Direct sowing vs seedling trays

Vegie garden epiphany number 2. 

Lettuce seedlings

Young lettuce seedlings, which we admire daily

The first is here.

When I was growing vegies in Sydney, I didn’t often bother raising seeds in trays, and then transplanting.  It always seemed a lot of faff for no good reason, with the added disadvantage of the risk of transplant shock.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my garden was small enough to comb thoroughly for caterpillars, I had unlimited town water and I had friable soil that held exactly the right amount of water for days at a time.  I also didn’t realise that all those things are unsustainable on a larger scale, with soil that is only on its way to being friable (from being best described as a combination of pottery – when it’s dry, and plasticine – when it’s wet).

So when we came here, we started by sowing everything direct, as usual.  And most of the time it worked.  Except we couldn’t mulch thickly until the seedlings were big enough to be able to poke through, and we had to water a large garden area almost daily.  And except when it suddenly got really hot, or rained hard, or a single cutworm knocked off all the newly-emerged seedlings in one go.

So when a very experienced permie gardener who lives near us remarked in passing that she mulches 30cm thick, raises seeds under shelter and plants out only advanced seedlings, and then HARDLY HAS TO WATER AT ALL, we listened.  And bought her book (which it turns out is very well known –except obviously not by us (sorry Linda!) – and the sort of thing I’ve been looking for, for a long time).

We’re roughly copying Linda’s method of seed-raising, as described in “The Permaculture Home Garden”.  I say roughly, because we don’t always have the exact materials (the right sand, dry cowpats etc), and we like to do a bit of our own experimenting, but so far, it’s quite functional.  We’ve avoided the problem of leaving the soil exposed while we wait for the seedlings to get big enough for a thick mulch.  We’ve also avoided the big watering effort on newly-germinated seeds, and we have a satisfactory-looking collection of energetic seedlings waiting on the swing set for us to admire in the mornings.

Chinese cabbage and mint

Chinese cabbage and mint. The chinese cabbage was planted out as an advanced seedling. The rampant mint is there to deter the mice, shade the soil, and also makes nice tea.

The real change, though, has been to the way we plan what we’re going to grow.  Instead of allocating specific garden beds to specific groups of direct-sown vegies, what I plant out depends on what seedlings I end up with, rather than what seeds I started with at sowing time.  And I can know in advance the size of the seedlings I plant out, so big ones don’t unexpectedly shade small ones – like last year’s crop of simultaneously direct-sown sweet corn and Cherokee Wax beans.  At first the beans smothered the young corn seedlings.  Then the corn grew like a mad thing and ended up shading out the beans.  We got plenty of corn and beans out of them, but not without some pauses for reflection.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much of a change, but it feels like I’ve taken an intuitive step towards the garden and away from the spreadsheet.  Thinking in terms of “seedlings present now” instead of “potential seedlings 2 months after sowing” has made it easier to coalesce my previously quite scattered knowledge about companion planting, and about what stage different seedlings are at, and how fast different vegies grow, eg Brussels sprouts are slow coaches, lettuce and rocket…er…rocket.

I know there are gardeners out there who may be thinking something like “but I’ve always thought like that, what other way is there?”.  Let me tell you that there are plenty of other ways, and I’ve been through lots of them in an attempt to drag my little scientist self into some semblance of intuition about all of this.  But maybe I’m beginning to see a twinkle of light at the end of the tunnel.

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