This morning sunshine means that once I get my ‘weekend catch-up’ chores out of the way (no breakfast in bed at our house!) I’ll be rushing outside to plant a few seeds and kick-start my growing season.
It is possible to start sowing earlier in the year – and I did. I sowed a few pots of hardy brassicas and herbs about three weeks ago and left them in the greenhouse to germinate. But apart from the Brussels sprouts, they’ve put on a poor show so far. Though their days are sunny and sheltered (well, warm and sheltered, ‘sunny’ may be a little bit of an exaggeration), the cold nights have clearly put off any thoughts of germination.
My daughters, aged 22 and 8, have little time for my obsession with turning over the whole garden to veggies – however ornamental my edibles. So they sowed a slew of flower seeds about 10 days ago – every last tray of which has germinated. These seed trays have been carefully tended – germinated indoors and then, as soon as a bit of green starts to show its head, taken to the greenhouse during the day and back inside for a bit of overnight warmth. Lots of light during the day stops them going leggy – all stem and no leaf – while making sure they don’t get cold stops them getting ‘checked’ and slowing down their growth.
They’re loving all the attention they’re getting. Even so, this TLC alone would not explain the extraordinary germination rate of what are some fairly tender annuals. I suspect we have a secret ingredient and I have a pretty good idea it comes in the form of our two Abyssinian Guinea Pigs – Mungo and Gloucester. Being a bit short of space, we put all those trays of flower seeds on top of their very big cage, and I have a feeling our pet rodents have been providing just the right amount of bottom heat (Nowhere near as rude as it sounds, bottom heat is simply the technique of applying heat under the soil to encourage rooting and seed germination without encouraging too much growth above ground.) to get the seeds started. I’ll be testing this theory with my tardy pots of chervil, parsley and dill over the next few days.
It’s good to get a head start on sowing fruit and veg seeds if you can – our Scottish growing season is pitifully short and we need to make the most of every scrap of sunshine we get. So the traditional way is to help seeds germinate with a bit of bottom heat – often on an electrically heated tray. But if part of your raison-d’etre for growing your own veg is to save money and the planet, then using electricity is a bit of a financial and planetary own goal.
If you don’t have a few pet animals to help things along, there are other ways to generate ‘bottom heat’. Piles of fresh organic material tend to generate heat as they start to break down. In 17
th Century England, they used to grow pineapples using ‘hot beds’ of horse manure with a layer of soil over the top. You can create your own hot bed using woodchips, grass cuttings or other freshly cut greenery. That monstrous pile of woodchips we had a couple of weeks ago was positively smouldering and transforming itself into a pile of wood ash after a few days. Thankfully it’s now spread out and I no longer have to get anxious if the prevailing wind changes direction.
There is another way though, and that’s to delay your seed sowing until it all gets a good bit warmer. My plants have always grown best when they can just romp away – so there are never
any checks to their growing. No seed trays that are just a tangled mess of roots; no forgotten plants with roots spiralling round and round their pot; no tomato plants newly planted out in the greenhouse stunted by a late and unexpectedly penetrating frost. Just space and light and warmth and the right amount of water and they do fine.
There are plants such as sweet peas and broad beans that you’re supposed to overwinter – sow in autumn to get an early start the following spring. But if I’m completely honest, I’ve never noticed that it makes a pod of difference to the final crop. Our best ever harvest was all sown as late as April 24 (I remember because I was heavily pregnant at the time and had to be winched over the potting table to get to the seed trays).
really important thing is to know the timeframe in which your seeds need to be sown – and it’s months, not weeks, so don’t panic! Remembering can be a bit of a hassle – especially if you overdosed on the seed order. But this great tip (see photo) from The Backyard Diva – pegging your seed packets onto the ribbons for the months when they need to be planted - is one idea I’ll definitely be trying this year. No more seed packets discovered too late at the bottom of my seed box!
So, if you have the means of plying your seeds with fossil-fuel-free TLC now, by all means get sowing. But don’t worry if you can’t sow just yet – there’s plenty of time to catch up.
Have a good week’s gardening!
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