Some think it’s hard
My Dad has been gardening all my life and probably longer and has a beautiful garden. He also grows his own vegetables, including the most amazing garlic. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from him about gardening programmes on the TV is that gardening is made out to be easy and that it is much harder than it’s made out to do much of what’s shown.
I believe he’s right; a lot of what is shown on the TV will work fine, but only as long as you do things that they don’t show, such as checking your soil is going to suit the plants, making sure that your soil is well drained, correctly fed, free of weeds, slugs and harmful fungi.
You’ve probably heard it before that anyone can garden if they have even a small patch of earth or a space for pots on a balcony. You’ve probably also seen professional gardeners on the TV turn those spaces into a spectacular riot of colour in a tight timescale with a TV budget. It’s not hard when you have the experience and the money to cover whatever you need. It can seem impossible when you’ve got a patch of weedy ground, a slightly bendy trowel and a spare tenner.
I think it doesn’t have to be hard
When you’ve bought a cheap pair of gardening gloves (I reckon you can find a pair for about a quid if you search around; I have a pretty decent pair I bought for £2), yanked all of the weeds and their roots out of the ground and got yourself a piece of bare earth, it’s then that it can seem as if your ability to garden is going to be tested and the likelihood of your ending up with a patch of bigger stronger weeds appears even greater.
Not everything is easy to grow. I’ve spent weeks waiting for my tray of damp compost to sprout Aquilegia seedlings only to find that the seeds I planted either weren’t viable, or were fussier than I had the equipment for. I’ve since grown Aquilegia quite successfully.
I did find that the difference may have been that I’d bought seed from a random, non-specialist, shop and I didn’t check the dates on the packet. I’ve had more luck with seed that I’ve ordered straight from the seed company online and used straight away.
Some things are just easier to grow and if you’re worried about your skill level, or if you’re gardening with kids who’ll be disappointed or even be put off gardening if the seeds don’t come up or the plants die off, it’s best to pick them for your first go. They come up reliably, don’t require propagators or special temperatures and aren’t so tiny that you’d miss them when they germinate (my begonia seedlings look like tiny green pin-heads, I’d not have spotted them with my glasses off).
The plants below can either be sown in a yoghurt pot or a margarine tub with 5cm of compost in them and drainage holes poked in the bottom or straight into the ground outside if you’ve dug it over with your trowel and the top couple of inches has a crumbly texture.
Easier seeds to work with
Nasturtiums have large seeds and are easy to handle. Poke a hole on the ground or compost with the end of your finger or a pencil, about 2cm deep, drop the seed in and cover it over. Put your seeds in the ground about 30cm apart to give them room to grow, or in separate empty yoghurt pots of compost if you plan to plant them out in the ground or a bigger pot later. Water them after you plant and whenever the soil or compost starts to get a little dry, using a watering can with a rose or a plastic drink bottle with several small holes poked through the cap.
Don’t expect all of your seeds to germinate. There’s a chance that they may do if you’re very lucky, but it’s best to sow more seeds than you need plants then use the strongest ones to plant out, or thin out the weaker ones if you sow straight into the ground.
Sweet peas, like Nasturtiums, have large seeds and can also be purchased for less than a pound (I’ve seen packets for 50p). In fact, the seedlings in the image at the top of this post were free, from a Mexican restaurant. You plant them in the same way as Nasturtiums, but they can be in groups closer together, so 4 in a yoghurt pot or 6 in a slightly larger pot, spaced evenly, is fine. Sweet peas are climbers, so they will need something to grow up. Bamboo canes can be bought cheaply and pushed into the ground in a circle and tied together with string at the top to form a cone shape will be fine, but there are many alternatives using string, chicken wire or anything spare you have that will stay upright that they can twine around.
Cosmos and Zinnias come up quickly and reliably, Sunflowers also tend to do well, but ensure that you read the instructions on the back of the packet and follow them as closely as you can. These all come in several different colours and so you have the option of choosing a colour scheme, although it is a good idea to look for varieties that carry the RHS AGM (award of garden merit) symbol as these are more reliable performers and reasonably resistant to pests and diseases.
Eschscholzia (Californian Poppy), Nigella, Calendula and Aquilegia have a reputation for being easy to grow from seed sown straight into the ground and although they are annuals you may find that, if you sow them one year, you have them in your garden for several years to come as they all tend to self-seed. (You can read more about this in my article ‘The Self-Seeding Garden’)
Plants have simple needs
Several environmental factors affect how your seedlings will turn out. The most important are moisture, temperature and light.
You need to keep your seeds watered so that the soil is damp for them to germinate. If your soil dries out during germination or the first week or two of the plant’s life it is likely to die, because the tiny roots and water carrying structures of seedlings are so delicate.
However, watering plants, especially seedlings too much can also kill them. We only want to give the seeds and seedlings a quick shower, not teach them to swim. This is because the roots need air as well as water and if the soil or compost gets waterlogged then the air can’t get to them. This is also one reason why drainage in soil is so important.
So check on your seedlings once a day if you can and make sure they’re neither thirsty or swimming. You don’t need to be too precise, just don’t let them go too far either way.
Temperature affects germination of seeds. It’s how some plants know when to germinate so that plants of a particular species grow and flower at roughly the same time of year. Lots of seed packets have an ideal temperature printed on the back of the packet to help you get better results with germination.
If plants are too cold they are unlikely to germinate, or can die off. If they are too warm they can ‘cook’ – the leaves will get frazzled and die – or the soil or compost can dry out too quickly. Most easier seeds tend to do well on a warm windowsill in a house that is a comfortable temperature for humans.
Plants use light to make their food so they need it if they are going to thrive. They also need periods of darkness because of the way they ‘breathe’, so although it may seem like a good idea, your plants won’t grow better if you leave them under lights at night.
The strength of the light will determine how they grow. Plants that are growing in very little light produce very soft stems and leaves because they are trying to grow as quickly as they can towards a light source for food. Soft growth isn’t very hardy though, and for most (not all) seedlings of plants that will live outdoors direct sunlight is best as it will help the plant produce more sturdy stems. Otherwise you can end up with floppy seedlings that can’t support their own weight and bend or fall over.
Greenhouses, conservatories, south facing windowsills and under specialist plant growing or daylight lamps are all good places to germinate seeds and grow seedlings so that you get good, strong plants.
When to re-pot
When your plants are big enough they will most likely need to be planted in the soil outside or into a bigger pot. If you see a mat of roots poking out of the bottom of the pot, your plant is giving you a hint!
If you are uncertain if repotting is required, turn the plant upside down, while supporting both it and the soil, then tap on the bottom of the pot to loosen it and ease it off to look at the root ball. If you can’t see many roots, leave it in the pot it is in, but if the roots look congested, it’s ready for a new home.
I could carry on writing more about how to germinate seeds and look after young plants, but the best way to learn is by simply giving it a go. So if you’ve not tried much in your garden, other than mowing your lawn, give growing some flowers a go. The bees will love you for it!