Spring may still seem like it is some time off. But there are a number of things we should prepare and plan for while warmer weather is still a little way away. One job that we can do, if we have not done so already, is preparing a seed bed for direct sowing when the weather does warm.
As soon as the ground is clear and the soil is not frozen, we can begin to think about preparing a seed bed for spring sowing. Of course, this time will come sooner if you have a polytunnel than it will do if you are sowing without any cover at all.
In this article, we will explore some tips to help you make sure that you have a seed bed that is suitable for sowing your seeds this spring, and don’t have reduced yield due to germination problems or early seedling losses.
Clear the Way for New Growing Areas
First of all, if you do not yet have a bed prepared at all, you will need to clear the way for new growing areas. And you will need to decide on a good location for your new seed bed.
If you are creating a new growing area for a seed bed, the first thing to think about is sunlight. Usually, a seed bed should be positioned in a reasonably sunny location. It should also ideally be a pretty sheltered spot, where tender young seedlings will not be too buffeted by the wind. The seed bed should be level, without tremendous slope. It should also ideally be in a location close to your home, where you can keep a close eye on things.
Many new seed beds will be created on areas that are currently bare soil, or lawn. But you might also have to clear an area of other vegetation to place your new seed bed. One key thing you will have to do is get rid of perennial and annual weeds in the vicinity.
Weeds are not always a problem in an organic garden. And sometimes we want to embrace them. But when we are sowing seeds directly in a seed bed, competition can be a problem. We want, therefore, to keep weeds away.
You might also want to clear back shrubs or overhanging branches to provide more light for the seed bed area. Pruning back many trees and shrubs is a job we should do before spring, before the sap rises.
Create a New Growing Area for Direct Sowing
When creating new growing areas for direct sowing, many gardeners will reach right away for a spade or tiller. But this might not be the best way to ensure good results. Whenever you create a new bed or growing area in your garden, you must think about the soil. Usually, taking steps to disrupt the soil as little as possible is the best approach.
Why The Traditional Approach Might Not Be the Best Option
Traditionally, many gardeners would dig, or double dig a new bed. They might remove any turf, and work the soil below to an even tilth with spade and hoe and rake. But when you take this approach, you risk damaging the soil ecosystem upon which strong and healthy plant growth depends. The soil will be degraded, and likely won’t be as able to support good rates of seed germination.
Choose a No Dig Garden Approach
A good seedbed should be:
Uniformly prepared, with relatively small clumps, and relatively level.
Aerated, not compacted, to allow oxygen to reach the seeds.
Reliably moist near the surface, so shallow planted seeds have a consistent water supply.
But not too slow to drain, since waterlogging can also be an issue.
Free from weeds and competing vegetation.
In a no dig garden, we do not achieve these things by disturbing the soil below. Rather, we create new seed beds on top of the existing soil surface. We layer up organic matter to make a ‘lasagna bed’.
Layers of carbon rich material (like woody material, dry leaves, straw, or cardboard for example) on the soil. If there is grass present, cut this short and then lay cardboard on the base to prevent this from growing through. Add carbon rich materials on top of this base. Then add a green layer of nitrogen rich materials such as green leaves, grass clippings etc.. Continue to layer up carbon and nitrogen rich materials so these begin to compost in place.
In a seed bed, the last layer used to top the bed is most important. You can use a commercially prepared compost mix, or make your own. A good seed starting compost will not be particularly rich in nutrients, but will have a light, friable and moisture retentive yet free draining texture.
Though you can use a proportion of topsoil or loam in the mix, taking soil out of the immediate equation can help reduce the changes of fungal issues like damping off. You might consider making a soil-less medium using materials like home-made compost, leaf mould, mushroom compost, woody composts and/ or coir. Try to avoid using peat based media for environmental reasons.
This top layer will help you achieve good germination rates. While as the layers below break down, and build soil below, they will slowly release nutrients for growing seedlings to use.
Get Started With Spring Sowing in a Seed Bed Earlier in the Year
When you prepare a new seed bed, another thing to think about is when you will be able to sow. There are certain steps that you can take to get started with seed sowing earlier in the year. And to increase the length of the growing season.
By building deeper beds, and filling them with straw and, in addition to other organic materials, well-rotted manure, you can build up hot beds that will provide gentle heat from below. Decomposing materials give off heat as they break down.
Of course, you can also retain that heat with a cloche or cover of some kind – a mini polytunnel, or a larger polytunnel structure. Having undercover growing areas protects seeds and tender young seedlings from pests and weather changes in early spring.
Prepare an Existing Growing Area as a Seed Bed For Spring Sowing
If you already have a growing area in your garden that you would like to turn into a seed bed for spring sowing, you can also take a no dig approach. Remove any troubling weeds, layer with cardboard, then build up the layers of mulch materials as above before topping with a perfect seed sowing substrate.
Choose the Right Time to Sow in Your Seed Bed Very Carefully
The final thing to remember when preparing a seed bed is that when you sow is very important. Make sure that you understand the temperatures that the seeds you are growing require for germination. And that you will be able to provide these in the location you have chosen. Sowing too early or too late can have a significant impact on the yields you are able to achieve.
Choosing the perfect time for sowing different seeds can be a challenging thing – and this may vary each year depending on the weather at the time. Diversify, spread out your sowing, and any losses will be lower as you hone your gardening skill and gain in experience.
Do you have any of your own tips to share? Please feel free to do so in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.