One of the trickiest skills to get right in gardening is sowing seeds correctly, especially when some seeds are little more than dust wrapped in a scrap of greaseproof paper. I hope this article will help to offer advice as to the easiest ways to sow seeds, and may even help more experienced gardeners who have problems with the really tiny seeds such as carrots, lettuce, etc.
Planting or Sowing Large Sized Seeds
To start with I shall cover the easiest seeds to sow, and therefore it is not surprising to find out that these are the larger seeds in general, such as Potatoes, Runner Beans, Broad Beans, etc.
Chitting and Planting Potatoes.
Potatoes for growing are called seed potatoes and for home, use are usually purchased in mesh bags which allow the air to flow through them freely and therefore avoid sweating or rotting occurring.
When you first take these home you will need to chit the potatoes for a number of weeks until they produce shoots approximately one inch long. Chitting is best done in a cool, light shed out of direct sunlight.
1) Spread your seed potatoes out, eyes uppermost, in trays ensuring that they are not in contact with each other, (alternatively egg boxes work well if you place one potato per slot and make sure again the eyes are uppermost).
2) Place these trays or egg boxes in a cool, dry, light shed (or spare room), out of direct sunlight.
3) Leave them for at least 3 weeks, or until the eyes have produced shoots approximately 1″+ long.
4) Prepare trenches to plant your seed potatoes in. I tend to dig these about 6 inches deep and then ensure the earth in the bottom of the trench is loose and not compacted. If you like you can also scatter some potato fertilizer granules along the base of the trench following the quantities advised on the packaging.
5) Carefully spread your potatoes shoots uppermost along the base of the trench spacing approximately 18″ apart.
6) Using a draw hoe or rake gently drag the earth previously removed from the trench back over the potatoes, being careful not to snap the young shoots, (I then drag up further earth over these rows to create a ridge approximately 6″ higher than ground level).
7) Once the shoots have grown approximately four inches above soil level use a draw hoe or a rake to gently drag further earth over the top of the newly emerged leaves until they are just covered again. This process is called ‘earthing up’, and ensures you get the maximum crop from your potatoes.
8 ) Check the variety of potato to determine the best time to begin harvesting your crop. This information should be readily available either on the bag you purchased them in or on the Internet if you do a search for the names of the varieties you have planted.
Alternatively, you can grow potatoes in old dustbins, buckets, plastic tubs, etc. See my other article on How to Grow a Dustbin of Potatoes for further information on this method.
Runner Beans, Broad Beans, Green Beans, etc.
Beans are probably among the easiest seeds to sow and grow. Children find them fascinating, and therefore they make a great way to get your children interested in both growing and eating healthy vegetables. I recommend reading them the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” first, to really capture their imaginations.
1) Erect a pyramid of 6-foot bamboo canes secured together at the top using a cable tie or some string. Alternatively set up a row of pairs of canes leaned in towards each other and secured together a the tops, then stabilised by a further horizontal cane or canes, threaded across the top of the row where each pair of canes cross each other’s tips and also secured to the top of each pair, (see illustration for details).
2) Using either a dibber or your index finger, poke two holes, approximately 1″ deep, at the base of each cane. Insert a seed in each of the two holes and gently cover over with soil, (or compost if planted in containers).
3) Water in carefully.
4) When the seedlings emerge a couple of weeks later remove the weaker of the two seedlings at the base of each cane. If both seedlings on any one cane look weak, then remove them and transplant one of the healthy plants from the base of a cane that has produced two strong seedlings. In the case of transplanting be careful to remove plenty of soil around the plant to avoid root damage, and water in well once moved to the new cane.
5) The seedlings will quickly start to climb the canes on their own, and the only help they may need is for you to gently wrap the first climbing shoot around the cane until it gets a grip, (most of the time they won’t even need you to do this).
6) Keep well watered and feed occasionally with plant food if grown in containers. Once they begin cropping harvest regularly to produce the tastiest and most tender beans, plus encouraging the plants to keep on producing further flowers and therefore crops.
Sowing Medium-Sized Seeds.
Under this category, I am going to include Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Courgettes, Sweet and Chilli Peppers, Radishes, Beetroot and Parsnip seeds. Many of these will follow the same rules when sowing them, but some are a little different in terms of the ideal method of sowing them.
Tomatoes, Courgettes, Cucumbers, and Peppers.
All of these are best started off in 3″ pots of multipurpose compost in a warm, sunny place such as a greenhouse, cold-frame or on a window-ledge. The only slight variation is that the cucumber seeds benefit from being started off on a damp kitchen towel in an airtight container for a few days in a warm place. Once they show shoots they can be carefully transplanted into the 3″ pots of compost.
1) Fill 3″ pots with a general multipurpose compost and give them a sharp tap on the ground to settle the compost.
2) Using a fine spray from either a watering can or a sprinkler wand on hosepipe water the pots well and allow draining for twenty minutes or so.
3) Using your index finger make a hole in your compost approximately half an inch deep and carefully sow one to two seeds per pot, (if sowing two seeds per pot space them out so that you can remove the weaker seedling once you establish which one it is, or transplant the spare seedling if it also proves to be a strong seedling). Personally I only sow one seed per pot, and then if I have a mixture of pots that may have two strong seedlings or two weaker seedlings in each, I get rid of the weak seedlings and transplant the spare strong seedlings into any pots that end up empty as a result of the removal of the weaker seedlings.
4) Be especially careful when transplanting Cucumber seeds that have been “sprouted” previously, as there is a danger of breaking the emerging shoot accidentally. Always sow seeds on their edge, (especially if not sprouted on damp kitchen towel first). The same rules should be followed when sowing Courgette seeds.
5) Carefully water the newly planted pots again slightly to settle the compost around the seeds.
6) Keep moist until the seedlings appear and grow to a size where they are suitable for planting out or transplanting into larger pots or grow bags (usually once you can see the roots through the holes in the base of the pot, or your plants have reached 3″ to 4″ in height).
Depending on where you are growing your seedlings on you may want to protect them using a few organic slug pellets scattered around the surface of the pots.
7) Harden off seedlings in pots if they are planned to be outdoor crops, (in other words toughen them up prior to moving them outside permanently), by placing the pots outside during the day and bringing in overnight for about a week or so. After this you can safely plant them in their final locations providing all risks of frost have passed, (any doubts and you should use permeable horticultural fleece to protect your young plants until all danger of frost has gone). If the plants are destined for a greenhouse they will be fine simply transplanted into the larger area or larger pots.
8 ) Tomatoes, Cucumbers, and Peppers, transplant either 1 plant to a 15 – 20+ liter pot of compost or plant outdoors in a vegetable bed in rows, spacing each plant about 24″ apart and support with a 5-foot bamboo cane.
9) Courgettes / Zucchini are best in a vegetable bed, (although not impossible in a large container). Transplant the young plants 24″ apart and keep watered until established.
Radishes and Beetroot.
These are both very easy to grow and each follows a similar set of basic rules.
1) Firstly either fill a 5″ – 6″ deep container with compost, (this is sufficiently deep if kept moist whilst the plants grow to edible size). If sowing in a vegetable bed, then ensure ground is raked down to a fine tilth (breadcrumb type consistency), and then using the edge of a draw hoe or the end of your rake, create a shallow drill half an inch deep, water it and allow the water to drain away (although prior watering is not essential), and then sow your seeds about 1″ – 2″ apart.
2) Drag the soil back over the seeds using your draw hoe or rake.
3) Harvest when ready, approximately 5 – 6 weeks for radishes and 8 – 10 weeks for Beetroot depending on climates (follow guidelines on seed packets).
Parsnips can be rather erratic and slow with their germination patterns, so give them plenty of time to appear before you decide that your efforts have been unsuccessful. They can be grown both in containers and an allotment, so take your pick depending on your circumstances.
1) If planting in containers pick a container at least 4″ deeper than the maximum length your Parsnip is likely to achieve according to the seed packet.
2) Fill the container with either multipurpose compost, or spent compost from the previous year and water well allowing to drain for 20 minutes before sowing.
3) Sow the seeds about 3″ apart along the surface of the compost, and then cover over with about half an inch of further compost.
4) Keep moist until seedlings emerge, but be well aware this can take a number of weeks, so be patient!
5) If sowing direct into an allotment then use your hoe to create a drill half an inch deep (watering the drill prior to planting if possible, although not essential) and sow seeds slightly closer together with a view to removing the weaker seedlings and allowing for some seeds to fail to emerge, ( parsnip seeds are less reliable in the harsher environment of an allotment with insects, heavier soils etc to deal with).
6) Again, cover the seeds over with half an inch of soil that has previously been raked to a fine breadcrumb type consistency and wait patiently, watering only if you are suffering a particularly dry summer. DO NOT FEED, as feeding will either produce loads of foliage and little root, or forked roots, neither of which are desirable.
7) Harvest according to directions on the seed packets (as varieties vary). It is said a frost can benefit the sweetness of flavour, plus parsnips will keep well in the ground over the winter months if you wish to harvest only as and when you need them.
Sowing Small Sized Seeds.
In this section, I am going to cover the seeds such as Carrots, Spring Onions, Onions, Leeks, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Celery etc.
Leeks, Spring Onions, and Onions.
Onion or Spring Onion Seeds
These all follow much the same rules as they are all a part of the same family. They can all be grown in containers, although I suggest Leeks are actually better in an allotment.
1) In containers, you should fill them with fresh compost and water well. Allow 20 minutes draining time before sowing.
2) Use your finger or a similar sized tool to create a short, quarter-inch deep drill across the surface of the damp compost.
3) For Spring onions sow the seeds about 1″ apart and cover over gently. For Onions or Leeks space the seeds about 4″ apart with a view to thinning the plants down at a later date to a spacing of about 5″ – 6″ apart.
4) If growing in a vegetable patch or an allotment much the same guidelines apply, although you might want to use a draw hoe or rake to create your seed drill, and to thin your Onions and Leeks to a little further apart (about 6″ – 7″).
Cabbage, Cauliflower, Broccoli and other Brassica Crops.
These can all be either planted into 3″ pots, seed trays, or direct into an allotment.
1) If planting into pots then they should be sown into pre watered multipurpose compost (2 seeds per pot), about half an inch deep, covered over and gently watered in again. Keep moist and grow on either under glass or in a sheltered spot, (removing the weaker seedling), until they have reached a height of about 4″ and have a good rootball formed within the pots, (this can be determined by linking your fingers around the young plant, inverting the pot and tapping it gently until the plants come out of the pot and into your hand, at which point you should be able to easily examine the rootball). At this point, they can be transplanted into an allotment and watered in. Protect plants with horticultural fleece to avoid caterpillar damage from Cabbage White and other butterflies, insects, etc.
2) If using trays then follow the same instructions (sowing the seeds a couple of inches apart), but as soon as the seedlings are large enough to handle transplant the strongest seedlings into individual 3″ pots and grow on, eventually transplanting outside as per the above advice.
These seeds are fairly small, but not impossible to sow thinly. It is wise to avoid having to thin them out later on as thinning can very likely attract Carrot Root Fly due to the smell of the crushed foliage thinning will release. It is very easy to grow carrots in either containers or an allotment, but ensure any ground you grow them in is stone-free, well-drained and not recently manured (to avoid root splitting, excess foliage, and small roots).
1) If growing carrots in containers make sure that the container is at least 3″ – 4″ deeper than the ultimate mature length of your chosen variety of carrot.
2) Try to either use old / spent compost from a previous season, or alternatively use new compost, but don’t feed the carrots any further for their full growing season.
3) Fill containers with compost, then water thoroughly, drain for 20 minutes, and then carefully place one seed at a time about 2″ apart in rows (also 2″ apart), on the surface of the damp compost. Cover with between a quarter to half an inch of compost and gently firm down using your hand or a small flat piece
4). Keep moist until seedlings appear and become established. Avoid thinning if at all possible as you can get away with far closer spacings in containers than you can in an allotment.
5) Do not allow to dry out and then water suddenly or you will risk root splitting.
6) If growing in an allotment follow similar instructions, but it may help to sow the carrot seeds with radishes to facilitate easier weeding, (radishes emerge very quickly so marking exactly where the rows of carrots are located, and can, therefore, be harvested before the carrots need the space). Your rows should also be around 12″ apart in an allotment to allow for easier weeding
7) Only begin harvesting once absolutely sure the roots are a good size for their variety. (Excess foliage does not necessarily indicate large roots so be patient and doesn’t even begin to check for size until they have been in the ground about 12-14 weeks + depending on the variety).
If you really struggle to sow carrot seeds thinly (or other small seeds), then try mixing them with old tea leaves or sand, and sow the mixture as if it was all seeds to ensure more even spacing.
Alternatively purchase pre-sown seed tapes, (which the seeds are already attached to), and simply plant the tape itself.
The final idea, buy pelleted seed which is usually in bright colors and therefore much easier to sow thinly and see where you have already sown seeds.
This used to be considered a bit awkward to grow due to the need to grow it in trenches, but not so now. These days there are varieties such as “Loretta” that are self-blanching, and therefore only require to be started off in pots before being transplanted into blocks on a level allotment approximately 10″ apart to assist with the natural blanching process. The seeds are very small, however, so follow the method below for best results.
1) Fill either 3″ pots or seed trays with multipurpose compost and water thoroughly. Allow 20 minutes draining time.
2) Sow the celery seeds on the surface of the damp compost about an inch apart if you can manage it. Sprinkle a very light covering of compost over the top of the seeds.
3) Keep moist using a fine plant mister until the seedlings are visible, then keep watered until large enough to handle.
4) Transplant seedlings into individual 3″ pots and grow on (indoors or outdoors) until they are a couple of inches tall and have formed a good rootball.
5) Prepare your seedbed and ensure a nice fine tilth on the surface by raking thoroughly.
6) Transplant the seedlings 10″ apart in blocks to assist with the final blanching process.
Tip: The same method of sowing as for carrots can be used for celery if the seeds are too small for you to handle, (mixing with tea leaves, sand etc).
All small seeds can be sown more easily if you mix them with other substances such as tea leaves. You can also buy a “Seed Sower”, which consists of a container with various sized exit holes, and a chute to slide the seeds down by tapping gently until each seed exits from the bottom of the chute and on into your seed drill.
A final idea you may wish to try for such small seeds as carrots or celery is to get an empty washing up liquid bottle, remove the cap/nozzle, rinse it out very thoroughly until no trace of soap remains. Fill with water, (ideally rainwater) and tip your seeds into it.
Replace the cap/nozzle, agitate the bottle to mix the seeds throughout the water, and then carefully squirt the liquid along your seed drills, (whether in the ground or in compost trays), remembering to shake the bottle every couple of squirts or so to make sure the seeds stay evenly throughout the water. This method has the added advantage of also watering the drills).
Cover seeds as normal and grow on as above.
Sowing Very Small Dust like Seeds.
These seeds are the most difficult of all and include such varieties as Lobelia, Fuchsia, and Aloe Vera, etc (yes, I know these aren’t vegetables). I have a few suggestions for sowing these that have worked for me, and I recommend you give them a try.
1) Quarter fill a measuring jug with water and shake your dust-like seeds into the water, (or alternatively wash them out of the greaseproof paper they are packaged in by dipping it into the water a number of times.
2) Get an empty trigger spray plant mister and pour the water containing the seeds into it. Rinse out the jug several times with small amounts of freshwater and pour it into the trigger spray.
3) Screw the top back on to the trigger spray ensuring it is set to a mist rather than a jet.
4) Fill seed trays with compost and dampen with a separate water supply. Allow draining for 20 minutes.
5) Gently shake up your trigger spray and holding it a few inches from the compost surface spray the entire area, agitating the liquid again every few sprays to keep the seeds moving throughout the liquid. DO NOT COVER WITH COMPOST.
6) Cover the trays with either sheet of glass or with cling film and place in a light warm place out of direct sunlight.
7) Check trays daily ensuring you wipe the condensation from the inside of the glass, (change cling film once a week until germination). DO NOT ATTEMPT FURTHER WATERING, (as by covering with glass or cling film the surface of the compost should stay moist on it’s own). Trying to water the trays again simply endangers your seeds into possibly being washed away. If somehow air does get in, and the surface of your compost dries out, then use a fine mister only to dampen the surface again before replacing the glass.
8 ) Remove glass or cling film as soon as the seedlings are visible to avoid damping-off disease. Keep growing seedlings moist until large enough to transplant into individual pots and trays.