It’s pouring with rain, (it does do it here sometimes) and I can’t go out, so I’m writing and thinking about seeds.
I’m constantly gobsmacked by all there is to learn about plants and growing them. I’ve also noticed that plants grow better for some people than others and wonder why this is? Is it some kind of energy emitted from green fingers, the judicious and secret use of miracle-gro, the hard work done on the soil or just gentle and tender caring? I want to KNOW. In the quest to answer this question, I’m constantly poring over books and other people’s ideas, plundering them from here there are everywhere, Facebook groups, books, neighbours’ lore, other blogs-anywhere I can get my hands on a new understanding, or a better way of doing things. The problem, though is putting the ideas into practice. There are far too many of them, boggling my mind. I’m a starter, not a finisher, so I have many seed packets, and few plants.
But perhaps I’m a little hard on myself. Some things I’ve done in my nascent garden with plants have worked. And I’m going to tell you what they are.
My first hard earned tip concerns seed germination and seedlings. As I said, I’m a bit lackadaisical in my gardening approach. I don’t prepare seedbeds very well. I tend to tolerate more weeds than most people. I have little patience for fine attention to detail. This meant I never got a very good germination rate for my seeds and my seedlings often popped their clogs before they came to glory.
Then I discovered Dr Deno! Norman Deno was a Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Penn State university and devoted his career to the study of seed germination and practice. He did exhaustive experiments on different seeds to find out their ideal germinating conditions. He published his findings for the gardening public and they are now available online as pdf documents. I am not going to explain it all in detail, because it’s done wonderfully in this blog.
So for the last few weeks, I have been putting seeds between paper towels, insided ziplock polythene bags and using the underfloor heating in the bathroom to germinate them, much to the consternation of Señor FazTudo who doesn’t really like to share his bathroom with the smell of germinating onions! Some seeds need a period of cold, followed by warmth, so may need to be put in the bottom of the fridge. If they are in labelled ziplock bags that isn’t too much of a problem. There is a video about how to do it here, complete with baby noises.
It’s like Christmas everyday when you unwrap the little packet and find another batch has germinated. The vegetables seeds germinate very easily in a day or two, ready to put into the mini-greenhouses I’ve created from plastic bottles. It is a simple matter or extracting them carefully from their tissue paper with a tweezers and popping them into some sterile compost. You can use less seed like this, saving some for next year or passing on to friends. The ziplock bags can be used as plant protection over a flowerpot or reused to germinate the next seeds.
The next idea is taken from the book “Organic, No dig, no weed gardening” by Raymond R Poincelot, an old but excellent book published in 1988. I have had this book almost since my first cautious steps into growing on my London allotment. I love the questions the book asks, such as “Why do we dig?” And “How can we make better transplants?” The book explains what a great root system you can get from aerating the roots of seedlings as they grow. This idea may be unpopular since it advocates the use of Styrofoam cups, which have been responsible for so much environmental damage. I think they are being banned in many countries and probably you could use cardboard cups to do this, although I have found the insulating properties of the Styrofoam excellent. Simply take a Styrofoam cup and cut three slits right down the sides and make some small holes in the bottom. Then plant with compost and some vermiculite. The air from the sides and the warmth of the cup produce a brilliant root system quite quickly and get the plant off to an excellent start (see page 26 of the book for diagram) You can also write the name of the seedling on the cup with an indelible marker pen. You can re-use the cups, if you’re careful and it may be a good way to use up the last stocks available.
My final tip for planting seeds in Portugal, or anywhere really, is to only buy the seeds you will be able to manage to bring to adulthood a season. My seed stash is overflowing as I have a complete addiction, but I haven’t got a greenhouse yet and a lot remain unplanted. So nowadays I limit myself to five types of perennials a year and I buy the seeds from Chiltern Seeds or Jelitto, both excellent companies with great germination rates. If you get some friends to do the same, you can all swap in the Spring. It’s simply impossible to manage too many different types and I just hate to waste the seedlings. It makes me feel like a murderer if I don’t use every one. Since I have started to take cuttings from perennials in previous years, or divide the mature plants, I can quickly fill my your garden with perennials which are hard to find in Portugal, very cheaply. I’ve already been successful with Penstemon, Gaillardia, Euphorbia Rigidus, Aquilegia, Alstromeira and Comfrey, amongst other things.
When it comes to vegetables, I have also come to realise that the heirloom varieties and other things we all love in the UK may not work at all well here, although some things do. It’s a matter of trial and error, which is part of the fun of gardening.
May all your seeds fall upon fertile ground and produce wonderful plants for you in the Spring, gardening friends. I’d love to hear your hard earned tips too!