Sowing seed nature’s way

By Sally Nex

Another month, another stack of seed trays to prick out.

The greenhouse shelves are already full of overcrowded seedlings to pot on, and the cold frame is full to bursting as everything needs hardening off at once – that week to 10 days of delay while you get them gradually used to outdoor conditions.

It’s all a bit of a faff, really. Of course I could sow seeds direct, especially now the weather has properly warmed up: it’s quicker, and easier, and uses fewer resources like potting compost and plastic pots, too. But once I’ve sown the seed I still have to water every day, and fend off the slugs, and thin out the seedlings to regulation 5cm spacings…

Don’t get me wrong: all this is part and parcel of the daily routine of being a gardener, and I love it really. But recently I’ve been concentrating my efforts, and my precious hour of post-work gardening time, only on those seeds which really, really need my attention. The rest I leave to nature.

Bolting vegetables are generally seen as a sign of failure, but I prefer to look on them as an opportunity. Every flower spike my veg send up is the promise of thousands of new seed. And if you let them do their thing – not only ripening the seed, but shedding it, too – they’ll sow that seed for you, at the right time and usually in the place that suits them best, so you get really good germination rates: no extra watering, pricking out or potting on required.

Lettuces self-sow readily, producing sturdy seedlings unmunched by slugs

Self-sown seedlings tend to be stronger and sturdier; they also seem to be less prone to slug damage, and spring up where there’s enough water in the ground already so need little or no aftercare. It’s a form of self-selection which leaves you with better plants right from the start.

Of course plants sowing their own seed don’t sow them in rows, or usually where you want them to be. You can make a virtue of this and just let your veg garden grow in a glorious hodge-podge of randomly-sown crops: the posh word for this is polyculture, and it’s a form of companion planting so helps keep pests at bay too (mainly by confusing them, as little clumps of their target crop growing in among other plants are more difficult to find than crops growing as a single, monoculture row).

Once leeks produce their elegant flowerbuds it’s usually your cue to pull up the crop – but let them flower and self-seed instead

But if you prefer a neater veg garden, it’s easy to gently dig out self-sown seedlings with a trowel on a damp day (or having watered them an hour or so beforehand), then separate out the largest and sturdiest and replant them in rows. Space them as for mature plants and you won’t need to thin them any further, either.

I’m readying myself for the first wave of self-sown seedlings about now, as all the crops which mature over winter, such as chard, leeks, carrots and parsnips, naturally burst into flower in early summer anyway. These are veg I never have to think about sowing, as there are always a few seedlings around to transplant and grow on. Let them seed every year, and you’ll never be without them again.

Annual herbs such as chervil look pretty when they’re flowering and bees love them too

Annual flowers including pot marigolds, nasturtiums, phacelia and love-in-a-mist: learn what the seedlings look like so you don’t accidentally weed them out by mistake!

Annual herbs such as coriander, chervil and chives self-sow readily and are easily transplanted – except coriander which doesn’t like being moved, so let that grow wherever it pops up if you can.

My chard is bolting – but I don’t mind: that’s next year’s crops right there

Chard produces a dramatic flower spike and masses of seed in early summer; if you want coloured-stemmed varieties back, let only those flower.

Lettuces pop up all over the place if you let them set seed, but make sure you only let one variety flower or you’ll end up with hybrids which may taste bitter.

Parsley is incredibly slow and erratic to germinate if you sow it yourself – but let your plants self-sow instead and you bypass the three-week wait completely.

Parsnips are also temperamental to sow yourself, but let them produce their enormous 2m high flower stems and you’ll have as many as you want, with zero effort.

Sally Nex

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