Many people are afraid of growing plants from seed but it s really very simple and anyone can do it. All you really need is patience and diligence. There s nothing more rewarding than scattering a few seeds in a box and seeing them grow into real flowers or vegetables. In addition, it s much less expensive to buy a few packets of seeds and some compost than to buy the equivalent number of plants from a garden centre. This is particularly true if you have a large garden and need plenty of plants to fill the spaces but if your garden is small, why not share a few different packets of seeds with a friend or two.
If, say, three of you each grow one variety then you can all have three different types of flowers in your garden or window boxes. So, to get down to essentials: it has to be the right time of year. Most annual flowers and summer vegetables such as tomatoes, salads, beans, cucumbers, etc. need to be planted in late winter or early spring but perennial plants and vegetables like spring onions should be planted in autumn so you must check the seed packet. You also need good quality seed compost.
Don t skimp on this; you really do get what you pay for and the cheaper varieties don t contain the nutrients that growing seedlings need. You will also need some sort of container, usually a tray about 5cm deep by 22cm wide by 35cm long. Specialist seed trays from a garden centre are quite cheap and obviously designed for the purpose. Alternatively, you can buy strips of tiny pots, which are useful when you come to prick out your seedlings (more of that later) or for larger seeds, pellets which expand in water and which hold individual seeds. Fill your seed tray with compost and lightly firm it down with your hand. Water with a fine rose or spray bottle and be sure not to soak the compost or the seeds will rot; it should be just damp to the touch. The next step depends on the seed that you are planting. If they are tiny such as petunia seeds, check the instructions on the packet but normally you would need to sprinkle them over the whole surface of your prepared tray and cover with a very fine layer of compost. If the seeds are larger, for example nasturtium, then make individual holes in the compost using the end of a pencil or similar and insert your seeds and close the holes gently with your finger. For these larger seeds, planting in rows makes life easier later on.
Again, read the packet, but some seeds need a damp atmosphere to germinate so cover your seed tray with transparent plastic or glass. Some need dark so cover with brown paper. Once your seeds are planted, keep in a fairly warm place such as a south facing windowsill but preferably not in full sun. The seeds will probably not need watering if they are covered in plastic or sealed in a plastic bag you will be able to tell by the condensation forming on the plastic (or not), but if the compost starts to look dry, water gently or spray from a bottle. Whatever you do, don t overwater. Keep an eye on your seeds and as soon as they are germinating, remove the covering and continue to water as before. When the plants are about 3cm tall and have developed two or four leaves, prick (thin) them out so that the remaining seedlings are about 2cm apart. You can replant the seedlings which you have removed in other seed trays at the same distance apart.
Be careful when handling these, grasping them very gently by the stem, not the leaves. Alternatively, you can transplant the seedlings to individual pots about 5cm in diameter. When the weather warms up, you can put the seedlings outside during the day and bring them in when darkness falls. This is called hardening off as it acclimatises the seedlings to outdoor life. As the plants get bigger, they can be watered with a normal watering can or fine hose. When all fear of frost has past, you can leave your young plants out at night as well as during they day and after about a week, they will be ready to transplant to their permanent outdoor positions. Before planting out, give the plants a good watering and include the ball of compost in their newly dug hole as this will continue to give them nourishment and will prevent too much disturbance of the roots. Once in the ground, continue watering in accordance with your local weather conditions and you will be amazed how the plants flourish. Come summer, you can sit back and admire your flowers or veg with the additional satisfaction of knowing that you grew them yourself.