Whilst the main plot is too cold and too wet for planting, and the polytunnel is not much better, it is nonetheless time for the first sowings of the year. Peppers, chillies, and aubergines hail from warmer climes, and benefit from a long growing season so need to be started early in the year. Chillies are, in my experience, the easiest of these crops, and we never fail to produce a good quantity of ripe fruits. It does vary, though, according to variety. The Habanero, for example, needs a much longer season than many others. The peppers and aubergines really do need to get a good start as it is a challenge to ripen the fruits at the end of the season, especially the peppers, and neither CT nor I are particular fans of dark green peppers.
In a previous article I looked at my seed list for peppers, chillies, and aubergines. In total, I will probably look to plant out 17 peppers, 44 chillies, and 6 aubergines, comprising 17 or so different varieties. For most, I plant one spare pot, which, if not needed, will later go to a charity plant sale that we have supported for several years. Of these plants, the Hungarian Hot Wax is the most important for me, as I grow 20 of these to provide plenty of chillies for pickling. For these I sowed 25 pots to make sure we have enough.
Organic gardeners are somewhat limited in available growing media. Regardless of peat content, which is still hotly debated, the use of synthetic fertilisers is just not necessary, and unacceptable to me. Most garden centres, although not all, stock an organic option. I have had good results with New Horizon and Vital Earth; the latter, in my experience, generally offers a slightly finer texture, but it does seem to vary from batch to batch. The drawback with the organic options is that, in my view, they really have not been sufficiently composted or shredded finely enough for seed sowing and can be rather woody. Where needed, the compost should be sieved, especially if sowing in modules. For pots, one usually gets away with just sieving the compost that covers the seed. It is a pity that a wider selection is not available to the organic gardener, but I have never had any substantial problems using the organic multipurpose composts. Suppliers of organic composts often have more products in their range than are available locally. Vital Earth, for example, has a product specifically intended for seed sowing, which is supposed to be of a finer grade. However, I have not noticed it for sale anywhere. Alternatively, homemade sowing media could be produced, especially if one has a supply of leaf mould.
The compost, sieved or otherwise, can be used directly if one is sowing in trays and pricking out later. However, I tend to sow peppers, chillies, and aubergines in small pots, either 3” round or slightly smaller square pots, in which they are most likely to remain until ready for planting out at the end of April or early May, weather depending. Although it is the norm to use a compost that has relatively low levels of nutrient for seed sowing, as rich soils can harm the developing roots, the organic medium does not, to my mind, have quite what it needs to sustain the growth of the seedlings, so for the last couple of years I have added a sprinkling of fish, blood, and bone. This provides some additional slow release nutrients, and is well balanced, without an over abundance of nitrogen that might result in too much soft growth. I have not performed any side by side trials so have only my vague and entirely unscientific impressions to go by, but I think the results may be better with this addition, and it is easier than worrying about liquid feeding of struggling seedlings later.
When sowing any small seeds it is best to water the compost before sowing, as watering can wash the seeds deeper into the compost than intended. One can water by placing the pots, trays, or modules in a tray of water and allowing to soak until the surface becomes damp, which is ideal after seeds have been sown. To begin with, though, I simply fill the pots to the rim, not too tightly packed, place in a tray and water with a can with a fine rose, which will compact the compost a little and be perfect for sowing.
Pepper, chilli, and aubergine seeds can be sown as they come, inserting a few millimetres below the soil level with the help of a small dibber, or placing on the surface and covering with a fine sprinkling of further compost. Based on previous experience, though, I now soak all of these seeds in water first for 24 hours or so. This softens the seed casing, helping with germination and, perhaps more importantly, helping the seedling free its first leaves from the casing. Without soaking, it is not uncommon for the seedling to emerge from the soil with its leaves still stuck in the seed casing and sometimes failing to shed it. Again, I have not undertaken side by side trials, but my entirely unscientific feelings are that the soaking makes a significant difference. This is not a unique notion, though, as one can find numerous recommendations to soak seeds. Weak camomile tea is sometimes suggested for soaking, not just as an aid for germination, but for its fungicidal properties. Of course, one can also find suggestions for various chemical concoctions but I ignore these entirely.
Having soaked the seeds, I very carefully use a pair of tweezers and a small dibber to place the seeds a few millimetres below the surface of the compost. The pots are then placed in propagators and kept warm until the seeds have germinated. Peppers and aubergines generally take a couple of weeks, whilst some chillies can take longer. If any have failed to germinate by the end of the month, a second sowing is still perfectly reasonable to undertake at the beginning of March. The challenges of maintaining ideal conditions for germination and growing on were discussed in my recent post, which reviewed the addition to our equipment of two large Vitapod heated propagators. This year, then, we are hoping for more rapid and more consistent germination and better growing conditions for the young seedlings. Post germination, light levels are equally important so as not to produce weak and leggy seedlings. It would be rather better to sow later and produce robust plants than spindly specimens, but we have usually managed to keep the seedlings in good condition. This year should be even easier with the new propagators.