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And so it begins again.  Another year of seed sowing.  I did my first sowing of the year yesterday afternoon in the potting shed, and as always was completely and utterly in my element.  There’s a lot of talk of late about mindfulness and the need for us all to train our minds to slow down the chatter.  Over the last few years I’ve become interested in mindfulness meditation, sitting quietly for ten minutes, usually first thing in the morning.  I’ve discovered that you tend to notice the benefits elsewhere in the day rather than during the ten minutes on the cushion.  There are simply more moments during the day where you are fully present – noticing a sight or sound or sensation or smell, rather than being permanently distracted by the incessant stream of thoughts in your head.

You also notice that some activities lend themselves particularly well to mindfulness.  You might have to remind yourself to focus on washing your teeth for example, for it is a task that becomes so routine and so boring, that you rarely pay much attention to it.  But seed sowing for me is an activity that automatically silences the mind, and brings me back to present moment awareness.  I guess it’s because it’s such an intricate process, trying to coax the life out of tiny little seeds.  Anyway, it’s not surprising that the time I spend sowing seeds in the potting shed, is generally when I am at my most content (and honestly, ‘content’ is not a word that anyone would generally use to describe me).  Seed sowing is my happy place.

I always find it ironic that the sowing year kicks off in what still feels like the depths of winter with three of the quintessential Mediterranean crops – tomatoes, aubergines and peppers (chilli and sweet).  But all three of these vegetables need a long growing season in our climate and so they benefit from a hats-and-scarf February sowing.  You have the option of course of waiting another few months and buying the seedlings for these vegetables from a garden centre, but if you want to sow from seed then now’s the time to get cracking.  It’s way too cold for them to germinate in our miserable February weather (they will need a temperature of between 21 and 27 degrees Celsius) and so you need to provide them with artificial heat.  This can be done either by keeping them indoors on a sunny windowsill in the house, or if outside in a greenhouse, polytunnel or potting shed you will need a heated mat.  These are relatively inexpensive to buy.

I sow tomatoes, aubergines and peppers in module trays (one seed to each module) and then place the trays themselves on the heated mat.  The mat that I have is about 2m long and can be set to a specific temperature – it also has a sensor so if things warm up in the potting shed during the day, then it will switch itself off automatically.  Just to be sure, I also cover the module trays with fleece which should make a bitterly cold Dunmore East feel a little more like the south of Spain.  It will be a couple of months before the seedlings are moved on from the module trays in to their own pots, and longer again before they’re planted in the ground.  Crucially, I will have to wait until July to eat the first tomatoes.  But at least we’ve started..

The Basics – The Needs of Seeds

You will probably remember from your science classes back in school, that seeds need some specific conditions in order to germinate and thrive.  Most seeds need these 3 conditions:

  1. Heat – generally speaking most seeds need a decent temperature to germinate.  A warm windowsill in the house or a heated bench in the potting shed is therefore ideal for starting seeds off.  There are exceptions, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
  2. Light – once germination begins, light is essential.  This explains why seeds sown too early in the year often get ‘leggy’ and weak.  They are literally straining to reach the light because there is not enough daylight.  Some veg like celery and lettuce need light in order to germinate in the first place.  Most seeds need 14 hours or so of light in order to thrive.   Some growers even use artificial lighting to compensate for the lack of natural light early in the year.  I prefer to work with the seasons a little more.
  3. Humidity / Moisture – the key when it comes to watering seeds is that they need uniform moisture.  Not water-logged, and certainly never allowed to dry out.  Gentle watering with a fine rose is essential to ensure you don’t wash the seeds away (or push them too deep in to the soil to germinate).