Sheep garden blog: when, where and how to sow seeds with minimal effort

Tiffany Daneff / 24 March 2014

All talk in the pilates class last night was about seeds. Who has sown what and when. I can’t tell you how chuffed I was that my tomatoes, Sungold (the only type worth growing here in Middle England when you don’t have a greenhouse) are taller than Louise’s. But then she only planted hers the day before yesterday.

For the first time in my life I have actually ordered my seeds in good time which meant that on the first sunny day I could clear out the shed, wipe down the potting table and wash the seed trays and pots.  I wish I dared do without washing the seed trays but a voice in my head keeps whispering “think about the sluglets hiding under the rim”.  Never mind the invisible bugs.  So, yes.  It is worth washing them out and, no, you can’t skip this step.

Pause for a quick aside:  I need to tell you about the slugs and the cat bowl.  The cat’s bowl is on the stone floor in the kitchen.  It’s an enameled pie dish that I found in the mud round the back and brought indoors.  Jolly nice it is too.  What I hadn’t realised is that the enamel, being smooth, makes just the perfect travelling medium for slugs.  

After a few days I noticed silvery trails circling the dish like some kind of elvish mesh but it was only when I lifted the bowl to wash it that I discovered that the base was decorated with teensy sluglets and that the rim itself was completely slimed.  I washed the whole thing down – it took a good few goes with the Fairy before it all came off.  

The following night I spotted a two-inch long slug and dispatched it.  And only yesterday the dog, who enjoys nothing more than the taste of cat water, was nosing about behind the bowl hunting, as I thought, a little slug to go with its dinner.  But no, it was a hibernating toadlet.  I had to put him in the garden too. Or the dog would have swallowed it in one.

Back to the seeds.

The trays washed and seed compost assembled (I had to sweep it off the lawn last year after the puppy chewed the bag and hurtled round the garden with it) I was all set.

All my seeds are from Dobies.  It is the first time I have used them and I am very interested to see how they perform.

What seeds can you sow now

Two weeks ago I sowed:

What should you sow the seeds in?

I sowed into a variety of different trays, modules and pots, basically what I could find in the barn.  They want to be plastic, not terracotta pots, which dry out too quickly.  

  • Lettuces, cosmos, marigolds (right), basil all went into trays
  • Leeks and tomatoes are in modules
  • The parsley in pots

Which is better pots/trays or modules?

It’s very much horses for courses.

The advantage of modules is that it keeps the roots of each seedling separate (like these tomato seedlings, right) so avoiding tangles when you come to planting out. The disadvantage of modules is that some are tricky to push the plantlets out of.  They work best when the roots grow enough to form a network which holds the plant plug together.

Seed trays are great for things like lettuces which are more delicate and won’t form much of a root system before planting.

Pots are good for parsley as they offer the chance for the roots to travel down and establish before planting out.

What kind of compost should you use?

A proper seed compost.  No short cuts here, I’m afraid.

Ordinary garden soil will be full of weed seeds and either overly nutritious or almost inert, depending on where you live.  Plus it is likely to be full of stones and other detritus which might look small to you but will be boulder-like to a seed and quite tricky to grow around.  

Personally, I like John Innes seed compost.

Do you have to sieve the compost?

If you have ignored my advice (above) and are using some lumpy home brew, yes, definitely.

If the seeds are very small and the packet stipulates sieving, then yes.  

Otherwise I tend to crumble up any bigger lumps with my fingers.

Tip: I bought what was sold on Amazon as a “bonsai” sieve, right, which comes with  three interchangeable bases, each with a mesh of a different diameter.  And only £12. So far I am delighted.

What’s the best way to wet the soil before sowing?

This is another step I used to avoid but realise is actually worth it.  Stand the soil-filled trays and pots etc in a large bucket or bowl or sink filled to an inch with water (so that it doesn’t spill into the trays).  By the time the water has soaked up to the top of the compost it is ready for tamping and sowing.

Do you need to bother with tamping down the soil?

Yes.  In a word.  What you don’t need is some specially-made gadget for doing this.  The flat base of a jar or piece of wood or whatever you have to hand will do.  Even the flat of the palm works.  But you do need to do this or there will be too much air in the soil and your seeds won’t be snug.  And anyway, it is a particularly satisfying thing to do.

Where should you put the seed trays?  Do you need a greenhouse?

Not having a greenhouse or porch does make things harder and in the past we have always struggled between using a small propagator (which puts on growth too quickly, producing weak seedlings) and putting trays outside under a cloche (which can prevent germination if it's too cold and is much more of a hassle for regular watering).

The joy of this house is that it is blessed with deep, west-facing window ledges, which are warm and sunny without being scorching.  (Put the pots and modules on trays so you can water without splashing and leaking all over the paintwork.)

How to make sure your seeds germinate?

Singing is not required.

But you do have to keep checking them, at least twice a day.  So sorry, but no shortcuts here.

Given that it took me pretty much the best part of two hours getting this lot sown it is in my interests to make sure they germinate and grow.  And that is why I really like the fact that the seed trays are on the window ledge in the kitchen and behind my desk.  I have water sprays on each and nothing could be easier than to give a quick dampening of the soil if it looks as though it is drying out.  

One thing I have learnt... whoever sows the seeds must water and care for them because no one else will ever care as much.  

How long will the seeds take to germinate?

  • The lettuces were first, coming in at just under a week.
  • Cosmos and marigolds were quick seconds
  • The tomatoes, leeks and basil began to show themselves after about 10 days
  • The parsley, see right, has appeared today which is exactly 18 days after sowing.

And, touch wood, all are growing on nicely.

What else can you plant now?

  • Broad beans can go into the soil, where you want them to grow.
  • Shallots and garlic can go into the soil or, if like me the soil is not quite ready, you can get them started in pots or modules. I am trying both to see which works best.  More on that in a future blog.

Tiffany Daneff is also the editor of the award-winning intoGardens app - the world's first magazine app for gardens. Visit the appstore to download a free sample or go to the website for more information. Gardening has never looked better or been more exciting. Visit for more info.

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