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Preparing the seed bed

UK Garden Centre - How to prepare a vegetable seed bed

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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).


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