We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
Written by Rosie Gilchrist
Without seeds a vegetable garden has few plants and without plants there are no vegetables to eat, and that would be a very sad thing. Choosing seeds, sowing and nurturing them feels like the foundation of a vegetable garden. There are some vegetables such as tubers and cuttings that we propagate by other means but certainly most vegetables are annuals, grown from seed every year. With equal certainty, seed propagation is one of my favourite jobs around the market garden.
Spring is the time of year that I have the pleasure of doing the vast majority of the season’s sowing and March is the crucial month. By now I’ve already sown the very earliest crops: peas and sweet peas, and the first of sequential crops of beetroot, lettuces, radishes, and broad beans to fill the gaps made by hungry mice in the autumn-sown rows. The tomatoes and peppers are already growing in heated propagators. Now most of the other delicious vegetables that make up a market garden can be sown.
As commercial market gardens go, we are incredibly low-tech. This extends to our propagation set-up. From the 1960s until recently, Arthur and Josephine used an old heated Victorian conservatory on Manor Cottage. Then, for a couple of years, we worked our seedling-growing around the edges of the winter-salad tunnels and waited for the sheep tunnels to empty when the ewes went out to grass. But things are looking up! This time last year we were cladding a polytunnel specifically for propagation with new long-life plastic.We put sturdy tables in and organised water. It is not sophisticated but it has made a huge difference. It’s exciting that we can give the many thousands of seedlings a good start in life so much more easily now. Even so, I know that at some point this month all the available surfaces will be used and I’ll wish for more, but I spent a lot of time this winter really thinking how to optimise the use of space and we’ll manage when the moment comes! I think we are all tempted to sow that bit extra and I’m guessing that for those of you growing in your back garden or allotment there comes a point in spring when you too have to do some serious shuffling of plants in your airing cupboard, windowsills, cold frame, greenhouse or polytunnel.
We’ll go on improving the system too: one thing we’d like is some heat. We don’t have mains electricity, nor have we got a solar energy system except the excellent and basic one of the sun shining on us. Rebecca has been experimenting very successfully with hot beds for some delicate seeds. This old technique involves building a carefully contained and planned compost heap, layering fresh cattle manure, straw and green weeds. This combination breaks down, composting quickly and producing lots of heat. The seed trays are laid directly on the top layer of the compost, which is warm to the touch. The core of the heap is hotter and acts as a heat store, keeping the well-closed tunnel significantly warmer. We may try insulation to improve this further.
I’m pretty new to growing, with just a few seasons under my belt, and to say there has been a lot to get my head around is a serious understatement! Learning how to grow strong and healthy seedlings, ready to thrive the moment their roots touch the soil, has been trickier than my naïve self expected. I’d hate to put anyone off growing their own plants but it should be recognised that there are many elements that go into getting it right: compost, the seeds themselves, water, temperature, light, choice of seed module trays, to name just the simplest. And as a commercial grower there is more at stake if it doesn’t go quite to plan.
Arthur and Josephine drilled in outdoor nursery beds, or for seed trays used compost made right here, which was good both in principle and in nutrient content. The trouble with our own compost was that weed seedlings germinated together with the vegetable seedlings, using up their nutrients and causing root damage when they were weeded out. We’d like to find a way of doing this better but at present we, like most organic growers I know, use a growing medium accepted by the Soil Association which is made primarily from peat fragments naturally eroded and deposited in bodies of water in Yorkshire. It is not taken from the peat reserves nor does it damage the moorland habitat. This compost has a monitored level of natural nutrients and trace elements, and it is my job to judge the size of module and watch the growth carefully, responding to signs that it is time to plant the seedlings on or give them a bit of nettle or comfrey tea.
The next variable to consider is the seed itself. The choice of varieties and the appropriate use of self-saved seed is an enormous topic, and a fascinating one, but today I am writing about the practicalities of growing. Attending to the practicalities starts with their age and how they’re stored. It is quite incredible just how much variation in lifespan there is. Last year I tried to grow an Italian vegetable, agretti, which has a notoriously short-lived seed life. The seed company said it should be planted within five months, and I did that but even then I had only one seed germinate! Allium seeds such as onions, leeks, garlic and chives have a really short lifespan too. Tomato seeds, on the other hand, will still germinate at four or five years old. Keeping seeds cool and dry is important for their viability and we never keep them – even for a short time by mistake – in the warm, moist propagation tunnel.
Besides compost and seeds, which are largely bought onto the farm from the outside world, it is really up to me to try and get the other variables right. Species have different preferences for temperature. Too hot, no good, too cold, no good, and the tiny seedlings are much more vulnerable to unhelpful temperatures and moisture levels than the hearty plants they become. I have nail-biting evenings if the temperature really drops, and some serious watering and moving around of seedling trays if it gets really hot. I’m content to simply pay attention to the weather, covering seedlings with fleece if the temperature is plummeting, checking the seedlings frequently, and watering judiciously.
I’d really encourage everyone to give growing vegetables from seed a shot this year even if you grow just one thing. Whatever shade of green fingers you may have, even if you only have a windowsill, get some seeds into soil and nurture the seedlings, then watch them turn into something delicious. It is an immensely rewarding thing. I’m most certainly biased but trust me on this one.