Growing from seed can be both rewarding and exciting. However, seedlings are extremely vulnerable and having spent time planting them in your garden or outdoor boxes, the last thing you want is for something to destroy all that hard work. The two biggest threats to seedlings are birds and early morning frost, and coping with each requires different tactics.
Even in some of the warmer months, frost can still occur early in the morning. The best way of protecting seedlings from a brief cold snap is to ensure you are forewarned. After you have planted seedlings, listen to the weather forecasts on the TV or radio, as the presenters will normally tell you when frost is expected, and if you hear that it is on its way, it is time to act.
The simplest way to protect against frost is to use some type of covering. This can be anything, from old sacking, a disused blanket or even sheets. You need to be careful not to damage the plants when placing this covering over the seedlings so make sure it is not too heavy and is only loosely covering them. You can secure the cover using rocks and stones to prevent the wind blowing it away, and it is best to cover them in the early evening, when the sun is going down, which will help the seedlings retain heat through the night. Any covering needs to be removed first thing in the morning, otherwise you risk suffocating the seedlings.
A lot of gardeners plant seedlings in raised beds. This not only helps protect against cold temperatures, which tends to sink below the beds, but also a raised bed makes it easier to cover the plants. Ensuring plants are well watered before the frost is due will also help protect them because wet soil retains more heat than when soil is dry. This needs to be done when it is still warm, though, because the water can freeze, resulting in what is known as frost heave.
Mulching seedlings (covering plants with manure, fertilizers or other materials) can also protect against frost because it too helps retain heat. However, not all seedlings can cope with heavy mulch. Try pine needles or straw for a light mulch and don’t exceed more than a couple of inches.
USDA plant hardiness zones for the USA. USDA plant hardiness zones for Europe.
Birds pose more of a challenge to the gardener, especially as they like nothing better than eating seedlings. Of course, we all enjoy seeing birds in the garden, but when you have seeds growing, they can be a real nuisance. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way of protecting seedlings against birds, but a couple of temporary solutions can provide enough of a respite to give your seedlings a chance.
Raised beds make it so much easier to place bird netting over your seedlings, but you can still manage without it. You can get bird netting from most hardware or garden stores, but mosquito nets or plastic mesh will work just fine. Whatever you use, be warned, no netting is infallible and some birds, particularly the larger species, will be able make holes large enough in it to gain access to your seedlings, but it should provide enough protection against most birds.
Netting needs to several inches away from the seeds to prevent the birds from getting to them, and the easiest way to do this is to make a framework of sticks or garden stakes around the seedlings. Position the sticks and stakes all around the area you want to protect, and a few in the center, and then tie them loosely together with some twine. Next, cover the stakes and sticks with the netting, making sure it goes over the sides to prevent the birds gaining access that way, and then stake the netting to the ground.
The good thing about bird scarers is that you can use almost anything, from making a traditional scarecrow, painting a scary face on a balloon, to bottle tops tied along a string, ribbons, wind chimes, or even old CDs hanging above the seedlings. Bird scarers are not a one size fits all solution, though, and their effectiveness really depends on the types of birds that are menacing your seedlings. Smaller birds are pretty much frightened off by most scarers, while others display an unyielding bravery to almost anything you put in the garden. For the more tenacious birds, hanging a fake bird of prey above the beds, or anything that bears a resemblance to one, such as child’s kite, should do the trick.