• Maureen Little

Sowing the Seeds (of love? No, plants - nearly the same thing!)

Everyone loves a bargain. Everyone loves something for nothing even more! For us gardeners, one of the easiest ways of getting something for nothing is to collect seeds. Yes, you have to have bought, or perhaps been given, the plant in the first place, but from then on it’s freebies all way. (Unless the plant is governed by Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) in which case you are not allowed to propagate from it in any way without a licence, or the plant simply does not produce viable seed, like F1 hybrids which will not come true to their parent type.)

So, exceptions apart, sowing seed that you have gathered is a very cheap way to increase the number of plants you have. When it comes to annuals, this is really the only method to raise new plants, because, by their definition, they are ones which germinate, grow, flower, and set seed in one season.

Collecting Seeds

Collecting your own seed is very easy. The best way of deciding when seed is ripe enough to collect is to gently tap the spent flower – if the seed falls away easily then it is time.

Choose a dry, still day and equip yourself with a pair of flower snips or secateurs, and some paper (not plastic) bags or a tray or trays lined with newspaper.

Choose your seedhead and then either shake the seed into a bag or the tray, or snip off the entire head and pop it into the bag or tray to deal with later. Remember to make a note on the bag or tray which herb seed you have collected – you are bound to forget otherwise. (I speak from experience!)

Take your collection of seed indoors and clean it by removing it from the spent flower(s) and separating it from any chaff or other bits of plant material. Then spread the seed out on a piece of kitchen paper and put it in a dry, airy room for a few days to make sure the seed is completely dry.

Pick over the seed again and remove any damaged ones. I collect annual flower seeds as a matter of course, putting them in glassine envelopes after I have cleaned and sorted them and then popping the envelope into seed packets that I make from old magazine pages. Don't forget to label them with the name and the year of harvesting

You can raise other plants, such as perennials and even shrubs and trees, from seed but these take much longer to reach maturity. Seed sowing can be divided into two main sections: sowing seeds indoors and sowing seeds outdoors.

Sowing seeds indoors

Indoor sowing is suitable for a number of plants, particularly tender ones which can be started off and grown on inside so that they have a ‘head start’ when they are planted out in the garden when the weather is warm enough. Many vegetables benefit from indoor sowing, too, such as runner beans, tomatoes and courgettes. You can start sowing these in February or March.

The container you use will depend on the size of the seed. Small seeds can be sown into shallow trays and then when they are big enough they can be transplanted into bigger pots. Larger seeds can be sown into trays with individual modules which causes less disruption to the root system when you replant them. Very large seeds can have their own individual 9cm diameter pots right from the word go.

You can mix your own seed-sowing compost but I find that a proprietary compost which is specially formulated for seeds is the best: it is sterile and is not nutrient-rich. Fill your container with compost and gently firm it down. It is best to water at this stage: if you water after you have sown the seed, the water may wash the seed together, especially if it is fine. Small seeds can be scattered across the surface of the compost; larger seeds can be pushed into the surface. I then like to cover the seeds with perlite or vermiculite, rather than compost. These provide sufficient coverage without staying too moist.

Now all you need to do is cover the container with clear polythene, a sheet of glass, or its own plastic cover and put it in a warm place but you don’t need an elaborate greenhouse for this; anywhere with a fairly constant temperature and out of drafts will suffice. Much to my husband’s chagrin I use my kitchen window sill (he’s a very tidy person; I’m not): you can keep a constant eye on your ‘babies’ and you would be surprised how many small seed trays you can fit on it!

Once the seeds have germinated you can remove the cover so that the seedlings have good ventilation. When they have their first ‘true’ leaves (see picture) you can pot them on into individual modules or 9cm pots respectively, depending on whether they started off in trays or modules. You can use multi-purpose compost for this task, although I like to supplement it by putting a chicken manure pellet near the bottom of the module or pot to give the plant a little more in the way of nutrients as it grows. As soon as the plants are big enough, and the risk of frosts has disappeared, you can start hardening them off. This means gradually getting your babies used to the outside world. The easiest way to do this is to begin by putting them outside in a sheltered spot during the day and then bringing them back under cover at night. As the plants begin to ‘toughen up’ you can leave them outside all the time, but you must still give them some protection at night by covering them with some horticultural fleece. The hardening off process should take between two to three weeks, depending on the weather, by which time pesky frosts will be but a memory and the plants will be strong enough to be planted out in the garden.

Sowing seeds outdoors

Many seeds are best sown straight into the soil. You can sow seed outdoors as long as the soil is warm and moist, and the air temperature isn’t too high, which is practical terms means either mid spring to early summer, or late summer to early autumn.

It’s vital to have a good seedbed, free of weeds and with a fine tilth (think of the trays that you prepared for sowing indoors). With the corner of a hoe or rake make a drill, or shallow depression, in the soil, the depth of which will depend on the seed you are sowing: generally speaking the bigger the seed, the deeper it is planted. Then water the drill. Scatter or place the seed evenly along the drill and then cover the seed with a thin layer of soil.

You will need to check occasionally if the seeds need any water. If you have sown the seeds too thickly, you may need to thin them out when they are big enough. This simply means removing seedlings so that you are left with single plants, evenly spaced, with enough room between each for them to grow on. How far apart this should be will depend on the eventual size of the plant: for example, a pot marigold (Calendula) can be spaced about 20cm apart, whereas a courgette plant needs about a metre of space.


Whenever you take cuttings, divide plants, sow seeds - in fact anything that involves putting something into a pot or tray - make sure you LABEL IT. This is of such vital importance that it deserves to be in capital letters. No matter how good your memory is, I guarantee that you will have no idea what you put in which pot in even three weeks’ time, never mind three months.

If you entrust this task to a helper, it’s always a good idea to make sure that they know exactly what it is too. I recall the tale of a young lad (an intelligent boy who was eager to please) who wanted to help his grandpa sow some seeds. Grandpa’s eyesight wasn’t as good as it once was and although he could see well enough without his spectacles to distinguish the picture on the packet, scatter the seeds in the tray and cover them over, writing the labels was a challenge. On this occasion he had mislaid his specs so he asked Frank (not his real name) to do the honours, which Frank was only too willing to do. “What shall I write on the label, Gramps?” asked Frank, with pencil poised. “Well, Frank, my boy, these are Mesembryanthemum criniflorum” said Gramps. As I mentioned, Frank was a clever boy but, being only eight years old, he struggled with pronouncing Mesembryanthemum criniflorum, let alone spelling it. He didn’t want to lose face in front of his Grandpa, whom he idolized, so he pondered for a moment or two what to do. Then it came to him: he wrote ‘daisy’ on the label which, actually, wasn’t so far off the mark since Mesembryanthemum is the Latin name for Livingstone daisy. It had Gramps scratching his head some weeks later, though, when he came to pot on his seedlings.