Gardening for beginners: How to sow and grow for the first time
By late spring you’ll have hordes of baby plants ready to be planted outdoors, all for the price of a few packets of seeds
Pots of young seedlings ready to be pricked out. Photograph: Richard Johnston
While coronavirus has brought many traumatic changes to our world, it has also served as a powerful reminder of how intimately our lives are bound to the earth and to each other. In doing so, it has created a new tribe of beginner gardeners, a cohort of like-minded people suddenly deeply determined to grow at least a little of their own food.
If that’s you, you may be wondering how best to get started.
My first tip is to reach out to friends and family for advice; you’ll almost certainly discover some keen gardeners within your circle only too happy to share their knowledge.
The next is to equip yourself with some great gardening books (see side panel) to use as a practical reference and guide.
The third is to use that wonderful resource that is the internet, but to do so with caution.
In particular bear in mind that growing conditions such as climates, frost dates, pests and diseases, vary dramatically from country to country. What is pertinent advice for the US or even the UK won’t necessarily be right for here.
Again, see the panel below for a shortlist of reliable websites with content tailored specifically for the Irish gardener.
That said, there are some excellent non-Irish websites (kitchengarden.co.uk, for example) and YouTube channels (Welsh gardener Huw Richards’s Grow Food Organically, for example) where you’ll find great down to earth, hands-on content covering the universal essentials of gardening from soil preparation to propagation.
This week I’m going to share my tips on growing plants from seed, one of the core skills that all good gardeners master and that many beginner gardeners find intimidating. But as long a few basic principles are followed, it unlocks the door to a world of possibilities, empowering you to grow a vast range of plants economically and in large numbers.
From February to the end of April I sow most of my seeds under cover using an electric propagator (see below for stockists), for pricking out into modular trays and then transplanting outdoors in late spring. The only exceptions are some vegetables (for example, radish, turnips, early peas, seed potatoes, garlic and onion sets) which I direct sow into well-prepared soil outdoors. If you don’t have an electric propagator, then a warm (but not broiling) bright windowsill is fine.
When sowing under cover, I sow into two-litre plastic pots filled with a damp good-quality compost, sprinkling the seed thinly and evenly on to the surface before lightly covering it with compost and/or vermiculite and labelling it (include the date, variety, supplier). Once sown, I cover the top of the pot with an upturned clear freezer bag secured with an elastic band to create a sort of miniature polytunnel that locks in heat and moisture, creating the very best conditions for germination. Next, I place the pots into the bath (yes, the bath), so that they’re sitting up to their waists, (no higher) in tepid water for a few hours. Called bottom watering, this allows the compost to gently wick up moisture from beneath and protects tiny seeds from being accidentally washed away. I then place the pots on the heated propagator and wait.
Over the following weeks, I’ll regularly check each pot for signs of germination. Once those baby seedlings emerge, hurrah! I immediately start lowering humidity levels by gently untying the plastic bags to allow a little fresh air to circulate, gradually increasing this over some days before eventually removing them altogether.
If you’re using an electric propagator that comes with lidded, vented containers, then it’s a simple matter of opening the vents, propping open and then eventually removing the lids. At this stage it’s also crucial to give your seedlings as much direct sunlight as possible, otherwise they’ll get leggy and weak.
It’s also crucial to water them very gently using tepid water (use a spray bottle, a seedling watering can or even an old teapot). The aim is to water enough to dampen the compost but never so much that it’s soaking. A very diluted solution of liquid seaweed is also really beneficial, but not essential.
Once each seedling produces its first set of true leaves (the leaves typical of the mature plant), it’s time to prick them out into modules or individual small pots. To do this, handle each seedling very gently by its leaves (not its stem), using a pen or simply your fingers to lightly prise it out from the compost while taking care to keep its baby root system intact.
Transfer it into the new pot or cell plug tray (I use what are known as 24s, readily available in most garden centres), using your finger to poke a hole in the compost and then gently placing the seedling in it up to its shoulders before tucking compost in around it.
Water gently and keep out of direct sunshine for a couple of hours to avoid transplant shock. If you have access to a glasshouse or polytunnel, then you can grow your seedlings on there, making sure to protect them against any late frosts (use fleece or old newspaper) and to ventilate it well on sunny days. Alternatively, you can use a bright sunny porch, conservatory or cold frame.
By late spring, you’ll have hordes of baby plants ready to be planted outdoors, all for the price of just a few packets of seed and some compost.
Vegetables for the Irish Garden by Klaus Laitenberger, Grow Your Own Vegetablesby Joy Larkcom, The Polytunnel Book and New Vegetable Techniques by Joyce Russell, Veg in One Bed by Huw Richards. Many of these are available as ebooks/kindle editions
When it comes to compost Klasmann does a peat-free option (available from fruithillfarm.com) while Westland’s Seed and Cutting Compost is also excellent but not peat free.