If you have a little time and energy and you're on a budget, or maybe you just want something a bit special in your summer garden, now is the time to sow summer veges and flowers. The best way to do this, to ensure good germination rates in colder weather, is to sow into shallow punnets like nurseries do, and keep the babies warm indoors.
The beauty of sowing from seed is often there is a greater selection of plants to choose from, ensuring your garden will be a little different. There is also great satisfaction to be gained when you grow the plants yourself - and you know that you've saved a good deal of money.
All you need is a spot which gets the sun most of the day.
The propagation house at our environment centre is more of a shadehouse now despite the clear roof. A grape and passionfruit have grown up the structure so it is a great spot for keeping native seedlings which prefer a little shade, or potted plants. But it's not ideal for growing vege seedlings, which grow long and spindly trying to reach the light. Instead, we move some of the greenhouse shelving inside the house to a north facing-window and germinate the seeds in punnets in the warmth and light. In commercial set-ups, heat pads are often used to create the ideal temperature for seed germination and raising cuttings.
It is important to cover trays and tuck under with clear plastic to create a little glasshouse.
This helps stop moisture evaporating too quickly which is a quick way to kill delicate seedlings. But you do not want permanently wet seed-raising mix as this may cause damping off - a disease which causes the seedlings to rot.
A spray mister is what the professionals use to keep the moisture just right, but if you use a plastic cover you shouldn't need to water too often.
Now comes the more time-consuming part. In general, you can't plant these very young seedlings straight into the garden unless they're sturdy types such as peas or beans.
You need to prick the delicate babies out of their tray once they've developed a couple of true leaves (not the first seed leaves), then plant them into individual small pots. Their root systems will get established before planting in the garden. When pricking out a young seedling, hold it gently by the leaf, not the stem or root. Use a pencil or chopstick to help prise it out of the tray, and use the stick to make a hole in the new mix. Gently lower the seedling in. You can plant it quite deeply and cover half the stem with seed raising mix. This will help keep the seedling upright in its new pot. Don't firm the soil, use a watering can with a fine nozzle to water all your potted seedlings at once. The soil will settle nicely around the stem and roots.
There is no need to keep the older seedlings in a hot spot inside, just find a warm sheltered spot outside.
You can also use a coldframe, which is a long wooden or brick box with angled frame to get maximum sunlight, with lids made out of windows. On a hot day the lid should be propped open for ventilation. You could also save a large polystyrene fish or produce box (without the lid) to keep the potted seedlings contained - they will be nicely insulated while it is still a bit nippy outside. Avoid letting your seedlings get rained on too frequently and don't allow them to sit in a wet tray. Cover with clear plastic if need be.
Once the seedlings have grown into their pots nicely and the soil temperatures are warm, you can plant your young vege and flower plants into well-prepared, friable garden soil.
For a selection of organic seed suppliers and seed saving networks go to: www.organicpathways.co.nz/directory/category/17.html
Certified organic seed raising mix is available from Daltons. Organic Veggie Mix is available from Living Earth, who say it is also suitable for seed-sowing.
Propagation heat pads and other equipment are available from www.redpath.co.nz
This week in the garden
To give your potatoes a head start in spring, "chit" them by leaving on a tray in a dry spot and allow the eyes to sprout shoots. Plant into trenches of loose soil once they're sprouting. If there's still risk of frost, cover the emerging leaves with straw.
Last chance to sow garlic.
Plant deciduous fruit trees.
Incorporate compost and enrich your soil with organic nutrients for great results.
Plant the three Ps for late-winter and spring colour: primulas/primroses, pansies and poppies.
Plant summer-flowering bulbs such as gladioli and dahlia tubers. Dahlias are frost-sensitive so mulch with straw.
A great selection of roses are available to plant now for summer colour.
Re-vegetate with native trees and shrubs. Plant hedges.
New product, old knowledge
Daltons certified organic bio-fungicide in granule and powder form is new to the market. It contains the natural beneficial soil fungi trichoderma. Use the granules at initial planting, and the powder for plant maintenance.
Incorporating trichoderma into seed-raising mix will compete with the bad guys and reduce the occurrence of damping-off.
The same goes for bulbs, shrubs, fruit trees and hedging.
Applying trichoderma is like having insurance against fungal infections in your plants. It is useful for hebes which can be susceptible to fungal disease in Auckland's humid climate, and avocado trees which are prone to phytopthora.