Alys Fowler

Starting seeds indoors

The sun is seeping through as spring arrives and with it, the opportunity to start planting in your garden again.

My very tall friend Jamie got a very short straw. He came to stay for the weekend and the only bed that was available was the tiny single bed in my study. He was gracious about having to curl up in it, but in the morning when he went to stretch, his toes sprung out from beneath the covers for a little air, instead they hit the very hot radiator. A balmy lesson that it was time to turn the radiators down for spring.

And if that needed to happen it is sign that the soil outside must be warming. As soon as the soil feels warm enough for you hand to linger on it without gloves, it is time to get sowing in earnest.

For years I have impatiently started off seedlings on every available windowsill - for tender Mediterranean vegetables and annuals flowers this is a must. They need to germinate at temperatures above 16 degrees Celsius and by the time the soil is that warm too much of the season has already been lost. You must steal a march on time or you’ll not get any tomatoes or chilies, basil or cosmos. But for hardier stuff, like beetroot, spring onions, kales, turnips, swedes, parsnips I’ve learnt that often these windowsill seedlings struggle in outside life.

Life on the window’s edge, particularly if there’s a radiator below, might start off all swimmingly, but the lack of good light, however bright the position might mean seedlings grow leggy and with this accumulate an inherent weakness. Even once hardened off (a process by which you acclimatise indoor seedlings to life outdoors over a two week or more period, slowly adjusting them to more cold), the slugs, it seems, have their way quickly.

I think this is true of any weakness, let your seedlings dry out or linger too long in a too tight a space, a cramped seed tray or module, and again the plants are weakened a little and pests can sense this.

Thus this year I am waiting, if a little impatiently for another week or two and doing as much direct sowing or sowing in modules outside on my patio as possible. Of course there will be failures and seedlings eaten by slugs, but I am increasingly convinced that unless you have a good greenhouse or polytunnel and are around often enough to water seedlings that need a sudden drink or a little shade, the soil will be your better friend.

Sowing direct in the soil or outside modules though does require patience. If you feel a little chilly outside, then your seeds will too. You can help things a long by warming up the soil. Covering it with fleece, cloches, black plastic (makes sure you pick off all the slugs that will accumulate under plastic, they love that stuff), can make a huge difference. Two weeks of pre-warming and your seeds will germinate quickly. IF the soil is very dry, water it first before sowing (always water before sowing, not after as you are likely to wash the seeds away). An old trick is to water with warm water, boil a kettle and then let it cool almost right the way down or hot water from the tap left to go tepid, can all make a difference in germination.

Once your seedlings are up and large enough to handle, if you’ve sown them direct in the soil, then you should thin them out quickly. Overcrowding will slow growth and again make easy targets for slugs and snails. However much you love a straight line, it is important that you think to the healthiest and strongest seedlings rather than those that make the most even line. Thinning in stages to the final spacing out distance means that you have more chances of success to getting all your seedlings through to the end. It’s a little more effort to thin in stages, but it means that you’ll have back-ups if a slug does take to nibble a huge hole in your seedlings.

If you gently tease out your seedlings rather than tugging them and they have a decent root system in tact it is perfectly possible to replant them somewhere else. On the whole, these thinnings will mature two or three weeks later than the seedlings that were left in situ. This is one very easy way to sow in succession so that you have an extended harvest. It works well for Swiss chard, beetroot, lettuce, perpetual spinach and other leafy greens. Watering the seedlings before you tease them out of their place makes life a lot easier.