Beginners guide to growing flowers and vegetables from seed. Gardeners help and advice.
Growing flowers, fruits or vegetables from seed is a simple and economical way of raising new plants for your garden. Seeds can be sown directly into free draining soil in the garden, or started under cover in seed trays, pots and boidegradeable growing cells. Germination is usually quicker and more reliable in a protected environment.
Direct sowing suits plants that germinate quickly and easily once the soil and weather conditions are suitable such as poppies, cornflowers, radishes and salad leaves. Outdoor seed beds should be raked to a fine tilth or texture, with no lumps larger than a marble, and seeds sown thinly to reduce the amount of thinning required. It is important that the soil is kept moist without waterlogging, but a soak is better than a sprinkle as this encourages the roots to follow the water deep into the soil. Keep seed beds weed free so that your young seedlings are not competing for light, water or nutrients.
Seeds sown indoors or under the cover of greenhouse, cloche or conservatory can germinate, grow on and establish under shelter until outdoor conditions allow for them to be transferred into the garden and spaced appropriately.
Some plants are very sensitive to root disturbance and therefore require direct sowing or starting off in deep, root training, and compostable growing cells which can be planted out without disturbing the root structure of the young plant.
When transplanting seedlings into larger individual pots or final growing positions take care to handle the young plant by its leaves rather than the delicate stem or roots and gradually allow the plant to acclimatise to outdoor conditions for a couple of weeks before moving it permanently outside.
Home-made compost is a great soil conditioner and plant food. Good compost can take about six months to produce if you turn it regularly, and up to two years in some instances. Mature compost will be dark brown, with a crumbly soil-like texture and a smell resembling damp woodland.
Avoid adding meat, bones, fat and anything that has been cooked to your compost bin, as these will attract rats and other vermin. Citrus fruit remains are slow to rot and very acidic, which reduces worm activity, so it pays to avoid adding these too.
Most compost bins contain too much nitrogen, especially if the main source is from grass cuttings and kitchen waste – often resulting in an evil-smelling sludge - while an excess of carbon in your heap will significantly slow down the composting process.
Nitrogen typically comes from lush green material and carbon from woody stems. For every barrow load of cut grass, you should mix in the same volume of straw, sawdust, cardboard or shredded woody material such as hedge trimmings.
With the exception of gloss coated or colour-printed paper, most packaging can be composted. It should be scrunched up and mixed in equally to allow plenty of air to circulate rather than being layered in like lasagne.
The trick to great compost is getting the right balance right between greens and browns, an equal amount of each is perfect, and turning the mixture regularly to keep air flowing
Wet, slimy and strong-smelling compost results from too little air, too little ‘brown’ content and too much water. Cover the heap to protect against rain and add more brown waste, such as chopped woody material, shredded woodchip, straw or paper.
Dry and fibrous compost with little rotting is usually caused by too little moisture and too much brown material. Add more green waste and turn to mix thoroughly.
Well managed compost bins don’t produce swarms of flies, but covering kitchen waste with garden waste and ensuring that moisture levels are not too high, causing insufficient air in the heap with help reduce the attraction for flies.
Companion planting uses natural tools to make growing vegetables easier helping you to cultivate crops successfully by creating plant communities that mutually benefit one another. Plants can help each other in terms of providing nutrients in the soil, offering protection from wind or sun. Some plants can be used as structural support for others. Clever companion planting schemes can deter pests or lure beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings on to your plot.
Planting basil and marigolds near tomatoes will help deter whitefly while nasturtiums will lure aphids away from runner beans. Planting brightly coloured flowers near your crops will attract a wide range of beneficial and pollinating insects to your garden.
By growing strong-smelling plants next to a row of vulnerable vegetables, you can ward off many pests. Planting sage or alliums such as leeks, onions or garlic near carrots will masks their sweet smell and help avoid carrot fly. Carrots in turn help repel onion fly and leek moth. Alliums also deter slugs making them excellent for growing among salad leaf crops. Alliums planted near strawberries help to prevent the strawberries from developing mould.
Sweetpeas grown alongside climbing beans will help attract pollinators.
Growing your own tomatoes from seed is not difficult, but whether they are grown outside or in a greenhouse the time invested in caring for them will pay dividends later in the year when you are rewarded with a larger crop of delicious, flavorsome fruit right through until autumn.
Bush tomatoes trail and tumble, requiring little, if any, training. The side shoots can be left to develop. Most other tomatoes are trained as single stems, or cordons, the main shoot needs to be supported upright by a cane or growing frame. Remove all side shoots from cordon varieties as soon as you spot them. Side shoots can be snapped away or cut off depending on size.
Outdoor cordon tomatoes will usually develop three or four trusses of fruit during the season. Pinch off the tip of the main shoot a leaf or two above the fourth flower truss. Greenhouse grown plants can be left to grow on until early September before pinching out the growing tip of the main shoot a couple of leaves above the top truss of flowers.
Tomatoes are thirsty plants so regular and consistent watering is essential wherever you grow them, this is especially so for special container frown tomatoes. If the compost is allowed to dry out completely, the skin of the fruit can quickly thicken resulting in split skins once watering is resumed and the fruit swells.
Irregular watering of tomatoes also causes a nutritional imbalance leading to low calcium take-up, which causes blossom end rot.
Tomatoes are greedy feeders too, the addition of a high-potash tomato feed when watering plants will be appreciated, increase the frequency of feeding as the plants grow larger and carry heavier crops through the summer months Keep an eye on leaf colour, and feed more if leaves start looking pale or discoloured.
Planting French marigolds, or tagetes, alongside tomatoes can mask the scent of the crop and keep pests such as whitefly away.
Warm, humid weather provides the perfect conditions for blight, which attacks tomatoes. The blight fungus spreads rapidly via airborne spores when conditions are right and can ruin a crop in a very short time period. A preventive fungicide spray used straight away if weather conditions are 50F (10C) or above with relative humidity of 90% on two consecutive days, to stop the blight spores infecting your plants.