It begins with the seed
The health of plants starts with the health of seeds. Buy organic (or non-treated) open pollinated seeds.
Seeds can be chemically treated to inhibit disease or deter pests, or trigger germination. This isn’t healthy for people, insect pollinators or the soil and isn’t necessary. Buy organic or untreated seed. Seed grown at the right time in the right conditions, in healthy soil and in a mixed planting will grow strong.
Seeds may be hybridised – bred for particular traits that will last one generation only. They are marked as F1 or Hybrid. They are bred to produce a particular characteristic (flavour, colour, size, shape) or to create a property right. A plant grown from hybrid seed will not necessarily produce the same characteristics in the second generation. Buy ‘open-pollinated’ or heirloom seeds instead. Heirloom seeds will keep their traits across multiple generations so you can save seeds from the plant to grow again.
Before you plant
Check a few things:
- Seed is viable (not out of date or mouldy etc.).
- Seed is direct sow or in a seed tray?
- Seed is right for this season and conditions.
- Length of growing season and time to harvest.
When planting a seed:
- Plant at correct depth (“2 times width” rule) and spacing (final size of plant).
- Use good seed raising mix – not soil in pots.
- Don’t compact the soil/raising mix – aeration is important for baby roots.
- Water in lightly so as not to dislodge seeds.
- For very small seeds, sow mixed with sand.
- Some seeds germinate best with light, some in the dark (look at the packet).
Planting a seed is an act of hope, watching it wake up is a magical experience. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, so always plant more than you think you need.
A seed becomes a seedling
The seed once watered must be kept moist or it will die – but don’t overwater! Seeds don’t need food for germination and in the first stage of growth. Wait for the first true leaves before feeding.
Different seeds need different conditions for good germination. Seeds may germinate at different rates. Check the seed packet for information.
Moving out of home – “pricking out”
A baby seedling needs to move out of home before it gets too big or it will suffer from lack of nutrient and space to grow. If seedlings don’t have enough room for their roots, they become stunted; when they crowd each other from the light, they become leggy.
Moving a baby seedling is called pricking out. Prick out seedlings when dicots have their first true leaves, and monocot blades have uncurled and straightened.
Some seedlings are pricked out into bigger pots to grow for a while before garden transplant.
Some seedlings are pricked out and transplanted straight into the garden.
Pricking out is a delicate process. Simple rules to remember:
- Prepare the potting mix or garden bed before you start to prick out.
- Protect seedlings from water and heat stress before pricking out.
- Remove the seedling from its tray by holding one of its seed leaves gently and using a small, flat tool (end of a teaspoon) to lift the plant and root ball out.
- Never hold a seedling by its stem (once the stem is broken, the seedling will die) or by its roots.
- Disturb the roots as little as possible.
- Plant the seedling at the same depth it was in the seedling tray.
- Label pots with date and variety – as much detail as possible.
Room to grow – transplanting or potting up
If your seedling is destined to go straight into the garden, you need to consider:
- The best spot – think Goldilocks and protected from slugs and snails and cutworm which love tender young seedlings.
- Preparing the garden bed weeks before – dig in compost, maybe a sprinkle of lime (check growing guides for each herb or vegetable)
- Crop rotation – don’t plant the same types of plant in the same spot each season.
- Mulching, watering and feeding
Seedlings planted into the garden need protection from predators!
If your seedling is going into a new, bigger pot with potting mix, think about:
- Quality of potting mix. Bad potting mix will kill baby seedlings.
- Soaking with Seasol mixture to promote growth and feeding regularly.
Seedlings in pots need regular food and water and are more vulnerable to heat and cold – you may need to move them as the season changes. Seedlings can be planted out into the garden at any time before flowering.
Separate out the weak seedlings (many can be eaten as microgreens) and only pot up or plant out the strongest. It’s hard to do but it’s important to be a bit ruthless!
Some thoughts on seed raising mix and potting mix
The quality of your seed raising and potting mix will affect germination and growth. Seed raising mix is used for starting seeds; potting mix is used when pricking out baby seedlings for a few more weeks growth in a pot before transplant or to leave to grow in a pot.
Seed raising mix (for seeds becoming baby seedlings) should be:
- Good quality!
- Friable (light with small particles, a sandy texture is ideal) so that baby roots can easily grow
- Aerated, well drained
- Water-retaining (if you make your own, coir works well)
A good, basic recipe for home-made seed raising mix is* 1 part compost, 1 part sand or perlite, 1 part coir. Or try 2 parts compost, 2 parts coir, 1 part sand and 1 part aged cow manure.
Mix should be kept slightly moist and out of the elements.
*Opinions and recipes differ! Seeds don’t need food to germinate and not much when first developing, so you don’t necessarily need to use compost in seed raising mix. If you make seed raising mix without compost, once the seedling pops up it’s head, give it some liquid fertiliser until it can be potted up in good quality potting mix or into the garden.
When starting growing seeds, buy a good quality seed raising mix – it’s easier and cheaper!
Potting mix (for bigger seedlings) should be:
- Good quality – it’s worth paying extra for ‘herb and veggie mix’ or ‘tomato and veggie mix’
- Aerated, well drained
- Compost based – seedlings need food in their mix once they are past the baby seedling stag
A good, basic recipe for home-made potting mix is two parts compost, two parts coir, one part sand/perlite and some worm castings. Opinions and recipes differ! When starting out growing in pots buy a good quality potting mix – you don’t need much and it’s worth making this bit easier!
Some ways to save money and the planet
*Cut up old milk bottles to make plant labels
* Use old, clean jars for storing seeds
* Use old yoghurt pots and other plastic containers for pots
* Wash, disinfect and reuse old pots and seed trays (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) – you can find them at Dickson nursery or just advertise on Facebook (Urban Homesteaders or Buy Nothing are great) or Gumtree!
* Grow from seed – it’s much cheaper (and more reliable) than buying seedlings
* Save your own seed and share and swap
* Make your own compost – hot or cold – you’ll reduce waste and save a fortune on fertilisers
*Get some chooks – great pest control and fertilising
* Invest in a rain water tank or reuse grey water on the garden
* Plant for diversity and lots of flowers – bringing beneficial insects to your garden will increase pollination and also help to protect against plant loss from pests and diseases
Information Resources – growing from seed
- Canberra Seed Savers: email@example.com and Facebook: Canberra Seed Savers or www.canberraseedsavers.org.au Gardeners and farmers across the region working to create a living seed bank and a community network for growing, saving and sharing seeds.
- Canberra Organic Growers Society (COGS): www.cogs.asn.au COGS runs community gardens all across Canberra and is great for meeting experienced Canberra gardeners. COGS has monthly meetings and publishes the Seasonal Growing guides for the Canberra region, which will tell you what to sow and when; and detailed planting guides.
- Canberra City Farm: www.urbanagriculture.org.au/canberra-city-farm Community group building an educational hub showcasing sustainable living and urban agriculture. Lots of options to get involved and experienced people to learn from. Fact sheets on the website.
- Diggers Garden Club: www.diggers.com.au is an Australian heirloom seed company, with interesting herb and veggie and flower seeds – and lots and lots of great information about growing plants. Members can access extra information and gardening advice.
- The Micro Gardener: www.themicrogardener.com has an easy to understand, step by step guide to raising seeds.
- Gardening Australia: www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets So much great information on growing plants of all sorts!
- The Seed Site: www.theseedsite.co.uk Heaps of great information about seeds and seedlings and LOTS of pictures.
Every garden is different, and every season brings new challenges. What works in one region won’t work in another. Persevere, seek advice from local experts, and have fun!
Where to Buy Seeds
- Diggers Garden Club: www.diggers.com.au
- Eden Seeds: www.edenseeds.com.au
- Green Harvest: www.greenharvest.com.au
- The Lost Seed: www.thelostseed.com.au
- The Seed Collection: www.theseedcollection.com.au
- Canberra Seed Savers: firstname.lastname@example.org Available at markets, the Food Coop Shop and Café, Acton, and Local Press Wholefoods, Kingston
Store seeds in a cool, dry place, in a glass jar or plastic. Seeds must stay dry while in storage to keep them dormant. Label seeds with plant information and year of harvest (or keep in packet).