Time for a closer look at seed sowing pitfalls and solutions

Fiann Ó Nualláin explains how to get seed to germinate, looks at thinning and helping plants to thrive.

On one hand seed sowing is the easiest thing in the world— a case of just drop and add water —but on the other hand, just like with those cookbooks that say simply stir and simmer – it’s not always a guaranteed result.

So, as this is the month we begin our productive gardening in earnest, I thought it timely to look a little closer at getting that seed to successfully germinate and then on the 25th of this month come back and look at thinning and pricking-out and the next steps to getting abundance from your sown seeds over the next two weeks.

Now the purpose of a seed is to germinate and prosper into new growth; to essentially hatch and start a new plant — it is primed and programmed to that, all you have to do is set it on the right path — that’s as simple as putting it into contact with soil and some moisture (occasionally there is a temperature range to adhere to), and bang — the starter pistol fires.

Within days a dot of green will appear in your seed tray or upcycled yoghurt carton and then within a few more days that dot becomes an unfurling leaf, then two leaves, then three, then before you know it a whole plant is thriving.

For some, the experience is not that direct and there is only a sporadic germination of a couple of seeds here and there, or worse the beginnings of a strong germination and then sudden death of the seedlings. 

A lot of this can be avoided by reading the seed packet instructions as it is generally a cultivation error that stops the seed’s success — that’s usually seed planted too deep or too shallow, sown in the wrong place or wrong compost mix — the latter being one that is kept too soggy or parches the seedlings to extinction.

Peat is on the way out and new seed mixes are on the market all the time, the general rule is, if it’s too free-draining, then water it regularly, if it’s too water retentive and the seed doesn’t like that environment, then add sharp grit or other media to amend it. 

It doesn’t have to be nutritionally balanced the seed doesn’t need that yet — all they want is a place to root that supplies the right moisture and temp range as dictated on the packet.

The vast majority of seeds are started off indoors then transplanted out when hardened off a bit in a few weeks. 

Time for a closer look at seed sowing pitfalls and solutions

Bear in mind a windowsill is as good as a greenhouse for a small quantity of seed and an old window pane salvaged from a skip makes a handy lean-to (any glass frame leaned at angle against wall to mimic a mini greenhouse), that can start the hardening off process when you move seedlings into bigger pots to plant out when the climate improves. But some packets may say ‘best direct sown outside’.

‘Direct sown’ is a technical term, you may also see ‘in situ’ on some seed packets, it just means put the seed in direct contact with the soil exactly where you want the new plant to arise from —in the border/plot, in the garden, or directly into the container on the balcony or wall. 

Often failure occurs because the plant does not like the root disturbance and fuss of moving from seed tray to small pot to bigger pot to end site in the garden.

In a seed tray — when fresh uncontaminated compost is the growing medium — you will get what you sow, but in the garden with plenty of dormant weed seeds about, then the scuffing of the soil to sow direct brings them into play and weeds and food will germinate together.

It is not always easy to recognise the difference between a germinating weed and a germinating ornamental or edible seed that you have sown. To avoid any confusion I like to sow in a pattern; a straight line, an X or even a smiley face, anything to differentiate your wanted germinations from what needs to be weeded out.

You will then easily and effectively weed out what does come up outside the x or whatever pattern you or your children have chosen. If you have a nosey or nasty neighbour you can sow into drills made of U’s and F’s – but not necessarily in that order. See how fun gardening can be?

So apart from not reading the packet, sowing at the wrong time of year or sowing out-of-date seed, the biggest pitfall is a problem known as ‘damping off’— this is where your seeds germinated but wilt and die a few days later as a consequence of soil borne fungi. And yes it can be in the fresh compost you just opened this morning, but mostly it’s in the seed tray that you forgot to wash out before storing, or clean before putting to use.

Some people go as far as to utilize a baby’s bottle-sterilizing agent or disinfectant to wash equipment. Boiling water with some washing up suds will generally do the trick. It’s more about a clean tray than a bleached tray – by that I mean no bits of compost left adhering.

Stressed plants are more prone to fail, so avoid exposing sown seed trays and seedlings to high temperature, high humidity, excessive watering or prolonged saturation.

All those situations will not just stress the plant and lower its defences but excite the fungi into action too. The hygiene of the growing medium and sterilised seed trays will stack the odds in your favour.

Post sowing applications of copper-based fungicides are preventative measures for some of the big growers but I’m not a fan off adding copper to my food chain or to the soil, where it damages the earthworm population. I have a better solution that I will detail at the end of this piece.

There are some cultural techniques that are helpful. Notably sowing sparsely — I can default to slap dash on occasion, so I utilise modular trays to make my actions more deliberate. You can mix some horticultural sand with the sowing medium to improve drainage. Disease can find a route via garden sourced water, so securely lid any rainwater-butts or other catchment devices to prevent leaves and debris carrying fungi into that water supply — If you want belt and braces then sterilise the water you will water with — by boiling and cooling it first.

All that seems like such a stern undertaking and while you want success and efficiency, you also want gardening to be fun and free flowing — not all facemasks, white lab coats and latex cloves. So there is a simple solution.

A homemade solution -— chamomile tea – no, not to take and relax away your worries but to use as a natural plant tonic and anti-fungal infusion to sterilise trays and to water in seeds and seedlings for the first week. See this week’s tips for the recipe. Maybe the first seeds to sow this week are some chamomile.


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