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GIY column: This week, it's time to start sowing your vegetable seeds

I am constantly looking for things that simplify my gardening, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

I’VE DISCOVERED AS I get older that I am person who loves to square things away, and that applies equally with food growing where I am constantly looking for things that simplify what can be a pretty complicated life-skill.

Over the years I’ve deployed all sorts of little nerdish tricks, categories, tables, post-it notes, spreadsheets and all manner of other organising devices to try and break it down, and make it easier for me to understand.

When it comes to seed sowing in particular, it always seemed to me that almost every vegetable seemed to start in a slightly different way which just added to the general confusion.

In fact, there are really only two categories: those that are sown direct in the soil, and those that are sown in a pot or tray to be planted out later.

So, let’s break it down (use a spreadsheet if you want).

Sowing directly

Firstly we start with veg that are sown direct in the soil outside (or in a polytunnel or greenhouse). This category can be broken down into three different types of seed:

  • Tubers – eg potatoes where the “seed” is an actual potato. In a similar vein are artichokes, yacon and oca etc.
  • Sets – eg onions and shallots. Where the “seed” is a small, immature onion that someone else has grown from seed or garlic where the “seed” is a clove of garlic from last year.
  • Seeds that are best sown direct in the soil – eg peas, French beans, parsnips and carrots.

Pots and trays

Secondly we have the veg that are sown in pots or module trays for later planting out into the soil.

In this category I include pretty much everything else, eg tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, celery, celeriac, salads (including oriental greens), cabbage, kohlrabi, swede, chard, turnips, kale, beetroot and so on.

Admittedly there are quite a few veg that I include in the latter category (sowing in module trays for later transplanting), that could just as easily be sown directly outside. A good example of this is beetroot.

So the question is, why would I do this when it would save time to sow them directly? The answer is that I just find it more successful to start them off inside and plant out later. And besides, as regular readers will know, I just love spending time in the potting shed.

The reason it is more successful is that plants are at their most vulnerable (to frosts and slugs for example) when they are seedlings and it is generally more successful to plant a plant rather than to sow a seed.

Sowing seeds in pots/ trays also allows you to get a headstart on the growing season as you keep the pots/ trays indoors or under cover during February/ March/ April when it is generally too cold to sow outside.

The Basics – Potting Compost

Potting compost is the medium that is used to sow seeds in. Potting compost is completely different to compost that you might make yourself in the garden from rotting plant matter. I always found this rather confusing when I started growing.

For starters, potting compost is a sterile medium which means you know there are no weed seeds in it. It also retains moisture very effectively which is important for your seeds.

Interestingly, unlike your homemade garden compost, potting compost is very low in nutrients so it is only ever used for starting seeds off.

If you intend to grow a plant to maturity in a pot, it will need to be transplanted into a medium that has more nutrients in it (eg a mix of garden compost and soil etc). Seeds do not need to be sown in a medium that is rich in nutrients since they already have all the nutrients they need for germination.

It’s worth buying good quality potting compost, ideally one that is approved for use in organic production and peat-free. I’ve bought cheap compost over the years if I couldn’t get anything else and I am almost always disappointed with the results.

Recipe of the Week – Hearty Chard Curry

shutterstock_313736729 Source: Shutterstock/Ildi Papp

Continuing in the same vein as last week, this week’s recipe takes one staple “Hungry Gap” veg (in this case chard) and makes something delicious of it using ingredients generally available in the store cupboard. This is a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe.


  • 500g Swiss chard
  • 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
  • 1 onion, halved and finely sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 3cm piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 3 cardamom pods, bashed
  • 350g potatoes, cubed
  • 250g plain (full-fat) yoghurt
  • 1½ tablespoons tomato purée
  • A small bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
  • A small handful of almonds, cashews or pistachios, toasted and chopped

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Separate the chard leaves from the stalks. Cut the stalks into 2–3cm pieces and roughly chop the leaves.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, add the onion and fry until just golden.

Meanwhile, pound the garlic, chilli and ginger together with a pinch of salt to a paste. Add to the onion and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes.

Tip in the rest of the spices and stir for a minute or two. Add the potatoes and chopped chard stalks and fry, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, so that they are well coated with the spice mixture.

Pour in about 400ml water, enough to just cover the veg. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 10–12 minutes until the potatoes are just tender.

Add the chard leaves, stir and cook until just wilted. In a bowl, whisk together the yoghurt, tomato puree and some of the hot liquid from the curry.

Remove the curry from the heat, stir in the yoghurt mixture, return to the heat and warm through very gently (if it gets too hot, the yoghurt will curdle). Stir in most of the coriander. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.

Scatter over the toasted nuts and remaining coriander, then serve with rice and naan bread.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ. 

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.


About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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