Grow your own vegetable seedlings


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By Theivendram Vigneswaran

Content: Grow stronger, healthier vegetable plants by raising your own seedlings. Prepare a seedbed, plant the seedlings, and look after them carefully to get a head start on a productive garden.


If you are going to plant vegetable seedlings in your garden, it is wise to have your own vegetable nursery to produce good seedlings. Growing your own seedlings takes time. However, a well-prepared, carefully-managed seedbed will give you strong, healthy plants. If you raise more seedlings than you need, you can give the rest to your neighbour, or sell some for extra income. Today, we have some ideas about growing vegetable seedlings from the Jaffna College Institute of Agriculture in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

As you know, some garden plants grow and produce vegetables right where you plant the seeds, for example beets, carrots, corn, cucumbers, and pumpkins. But some of the more sensitive, fast-growing vegetables, like tomatoes, eggplant, chilies, cabbage, or cauliflower can be raised in beds, trays, boxes, or pots, where you can give them special care before planting them in the garden. It is also a lot easier to take care of small plants in a small area. For example, if you have to water by hand, it is a lot easier to water a small seedbed than a large field. Today, I would like to explain how to grow seedlings in a raised seedbed.

There are three things to remember when choosing a site for the seedbed. You need good, well-drained soil, sufficient water, and sunlight. Choose a place where you will get direct sunlight at least half of the day. Do not choose a place in the shade of trees. Make sure that your nursery bed place is near your house so that you can easily care for the plants.

Seedbed preparation

Your site should not be in a low-lying part of your garden. Make sure the soil is well-drained. Change the location of your seedbed every season. That means: pick a new place each time, if possible.

Prepare your seedbed by cutting all the weeds and bushes around the area. Dry and burn them. This kills the plants which host insects harmful to the seedlings.

The seedbed will be small so you do not need to plough or break large areas of land. Loosen the soil to a depth of 30 centimetres (12 inches) with a hoe or a spade fork. Remove the weeds and roots. Leave it for a week. Breaking the soil lumps and loosening it will make the soil fine tilth.

Construct the seedbed carefully. Do not make your seedbed too wide. A width of 1 metre (3 feet) allows you to reach across the seedbed easily to sow the seeds and do the weeding. You can make the seedbed any length you want, depending on your field and the number of plants you need.

You will have the best success if you make a raised seedbed with loose soil. Make your bed so that it is raised about 20 to 30 centimetres (9 to 12 inches) above the ground. There are advantages to making a raised seedbed. A raised seedbed is clearly marked and separated from walkways and other areas. During the rainy days, the water won’t stay in the bed and damage the young plants. In other words, a raised seedbed has better drainage. Seedlings have very small roots which help them absorb water and nutrients from the soil. Since a raised seedbed is well-loosened, good-textured, and full of nutrients, it will promote vigorous growth in the plants.

After making the seedbed, spread compost or well-rotted cow manure and mix it with the soil. Do not leave the manure on the top of the bed, because when it is exposed to the sun or rain it will lose nutrients. Mix the manure with soil as soon as possible. Make the bed really flat. Now you are ready to sow the seeds.

Sowing the seeds

Sowing the seeds in the bed the right distance from each other is important. If you sow them too far apart, you waste space. If you sow them too closely, you will have small, weak plants. An ideal space between rows is 10 centimetres (4 or 5 inches). Place a straight, 10-centimetre-wide plank along one side of your seedbed so that the outside edge of the plank is lined up against the side of the seedbed and the inside edge of the plank is in the seedbed. Use a small stick to make a furrow in the soil along the edge of the plank. Then move the plank and line it up along the furrow you have just made. Make the next furrow against the other edge of the plank. Continue to use the plank to make furrows all the way across the seedbed. You will end up with straight furrows that are evenly spaced 10 centimetres apart from each other.

Sow the seeds at the right depth. You can decide the depth according to the size of the seed. Sow the seeds at a depth five times the diameter of the seed. Sow your seeds evenly in the furrows. Do not sow too many seeds too closely together. That is a waste of seeds. If the seeds are very small, mix them with sand before sowing them to help you to drop the seeds evenly. Make sure that all the furrows have seeds, then cover them with soil and press lightly. Spread sand lightly on top of the bed. This sand will help the water to go down because sand does not hold water. It will also prevent the topsoil from becoming hard. If the top layer of the soil becomes hard, it is difficult for the seedling to break through the soil.

After spreading the sand, press the seedbed with a handmade pressing board to make sure the seeds and soil have better contact. This gives the seeds a better chance of germinating. Place dry straw or banana leaves on top of the seedbed as mulch. This mulch keeps the soil moisture in and also prevents insects or birds from taking the seeds away. Watering the seedbed, especially during the germination period, is essential. Use a watering can to water the bed. Make sure that you give enough water so that it will reach the soil through the mulch. If you happen to save your kitchen ash, apply it to the top of the mulch and around your seedbeds. This ash will prevent pests and insects from eating the seeds and seedlings.

Within 7 to 10 days, most of the seeds will have sprouted and the seedlings will have two or three leaves. After all the seedlings come out well, you could remove the cover mulch carefully, without damaging the plants.

After the mulch is removed, the young seedlings need extra shade to protect them from the sun. You can make a raised cover shade using palm leaves or coconut leaves, etc. When you are watering, take off the cover. Water the seedlings twice a day, once in the early morning and a second time later in the day. Watering in the early morning washes the dew from the plants. If the dew is left on the plants and heated by the sunlight, the young plants, especially the tips of the leaves and the buds, will be scorched.

As part of your daily routine, watch out for insects, weeds, and diseases. A common disease in nursery plants is called “damping off.” The plants get this disease if there is too much water in the seedbed. To prevent it, do not leave mulch on the bed for a long time after the seeds have germinated well. Also, avoid overcrowding. Frequent thinning, weeding, and water control will prevent the “damping off” disease from damaging the plants.

Transplanting and hardening the seedlings

Once your plants have about four or five leaves, they are ready for transplanting. Before transplanting, give the seedlings more sun. Remove the shade gradually during the daytime so they will get used to the heat. It is also a good idea to gradually reduce the amount of water they get close to transplanting time. This will make them stronger when they are transplanted.

Start transplanting your seedlings after the third or fourth week or sell only the strongest plants. Before you take the plants out of the seedbed, give them enough water so that you may not disturb the roots of the plants. When you are doing the thinning, weeding, and transplanting, cover the holes where the plants were. If you leave the holes in the beds, they will hold water and can cause damage to other plants still in the seedbed.

If you make your seedbed properly and take good care of the plants, you will get a good return from your garden. A good harvest from the crops starts from your seedbed plants. “Tender loving care” is the key to your success in seedbed management.

Theivendram Vigneswaran was Farm Manager at the Jaffna College Institute of Agriculture in Maruthanamadam, Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He presently works as a consultant with DCFRN in Toronto.




Other DCFRN scripts about vegetable gardening are:

Vegetable gardening

Part 1: First steps – Package 7, Item 2

Part 2: Planting seeds in a garden and in a seedling bed – Package 7, Item 3

Part 3: Care of seedling plants in a seedling bed – Package 7, Item 4

Part 4: Transplanting – Package 7, Item 5

Some simple ways to boost vegetable production – Package 9, Item 8

Growing vegetables in raised platform gardens – Package 14, Item 10

More vegetables from your garden – Package 15, Item 10