Raking over the tricky arts of a perfect seed bed

Seeing proper gardeners wield a rake to prepare a beetroot seed bed brings on envy as well as admiration

Seeing proper gardeners wield a rake to prepare a beetroot seed bed brings on envy as well as admiration

IF ANYONE had ever told me as a small child that the sight of an exquisitely symmetrical, immaculately raked and flawlessly levelled rectangle of weedless soil would one day inspire my undying admiration (and no small degree of envy), I would have been astonished. But that’s gardening for you.

Preparing the perfect seed bed, you see, is a little like baking the perfect sponge cake – quite a lot harder than it looks. Which is why, watching the Office of Public Works (OPW) gardeners Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn in the walled garden last week as they effortlessly raked and smoothed the soil to a perfect tilth, I was reminded of my student days in the National Botanic Gardens.

“If you want to be a proper gardener,” sniffed one of our tutors back then, “you’ll have to learn how to use a rake.”


Easy-peasy, you might think, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Raking, as demonstrated by proper gardeners such as Meeda and Brian, is something approaching an art form. Rake too deeply or for too long in the same direction, for example, and you’ll have failed the Bots test. Instead the aim is to gently, lightly, softly sweep the soil, evening out any hollows while removing any stones, hardened lumps of earth and plant debris. The end result should be a soil that’s the consistency of fine breadcrumbs.

“I have a favourite rake,” admits Brian, holding aloft a large, long-handled but lightweight plastic rake with a head that is roughly 2ft wide.

“But then I suppose I’m a little bit obsessive about it.” He sounds slightly sheepish now, but goes on: “I really like the look of a perfectly prepared seed bed. It annoys me if it looks uneven or a bit lumpy.”

One of the OPW gardeners’ tricks for getting the ground perfectly even is to upturn the rake, so that the tines are pointing skywards, before running it slowly over the surface of the bed.

“It smooths the soil off very nicely,” says Brian as he finishes off a bed this way in preparation for sowing beetroot seeds. The beetroot variety chosen by Meeda and Brian is one called Boltardy (available from the Cork-based brownenvelopeseeds.com), an ever-popular choice because of its resistance to bolting. It produces globe-shaped, smooth-skinned crimson roots of a medium size.

“Over the years we’ve tried different varieties of beetroot, including Burpee’s Golden and Chioggia, but we always come back to Boltardy because it’s really reliable with a nice flavour and a good shelf life,” says Meeda, marking out the rows with string held taut between two sticks.

Getting the rows evenly spaced and perfectly parallel is another art form, and one that Meeda is especially particular about. “It adds a lot to the look of the garden,” she says.

She divides the bed into four perfectly arranged drills, spaced 22.5cm/9in apart.

“Start in the middle and work your way out,” she advises. “That way you won’t be walking over just-sown rows of seed.”

Once the string is in position Brian and Meeda use the tip of the rake’s handle to draw a shallow line alongside it. “Just a little less than an inch deep is perfect,” says Brian as he lightly runs the handle through the soil.

Next Meeda works her way systematically along the row, sowing seeds at 5cm-7.5cm/ 2in-3in intervals, while Brian follows behind her, using the rake carefully to nudge a thin layer of soil back over the seeds.

Beetroot seed is unusual in that each seed is generally a cluster, resulting in the germination of three to five baby beetroot seedlings.

The exception to these multigerm varieties are what are known as monogerm varieties, such as Moneta, which only produce one seedling per seed and thus require little or no thinning.

Not so with Boltardy. Left to their own devices in the walled kitchen garden, the young beetroot seedlings of this multigerm variety would quickly crowd each other out. They would compete for light, space and nutrients, resulting in unsatisfactorily small roots.

“Once it’s germinated, which takes from seven to 10 days, we’ll have to thin out each cluster of seedlings so that just the strongest one is left on each,” says Meeda with an air of resignation.

Time-consuming as this thinning process will be, the young beetroot plants will subsequently require little attention from the OPW gardeners, other than some early protection from slugs.

“They happily chomp on the young seedlings, so we use a copper-based slug pellet to protect them,” says Brian.

“But, other than that, the plants usually look after themselves,” adds Meeda. “Beetroot doesn’t really suffer from any pests or diseases, so all we do is keep the crop weed-free and well watered.”

Precisely because it isn’t prone to disease and takes up surprisingly little space, beetroot is the ideal gap-filler. Some varieties, such as Bull’s Blood (available from both Thompson Morgan and the Co Mayo-based seedaholic.com ), are also highly decorative.

Bull’s Blood is a favourite of the vegetable expert Joy Larkcom, who values this heritage Victorian variety for its ornamental and edible deep-red leaves.

She uses this eye-catching variety as an edging plant along the sides of beds (spaced 20cm/8in apart for summer sowing) or interplants with the purple-and-white pansy, Viola x wittrockiana Rippling Waters (b-and-t-world-seeds.com) or dwarf forms of the scarlet-flowering runner bean (the Hestia variety is a good choice for this). Larkcom also suggests intercropping Bull’s Blood with purple pak choi, mustards and mizuna.

Gardeners with limited space can grow some of these plant combinations in a large tub or container, at least 45cm/18in in diameter. In this case the plants should be in rich, fertile soil (but not in fresh manure) in a sunny spot sheltered from strong winds. Remember, also, to keep plants well-watered, as otherwise beetroot will quickly get tough and woody.

If you’re truly stuck for space, concentrate on growing cylindrical beetroots, such as the Alto and Cylindra varieties. Slightly slower-growing than the globe type of beetroot, their long, slender roots take up less room in a pot, giving up to four times the yield for the equivalent space. They do, however, require a deep pot of at least 20cm/8in.

Even sown in a pot, the seeds still require that perfect, crumbly tilth. But at least you won’t have to worry about the art of raking.

** The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Cafe and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm.

** Next week: a visit to Martijn Kajuiter’s micro nursery at the Cliff House hotel in Ardmore, Waterford

** Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sowin a heated propagator for greenhouse or tunnel cropping: French beans, peppers, tomatoes, sweetcorn, cucumbers, early courgettes and melons, basil, early calabrese, Alpine strawberries (Reugen best) and tender single flowers such as tagetes, French marigolds and nicotiana attract beneficial insects to help with pest control and pollination both under cover and out in the garden.

Sowin gentle warmth for planting outside later: celery, celeriac, coriander, dill, Greek oregano and Florence fennel.

Sowin modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop: asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, endive, all varieties of peas, parsnips (early April), summer and autumn cabbages, red cabbage, savoy cabbage, Brussels sprouts, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including calabrese, cauliflowers, leeks, salad onions, shallots, pak choi, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, kohl rabi, kale, radishes, rocket, salsify, swiss chards, spinach, seakale, white turnips and swedes, claytonia, lamb's lettuce, salad mixes and hardy herbs. Rhubarb can also be sown from seed (Unwins early red and Glaskin's perpetual are both good varieties). Asparagus peas, cardoons and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside from mid-April. Also some single hardy annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, convulvulus tricolour, phacelia, and sunflowers will attract bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, which will in turn also attract wildlife such as birds and bats.

Plant outside: Seed potatoes, onions, shallots, cabbage plants.

Do: Water/prick-off/pot on young seedlings and plants and protect against slugs; earth-up early potatoes; continue hoeing and handweeding; and keep glasshouses/polytunnels well-ventilated during warm, sunny days.

** Sowing details courtesy Nicky Kyle, nickykylegardening.com

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening