Sowing Seeds

My procedure in planting is as follows:  Starting at one end of the row to be planted, I work over a strip of soil about three feet wide, along the direction of the row, using the potato hook.  When I finish the row, I walk around the garden so as not to trample on the soil, and, taking my hook with me, I return to the other end of the row, lay down the hook, and pick up the rake.  With a penknife I have already cut a notch on the handle of the rake marking the distance between rows.  Now I work over the same strip of soil with the rake, working along the direction of the row this time (as well), smoothing the soil.  When I reach the end of the row, using the mark on the rake handle, I set one of the stakes of my garden line, then return to the other end of the row walking around, taking the rake with me and again avoiding walking across the garden.  Now I carefully measure and set the other stake, drawing the line taut along the surface of the ground.  I have the seed at this end of the row, and a small shallow bowl into which I pout some of the seed.  Stepping out a good stride on the garden soil, I squat, setting the bowl down beside me, reaching to my left with my right hand I make a shallow furrow along the line with my finger; then, with seeds taken from the bowl between my thumb and forefinger, I sparingly scatter the seeds in the drill I have made.  Next I just barely cover the seeds with fine soil and with the back of my hand or fist firmly compact the earth on top of the seeds I have just planted.  Picking up the bowl, I take a long stride or two, squat, and seed another four or five foot section of row.

Since he is discussing small seeds he only barely covers them, but as long as every seed is buried at a depth 2-3 times its width, depending on season and soil moisture, the same good results can be expected.  All seeds have the same basic requirements for successful emergence:  proper temperature, sufficient but not excessive moisture, and air.  In early spring the soil is still cool and moist, so we should not plant as deep as later in the season when the top few inches of soil is hot and dry.

At varying depths you trade off among these three needs of the seed, and the relationship can be altered to help certain plants get a good start when they normally wouldn’t.  A clear or black plastic mulch will rise soil temperatures and keep off spring rains, thus lowering soil moisture and making it possible to start some heat-loving plants early; laying a board over the row if mid-summer will lower soil temperature and conserve moisture, allowing the direct seeding of cool weather crops.

The process for planting in beds is essentially the same, with some minor differences.  Since the seedbed was prepared during the process of making the beds, or during spring preparation of the bed, I start right in with marking the rows, which is done in a slightly different manner.  Instead of using the garden line, I have a marker board that can be dragged along the bed, and teeth, which protrude from the bottom of the board at whatever interval I want between the rows, do the marking for us.  In a thirty-inch-wide bed like ours, this may be as little as three or as many as five rows.  Either way the job is accomplished in one pass.  If I wish to plant only a bit of each crop, the rows can run across the bed rather than along its length.  The most important factor in determining the distance between rows—aside from the eventual size of the vegetable—is the size of the hoe I will be using to cultivate the bed.  By choosing a spacing that works will with your hoes you can save an enormous amount of effort later on.

Since there is an established path, I don’t need to walk around the whole plot, only back along the path.  Having carried the seed in my pocket, I put down the marker and proceed to plant the first row, tapping the seed from its packet as I go at a rate appropriate to the particular vegetable I am sowing.  Each row is labeled immediately after sowing with the date and the vegetable sown, using a small wooden tag marked with a weatherproof laundry pen that I carry in my pocket.

Some crops may be broadcast sown—that is, sprinkled evenly across the surface of the bed—and for this the procedure is slightly different.  Salad greens, spinach, bush peas, even carrots (though I don’t recommend this last, as they are too slow to germinate, and weeds will have a chance to become established) may be planted this way.  Cover crops and green manures are almost always planted broadcast, so the coverage of the bed will be complete, with no inter-row spaces in which weeds can get a start.  Here’s how we do it.  First I work over the surface of the bed with our hand harrow, the spike-toothed rolling cultivator.  You can use a fine-tooth rake, but you’ll have to be a bit more careful about moving soil (and later, seed) around the bed rather than just roughing it up.  This process leaves the surface of the bed in a multitude of small ridges and fluffs up the soil.

The seed is then sprinkled on the surface.  A small grass seed spreader or a jar with holes poked in the lid can be used, but I just do it by hand.  I’ve found that after a little practice you can get even coverage if you mimic the action of the seeder with your hand.  I grab a handful of seed from the bag, and then hold my hand upright with the fingers curled upward in a loose grip, and shake back and forth horizontally.  By changing the amount of spread between my fingers, the distance back and forth that my hand travels, and the suddenness with which I change its direction, I can alter the density and pattern of the spread.

Once the seed is distributed to my satisfaction, I take the hand harrow again and go over the bed to settle the seed down into the fluffed-up surface that I created during my first pass with the tool.  With all but the smallest seed you’ll be able to tell visually once you’ve buried it.  With large seed like peas you may want to add a thin layer of compost on top to assure that the seed will be fully covered.  The thing you are trying to avoid is moving the seed around after it’s been scattered—if you do, it’s probably going to bunch up in certain spots, leading to uneven growth across the bed.  Once the seed is covered you can tamp it by standing on a section of plywood placed on the bed, or as I do, by watering.  Either way should put the seed into sufficient contact with moist soil to assure prompt and complete germination.

ShepherdSowing Seeds

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