Gardening with children – sowing the seeds

Posted in All Gardening Advice, For Beginners, March, on

If you are interested in gardening with children this series will show you how to start a children's veg patch.  In this second part we will talk about sowing the seeds (read part 1 and part 3). 

My daughter now knew what she wanted to grow: broccoli, carrots, chillies, globe artichokes, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, basil, coriander, French beans, cucumbers, rhubarb and raspberries.

Bare-root raspberries ('Glen Ample') and container-grown 'Timperley Early' rhubarb were already in the ground and growing away. Most of the others could be sown inside straight away (it was still too cold for direct sowing), to be planted outside when the light levels and temperatures rose later on.

Sowing seeds with children

Many plants benefit from specific sowing techniques. The good old-fashioned seed tray works for some, but pricking out later is time-consuming, so it's best to use a variety of methods – click on the links below to find more info about each specific method:

We put all Molly's seeds in our greenhouse, germinating them on a heated bench set at 18C. This is a good compromise temperature. Tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies and aubergines like it a little hotter; lettuce and herbs prefer it cooler. All should germinate quickly with this degree of warmth at their roots.

A horticultural electric blanket or soil cables are a brilliant investment for anyone with a productive garden. With a bit of basal heat you can up the output of seedlings, encouraging rapid germination and root (not top) growth. This will create strong, productive plants.

To encourage plants to come through as quickly as possible, cover every pot or tray (bar the lettuces, which don't like it too warm) with sheets of newspaper or empty compost bags, split open. This keeps in the heat and moisture, creating a humid, steamy place in which almost all baby annuals thrive.

Once they're up, the seedlings must be uncovered to grow in the lightest, brightest place you have. This should be a little colder, but still frost-free. An outdoor cold frame is perfect, but it should be insulated well if there's a cold snap. Cucumbers, French beans, tomatoes and chillies are half-hardy and will be killed by frost.

If you don't have a greenhouse, use a window ledge with a radiator below for germination and, once the seedlings appear, move everything to a bright, light, cool windowsill.

Wrap a sheet of cardboard in tin foil, bend it over to anchor one end under the pots or trays, then allow the longer end to stand up and reflect light back onto the plants. Turn the tray regularly and keep everything well watered. All your seedlings should be ready to plant out in four to six weeks time.

Sowing in seed trays

Seed-tray sowing suits plants that don't mind a little root disturbance – some even thrive with a bit of tinkering. It also suits plants that end up widely spaced. If you were to sow these into a gutter and then thin them to the right planting distance, you would end up with very few plants in a 2m/6ft length of guttering – a great waste of space.

Seed-tray sowing is quick and easy initially, but everything then needs to be pricked out and potted on at least once before they end up in their final pot or position, which is time-consuming. We sowed chilli 'Hungarian Hot Wax', tomatoes 'Sungold' and 'Black Krim' and basil 'Sweet' into seed trays.

Sowing in modules or Jiffy 7s

Use the modular or cell system of Propaks (polystyrene trays divided into small cells) or Jiffy 7s for plants that hate having their roots disturbed. Sow two seeds to each cell. If both germinate, remove one to avoid the task of pricking out.

The large (38mm) Jiffy 7s made from coir are the ones to use so you don't need to pot on many seedlings before putting them out in the garden, as they will be already big enough to survive. Remove the net once the roots have filled it – leaving the net on really holds them back – and plant out.

We'll sow the Chinese tender stem broccoli, 'Kai Lan', into Jiffys. Other veg that suit this system are: kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts; chard (when grown to full size); bulb fennel, lettuce, sweetcorn, celeriac, and oriental greens such as pak choi.

Sowing in guttering

Sow herb and salad seeds into lengths of gutter pipes. It's quick and easy, seed germinates fast and the seedlings transplant happily outside without any root disturbance.

You need two people, one at either end of the guttering, to plant out. Make a trench the same depth and length as the pipe where you want your plants to grow, water well to bind the compost and slide the seedlings out of the guttering in sections of 30cm (1ft) at a time.

We'll sow coriander 'Leisure', carrot 'Early Nantes', basil 'Sweet Genovese', oak leaf lettuce 'Cocarde' and flat-leaf parsley in gutters. Parsley is slow to germinate because the seeds have a natural germinator inhibitor in the seed coat. Wash this off by soaking the seed in a cup of warm water before you sow. The same is true of beetroot.

Other edible plants that suit this system are: spinach; all cut-and-come-again salad leaves; all annual herbs, spring onions, leeks, onions from seed.

Sowing in rootrainers

Use rootrainers – long, thin pots – or cardboard loo rolls for plants that thrive with a long root run such as woody perennial herb cuttings and legumes. We'll sow French beans 'Blue Lake Climbing' (green) and 'Blauhilde' (purple) into root trainers.

You could also use it for shrubby herbs, (rosemary, thyme and sage); broad beans, borlotti beans and runner beans.

Sowing in individual pots

Sowing into small, individual pots suits larger-seeded varieties that are difficult to get into a Jiffy 7. Use biodegradable pots that rot down in the soil, and fill with non-peat-based potting compost. Water and push the seed in to the depth of your knuckle.

We sowed mini cucumber 'La Diva', you could also try courgettes, squash, pumpkin, gourds and nasturtiums.

Continue reading part 3 of the Gardening with Children series. Or browse our range of seed sowing kit for more ideas.