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Heat is on to extend far north's short growing season

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Gardening on the Edge by Diana Wayland

The dwarf French bean seedlings which germinated a treat in the heated propagator.
The dwarf French bean seedlings which germinated a treat in the heated propagator.

To improve seed germination this year, I bought a small heated propagator. Care needs to be taken with this because of its electrical connection. Just follow the instructions that come with it.

Seed sowing is easy if a few simple principles are followed. First, always read what the packet suggests you do. Then you are unlikely to go wrong. Secondly, remember a few basics and you should have enough plants germinate.

Seed compost is best as it contains few nutrients, just a growing medium for the seeds to germinate in. Locally, however, I could only get loam-based John Innes, which I have found to be a bit heavy. So this year I made my own, from equal parts of coir (coconut fibre peat alternative), sieved soil and grit.

After filling the trays I tapped them on the potting bench, to settle the compost a bit, ensured they were level, and sowed the seeds. Small ones do not need covering with compost. Big seeds can be gently pressed in to the required depth. I then covered all with a fine layer of grit, and gently tamped them down again, to bring the seeds into better contact with the compost.

Then I watered them. Usually, compost should be soaked first and then drained before sowing, but that makes it a very long job in low temperatures, so I risked watering them after sowing. Large seeds will take a watering can but, to prevent them being washed away as well as making the compost too wet, I gave them a gentle water with a hand spray.

The trays went in the propagator. It is on a windowsill which now gets some afternoon sun, so when that happens I switch it off so I don’t cook the seeds. Once germinated, I open the little vent in the tray top of each to provide some ventilation.

When big enough, the plants can be pricked out into larger pots or trays. The first lot I sowed are now in the greenhouse, under a cloche. It protects them from small creatures such as mice.

Always remember when pricking out to take hold of the seedling by one of its leaves, not the stem. If you break the stem, you lose the seedling. Loosen the compost under them first, before you try and lift them.

The heated propagator will improve germination of seeds that require a a gentle heat. My dwarf French beans really liked it! If you don’t have one then use a sunny windowsill, although the temperature will fluctuate.

Turn them daily so they don’t get leggy from growing to the light. I have also sown brassica seeds in my modular covered unheated propagator, and some in pots, covered with a plastic soft drink bottle with the bottom cut off. Keep the lid on until the seeds germinate, then you can ventilate the bottle cloche by taking the lid off when the pot is warm, and replace it when the temperature drops again.

This year I am experimenting with sowing some seeds early and then, when ready to plant out, covering them with rigid cloches for protection. Our growing season is short, but I hope to extend it a bit this way and improve my vegetable and annual flower yield.

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