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These days we can get plants from the garden centre ready to go straight into the ground. Why bother to grow from seed

01:00 Fri 01st Feb 2002 |

A.� For the casual or occasional gardener then there is no reason why an occasional trip to the garden centre shouldn't suffice.

But anyone who has really got the gardening bug knows that there is little more satisfying that actually breeding your own plants from the very start. There is also a real satisfaction in having plants that are truly home grown rather than the product of a large commercial operation.

There are also good practical reasons. The major seed merchants can offer a huge choice of flowers and vegetables in comparison with your average garden centre where you will usually find just one or two different varieties on offer within each group.

The second extremely practical reason is price. Even accounting for the compost and seed trays or pots, you'll get a packet of seeds for considerably less than the cost of buying a tray of a few seedlings.

Q.� So which seeds do we start inside and which can be sown directly into the ground

A. Anything which is labelled half-hardy is started off under glass, in the conservatory or a light windowsill.

Hardy plants can be sown directly into the ground either in autumn, a good idea with hardy annuals, or spring. However, many people sow both hardy annuals and vegetable seeds inside around this time of year to get a head start, meaning that they have established young plants ready to go in as soon as the weather allows.

Q. What are the basic preparations needed before you sow seed inside

A.� Hygiene is important before you start to do anything. Always wash out pots and trays before use in case they harbouring diseases that could attack seedlings.

It is also advisable to always use fresh seed compost, like a John Innes No 1, as recycled compost can also be infected. Lastly, use tap water instead of collected rainwater, again because of possible contamination.

Fill the container to the top and evenly and only firm down gently. If the compost is too compact it can waterlog and cause failure to germinate or rotting off.

Q. What about conditions, temperature and moisture etc

A.� The first thing to do is always read the packet, as different seeds need different treatment.

If the seed is very fine it is best to water the compost and then sow directly onto it rather than pouring water on top afterwards. Some seeds will require a light covering after sowing while others need light to germinate. Again, it will tell you on the packet.

Some seeds need humidity to germinate which can be provided by slipping a clear plastic bag or cling film over the tray or putting a pot in a clear plastic bag, making sure you keep them out of direct sunlight. When the seedlings emerge the cover should be loosened to allow air in and then removed altogether after a couple of days.

The optimum temperature for most seeds to germinate is approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although there are many that will germinate at lower values. Take time to check. The key is to provide consistent conditions. The more they fluctuate the more variable your results will be.

Q.� Right, so what do you do once they have germinated

A.� What's called pricking out. Once the seedling is big enough to handle by their cotyledon leaves, that is the first two leaves that emerge, they can be teased out of the compost and put into separate pots or trays to grow in readiness for planting outside.

Use a dibber, a pencil or even a lolly stick and loosen them from the compost, making sure not to damage their young roots. Removing them by holding the leaves (never hold the young stem, you'll almost certainly damage it) and push them gently into holes you have already made in the compost and then gently firm in. Water in, making sure not to waterlog them, and feed until the plant is strong and sturdy to go outside.

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By Tom Gard

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