The Big Chill of 2013 has not been a great start to the gardening year and following on from The Big Wet of 2012 it’s enough to test a gardener’s mettle. This gardener’s mettle has been well and truly tested. Having blithely assumed that normal service would be resumed with the turning of the year, I got on with early sowings of all the usual crops. Those in the heated propagator germinated happily, a brief spell of warm weather encouraged some of the greenhouse-sown seeds to pop their heads up, while the return of the Siberian conditions had others either turning up their toes or never actually emerging. A notable failure has been the gutter-sown peas in the greenhouse, a crop that I’ve never had trouble with before. After two sowings and only a handful of seedlings to show for my efforts I consulted my bible for all things seedy – Seeds by Jekka McVicar – and discovered that peas need a minimum of 7º to germinate. My third pea sowing is now germinating happily in the kitchen – not ideal from the domestic point of view, but at least they are growing.
|It has now been confirmed that March was second coldest on record and the coldest for over 50 years.|
Is early seed sowing worthwhile?
If the weather cooperates the advantage of sowing early is that you can harvest new season crops when they are at their most expensive in the shops. If the weather doesn’t cooperate you’ve spent time and money on seeds, compost and sometimes heating. So, it’s all a bit of a gamble and truth be told, you will generally get better and faster maturing crops if you wait until it warms up. It’s just that we gardeners are an impatient lot and by the end of winter we are longing to start growing things. On the other hand, our local community garden wasn’t ready for planting until June last year, yet they produced an abundance of crops right through until the end of November because (despite the wet) the soil was warm.
During the Second World War one of the Dig for Victory campaigns was called ‘Cloches Against Hitler’ to encourage gardeners to grow early crops.
When it comes to sowing seeds in the garden, be guided by your weeds. If they are popping up all over the place and growing rapidly, so will your seedlings. An early warm spell in February encouraged some weeds to germinate but they have hardly grown at all since then, so if you can get out now and deal with them you will save yourself a heap of time and trouble later on.
It used to be said that if the soil was warm enough to sit on without your trousers, it was warm enough to sow your seeds – I prefer to watch my weeds.
The borders are stirring into life, deep red paeony stems are a few inches high, cushions of phlox foliage are biding their time before rocketing skywards and there are new shoots emerging on rose stems, so now is the time to get your plant supports in place to stop them flopping later on. I use hazel pea sticks that I weave into a rough cage. They will soon disappear once the plants start to grow. If your taste is for something less rustic and more permanent, there are some lovely ready-made metal supports on sale – I use them as well as pea sticks because I find them useful for height and structure in the winter garden.
To find a local supplier of pea sticks and beanpoles look for managed woodland in your area – or ask a firewood supplier.
Of Tomatoes & Other Tender Plants
I like to grow my own tomato plants from seed because I can be sure of growing the varieties I like best, but unless you too can’t live without ‘Brandywine’, ‘Black Krim’ or ‘Costoluto de Fiorentino’, it really makes more sense to buy young plants from a good supplier. Let them nurse the plants through the early stages of growth and send them to you close to the time when they can be planted in the greenhouse or outdoors. The same is true of peppers and aubergines.
Molluscs will be on the march later this month, so check out likely snail hibernation places and dispose, relocate or feed them to chickens before they dispose of your plants.
As soon as the weather warms up, spring will be on fast forward and before you know it you will be eating salad every day. Sow a small pot of your favourites every two weeks – and don’t forget to sow herbs and edible flowers too – they make all the difference to a spring salad. Plant seedlings out in borders or containers and use the leftovers as micro-greens.