This is the time of the year when all of us gardeners – and hopefully many who have never gardened before – start sowing seeds. It is the most exciting, miraculous process and never loses its thrill.
I grow as much as possible from seed – vegetables, herbs, annual flowers, biennials, grasses and even shrubs and trees. In essence, growing things from seed is simple enough.
You spread the seed thinly onto damp compost, cover them lightly, water them and put them somewhere warm to germinate. Some are slower to bring through to maturity than others, but mostly they grow. And anything raised from a small seed somehow feels like a triumph and is much more satisfying than buying plants ready grown.
Monty Don shares his advice for growing as many plants as possible from seed. Pictured: Monty sowing seeds for spring
Over the years I’ve come to realise two central elements about gardening. The first is that most plants want to grow. Stick ’em in the ground the right way up and the chances are they’ll survive.
The second is that if you want any plant to achieve its full potential then attention to detail at every stage – particularly the early stages – makes all the difference. There are very few killer tips or tricks in gardening, but there are small things that make a big difference when added all together.
This includes the potting compost that you use. You can buy any old bag of general purpose compost and most things will grow. But be a bit more careful about your choice, exercise a little fine-tuning at every stage along the way and everything will grow better.
Q I planted some herbs last June. The thyme and mint look fine but my parsley is in terminal decline. What’s wrong?
Georgina McGurk, Hereford
A Once parsley starts to put on a flowering stem it ceases to produce leaves, and when the seeds have formed it’ll die. Also, parsley likes rich, deep soil with lots of moisture, whereas thyme and mint prefer poor soil and more sun.
Q My euonymus shrub is covered in what looks like white fly, causing it to shed leaves and look sickly. Help!
Eileen Thomas, Essex
A This sounds like the euonymus scale insect. The males are white, and the females, which also feed on the sap, are brown. They can cause leaves to yellow and even drop, weakening the plant. Wash or scrape off those you can see, prune badly affected branches, and encourage predators like ladybirds.
Q Will any plants survive in my windowless bathroom?
Louise Frances, London
A Try the Boston fern [below left], philodendrons, spider plants, ivy, aloe vera or the snake plant [below right]. Also happy in dark, rather humid spots are the bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus), the peace lily (Spathiphyllum) or the dramatic fiddle- leaf fig (Ficus lyrata).
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Start by avoiding peat. Everybody should know this by now but peat extraction does great environmental harm, and no gardener should want to be part of that.
Some claim that peat is a ‘better’ growing medium but that is not my experience. I have not used a peat-based compost for the past 25 years and my garden is doing pretty well.
Even if there was a small advantage in using peat for a few plants, it would not justify the environmental degradation and damage that peat extraction causes. Just say no.
So I would recommend starting with a proprietary bark or coir-based compost. But this can then be enhanced. There is no magic formula but I can share what works for me and which I have experimented with and developed over the last quarter century of raising thousands of plants every year.
For my coir-based seed mix, I add roughly a third in volume of sieved leaf mould, a quarter of sieved garden compost, a quarter of vermiculite, and a tenth of soil from the garden.
Nothing is measured accurately and I am perfectly relaxed in adding more vermiculite or leaf mould to open it out a little. I make a batch at a time – usually in a wheelbarrow – mix it up well and store under cover.
The garden soil and garden compost are important as the seedlings build a symbiotic relationship with the particular micro-organisms of the garden soil and this improves their growth and health when they’re planted in the garden.
If the compost mix is dry, I place the seed tray in a shallow container of water for around 10 minutes. It will then not need watering from above for a few days.
This is useful for those seeds placed on the surface so they aren’t all pushed to the edge of the tray by the spray from the watering can. Otherwise, I place them on a heated bench, water them and leave them to germinate.
In a few weeks, I will share my experience and experiments with the potting composts I use and how they affect different kinds of plants – but for the moment, just get out there and start sowing!
MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: THE PRIMROSE
Monty said primroses (pictured) are a symbol of simple beauty and do best in lightly shaded but damp soil
A symbol of innocent and simple beauty, the primrose grows in one of my favourite environments – coppice woodland.
This may sound niche but garden shrubs of many kinds, like willow, dogwood, hazel and elderberry, can offer exactly the same conditions, especially if they are occasionally pruned hard.
Primroses do best in lightly shaded but damp soil and along the base of a hedge or a bank is ideal. Lift and divide large clumps after flowering every few years, although you will find that they seed themselves readily.
THIS WEEK’S JOB: SPREAD SNOWDROPS
Dig up your largest clumps of snowdrops and pull them apart into two or three smaller groups. Replant these around the garden so they join up to become a white carpet next January and February. Let the leaves die back naturally so their goodness feeds next year’s flowers.