A few vegetables are
grown in the garden or allotment by planting rooted
material. The roots of these transplants are either
bare or contained in a soil ball, and examples
are asparagus, rhubarb, globe artichoke and some
herbs. There are other vegetables, especially
half-hardy ones such as tomatoes and aubergines,
which are first raised indoors under glass and
then transplanted into the open garden when conditions
are suitable. The pattern for most vegetables,
however, is to sow seeds in the vegetable plot
and then either leave them to grow where sown
or else transplant them as seedlings to another
spot where they grow to maturity. Either way,
a seed bed is required.
Early spring is the usual time to start, but you
must wait until the soil is workable. The surface
will have started to change colour but it will
still be moist just below this thin dry layer.
Walk over the plot – if the soil sticks
to your boots then it is still too wet.
The first job is to break down the clods which
you brought up with the winter digging. They will
have been loosened by wind and frost, and the
tool to use is a hand cultivator or a garden fork.
Work on a push-pull principle to shatter the large
lumps and roughly level the surface – do
not let the prongs or tines go deeper than 6in
(15cm) below the surface or you are liable to
bring up the rubbish and compost you buried at
digging time. If the surface is still very uneven
and clods are still present, repeat the cultivation
at right angles.
The next step is to apply a dressing of fertilizer
to the surface. It is unwise to leave all of this
dressing on the surface as in concentrated form
it can damage the tiny roots of germinating seeds.
To avoid this risk work the fertilizer into the
top few inches with a hand cultivator.
Now you are ready to prepare the seed bed, and
the rules have changed in recent years. The traditional
way was to tread over the surface in order to
consolidate the lower levels and to squash any
remaining clods. The final step was to rake the
surface smooth. Nowadays treading is frowned upon
because it has been shown to damage the soil structure,
so follow the new rules.
Walk over the surface with a rake and use the
implement and not your feet to fill in the hollows
and break down the mounds. Pick up debris and
small stones. When you have finished this operation,
use the rake in a push-pull fashion to produce
a smooth and level seed bed with a crumbly surface.
These crumbs must not be too small – dust
in clayey or silty soil will produce a harmful
capped surface with the first heavy rain after
preparation. A surface with the consistency of
coarse breadcrumbs should be your goal –
the larger the seed, the less the need for a fine
‘tilth’ (crumb structure).