How to sow seeds properly?
February 24, 2011 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I am planting a container garden for the first time. I am planting herbs and vegetables that require 36" of space when mature, but I'm wondering if I need to give them that much space when I am sowing them and growing seedlings?

I am growing basil, cilantro, parsley, eggplant, zucchini, and sunflowers.
posted by luciddream928 to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you're saying that you're planning on replanting the seedlings, yes? In that case when they're very small it probably doesn't matter. The width apart that is suggested is to allow space for the plant to grow into as it matures and if you're replanting before then, I don't think it will be necessary to have all that space. (Novice gardener here only.)
posted by Jubey at 7:06 PM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: You can just thin out the herbs; when growing basil, cilantro, or parsley, I just throw out a bunch of seed and use the thinnings as microgreens. None of those require 36", you'll just get a smaller plant if you plant closer together. I never plant herbs in a neat row, I just designate a patch and keep the better looking seedlings.

With the veggies, you'd be more careful in laying down the seed, and you would need to plan out the spacing ahead of time. FYI, the zuchinni's going to take up A LOT of space when mature. Square feet of space. You'll need to plan that well. Eggplant depends on the type. Can't imagine that you'd have to be careful about the sunflower spacing, but that may be a misreading given that sunflowers just pop up all around my yard each summer.

You can also plant the herbs around and under the eggplant or sunflowers to maximize space. By the time they get shaded out, you'll have gotten some production out of the herbs.
posted by seventyfour at 7:06 PM on February 24, 2011

What seventyfour said, for herbs and any greens/lettuces you might decide to throw in there. Just watch for what looks like it's "sticking", pull up the rest and use it to season your salads or garnish your food.

My grandfather is a master gardener who lives by the maxim that if you have to buy zucchini, it means you don't have any friends and you need to rethink your whole life. That's because squashes grow pretty easily and are very prolific. You'll want to give them more space, and you probably don't need to even plant as many as you think, but if you're inexperienced with growing from seeds, go right ahead and start more than you really mean to grow. You can thin as needed. And the blossoms are pretty tasty themselves so when you get a feel for how much zucchini your plantings end up producing, you can plan next time to have some just for blossoms, which you can then thin out to make room for the fruit-producing plants to do their thing.

I've always had some issues keeping cilantro happy, but basil and parsley are so easy that I don't even know why they sell them in stores. Even once they bolt (start flowering) and the leaves themselves become thin and weak, if you pinch the flowers off they usually turn right around.
posted by padraigin at 7:20 PM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: You can grow the herbs in 6-10" diameter round pots and they will do fine, depending on how much you are looking for the plants to produce. I found that two basil plants in 8" plastic pots on my not-so-sunny porch produced enough basil for me to make pesto every couple weeks, with what can best be described as a "tough love" watering schedule. If you want a lot of basil I'd recommend more plants/bigger pots.

Parsley and cilantro are very similar to each other in terms of needs and will do well also. I've heard parsley is hard to grow from seed, but I am a very very novice gardener and had no trouble starting it with a grow light last year. If you wanted to branch out (har har) mint is another low-maintenance herb.

P.S. Have you checked out the forums? They are amazing for this kind of thing!
posted by shortskirtlongjacket at 7:21 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you wanted to branch out (har har) mint is another low-maintenance herb.

And an awesome herb as well, but definitely keep it in a container, most mints are invasive as all hell and will cheerfully julep the shit out of your garden.

My last container herb garden consisted of several 12-15" diameter pots, and I could get about three plants in each without any hassle. I had a few different basils in one, some of the woodier herbs in another--you kind of just work it out based on which herbs need how much sun and water, so they live happily together.

Herbs (and squash) are a great way to get your hands dirty as you're learning to garden. Good luck!
posted by padraigin at 7:34 PM on February 24, 2011

Response by poster: Hi Everyone, thank you for your helpful responses!

Yes, I am planning on replanting the seedlings. This is how I planted them:
Eggplant - Scattered the seeds in window box (directions did not specify # of inches apart)
Zucchini - Planted 2-3 inches apart in about 3" of soil, 3 seeds only
Cilantro - Planted 3 seeds about 4" apart in 3" of soil
Sunflowers - Planted about 4" apart in 3" of soil

You get the idea. I want lots of seedlings for a prolific garden, though - at this rate I'll have three sprigs of cilantro all spring. Jubey, I wonder if you are right about just scattering the seeds? Does anyone know if this will work for the first few weeks until I replant them? Or does it depend on the plant?
posted by luciddream928 at 8:40 PM on February 24, 2011

I grow my seedlings in a plastic transparent cup, so I can see the roots. When it becomes obvious that roots need more space, I replant them into bigger pots.
posted by leigh1 at 8:42 PM on February 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks Leigh1 - how many seeds do you put in a cup?
posted by luciddream928 at 9:03 PM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: I would do something like this:
basil - 3-4 seeds per cup
cilantro - 4-5 seeds per cup
eggplant - 2 seeds per cup, later pull out the weak one
zucchini - same
sunflowers - same

But do plant some extra cups, just in case, and for sharing with friends.
posted by leigh1 at 9:10 PM on February 24, 2011

Go to Flick, and search for "basil seedlings" and you will get a general idea.
posted by leigh1 at 9:14 PM on February 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you Leigh1! That helps a lot. Great idea to use transparent cups - I bet it's helpful to see the roots. I checked out Flicker and it looks like scattering the seeds wouldn't be beneficial for the health of the plant. The ones that were overcrowded looked more yellow.
posted by luciddream928 at 9:33 PM on February 24, 2011

Not directly related, but possibly of interest:

Why cilantro tastes like soap. You might want to check on that (if you don't know already) before you grow a ton, to find out if you're like me. NPR did an article about it too.

Sure helped me discover why I used to ask my friends if they rinsed the salsa dish after washing it. (Don't ask me why I know what dish soap tastes like, it's embarrassing and I was young and stupid.) Now, I just ask if the salsa has cilantro in it.
posted by Heretical at 2:31 AM on February 25, 2011

Best answer: With seedlings, you should always plant more than you want to have for your end number of plants. Some seeds will fail to germinate--the exact percentage depends on the quality and type of seed, but 75% germination rate is a good ballpark figure. You can also figure on a few plants not surviving to transplant age and/or surviving the transplant process.

A generous ballpark figure for how much space to allow for each seedling is about 4 sq inches of soil space--or about 2" apart. You can go closer (commercial "six packs" are about 1.5" x 1.5" per cell), but unless you're starting a ton of plants and need to be stingy with space, give 'em a little extra room. If you don't feel bad about baby-plant murder, you can plant 2 seeds for every 1 final seedling you want, and snip off the weaker/slower one when they get their 2nd set of leaves.

The size of the final plant is not the key consideration in the amount of space per seedling (assuming you plan on transplanting): a tomato seedling that will grow into a 6' plant and a dwarf marigold that tops out at 8" can both be transplanted at about the same size (once they get to at least 3" tall and have several sets of leaves).

Definitely seed more cilantro in a couple of weeks. It's not a large plant at all--it'll form a half-circular mound about 8" tall before it bolts (goes to seed and becomes coriander!) and it's very shallow rooted--it only needs about 6" of spacing in its final location (or a 6" diameter pot if you want one plant to a pot). The period between when it's big enough to start harvesting and when it bolts is sadly short (figure on less than a month).

Basil will last quite a bit longer before it bolts, but also plant more than you think you'll need if you want enough to make pesto. It's a little bigger than cilantro--figure on 8" diameter pots at a minimum.

Your eggplant seedlings will probable do better if you cover them with a little bit of soil. The seeds are very similar to tomatoes and peppers--they can sometimes struggle to shed the seed coat from their first pair of leaves, but struggling up through a little bit of soil seems to help with this.

Plant your parsley now. It likes cool weather and is rather slow to germinate and get started. Space requirements are similar to basil. 1-2 good plants is probably enough. Unlike basil and cilantro, parsley is one of those plants I always seem to wind up with more of than I need. Its germination rate is on the low side, though, so certainly plant at least 4-5 seeds (cover with about 1/4" soil) and see what you get. Be patient.
posted by drlith at 4:52 AM on February 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've seen a lot of people plant too much parsley, then harvest it wrong and end up with square feet of broken, yellowing stalks and no parsley to eat. A single parsley plant, properly harvested, will go for two years. So don't just reach in and snap off a random parsley leaf, or give it a haircut with the kitchen scissors.

Parsley grows from a single trunk, with new leaf-branches sprouting from the centre. If you grow five or six plants, and always snap the whole of one or two outermost branches off each plant right where they join the trunk, you get good strong flavour and healthy-looking plants that just keep on producing.

That same technique works for plants in the cabbage, lettuce and beet families as well.

Basil is different. Basil really does want its tips clipped off; this promotes branching, and makes the plant go all nice and bushy.

You will end up with more zucchinis than you know what to do with. This is normal.
posted by flabdablet at 6:43 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had good results letting the cilantro bolt and reseed itself, rather than continually starting new seedlings.
posted by electroboy at 6:51 AM on February 25, 2011


You wrote that you planted the sunflowers, and cilantro in 3" of soil Are you saying you planted the seeds 3" deep? Cilantro should be covered with just a little dirt. 3" is way too deep. Sounds deep for sunflowers, too. Google tells me that Eggplant (which I've only grown from transplants) is about the same as cilantro, covered with just a little dirt. Zucchini, I guess 3" is OK, though I never went that deep.

You'd also, I think, want to plant more cilantro seeds that that -- just scatter them and cover with a little dirt.

Oh, and hint -- in this early stage (especially in a container garden), you'll need to water at least every day, and maybe twice a day, as the upper part of the soil (where the seeds are) will dry up quickly.

Best of luck! Everything you're growing is pretty easy except for the eggplant (eggplant itself isn't hard to grow, but I've always heard it was tougher from seed).
posted by seventyfour at 7:48 AM on February 25, 2011

Response by poster: Seventyfour,

I planted all seeds in about 1/4" of soil. There are about 3" of soil under that. Meaning, 3" of soil for the roots to start to grow.
posted by luciddream928 at 8:50 AM on February 25, 2011

Response by poster: For some seeds, like the eggplant and cilantro, I just sprinkled dirt on top per a gardening book's recommendation. (Gayla Trail's "Grow Great Grub")
posted by luciddream928 at 8:52 AM on February 25, 2011

Response by poster: Drlith, you said that cilantro goes to seed and becomes coriander - I never knew that! Any tips on that? I love coriander but it's very expensive, would be nice to grow it.
posted by luciddream928 at 8:57 AM on February 25, 2011

Oh, OK, and the plants will eventually be transplated to a container with more depth (because 3" isn't enough for anything except maybe the herbs). I didn't understand that from your question. And cilantro, after it flowers, will give you coriander!
posted by seventyfour at 9:52 AM on February 25, 2011

Best answer: Here's a link on harvesting your own coriander:

Cilantro has a fairly limited time before it bolts, so keep sowing it every week. As far as I can tell, you can't really over-sow it - just throw a handful on the ground and it will grow. Then let it go to seed, and using the link above harvest the dried seed to get more cilantro seed, aka coriander.

The flower stage is pretty too and attracts insects - I had an awesome goldenrod crab spider that hung out on my cilantro for weeks last summer. Hard to spot on the flowers, but you shall know her by the trail of dead bees.

This thread is really making me miss my garden. Damn you snow.
posted by Gortuk at 10:14 AM on February 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems really early to be planting eggplant, unless you are in the south somewhere. Normally you want to start them indoors at a time when you can set them out in mid May or so. The soil needs to be at about 75 degrees or so for them to germinate. You want to sow zucchini outside when soil temps are around 70 degrees. So if nothing comes up, try again when it's warmer.

Like everyone said, you don't need to sow seedlings far apart at all. Basil, parsley, and cilantro don't need to be 36" apart even when you plant them out. 12-16 inches is fine. They can be crowded.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:14 PM on February 25, 2011

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