AG gardening editor Ruth Hayes shows you how to sow successfully

I was talking to a friend the other day about sowing seeds. “So,” he said, “you just sow the seeds, forget about them then plant them out when they’ve germinated? Simple!”

He looked fairly startled by my yelped ‘NO!’

This conversation has been playing on my mind because I expect a lot of people will be sowing seeds this weekend. We want to help you get the best results from them whether they are edible or ornamental, because seed sowing is great fun and very satisfying, but it isn’t as simple as you think.

So, at the risk of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, let’s start with the basics. Cleanliness really does come before godliness when it comes to sowing, even at Easter.

Test that older seeds are still viable before sowing

Seed and seedlings are small and vulnerable and it doesn’t take many pets or fungal microbes to knock them flying so always start with clean kit.

Pot and trays should be new or washed, compost should be fresh and you should use tap water rather than anything from a water butt. Ideally use seed compost as it has just the right amount of goodness for baby roots.

Now, the seeds themselves. Any bought in the last year will be fine, but what about those ones you’ve discovered at the back of a drawer?

Seed viability varies from variety to variety so to be sure some will germinate, sprinkle a few on a damp piece of kitchen paper and leave it somewhere light and warm, out of direct sunlight, for a couple of days.

If the sees sprout in that time, they are good to use, if not, chuck ‘em. With larger seeds such as sweet peas you can try the sink/float test in a bowl of water. If they sink they are sound but those that float need discarding.

Mix tiny seeds with sand for easier sowing

When I’m sowing seeds I either use a standard rectangular seed tray or a 4in (10cm) plant pot.  Whatever container you use, fill it almost to the top with fresh seed compost, tamp it flat and dampen the compost with fresh water.

Tamping not only gives the seeds a stable surface to rest upon, it makes sure as much of their surface as possible is resting on the compost and it removes any cracks they might be in danger of falling down.

Sow seeds as thinly as possible so the seedlings have optimum space to grow. This is simple with larger seeds that are easy to handle, but more tricky with smaller varieties, such as petunia seeds that are fine as dust.

There are several options you can take. Either mix the small seeds with a little horticultural sand in the palm of your hand and sprinkle them together for more even coverage.

If using a plant pot for seeds, seal it in a clear plastic bag to create a healthy termination environment

Alternatively, dampen a fingertip of the wooden end of a matchstick, use it to pick up a few seeds then tap or carefully flick them onto the compost.

Then cover the seeds with a thin layer of more compost or vermiculite, mineral grains that provide seeds with excellent light, water and air. You are often recommended leaving minute seeds uncovered – check seed packet instructions.

Then add a label and a lid (I seal pots in plastic bags) and place somewhere warm and light. Check daily that the compost is staying moist and either spray with fresh water or stand in a bowl of water.

Remove any covering when the seeds have germinated

Once the seeds germinate – be patient, it may take up to 3-4 weeks – remove the lid or plastic bag to let air get to the plants and reduce the risk of fungal diseases such as damping off, which can lay low a tray of seedlings overnight.

Then grow on until they are large enough to transplant or ‘prick out’ into individual pots – we will cover this in a later blog post.

  • Don’t forget to check the blog tomorrow when letters editor Wendy shows you how to sow hardy annuals straight into the soil.


We are here for you

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Here at AG we are doing our best to keep connected to our readers though the magazine, this website and also through social media.

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