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Seeds and seedlings

by Monica
Monarch butterfly
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How to love veges

This summer I’m looking forward to eating lots of light meals that require little preparation and cooking - the plan is to get into the world of dips and have the freshest vegetables, that is straight from the garden, to dip into them.

To me, some of the best ever tasting vegetables have been those I’ve picked and eaten there beside the garden - a bit of this, a bit of that. A little branch of broccoli, a sprig of parsley, a radish, a carrot, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, basil - some of these vegetables never better than au naturel, still vibrant with life, still alive with sunshine and dew. And then I start to imagine big, green, generous salads dripping with olive oil and lemon juice and…. And this year low effort meals consisting of bread, dips and dippable vegetables straight from the garden.

So far, I have seedlings already coming up in the garden, sprouted from last years’ coriander, red lettuce and endive gone to seed; carrots, radishes, beans and peas planted straight into the ground in early August, also peeping through - I may not have saved any time by getting them in so early as they are still tiny; and in trays, started inside in early August, spinach, cauli and beetroot. These early plantings have been of mixed success. Heirloom tomatoes and lettuces started on a very sunny window sill in egg cartons came up but suffered either from excess sun or damping off - a parasitic fungi which can attack seedlings, causing them to collapse and die. It could have been either as it took me a day or two to get into the swing of keeping a close eye on them in the very hot and dry window spot. Meanwhile, the egg cartons turned out to be not the best kind of seedling tray, not being deep enough and perhaps not ideal for drainage, even with holes punched in the bottom. A waterlogged or compacted soil and high temperatures can encourage damping off, while watering at the base of the seedling rather than overhead can help avoid the disease.

Patrick (aged four-and-a-half) planted beans, peas and pumpkins - these faired better in the egg cartons and on the hot window sill - proving them to be good starter seeds for the newcomer to seed propagation. The drawback for them was the lack of depth in the egg cartons, and also, I fear, the compost they were planted in.

Home made seed raising mix
Choosing the right soil will eliminate some of the variables which can lead to failure. Garden soil tends to be too heavy, preventing good air circulation, and can carry the fungus spores which lead to damping off. Compost straight from the compost heap is too rich. A home made seed raising mix can be created using one part peat and one part river sand (sea sand doesn’t work) to two parts garden loam. If you want to be thorough about it you should sterilise the loam to reduce the risk of disease. But to me sterilised soil sounds like dead soil, and I would rather take my chances, at least until I learn otherwise. Once again, the home garden allows a bit of leeway for experimentation - doing it on a commercial scale could be a different story.

Bought organic compost
I planted my seeds into a shop bought bag of "Organic Compost", but I have been feeling a bit cynical about this stuff ever since. For a start, I was in a hurry home with my last $10 and I spotted it there in the line of commercial varieties, some of which claimed to be organic. I let myself be seduced by the word organic and the relatively lower price, but at home I ceased to bond with it for various reasons. For a start, I planted cress and mustard seeds in it and put them on the windowsill, thinking they would be within arms reach for salads. But the seedlings bolted and I ended up with long straggly floppy stems with hardly any leaf. Was this the compost or something else, perhaps the low light in the kitchen. Perhaps it was just too rich and unsuitable for seedlings.

Anyway, half of my first batch of seedlings didn’t come up at all, I’m thinking it’s probably because some of the seeds weren’t viable - even when the packet indicated otherwise.

A month later, I planted another tray, this time ditching the egg carton idea. I also kept them outside, pushing them under a seat on the verandah at night in case there were any rogue frosts in an otherwise mild spring.

Successful seed raising
This second tray I used the same compost, but sifted it to remove some of the rougher elements, although this has tended to make it more compact and water resistant. I planted parsley, basil, spinach, butter-crunch lettuce, heirloom tree lettuce, and two heirloom tomatoes, beefstake and yellow. As a general guide, plant seeds at a depth equal to their thickness.

This time I planted them in a spiral instead of in rows - on a whim rather than for any conscious reason - and on an astrologically fertile day - after a quick look at Suzanne’s Handy Diary - once again by good fortune rather than by careful planning.

This second tray is looking more successful. My guess is that some pretty basic things are coming into play here - brand new packets of basil and spinach to make sure they come up; being outside rather than on a too hot windowsill, where the natural regulation of temperature seems to be slowing them down, but keeping them honest, and spending more time out in the open rather than sheltered under the seat which seemed to make them grow long spindly stems as they craned toward the early morning sun before I managed to shift them - perhaps not the recommended way of sheltering them from frosts, but not bad as a quick solution either.

Buying seedlings
If you have no interest in, or time for propagation, and some spare money, then buying seedlings all set to plant is a sensible option. This may be a good way to get started if you feel spring slipping away and/or want to get a head start.

When transplanting the seedlings, treat the young plant with kid gloves, keeping the roots protected by a ball of potting mix if possible. Plant them in the cool of evening, or on a cool day, and water well. Keep an eye on them until you feel they have settled in. Watering is best done at night so the sun does not burn the plants through the droplets of water, or evaporate the water during the day.

Watering at night also helps conserve water, although better in the early morning than not at all. Also I have saved leafy plants like lettuces which have looked about to die in the nor’wester, with a mid day spray of water.

In the end, commonsense and intuition are excellent teachers, even if you get it wrong.

And don’t forget to check the seed packets for the best place to put them, whether full sun or semi-shade.


Co-creating with the Garden

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic