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Growing from seed in small spaces

by Angela Youngman

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© iStockphoto/Danish Khan

Growing flowers and vegetables from seed often tops the list of gardening jobs for spring. But is it really worth sweating over seedlings if only a few plants are needed and time and space are short? Angela Youngman takes a look at when sowing makes sense and shows simple ways to raise seeds in small spaces – no greenhouses, propagators or other specialist kit required.

Seeds versus plugs

A packet of seeds might cost only £1 but after this small outlay comes the job of nurturing its contents into lush, healthy plants. The alternative is to buy ready-grown plants from the garden centre but this approach can be expensive. So what’s the best option?

If all you need are a few bedding plants, such as geraniums or verbenas, then plug plants (where the work of raising the plants from seed has already been done by a nursery) are certainly worth considering. The smallest plugs tend to come into garden centres in April. All you have to do is put them into individual pots and grow them on.

Young plug plants are also a good-value option for vegetables that are slower growing and harder to germinate such as tomatoes and peppers. You could even try some grafted ‘turbo-charged’ plug plants, offered by companies such as Suttons. They are more expensive than other plugs because they have been grafted on to vigorous root stocks and provide crops earlier than normal. Turbo-charged tomato plants offer good value because they start to fruit from early July and can carry on well into the autumn – crops are heavy too.

Growing from seed, on the other hand, is a good way to get lots of plants at a low cost. You’ll need some patience, a bit of growing space and a willingness to move seedlings into larger pots as required.

Good options for growing from seed include lettuce, radishes, baby vegetables, marigolds and nasturtiums. For salads, consider using packets of mixed leaves such as Thompson & Morgan’s Salad Leaves ‘Speedy Mix’ which contains a range of tastes, textures, colours and leaf shapes. These will be ready for eating within 25 days of sowing and you can harvest leaves from the same plant several times. Although the quantity of seed in one packet can seem like a lot, it’s important to think of salads as a continual crop. You can grow small lettuces and cut-and-come-again leaves throughout the year in a warm urban environment, sowing a few seeds each week. You don’t need to use large pots and can even grow lettuce on a windowsill.

How to grow seeds quickly and easily indoors

Gardening books can give the impression that growing from seed requires a lot of time as well as equipment. In reality, if you just want to grow a few plants, you can do this quite quickly and easily using homemade equipment, with no need to go to the expense of buying propagators or other kit.

credit: Sheryl Westleigh

Use empty yoghurt pots or egg box compartments as containers. These are ideal for two or three seeds. Make some holes in the bottom to provide drainage and put lids underneath to capture surplus water.

Then just fill each pot with seed compost and add a few seeds. Use the edge of a pencil to gently spread out the seeds – this will reduce the need to move or ‘prick out’ the seedlings as they’ll have more room to grow. Keep the compost moist but not soaking wet.

Put the newly-planted pots of seeds in plastic bags and use elastic bands to secure the tops to keep moisture in. Put the containers in a warm place such as an airing cupboard or, if the instructions on the packet indicate that the seeds must be kept in the light, put them on a warm windowsill.

Check the seeds regularly. As soon as seedlings start to appear, take the pots out of the bags. Make sure the soil is kept moist. If any seedlings fall over or their stems go black at the base, remove these as quickly as possible.

© iStockphoto/Jill Fromer

The pots should be turned each day to encourage even growth. This will ensure you get leaves appearing on all sides of the plant, and will make the plants stronger. It can help to make a simple light box. Cut one side from a shoe box and then cover the whole box in aluminium foil. Put your pots inside and place the open side of the box in front of the window. Light will reflect from the foil on to the back of the plants and encourage steady growth. This method can be particularly useful if you do not have a sunny windowsill.

When you see roots starting to push out of the bottom of the pot, it’s time to replant the seedlings in larger containers. If there are several plants in one pot, gently split them up and repot them separately. Once all threat of frost has passed and the plants are large enough, they can be moved outside – it’s best to gradually acclimatise them to being outdoors through a process called ‘hardening off’.

Growing a few seeds at a time is a good way to get a succession of vegetables, particularly salad crops. To keep seeds fresh between sowings, fold down the packet and place it in an airtight container. This will reduce the risk of the quality of the seeds deteriorating and you can use them again later in the season, or even next year. The longer they are left, the lower the chance of successful germination, but you should still get a few plants. Why not consider sharing some seed packs with friends? This will use up spare seeds even quicker.

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