Sunday, 12 March 2017

How to get things to grow #1: How we sow

The allotment chat on this blog functions pretty much as a diary of what we've grown, rather than how we've grown it. However, we've been doing this for a bunch of years now, and have over that time accumulated enough frustration and fortune to learn a few lessons in growing veg which I thought might be useful to share. I'm not claiming any pro-level knowledge here, but, particularly if you're just considering growing a few things for the first time I reckon I've got a few easy tips that might ease your path and hopefully avoid the type of early-career horticultural disaster that might put you off before you've properly gotten started. All of this is stuff we've learned from running a couple of decent sized allotments, but the principles apply even if you're just wanting to sow a few pots of herbs.

The weather was amazing today and we're just moving into the part of the year where more and more vegetable seeds are candidates for sowing. It seems sensible to begin at the beginning: here are some tips and pointers about how to sow your seeds!

1) Get organised!

Mise en place
Like cooking, or, for that matter, any other activity that involves bringing together a bunch of different stuff together to get something done, it'll all go off way easier if you get everything together in advance. Ever thrown a bunch of ingredients in a pan, checked the recipe and then realised you need a finely chopped onion? Annoying right? Same with sowing seed. You're going to need, at a minimum: a table of some sort, some compost or other growing medium, some seeds, some water, some labels and some kind of pot or container into which to sow your seeds. Get yo shit together in one place before you start, it'll make it quicker, easier and, weirdly, more enjoyable. And talking of pots and containers...

2) Sow in seed modules
When we first started on our first allotment, we spent god knows how many back-breaking hours clearing weeds and then trying to turn the claggy soil into something that we might be able to sow directly into. The thing is, the soil just wasn't suited to it, being too claggy and full of clay. Net result: nothing germinated and we got pissed off and downheartened. Nowadays we almost never - nasturtiums and radishes being a couple of exceptions, as they'll germinate just about anywhere - sow seed directly into the soil, using seed modules instead to start things off. These genius inventions have a number of advantages. One, you can keep them indoors where you're likely to see them, meaning you shouldn't forget to water them, and you'll know as soon as they germinate. Two, they're small enough to fit on windowsills, meaning they're likely to get decent heat to get germination started. Three, you can use whatever growing medium you want, in relatively small quantities to get the job done.

However, perhaps the biggest bonus is that you if things don't germinate for whatever reason you haven't wasted that much time. You don't need to re-dig over a whole patch on your allotment or in your border which has gone rock hard and crusty since sow sowed it, you just ditch the compost in your module, give it a rinse out, try to figure out what went wrong and try again. Similarly, when you sow direct you usually end up with "blank" patches where some of your seed didn't germinate. By sowing into modules, you maximise space in your vegetable's final destination as however many plants you have germinate is the number you get to transplant into pleasingly neat and complete rows. You can get seed module trays in a bunch of places, but Wilkos are about as cheap as anywhere. You'll need the module trays themselves, the gravel trays they sit in, and, depending on what you're germinating, some clear plastic lids. For just a few quid, bosh!: you've got a bunch of mini-greenhouses that will sit on your window sill and give your seeds a good chance of getting off to a flying start.

In most cases (although do see point 5 below) you just need to fill the modules a little over 3/4 full with compost, pop your seeds in, put more compost in to fill to the top, give them a water and you're done.

3) Avoid crap compost like the plague
Compost, whether it's the good stuff or completely useless, is relatively cheap. Unless you've got nothing else to do, your time is not. Buying cheap, bad compost is drastically false economy. For sowing seeds you should certainly avoid anything calling itself multi-purpose compost, and probably avoid anything you're likely to get in a supermarket or other non-specialist vendor. You need compost that is fine enough for the seed to be in contact with it as this, plus moisture, plus correct temperature, is what's going to get germination started. A proper garden centre (NB, this does not mean Homebase) will be able to advise.

We get Humax original compost from Wylam Nurseries as it's relatively inexpensive, nice and fine, retains moisture really well and works great for sowing as well as a more general compost. If you're nowhere near a good garden centre, just make sure whatever you get specifically says it is for sowing. Decent compost is one of the easiest ways to increase germination rates and avoid the kind of disappointment that will put you off veg growing for good.

4) Double up your sowing

Double-sown chard seeds
Seeds are inexpensive and thus highly expendable. We've already established that you're a modern go-getting type with a lot on your plate, and that therefore your time is not. Some seeds just don't germinate, for no apparent reason at all. To avoid your seed module tray being half full of lifeless blanks, just sow two, or twice what you were thinking of sowing, in each module. If only one germinates, fine. If both do, then you'll have to be brutal about it and murder whichever seedling looks runtier or less trustworthy. The end result is the same- a whole tray of healthy seedlings to plant on wherever they're going.

5) Read the back of the packet!
Seems pretty obvious, but still worth saying. The back of seed packets are an amazing source of info to the beginning veg-grower. If it says you should sow indoors in May, there is a reason for this, and doing so in March is only likely to result in a waste of time, compost and seeds. If it says you should sow them an inch deep, rather than half a centimetre, you should probably do so. The one thing I regularly ignore is when the packet insists that the seed should be sown directly into the ground- see point 2.

6) Label your stuff clearly

And do it as you go, don't wait til the end of your sowing session. You might be able to tell the difference between seeds just by looking at them, but once they're all covered in compost they look remarkably similar! Write what they are and the date you planted them so you can keep an eye on how long it is since they were sown and make a decision on whether they're worth waiting on in the case that they don't germinate.

7) Think about what you're sowing
Sure, that packet might have 200 cauliflower seeds in, but do you have space for even a quarter that many plants? One of the miracles of nature is that seeds are really small and hardly take up any space, whereas the plants they turn into can be bloody massive. Don't sow way more of any one thing than you need, or have space for in your veg plot. You want variety, not a field of one thing; you're not a farmer. At least I assume you're not, as I can't imagine why you'd be reading this. Bugger off, farmers, you're not welcome!

If the use-by on the packet is this year, ask if anyone at work or wherever would like them. You might find some keen gardeners among your colleagues who can sort you out with their own wisdom, that would be good eh? If you don't have a job, give them to other people you meet. Probably best to give them to people you already know mind, or you might get a reputation you don't especially want.

So, today I sowed three trays of seeds. It took about half an hour and we now have chard, celery, broccoli, beetroot and cabbage seeds happily perched on windowsills and ready to erupt into life. Exciting, right? Hopefully some of these nuggets of ill-gotten wisdom will be of use to you as you enter the foothills of your own growing adventure. It's worth saying that neither Kasia nor myself have any real horticultural training behind us, so anything I've said here is based on what we've found to work through trial and error.

If you think we're bang wrong about anything, let me know in the comments. I'll try and find the time to keep this series going. Next stop- what to do when your seeds germinate.

In the meantime, happy sowing!


  1. Hi. The very cheapest multipurpose compost you can buy will be just fine for seed sowing. Sieve it first (Wilko sells a metal 6 mm grid riddle for around a fiver), mix it at 4:1 or so with sharp sand in a trug or big bucket and you've a perfectly good free-draining seed compost. Throw a handful of growmore into the mix if you expect the seedlings to stay in the modules for more than month.

    1. Hi DM. Yeah, you could do that, but, other than masochism, I'd wonder why you would! We pay something like six quid for sixty litres of first-rate potting compost. I certainly wouldn't advise someone starting out to start sieving through bags of compost, they'll get bored pretty quick.

  2. Sounds like good advice. I do wonder why seed packets of certain types of seeds have to hold so many seeds. Fewer seeds in cheaper packets would be good. We often share a packet of seeds with a friend.

  3. All extremely good points for sowing...many of which I endeavour to follow on a yearly basis and then often fail at. I might be more likely to follow this good advice if I actually got around to sowing some seeds!!


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