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sowing seeds indoors

Vegetable Garden

Starting Seeds Indoors : How do you know when it’s safe to sow?

January 15, 2012

How do you know when it’s safe to sow?

Seeds : How do you know when it's safe to sow?

You’ve made your lists, drawn out your crop rotation plans, have your seeds and compost ready, and before long you’ll be itching to start sowing seeds.The pressure builds as magazines and social media start to fill with stories of planting dates and there’s a noticeable jostle over who’s sowing seeds indoors when. Does that sound familiar? If you’re new to vegetable gardening beware, it soon will be and before you know it you’ll be sowing too and then wondering why your seedlings are seriously struggling or have died.

As such an avid social media user, last year I remember feeling a sense of panic that I’d left my sowing too late, yet it wasn’t even March! I know from experience that we can be three weeks behind the growing conditions of warmer gardens, but it was difficult not to feel left behind when being bombarded with everyone else’s reports.

Why is it important to sow seeds at the correct time (temperature)?

Seeds : How do you know when it's safe to sow?If you attempt to sow seeds below their preferred temperature, it can result in slow germination, seeds rotting, problems with plants developing and ultimately disease as they wont have started life with the best start.

Seeds need heat to germinate and the requirements vary from plant to plant.

For instance, the optimum temperature for climbing beans is 25°C but they will germinate between 15°C and 35°C. The optimum temperature for spinach is 10°C but they will germinate between 5°C and 30°C with less success.

How do you know when is the best time to sow seeds?

Seeds : How do you know when it's safe to sow?

Leggy seedlings sown too early with too little light

Part of being a successful gardener is learning to work with, understand and appreciate nature and her elements. That means noticing the wind directions and the signs of seasons changing, the fluctuations in temperature.

Keeping a diary of not only what and when you sow but weather conditions that can be referred back to will become an invaluable aid.

If you’re thinking of sowing seeds indoors that can be transplanted out as the temperatures rise, or plant seeds directly into the soil where they will germinate, you’ll need to have an idea of the soil temperature.

How do the guides work out the sowing dates?

We can roughly work out when the best sowing dates are using average temperatures from previous years. Having an idea of when the last frost date is in your area will help you to plan when to sow your seeds indoors, ready to be transplanted outside and hardened off once the soil temperature has warmed up.

Take runner beans for instance. You have two choices:

  1. Sow the beans directly into the soil once the soil temperatures have reached  a minimum of10-12°C for three days or more (between May and June, depending upon where you live), though ideally 15°C for optimum germination. NOTE: this is the easiest method! For us living here at 305m above sea level, I would be aiming for early to mid June however, if you live in a warm, sheltered area, mid May should work for you.
  2. Sow the beans in compost in modules ready to plant outside when soil temps are 10-12ºC or more.

Seeds : How do you know when it's safe to sow?Beans take between 7 – 14 days to germinate and you could allow approximately 3 – 4 weeks in the pots before transplanting outside.

As an example, if I’m looking at the calendar, aiming to plant my beans outside on 11th June, I would plan to plant them in pots during mid to end of April (keeping an eye out on long-range weather forecasts). This should also allow time to harden them off before planting i.e. acclimatising them to the outdoors gradually.

Seeds : How do you know when it's safe to sow?There’s no science here – most guides will suggest you sow runner beans between April and May.  The above was just a demonstration of how they arrive at that.

Where do I find the frost dates for my area?

In Ireland the most helpful resource I’ve found for frost dates are the reports published by Met Éireann that give 30 year average temperatures from 1961 to 1990. These can be used as a guide for the average number of (ground) frost days that occurred each month as well as minimum and maximum temperatures. Bare in mind that the weather conditions from your nearest weather station might not resemble those of your garden. In our case it can differ by up to 5ºC so again, keeping good records including temperatures might help you.

For more accurate current readings Met Éireann also publish daily records, those combined with the averages could give you a very clear sign of the final sowing dates.

If you want to be totally sure however, soil thermometers are readily available either online or from garden centres.

Whenever you choose to sow, it’s a good idea to start gathering resources in case of unexpected frosts that can either be used at the beginning of the year to protect sowings and seedlings, or at the end to protect from autumn frosts. Start stocking up on horticultural fleece, collect newspapers or pick up old net curtains from boot sales so that you can cover precious seedlings should a cold snap occur.

If you’re looking for a general guide of sowing and planting dates for Ireland and the UK, you can download a free, Greenside Up Annual Vegetable Planner here.

Do you begin the gardening year by sowing seeds inside or do you sow directly outside once the soil temperatures have warmed?