UK gardening help and assistance


Preparing a seed bed

If you are going to be a serious gardener, you'll probably need a seed bed where you can sow the seeds and bring on the seedlings for later transferring to the final position of the plants (alternatively, sowing in trays will do just as well for many plants). The main reasons for having a seed bed are:

  • Some young seedlings need less space than the mature plant, so less of the garden need be committed to a crop until it is really necessary.
  • A crop may be started off in the seed bed while its final position has another crop waiting to be harvested.

It must be noted that not all plant seeds are suitable for starting off in a seed bed; a large number of plants cannot be successfully transplanted so these seeds need to be planted in their final location.

Position for a seed bed

A seed bed may be thought of, incorrectly, as a rather unimportant part of the garden which can be tucked away in some corner. It must be remembered that seed germination and early growth of any plant has an important influence on the final quality of the plant - if the seed bed is shaded by hedges or buildings, the seedlings may grow weak and spindly. Similarly drainage of the bed is important, seeds generally don't do well if they become waterlogged (nor if they dry out).

Ideally the seed bed should:

  • Be in a open, but sheltered, position with good drainage.
  • Be free of perennial weeds as weeding between the small seedlings can be difficult and time consuming.
  • If the garden is a haven for the local pets, it is worthwhile putting wire netting around the bed.
  • Do not use a bed which was used to grow potatoes in the previous year, any sprouting potatoes left from the crop will be a problem around the young seedlings.

Preparing the seed bed

The requirement for a seed bed is basically the same as for any vegetable bed, except that the soil need be only forked to a relatively shallow depth. If it is a new bed (i.e. never previously used to grow plants), the bed will need to be dug and prepared as with any new bed - see this other page.

If plants have previously been grown on the bed, the preparation required is much less as the soil will have been broken up and most stones removed.

The biggest challenge to any gardener is to decide when the soil is suitable for working - not too dry and not too wet. This depends to some extent on the type of soil, a clay soil can turn from a sticky mass to hard as rock very quickly. Choosing the right time is one of the hardest choices, especially for new gardeners - it is largely a matter of experience with the particular soil type in the garden.

Assuming the seed bed is established, the likelihood is that there will be some seedlings in it when you come to prepare it for a new sowing, so any preparation will just apply to the area you require and care must be taken to avoid disturbing the existing seedlings. To prepare for a new sowing:

  • Lightly fork over, or hoe, the top 5 to 7.5cm (2 to 3 inches) of the bed. If the bed has not been used for some time, or the soil is very wet, it may be necessary to leave the soil for a day or two to dry out.
  • When the soil is dry enough for it to freely break up, rack the surface back and forth to give a suitable tilth - some clods may need a hit with the back of the rack or even breaking up by hand. Larger seeds generally benefit for a rather coarse tilth while fine seeds need a fine tilth.
  • As you rack back and forth, remove any stones, weeds or other vegetation. Keep racking to get the surface fairly level.

Using a seed bed

Once the seed bed is ready, choose a day when the soil is moist and little wind to plant your seeds.

Normally a 'drill' (or number of drills) is created on the surface of the seed bed - a drill is a shallow depression into the bottom of which seeds are sown. The drill can be formed either by pulling a hoe or a gardening trowel (backwards) through the surface of the prepared bed with the earth pulled to the sides, the depth required varies from seed to seedt. A line stretched above the soil before drills are made will help keep them straight.

The way the seeds are sown along the bottom of the drills will depend upon the seed been planted, typically one of three variations will be specified:

  • Very thinly - say 2.5cm (1 inch) between seeds.
  • Thinly - say 1.2cm (½ inch) between seeds.
  • At stations - a number of seeds together at given spacing.

Check on the seed packet (or look here) to determine the appropriate spacing for particular vegetables. Using more seeds than necessary will just waste seeds and cause extra thinning later on.

Once the seeds have been sown, they are normally covered by pulling the back of a rack or hoe over the surface of the bed to fill the drills.

Identify the drill and the seeds sown by putting in a short stick at each end of each drill and attaching a waterproof label with the name of the plant marked on it.

Stretching a line between the end sticks above each drill will help keep birds off the seeds and young seedlings.

Watch out for other pests - for example slugs; young plants are tender and will provide a good meal for a number of pests.