Veg growing in the time of coronavirus, sow a little happiness.

By Sally Nex

Sowing seeds will cheer you up no end as you trudge your way through COVID: there’s something about that little fist-bump of excitement that gives you hope that things, one day, will get better.

It can seem totally bewildering if you’re just starting out. But really, it’s just a matter of following a few sensible ground rules, then picking the sowing method that suits the seed. There’s more detail on seed sowing in my course, Self Sufficient Veg Gardening

But for now, here’s a quick run through of my five golden rules for sowing seed:

Sow peas five to a 10cm pot and plant out as a potful
Sow peas five to a 10cm pot and plant out as a potful

Rule one: Be patient

Sow seeds too soon and they’ll sulk. Wait for a while, so they have the warmth and light they need to thrive, and you set yourself up for success. So never sow outdoors till mid-April (later if you’re up north); and even on windowsills or in greenhouses, wait till March when the days get longer.

Rule two: Choose a good seed compost

What you’re sowing into makes all the difference to your results. Specialist seed composts are available mail order right now for smaller seeds (try; multipurpose is fine for larger ones. Or if you have some two-year-old leafmould, sieve it and sow into that.

Rule three: Always sow onto damp compost

Germination is activated when seeds absorb moisture – so make sure your seeds are sitting on damp soil from the start. If you’re sowing outside, water the drill before you sow it; indoors, water filled seed trays and modules before you sow.

Rule four: Sow sparingly

Overcrowding is the quickest way to encourage diseases to set in – particularly the much-feared damping off disease which can fell a tray of seedlings in a night. Whether sowing indoors or outdoors, try to leave 1-2cm between each seed; push them apart with a pencil if you need to.

Rule five: See rule one

The seeds you sowed last week poke their heads above ground within a week. But most take at least 10 days, some take a couple of weeks, others (like parsley and parsnips) an infuriating three or four. So keep them damp, and try to be patient: those little green shoots will arrive soon enough.

As long as you follow the rules, you should get pretty good results however you sow your seeds. So don’t worry too much about the container you’re sowing them in: as long as you can get a seedling up, you can usually replant it again (the exceptions are veg with tap roots, like carrots, parsnips and coriander – these hate being moved, so always sow them direct).

Seed trays work well for smaller seeds like these cosmos
Seed trays work well for smaller seeds like these cosmos

Seed trays work best for smaller seeds if you want to produce lots of plants. All my lettuces and oriental salads like mizuna and mibuna go into seed trays, as well as half-hardy annual flowers like cosmos and rudbeckia, and leeks. Leeks could be sown direct, but the seedlings look like grass so they’re easy to weed out – I find it’s easier to grow them to a good size before they go outside.

Modules – I use 5cm diameter newspaper pots – are good for medium seeds, large enough to sow singly, when you need a middling number of plants, like chard, celeriac and brassicas.

Large modules are great for plants that need a deep root run. I save cardboard toilet roll inners, stack them in a seed tray and fill with multipurpose compost, then sow with broad, runner and climbing French beans.

Very large seeds, including courgettes, cucumbers, squash, and peas are best sown into individual pots. You can sow up to five seeds to a 10cm pot; courgettes, squash and the rest will need separating, but you can plant the peas outside as a whole potful without the fuss of potting on.

Some veg, like coriander, must be sown direct where they’re to grow
Some veg, like coriander, must be sown direct where they’re to grow

And finally, there’s direct sowing. You can sow most seeds directly into the ground from mid-April onwards into shallow drills, no more than 2cm deep; sweep a light covering of soil back over the seeds and they’re good to go. But beware the marauding slug: any that are particularly susceptible (lettuces, courgettes, brassicas) are best started under cover then planted out as larger seedlings, when they can withstand some damage.

Five double-cropping veg

So now to those magic veg to sow now which give you two harvests for the price of one! About six weeks after sowing, once seedlings are 15-20cm tall, start picking young growth (sparingly, mind you – always leave enough behind for the plant to keep growing) while you’re waiting for the main act.

Pick the tops from growing broad bean plants for an extra side order
Pick the tops from growing broad bean plants for an extra side order

Beetroot: Sow direct outside, spacing individual seeds 10cm apart. Pick the red-tinged leaves as they grow: the baby leaves make lovely salad ingredients, and you cook the larger leaves like spinach. Pull roots at golf ball size.

Turnips: Sow direct into shallow drills, thinning seedlings to leave 15cm between plants. The rough-textured leaves have a pleasantly turnipy flavour when steamed as a side vegetable; once roots are about 10cm diameter you can pull those too.

Broad beans: Sow now into large modules to protect from mice and slugs, then plant out once 10cm tall. Pinch out the bushy tops of each plant in May, when plants have set their pods, and use in stirfries or steamed for a lovely, fresh-tasting side dish, then enjoy the beans a month after.

Peas: Sow five to a 10cm pot, then plant out once seedlings are 5cm tall, giving them pea netting or twiggy peasticks for support. The curly-tendrilled tips are scrummy; pinch them out as the plants grow and use raw in salads or wilt into stir fries and rice dishes.

Onions: There’s just enough time to sow onion sets, planted 15cm apart with the tips just poking above the soil. Once seedlings are up and growing on strongly, you can snip the tops out occasionally and use just like spring onions; the full-sized bulbs are ready once tops die down in August.

Recommended course

Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening taught by Sally Nex

Learn self-sufficient veg gardening and plant planning with horticulturalist Sally Nex.

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Sally Nex

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