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Sowing Seeds

by CountryLife Gardening | May 10, 2016
Raising your own plants from seed is one of the most rewarding

We see the first green shoot peeping o­­­ut, shyly, surrounded by brown organic matter or soil. We hope it is not a weed. Overnight it is joined by two or three similar fellows. Hope is enforced, we dare to believe. Rapidly they shake their shyness and stretch upwards, their first leaves unfurl spreading wide like a victory celebration:

“We’ve made it!” Spurred on by the first one’s success, soon the pot is bursting with life, young plants racing each other, fighting for space, food and water. The joy of growing plants from seed.

Raising your own plants from seed is one of the most rewarding and satisfying things a gardener can do. The warm glow of pride is the same whether it is a tray of lettuce or a rare tree. It can be an almost instant experience, some seeds take few days to germinate while others can be frustratingly slow. Also success is not always guaranteed, there are many factors at play, but the likelihood of seeds germinating are exceedingly good when the basic guidelines are followed.

Seeds are living things, or at least they should be, when you buy them. For this reason it is always recommended to purchase fresh new seed. Old packets of seeds hanging around in the garden shed or the bottom of a cupboard are less likely to germinate. Fresh seeds have better potential.

Inside the outer shell or seed coat, there is a tiny plant embryo curled up and waiting to start its growing life. The outer coating of the seed is often very hard to protect the embryo.  When the conditions are right the seed will start to grow. Seeds need air, water and usually a certain temperature. The first two requirements are the same for all, while temperature requirements vary from plant to plant. The seed packet should indicate the right temperature.

The embryonic plant needs enough energy for its journey from the safety of its seed through the dark soil into the light. The energy is provided by a comparatively huge store of food that comprises the bulk of the seed; in most seeds it is called cotyledon. The cotyledon is in two halves, attached to the embryo. When the seed germinates and ventures above soil, it is often the cotyledons which we first see. They turn green and look like a pair of leaves. Hence their common name, seed leaves. After a few days or a couple of weeks the real leaves have grown and the seed leaves turn yellow and fall away. The young plant is now able to make its food from the sun; by photosynthesis.

Unfortunately not all gardeners get to experience the joyous moment of seeing the first seeds emerge.  Things can go wrong. One common mistake is to sow the seeds too deep or to cover them too thickly with compost. Bigger seeds store more food, so they have more energy for the longer journey to the surface. They can be sown deeper than small seeds.

Stand seed pots in a shallow basin of water to allow the water soak from belowAfter sowing, never water them from above. This can wash the seeds down into the compost, leaving them too deep and too far away from the light. Instead, stand the seed pots/trays in a shallow basin of water and allow the water to soak from below until the compost looks wet. Over watering also kills many seeds; let the surface get to the stage that it looks slightly dry on top before soaking the pots again.

Place the trays in a position that provides suitable temperatures; some seeds such as lettuce will not geminate if they get too hot. As soon as you see the green shoots appearing, make sure that they have plenty of light. Even on a windowsill, delicate seedlings have to stretch too much for light. They get weak and skinny, then they flop. Therefore shun the windowsill, move the pots to the cold frame, glasshouse or tunnel as soon as the seedlings appear.

There are of course seeds such as Larkspur, Nasturtium and Californian poppy that can sown directly into the soil outside, just be sure to remove all weeds and cultivate the soil by raking it to create a fine tilth. Just scatter the seed thinly and then thin or transplant seedlings that are too close together.

Growing plants from seed is fun, it is an affirmation of the magic of nature and when you see the first shoots appear, it fills your heart with joy.

Written by Ciarán Burke Gromor Ambassador
Ciarán Burke started gardening when he was seven. He later graduated from the National Botanic Gardens and for over fifteen years he has been lecturing and training students in horticulture for Royal Horticultural Society Qualifications. Ciarán runs The Garden School at RHSI situated in Marlay Park in Dublin. The Garden School is a social enterprise; in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland offerings free horticultural training to unemployed and people with intellectual disabilities through The New Growth Project. Ciarán gives talks to horticultural societies and garden groups; is himself a keen gardener. He writes a blog on Blooms ‘n Food and writes articles for The Irish Garden magazine. Ciarán also makes twig sculptures called Scoodoos that encourage people to engage with nature and raise awareness of the beauty and importance of trees.

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