How to give your vegetable seeds the best possible start.

The vegetable season often begins quite a while before spring as you plant your seeds and prepare your beds at the end of winter. While many types of vegetables do well being sown directly into their growing beds, many organic farmers prefer to germinate their seeds in seed trays where they can be sheltered from any unfavourable weather conditions until they are strong, and in order to space the plants out to the desired spacing from the start – thereby avoiding having to thin the seedlings later. I choose to plant my seedlings in trays so that I can start planting earlier than I would be able to if I had to wait till the weather outside was warm enough for the seeds to be planted in the ground.

First you need to get, or make yourself seedling trays consisting of little squares into which you plant your seeds. You fill these trays with either an organic germination mix from your local nursery or some good compost. Then you make a small hold in the compost and insert the seeds. With bigger seeds such as pumpkin seeds I only plant one in each square of the tray, but with smaller seeds that can germinate together I might plant between 3-6 so I can get 2/3 plants from that one square when I plant them out.

Once planted, all you need to do is water them daily and place them in a spot where they will get warm late winter sun as vegetable plants need full sun. It is ideal if you have a little protected greenhouse or growing tunnel to grow your seedlings in as they will be protected from the wind and cold but still get full sun in the day. One of the fundamentals of organic farming is providing your seeds with the best possible environment to grow in, so take some time to find the best spot with lots of light, fresh air and enough water for your seeds. Your seed packs should give you an indication as to how long it will take for each vegetable to germinate, as they have different times, but it is lovely to see them peeking out of the sand reaching for the sun.

It is also important to note that heirloom and open pollinated seeds grow differently from hybrid seed and do not germinate as easily as hybrids but do grow to be healthy strong plants. I often have to heat my seeds at night during August and September (late winter and early spring) as they don’t germinate in the cold evening weather. I place my seedling trays on a hot tray on low or stack them under my electric blanket at night till the night temperatures rise.

While you wait for your seedlings to mature, you need to prepare your beds for outside planting. There are many types of beds you could make - a raised bed or a deep bed, any shape or size as long as you have room to walk between the rows to work in the beds. Decide where you want your beds and then dig down deep to loosen the soil and aerate it. Remove any rocks or stones that you can and then add liberal amounts of broken down compost and manure. Then mix this into your soil, adding agricultural lime if you wish to get a balanced PH level in your soil.

When your seedlings are strong and healthy – about a month later – it is time to plant them into your beds outside. Once you have planned out what you are going to plant where, decide how you want to plant your plants. You could have them in rows, or staggered rows or in another type of pattern. Often it is a good idea not to plant large beds in straight rows as this might attract birds and pests who are looking out for certain vegetables to eat. Staggered rows work well as they save space. Your seed pack will also indicate how far apart to plant the plants so try to measure as accurately as possible the distance between the plants so as to give each plant the space they need to grow.

Then you just take the seedlings out of the seed trays and plant them into the pre-dug holes in the bed at the required distance between plants. Give your new seedlings a gentle water after they have been planted so as not to destabilize them in the soil. Don’t be surprised if you see some of your young plants deteriorate over the next few days as they settle in. Make sure you give them a bit of water and hopefully they will all recover once they have become established in the soil.

Each vegetable needs to be grown differently so refer to the specific pages on the vegetables you are planning to plant in order to know what to do next.