It seems that quite a few people have problems germinating seeds and getting seeds to seedling stage which grow strong and healthy enough to plant out. The lovely Rose said the other day that she was having problem so I thought I'd write about my take on growing vegetables from seeds.
Food seeds are valuable items. They have the potential to feed the people of the world and without seeds, we have no corn, rye, barley, wheat, rice or vegetables. So it should concern us who controls our seeds. For the past 50 years or so, multi-national companies have been hybridising seeds so they grow to a specific type and size and in doing do they remove the ability of that plant to reproduce itself. Hybrid or F1 seeds cannot be saved at the end of the season and grown again the following year. You must go back to the store and buy your seeds every year. In the old days, before the commercial seeds market was established, people collected seeds from their own harvested vegetables and saved them for the following year. They swapped seeds with neighbours and bartered for goods with seeds - seeds were seen are a valuable commodity.
Guess what! People still collect seeds from their own vegetables and fruit, they save it and grow the most wonderful array of old time vegetables of the kind you will never see in any supermarket. These people, myself included, are growing open pollinated or heirloom seeds and they would have it no other way. Price, availability of old varieties, and the taste of these old vegetables attract people all round the world, but there is another advantage of growing open pollinated seeds - every year they grow in your garden, they acclimatise themselves to the specific conditions in your garden.
this article on seed saving and look here for seed saving instructions. One of the concerns with seed saving is cross pollination so make sure you read all about that. There is a chart here that will help you.
BTW, I feel the same way about chickens. The caged poultry industry has hybridised chickens for their own benefit and many of the little brown chooks you buy no longer have the ability to reproduce. They're egg layers, nothing else. Those little brown chooks are all bred for the caged poultry industry, a few of the lucky ones are sold off to backyarders. Heirloom chickens are, sadly enough, known now are rare breed chickens. Again, it is the role of the conscientious backyarder to help keep these rare breeds going, just like it is with the seeds. If we don't do it, who will?
Okay, so let's get on to how you actually sow seeds. Large seeds and small seeds are generally sown straight into the garden bed. Large seeds like beans and peas are buried at three times their size - so if you have a seed that is 1cm thick, you'd plant sow that seed 3cm deep. Smaller seeds, like carrot and radish, are scattered on the surface and covered with very light soil or sand. It's better to use sand because it will indicate to you every time you're in the garden, that you have tiny seeds in that spot. All these seeds - the large and the small are best sown directly in the garden. When sowing very small seeds like radish and carrot, sow them together. Get an old spice or salt shaker, add the seeds along with a teaspoon full of fine dry sand. Prepare the furrow for sowing and shake the seeds in along the furrow and cover with sand. Water in very gently with a fine spray. In about a week, the radishes will start to germinate and will grow. While that is happening, the carrots will also germinate but they take longer than the radishes. By the time the radishes are ready to pick, the carrots will just be putting on the root growth and removing the radishes will make way for all those carrots.
It is the medium sized seeds like tomato, cucumber, lettuce etc. that can be planted in seed raising trays and grown to seedling stage before being transferred to the garden. There is also the benefit of raising these seeds to be ready to go in as soon as the chance of frost has passed.
I have written before about sowing seeds and there are guidelines here. Two important things to remember are that the seed raising mix you use must be very fine. The seeds need to be able to emerge from the soil and they can't do that if they are under pieces of bark or compost - it must be fine soil. Also, watering is important. When you plant in the garden bed, plant into moist, not wet, soil. Water large seeds once - they will absorb enough water to keep them going until they germinate. When you see green growth, water again. Small seeds can absorb much less water but will easily be dislodged if you blast them with the garden hose. A fine spray is all they need and keep them moist, spraying once a day until you see green growth. Then water as normal.
Light plays a part too. Seeds don't need any light before they germinate but when they do, they'll need strong light, not full sunlight, but enough light to cast a shadow. As soon as you see green growth, give them morning light, if possible, and keep when protected from the wind and rain. As they grow taller, they need stronger light. Just before I plant my seedlings out, I move them from the greenhouse into full sunlight in their tray. This gets them used to full sunlight before they're transplanted.
The last thing to remember about seeds is that they are a self contained unit of nutrition and do not need any assistance apart from soil and water. Don't fertilise seeds. You will end up with very thin leggy growth and weak seedling. They only need water to germinate.
Seed sowing and saving is a significant skill to have if you have a garden. Like most other things you learn it takes a bit of time to discover how to do it but it's a good investment of your time and effort. I hope you take the time to read all these links, this is an important part of sustainable gardening. And if we backyard gardeners don't do this, who will?
Important article from Mother Earth re crop contamination
Open pollinated and hybrid seeds