The past few weeks have been very strange weather for the time of year – incredibly warm and sunny. My garden is very sheltered thanks to two hawthorn hedges and a laurel hedge, so when the sun shines and the wind isn’t too fierce, it’s very, very pleasant.
I’ve always grown a few vegetables, mainly runner beans, but there has never been time to do as much as I’d like. This year will be different since I’ve loads of time and a reduced income means that growing our own food will be a serious help to our finances.
Compared with modern gardens, we have a lot of space with 100 feet to play with, but most of it is down to lawn and I’m a little apprehensive of biting off more than I can dig if I extend our growing space by a large amount. I’ve extended our bottom bed by two feet and reclaimed a border for more veg growing which has historically been neglected, so there is probably over one third of the garden which is dedicated to growing food. Once the last frosts have disappeared our patio area will be covered in tomatoes, salad leaves and other seedlings waiting to be planted out in either the garden or Sanctuary beds.
I’ve also been designating different herbs to different areas. New lemon balm plants have been relegated to shady areas because I know it will grow wherever I put it. Dandelions weeded from other parts of the garden have also been given their own patch near the sorrel in the hope I can go to one place for my salad greens rather than hunting over the entire garden. Two huge patches of golden rod have also been relegated from the sunniest bed to underneath the hawthorn trees because they were shading the roses and I have lots of other golden rod at the sanctuary.
Weeding is a strange activity when you value plants you used to know as weeds. I feel incredibly guilty putting self-heal and nettles onto the compost heap and find myself wondering if I shouldn’t give them their own bed as well. I have resisted so far, because I know there will be hundreds of other plants of the same species who will appear in other beds where they will be welcomed. I don’t have the same anxiety when it comes to red dock and creeping buttercup, since I can’t use either of them except as nitrogen rich additions to my compost!
There is always a dilemma between allowing plants to grow where they will compared with regimenting them into clearly defined spaces. I tend to yo-yo between the two methods. I will let plants wander around the garden for several years until I realise they aren’t an effective use of soil whereupon they are placed somewhere else or reduced to the odd space where they can flower but be somewhat controlled. Mint and sweet woodruff are being managed this year as I need their positions for other plants I have more use for.
Feeling the sun’s warmth on my skin yesterday made me dare to start my spring planting. I don’t have a greenhouse and historically my seed sowing has been non-existent as I left it all to my mother, but as she is not able to do this anymore, it’s now all down to me.
Last March we had a wonderful Mercian Herb Group meeting led by Louise Twigger, Sam Green and Carrie Pailthorpe, all current or former employees at Garden Organic in Coventry. They went through the basics of seed sowing and we all had a chance to plant something. The basil I sowed that night germinated and grew into strong, aromatic plants. I’d not used basil very much before and I really appreciated the opportunity to add it to my repertoire of culinary herbs.
This success gave me the confidence to try other herbs and vegetables from seed. Soon my little seedhouse was awash with seedlings of holy basil, tomatoes, butternut squash, Himalayan pokeroot, sweet clover, ashwagandha and hyssop. Over thirty tomato plants filled the patio and I lost count of how many runner beans and French beans I grew in pots and then planted out. I gave away over forty runner bean plants.
We really enjoyed eating our own salad leaves, radishes and tomatoes and I’m hoping to repeat their success this year. I’m also planning to grow some dried beans which will save me having to buy quite so many pulses at the supermarket for my Nepalese bean soup. I’ve already planted two rows of broad beans in my new border and there are seed trays planted with cabbage, lettuce, carrots, celery, basil and meadowsweet sitting on my summerhouse table in the hope they will germinate soon.
I expect most of you reading this post will already been expert seed planters, but for anyone who is new to the idea of growing your own plants, here are a few tips.
The first task is to prepare the seed trays. Remember they should be sterilised before you use them, so that any lingering bugs from last year's plantings can be destroyed. If you are using plastic trays, this can be achieved with a good wash and scrub, but if you are using wooden trays, you can sterilise them by heating in the bottom of the oven at 160-180 degrees F for about half an hour. Don't worry if the smell while they're cooking is terrible!
Once they're cooled, fill your containers with sterile potting mix, making sure that this doesn't contain irreplaceable peat. There are good alternatives on the market now, so that fewer peat bogs have to be destroyed. Make sure that all the potting mix is broken up into minute particles. This can be achieved by sieving it through a 1/4 " wire sieve.
If you decide to use garden soil and compost for your potting mix, again make sure that the soil is sterilised by baking it in the oven at the same temperatures as before for about 2 hours.
Plant your seeds according to the instructions on the packet and cover them over lightly with soil. If you are planting seeds on the surface of the soil, water the soil before you plant them, otherwise they will float off the soil if you water them afterwards. Cover them with a lid or a clear plastic bag to help keep in the heat and prevent too much evaporation. Some gardeners recommend using a thin layer of perlite on top of the seedling to ensure they don’t become waterlogged.
Some seeds will germinate faster if you soak them before you plant them. Parsley seeds are notoriously hard to germinate and actually need soaking in hot water!
Make sure that your seed trays are sufficiently warm (70-75 degrees F) and are situated in a place that will get light and heat all day. You may have to turn the trays or pots around so that they all get an even spread of light. Some people buy fluorescent growlights if they don’t have enough sunlight, but I don't have any experience of this. You may want to place your seed trays in heated propagators, which plug into the electric, to give the seeds a head start.
Seeds may have different kinds of coats which mean that they require extra preparation before planting.
This needs to be done when seeds have very thick coats. You can either nick or sandpaper the seeds to allow water to penetrate or pour near boiling water on them or soak them.
Seeds which need stratifying are usually those which lie dormant in the ground over the winter. They need to be exposed to a cold, moist environment before planting. Seeds can be tricked into thinking that they have gone through the winter by keeping them in a plastic bag in sand in the fridge for 2-3 weeks. Open the bag, two to three times to allow contact with the air.
Wild flower seeds often need stratifying in some way, but the easiest method to start the seeds off is to plant them either in the Autumn or at least by February and leave the seed tray outside for the rain and frost and snow to provide the right kind of environment for you. Remember to keep the seed tray well watered if you are trying to germinate seeds from water-loving plants e.g . Meadowsweet.
Examples of seeds which need acidification are tomatoes and kiwi fruit. They can be washed in a "grease-busting washing up liquid” or soaking in water with a squeeze of lemon juice in it.
What are you hoping to grow this year and what are your favourite tips for planting seeds?