Monday, 4 May 2009

Magic Seeds

Anyone who has ever read Jack and the Beanstalk will be familiar with the concept of magic beans but in my opinion all seeds are magical. They are amazing things, tiny containers of life locked up in storage until the perfect conditions set things into motion.

Last week in Gardening Club I talked to the children about germination (a word they were not familiar with) and we set up some runner bean seeds in plastic tumblers so that they can witness germination for themselves. Such a simple experiment but amazing nonetheless.

At the weekend I stood and contemplated the trays of seeds I'd sown a couple of weeks ago. I don't have a greenhouse and only very little windowsill space so I have to grow seeds in a small plastic coldframe. The temperature in there fluctuates between too cold and too hot and I have to remember to open it every morning and close it every night. I imagine that there are times when the temperature would meet with Goldilocks's approval and be just right but I don't supposed that happens often. On the positive side, the plants that do grow are tough. No namby-pampy greenhouse raised plants here. On the downside, germination is often slower than it would otherwise be and if I get the timing of the opening and closing of the front wrong then the seeds can either freeze or fry and never germinate.

To make matters worse, this year in a bid to be eco-friendly, I sowed my seeds in peat free compost. This is decidedly weird stuff: made from composted bark, it is like a pile of sticks. It doesn't stick together, it smells like a pine forest when it gets warm and every now and then a little crop of toadstools springs up from it. It also has the tendency to dry out completely on the surface but still be nice an damp underneath, making it difficult to judge how much to water it. I reckon it would probably make a great mulch but I'm sceptical that it is any good for sowing seeds in. Despite my reservations I went ahead and sowed brassicas, sweetcorn, cucurbits and tomatoes in this stuff. The brassicas didn't seem to notice anything different and sprung up happily about a week later. A few sweetcorn made an effort to germinate and after 2 weeks gherkins were the only cucurbits to have popped up. No sign of any tomatoes.

If I had sown the seeds in usual multipurpose compost I would have suspected temperature being the main culprit but I was now beginning to wonder if the tomatoes could ever grow in this stuff. So I decided to have a poke around and if necessary sow them all again in other compost before I lost too much time.

I started with the cucurbits because they are the largest seeds and I was surprised to discover that most of them had indeed germinated but weren't quite poking above the surface. Even so, I scooped the tiny seedlings out of the compost and replace it with decent compost before putting them back. Then I tackled the sweetcorn in the same way. Here I think age of the seeds was the main problem as the new seeds had 80-100% germination, whereas seeds from last year or older had 0-30% germination. I replaced the old seed with some more of the fresh. Finally I examined the tomatoes and discovered that they too had germinated so I decided to leave the lot alone.

Maybe next year I'll sow all my seeds in plastic tumblers in damp cotton wool so I can see when germination has occurred! Or maybe I'll just learn to be more patient!

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