Wednesday, October 21, 2009

sowing seeds


The Produce Garden, North West Victoria

There’s something about sowing seeds as opposed to planting seedlings that really excites me. Buying a packet of seeds and going home with them holds a certain anticipation and thrill that I think only other gardeners could understand. It might just be a small packet in my pocket but the grandiose visions of bountiful crops soon fill my head and I find that I can’t wait to rip the packet open and get sowing. The first question that may arise is whether to plant them directly into the ground or into seed trays. Both are viable and different people will subscribe to their own way but I’ve always had great results from the trays which I keep inside (usually on the sunny kitchen bench) until the seeds have become seedlings and their strong enough to go off into the garden.


You don’t have to buy seedling trays to sow your seeds, in fact the only thing I ever buy are the seeds. One method which I use is to keep the inner cardboard rolls from paper towels. I cut these into 50-60mm sections and put them upright in an old Tupperware container, half fill them with well broken down compost or fine garden soil, put in my seed, fill to the top with soil, pat down gently and water. The watering part is easy, just fill in the Tupperware dish up to about 15mm with water the cardboard will soak it up and keep the soil and seed moist but not wet, as it is absorbed just re water, you’ll soon see your plants emerge from the top and probably a few roots poking out from the bottom.

Due to the always reliable late frost I keep mine indoors until late spring then I transplant them, cardboard and all, into my garden. Make sure the place you put them indoors is airy, has plenty of sunshine is out of the way of accidentally being knocked onto the floor. At the moment, literally as I’m writing this, I can see zucchini, basil, snow pea and tomato seedlings, happily growing on my bench in the morning sun. Sowing directly into the ground is fine also but as I said, we get a few late spring frosts up here and that can kill off all your hard work in one night. Once the seedlings are a good size and the major frost threats are over I transplant them to the permanent beds.


I usually sow one larger seed i.e. zucchini or 3-5 smaller seeds i.e. capsicum per container and I find that on average 90% of my seeds germinate. Once they break the surface the plant will send out feeder leaves, these are the initial leaves the plant has to get the sun it needs to get the plant growing. Now 9 times out of 10 these will look nothing like the true leaves, radish and carrots are perfect examples, but don’t pick them out under the notion that they’re weeds. Let them grow, they’ll soon die back once the truer form leaves have risen. Then once the seedling is feeling strong to the touch and about 3-5cm tall you can transplant them. If you’ve used the cardboard roll option you can put the whole thing in the ground, the cardboard will just break down. If you’re using trays then you’ll have to be gentle with them, ease them out gently trying to avoid breaking or bruising them and plant them in your prepared bed. Give them a water and don’t worry if they look a bit lackluster for a day or two. They’re just going through a bit of transplant shock, there are liquid feeds to battle this but I don’t bother with seedlings, they’ll soon bounce back.


So the seedlings are in the ground, the battle has just begun. Birds and possums will just love to dig up and eat your new plants, what a smorgasboard. Bird netting is a great option and I often prop mine up with the aid of a few fallen sticks until the plant is a good 15cm tall, by then the main offenders shouldn’t bother them too much and the plant will have a strong and healthy root system to support it. So now you’re probably all keen to feed them and let the growth begin but I say…stop! I observe a simple rule that has kept me in good stead with my vegetable garden, “if it flowers then don’t feed it until it does”. Let me use tomatoes as an example, they are by nature heavy feeders but I don’t give anything but water until they start to produce flower buds. The theory is that the plant wants to produce fruit, it wants to ensure its survival by creating the seeds inside. If it’s only getting water the plant will think to itself “hhmmm, I’m only getting water, I better produce some flowers/fruit so I can survive”. So it does, once it does you can then feed away with liquid foods or organic pellets (which you can leave in a bucket of water overnight to get a liquid food). By then the plant is getting the nutrients it craves and its pattern of thought changes a bit, now it’s thinking “got my food, this might not last so I better produce as much fruit as I can while the goings good”. The result is more flowers and more fruit. The same rule applies for other flowering vegetables like capsicum and eggplants. Non fruiting vegetables like radish, carrots and lettuce on the other hand can be fed from the onset.


I recently lost a whole row of artichokes and rhubarb to marauding cockatoos that shredded them to the ground, I was devastated, but took it in my stride. A friend remarked to me that I shouldn’t worry about it so much (he is a townie after all), true enough but the months of graft and care I’d put into those plants had been destroyed in minutes. It made me think of the journey if I can call it that, which we all put into our vegetable gardens, especially if the crop has been grown from seeds. That one small pack can contain from 15 to 1000 little gems that we take into our care and in return they feed us, our family and friends. So as much as I like seedlings and think they’re great for new gardeners, there’s nothing in my mind that compares to the entire process that sowing seeds bring. The emergence of new life, the growth and the final crop for our tables. For a few dollars we get so much more in return. If you have any questions feel free to contact me at or check out my videos at