How to – choose compost, sow seeds, pot on, take cuttings…

Our February meeting was amazingly well attended, given that Storm Imogen was raging outside to such an extent that the local railway line, battered by the sea, had featured on national news earlier in the day. We were all keen to learn what we could from Guy Lloyd, who was ‘demonstrating garden practices’, as the programme said. It was a great meeting, full of laughter and comments and plants – and lots of great information. But first, look at some of the beauties in flower in Guy’s garden:

in flower


We started with compost, and a discussion of what could be found in some multipurpose brands (stones, glass, a sock) now that they contain much more recycled material. Later on, Guy mentioned riddling compost when planting out – really important now that there is so much miscellaneous stuff in some of the composts we buy. There were also some great tips to bear in mind when buying and using it, including:

  • compost goes off, so don’t keep it too long or buy bags that have obviously been hanging around all winter. Soon it will bear a ‘best before’ date, and that is why.
  • don’t buy bags from the top of the pile, because they will have been exposed to sun and rain and won’t be so good either.
  • always close the bag properly when you’ve been using compost.

Then we moved on to seed sowing,

sowing seeds

where we also learned many useful things – such as the importance of riddling that compost (it breaks it down, as well as filtering out the rubbish) and that it’s best to order seeds from seedsmen rather than buying them in a shop as there’s no guarantee that they will be at their freshest, or will have been kept properly. We also learned to use small trays for germination of the smaller seeds (and to mix the very fine ones with silver sand first – as one member said, ‘you can see it then’); to flick seeds which were too close together apart with a pencil or label; and to cover the seeds (where specified) with compost put through a finer riddle. And then to water them by soaking them from below.

But the one thing which we all learned was how neat and tidy and perfect the sown seed boxes looked – whatever the size – when the tray was finished off with a ‘striker’: a straight piece of wood gently passed over the pots or tray to remove excess compost. Judging by the looks that were exchanged, we’re all going to be doing that.

Next came pricking out and potting on…

pricking out

Here Guy stressed several things:

  • to tease the little seedlings apart gently and only handle them by the leaves, never the stems,
  • to be ruthless and only prick out the best, choosing the healthiest ones and discarding any which are weak or damaged,
  • and not to force the stems down into the compost.

Propagating followed, and there were cries of pain from the audience as Guy took cuttings form some lovely plants (there was even a suggestion that one should be hidden so he couldn’t get at it). Root cuttings were covered too, which was something most of us had either not attempted or had only dabbled in. Guy had brought along an ideal candidate, this Acanthus mollis:

root cuttings 1

Why take root cuttings, asked Guy, when you can split plants like these? The answer for some plants was really clear: take phlox, for instance. Eelworm just love phlox, and if you divide a plant, you move the eelworms too; with a root cutting, you don’t (the same would apply to any plant which had become infested with something like oxalis). He demonstrated two types of root cutting – the thicker ones, like the acanthus, and ones with finer, more thread-like roots. For the first, he took a piece of root – pencil thickness – and cut it into sections with a flat cut at the top and a sloping one at the bottom. These were then inserted into cutting medium (2 x peat, 1 x grit, 1 x pearlite) so that the tops were just exposed above the surface of the compost. The second, finer roots, were simpler: you just lie sections of root flat over the medium, then cover them with a little compost and they’ll throw up baby plants.

It was a great evening – so much taught, so much gained in terms of information, encouragement, and inspiration. Thank you, Guy!


Now where are those secateurs? Root cuttings call!


2 thoughts on “How to – choose compost, sow seeds, pot on, take cuttings…

  1. Well done Kate, as usual a very detailed report, did I really say all that?! I felt the evening went quite well, our members participated and seemed to enjoy. and were good to turn out on such a rough night.


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