Like anything that’s worth doing, says Elly West, sowing seeds takes a little skill and patience but the rewards are well worth it

In theory, you can’t go wrong with a packet of seeds. For less than the price of a takeaway cup of coffee, you could potentially have tens, hundreds, even thousands* of plants to fill your garden with colour, fragrance, fresh produce or all of the above. Plus, there’s the priceless satisfaction of knowing that you’ve grown them yourself, rather than picking potted plants from a bench at the garden centre and paying a fortune. (*I’ve bought packets of foxgloves with an average content of 2,500 seeds – in case you were wondering, not all of them germinated.)

The best things come in small packages and this is particularly true at this time of year in the gardening calendar, when it’s all about planning ahead and sowing seeds ready for when the weather warms up. There’s something magical about that moment when, after daily inspections to see how your seeds are getting along, a tray full of compost becomes a forest of tiny seedlings and you know that they’ve ‘worked’.

Seed sowing is a good way to try rare and unusual varieties that you may not be able to buy easily as larger plants. It’s probably the best way to grow most vegetables and annuals, and is also a nice way to get children involved in gardening. A cheery sunflower grown from seed is engaging to young children and not-so-young adults alike.

So, if you’re planning on having a go this year, now is the time to think and plan, place your order, go to the shops and stock up on seed trays and compost if you need to. There’s even a Bristol-based seed swapping event this month where you can pick up some tips and get your hands on some seeds, with a cup of tea and a cake to enjoy in the process (see following page for details). And if you follow these basic tips, you’ll give your efforts a flying start. Like anything that’s worth doing, sowing seeds takes a little bit of skill and patience, but the rewards are well worth it.

It’s still cold outside, so half-hardy annuals need starting off under cover now to give them a long enough growing time for plenty of summer flowers. Timing is important, so always read the label for the best results. Sow too early and you’ll end up with long, leggy plants filling your windowsills with nowhere to go. But if you wait too long, you’ll only have a few weeks of late-summer flowers before the frosts come and kill the lot.
By half-hardy annuals, we’re talking about plants such as morning glory, zinnias, cosmos, verbena, nicotiana, rudbeckia – all those colourful beauties that need some warmth to germinate, will flower all summer then die. Collect their seeds at the end of the season and you can start again next year. Heated propagators may give better germination rates with a constant heat, but a windowsill near a radiator can be just as effective to get seeds going. Check the instructions as to whether to cover your seeds or not and how deeply to sow them.

In my experience, it’s worth spending money on a specially formulated seed compost for the sturdiest new plants. Composts vary in quality unfortunately, but should be free draining without too many ‘big bits’. If you buy one that is specifically for seeds, it should have the right balance of nutrients necessary. Water it well before you sow the seeds, otherwise they can get washed together, undoing your best efforts to sprinkle them carefully and evenly across the surface. Don’t be tempted to sow the whole packet if you don’t have room. The most common cause of failure is ‘damping off’, where seeds are grown too closely together and succumb to fungal infections that can cause the whole crop to flop and die. Imagine every seed will turn into a plant and this will help avoid temptation to add a few more, just in case. Overwatering can also cause damping off, so wait until the edges of the compost have dried out before you water. Moisten the compost from below by standing the seed tray in water for 10 minutes or so, to avoid damaging tiny new plants.

When your tray is full of seedlings, the next task is to grow them on into individual modules or pots in a compost that has a few more nutrients. Here they can stay until they are ready to go outside. This should be done when your plants have a pair of leaves that you can handle them by, avoiding touching their delicate stems. A pencil is a good tool for this – use it to nudge them out of their current spot, make a deep enough hole in the new compost, then carefully drop the roots in, firming around them gently with your fingers.

One last tip – remember to keep all your trays and pots well labelled if you’re growing different varieties. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget what you’ve sown and it can be hard to differentiate between tiny seedlings that all look similar!

• Head along to the Bristol Seed Swap event on Saturday 9 February from 12 – 4pm, The Station, Silver Street, Bristol BS1 2AG, where there will be stalls, speakers, displays and kids’ activities, plus an abundance of seeds. Bring your seeds clearly labelled and swap them for others that you want to grow in your garden or allotment. Or, if you don’t have seeds to swap, donations are equally welcome. There will also be plants for sale and a café. To find out more, visit bristolseedswap.wordpress.com

Featured image: Cosmos is great for filling in gaps in the border, with beautiful feathery foliage and large daisy-like flowers that keep going for months in vibrant shades of pink, rich cerise, or pure white