Start Your Seeds

by Francois
“A seed neither fears light nor darkness, but uses both to grow.” 
― Matshona Dhliwayo

This guide will take you through the process of successfully starting your plants from seed, whether you are direct sowing them or starting them in trays first.

If there is one thing that counts in our favour, it is that seeds actually want to grow into plants and produce flowers and seed to ensure they are reproduced. Each and every seed holds all the genetic material and nutrients to ensure it gets off to a good start. Let’s briefly look at some practical aspects of your seed germination setup before we get to the actual steps.


Location – Your germination / growing area should receive adequate sunlight, but should also be protected from the harsh midday sun. Ideally you want to put up a shade net / plastic that can filter the direct sunlight so that your seeds / seedlings still receive adequate light, but are protected. Dappled light shining through trees or shrubs will also do.

Water source – It would be ideal to have a water source close by so that you can connect a pipe and use a hand-held sprayer. Choose a good-quality spray head with adjustable spraying strength.

Cleanliness – Young seedlings are susceptible to infections; bacterial, viral, fungal. Although many of these are transmitted by insects (more on that later), as humans we are often the culprits when it comes to infecting our plants. It is important that your germination / growing area and all equipment / tools are kept clean and hygienic at all times. Keep all unrelated and dirty items like clothes or shoes out of your clean space.

If you are starting them in trays, you will also need:

Trays – Seed starting trays are usually available at garden centres. Most seeds can be started in a 128 or 200 cell tray. This will allow them sufficient space to grow until they can be transplanted – anything from 30 to 60 days after sowing. If you are reusing old trays, ensure they are cleaned properly before you start. Once you have had algae / mold growth on them, it can easily start up again. Use a chloride  / peroxide solution to clean off any biological matter followed by a proper rinse with clean water.

Germination mix – As mentioned above, the ideal growing medium composition is one that has a somewhat coarse and open structure. However, it should not be too coarse as it will not hold moisture well and dry out too quickly. On the other hand, if the mixture is too fine, it will stay waterlogged and your seedlings will fail to thrive. The goal is to have a consistently moist, but not wet germination environment. You can make your own germination mix using a combination of vermiculite (see below), river sand and sifted (but not too fine) compost. Mix these in equal amounts. If you are not able to make your own, there are many seed germination mixes available commercially.

Vermiculite – An inexpensive, mineral-derived sterile element that has a high water holding capacity. This should also be available at garden centres and is often included in germination mixes to help retain moisture. We will use it specifically at surface level where seeds have been sown to ensure moisture levels stay consistent throughout the germination process.


In trays:

  • Prepare your space and have the following at hand:
    1. Large, shallow, closed-bottom container
    2. Trays
    3. Germination mix
    4. Seeds
    5. Vermiculite (medium size)
    6. Labels & marker pen
    7. Water
  • Wash and sterilise your hands
  • Place your tray(s) in the large shallow container.
  • Use a scoop or your hands to fill the trays with the germination mix.
  • Shake / tap the tray lightly against the bottom of the container to settle.
  • Fill up any holes that are not full, but do not compress the mix into the holes.
  • Using the sprayer head (adjust to light spray), wet the germination mix thoroughly.
  • Wash / sanitise your hands before you open the seed packet.
  • Drop 1 seed per cell on top of the germination mix.
  • Now, if your seeds require darkness to germinate, cover all the cells with more germination mix (about 0.5 cm thick layer) and if your seeds require light to germinate, lightly cover each cell with vermiculite.
  • Using the sprayer head (light spray again) and from a distance of at least 30cm above the tray, very briefly water again. Upon contact with the water, the vermiculite should settle into the cells and become slightly darker in color.  
  • Don’t forget to insert a label (indicating variety, color and date) into one of the cells. Unless you only plan to sow one tray, don’t even think you will remember what you have sown in which tray, because you won’t 🙂
  • All that’s left is to place your newly sown tray in a warmish spot that receives enough light and to ensure the top layer is kept moist (depending on the weather, lightly spraying every second or third day should be sufficient), but do check them daily until they emerge.
  • If kept at the recommended temperature, your seeds should germinate within the noted window period, but don’t despair if it takes a couple of days longer. If you are still not having any luck after that, try to increase the temperature a bit (be careful to not let them dry out).

Direct sowing:

Before sowing your seeds directly in the beds, ensure that you have already done the following:

  1. Removed all existing weeds, roots and stones
  2. Worked some compost into the bed
  3. Watered it properly
  4. Smoothed the surface of the bed
  • For seeds that require light for germination, push only half of the seed into the soil so that a part of it sticks out of the soil and light can reach it. If darkness is required, depending on the size of the seed, either make a small hole with your finger and put the seed inside the hole and cover completely with soil, or push the seed into the soil (in general, the size of the seed determines how deep it must be planted. If the seed is small, do not make a hole, but only push the seed into the soil and cover lightly with more soil. If a very small seed is buried too deeply, it may not have enough growing power to reach the surface of the soil.
  • Insert labels where your seeds have been sown.
  • Using the sprayer head (light spray again), gently but sufficiently water the newly sown bed. It is important that the bed is consistently kept moist until the seeds germinate, so do check on them daily and water when needed.
  • Since you will probably have less control over temperature in the garden, it might take slightly longer for your seed to germinate, but don’t despair. If you are able to, you can cover them at night to provide some protection against the cold.

The above information is an excerpt from one of our journal entries. If you would like to read more about seed germination, including what to do after your seeds have germinated, be sure to visit our Grow Your Own journal entry.

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