Gardening 101.4

Planting seeds, transplanting seedlings, watering, thinning. Hunter/gatherer is so last week. We’re getting into agriculture.

Okay. We’re getting closer all the time. June is upon us. Some people are saying to hell with it, I’m getting my seeds into the ground, despite the fact that the historical record says there can be frost as late as June 20th or so.

Fair enough. That’s what judgement, risk-taking, experience (and living in a free country) are all about. To be fair, the risk is not all that high. Seeds are cheap enough. If the first sowing doesn’t work out, you can always sow again.

But bear in mind that germination – a seed ‘coming to life’ and starting to grow – takes a certain temperature (mid- teens at least, I would guess), and if the weather is cold, nothing happens. Meanwhile, seeds in moist soil can simply start to rot in the ground. If that happens, when it warms up, the percentage of seeds germinating will be reduced. That’s no disaster either. You can always replant.

So if you’re itching to get at it, don’t let me stop you. It’s all about doing and learning.

Planting seeds

I mentioned planting seeds before. Simps. Read the directions on the back of the seed packet and follow them. Just scratch a little trench into the soil with a stick or the tip of your trowel. Make it the depth it says on the package. Drop your seeds into the little trench at the spacing it says on the package. Fill the trench back to level. Lightly tamp down with the palm of your hand. Water. Done.

Until you get good at recognizing the sprouts of various plants, it’s a good idea to mark the place where you planted. Some people put a stick at either end of a row, and run a string between them. There’s no real need of this – if you can’t recognize a line of identical-looking little green sprouts amid random other sprouting weeds, maybe you’d just better stick with Sobeys. But it’s your call.

If you’re planting in the ground, as opposed to containers, remember now – when your little plants start growing, it’s lunchtime for anything on two (to a hundred) little legs. Your sprouting plants are babies. Nurture and protect.

Hardening off

Now. If you started your plants indoors, I need to tell you about hardening off. It’s more important for plants started in your home than those bought from garden centres. Greenhouses are seldom heated as warm as your home, and they’re better exposed to the cycle of daytime heat and night cool. So before you transplant your house-grown young plants into the garden or deck containers, harden them off. That is, put them out in the daytime (unless it’s really cool) for longer and longer stretches to get them used to the outdoors; to toughen them up. Eventually, the idea is, they’ll live outdoors.

Transplanting started plants

When June 20th rolls around, or whenever you can’t contain yourself any longer, you can transplant them into your garden. Assuming the soil is prepared, take a trowel and dig a hole the size of the cell the little plant grew up in. Tip the cell pack sideways, gently squeeze the sides until the soil ball will more or less slide out. Be delicate. If you grab the base of the little plant, it will support the weight of the soil ball, but that’s about it. Don’t try to yank the soil ball out of the cell by pulling on the plant. It’s better to have the soil ball fall out onto two of your fingers, with the plant hanging down between those two fingers. You can expect the soil ball to hold together, being matted with roots.

It you’re late in transplanting, you will see at the bottom a mass of roots that have been going around and around the outside, looking for a way out. If that’s the case, you should try to gently loosen that mat of roots. If a few break off, don’t sweat that.

Now put the little plant into the hole you made, with the level of your soil even with the level of the soil ball. In other words, the plant’s base should not be higher or deeper than it was in the cell pack. Now put a hand flat on either side of the little plant, and give one good push down, to pack the soil around the soil ball firmly and ensure good root-to-soil contact, and to keep the little plant upright if it gets breezy. Water. Done.

Same process exactly with planting in a container. Fill your container with potting soil right to the top, bang the container on the deck or ground a few times to settle the soil, trowel, hole, gently squeeze, yadda yadda. The main difference at this stage is that you can plant in a container as soon as you buy the little plants. If there’s danger of overnight frost, you just bring your containers in for the night. If they’re huge and heavy, of course, that might not be possible, but at least the option is there. The thing about  planting in the ground is that it’s irrevocable. Bear that in mind.

Water is life.

It’s worth repeating that a freshly-planted seed is only so many millimetres down in the soil. If it’s hot and sunny, the top layer of the soil can dry out pretty fast, and a seed sitting in dry soil will not germinate. Once it’s germinated, it continues to need water, and its roots are still shallow. Even a transplanted young seedling is similarly vulnerable, though not so badly. So make sure your soil is kept moist at this early stage of growing.

And when you water, water adequately. If you’re unsure how far down you’ve watered, scratch the surface of the soil with a stick or your finger to check. You’d be surprised how often you’ll find dry soil just under an apparently-soaked surface.

As the plants grow, they’ll send roots surprisingly deep in order to tap water supplies. I’ve read that fine root hairs on some vegetable plants will extend as much as three feet. E-mazing.

The long-awaited thinning talk

Before I forget. Thinning. When you plant seeds, you never get 100% germination. Close, maybe, but there will be some misses. And, some sprouts will be vigorous while others will be less so. It’s common to sow seeds more thickly than is required for proper spacing of mature plants. This is done to accommodate misses, and to allow you to cull out the obviously runty sprouts.

There’s another thing too. Some seeds, like carrot, are no bigger than a grain of sand, and it’s nearly impossible to sow them at the correct spacing. Yet, if you think of a mature carrot, they need an inch or two at least between them. So be prepared to regularly thin out your plants by ripping them up (yikes!) as they start to crowd each other, and continue doing so throughout the summer. If you don’t, they won’t have the room to grow properly and achieve full size.

The upside of this is you can eat most of your thinnings. Think salad. Think baby carrot.


Okay. Keep your eyes open for a tub of 20-20-20 water-soluble plant fertilizer. You’ll be needing that. If there’s no rapture, I’ll talk plant nutrition soon. And don’t let me forget tomatoes. Everyone wants to grow tomatoes.

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