Sowing seeds at Fresh City Farms
Last fall, we visited Fresh City Farms, an urban farm in Toronto, Ontario just as they were finishing their growing season. We returned in mid-April this year to see the farm in operation at the start of their outdoor growing season. Jeremy Stojan, the farm’s manager, took some time to share information about the cool season crops they’re direct sowing, and a bit about their methods.
Check out the video below (and keep watching to learn about Jeremy’s favourite cool season crops!), and then scroll on after the video for more about direct sowing.
What does direct sow mean?
When you direct sow seeds, you do exactly what it sounds like you would. That is, you sow seeds directly into soil. And whether it’s into a container on your balcony or into your backyard garden, direct sowing – or direct seeding – can be the quickest and easiest way to get plants started on their growing journey.
Can’t all seeds be sown directly?
Well, yes, technically, all seeds can be sown directly into soil. And in decent soil, most seeds will germinate and plants will grow, given appropriate sunlight and sufficient water.
But, in climates with shorter growing seasons, a crucial factor to consider is the total amount of time plants need to grow to maturity and bear fruit or flowers to full ripeness/completion.
In northerly, cooler (or downright cold) regions, plants that can be seeded directly are usually termed “cool season crops” (more on these guys later). As their name suggests, these plants prefer cooler daytime temperatures for germination and growth. They’re also relatively quick to reach maturity for harvest, and can handle a light frost. We’re looking at you, spinach.
In contrast, plants that need a head start on their growing season – generally called “hot” or “warm season crops” – are seeded indoors and transplanted outside after the risk of frost has ended. Think snap beans, corn, peppers and tomatoes. These plants prefer warm daytime temperatures and cannot tolerate frost.
But this article is about direct sowing. So let’s dig in! See what we did there? Dig in? Gardening? Right. Moving on.
When should you directly sow seeds?
As ever, your best advice here is to look at your seed packet, as timing for direct sowing will vary from seed to seed.
Generally, the recommendation for planting cool season crops will be to sow seeds “as soon as soil can be worked”. Alternatively, you may also see that seeds should be sown only once your soil reaches a certain temperature — usually between 4˚C and 10˚C (40˚F – 50˚F).
Read your seed packet! And heed its guidelines. You may also want to talk to a neighbor who has grown similar plants, or speak to one of gardenstead’s garden consultants (we recommend Sean Smith for urban farming and vegetable growing advice).
Seed sowing tips
How should you prepare the soil for seeds?
At Fresh City Farms they employ a no-till method for sowing seeds. You might want to use this method in your garden as well, as a long-term investment in the health of your garden’s soil. We won’t get into the specifics of no-till gardening in this post, but this article from the University of Saskatchewan delves deeply into the method and is an excellent guide for the home grower.
Remove weeds and enrich the soil
Before you sow your seeds, make sure you’ve removed all the weeds. Be sure to remove deep taproots.
Add a layer of compost or well-aged manure on top of the existing soil. You can leave the compost on top and let nature do the work of incorporating it for you. Or, lightly rake or scratch the compost into the soil to integrate it. If you’re using a no-till method, ideally you should disturb the soil layer as little as possible.
As mentioned in the video, Fresh City Farms uses chicken manure as a soil amendment. If you decide to use chicken manure make sure it is properly composted and well-aged. This post from the University of Nevada, Reno breaks down the (many excellent) benefits of chicken manure and how to safely use it for growing.
Plant seeds at the proper depth
A good rule of thumb to apply when direct sowing seeds is to plant them twice as deep as the seed is wide. That being said, it’s better to sow seeds too shallow than too deep. The risk with planting seeds too deeply is that they may not have enough energy to push up through a too-deep layer of soil. Remember, inside each seed is a baby plant just raring to grow!
Pay attention to seed spacing
Seed spacing is the amount of space you make between each seed when planting (in contrast to row spacing, which is, of course, the space between rows). Your seed packet will indicate how far apart to sow your seeds.
Pay attention to this amount. It will tell you how much room each plant needs for its roots to spread out and obtain nutrients and water from the soil. Be careful to give each seed its best chance to get the resources it needs as it grows.
Mark the spot
We’ve all been there — staring at a garden of sprouted plants, thinking, is that a…weed? Or is it a baby lettuce? Mark your seed rows so you know what’s growing where. Until a plant shows its true leaves, it can be indistinguishable from a weed. And when in doubt – just leave the wee plant until you know for sure whether it’s a friend or foe.
Moisten soil and keep it moist (water gently)
Every seed you sow is literally a miracle waiting to happen. Seeds have inbuilt systems to monitor their outer environment, as they await the ideal conditions to sprout free of their seedy selves. Moisture is crucial for germinating seeds.
But remember to water gently. Seeds also don’t love a too-wet environment — a waterlogged seed is susceptible to rot. So keep soil moist but not wet, and keep an eye out for that miracle sprout to pop out of the soil.
Once your seeds have sprouted, you want to protect your baby plants — of course you do! Here’s how you can safeguard your seedlings from a late spring frost or from animal/pest incursions.
You can protect your plants from the cold with a floating row cover, or, with a little DIY, you can also raid your recycling bin to make a plastic milk jug cloche. Covering your plants overnight with either of these methods will prevent damage from a light frost. In the morning, as the sun comes up and temperatures rise, simply remove the covers and let sunlight do its magic. (And maybe keep those covers handy in case of another frost!)
You can protect seeds and seedlings from birds and other interested parties with eavestrough/gutter screening or hardware cloth. The openings in either of these wire screens are large enough to allow seedlings to sprout through, and small enough to inhibit poking beaks and gnawing teeth.
Cool season crops
Cool season crops are those that do best growing in cooler daytime temperatures, and can handle a light frost. As Jeremy mentions in the video, brassicas in general are good cool season crops, but there are many others, too. Here’s a (by no means comprehensive) list:
- Brussels sprouts
- herbs: cilantro, fennel,
- lettuce and other leafy
- greens (swiss chard, endive, radicchio)
- onions (set, seed, Spanish)
- early potatoes
Warm season crops
Warm season crops need warmer daytime temperatures, 21˚C-35˚C (70˚F-95˚F), and will not tolerate frost. This article includes a good discussion about the needs of warm season vegetables.
Because warm season vegetables need a lengthy growing season, you’ll likely already have started these seeds indoors, unless you plan to purchase seedlings (still a great idea – support your small garden centers and local nurseries!). Here’s a short list of warm season crops to contemplate:
- sweet potatoes
There’s still time to start seeds indoors
Tempted to start one of the warm season crops mentioned above? Why not? Lots of gardeners wait until early June to transplant outdoors, to completely eliminate the risk of frost. If you’re one of those growers (well done you), there’s still lots of time to start seeds indoors, in addition to any direct sowing efforts.
At gardenstead we’re always looking for sustainable growing ideas, and recently we found an earth-friendly resource we thought we’d share with our growers.
Recycled Paper Pots are made from 100% recycled, food-grade paperboard and are a green alternative to plastic or peat pots. They’re great for starting plant varieties that are sensitive to root disturbance, and have a perforated bottom that’s easy to remove when it comes time to transplant into soil. They’re available in various sizes and cater to different plant types and growth stages. We’re going to give them a try!