Growing from seed

Vicki Cooke Kitchen Garden Keeper at Hampton Court Palace, offers timely advice on sowing from seed.

planting garlic bulbils
Planting garlic bulbils. Image: Vicki Cooke
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I am always talking about growing unusual vegetable varieties and food crops in these articles, which is a great way of enriching your garden’s output, as it allows you access to more than just what you can buy in the shops. However, the flipside of their exclusivity is that they are rarely available to buy as seedlings or small plants, which means that you have to start them off yourself from seed. Rather than seeing this as a chore, look at the positives. Growing from seed is a rewarding activity which gives you control over this vital part of a plants’ life.  You can ensure that your plants are organic and grown without using peat, but you also get the satisfaction of watching the little seedlings creep up and unfurl, day by day. After 15 years of growing, that satisfaction still hasn’t gone away for me.

Cost effective

It is also an inexpensive way to get plants because seed is generally cheap to buy. When buying seed, try and get packet sizes that you know you can use up in about three years as that is the standard shelf life for seed. A few crops, such as tomatoes and brassicas and cucumbers have very long lived seed, so hang on to those packets a little longer.

Time management

sowing seed
Sowing seed. Image: Martin Mulchinock

In the kitchen garden at Hampton Court we grow everything we need for a one-acre veg plot in a 15 metre long greenhouse. We use module trays for most things – these only have a small area for roots to develop, but the idea is to keep the turnover rapid so things aren’t hanging around too long. The longer seedlings are stuck in modules and inside a glasshouse, the more chance they have of picking up problems, so always plan to plant out as soon as possible. Crops such as lettuce, brassicas, beets and squashes take between 4-6 weeks between sowing and planting out, so work back from when you want to plant them out to come up with a sowing date. Peas and beans are often quicker; celery, leeks, onions, tomatoes and peppers take much longer – 2-3 months.

Windowsill propagation

But what if you don’t have access to a greenhouse? When I was younger, I would commandeer all the windowsills for growing seedlings and quickly discovered that south facing ones are the best as they receive the most light. East and west are just about ok, but north facing ones will produce weak, spindly seedling that struggle to get enough daylight. If you have a conservatory you will have an advantage of more light, especially for those crops such as tomatoes, peppers and aubergines that like to be started off in the darker days of late winter.

Experiment with tomatoes

Tomatoes are a good starter crop for the novice seed grower, partly because there is such a huge range of varieties available which you rarely see as plants in garden centres, but mostly because it’s quite hard to kill a tomato plant. Using seed compost, the seed germinates quickly (as long as the temperature is above 15°C) and you can start off a few in a small (7cm) pot. After a few weeks the seedlings should have 2 or 3 ‘true’ leaves as well as their seedling leaves. They can then be gently teased apart and potted into separate pots of the same size but using potting compost. Let the plants grow on until you are ready to plant them out. If the seedlings start turning yellow or purple, that’s usually a sign that the compost has run out of nutrients and it is time to repot. If they get really tall and thin and fall over, then they need more direct light.

Spread the love

And finally, it is a truth universally acknowledged that when growing from seed you will grow far too many plants to ever possibly fit in your garden, so share, swap or sell the surplus. It’s a great way to meet fellow gardeners and make new friends!

Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

After scrambling through some of the various branches of horticulture, Vicki realised that food production was where her heart is (or should that be stomach!). She spent six years growing traditional UK vegetable varieties for seed at Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. In 2014 she began a new chapter at Hampton Court Palace, recreating a section of the original walled kitchen garden - so she can now grow historic favourites in an historic setting.
Garden Media Guild New Talent Award
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