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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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Direct sowing of seeds is good if the plant takes time to mature  but if you do direct sow seeds going to need  spares or have to resow where the seed fails  but if growing corn replanting is not possible because the replanting is going to be out of phase  with flowering  and height .

 If you plant a crop like  pak choi which when it matures spreads out  and takes space the small seedlings are going to use a big space  and need more water then if the seedlings are in small Potts  can transplant without the plant suffering  and if harvest the pak choi  can put a seedling back in the space  and not have to wait and increase the harvest in space used.

I'm direct sowing now because I reckon I've wasted a lot of time, effort and money  pursuing  the alternative seed raising approach.

Making your own seed raising mix, seed raising bed or buying in seed raising material  hasn't  delivered  for me in way of results.

In contrast I can buy a packet of seeds for $1.50 go out back and sow them.

What could be simpler?

When it isn't naturally moist there, I irrigate.

All I need to do this is reliable quality and fresh seed. (And that, my friends, is not guaranteed).

If I was contained by a regular frost season and a brutal Winter, advancing the seeds 'indoors' makes sense. But I live in the subtropics and our worst garden time is the height of Summer.

Either way, I still maintain my garden beds with plants in mind.

Here's another video discussion of pro and con in a mulched situation:

Each to their own...

I recall my past gardening hesitancies fueled by the notion that seeds and planting was supposedly an exotic past time.  And what happens?

When the plants don't thrive or come up -- gardening becomes 'too hard' for your newbie doubts.

Some how it's supposedly a tech failure -- bad tools  or something -- when the real issue you may fail to appreciate is your soil.

If a plant can self seed why then does it need your anxiety to make it grow?

Our domestic enemy --aside from the weather -- is the critters who eat what we sow.

In contrast the horticulture industry is a controlled environment measured by staggered fertilizer measures, water volumes & irrigation times, soil mixes,shade  and glass houses.

There is, however, one facet of growing from seedlings that is persuasive if you were in intense production mode.

Valerie flags it: space.

You can bring on a seedling ready to plant out when space is available.A contact of mine in Nicaragua does that: sewing seedlings in mulch using paper pots.

Indeed what point is it to purchase 50 seeds for a space that will only fit three plants? Only to have the seeds decay while you wait for the next planting opportunity.

Hello Bunnings!  Floriana Easy Grow. Diggers. Zoom. Pohlmans....

I received some rooted Walking Onions in the mail this week. Keen to have another go with them.

But  the script these delights came with had this to say:

"Keep your plants in part shade position for 1-2 days then move them into full sun for at least 1 week before transplanting."

-- Greenpatch Seeds

We're talking trauma therapy here.  Mind you this is after Australia Post has been at them. But still 'tis transplant food for thought.

Since we began this discourse my direct sown seeds have sprouted much better than they would have in cells or flats. Indeed I planted out many different seeds and did so generously.

Experiment it was. Grow or die. Cabbages, carrots, celery, spring onions, peas, leeks, broad beans,

My soil temp at 10 am is still decent at around 20C despite what is said about mulch cooling the earth.

I'm keeping up short irrigation almost every day while the seeds root out. The dew is so heavy in the morning it is hard to judge what may be volume or frequency suitable.

That's' the other issue related to mulch gardening: watering.

I've tended to water frequently and lightly because I am on such sandy soil. But my penchant for microclimate ambience and my respect for the power of mulch, only affirms this approach. Irrigating for long periods of time simply does not make sense despite what the horticultural pundits argue.

Surely an essential gardening partnership is with water vapour?  And the water here keenly drains away down to the aquifers.

Fungi pathogens are sure to be an issue anyway.

But with seeds in the ground, I have another excuse to water lightly and frequently. Not that I seek a wet mulch. After all, my H20 feeling is ruled by a hand dug through the mulch and into the dirt.

After years if relying on clay pot irrigation  I cannot see the harm with moisturising the soil (even it be only the top layer)as a consistent preference. Similarly, since I switched to sprinklers I notice no difference in plant health in way of any fungal infections. In fact, with the overhead spray, or despite it, they are thriving.

As for the horror of wetting the plant leaves? What does rain do if not that? And rain visits any time of the day or night in volumes of its choosing.

I'd think that this perspective is handy for direct sewing of seeds. It puts you in touch with what the plants want from you.

The other related issue to this is the excellent preference for close mass planting of veggies (it is surely very much 'in')  is likely to be as hypotheticlaly  fungi conducive as overhead watering. And doesn't mulch itself supposedly sponsor fungi in its weave?

So I reckon a wake-up call is warranted as to what is assumed to be best practice.

I think  maybe that's it: I'm a water vapour man rather than an any day deep soil wetter.

I think there is a fair amount of water particles in the soil anyway, or we would have a desert.  The long roots search them out and by keeping long roots live or dead, creates tunnels for water to penetrate the soil. Your vetiver roots should maintain water particles in the soil and the mulch blanket keeps the moisture level up in the top few centimetres.  This is what I think, what do you think keeps the level of moisture in the soil.

There are no hoses or sprinklers in the forest or bush.  We supplement our gardens to maintain a higher moisture level as we want things to happen faster. The deep ground worms are also our water helpers creating pathways for water to sink into the ground. 

Some seeds seem to sprout better if stimulated with water and others just like to be covered.  A lot of what we do in the garden, is just to speed things up.  

US gardening lore argues that vegetables need 1 inch (25mm/2.5cm)  of water per week.

That's 234 litres per 9 square metres ...PER WEEK!

Supposedly that will soak down to a depth of 20 cm.

I think this is an absurd template for a water budget.

I think plants themseles-- as well as soil carbon --  will keep the moisture up (if its there) either underground or as vapour particles in the air.

Indeed the definition of 'drought' is ruled by the moisture issue.

Defining and measuring drought can be judged by how much soil moisture the vegetation can still get out of the soil.

POV:The Vetiver not only acts as a transpiration  pump but it rules the above ground atmosphere and moistens it in partnership with the vegetable plants themselves.  The more plants covering the soil -- the more transpiration and microclimating. In that sense the mulch layer is a sponge and blanket.

Evaporation is greatly limited and more water is held within the confines of the bed.

This is why my beds are getting smaller and smaller as I keep dividing them with more Vetiver hedges.

There's a guy in Vietnam experimenting with planting  trees jeek to jowl with Vetiver(see image). In Thailand they ring trees in Vetiver hedges along early growth drip lines.

Other practioners plant Vetiver sporadiclaly throughout the beds rather than utilising hedges.

My Rozie did the direct sow recently on dill and coriander.  She did sweep the mulch back where she stuck her finger in to make the hole.  Both are coming up well.  

Following Mr Riley's thoughts about "rain falls on leaves", I'd suggest that nature has evolved not to provide a great deal of care when planting and growing.  It appears to me that she normally does a better job than me.  Just saying. 

I just squeeze the "guts" out of cherry tomatoes and walk away.  They seem to be doing pretty well.   I leave my plants to self seed now and that seems to work pretty well too.  If I were to use parsley as an example, it works too damn well.  I have a self seeded lettuce crop coming on and my four Jap. pumpkins came from a volunteer from the compost.  

I am becoming increasingly convinced that my job is just to grow my soil.  Any plant that I have should be able to reproduce itself.  If I want something new, then I might have to buy one.  I've been quite carefully growing that damn soil for 5 years now.  The building site is still a bit of .... a building site but at least things stay alive for the most part.  

My problem with direct sowing seeds is time.  If they fail, you’ve got to replant, then wait to see if those come up etc.  with my slater problem munching the seedlings as soon as they appear, 3 weeks would often pass.  That’s a long time for valuable space in my beds to be wasted.  

Temperature  of the soil is very important have planted corn in the hot weather in small pots and it took 4 days to germinate  but in the ground could get too hot and not survive  each type of seed has an optimal temperature  for germination  and seedlings grown have a better environment plus you can pick the best  and plant out without  having vacant space.

Granted Susan.

Horses for courses.

On slaters I found this:

"I’ve always thought pill bugs (we call them slaters) only occasionally eat seedlings and only if the garden is imbalanced. Try to plant a variety of things together, including flowers such as marigolds, calendula and nasturtiums, and let plants like parsley and carrots go to seed. Try to have plants of different ages, stages and sizes mixed. Also, I protect my new seedlings with half a toilet roll pushed into the ground a bit."

While I'm still in direct sowing mode -- while I'm momentarily obsessed --  I want to draw your attention to a seed spacing tool which you could make yourself:the garden seed stamp

Designed as an adjunct to Square Foot Gardening  the tool makes planting sense.

Maybe you'd prefer a narrower stamp? I would.

You could make your own customized size using dowell pegs but thern I saw this which is a much better device, I reckon.

Just a series of laid out holes through which you jab a 'dibbler' and drop the seed. You could drill out the pattern in any piece of board or an old piece of rubber matting or cardboard like material, like this early prototype:

Seed planting 'wands' or dibblers look like this (at right). you can buy them in hardware stores. Or use a pencil.

Another option is an adapation: the wooden planting ruler (left/below):

Diggers sell these

Also HERE.

I'm not that much into set distances as a gardening dogma, but some formal separation of holes means you are less wasteful of seeds.

Best of all you are less likely to lose your place as you sow.

That's clever.

When you're on a good thing....

Inspired and despite my abysmal carpentry skills, I thought I'd make my on seed-planter template.

I used an old length of leftover vinyl plank -- and, despite our drill being elsewhere, with various nails and screw ends and started making holes at measured distances.

Not finished but you get the idea. Warning: I did drill down separate from my pen marks as I'm no draftsman.

More holes to come.

The material worked wunderbah  and being vinyl, no splitting.

But here's the drum: I thought I'd cut out maybe three plant rulers but then realised that if I  kept the template broad, it would:

  1. act as a tray on which to rest my seeds and tools while I plant
  2. serve as a plate that could catch any seeds I drop so that I can later scoop them up without them being contaminated by the dirt.
  3. enable me to stand on the template to firm down the soil for planting as my feet would fit on its surface area.   (Try that with plastic or a 'ruler' -- this stuff was made to be walked on.

I tested these holes with my dibbler and it's A-OK.

As for the distance between holes: I improvised according to my sowing habits and preferences. I guess it's a question of anality.

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