It's that time of year when the heated propagator gets ahead of us and we are faced with pricking out some large seedlings. There is still a drive for gardeners to buy in plants for that instant satisfaction but as any grower of food will tell you, it all starts with the seed. Today we are pricking our Dahlia Bishop's Children, one of our favourite plants to grow from seed as we are guaranteed that they will flower this year and get better and better as the year progress. We are also pricking out chilli seedlings too, these are assorted varieties and like all chillies they need a little base heat to get them going - that simply means that we started them in a heated propagator on the windowsill in the front room.
You need to prick your seedlings out into cell trays - you don't have to do that, you could prick them out into larger seed trays, bog rolls or individual pots but we find the large seed cell trays create great little plug plants that are easy to pot on. You will also need a dibber, there is no mystery to what a dibber is, in this case it is a wooden skewer cut in half but it can be a pencil, a chop stick or anything that you can tease the seedlings out with. Don't use a trowel, a brick, or your finger, you'll just crush the roots and the plant. Think gentle, think patience, think teasing. Improvise and use what you have to hand, we have used yoghurt pots, egg boxes and plenty of other assorted containers that often end up in the bin. Growing seeds is not rocket science, it's common sense.
You may have started your seeds off in a seed compost or a general multipurpose. Don't worry too much about compost, you can learn compost as you go, just remember that ALL compost runs out of nutrients after about 4-6 weeks depending on how hungry the plant is. Finding the perfect compost is down to you, it's down to what you want and how much you want to carry to the car. This year we have decided to prick out into John Innes No.1, this is a compost built for seedlings to grow on into small plants. We have been using different composts for six years and we have yet to find one we really love. The art of compost is a subjective thing. It's the bloody Holy Grail.
You simply need to fill your seed tray outside or in a place you can easily sweep up. You are warned never, ever to do it in the lounge over a new rug, don't go there, don't think that a simple shake of the rug will eliminate all traces of compost. You are a dead person walking. So do it outdoors or still be arguing about that rug you destroyed a decade later. Work the compost from the centre of the cell tray to the edges to minimise waste. If you have a greenhouse and a compost work tray, then bully for you, fling it left, right and centre, you can always scoop up the excess later and feel smug as you place it back in the bag. For the rest of us struggling with space and money, fill from the centre outwards balanced precariously on a wall in a windy spot.
A top tip is store any trays waiting to be filled upside down or else the wind will catch them...
...as they did here, and we chased them down the road...
When you have recovered your tray from the road, got your breath back, looked like a prat in front of the neighbours, carry on filling it with compost. When it is full, raise it up in the air a few inches (not a few feet, this is not WWF) and gently tap the whole tray on the bench. This helps to settle the compost. You can see in the photo below how the compost in the top left cells has settled lower than the rest of the tray. This allows you to top up these cells with more compost or simply to think, 'Bugger it, let's get on with the job'. Your call. Your garden.
Now find a place where you can prick out in peace and quiet, or in our case with Little D looking over our should asking if he can do it. Warning: Pricking out should not be done by a six year old! If you do allow a small child to prick out your seedlings you will be talking about it at their wedding.
Get your dibber and gently tease out a seedling. Hold the seedling by a leaf and never by the stem. If you hold a seedling by the stem you will end up with a dead seedling. You may think you're gentle but to a plant's stem you are as gentle as a six year old around chocolate at Easter. You are death, destroyer of world's and devourer of sugar. Be gentle and hold like below...
Use your dibber to make a hole in one of the cells, as below, and lower the seedling into the hole, gently pushing down the roots with the dibber and then gently push the soil with the end of the seedling around the roots. GENTLY!
You can see in the photo below how we get the dibber under the roots and lever up the seedling.
You will find seedlings in your tray that are sometimes weak, struggling or just blind - these are seedlings that have never developed true leaves (true leaves are the shape of the plants final foliage, but just in miniature). Don't be daft. Don't keep them. A seedling that is struggling at this stage will still be struggling when you prick it out. Good chance it will grow into a weak plant, go into the ground and die. So the best thing to do is to compost it now and save yourself money. If you don't agree, it's your garden, your time and you may strike lucky or you may just swear at us in the street during July. These things happen, gardening is a competitive world.
It's inevitable that you will have some seedlings leftover. Here we have chilli seedlings, we tend to sell our chilli plants - frankly we have around 100 of the buggers growing and no one on this Earth needs 100 chilli plants in their greenhouse, no one loves fiery food that much and you'll end up with thousands of chillies or worse, a monoculture that is devoured by hot blooded bugs and viruses. Normally, we would compost them, what goes around comes around ethos but we'll prick them out again at a later date in a small cell tray but if you have enough seedlings, and neighbours, friends or a postie who seems to spend too much time at your kitchen table, share them, compost them. It's up to you.
You will now be in possession of a tray of seedlings, as below. You will feel like you have run a marathon, but without the sweat, tightness of chest, lack of breath and fluids. You will have achieved something. Now you simply have to water the little seedlings. Stop (Hammer Time). Stop. Stop. Stop. Bet you thought you would water them from above with your trusty or brand new watering can. The metal one that leaks like a sieve. The four gallon green one that was a bargain. DO NOT WATER SEEDLINGS FROM ABOVE. Watering seedlings from above is akin to you being caught in a freak hailstone weather event that makes the film The Day After Tomorrow look like a Carry On Raining film. Watering seedling from above is a common mistake that new gardeners make, we've done it, we've been laughed at by old allotment holders (they tend to laugh at anyone under 50) who tell you, snort flying, spit dribbling, tears rolling, farts flying that 'No matter how fine the bloody rose is, you done as much damage as pissing on them from a high wall'. This was the advice given to us in Stalybridge. It still holds true today. If you wonder what a rose is, it's that end of your watering can that always falls off when you least want it to drowning every plant beneath. A wall is something robust and tall, it partitions you off from the rest of the world. Pissing off it is never a good idea. As the old timer told us, as he climbed on his wall and looked down on us, it is best to place seedlings in a water bath. Confused? A water bath is simply a tray with no holes in it full of water that the tray can sit in, without being fully submerged, for around 15-20 minutes. The water will be sucked up by the compost. No one will get pissed on.
Leave the tray alone now for a day, put it somewhere out of direct sunlight. Direct sunlight on a south facing windowsill will dry them out faster than they can suck up the water in the compost. Remember that these seedlings have just been transplanted, it's a major shock to them, it's a major operation. You wouldn't go bungy jumping after having your legs set in plaster. Most gardening is common sense gardening. So, give them some peace to recover and then place in a sheltered warm spot to grow on. We put ours on the bottom shelf of our staging in the greenhouse and cover over on cold nights with fleece.
Until then they have pride of place on the table, with plenty of newspaper under them and a tray with no holes in it. Really, we don't want to be having the argument about who destroyed the tablecloth when we're celebrating our golden anniversary.