Once the soil and beds have been prepared, you can begin sowing seeds and planting seedlings. Organic grower Jane Griffiths shares her tips and techniques.
A vegetable farmer’s livelihood depends on a good harvest, so it’s important to ensure seeds and seedlings have the best possible chance of survival. Planting in nutrient-rich soil is important, but you should also protect seeds and seedlings from pests, diseases and severe weather conditions.
Organic grower Jane Griffiths says, “Growing vegetables from seed is much more cost-effective [than seedlings], but a farmer could also plant a combination of seeds and seedlings.” Seeds can be sown directly in a newly prepared bed or they can be sown into a seed tray.
One of the benefits of using seed trays is that you should get more from your land. “Broadcasting seeds in a bed sometimes causes clumping,” Griffiths says.
Seed trays could also be used for slow-growing crops, and those that grow faster could be put into beds. While you wait for seeds to sprout and become seedlings, another fast-growing crop could have produced a harvest in that same space.
Slow-growing vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli could be started in a seed tray. During this time, faster-growing crops such as radishes, lettuce, Asian greens and rocket could be grown in the beds. “This will help you to maximise your space,” she says.
Some crops, such as root vegetables, don’t like being transplanted. In such a situation, one can plant the crop and grow a faster-growing crop in between the slower-growing seedlings (inter-cropping). “Don’t be scared to get creative by mixing seeds,” she advises.
SOWING DIRECTLY INTO BEDS
Uniform spacing is important when sowing seeds, but this can be difficult to achieve if you are broadcasting them by hand. Griffiths suggests using chicken wire: attach a piece of chicken wire to a frame and place it on the soil as a spacing template. Sow the seeds in each hexagonal “eye”.
The main aim is for the plants to grow close together, with no earth exposed. Griffiths explains that if each leaf just touches the next, it will form a dense canopy of the crop. Not only is this good for water retention, but it also suppresses weed growth.
You have to disguise the bare earth of a newly planted seedbed to keep birds away. Take a look around your property and gather together any non-poisonous twigs and branches.
Griffiths recommends that farmers use branches from shrubs such as rosemary, lavender, Artemisia or fruit trees. If you aren’t already growing these plants on your property, it may be a good idea to start doing so.
Strip one end of the twig and leave a small clump of leaves at the other. Scatter the stripped leaves over the seedbed and push the twigs into the soil. “The scattered leaves disguise the bare earth and the upright twigs provide shade for the seeds,” she says.
Instead of buying a special seed tray, you could use a plastic household tray. If you do so, the chicken wire frame can also be used to achieve the right spacing.
Keep track of what’s planted in each bed by using a gardening diary and labelling seed trays. Griffiths has devised her own seed tray code so that she doesn’t have to rename trays every season.
“Develop your own code and make a note of where each crop is by using the corresponding code,” she explains.
It’s also a good idea to make notes of how each crop performs. Next season, you can use this information to decide what to plant.
She also cautions farmers against sowing seeds without knowing their lifespan. Sow a handful of seeds in a saucer lined with a damp paper towel or cotton wool and wait to see how many seeds sprout. This will indicate how much you have to plant – if only 50% of the seeds sprouted, you will have to sow double that quantity in the seedbed.
Seedlings get used to a protected nursery environment and will need a bit of help to grow in more exposed conditions. Griffiths suggests that farmers combine a mixture of well-sifted compost, rock dust and earthworm castings in a bucket before transplanting seedlings. When you dig holes for each seedling, place a little of this mixture in each one. Add water to the hole, plant the seedling and gently firm the soil around it.
Remember it’s crucial to make sure we use water responsibly.
To ensure the water feeds the roots directly, make a slight depression around each seedling. This way, the water won’t run off but will collect in the depression and soak into the soil.
Seedlings are particularly vulnerable to cutworms. To prevent their destroying the crop, push a firm twig directly into the soil next to each seedling stem. Griffiths says this is a sure way to stop them cutting the stems.
Both seeds and seedlings are very sensitive to hot weather and have to be kept moist at all times. Take care not to over-water seedlings, though, as they could wash away (this also applies to seeds). Rather use a spray attachment with a mister. Alternatively, use a hosepipe but place a finger over the opening to break the flow.
A watering can is suitable for smaller areas, but if you’re cash-strapped, you can simply scatter water over the area by hand.
- Remember that seedlings have to become acclimatised to where they will grow (hardened off). They’re grown in sheltered environments, usually in a nursery under shade cloth. When you buy them, first place them outside to expose them to external conditions. This will make them stronger before planting.
- Newly planted seedlings need protection from slugs and snails, and ordinary household items do the trick. Roll up metal pot scourers into a long sausage and place it around the bed of seedlings. This will stop snails crossing into the bed.
- Farmers who already have fruit trees growing can use the areas under them as seedbeds. When the soil is enriched before planting the seeds, the fruit tree also benefits and bears more fruit.