Nourish plants from tiny seedlings to kitchen table

In theory, all vegetables can be sown directly in the ground where they are to grow, but generally us gardeners tend to sow as many seeds as possible indoors to get them established in a protected environment before we leave them fend for themselves in the great outdoors.

As a rule of thumb, fast growing hardy seeds such as peas and beans, root crops such as carrots and parsnips and brassicas such as swedes and turnips are direct sown into the ground as their roots do not respond well to disturbance. All other seeds should do much better if you germinate them in a controlled environment well away from sly hungry slugs and wicked weeds.

This will be particularly pertinent if you are growing in an allotment or community garden away from the house. Starting plants off in one spot and then moving them to another also saves space-wasting in your prized plot as while seeds are starting in a separate propagation area, the space earmarked for their final position can be used for quick growing crops while plants are in their early stages.

Vegetable seeds come in a myriad of shapes and sizes but all share one thing in common — they are in a state of dormancy and it is your job to unlock them. As a clever design feature, Mother Nature has programmed germination into the genes of a seed to prevent them from awakening in conditions such as extreme cold or summer drought, which are both detrimental to the survival of the plant in its tender seedling stage. For seeds to germinate and grow, four factors are important: temperature, water, air and light with temperature probably the most important.

Unless you have a polytunnel for growing on, it is still a bit early for sowing seeds of vegetables you plan to grow outside. If you do have a polytunnel, you could be sowing salad, beetroot, scallions and onion seeds right now but these will need some heat to help them germinate. Seed packets generally give the temperatures needed for germination so always read the pack before you sow. Successful germination is easier if you have a constant temperature which is above 15 degrees.

Seeds can be germinated on a warm windowsill, in a hot press or in a heated conservatory. Take care if you opt for the hot press option as often out of sight means out of mind and even though seeds do not generally need light to strike, as soon as they sprout they will seek it. If left in the dark for too long, seedlings become leggy and plants will be weakened at an early stage.

To achieve a more even distribution of heat at the base, you might think of upping your game and buying a heated propagator which is simply a special unit designed to supply a gentle heat to the bottom of seed trays to raise soil temperature. These can be bought or homemade and typically consist of a box with a heating cable or pad in the base and a thermostat to maintain a consistent temperature. Pots and trays sit in the box and are usually covered with a lid or top to help increase humidity.

If you are lucky enough to have a polytunnel or greenhouse, this is a great place for starting plants and setting up a propagator. Otherwise, if you are short of space, a windowsill propagator could be the best option. These come in a range of sizes and prices so check your local garden centre for information. It pays to invest in a durable propagator set-up that can be reused year after year.

The mail order company Fruit Hill Farm in Bantry ( www.fruithillfarm.com) sell a range of sturdy heating mats and cables and their products and website give lots of information on how to get your heated bed up and running.

For many people who are starting to grow their own food, starting plants off from seed can be daunting. However with a little helping heat and patience it becomes easier and it is exciting to know that you have nourished the plant from its beginning as a tiny seedling to the kitchen table.


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