Sowing Vegetable Seeds Outdoors
Browsing through a colourful seed catalogue is one of the most satisfying pastimes for a gardener on a dull winter’s day. It is also an essential job, because the choice of varieties to suit a particular garden and cropping plan will affect yields during the coming season.
Keep your cropping plan beside you when filling in the order form or making a list to take to a garden shop. You can then estimate the amounts you need and tick off each row as you order. This will also help you to avoid mistakes, such as ordering autumn-sown cabbages when your cropping plan calls for summer cabbages.
Quantities and varieties
In many cases, a packet of seeds is sufficient for a row 30 ft (9 m) long. However, this is only a rough estimate, since the amount of seeds in a packet varies and one gardener may sow with a heavier hand than another.
Often, a packet of a new variety contains fewer seeds than an established favourite. Even so, it will probably provide more plants than you need.
Choosing the varieties best suited to the soil and weather in your area is, to some extent, a matter of experience. Neighbours and local gardening clubs can suggest varieties that have proved reliable, though you may eventually find others that you think are of better quality.
Keep to the well-established varieties for the bulk of each crop, but every year try out a few that are different. In a small garden, try growing half a row of one variety and half a row of another, to compare results.
By all means experiment with varieties that are new on the market, but note that these seeds are generally dearer. So also are Fl hybrids, which are a cross of two distinct parent strains and produce plants of exceptional vigour — the ‘F’ standing for ‘filial’, and the ‘1’ for first cross.
Seeds sold in this form resemble small, grey ball-bearings. Each pellet, made of clay, contains one seed, so it is easy to place them evenly when sowing. Subsequently, thinning is easier.
Pelleted seeds are particularly worth-while for crops such as carrots and lettuces which are tedious to thin. For good results, the soil must contain the right amount of moisture. This is not always easy to control.
In only a few cases is it advisable to save seeds from your own crops. Even where they can be saved, you should consider whether the ground could not be used more profitably by immediately sowing or planting another type of vegetable to fit in with your cropping plan.
Most small seeds are not worth harvesting. Do not, for example, save seeds of the cabbage family, because cross-fertilisation takes place readily between these and other brassicas and may result in plants that are worthless.
Do not save seeds from F1 hybrids as they do not reproduce truly. True-to-type seeds can be obtained only from a crossing of the original parent varieties.
Peas and beans are the crops from which the gardener is most likely to be successful in taking his own seeds. If the space is not needed for another crop, pods may be left to ripen on the vine and the seeds shelled when dry.
Onions and leeks are worth saving, too — especially if you have a strain particularly suited to your area.
Spread out the seeds in a dry, airy place for a week beforein envelopes. Write the name of each variety on the envelope.
Keep even small seeds, provided they are well-ripened, since they carry the genetic make-up of the parent plants and will still produce a normal crop.
But do not save seeds from a crop with a large proportion of small or deformed pods, since this may indicate that the strain has deteriorated.
Sowing where plants are to grow
To germinate, a seed needs moisture, warmth and air. Therefore the soil must be damp, not too cold, and the seed must not be buried too deeply.
In spring, sow on land that has been dug in autumn or winter and manured or dressed with fertiliser, if necessary, to suit the crop to be grown.
Sow when the soil is dry enough to be walked on without it sticking to your boots. This is the best test for judging the time to sow.
Do not follow the calendar slavishly if conditions are unseasonably cold or wet. Plants sown a week or two later than the time suggested on the seed packet will still catch up.
If the ground is only slightly sticky, fork over the top 2in (50 mm) so that the surface dries more quickly. When it is dry enough, firm the ground by treading, then rake to a fine, crumbly tilth.
To make a straight drill (furrow) for sowing the seeds, use a garden line if you have one, or push in pegs at each end of the row and tie string tightly between them. Straight rows make the most of available space and are easier to thin and hoe than rows sown haphazardly.
Take out the drill along the line with a draw hoe. Use a corner of the blade to make a narrow, V-shaped drill for small seeds, such as carrots and spinach, and the full width of the blade to make a wide, flat drill for peas and beans.
In both cases form the drill with a succession of smooth, separate motions rather than pulling the hoe along without a break. Make the drills 1/4 – 1/2in (5-12 mm) deep for the smallest seeds, such as carrots, turnips and lettuces; 1/2 – 1in. (12-25 mm) deep for slightly larger seeds, such as spinach and beetroot; and about 2in (50 mm) deep for the largest seeds, such as peas and beans.
In each case, the shallower depths apply to spring sowings when the soil is warmer near the surface, and the deeper drills to the summer when seeds need to be in damp ground below the surface.
If in doubt, it is better to err on the shallow side. Sowing too deep is a common cause of failure, especially on heavy soils.
In summer, either water the ground thoroughly the day before sowing, or use a watering can without a rose to soak the bottom of the drill just before sowing.
Sow small seeds as thinly and evenly as possible by shaking a few at a time into the palm of your hand and letting them dribble between thumb and forefinger into the drill. Do not try to shake them directly from the packet, or the row will be uneven.
On light soils, cover the seeds by placing your feet on each side of (he drill and shuffling the soil back. Alternatively, stand between the rows and pull the soil over the seeds with the back of the rake, then hold the rake vertical and tap the surface flat.
On heavy soils use only gentle pressure to firm the soil, otherwise it will become compacted and the seedlings may have difficulty in breaking through.
The best method of filling drills after sowing peas and beans is to stand between the rows, pulling the soil back with a draw hoe and then firming the surface with the blade of the hoe.
Before removing the marker line, insert a label identifying the vegetable and variety. An inscription in pencil — or, ideally, wax crayon — will withstand rain and mud until the plants mature.
In gardens where birds are a problem, tie black cotton (not thread) to sticks so that the strands criss-cross over the rows of seeds. Alternatively, fasten wire-netting, or plastic-netting to canes just above soil level.