Sow, here we go again

brussels seed

The sowing season is upon us again. Or maybe not again, maybe this is your first year of sowing seeds, in which case I will try and give you a few helpful tips and aldvice, based purely on what I have learned over the years. I rarely do these ‘how to’ kind of posts, but I could probably do with paying attention to my own advice, as I often stupidly repeat the same mistakes each year. Okay, seed trays at the ready.

1. The first thing to remember is not to be too eager and start too soon. Even if you have a lovely windowsill that sits in the sun, or maybe over a toasty warm radiator, warmth is only one of the things that seeds need to germinate, they need some appropriate soil and water yes, but crucially they need light. To be more precise they need a set number of daylight hours, which is how they know it’s spring and not still the middle of winter. You can trick them into thinking it’s spring with some warmth, but unless you can also provide the extra hours of light, then they will struggle, and usually they end up growing very tall and thin in their poor desperation to seek out that light. I have rescued seeds like this before by potting them on in deeper pots, in effect burying their stems to make them shorter again and less vulnerable to damage. But it’s not ideal. Better to have strong, sturdy plants to start with. Late Feb to early March is okay for those plants that need a long growing season. March for hardier plants or those that will be grown inside, and April for the rest.
sowing seeds
2. Mistake number 2 you should try and avoid is sowing too many seeds. I still succumb to this mistake every year. Oh there’s only a few left in the packet, what the hell, throw them all in. The only moderately exceptional excuse here is if the seeds are old, and you’re doubtful of their germination success, and the chances are the rest of the packet will get thrown out anyway. In which case, I do sometimes decide to sow whatever is left in a pack, and (with a slight wince) I compost the unneeded seedlings. It makes me feel like a seedling murderer, but space is often at a premium. You can also put the seeds onto some damp kitchen paper to see if they sprout and get an idea of whether they are still viable or not.
kale seedlings
3. Sow the seeds to the correct depth – the seed packets usually give advice here, but in general the larger the seed the deeper they go, and really tiny ones barely need covering at all. I then highly recommend a light covering of either vermiculite or perlite. This soaks up any excess moisture and slowly releases it back, ensuring the compost doesn’t get too damp and mouldy or too dry, and it also helps to reflect light. Then, most importantly, remember to label them. Even if you think you’ll remember what is in there, trust me, you won’t, label them!
chilli seed
4. Be patient with waiting for them to germinate. Some seeds are quick off the mark, like those odd people who spring out of bed at 6 in the morning, whereas some seeds are a little more sluggish and take their time getting going. I would say if they haven’t germinated after 3 weeks, then they’re probably not going to. My first chillies took almost 3 weeks though, so don’t give up too early.
5. Once they have germinated, keep them just moist (preferably water from below to drawn the roots downwards) and give them a gentle little stroke or blow once in a while. That’s not just me treating my seedlings like pets (even though they are) it actually helps to simulate wind and strengthens their stems.
lettuce pricking out
6. When they develop their first pair of true leaves (usually the 2nd set of leaves after the seed leaves) they are ready to upgrade to a roomier accommodation, but don’t give them too much space too quickly. When it comes to pricking out, some people find a pencil or a chop stick very useful, I have a mini plastic dibber that you can sometimes find in garden centres. Make a hole in the compost of the next pot (I normally use cell trays at this point) and holding the seed leaf, gently tease the seedling from its pot or tray and carefully lower it into its new home, pushing the root down into the hole with your tool, though be careful not to damage the stem here. Push the soil back around to firm it in, and give them a good drink of water. They’ll be a little stressed, but then who isn’t after moving home? They’ll recover fine in time and once they get used to their new surroundings they’ll start romping away.
letuce in coldframe
7. You can now start to acclimatise them to cooler conditions, unless they’ll be indoor grown. A coldframe is useful here, and at this time of year I use these unheated propagators inside the cold frame for a little extra protection. Possibly they’ll need potting on again before they make it to their final home, if roots start growing out of the bottom of the pot, that’s a sign they’ve outgrown their space. Oh and finally, watch out for tiny baby slugs that like to hideout in the smallest of crevices, such as under the lip of a pot or between the cells of cell trays. They’ll wait there until after dark and then go on a late night feeding frenzy on whatever delights you have so thoughtfully provided them.

Hope some of this helps. Don’t be daunted with any of it, mistakes are the quickest way to learn, and those little seeds really want to grow, they just need a little help from you.


  1. Wonderful Zoe.. I love this time of year.. I planted some Aster seeds this morning. Our cauliflower, broccoli and Leeks and cabbage are now through in their seed trays.. Some have been transplanted to 3 inch pots..
    Great advice and your seedlings are looking great..
    Happy gardening.. xx Sue


  2. Hello, I have recently got an allotment and planted my first seeds last weekend. I went straight to putting the seeds in cell modules, was this a mistake? Thanks!


    • Hi Tash, no that’s absolutely fine. I would normally do so too with larger seed such as peas and beans. With smaller seeds I start them in a smaller seed tray as they don’t need much space to start with, so I can maximise on space. And also my windowsill propagator uses small individual trays. I’m sure everyone has a different way of doing things, you just have to find what works for you. Good luck!


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