This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
There are perhaps more seeds sown during this month and next than all the remainder of the season, and it may be of use for beginners to have a few brief remarks on seed-sowing. When we read the instructions given by some as to the quantity of seeds required to supply a given piece of ground, we conclude that there must be very extravagant notions abroad as to the cropping of gardens; and when we still further learn what one man pays for seeds, while another does not pay half the sum, and has his ground in proportion much better cropped, it is a proof of sad mismanagement on the part of the former. One of the greatest evils in seed-sowing is, to sow too thickly - this is more applicable to small seeds. When the seedlings come up in matted tufts, their strength is impaired at the beginning, and a train of evils often follows, such as weakly growth, premature seeding, etc. Deep-sowing of small seeds, especially at a time when the soil is cold and wet, is often the cause of failure. Sowing on wet heavy ground, and treacling while the soil sticks to the feet, is attended by the worst results; and when the ground is dust-dry, it should be moistened a little (in hot weather it should be thoroughly soaked the day before sowing); for if no rain fall for some time, the seeds may perish by drought; or if the plants come up, they are so drawn and weakly that they are attacked by mildew, or they are unable to stand the slightest attack of vermin of any kind.
Take Peas as an example. In dry hot weather how soon the crop will give way to mildew, if the soil is dry at sowing-time, and has only been turned over one spade deep, leaving a hard bottom, into which the roots cannot penetrate. Pods come half their size, and the Peas are so hard and tasteless that they are often denounced as a very inferior kind; and the vendor who may have recommended them will get, undeservedly, a character not at all desirable. Hence the verdict pronounced on good articles, which prevents their coming into general use when they really are valuable acquisitions. Watering of seeds is often done injudiciously. When the ground is dry and the surface baked hard, it is useless to water before it is broken up either by hoe, prong, or trowel; then the watering should go on gently at first, and a good soaking be given, and done with it for the time. Cold surface-dribblings are the ruin of many valuable seeds and plants of every description. Vermin at all seasons of the year destroy great quantities of seeds and young plants as soon as the latter come through the soil. We often find wood-ashes, soot, red-lead, and tobacco-powder do much to save crops.
The two latter are generally the best, and they all can be applied over the seed at sowing-time, or sprinkled over the young leaves as they are forming above ground, either using when dew is on the surface, or moistening first with water from a rose. When sowing seeds, we always can manage them more easily when sown in drills than sown in beds broadcast. The first system allows hoeing, and also air to pass along between the rows, giving strength and sturdy habit to the plants. They should not be left too long in the seed-rows to become matted, but be planted out a few inches apart on any spare ground till ground can be prepared to plant them in to stand for crops. Each kind should be carefully labelled when sown or planted, so that a correct note of them may be made. Asparagus-seed may be sown on a bed or border, for transplanting next season. Sandy, rich, and deep soil suits it well. Beds may be forked over, breaking into the surface a quantity of good rotten manure; or soil may be thrown from the sides over the manure, as the crowns, being near the surface, might be injured by inexperienced hands. Where plantations are to be made, let the soil be prepared, if not already done, by trenching deeply and giving liberal supplies of manure, and sand if the soil is heavy.
Beans may be sown for a full crop, and those coming through the ground should have the hoe freely worked among them. Beet may be sown in small quantity, if supplies are required early, but reserving ground for the main supply, to be sown about the end of April in ' Scotland, and two or three weeks later in the south of England. Pinches of early Broccoli may be sown soon, and the main crops from the third week in the month to middle of April. Walcheren, White Cape, Granger's, and Snow's may not be sown for some time to come, unless they are preferred very early in autumn. Cauliflower may be sown every few weeks as required, first judging what space can be afforded for its growth, and to have successions to keep up a regular supply all the summer and autumn. Cauliflower under hand-lights and other protection may have the surface of the soil stirred among the plants, and any bad leaves picked out; a little short litter placed over the roots will help to keep out cold or drought. Brussels Sprouts for first main crop may be sown soon: our latest sowing of these last season were by far the best Sprouts. Cabbage of sorts may be sown to succeed those which have or are about to be planted from the winter-protected stock.
They require plenty of decayed manure; and later, when in full growth, they will be improved with several soakings of manure-water. Dryness or poverty at their roots gives tough inferior produce. Savoy and Kale may be sown for a full crop. In Scotland these are often sown in autumn, and kept over winter, but the crops (though often rank in growth) seldom are so useful for culinary purposes as those sown in spring. Red Cabbage which have been planted in autumn should have the decaying leaves picked off, and the hoe used freely among them the first dry opportunity. Seed may be sown, as the small heads, which will come in late, are much better for pickling than when very large and blanched. Carrot may be sown in small quantities if required. In the south they quickly run to seed when sown for main crop before the end of April. A little lime and soot spread over the surface will help to keep the crop safe from vermin; it can be pointed over before the seed is sown. Turnip may be sown on a sheltered piece of ground to give an early supply. When the spring is severe, and no proper protection can be afforded, Turnips run to seed before they are of a useful size.