

Courgettes are easy to grow – as legends of neighbours of grow-your-owners hiding from yet another delivery of them can attest – but if you’re not that keen, having kilos of the beggars at your disposal is a waste of time. Keep things interesting by growing at least one thing that’s “exotic”/you’ve never tried and best of all, ignore the people who tell you to keep it simple and don’t grow too many different things: variety is half the fun of it. Some canny inter-cropping will see you getting more out of the same space too. Once you know what you want, it’s time to hit the seed or seedlings. Here’s how to go about it…

Sowing seed

Save yourself a lot of heartache and start by reading the instructions on the packet. Depending on the time of year and the vegetable you’re planting, you’ll either start with sowing into seedling trays or directly into the ground.

Directly into ground

The keys for success here are straightforward – timing, spacing and soil quality. Prepare the ground before you sow. Most importantly, remove all weeds and large stones. Break up the soil with a fork and add in extra compost, especiallyforkinground if you’ve got poor, sandy soil. Rake it all over to a good ‘tilth’ (gardening-speak for well-mixed, crumbly soil that allows room for plants to expand and grow and get the air they need) and you’re ready to go. Don’t stand all over your hard work – stomping on the patch you’ve just laboured over compacts the soil, removing air, decreasing drainage and generally limiting your seeds’ chances.

Now, read the packet. There’s no point trying to force summer crops to grow in the heart of winter, so assuming you’ve made your seed choice based on seasonality, pay close attention to spacing. If the packet calls for 10cm between seeds, that’s what you should do. You can hedge your bets by going for closer together spacing and thin out all but the strongest later, but try to structure things so that you’ve got enough room for the final spacing to be exactly as required by the packet instructions. It’s false economy to cram in too many plants all competing for fewer resources, because you’ll just get lower yields.

Make the holes/trench first before going back to sow, and cover over after you’ve done this (you’ll be surprised how easy it is to lose track of what you’ve put where). For particularly fine seeds like carrot, parsley or onions, try mixing the required amount with some sand first – this makes it easier to handle and also to see where you’ve put it. Cover gently, water-in well and hopefully you’ll see signs of life in a couple of weeks.

Sowing in seedling trays

aubergineseedlingsIf you have any trays left over from seedling six-pack you’ve bought from the nursery, they’ll do fine as long as you give them a good wash with soap and water first to ensure that any lingering bacteria/viruses/pests get the boot.

Fill each cell with compost or a mixture of compost and seedling mix. Press down gently but don’t compact the soil too much. For best results, sow two or three seeds per cell before covering gently and watering. As the seedlings grow, thin out the weakest-looking ones in each cell, leaving a lone healthy plant to transplant as soon as it’s strong enough.

The advantage of growing seed in trays is that you can beat the weather a little by keeping them safe from the elements on a window sill or garage while you wait for the weather to improve. Just remember that plants need light to grow, so keeping them in a dark, cold corner in your shed is unlikely to yield results. Don’t sow mixed varieties of seed in the same container either – different seeds grow at different rates, so when it comes to ‘hardening off’ (see below) you may create problems for yourself.

Transplanting your seedlings to the great outdoors

‘Hardening off’ or acclimatising your seedlings to the great outdoors before you plant them in the ground or outside containers is the best way to ensure success. This involves moving your seedlings to a warm, sheltered spot outside during the day (although not when it’s blowing a gale!) and then taking them inside again at night. Do this for about a week, building up to leaving them outside overnight. You’re then ready to transplant the seedlings either directly to their final destination or into a slightly larger pot for growing on without killing them with shock.

Seeds to sow into the ground include cucumber, beans, peas, sunflowers, squashes, corn on the cob and carrots. Carrots are best sown where you want to harvest them, as they don’t take kindly to being transplanted. Try sowing carrots as thinly as possible as the act of thinning them out later releases their scent, attracting the unwanted attention of the dreaded carrot fly.

As a general rule-of-thumb, the bigger the seed, the happier it is being sown directly into the ground. Smaller seeds, such as tomatoes, will start out better in trays and as they grow, you can pot them on to successively larger containers until they’re big enough to fend for themselves.

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More Stories By Pamela Weaver

Pamela has a PhD in History and, over the past 15 years, has worked as a journalist, broadcaster, parliamentary reporter and technical co-ordinator at Apple Inc. Today... She is a business/IT journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She covers topics ranging from Free/Open Source Software, e-Government, BI, KM and Converging Communications to ICTs in Financial Services and Networking.