Words and photos by Barbara Cruz
A lot of people express interest in gardening or planting but don’t know how or where to start. What better time than now, in the midst of a lockdown, to try growing your own vegetables or ornamentals at home?
Knowing the basics of seed sowing will help you understand what a plant needs to thrive, as well as to be more reactive to its needs later on. Here are some tips, tricks, and practical advice on seed sowing to guide beginners:
What to plant?
Start with a plant you like or naturally gravitate towards. It helps when you are invested in what the seeds will turn out to be, whether it’s for cooking, aesthetics, or even home remedies.
Going for one type of plant first is a good idea as opposed to sowing several kinds that have different water and light requirements at once . Stick with one plant or plant family when starting and move on to something else when you’ve gotten to know your plant better.
Just like choosing pets, it would be wise to choose plants that fit into your lifestyle and the amount of time you can devote to them. Don’t forget to check the seed package or do some research on what the estimated time is from sowing to plant maturity or fruiting stage, so you can manage your expectations instead of doubting your skills.
Furthermore, always sow multiples, meaning sow more than one seed. This way, you end up with other seedlings and won’t have wasted time in case of faulty germination or a mishap like the wind or animals knocking over your pots.
Location, location, location
Picking a good location for growing makes it more forgiving if you skip a few things along the way. For example, picking a nice sunny and well ventilated area makes it less likely for a seed to “drown” or spoil if you happen to mistakenly overwater it, as heat, light, and proper air circulation affects mold or bacterial growth. Conversely, a partially shaded area cuts you some slack if you forget to water for an afternoon or so.
In commercial farming, choosing an area for seedlings is crucial because this affects the effectiveness and pace of production as a whole. Plant nurseries are usually properly oriented in relation to the sunrise and sunset and duly protected against pests like mice, birds, and insects.
Once your seeds have germinated, the better the location, the less baby-sitting you will have to worry about. If you feel unsure, partial shade is safest. And be wary of birds, not just bugs. A single bird can eat up or destroy all your seedlings in moments.
Picking out seeds to match one’s skill level is one thing that is usually overlooked. Remember that larger seeds are easier to germinate. The more visible they are, the easier to track their progress. Smaller seeds tend to be more sensitive to the denseness of the soil or medium and the amount of water you put in. They’re simply more fragile.
To germinate, a seed needs water, proper temperature, darkness, and oxygen. Yes, oxygen. Plant leaves may use up carbon dioxide but the roots need proper soil aeration because that part does not perform photosynthesis and instead performs respiration.
Since seeds are also temperature sensitive, make sure to go for seed varieties that are suitable to your geography i.e. lowland or upland. Simply put, the right amount and combination of things will trigger a seed’s stored energy.
However, know that sometimes, using cuttings over starting from seed is better. For example, the minute seeds of herbs might be too challenging for a beginner and can take up to two or three weeks to sprout depending on the conditions.
If you are trying to grow herbs, you’d be better off taking cuttings from a healthy plant and propagating.
Things to note when planting from seed packs
Do not worry about seed jargon just yet. Open pollinated variety (OPV) versus hybrid variety (labeled as F1) will only come into play if (a) you plant several varieties of the same plant together and are seed saving for certain characteristics or (b) if you are growing commercially where some size specifications are required.
The most important rule when it comes to selecting seeds, wherever you are planting, is the newer or fresher the seeds are, the better. Check for production dates on the packet or dry your own from store-bought vegetables, fruits, or some flowers in a yard.
What type of soil or medium to use
As a general rule, go for loose well-draining soil or seed starting mix (not potting medium) when germinating seeds. You want it to be able to hold moisture without getting water-logged since too much water can cause the seeds to rot. It also helps if the soil or medium is able to hold its shape without being too compact or dense.
Seeds don’t need too fertile of a medium to germinate, but aim for them to be able to comfortably break through to the surface while being sheltered enough from harsh conditions when still in the early stages of development.
Water often but sparingly to keep the soil or medium moist, not drenched. Too much moisture, coupled with a hot humid environment, will breed bad bacteria and/or moss. Burying seeds too deep may also cause them to rot or not germinate properly. The rule of thumb for planting depth is about twice the size of your seed.
There are many available seed starting mixes for sale but when availability or scarcity is an issue, turn to compost. There are many natural decomposers and organic materials that can be found in your home or around you.
A plastic planter or clay pot with good drainage can be used as a container for composting. You can use a mixture of anything from fruit peels, vegetable scraps, brown paper bags, dry leaves, green leaves, weeds, grass, coffee grounds, peanut shells, cleaned eggshells, and even leftover rice. However, it is important to make sure not to use anything with grease or cooking oil.
Making your own compost
To make compost, add raw materials in layers, alternating from dry and wet. Remember that the smaller the pieces, the faster the decomposition, so cut them up. Add a little bit of soil if you have it and water lightly after adding each layer. Lastly, cover the pot or planter to ward off flies and protect from direct sun. Naturally present beneficial microbes will do the rest for you and after three weeks or so, your compost will be ready.
The resulting compost is quite potent and can be mixed into your “regular” soil to condition it, or even a bit of sand if that’s all you have. Even if you are not seed sowing, you can add this to existing plants as fertilizer. Don’t forget to set some compost aside to use as a starter for your next batch to hasten the process.
With a climate that is more unpredictable than ever, how you start your seeds is crucial and can dictate whether you end up with a healthy plant or a wonky one. To others, it comes naturally, to others it may not. But just as in any hobby or sport, practice makes perfect.
At the very center of it all, seed sowing is an activity that teaches us more than just growing things. It gifts us with patience, respect, and an overall understanding of a natural order greater than us. If you are just starting, there’s no need to overthink it and take the fun away. Trust in the process.
This article appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s May to June 2020 issue.