Sowing seeds has been an integral part of human life since time immemorial. The fact that the whole of the adult plant, or at least the blueprint of the adult plant, is contained within the seed is nothing short of a miracle. When you have a chance to collect seed, store it carefully out of harm’s way, and to then plant it when conditions are right, so that it can grow and yield a crop that will give you sustenance, then it is easy to feel a genuine connection with the world of nature.
Preparing the Ground
Before you sow the seeds, you have to prepare the ground. This sounds simple, but, in fact, it is a process that never actually reaches completion: this year’s crops are helping to prepare the ground for next year’s crops, and next year’s crops are preparing the ground for the year after, and so on. So crop rotation is an important part of the soil preparation process, and it takes time to work out which crops can be included in a rotation in any particular place, depending on the weather and the soil conditions. Furthermore, as time progresses, and your work leads to an improvement in your soil, what you can grow, and the optimum time for sowing, will change.
Another factor in soil preparation is the effort that you make to add organic material, whether it be by mulching, or working in compost. The aim is to consistently increase the amount of organic material in the soil from one year to the next, so that over time the diversity and volume of living organisms in the soil steadily increases. One might imagine that seeds are able to germinate and thrive in an inert medium – and indeed this is something that the agricultural industry is constantly seeking to achieve – but in reality seeds have a symbiotic relationship with soil organisms, and thrive best in rich soil.
Finally, there is the work that you do to work the ground immediately prior to planting. The aim is to have the soil broken up into a fine tilth, so that when the seed germinates, the little root that it produces will be able to make contact with soil particles, and will be able to absorb the water that is so important during the first days of growth. Over recent years, mechanisation has offered a short cut to achieving finely-broken-up soil. If you go over a piece of ground often enough with a rotovator or a tractor with its various attachments, even the roughest ground can be broken up, but there is a price to pay: the harsh treatment buries the top soil and disrupts the life of the soil organisms; as a result the soil compacts over the growing season, both drainage and water retention are impeded, soil organisms find conditions unsuitable for their survival, and weeds proliferate. A more subtle approach is to work the ground with hand tools – a hoe and a rake: the soil is disturbed to less depth, weeds can be dealt with one at a time, and the amount of work done can be tailored to the actual state of the ground. Areas that have been mulched, and which have had a good rotation of crops over many years, should need much less work than new ground, or land reclaimed from modern agriculture. It is possible that in time, the land may need no working at all, (this is the goal that many no-dig gardeners are working towards, with greater or lesser degrees of success).
Selecting the Seed
One aim of a self-sufficient farm is that it should produce all its own seed. This is not only good from an economic point of view, it is also necessary in order for the farm to provide a sense of freedom and independence. Even more significant, however, is the fact that, over time, seeds collected on the farm and re-sown each year will develop a special affinity for the climatic and soil conditions on the farm, and for all the flora and fauna living upon it. When you sow the seed, you will not be introducing an alien element to the soil, but returning the seed to its natural element, where it can reconnect with all the life that its parent plant was living with and helping to support in previous years.
Broadcast vs Drills
The ideal is to be able to broadcast seed, i.e. scattering seed by throwing handfuls over an area of pre-prepared ground. If it is done well, it gives a better coverage than drills, and each plant gets more space. However, in practical terms, sowing seed in drills makes more sense until you have fully understand the weed culture in each field and for each crop. When you sow seed in drills it is relatively easy to hoe up and down the rows, earth up the plants, and even to walk up and down, pulling up weeds by hand.
A drill can be made with a hoe, or with a pointed tool; in dry weather it can be made deeper, in wet weather, less deep. The drills do not need to be perfectly straight, or even exactly evenly spaced, you just do the best job you can on the day, based on your understanding of how the crop is likely to grow. You can then go up and down the drills, sowing seed in them by hand, and then cover over the seeds by walking up and down, pushing the soil back in place with your boots. A seed drill can be used, particularly if you are prone to getting a bad back while bending down to plant the seeds. Generally, however, the more time you spend, and the more personal attention you give to planting the seed, the better. It is a critical moment for the crop – marking the transition from preparation to the start of the growing phase – and if it is done well, it will save time later on, and will lead to a better harvest.
Vegetables vs Cereals
Most people taking up gardening today do not consider the idea of growing cereals, but, instead, go straight to the far harder task of growing vegetables. Almost all vegetables are more demanding plants than cereals, with each requiring special techniques (rich soil, planting time relative to frost, transplanting, watering, thinning, etc.) which make success far from guaranteed for the beginner, and, in addition, it is notoriously difficult to collect good seed from vegetables that you are growing: for example, many vegetable varieties, such as brassicas or members of the squash family, can cross-pollinate with each other, with the result that the seeds do not grow to produce the vegetables that you want. It makes more sense to develop one’s gardening skills growing cereals: they are derived from tough grasses, have large seeds, and a strong will to prosper. Even if your soil is exhausted and poorly prepared, you will probably still have a few plants that will grow; you can save the seeds from these plants to sow the following year, and you will soon start to develop your own culture of seeds, adapted to where you live. If you persist in your efforts, the germination, the rate of growth, and the yield will gradually increase from year to year. This is the time-honoured and ideal way to discover the ancient art of agriculture.