Sunday, 18 February 2007

Food Gardening for Beginners Part 6

Now I’ve let all the basic information sink in for awhile it’s time to move on to some serious stuff.

See Parts 1-5 starting here:

Getting your seeds to grow.

Why do I grow from seed??

Going down to the local nursery to buy a punnet of seedlings is OK if you have a reliable one. When you get there you may only have a choice of one or two types of cabbage/lettuce/tomatoes. I like to grow unusual, colourful varieties.

I grow purple broccoli, orange, yellow, white and even purple carrots, red kale and lettuce, multi coloured silverbeet and golden turnips.

Maybe I’m just strange but I think they look beautiful in the garden and I know they taste great cooked up.

I like to know the source of my seeds. I choose to buy my seeds from sources close to home.

At least in a similar climatic region to ours.

Having said this I do buy summer growing vegies from Queensland but find the winter seeds sourced from the southern states of Australia best for our colder winters. I also prefer open pollinated varieties (non hybrid) so that if I choose to I can save seeds from the best growing varieties. It is my aim to save as many seeds as possible as this also helps develop local strains as better qualities are passed on through the generations.

Lastly but not leastly for me is it’s cheaper to grow from seed. One packet of up to 100 seeds or more can work out less than half the cost of one punnet of maybe 6-8 seedlings.

What do I need to grow food from seed?

Some food crops can be directly sown into your carefully prepared soil. Larger seeds like corn, beans, cucurbits (pumpkins, cucumbers, melons etc) (that don’t require early starts), and peas.

In warmer regions you may prefer to sow most vegetables directly but down here I prefer to nurture them first, so here I’ll discuss seed raising in containers for later planting out.

This will allow you to get a head start in early spring and hold back autumn plantings till the weather cools down. It also lets you plant larger, stronger seedlings that are usually better able to withstand pest attack.

Firstly you need the time to nurture your seeds and seedlings through their early life.

You also need to be aware of which plants to grow in each season. There are planting guides available to help with this and knowing your climate is also important. These were looked at in Pt One but I’ll put the links here too for you.

Eden Seeds Planting Chart

Gardenate Planting Calendar - Click on "Planting Now" pop your zone in (Aust, NZ or UK)

Australian Weather info

Then you need a suitable place for them to grow. This may need to be a hot house for growing early summer vegetables whilst it is still cold or a shade house for getting those winter vegetables off to an early start in the late summer heat.

Our Hot House is unheated but we have many plastic containers full of water inside it that absorb heat during the day and give it off at night. Ideally these should be black but my clear ones are free and have kept even the -7 degree frosts (last June) out. I have a max min thermometer in here just to make sure. One attached to a chook house on a North facing window (in Australia) would be ideal as the chicken’s body heat would keep it warm at night.

Alternatives to this would be a smaller cold frame made from old window panes or covered with plastic or a hot frame that has a heat source included. Electric models are available or heat pads that go beneath seed trays. In the past these frames would have fresh manure rotting beneath them to provide heat.

For another idea for starting seeds indoors see this post: Seed Starter Box

A simple Home made Hot house: Pot on Dudes


I buy very little in the way of equipment preferring to re-use items on hand.

Egg cartons make fine individual planting containers that can be planted with the seedlings to avoid root disturbance.

Margarine and ice cream containers with holes pierced in the base are great for starting small seeds off. For a How To on Home Made Punnets (please click the link).

Lolly containers (mine came from the high school canteen) are a perfect depth for potting on seedlings.

Cut down plastic milk or juice bottles (square 2 litres) will fit 12 snugly into a polystyrene (ex-veg) box. These boxes are best lined with shadecloth or newspaper to keep the soil in your seedling container. These allow you to plant your seedlings by carefully sliding them out thus again causing minimal root disturbance.

I also use toilet roll middles to grow larger seeds that don’t need to be potted on like peas and beans. When planted intact the cardboard doesn't take long to break down. Some people in wetter areas than mine may need to coat the cardboard with wax to stop it breaking down too quickly.

Of course reusing old pots and punnets is great too just make sure these are very clean to stop the spread of disease.

There are many commercial seed raising mixtures on the market but I make my own up. Usually I use equal parts of cheap potting mix, sand or sandy loam, and a pre-soaked cocoa peat brick. The potting mix part may need to be sifted if it is too coarse.

Basically you need a free draining, moisture retentive mix with little nutrient in it to start seeds germinating.

Once they have commenced growing the smaller ones will need to be potted on.

Larger seeds can be started off in the bigger, single containers where they will remain till planting.

The ‘potting on’ mix needs to have some form of nutrient in it. I often add blood and bone and use seaweed extract and fish emulsion when soaking the cocoa brick.

Link to Potting Mix

Link to Growing-on Pots

This is their growing mix until they are planted so this is what goes into the once off containers from the start.

This mix should be moist when planting seeds.

Seeds should be planted according to the instructions on their packets but generally you should cover them with about twice their size worth of mix over the top. Smaller seeds should have this mix sieved or just cover with sand. Seed packets should give details of whether or not light is required for germination and also give some idea of how long the seed would normally take to emerge. Most vegetables will take from 3-10 days to germinate but some like Parsley can take up to 6 weeks.

Colin Campbell said in the Gardening Australia Fact sheet here:

“If a small amount of Epsom salts is added to water, when applied to the soil the magnesium in it will help the plant to activate the enzymes that breaks down the food supply in the seed. A light misting is adequate. Too much water will rot the seeds.“


I said that the seed raising mix should be moist when planting and it should be kept moist during germination.

Not wet and never let them dry out as they are too tiny to cope with too much time without water.

Watering the containers from beneath (by capillary action) can help in very dry conditions and misting is good for small seeds.

I have a pump action 2 litre sprayer from the cheap shops (instructions were foreign??) that I use for this purpose and often add weak seaweed solution and fish emulsion mixtures to the rainwater I use. I also use a 2l plastic milk container with a small hole in the lid to water larger seedlings.

I found I have greater success using rainwater to germinate seeds. I have connected a length of poly pipe hosing from the water tank to both the shade houses and the hot house, it works by gravity feed.

Have you ever noticed how many seedlings pop up in the garden after a decent rain?

If you have problems with seedlings rotting (dampening off) then watering with Chamomile tea may help.

According to Keith Smith in The Australian Organic Gardener’s Handbook:

“German Chamomile is a specific fungicide against dampening off.”

Hardening off

Once you have raised the seedlings to a reasonable size its time to move them out of their cosy (or cool) environment out into the big world. NOT straight into the soil. It may be too cold or too hot and even if it’s just right your seedlings aren’t ready to go just yet.

They need time to acclimatise to your garden. To be ‘hardened off’.

Again it will depend on the time of year where this is. Basically you need to prepare the seedlings for the extremes of temperature they will experience when planted. Slowly bring them out to the full sun over at least one week. If they are frost sensitive (it should have said this on the seed packet) make sure they will not be exposed to any sudden frost by covering them or putting them away at night. It is pointless starting your seeds early and putting in weeks of work watering and caring for them only to have them destroyed soon after planting by a snap frost.

Listen to the weather forecasts and neighbouring locals, sometimes their local knowledge is spot on.


Make sure that:

The garden bed is well prepared.

The soil is at the right temperature.

Aim to plant out your seedlings in the evening, on a cool cloudy day or even during rain to lessen the shock of transplanting. Soaking the seedling container in a diluted seaweed solution is wise as is watering in the seedlings with a weak seaweed solution. This also helps lessen transplant shock and stimulates the seedlings into growth.

Careful attention to watering is necessary during the first few days as is pest control. Your ‘babies’ are still new and evil slugs, snails and earwigs etc would love to feast on them.

In early spring we often cover young seedlings with cut down juice bottles at night during their early days in the garden. This not only keeps pests away but also warms them against mild frost attack.

We take these covers off each morning and replace them at night.

Row covers would be helpful for heat protection in summer.

Check out Part 7: Taking Cuttings - Not Just Food Plants


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