Try These Basics for Seed Sowing Success
I’ll admit it. After over 20 years growing plants commercially, I still look at seeds and think: “How will you ever turn into a plant?” Then they do what seeds do, which is to grow, and I’m thrilled to bits! The magic never dies. Try these general seed sowing tips to boost your gardening success-rate. It’s easy!
“General” Means “General”
First, a little disclaimer. Whether we’re talking about plants or people, it’s easy to make generalizations. That doesn’t mean they’re always true. For example, we cover most seeds with soil after sowing, but some seeds like to get some sunshine before they’ll germinate. A lot of varieties in the sage family of plants have this unusual trick, and sowing them literally means scattering the seeds on top of a hospitable growing medium (no soil covering) and keeping them damp.
Luckily, most plants stick to the rules we’re about to share, but we do recommend looking up sowing tips for individual plant types if you have the time.
Rule of the Green Thumb No1. Not too Deep
A lot of folks sow seeds too deeply. The seeds do germinate, but the poor little baby plants just don’t have the power to push up through all that soil. They simply run out of energy before seeing the light of day.
As a general rule, use the diameter of the seed as a guideline and cover the seeds to the same depth as their diameter. So, a seed with a 2mm diameter gets 2mm of soil on top.
Need a margin for error? Seeds are more likely to forgive planting too shallow than planting too deep.
Rule 2: Moist But not Constantly Wet
Unless you’re actually growing bog plants, seeds don’t want to grow in a bog. They’ll get sick and die because their emerging roots need oxygen as well as water. In practice, this means watering until the soil is fully saturated when you do water, and then withholding water until the soil’s surface dries out. How often this happens depends on environmental factors as well as the type of soil you’re working with, so there’s no simple recipe.
On the other side of the coin, you don’t want your soil drying out at seed depth. A germinating seed is quite vulnerable. It doesn’t have much in the way of roots, so if it can’t find what it needs close to the surface, it can die before the shoots emerge.
The best way to get watering just right, is to check your seeds twice a day at first. You will notice that the soil’s surface is darker when damp, and while it’s showing this colour, it isn’t time to water just yet.
Your fingertip is also a good gauge. Moist soil feels like a squeezed out sponge and you’ll wait a little longer before adding more water. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll know how often you need to check and how often you need to water – but remember that you program may need adjusting depending on weather conditions.
Rule 3: Keep the Seed Where You Put it
This is also a watering-related point, but worth considering on its own. If you use water with big droplet sizes or in high volumes, the soil starts washing around, and seeds can even wash away. You’ve very carefully placed your seeds at the right depth and where you want them to grow. Don’t let heavy-handed watering alter that, especially when you’re working with finer seeds.
Choose a watering can, hose tip rose, or sprinkler that lets the water out gently in fine droplets, and keep an eye on things to make sure that excess water isn’t pooling or running about on the soil’s surface.
Handy Tips for Finer Seeds
Root crops should always be sown where they are to grow, and bigger seeds don’t give too many issues because of overly rough watering. But smaller seeds from non-root crops, or seeds sown in harsh weather conditions, may benefit from a little help. That means sowing them in containers. That helps you to control what happens to them more easily and get better success because:
- You’re dealing with a smaller space
- You can sow in shade to help with the germination moisture and then move them to sun once they’re up and growing
- You can bottom-water the finest seeds to make sure they stay exactly where you sowed them.
Wondering what we mean by bottom watering? It’s easy! Simply soak your pots or trays in a container of water – not too deep – the water level should be just a bit below the soil level. Watch them carefully, and remove them from their bottom watering dish as soon as the soil’s surface shows signs of having drunk up the moisture. It’s the gentlest way of watering your babies, and it only takes a few minutes.
Because finer seeds are close to the soil’s surface, they’re more vulnerable to drying out. If you’re short of time, try pulling a clear plastic bag over your sowing container so that the evaporating water condenses and drips back into the container. Remove it when shoots appear. Overly humid conditions can promote fungal diseases that rapidly kill newly-emerged seedlings.
Back to Rule of Green Thumb No 4: Adjust Care Once You Have Germination
Once seeds germinate, they become young plants, and that means that their needs change. They need the right amount of sunlight, air movement, and less water than they did before.
Spacing also becomes an issue. Seedlings that are too close together are disease-prone. At the same time, you don’t want to disturb them while they are too tiny to handle the shock. As a rule, you will thin or transplant after the first pair to three pairs of true leaves (not counting seed lobes) appear.
If you’re transplanting bare-root seedlings from bulk-sown trays, you will need to give them more water than you would an undisturbed plant, but a week or so of “babying” should be enough. Once they look comfy in their new home, you can gradually begin to reduce watering.
5th and Final: A Little Extra Feeding for Babies
We all know that babies need a little extra care. Plants are no different. If a seedling doesn’t get adequate nutrition during the first weeks of its life, it will never reach its full potential as an adult.
Once your seeds are up and growing, consider giving them a liquid feed at least once a week – or even every time you water. Liquid feeds are generally mild and safe to use, and if you choose one with a good balance of nutrients, they ensure that your babies don’t go hungry. They’re especially necessary when growing in potting media which are often poor in nutrients. Even if the medium is pre-enriched, nutrients wash out quite quickly, so a little extra feeding is in order.
In open ground, there’s a better chance of most nutrients being present – but sandy soils are bad at hanging onto nutrients, and clay soils can be so good at it that the nutrient ions don’t dissolve into the soil solution just as they should. Once again, a liquid feed (at least once a week) is likely to be beneficial, if not absolutely necessary.
Have We Covered it All?
The answer is a regretful “no.” But we have given you a few tips and tricks to fast-track your seed sowing success. Chances are, you’ll get good germination, but if you’re especially concerned, you can check out the germination requirements for individual plant species online. Remember, there are always a few plants that love to buck the system. Nevertheless, as systems go, this is a good one, and will work for most veg and flower seeds out there. Try it! Let us know how it worked for you!