The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!

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Simple tips

I have been planting in preparation for summer months- salads and herbs and flowers.  Many of my perennials have come up with lovely blooms.  And I have so far bought nothing.  I see my neighbour frantically going to the garden centre, come summer, buying plants and seeds.  The whole of the summer is then spent sowing, watering and weeding- never time to enjoy the garden. Last year with minimal effort, I even managed to win a gardening prize.  This year I am learning to be even more of canny gardener.  So here are some tips, I have learned recently.

1. Go to your local garden centre for free lessons, seeds, plants and tips- many local centres hold planting and sowing workshops this time of the year.  Subscribe to their emails and go to the sessions.  I picked up some lovely seeds, pots and compost- all for free.  Plus a sowing lesson on herbs and flowers- all nicely washed with a glass of presecco!

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Photo1: compost+vermiculite/charcoal mix after one week; Photo2: pure compost mix after three weeks; photo3: sowing workshop at local garden centre with prosecco

Here are some tips from the author and gardener, Laetitia Maklouf ( I have edited and shortened what she sent me.  See my own comments in brackets and in italics)

1. Seed-sowing: the basics.

  1. Compost
  2. Container
  3. Seeds
  4. Sowing
  5. Covering
  6. Watering

1. Compost

There are so many ways you can go with this, but the important thing to remember is that seeds need compost that is nutrient-poor. I use a half-half mix of peat-free multi-purpose compost and horticultural grit (or sharp sand). (see the difference in that compost makes- the seedlings in the photo planted on a mixture of vermiculite and compost came up more quickly than pure compost)

2. Containers

Unless you are running a flower farm, or sowing for an enormous garden, there is no need for anything except small pots. 7cm circular or square pots are fine.  Cleanliness is key – I wash my pots in warm soapy water with a dash of bleach before I use them. (I use a mixture of vinegar and soap and put it out on the rain to wash off- helps with killing some pests as well)

3. Seeds

Sow seeds that you like. Don’t stick to ‘easy’ things. Instructions on the back of the packet are generally good. Always read, but then feel free to bend the rules! Best to sow a little late than too early. I do most of my sowing beginning of April, as March is so unpredictable. Late sowing is simply ‘successional’ which means that although your plants won’t ever reach the giddy heights of those sown in the autumn, you’ll get fresh, new plants later in the season, when everybody else’s are going over – nice.

(also see the use by date on packets. I found that seeds that are past the use by dates either produced very slow and weak seedlings or nothing at all)

4. Sowing:

Make sure your compost is damp BEFORE sowing – this way you avoid the need to water afterwards and you won’t wash all your seeds out of their pot.

Make sure compost is nicely patted down (horti word for this is ‘tamping’)…do this either by firmly tapping the pot on the table, or using another pot to push down gently but firmly on the compost. Reason for this is that these little seeds have teeny tiny roots, and the roots need to get water AND air from the soil. If there are huge air pockets in the compost they wont get the moisture they need. Likewise, if the compost is too compressed, they won’t get the air….so it pays to make sure things are just right.

The general rule re depth of seed is to sow at roughly 2.5 times the height of the seed. Important not to be shy about burying your seed; if the seed is sown too close to the surface it won’t anchor itself properly and you’ll get floppy, leggy seedlings.

Some seed benefit from being soaked, to help them germinate more easily. These are generally ones with a very hard seed casing, like sweet peas.

Cover seeds with sieved compost (although not all of them need it- as a rule of thumb, the harder the casing, the more likely you need a cover)

5. Covering

Most seeds benefit from a humid microclimate – this aids transpiration. Warmth and humidity is key for most seeds. Light is usually not a requirement until later.

Use clear plastic bag (so you can see what’s happening), with an elastic band, or you can buy a cloche to go over your tray (propagator). Some people use a pane of glass. (i have used a plastic cover but inside the room, I found one does not really need it)

The important bit!

AS SOON AS THAT SEEDLING SHOWS ITSELF PROUD OF THE COMPOST, REMOVE THE BAG. You want fresh, healthy air circulating around the little plant, otherwise it will grow long and leggy and floppy and unhealthy.

Open a window nearby, and after a couple of days, put the seedlings outside in the daytime (though not in full sun). For three days, bring them in at night, and on the fourth day, leave them outside overnight. This is called ‘hardening off’. (I have hardened them in the full sun- they seem to love it although I bring the plants inside after awhile)

6. Remember to water. It’s essential.

Water from the bottom (i.e. into the tray) or with the fine rose of a watering can, GENTLY. Compost should be moist but not wet. (you can make up a cheap watering can by punching some holes in a plastic milk bottle cap and then putting it on the bottle and watering with it)

DO NOT RELY ON RAIN, PLEASE. (I do really on rain, especially when I am away but yes, on hot summer days, just like you’d drink water, you’d give your plants enough water too)