As with most hobbies you can choose the level of challenge you wish to set yourself when it comes to gardening. Take seed sowing for example: you can choose just to sprinkle annual seeds onto the bare ground in March or April and rake them in, or germinate some tomato plants on your kitchen windowsill – even Caroline managed this last year.
So many fantastic plants are still hard to source – but you can raise yourself from seed – such as the truly stunning Bergenia chosen by Louise for her Great Plant this Month.
There is something quite magical about watching a seed you have planted germinate and before you know it the chemical reward system in your brain will have you as hooked as a teenager on Playstation.
But as your interest grows, you will need to learn and understand more about plant biology and ecology. Seeds have inbuilt mechanisms, often embedded in their tough seed coats, to make sure they only germinate when the resulting seedlings are likely to encounter the warmth, sunlight and moisture levels they need to get established, and here in Northern Europe this is generally spring.
However, if the plant seed you are sowing is a perennial they often need to be really sure that spring has properly arrived, and the only way they can do this is for it to have experienced the frosts and downpours of winter first.
So I sow a lot of my seeds after Christmas and leave them outside to soak, freeze and thaw for a couple of months. I use deep pots and a gravel topping. I ran through all this with Elaine and Caroline earlier this year when we met up – and caught it on film – but this was quite a challenge in it’s own right; I’m not sure they really got it and looked pretty vacant throughout apart from some quite unnecessary squealing when I inadvertently splashed them with a tiny bit of water.
Oooh, get her, with her tamper and her vernalisation and her ‘seedlings coming up all over the gravel drive (see the video!) That’s all very well for the rarefied world of unusual clematis varieties, but most of just want some half-hardy annuals to plant out in June, a few herbs and some easy veg – and now’s the time to get started with them all.
Seed-trays or modules (or even yoghurt-pots with holes punched in the bottom), full of peat-free compost and watered before you sow anything. Lovely. Sow your seeds at the depth specified on the packet – not thickly; a little grit or vermiculite sprinkled over the top can prevent a crust forming on the surface or the seeds damping-off (collapsing), but don’t worry if you haven’t got any. Pop a plastic lid or a plastic bag over the top to stop them drying out, put them in a warm place, take the lid off when they’ve germinated. That’s it. Job’s a good ‘un. It works for 100s of things – cosmos, and tomatoes, and peas and hollyhocks……….even if you have to be a bit patient sometimes.
I persuaded family and friends to grow dozens of sweetpeas for our daughter’s wedding three years ago – you remember, girls, you LOVED it! – so I know a bit about them. No need to ‘nick’ the seed (life’s too short) and you can just sow the seeds in a pot, but what they really like is a long root-run, and natty little jobs called root-trainers are tailor-made for the job. I have found out the hard way that nice cheap loo-roll innards often disintegrate before you’re ready to plant out your seedlings, and they don’t have the little grooves that the root-trainers have, to channel the side-roots downwards. But bog-rolls are good if that’s all you’ve got.
Honestly, just enjoy yourself! Whether you have got a window-sill, or a porch-pot or a hundred-acre park, you can get some seeds for a lot less than the price of a Double Shot Latte Macchiato (whatever that is), and they could give you pleasure for a lot longer.
You won’t be surprised to hear my seeds are born in the Private Maternity Clinic of a heated seed propagator. I can’t be relied upon to raise anything – including my own children – with dependable efficiency.
So when seed catalogues started to appear in the house this year and I showed signs of wanting to try the experimental ‘Deno’ method of germinating seeds in the airing cupboard using wet paper towels, husband Mike hit the panic button – or the Amazon button to be precise – and ordered a propagator.
Now I admire Laura’s ‘tough’ love approach of big pots and gravel (although en masse in her coldframes they look a bit like ‘when Dobbies goes bad’), and Elaine’s Blue Peter-like devotion to recycling toilet rolls is endearing – but they can’t compete with my neat little custom-designed incubator unit which is popping up seeds faster than Scotland can call referendums. They don’t cost a lot (propagators, not referendums obviously) – around £20 and I do agree with my sisters here – it’s so exciting. Mike was shocked at how quickly his Alicantes popped up (tomatoes if you’re wondering) but I will concede that no matter how efficient your germination, you’re still left with a problem of where to bring your seedlings on.
I can’t yet banish them outside to the biting North Sea wind but my botanical hot-tub is sending them into overdrive – or ‘etiolation’ according to Elaine. I know from experience that in a couple of weeks I’ll be up until 2am every night transplanting them into small pots and balancing them on cool windowsills. Hmm is that twice in one blog I’ve had to bow to my sisters’ better judgement?