30 January 2014

Sowing seeds in trays

Frugal vegetable gardening starts with seeds. If they're seeds you've collected yourself from last year's crop, that's even better. If you want to save seeds after every season to plant the following year, you'll need to start with heirloom or open pollinated seeds. F1 seeds will not reproduce true to type. Seed saving is an easy skill to learn and it's vegetable production at its most authentic.

Some vegetable seeds are planted directly into the ground, some are best grown to seedlings stage first, then planted in the ground. Be guided by the planting guidelines on the seed package. I am going to plant seeds in tubes soon that really should be sown straight into the ground. I'm doing that because I want to be ready with a seedling as soon as the time is right for planting out here. If I can get a month's worth of growth on a seed before planting time, I'll be gaining growing time because when the time is right, I'm not planting a seed, I'm planting a seedling. The time is not right here because it's still too hot but there will be a lot of places around the world where you plant seeds in trays or tubes because there is a chance of frost, there is still snow on the ground or the soil is still too cold. For whatever reason, if you can plant your seeds and nurture them to seedling level before planting out in the garden you'll have vegetables before someone who waits, then plants a seed instead of a seedling.

I use a drawer from a very old fridge to hold the seed raising mix. I can fill up my pots without wasting any mix.

If you find any large pieces of bark, like those above, just throw them away. Most seeds would struggle to grow with something like that on the top of them.

If you're using recycled trays like I am, they must be clean. Wipe the trays out thoroughly, or scrub with soap and water if that's what they need, then rinse them in a bucket of water to which a cup full of vinegar has been added. Dry in the sun.

When planting seeds in trays, use good quality seed raising mix, not potting mix or garden soil. You need a mix that is open and drains perfectly, with no lumps of bark or charcoal that will stop a tiny seedling from emerging. It's quite easy to make your own seed raising mix, but I prefer to buy mine already made. Fill the trays, poke your finger into each cell to flatten the soil slightly, then top up the cell with the mix again. If you find any large pieces of bark or stones, throw them out.  If you want to make your own seed raising mix, this is how to do it.

Plant the seeds according to the instructions on the packet. Generally, the rule of thumb is the larger the seed the deeper it's planted. So for a seed that is tiny, you'd only have to place them on the top of the soil and scatter seed raising mix, washed sand or vermiculite over the top to cover them, and pat down. For a larger seed, plant it at twice its size - so a seed that is ½ mm would be planted 1 mm deep and a 1 mm seed would be planted 2mm deep. Gently pat the soil down over the top so the seed stays where it is planted. Before you go on to the next seeds, label each set of seeds with its name and the date you planted. This is important. If you're a new gardener and don't know what the seeds look like as seedlings, label them so you can learn from day one.

When everything is labelled, gently water in. Water is what causes the seed to germinate so you'll have to soak the soil mix and be left with a nicely moist six. Don't let the seedlings dry out.

Adding one teaspoon of Epsom salt to a watering can of water, poured over the seedling tray, will stimulate the seeds to germinate.

You can water in one of two ways:
  1. Place the planted seed trays into a shallow tray of water, with one teasoon of Epsom salt added and mixed in. The water should come about half way up the side of the seed tray. Let the water slowly filter in to moisten the dry seed raising mix.  After a couple of hours, remove the trays and let them drain. 
  2. OR ... get yourself a plastic spray bottle and use that.  Add a good pinch of Epsom salt to the water and shake the bottle to mix it. It will take a while to completely wet the soil, but that's what it takes - gardening will help you slow down. The seed and all the soil in the seed tray needs to be saturated, and then the water should freely drain away, leaving a moist seed and soil. 
Then place them in a sheltered area away from wind, cold and animals.  Seed need warmth and water to germinate; as soon as the seed shoots, the seedling needs bright sunlight to survive. They don't need full sunshine in sub-tropical and tropical areas, they should be protected as they'll dry out too fast, but in cold climates, they need that intense light. If you have a cold frame, that would be ideal. Keeping seedlings in low light will result in tall, lanky plants that will be weaker than they should be. If you want to keep them in the house, you'll need a brow lamp or something similar. I keep my seed trays in the bush house with a shade cloth roof. When they grow a bit, I put them outside in the morning sun.

Damping off is a plant disease caused by various fungi. It the seeds almost emerge, but don't, if they emerge and then collapse, that might be damping off. These seedlings have been attacked and won't grow. It's caused by over crowding seedlings, by them being too wet or by contamination from a pre-used tray that hasn't been prepared properly.  If you have problems, go to this thread at the forum to discuss any problems you may have.

Seeds are a fully self contained capsule of life. They only need warmth and water to start growing. When the seeds germinate and have put of some leaves, you can start watering with a weak seaweed concentrate - half the strength they recommend on the bottle. At this stage, they'll need even more light so move them to a suitable location.  When my seedlings are ready to plant out in the garden, I'll do post on that.

These are three excellent gardening sites in Australia:
General odds and ends
  • If you want to plant by the moon, here is a planting guide.
  • Toilet roll inner tubes are good for planting large seeds such as beans, peas, pumpkin, beetroot, melons etc. When they're planted up, keep them together with a piece of string or together in a small pot. Peas and beans don't like having their roots disturbed so a tube is ideal for them. When it's time to plant, you plant the entire tube with the seedling in it and the cardboard simple rots away in the ground in the first weeks.
  • You can also recycle your old one cup yoghurt containers. Poke holes in the bottom and plant you seeds. When it comes time to plant, if the seedling doesn't just slide out, it's best to cut the side open.
  • Water small seeds more frequently. They are sown close to the surface of the soil mix and dry out faster.
  • Soak pea and bean seeds for 12 hours before planting, then don't water them until the germinate.
Good luck and happy gardening!



  1. Thank you so much for this, Rhonda! This last year was the first for me with my new vegie patch, and I learnt heaps, but your wisdom, as always, is valuable.

    For example, I was quite frustrated with my seeds that germinated then collapsed - now I have an idea of what might be wrong, I can have another go with them.

    I gave the toilet roll inner tubes a go, and had mixed success with them. But reading your post makes me think I maybe wasn't consistent enough with my watering - letting them dry out too much between watering.

    Even though I had failures, I love this gardening thing! It's not an exact science, and some things work and some things don't. Just learn from it and keep going. Slowly!

  2. I love this post. Very detailed, very helpful. Will definitely come back to this as a reference. Rachel (Nannyrai)

  3. Good to read Rhonda.
    Too wet in the UK right now, but will be starting some plants on my kitchen window sill shortly.
    BTW I tried to join the forum a while back but couldn't get in. Not sure whatnI was doing wrong.
    Best wishes,
    Angela (south England) UK

  4. Thanks for that info, Rhonda. I hadn't heard about adding Epsom Salts before. I will give that a try too.

  5. All good tips Rhonda! Didn't know about the epsom salts either! I've been sorting through my seeds and will probably get the ones in trays started with the kids over the weekend. My big helpers can't wait. Planting seeds is one of their favourite things.

  6. Hi, Mrs.Rhonda (in my culture it's impolite to call older people by the name without mrs. Mr etc). I've read your posts silently lots of time. And each post I read really remind me of my grandmother's home.

    She had very comfortable house and planted things very good. She told me lots of advices about life and how to do things right at home. And I was being that ignorant teen will just put very little attention.

    And now that I'm a mother who raise a family with 2 little children, oh I miss and try to remember those advices. So sad of me.

    But thank God I found your blog, like I found the manual book of how to make a very livable comfortable home. I want my husband and children to love being at home

    Thank you soooooo much

  7. The toilet roll trick is my favourite planting method for seeds. I put the rolls into a smallish pot with a mix of dolomite clay, blood and bone and good potting mix at the base and around the sides of the toilet roll after filling with my own seed raising mix which is a 1:1 mix of seed raising mix and worm castings. It gives them a bit more to be going along with when I plant them out especially with the sort of summer weather we get here in the west and works especially well with tomatoes which really need to be planted out a few times in pots to develop well, all I have to do for them is use a taller pot and top it up with the soil mix as the tomato grows. It means they have a really good root system before they're even in the ground.

    Thank you for the information on Epsom salts, I'd not heard of that before.

  8. Gardening Australia had a good segment on 9NOV13 called 'starting small' about making up your own seed raising mixtures for different types of seeds and I found it very helpful. The video is available online at the website's streaming video page.

  9. There's an excellent book called Homeopathy for Farm and Garden by Vaikunthanath Das Kaviraj - in it he writes about how homeopathic remedies can also be used on plants to strengthen them (silica), and also to repel (but not kill) pests for eg snails and slugs (helix tosta) - I've used some of these very successfully.

    I found that using the heritage seeds were the only way to go for me. I usually buy from Eden Seeds and the strike rate was unbelievable! I planted out tomato, beans, and watermelon seeds in trays one year and they were up twenty four hours later!!! I thought someone was playing a trick on me but they all came up and I was blown away by it. Best tasting produce too.

  10. I admire Rhonda and all the people who left a comment above, going to all that effort to produce your own vegetables. You will all think I'm bone lazy, but I have to admit that I'll be continuing to buy my vegies from the local green grocer!

  11. Will definitely try the epsom salt idea. Thanks Rhonda.

  12. Love this post!! I am trying the Epsom salts. I've never heard of it before! I love all the tips here!

  13. First I've heard of this use of Epsom salt! Need to get busy with seeds...I'm going to try starting them in my kitchen where there is a lot of sunlight and it is warmer than the porches just now.

  14. I have tried the Epsom salts. It works!!! My corn seeds are coming up in only 3 days! One question; I was recommended Seasol by the garden centre to stimulate root growth. Would Epsom salts replace Seasol?
    I have also experimented with toilet rolls! I planted the corn seeds with seed raising mix in the toilet rolls. When I had done this in the past I had problems with the cardboard drying out. This time I put a small amount of water in the bottom of a tray and it the water gets absorbed by the cardboard and therefore keeps the seedlings moist. I'm pleased with the results and not having to keep watering all the time! Thanks for all your help, Rhonda! Love this blog!


Thank you for your comment. They are an important part of my blog because they help build the community here. Please don't add links or email addresses to your comment. This is a family-friendly blog and I don't have the time to check all the links before I publish them.

These comments are moderated so yours won't appear until after I've read it.


Blogger Template by pipdig