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February: Sowing Seed

We stand in the warm looking out on the garden in winter with very little colour, waiting in anticipation of the spring and summer to come.

These days with their long cold nights, switch off the television and settle into a comfy armchair and study a few seed catalogues to dream about what you would like to grow if you had the time, space and skills. A good seed catalogue will provide you with lots of growing information, sowing times and tips on how to grow.

Packets of seeds are great value for many, especially for new varieties that offer unique features such as colours, vigour and resistance to pests and diseases that are not available from garden centres. Growing plants from seed is one of the real delights of the early spring. This is the start of nature’s growing cycle and is especially interesting for the younger members of the family, introducing them to the miracle of life with the tiniest of seed becoming a beautiful plant. If growing for children, choose seeds that are easy to grow and quick to germinate such as French Marigolds or Runner Beans.

Some plants take many weeks to germinate from seed to flowering; these include geranium, begonia semperflorens, heliotrope (cherry pie), lobelia, salvia and trailing verbena, so need to be sown early in the year. Check the back of the seed packet or the catalogue.

To achieve the best results, it is important that you use a good quality compost, I always use Levington’s, but if you have good results from another type keep to it as you will know the feeding and water requirements. Temperature is also important for successful germination 20oC (70oF) but no lower than 15oC (60oF) as too low a temperature is the most common cause of poor or no germination (it is so easy to blame the poor quality of the seed).

To avoid disease always use clean (new if possible) seed trays and pots. Fill a tray with compost, there is no need to use a great deal, 2” depth is quite adequate.  Press down to form a level surface using a flat board, water well and after it has drained (I try to do this the day before sowing).

Sow the seeds evenly on the surface, always open the seed packet over the tray you are going to sow into, if you have the misfortune to spill some, all is not lost. Sprinkle some compost to cover the seeds but I find the better alternative is to cover with a fine-grained vermiculite to avoid the course particle in the compost which can inhibit growth, particularly of small seeds. Place in a clear plastic bag to provide a moist atmosphere on the windowsill at living room temperature.

Ideally this should be maintained but can be difficult if your central heating is timed to go off during the night. If this is the case germination will take a little longer. Another problem can be the sun, streaming through the glass window the temperature within the polythene bag can be so intense that it can kill off any emerging seedlings.

Don’t forget that the sun moves, you can have ideal conditions when you go out in the morning but by mid-afternoon your delicate seedling can be cooking. Check daily for signs of germination, once seen remove from the polythene bag and place in full light, away from any sun, don’t let the compost become too dry or too wet and transplant seedlings into pots or boxes as soon as they are large enough to handle.

Some do’s and don’ts.

  1. Do use clean pots and boxes.
  2. Do choose a good quality compost.
  3. Don’t depend on old seed.
  4. Do sow small quantities of seed over a period of a few weeks.
  5. Don’t sow all the seed of one variety in one go.
  6. Do remember the sun moves.
  7. Don’t try to grow all the seedlings you have produced. Pick out the strongest and only a few more that you think you will need in case of any losses. Give the rest away or confine them to the compost heap because as they grow you are sure to run out of space and the quality of the plant will deteriorate.
  8. Do keep a gardening diary.

I didn’t say growing from seed was easy but the rewards in cost, pleasure and satisfaction are wonderful.

A Tip from Brian

If you see a problem and are unsure what to do, seek advice from the plant’s men at the garden centre as soon as possible.  At this time a day is a long time in the growth of a plant.