Even after all of your hard work preparing the perfect garden bed to nourish your tender young plants, giving them every advantage in this world full of twists and turns (pardon the garden melodrama), you can still screw it up if you get the planting wrong. 😉
Planting really means one of two things when it comes to what most gardeners practice, Direct Sowing or Transplanting. Both are explained below.
This means burying/planting your seeds directly into the soil in your garden at the time of year with ideal growing conditions and tending to them as they sprout/germinate and mature into healthy, productive plants.
Once you get your first seeds to plant, you will notice that not all seeds are the same. For example, the tiny white seeds inside a bell pepper are much smaller than the seeds of beans or peas, which are the beans or peas themselves. The same is true of the difference in size between little grains like quinoa or lentils and the seed of an avocado or a mango, which is the large pit in the middle of the fruit.
Pro Tip: a good estimate of a seed’s preferred planting depth is twice as deep as the seed is long on its longest side. In other words, the bigger they are, the deeper they go!
Very small seeds, like chamomile, weeds and some grasses, are adapted to be sewn by wind or by animals that will scatter them just on the surface or slightly beneath a thin layer of litter or mulch. There, the seeds will germinate and grow quickly if they get enough water, warmth and protection.
Larger seeds often come with a lot more energy packed into them (delicious energy like sugars, fats and proteins), which means that the plant isn’t making as many of these seeds, so there aren’t as many of them. Since there aren’t as many of them, these bigger seeds want to make absolutely sure they are in a perfect place to thrive, which, to a plant means healthy, rich soil, and plenty of water.
They check for the right environment by making the elements unlock a series of tests! Some seeds require freezing temperatures before they sprout, to guarantee they have slept through at least one winter and have a shot at a summer. Others, like the large hard pit of a mango, sleep until their tough shell is broken down by organic acids from very rich soils or from going through the gut of an animal, only then, in the presence of plenty of water, will the mango pit send out its tender roots and grow into a mighty, delicious-fruit-making tree. Seriously though, mangoes are heavenly.
How to Sow Seeds:
Once your seed bed is prepared correctly and you have your varieties all picked out, the seeds in hand, the act of planting your seeds in the ground is quick, cheerful work and is immensely satisfying.
- Make a dimple/hole in the soil for your seed that is the right size, particularly the right depth. I mention above that small seeds need small and large seeds need large holes. If you’re planting a row of seeds, you might be ahead to use a tool like a hoe or rake to make a long, continuous hole, (also known as a trench) for your seeds. Whatever you use to make the hole for your seed (a finger for beans, a pencil for chile peppers, etc.) don’t compact the soil at the bottom too much in the process. That will make life harder on your young plant.
- Drop the seed in the hole.
- Smooth the soil back over the seed, make sure the seed is deep enough according to the planting instructions on the package, on the internet, or the pro tip a couple of paragraphs above.
- Pat the soil down lightly. Not hard, but enough to get it ready for what’s next.
- If you’re planting more, move to the next spot you will be planting in and repeat! Spacing is important, so be sure to read your seed packet or other garden references when laying out your garden.
- Water your new seed slowly! If you have a watering can or hose attachment with a nozzle that diffuses the water into a light shower, that’s ideal. You are trying to disturb the soil as little as possible when you water, so your seeds don’t wash down the gutter. Here’s a great video on watering in seeds from the folks at U.C. Santa Cruz.
Transplanting is when the gardener takes small, young plants, called seedlings or starts, that have been grown indoors by the gardener or purchased from a plant nursery and digs small holes in the garden soil where the roots of young plant will be placed.
When you bring those naive young plants home from the garden store or out of the spare bedroom you converted into a greenhouse (that honestly looks more like a meth lab, no offense, it’s a gardening rite of passage), and are ready to start farming, pause for a moment. Reflect on their journey so far…as living beings…(Ohmmm, shanti, shanti, shanti, etc.) and, more cynically, as an investment you don’t want kill immediately, specifically reflect on the part of their journey where they may have NEVER seen full sunlight.
That means that if you plant them out in the full sun and wide temperature swings, they will shrivel up and die. So, to fix this, we harden them off. To harden off a plant means that we put them out in full sun (and wind if it’s an issue) for a couple of hours in the morning the days before they will be transplanted and then pull them back in at night. This gives them time to adjust and respond to the increased intensity of the sun without getting scorched into limp yellow pulp. You can also let them dry out more than usual when you are hardening them off, that’s fine, and a necessary part of the process, just be sure to water them if they are showing any wilting and water them immediately after you transplant. After a couple of cycles of this exposure with time to recover in between, they should be ready to make the transition outdoors full time. The same concept works when you are trying to adapt your plants to most new conditions, high or low temperature, water stress, or bulldozers. You will expose them to a small amount of the stress, and then give them time to recover. (that part about the bulldozers, yeah, not true at all)
To transplant into your garden, start by digging a hole a little bit deeper than the height of your plant’s container and wide enough for the container to fit into it. Next, take a little bit of the loose soil you dug out and replace it at the bottom of the hole. It helps me to set the container into the hole and line up the top of the soil in the container with the soil level outside the hole.
Pro Tip: Make sure soil around the inside of the hole is loose, not compacted. This makes it easier for the plant to send healthy roots out in all directions as it grows into its new home.
Next, remove the ball of roots and soil (called the root ball) from the container. If the root ball and container are large, like a fruit tree or shrub, you might cut the the container off of the root ball next to the hole and scoot the root ball into the hole before straightening the stem of the plant to point upright and then filling the hole around the root ball with the soil you removed earlier.
If the plant is small, like in the video below, you can carefully place your hand over the top of the container, securing the stem of the plant between your middle and ring finger, and turn the whole thing over to remove the plastic pot. Then, and do this with the larger plants, too, check that the roots are not too tightly packed (root bound) from being too large for the pot. If they are, be sure to loosen them a little bit, careful not to break the root ball apart completely as that can kill some plants.
Then it’s into the hole and making sure that you secure the plant with the soil you removed when digging the hole. You want the plant to be firmly in the hole, making good contact with the new soil, etc., but not packed in so tightly that you smash the roots and stems.
When you water the plant in, pay attention to the level of the plant as well as stay ready to add more soil as the watering will cause soil to fill any air pockets you may have left when you were filling soil into the hole around the newly transplanted root ball.
Here’s a video explanation of some of the high points of transplanting into your garden plot.
Here’s an explanation of some best practices for planting tomato seeds in a tray to grow into transplants for your garden.
If you want your seeds to survive, you will have to think about the things that can come to eat them.
The principle is the same whether you are planting your seeds in trays or directly sowing them into your garden, although more care should be taken to protect the seeds you plant outside from environmental threats like rambunctious (I love that word) animals, rage-fueled toddlers, or
the Wrath of God Almighty extreme weather events.
That’s a great start on the different ways of planting into your garden, next, let’s go on to Watering!