Some General Notes About Vegetable Sowing
With the vegetable growing season soon to get under way, here are a few things to keep in mind as you draw up your plans and get ready to do your first sowing:
- Only grow what you like to eat. This may sound obvious, but it’s all too easily forgotten. (I’m determined not to grow any radish this year; however quick, easy and convenient it is to grow, it’s no use whatsoever to me because I just don’t like it.)
- Sow thinly – not only will this avoid waste, it will also give sturdier seedlings and reduce the risk of virus taking hold.
- Avoid gluts – employ successional sowing.
- Use fresh seed.
- Use fresh seed compost and clean trays.
- As soon as the seeds start to germinate, move them to a cool, light location.
Indoor Vegetable Sowing
Although you’ll have no success sowing seeds outdoors, if you have access to a heated greenhouse or a cool conservatory, or even a bright windowsill in a cool room, then there are quite a few things that can be sown this month in trays/modules/pots for planting out later. (But don’t fret if you don’t have the time or facilities as few are essential; sowing now simply gives you an extra, early crop.) Worth trying are:
- Summer cauliflower
- Summer cabbage
- Summer broccoli
- Brussels sprout (some early varieties)
- Kohl rabi
- Jerusalem artichoke
Once the seeds have germinated, move the seedlings to a bright, cool frost-free location, such as an unheated greenhouse or cold-frame.
The following can also be sown this month but, being less hardy, have slightly more demanding care requirements:
- Chilli pepper
These will need to be germinated in a heated room – around 21-24°C (70-75°F). The temperature for the seedlings should, if possible, be kept above 15°C (59°F), i.e. a cool well-lit room or heated greenhouse. These plants generally do much better if they can remain in a greenhouse throughout the entire growing season, but there are certain varieties of each that will manage outdoors and, in a good year, with fingers crossed, a following wind and a good deal of luck, will thrive.
Indoor Flower Sowing
Now is not the time to be sowing flower seeds outdoors – the soil is too cold and inhospitable. However, now is the time to start sowing half-hardy annuals, some hardy annuals and many hardy perennials indoors (in a heated greenhouse or a cool conservatory, or a bright windowsill in a cool room).
Sweet peas are a must, and could be flowering from June if sown now. (Note that, in spite of what you may read in some gardening books, there is no need to soak or chip sweet pea seeds prior to sowing.) Giant sunflowers will also benefit from being sown now, as this will maximize the growing season.
Examples of half-hardy annuals that can be sown now are:
- Tagetes (marigold)
- Brachyscome (swan river daisy)
- Ipomoea (morning glory)
- Impatiens (busy lizzie)
- Dorotheanthus (livingstone daisy)
- Scarlet sage
- Thunbergia (black-eyed Susan)
Most half-hardy annuals need a little extra heat to germinate – typically 18-24°C (65-75°F). They will, therefore, need to be germinated in a heated room. Move them to a cooler, brighter and frost-free location once they have germinated.
If you are not able to sow half-hardy annuals this month then all is not lost; sowing from seed is the most cost effective but not the only way to grow these plants. In a month or two most of the above will be available in garden centres and supermarkets as trays of bedding plants.
Make Reflectors For Your Seedlings
If you are resorting to a bright windowsill in a cool room to start off your seedlings, they will be extremely grateful for the presence of some sort of reflector to make maximum use of the precious and limited light available. Lengths of card or hardboard, 8 inches or so high, painted white or covered with tin foil and propped up behind the seedlings are ideal.
Plant Summer Flowering Bulbs
There are two main times for planting bulbs in the garden. The spring flowering bulbs that are presently forcing their way through (daffodils, crocuses, tulips, etc) are planted in autumn. The summer flowering bulbs on the other hand are planted from late winter (ie later this month) into spring.
- Asiatic hybrid lilies, various types
- Oriental hybrid lilies, various types
- Regal lilies
- Tiger lilies
- Various allium varieties
And for a warm sheltered location, or indoors –
Some bulb planting guidelines:
- Bulbs bought in general stores can be fine but inspect them carefully as they are often stored in less than favourable conditions; make sure they have not dried out or started to sprout.
- Most summer bulbs thrive in direct sun.
- They do best if the soil is fairly rich, so add compost and bonemeal to the planting hole.
- Bulbs will rot if you try to grow them in areas that are prone to water-logging.
- Most do well in tubs provided you don’t let them dry out.
Warm Up The Soil
The growing season can be brought forward by three weeks or so using cloches made of clear plastic or horticultural fleece under which early crops of, for instance, lettuce, beetroot, carrots, spring onions, summer cauliflower, summer cabbage, peas and spinach are sown. Although sowing won’t take place till March, now is the time to put up the cloches so as to get the soil temperature raised and to let the soil dry a little, ready for sowing next month.
Remove Dead Foliage
The dead foliage of many ornamental grasses may well have been left in place over winter. Now is the time to cut that dead foliage away, before the new growth comes up amongst it.
If you want to put up bird boxes then get it done as soon as possible. Nesting season in the garden starts in March and boxes should be up a significant time before then so that the birds have time to get used to the boxes being in their territory. There are numerous books and websites that will give you dimensions and designs depending on what type of bird you are trying to attract. Here are a few things to bear in mind when installing your box:
- Make sure the box will not be exposed to long stretches of direct sunlight, as it will get too hot inside. On a tree, facing in a direction between north and south-east is best.
- Avoid installing the box in the vicinity of a perch or covered place that could be used by a predatory cat.
- Make sure boxes are securely fixed as a falling nest box will, obviously, be disastrous for the occupants.
- Place the box at least six feet above ground level.
If you have no success this year don’t lose heart; leave the box where it is and it may very well be occupied next year.
Feed Fruit Bushes
Pretty much any fruit bush will benefit from an application of a potassium based fertilizer about now (potassium promotes good fruiting). Use “sulphate of potash” or even wood ash.
Start Forcing Rhubarb
An early crop of tender rhubarb can be had by “forcing” a plant. Place a large up-turned pot, preferably filled with straw, over the plant so that new shoots grow into this dark and protected environment. You should have shoots ready to eat in about 4 weeks.
Late-Winter Colour And Scent
The sight of snowdrops and a few other brave winter-flowering plants (hellebore, primrose, crocus, winter aconite) this month is, for any gardener, a welcome and uplifting sight, but these need not be the only colours bursting on to the scene right now. There are a number of shrubs that can be used to bring colour and even scent throughout your garden, giving a foretaste of the joys to come in spring and reminding you that life carries on apace, even in the depths of Winter.
Here are a few suggestions for shrubs that, planted this year, will reward you in years to come (all fairly undemanding in their care requirements):
- coloured stems – dogwood (Cornus species), ghost bramble (Rubus thibetanus or Rubus cockburnianus)
- scented flowers – wintersweet (Chimonathus praecox),winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii), Mahonia japonica
- flowers – winter-flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
In The Greenhouse
There is a great deal of sowing you can be getting on with, be it plants that are started off in the greenhouse and then moved to permanent locations outdoors once the weather is better, or the permanent greenhouse crops such as tomato, aubergine, cucumber, and chilli. (see tips 1 and 2 above). Lemongrass is well worth a try, started either from seed, garden centre plant or even a very fresh stalk from a food shop.
Note that sweet pepper, which can also be sown now, requires even more stringent temperature control. I find that sowing is best left till March when more heat is readily available.
Other permanent greenhouse crops the more adventurous amongst you might like to try are okra, sweet potato and melon.
Sow a small number of courgettes now as a greenhouse “catch” crop to be harvested in May. As pollinators may be scarce in the confines of an enclosed space use a self-fertile (parthenocarpic) variety – eg Parthenon.
If you have perennial fruit – e.g. grape vine, peach, fig, apricot – then now is the time to feed and top-dress the border/pot in which the plant grows. First sprinkle on a general purpose compound fertilizer at the manufacturer’s recommended rate, then add a 2-3” layer of well rotted garden compost. (If there is not room in the container/bed to accommodate more compost, carefully remove some of the old soil from the surface to make space.)
Previous Tips That Still Apply
Winter Pruning – Any time in the dormant season is good for a wide variety of plants. (See Oct for details). Burn all the diseased material removed if you are able to do so. (See Dec for details)
Hardwood Cuttings – An easy and free way of obtaining a wide range of fruit and ornamental bushes. If the ground is too wet or cold then leave it till the end of Winter. (See Oct for details)
Feed The Birds And Protect The Beasties – Keep feeding the birds throughout the Winter. (See Nov for details). Watch out for hibernating creatures when tidying your garden or plot, or turning your compost heap. (See Nov for details)
Make Plans For The Growing Season About To Start – Collect a good stock of gardening catalogues and start planning for the year to come. (See Dec for details)
Things Not To Do – Don’t dig if the soil is frozen or waterlogged. Don’t over-water house/greenhouse/conservatory plants. Don’t plant or move shrubs unless the weather has been unseasonably mild and reasonably dry for a significant period. (See Dec for details)
Tool Maintenance – Set aside a day to do some tool maintenance and, in particular, sharpening. (See Dec for details)
Start A Garden Diary – Make a note of what was planted when, and then later on in the season record your results. This time next year you’ll have an invaluable resource documenting a year’s worth of your experience. (See Jan for details)
Think Potatoes – Seed potatoes are in the shops and selling fast, so buy sooner rather than later, before the varieties you covet sell out. (See Jan for details)
Clean Pots – Get ahead of the game now by cleaning last year’s containers so they are at hand and ready for use. (See Jan for details)
Artificial Stratification – Now is the time to artificially stratify certain types of seed with a period of chilling in the fridge. (See Jan for details)
Protection Of Bulb Shoots – The tips of many spring flowering bulbs will be breaking through. Mark out or cordon off to stop the shoots getting trampled. (See Jan for details)
Root Cuttings From Perennials – These are generally best taken from a plant when it is dormant, so now is the ideal time. (See Jan for details)