Did you know that for every kilogram of vegetables you grow yourself, you’re reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 kilograms, compared to buying from the store? I don’t have the time to be fully self-sufficient when it comes to fruit and vegetables but I get great joy from supplementing our weekly fruit and veg shop with some homegrown chemical-free produce. If you’re interested in doing this too here is my advice on doing so as sustainably as possible.
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Sustainable Compost for Seeds
First things first; compost. We make our own compost for the garden but for seed planting I buy sterile compost, that way I don’t run the risk of exposing my seeds to fungal infections or viruses.
Why it’s important to buy peat-free compost
You may have heard that peat in compost is unsustainable but do you know why? Apart from having completely unique eco-systems bogs are also very beneficial to the wider environment. They soak up water in times of flooding and slowly release it during dry periods, thereby helping to regulate water systems.
When we cut bogs we cause the organic matter in them to be eroded, resulting in silting lakes and river beds, which can lead to increased flooding – something we’ve seen a lot of in Ireland in recent years.
Bogs also serve as a ‘carbon sink’, i.e. it locks carbon into it. Due to the low oxygen levels the dead layers of peat are not able to decompose. Therefore, the carbon contained in the dead peat never oxidizes into CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere. By locking away this CO2, the bogs keeping it out of the atmosphere, which effectively slows down the heating of the planet and as a result climate change.
Unfortunately when we drain bogs, microbes find a perfect combination of food (carbon) and oxygen in the drying peat, causing the locked carbon be released into the atmosphere as CO2. Globally, drained and decaying peat bogs release approximately three billion tons per year of CO2, or roughly 6 percent of all such greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.
Where to buy peat-free compost
Thankfully it’s becoming easier and easier to source peat-free, and sometimes organic too, although they can be varying quality.. The Ethical Consumer has very conveniently given the rating of peat-free composts on its website, but not all brands are available in Ireland.
The brand I’ve bought in the past was by New Horizon and cost about €8.95 for 50 Litres. I got mine in my local garden centre, Howbert and Mays but you can also order it online from Quickcrop.ie or from Johnson Garden Centre. Fruithill Farm in Cork do another peat-free organic compost from Klasmann, which costs €11.20.
It’s worth pointing out that organic compost doesn’t have to be 100% organic to use the label. Organic compost only needs to contain 51% organic material to label itself as such.
Is seed compost necessary?
Compost rich in nitrogen is said to prevent seeds germinating and so seed compost is lower in nitrogen and higher in potash, which is said to promote root growth. I gave up buying seed compost because I need so little of it and felt it was a waste. Also Gardeners World just recommend that you use multi-purpose compost for seed sowing.
Choosing Sustainable Seed trays & Pots
Using seed trays
In the days before I was aware of the impact of plastic on the environment I bought seed trays in Aldi. They were never great and next time I will invest in sturdy recycled plastic seed trays and lids, but until they fall apart completely I’ll be using them. Such is my penance for such a silly buy.
You can buy seed trays with multiple cells or just single-cell trays. Personally I find it hard to get the seedlings out the individual modules and prefer the single-cell type, but each to their own. Whatever type you buy make sure to buy an un-perforated garden tray to go under them to protect the surfaces you’re putting the seed trays on. Also invest in heavy duty clear plastic seed tray lid, preferable with an openable vent to allow moisture to dissipate.
Of course you don’t need to buy seed trays at all and just make do with upcycled food packaging containers of which there is plenty to choose from!
I’ve also seen people suggesting egg trays to start seeds in too but in my opinion they’re just too shallow to be of any good. I’d also be concerned that they’d start to rot before the seedling was ready to be potted on (put into a larger pot).
Planting in Single Pots
For plants that don’t like their roots disturbed or for bigger seeds it can be an good idea to plant directly into pots. Here you have 3 choices
- make little pots from toilet roll inserts like above and place them on a water-proof tray of some kind. You can then just pop the plant, pot and all into the ground when it’s time to plant out.
- use a pots made from recycled plastic, although these pots are unlikely to be recyclable when they’re ready for disposal.
- upcycle a existing yoghurt pot or similar
Going Plastic Free
One of the most sustainable ways to raise seeds is to go completely pot free and use a soil blocker. You need specific blocker compost, although you can make your own with garden compost, leaf mould and Vermiculite.
Where to buy organic seeds in Ireland
I like to buy organic, open-pollinated seeds from Irish companies where I can. Open pollinated seeds are simply seeds that have been pollinated by the wind or insects and not by hand. This means that if I let some of my plants go to seed I can collect seeds from them and use them for next year, meaning I’m not having to buy new seeds every year, thereby reducing waste and energy consumption.
Incidentally here’s a really easy way to save tomato seeds from your own tomatoes, using just paper towels. This works for all but F1 type seeds, which are sterile and designed not to set seed, forcing you to buy new seeds every year from the supplier.
In the past I have bought seeds from
- Fruithill Farm in Cork. The vast majority of their seeds come from a community owned seed company in Lincolnshire in England. They also sell organic flower bulbs in Autumn.
- Irish Seed Savers in Clare. They are a charity and maintain the country’s public seed bank with over 600 non-commercially available varieties of seed. Their main objective is to conserve Ireland’s very special and threatened plant genetic resources and they focus on heirloom and heritage food crop varieties that are suitable for Ireland’s unique growing conditions.
- The Organic Centre in Leitrim is a non-profit offering a whole host of courses and products to support an organic way of life. They’ve also a lovely visitor centre, with cafe on site, and do workshops for schools too.
- Little Irish Growers in Galway sell organic seeds and organic plug plants.
- My Green House in Naas sells a range of gardening equipment and seeds, including organic vegetable seeds
- Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork. You can also buy their seeds from Green Vegetable Seeds
- Seedaholic in Galway have a huge range of seeds, some of which are organic, although they pack their seeds in plastic and don’t appear to have a return scheme.
- Sow and Grow Garden sells some organic seeds
- Beechdale Garden Centre in Wexford sell some organic seeds.
- The Herb Garden in North Co Dublin sells organic herb and wildflower seeds
- Greens of Ireland sells some organic vegetable seeds
- Vital Seeds in the UK sell organic vegetable, herbs and flower seeds.
- Premier Seeds Direct in the UK also sells organic seeds
Not quite seeds but English’s Fruit Nursery has a range of fruit and nut trees and bushes for sale in Wexford.
Deciding what seeds to plant
When it comes to choosing what to buy, I’d recommend buying less than you think and only buying vegetables that you already eat, at least initially. It’s wasteful to buy seeds if your family is not going to eat the end result.
I also think some vegetables are much easier to grow than others. Peas, mangetout and beans can be trained up an obelisk, taking up less space, so they might be a good place to start in year one. This guide on growing vegetables in Ireland from Green Vegetable Seeds might help you decide which vegetables to start with.
Some plants also need a good bit of protection. Plants like broccoli need to be netted to protect against butterflies and pigeons, and carrots against carrot fly, so unless you already have netting and supports leave them till year two.
Succession planting is a large part of vegetable growing. You do this to avoid having a glut vegetables ready to harvest at the same time. I stagger my seed planting to aim to have 4 plants at the same age at any one time. This means planting 3 seed-tray cells every 2 weeks until you have the required number of plants. For me it’s 9. That way I should have plants ready to harvest on a weekly basis once the first one has matured.
I haven’t yet attempted to maximise the yield of the garden but it’s on my to-do list. If you’re chopping at the bit to do this yourself here is a really excellent article on high yield crops from Grow My Own Food.
There is also an excellent tool on the website Gardenfocused.co.uk that generates a personalised gardening to-do list based on the fruit and veg you select. It’s magic!
How to increase you changes of germination
If you’re unfamiliar with how to plant seeds check out this guide on how to germinate seeds from an earlier article.
When you plant is not determined by the calendar but by daily temperatures, so here’s a handy guide to what to plant at what temperature and another helpful article on when to start sowing by the website Lovely Greens
Also if you’re having problems check out this troubleshooting guide to seed germination
Other Grow Your Own articles
If you found this article useful, check out the others in this series
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Design and Layout
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Planting Seedlings Outdoors
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Feeding and Watering,
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Selecting Plants
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Planning for Summer
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Spring Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Early Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Mid Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Late Summer Colour
- Wildlife Friendly Gardening
- Sustainable Gardening Hacks
- Guide to Composters and Composting