Get your garden growing

It’s time to stop gazing at those seed catalogues and put your planting plans into action


It’s March, which means that it’s seed-sowing time – that annual ritual of faith in which we gardeners invest so much of our hopes, dreams and ambitions for the summer ahead. Rituals of faith aside, I’ve always thought of the process of raising plants from seed as something akin to cooking, where the other key ingredients are water, heat, light and the correct growing medium.

As with any recipe, it helps to know how, why and when those ingredients might vary slightly as regards quantities. Broad bean seeds, for example, are relatively unfussy as regards temperature and can be direct sown into cool spring soil. Not so tomato seeds, which must be container-sown under cover and given heat and some molly-coddling. As for the tobacco plant (Nicotiana sp.) whose fragrant flowers are one of the sweetest perfumes in the summer garden, its miniscule seeds require both heat and light, germinating best when left uncovered on the surface of the compost.

All of this might sound complicated but it’s simply a case of following the instructions on the individual seed packet just as you’d follow a recipe in a cookbook. In fact, beginner gardeners have a distinct advantage over beginner chefs because, unlike a sponge cake that fails to rise or a sauce that won’t thicken, a seed by its very nature will do its damnedest to grow.

The seed
Poorly stored seed will have poor germination rates so always buy from a reputable supplier. Mr Middleton offers a brilliant selection including the Thompson & Morgan range, Quickcrop stock the excellent The Vegetable Seed Company range, while a fine range of organically produced Irish-grown seed can be sourced from award-winning Brown Envelope Seeds and Irish Seed Savers. Other reliable seed companies include Seedaholic, Tamar Organics, Chase Organic Seeds, Chiltern Seeds, Jelitto and The Real Seed Company. For hard-to get/unusual varieties, try the English gardener Derry Watkins’ website ( and Jungle Seeds.


Growing medium
If you’re direct sowing outdoors in the garden or allotment, make sure the soil is free of weeds, stones and other debris before raking it to a fine, even tilth. You’re aiming for a crumbly, evenly-textured soil that’s damp but not sodden and which has begun to warm up in the spring sunshine. Pegging down a sheet of thick black plastic over freshly raked soil, even for a few days, will help wet soils dry out while also raising soil temperatures.

When sowing under cover into seed trays, modules, pots and containers, use a good quality seed compost, ideally peat-free although this may not always be possible. Avoid cheaper brands, which can give unsatisfying results as regards germination rates. Fruithill Farm and its countrywide network of agents stock the Klassmann peat-free range, while DYG offer the Horizon peat-free range (delivery to Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare only). Most good garden centres will stock John Innes seed compost, a great growing medium but one that contains peat. See and

Sowing into containers
Whatever sort of container you’re sowing the seed into, it should be clean, dry and filled with compost to within one centimetre of the top. Gently tamp the compost down to avoid air pockets/ subsidence, and then water well before sowing. Always sow thinly, resisting the urge to empty the packet. Follow the instructions as regards recommended depth of sowing (a very common mistake is to sow too deeply). Label, sprinkle a thin layer of vermiculite or grit over the surface, and then cover. Clingfilm or a polythene bag is good if you don’t have a lid, while small sheets of glass are especially good for trays. An electric propagator helps a lot when it comes to the more heat-loving seeds but it’s not an essential – a warm room or hot press will also do the trick. Once you spot those seedlings emerging, uncover and move the container somewhere bright and moderately warm but where temperatures don’t wildly fluctuate (a light window sill for example). Keep watering as required. Within a few weeks, they’ll be ready to prick out into individual small containers.

10 vegetables to sow outdoors this month
Broad beans; parsnips; carrots; early peas; beetroot; scallions; potatoes ; onions; summer spinach; mangetout peas

10 vege tables you can direct-sow now in the polytunnel
Lettuce; rocket; kohl rabi; carrots (into large pots); radishes; parsley; scallions; turnips; beetroot; coriander

10 vegetables to sow now under cover (with heat), to grow on later in your polytunnel or glasshouse
Tomatoes; chillies; celery; courgettes (the variety ‘Parthenon’); aubergines; melons; cucumbers; dwarf French beans; basil; peppers (early varieties)

10 flowering annuals/tender perennials to sow this month in modules under cover, for transplanting outdoors later (most require heat)
English marigold; French marigold; dahlia; sweet pea; snapdragon; cosmos bipinnatus; lobelia (but hurry); bells of Ireland; salvia patens; Nicotiana sp.

John Lord of Ratoath Garden Centre in Meath begins his monthly garden talks at midday today with advice on how to get back into the planting swing this season.