Tips on direct sowing seeds in the vegetable garden

Root crops, such as these carrots and turnips, begin with direct sowing of seeds in the April garden.
Root crops, such as these carrots and turnips, begin with direct sowing of seeds in the April garden.
Posted April 06, 2012, at 4:21 p.m.
Last modified April 06, 2012, at 7:06 p.m.

Is a garden’s soil workable?

Digging and walking on soil that is too wet will destroy its structure, compacting it to the point that plant roots will not grow. How do you know when your garden’s soil is workable?

Pick up a handful of soil from one of the garden’s beds and squeeze it in your hand. If the soil remains in a tight clump after you release your hand, or if you can actually squeeze water out of the soil, it is still to wet to work. If the soil falls apart with just a little gentle prodding, grab a spade or fork and get to work, but keep your feet in the walkways. Walking on soil in which plants will be growing is never a good idea as even dry soils are compacted by foot traffic.

Many vegetable crops are best started by sowing their seeds directly into well-prepared soil. Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes and turnips are good examples. Their seedling tap roots are too easily damaged by transplanting seedlings grown indoors.

Most gardeners direct sow beans, peas and corn, although I know a few who try to get a jump on spring by sowing corn and beans indoors. They sow the seeds in peat pots to minimize transplant problems.

Other crops, such as lettuce, cucumbers and summer squash, are often grown from transplants at the beginning of the garden season, then grown from direct-sown seed later in summer for fall harvest. This is a matter of not wanting to keep the indoor seedling-production program going through the summer. Also, filling in those small patches of empty garden space that open up as main crops are harvested is quickly accomplished by direct sowing without a lot or prior planning. Just keep a supply of fresh seeds on hand.

Direct sowing requires a well-prepared seed bed. This need not involve deep tilling, which disrupts the soil food web, but rather shallow raking to remove soil clods, stones or anything that would interfere with emergence of tender shoots. There is never a need to disturb the soil deeper than the tines of a garden rake.

If you are a fan of no-till gardening, you may be sowing seed in a bed covered with mulch or remnants of the last crop. This material will have to be removed or raked into the space between rows before sowing.

Pay close attention to the seed packet for instructions on depth of sowing and spacing, both between seeds in each row and between rows. With these instructions in mind, make furrows in the bed, if you are of the straight-row persuasion. I look around for the nearest bamboo stake to make these furrows, use the handle of the rake or plow the sun-warmed soil with my fingers.

Furrows made, you are ready to sow seeds. For large seeds, such as beans, peas and corn, sowing at the proper within-row spacing is quick and easy. For small seeds, such as those of carrots, lettuce and spinach, it can be aggravating. While holding the open seed packet in your hand, you attempt to vibrate the seeds out the open end, one by one, tapping the packet with your index finger while moving the packet down the row at a uniform pace. The end result is an erratic pattern of two inches between seeds in some sections of the furrow and twenty seeds per inch in other sections. I usually settle for sowing thickly, followed by extensive thinning.

If you prefer to sow seeds in blocks that span the width of the bed rather than in rows, you need to rake enough soil aside to scatter the seeds within the block, then carefully pull the soil back over the seeds. For really small seeds, like those of lettuce and spinach, I’ve had good results just scattering the seed over the surface of the soil and then gently pulling the tines of a leaf rake over the soil a few times in both directions. Some seeds probably go too deep, but most do germinate.

Cucurbits, such as cucumbers, squash (both summer and winter) and melons, should be sown in hills, mounds of soil about two feet in diameter and flatted at the top. Five or six seeds should be planted in each hill, evenly spaced apart and at a depth recommended on the seed packet. Once these seeds germinate, thin to the most vigorous two or three seedlings, gently pulling the others out of the soil.

After sowing in rows or blocks or hills, the soil over the seeds needs to be gently firmed, either by hand or the back side of a spade, then soaked with a fine spray. Water until you know the soil is damp several inches deep.

Until the seeds germinate and send down roots to explore the soil, you will need to keep the soil moist by frequent gentle watering. Carrot seeds, for example, will not germinate uniformly or at all if the seed bed is allowed to dry out. A very light mulch of straw (so thin that you can still see the soil) will help conserve moisture, yet still allow the soil to stay warm enough for quick germination.

Note: This article was excerpted from my forthcoming book, “The New England Gardener’s Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, to be published later this year by Cadent Publishing.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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