All the flowers, of all the tomorrows, are in the seeds of today.Unknown
Seed raising is exciting stuff. Leave the adrenaline junkies to jumping out of planes and driving fast cars, and let the real brave adventurers loose with a packet of heirloom seeds and a belly-full of blazing optimism.
Because seed raising is risking crushing disappointment and contrasting it with the possibilities of a thrilling, bountiful harvest.
But just about everything else I cultivate as seedlings in my greenhouse to be transplanted into the “big garden”.
Timing and Temperature
I was hoping to be raising my autumn/winter seedlings by now, but it has simply been too hot and dry. We experienced a very hot March, with temperatures that peaked at 35 degrees Celsius!
Warm easterly winds strip moisture from the air, and I was watering my well-established greenhouse and garden plants almost every day to keep them alive and still saw a bit of wilting on particularly hot, windy days.
I don’t start sowing seeds until the temperature drops to an ideal 25 degrees Celsius in the greenhouse. Any warmer, I get issues with damping off, where seedlings wither and die just at the surface of of the soil.
Damping off can be caused by pathogens in the soil and by excessive humidity. In the heat, I tend to overwater, making the problem worse! Or, I don’t water enough, and the seeds dry out.
Starting seeds too early can be incredibly frustrating, as often the results are disappointing and I end up starting all over again with new seeds. I have with experience, learned to temper my impatience and have had much better results with my seedlings since.
The good news is, while I wait for the temperature to cool, I have organised everything I need to get started!
I cultivate my seedlings in my greenhouse. It is located at the back of my house, the most protected spot in my entire garden. It is sheltered from the wind and the worst of the heat. It gets the morning sun, filtered through shade cloth.
Do you have a similar spot in your garden? Find a spot that is protected from the worst of your climate elements that gets at least half a day’s worth of direct sunlight and warmth.
The Best Seed Raising Mix
A few years ago, after many trials, I discovered the best ever seed raising mix! Just two ingredients (coir fibre and vermiculite) blended together are all that’s needed to create a light, water retaining mix that allows a seeds roots to easily grow through.
A seed contains all the nutrients it needs to germinate so you don’t need to add compost or manure to your mix. In fact, such additives can do more than harm than good, introducing soil pathogens that can sabotage your seedling’s growth, such as damping off fungus, and even unwanted seeds.
I don’t plant commercial hybrid seeds anymore. I like to collect seeds, and
Hybrid seeds mean any seed I collect will not be true to type, (the child will not resemble the parent plant) so I miss that wonderful second harvest.
The best seeds you will ever possess are the ones collected from your own best-producing plants from the season before! Seeds that have adapted to your climate, seeds that thrive in your particular soil. Fresh seeds, with the best chance of high germination rates.
If you haven’t already, subscribe to A Farm of Your Home below and receive a free seed label template for you to print and start your own seed bank.
The next best bet is heirloom seeds, sourced from as close your home as possible. These may be collected from friends and family, people who can vouch for the viability of the parent plants.
It is worth visiting your local farmers market as a source for seeds! I collected viable seeds from local market purchased spaghetti-squash, tamarillos, tomatoes and chillis.
When those options are exhausted, investigate your local seed businesses. I like Yilgarn Seeds as they are cultivated in a warm climate and while hundreds of kilometres away, still relativly local to me.
But do not despair if you have some old or “expired” seeds. I think these seeds are still worth a change, but be prepared for germination rates to be much lower.
I pre-soak just about all my seeds before planting, but especially peas and beans. It gives you a great head start to the germination process.
The smaller soaked seeds are also easier to plant into the potting mix. Small seeds can be tricky! They can blow away from the pack as I’m trying to plant, or I have accidentally planted too many in a seed cell while trying to gently shake one or two seeds into the cell!
Plus, I know that any seeds that are still floating atop the glass while the others have sunk to the bottom are likely to be unviable.
Special Needs Seeds
Some seeds have some special love and you may need a little more than a soak before planting.
Caper seeds like to be properly chilled in the fridge before planting in the spring. Carob seeds need to be scarified, the outer seed casing scratched a little with some sandpaper. Other seeds need to be soaked in hot water to prompt germination.
Special needs seeds often have their instructions on the packet, but it is worth doing a Google check before planting to discover any secret tips!
Choose Your Container
I love my paper seed pot and my homemade jiffy pots because I can plant my seedlings directly into the soil without pinching or disturbing the roots.
But, they are only really good for the seedlings that are ready to be planted out within a month of germination. Any longer than that, the paper pots start to disintegrate.
I have a stash of larger plastic pots that I have kept from plants I have purchased over the years.
If you recycle your plastic or ceramic pots each year, be sure to give them a good clean. Some horticulturalists recommend a bleach solution to remove contaminants, but in a household setting, soapy water and a good scrub followed by a drying out in full sun will usually suffice.
How to Plant Your Seed
Finally, we are ready to introduce seed to dirt and pot!
Ok, this seems obvious, right? Poke a hole in the soil, drop the seed in and put more soil on top. Finito!
Well, it is possible to plant a seed too deep so it never makes its way from the soil to the surface. Seeds planted too close to the surface may dry out too fast, become easily dislodged and again, not germinate.
So how deep should you plant your seed?
The answer is in the size of the seed itself. Seeds should be planted at two times the depth, width or girth of the seed itself. So if your seed is big, like a broad bean, plant it 2-3 cm deep.
Small seeds like carrots and mustard seeds need to be placed on the soil surface and sprinkled with a small amount of seed raising mix to cover.
I would estimate that planting seeds too deep would be one of the main reasons why seed planting efforts fail!
If I have small seeds like parsley, I’ll plant two to three seeds in each container essentially to improve the odds of one seed germinating in the pot! If they all germinate, just pinch out the weaker seedlings at the two-leaf stage and let the strongest seedling thrive.
Watering Your Seeds
I don’t like to water my seeds from above with the garden hose. Smaller seeds can get dislodged in their pots. These are baby plants! You need to be gentle.
I keep my seedlings in kitty litter or foil trays that have no drainage, so the seeds are watered via the capillary action of the water rising through the soil. I do keep a very close eye on them and there is a fine line between watering and overwatering!
Seedlings can be ready to plant once they get their second set of leaves. But it would be a mistake to take them from the nursery and plonk them straight into their new spot without a little training.
Take your tray of freshly watered, second leaf stage seedlings and place them in a spot that gets a little more sun and weather than the greenhouse and leave them there for a few hours in the morning or afternoon. The peak heat of the day has killed my seedlings before, so err on the side of caution!
I return my seedlings to the green house every evening. Depending on the weather, about a week after hardening off, the seedlings will be ready to be planted in the garden bed.
When planting into their permanent home, I always dig in a good trowel-full of compost or worm casings to provide nutrients for the growing plant.
If I expect a plant will require trellising or staking, I do it at the time of planting, or ideally beforehand. You don’t want to be stabbing stakes and supports through the roots of a fledgeling plant!
With a few guide lines, raising your own plants from seed will save you money, and will widen your planting outside the range of what is available at the seedling section of the nursery!
Do have any particular tips you would like to share when it comes to sowing seeds? If you have any tried-and-true ways to grow, I would love to hear from you, please leave a comment below.