Direct sowing seeds

Direct sowing seeds, sowing straight into the soil in your garden is not a mystery that only the 'green-fingered' can master.  There is a science behind direct sowing seeds and if you know the facts, if you know what makes a plant tick and apply this knowledge, then you will succeed with no mystery attached.

It isn’t odd that some years you have stonking successes with all your carrots, your lettuce, your lovely poppies and love-in-a-mist appearing in delicious clouds, and other years almost none come up. The weather and when you sowed them is almost certainly the key.

Soil preparation

For success with direct sowing you also need a soil with a relatively fine consistency – swathes of small plums – is what you’re after. In the seed itself, there’s a small amount of food stored as starch, but there’s not much there to keep it going until it gets up into the light and starts making its own food by photosynthesis.

Take this one step back, before you get to the small plant stage. If the seed has been sown into heavy, sticky soil with clods the size of grapefruits, the journey’s going to be hard. The shoot emerging from the seed hits the large clod and can’t push its way through. The only way to the light is the long way round, creeping along the bottom of the grapefruit to find its way around the side. It gets half way up, still underground, in the dark and runs out of food. That’s it, it’s over – the nascent seedling shrivels and dies.

Contrast this to a seed sown into a finer consistency soil, with your particles the size of a plum. Within days of germination, the shoot pushes through the crumbly soil above its head, straight up and out into the light.

Spacing your seeds

It’s also important to sow seed thinly, aiming at spacings about one and a half inches apart. Whether they’re veg or flowers, you need to give annuals the right amount of space as they grow. If they feel overcrowded, threatened by too many close neighbours competing for food, water and light, they quickly run up to form one or two flowering stems and then seed pods to enable them to reproduce. Under threat, they have to make babies as quickly as they can. This creates one minute wonders and is not what you want.

To avoid it, spacing seeds widely is a good idea. If they’re large like calendulas or beetroot, it’s easy. Just sow them one at a time, individually placing them in the soil. If they’re small like a poppy, or carrot, this is too fiddly. There are three useful tips for sowing tiny seeds.

First, take a small pinch at a time, checking you’ve picked out about twenty-five seeds, the right number for one and a half inch spacings over the length of your arm. Then you want to sow the seeds quickly, in one rapid sweep. This will give you a thinner distribution of seed than if you’re meticulous and slow and dollop everything in over a few inches of soil. You also need to mark where you got to with every pinch so you don’t miss a bit, or go back over the same bit again. I make a line with my finger across the drill.

However carefully and thinly you’ve sown your seed, you need to thin your baby seedlings to avoid overcrowding as they grow. Most hardy annual seed starts to germinate after about ten to fourteen days and tiny seedlings appear. When they are about an inch (2.5cms) tall and have a pair of leaves that look like tiny versions of what you would expect to see on the parent plant, get brutal. Thin them out, leaving one good plant every 10 cms/4 inches (see the back of the pack for exact thinning distance). At this stage, they’re usually too small to transplant. Just pull them up by the roots and chuck them.

Thinning your seedlings

You’re now nearly there, but some plants like the larger lettuces and most of the flowering hardy annuals – love-in-a-mist, cornflowers, marigolds and poppies will need thinning again a month to six weeks after the first thinning, aiming at spacings of at least ten to twelve inches. This is more generous than many people recommend, but I’ve done lots of experimenting here and have found that the more room I give most of these plants, the happier and more long-lived they are. Nigellas – love-in-a-mist, you imagine about six inches apart, but plants spaced at a foot make larger roots and more leaf. This increases their potential for photosynthesis. They then produce more flowers and live for longer. I can still have nigellas going here in August from sowing now.

Eight to ten weeks after sowing, the seedlings are large enough with a complex enough root structure to survive being dug up and planted somewhere else. You don’t need to chuck them, but dig them up with lots of root and move them to a new home, watering them well before you do this as well as watering them into their new home.

So there you are – these are the facts as I’ve learnt them and you’re now equipped to direct sow any hardy annual seed.