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Growing local

One of the great conundrums of being a mulchy-type person is that I tend to prefer to plant seedlings rather than direct sow seeds.

After all, my beds are carpeted with a lot of fibrous stuff that covers the soil thickly and any seed -- weedy or otherwise -- therein.

How is a seed to survive when the whole protocol is not about bare earth, but instead  is ruled by suppression and smothering?

Over the years I've invested gardening dollars  and effort in seed raising mixes, wee pots, cells and trays to encourage the seeds I buy out of  dormancy. Just so, that is, I can plant a seedling rather than a seed into my patch.

But. But. Despite much practice and care I reckon I've been had. The results -- let alone the expected harvests --aren't there.

On the other hand a directly sown seed is blessed with some advantages. Here are a few I've found:

  • Direct sowing is less work than transplanting.
  • No need to buy seedling mix, flats, heat mats or lights – or own a greenhouse
  • Direct sown plants have better drought tolerance – the roots grow without damage
  • Seeds are incredibly cheap in comparison with transplants (baby plants in pots)
  • When seeds germinate, they send a root down toward the center of the Earth; direct sowing allows natural root growth to happen unhindered by a wall of plastic or wood in a flat or pot.
  • Low-vigor (wimpy) seeds might not make it in a direct sowing scenario (compared with being babied in a greenhouse), which automatically culls weaker plants
  • Some crops have millions of plants - you couldn't possibly transplant enough! (eg:carrots)
  • The moist earth holds water for longer than tiny amounts of seedling mix in flats or pots; direct sowing decreases the chances of your seedlings drying out if you forget to water for a day
  • Scale of production: Many crops are direct sown on a large scale to avoid costs associated with greenhouse production and transplanting
  • Certain crops grow well at high density and/or are more easily harvested at high density, and are therefore better suited to direct sowing (e.g. cilantro, baby spinach)
  • Areas can be re-vegetated quickly and cheaply
  • Seeds cost less than seedlings
  • Seed is easier and cheaper to transport and store than seedlings
  • A mixture of trees, shrubs and groundcovers can be sown at the same time.
  • The different rates of germination mimics natural regeneration 
  • Direct seeded plants tend to have better root growth and are therefore more prepared for climatic extremes

The challenge nonetheless remains: How do you direct sow seeds into a mulched garden?

This I have done. I'm saying now that I have not done it often enough nor with sufficient perseverance.

  • OBVIOUSLY, you must scrape back the mulch to create a seed bed. I like making narrow cleared rows approximately  15-25 centimeters wide.
  • To protect this 'bed' from re-incursion by mulch, I use small logs, bits of timber or metal edging, old lengths of garden hose... so that it is walled in and separated from the broader mulched area. Something like a canyon.
  • I used to add seed raising mix (or compost) to these fence-in areas but really all you need do is prepare the soil as best as you can. Break up lumps. Remove twigs and crusty bits of mulch. Make the soil friable. Turn it over lightly if you have to.
  • Pat it down.
  • Then plant your seed...I use a pair of  metal surgical  flat nosed tweezers (available from chemists/pictured below left--don't get rat toothed)to pick up the seeds from a seed sewing dish (pictured above right).
  • I've never found that walking and crouching on a well mulched bed is a problem. You'll do it so rarely that the soil recovers soon enough from your weight with the first drop of rain..
  • It's a good idea to label your narrow beds re contents. On that I'm tardy. But at least mark their beginning and end with a prominent pole. I make all my plantings with recycled  (often white coated) tubular steel.Bits and pieces I hoard. Stands out. Plain wood or branches won't stand out.
  • Plant the seeds and sprinkle over the bed a light dusting of short stem mulch material.
  • Once the seedlings come up and you've culled them according to your desire-- you can daintily reintroduce the  local mulch to these narrow beds (between the new plants) and remove the fencing.
  • arge areas of direct seeding can be established quickly •directly seeded plants establish quickly and develop stronger root systems, and are generally more hardy than nursery grown seedlings •natural selection results in stronger plants •a broad range of trees and understorey shrubs can be establish

That's the theory anyway. Inasmuch as I've learnt anything.

We've deployed the same approach at the school garden to good effect. So it can work with kids too.

But on the broader question of raising seedlings from bought seeds FIRST I do think we subtropical types have been hoodwinked by European Winter chill-and-frost thinking . We may not transcend the seasons but our plants have a much warmer bed in the outdoors than these offshore growers do. Those who write so many DIY manuals...


The gardening industry isn't going to say otherwise because they make money out of the mixes and pots and cells and domes and peat they sell us.

The nursery industry that grows the seedlings for horticulture is so mechanized and finely tuned as to supplementation and irrigation, that your at-home set up of cells and trays won't be able to compete. Indeed, seedling plants bought at commercial nurseries are likely forced on with high doses of fertilizer and may falter when they reach your soil.

My regular seedling supplier's stock is very reliable but punnets bought elsewhere are certainly not as robust once I get them in the ground.This is no doubt why the logic of organic seed makes sense. Once addicted and dependent from a very early age, plants can only thrive with supplements.

For good DIY, this ABC segment from Jerry Coleby-Williams -- The Perfect Seed Bed --is inspiring ans reviews first principles.

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Rather than believe everything that I tell myself, I thought I'd go public and see what direct planting of seeds can do in a mulched setting. Despite the chilly weather these beds were registering a soil temp of 18C. So in went various cabbages, radishes, and coriander -- accompanied by a dusting of composted cow manure.

While I used edging on one bed, on the others I played Moses and parted the mulch.

You'll note the close proximity of the Vetiver. I've found that cheek to jowl with Vetiver  makes for happy veges. This is one reason why I am  adding even  more Vetiver hedges to my beds.

I'm also experimenting with logs and other stem and wooden items as edging mulches -- like the bent log at the top  of the bottom image.

Old bits of timber can be recycled and put to work edging plant families simply by laying them on top of the mulch -- Syntropy style.

Best of all for that task are banana stems.

I'm wondering if anyone has done a "Ruth Stout" and planted straight into the mulch?  It seems to me that you'd need to wait until the mulch had settled but I can't see why it wouldn't work.  Oi Dave - have you tried it?  Anyone else? 

Hypothetically you need soil to plant in. So I assume you plant through the mulch or into a dollop of soil or compost suspended in the mulch. Otherwise it would be too confusing for the poor seed to root.

I've done zucchini, corn, potatoes and pumpkin that way but when you are sowing  minute seeds or root veg, you are maybe asking too much.

I have self seeded lettuce come up through mulch, tomatoes and chillies.  I think we have ourselves a challenge, my good man!  LOL.  Just a shame that it's winter.  I have bugger all garden space that gets sun right now. I'm gunna give it a damn good crack though. 

First light is around 6am at the moment and shifts to 6.35am mid year.

This month, sunset slips back to approx 5pm.  But we have 10 hrs and 33 mins of daylight to enjoy at momento: clear skies and warmish sun. Example.

However, I wouldn't be gung ho if I was in Stanthorpe ... it was chilly ++++ yesterday and this morning. Iced ponds.

But for whatever reason (mulching?) my top layer is a balmy 18C despite the shadows that fall. 14/15C at Brisbane airport.

And I took my soil temp in 4 separate places.

I tend to look upon shade as an excuse to move my garden south...

Just thinking: another relevant process may indeed be (since I'm using mainly lawn clippings as compost) that there is heat being generated through slow composting within the mulch.

The Parisian Market Gardens of the late 19th century, buried stable manures which heated up their gardens enough to grow out-of-season vegetabes that were even exported to London.

So things may not be as they seem....

Then there is the arc: LINK.

and as you know, I compost my grass before mulching.  Between the two of us, we might actually learn something.  Although you're spot on about the sun arc.  Hell, even plants that happen to be under the shade of some other plant end up quite different.  

I spent most of today moving grass clippings from the verge to my outback beds. For some reason my mower-men have been generous this last fortnight.I had a huge mound on my nature strip. A metre high at least.

I see moving it as my gym membership.

But it is never enough.

Once the Vetiver grows tall enough I can use that. The Vetiver harvest at the school garden has served as mulch for half the beds. But I've been dividing my domestic stock for community projects...and I have so many beds.

My garden and its hedges double as a Vetiver nursery.

The problem -- or the advantage --with grass clippings is that they break down so quickly...and they attract flies.

Why I don't know but the fly fraternity loves to hang around cut grass piles. Vetiver with its scented stems does not attract them. Indeed it repels them. Inside the  maze at the school garden you can walk around mosquito and fly free. But lawn cut mowed grass under certain moist conditions beckons them.

I'm sure straw or hay would do the same as it breaks down.

A neighborhood of chooks (we have 2 and our next doors' have 6 and 10!)doesn't help either. Plus dogs, of course...

[I'm rationalizing...]

I've not found any maggots in the grass or any mulch I've used. Even my lidded compost trenches are maggot free.Any maggots, I'm sure, the skinks will eat.

But the earth worms LOVE the grass.

So, regrettably, decay has a price tag...

Since I've built up my soil with grass clippings (over 9 years), I'm looking forward to switching to Vetiver mulch exclusively , in part, because it takes a year to break down.

I direct sow my carrot seeds on the ground, over a small layer of wet coir peat. It keeps the layer wet enough but still drain excess moisture. It also easier to see where the seeds have fallen. It seems to have worked so far.

For bigger seeds or plants that will take more room when mature, I prefer seedlings, just because I can't afford to waste time and space on "maybe it will grow" where I can grow greens in the meantime. I have had a lot of failure with beans and peas in the ground. 

A good middle ground is to sow in trays but in long rows in newspaper. When it come to transplant I just slide from one side or break the bottom middle once placed in the little trench.  

Just on mulching per se, I found this video useful.

  1. Grass clippings are good.
  2. Weed seeds you can live with...
  3. You really need a lot of mulch ion hand to be able to maintain the depth and suppress weed outbreaks.
  4. Mulch material can be got from  a lot of sources for free.

This is an excellent discussion about mulching and mulches:

Agreed. 

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