Sowing Seeds Directly In the Garden
The spring ritual of preparing soil and planting garden seed puts us in touch with both the past and the future.
Some of us live in places warm and weather-friendly enough that our gardens are already in. Some of us, with a possibility of frosts and even a heavy wet spring snow still to come, will continue to wait. But for many of us, now’s the time. All it will take is a couple sunny and warm days before we can sow seeds directly in our gardens. Sure, the peas and a few others might already be in. But where the weather turns suddenly — from winter to summer, as it often does here in Montana — we want to be ready.
So let’s pretend that it’s that most exciting (and anticipated) moment of the gardening season: planting time. We’ve gotten in and worked the soil, maybe spread some manure, worked in compost, and tinkered with the pH (after testing) using sulfur or lime.
We know that soil temperature is approaching the ideal for seed germination: 50 to 60 degrees (melons and squash may have to wait a bit more; tomatoes we’ve started inside). The final step in this process is to break out the roto-tiller — or do it the tried-and-true way with a garden fork and rake — to get that deep (as possible) and “buttery” soil texture our plants will love. We pull out all the sticks, stones and clumps that we may find and any compacted leaves that might remain from winter mulching. We always take a moment to stand back and admire the smooth, even surface that will soon be covered in green.
This is a good time to give your bare, unmarked plot a light watering and then allow a few days for any weed seeds to germinate. Once they do, a quick raking will pull them from the soil so yo don’t have to worry about them later.
Now for the fun part. Using the garden plan that we labored over so attentively during the winter months, we’re ready to mark out where everything goes, marking out the furrows for row crops, making trenches for the wide rows where we intend to crowd crops like turnips, carrots, or bok choy. We mark off the foot-sized squares where we’ll sow mesclun and other mixed greens. We make sure we set aside space for squash and pumpkins that maybe won’t get planted for another week or so. Of course, there’s some years where the rotation between winter and summer (what happened to spring?) happens so quickly that these crops will go in over the same weekend as the rest of them.
We also like to make squares for plants like chard, celery, and bok choy where, rather than broadcast the seed as we do with mesclun, we want the plants to be evenly spaced. We’ve found that putting down a square of chicken fence wire where we intend to plant and anchoring it in place, gives us just the right space between plants if we passed for one plant at the center of each of the fence’s spaces. We’ve found this a bit tight for some larger plants, say broccoli, which we’ve usually started indoors anyway.
Then, as grandpa taught us, we mark everything with stakes at the end of rows and string between them for aligning the furrows. We corral our squares in string as well and label the plot on one or more of the stakes. You, of course can buy stakes, but we tend to use the same ones, consisting of surveyor stakes, odd bits of wood-shop scraps, and even a tree branch or two cut down to the right length (and hopefully not too twisted) over and over, replacing them when needed after a few seasons.
The difficult part of this is being careful not to compact the soil too much as we’re laying out the various rows and spaces. Of course, the walkways become more apparent and easier to stick too the further along in the process you go. If you’re lucky and have a garden large enough to have permanent walkways of stone or pavers, wood chips or other mulches, you have an advantage. But you’ll always be going into the various spaces those paths define to actually get your seed in the ground.
Once this job is complete, it’s good to stand back again and admire your work. It’s a thing of beauty, isn’t it? Looks just as it did when you drew it on that cold night last February, right? Mine never does. Even if using a tape measure, I’m always improvising once I’m actually laying out the space, more so in small plots than in large, probably to crowd in as much as I possibly can. I usually come to regret this a month or two later.
We use a rake handle set directly under the string to make short furrows, a longer pole — we had an old cane fishing pole that was at least 10 feet long that we used to use for this (also great for dangling bait out over a hole in the lily pads to coax out bass) though the furrow as a bit wide at the deep end. Seed packets will tell you how deep to set your seed but the rule of thumb is that the seed should go in at a depth three times its diameter. The bottom of the furrow should be gently tamped down by hand to give the seed a solid base. We like to push soil into the furrow by hand once the seed is planted but you can also use the backside of the rake head (flip the teeth over) as long a you don’t get tangled up with the string marking the furrow.
Tiny seeds like carrots and some greens go into a barely deep furrow created with the side of our hand, covered by a brush of soil. We give a good solid push to each furrow with the palm of our hand to make sure the soil is in good tight contact with the seed. In the squares where we grow lettuce, we just carefully broadcast the seed, sometimes mixed in with seed to help get even distribution. Then we brush over the seed with some soil and press the whole thing down. Easy.
Now we don’t tell you all this because we think you need to know. No doubt readers of the Planet Natural Blog have done this several if not dozens of times. You probably learned the same way we did: when we were kids from parent, grandparents, and gardening neighbors. By now, sowing seed directly in your garden is second nature. Those couple three days when we plant most of our garden seed are among the most memorable of the year. They tie us back to the past as we repeat the yearly work that our parents, grandparents– and theirs as well — did in the same spirit we do it: with hope, expectation, and the immense satisfaction of a job done well. Now its time to pull out the hose and give it all a good soaking as we think about these things.