I got quite excited in February when the temperature went up to 10c. My winter holiday was taken simply because there wasn’t a lot I could do with snow and ice on the ground. I was even reluctant to clean tunnels or sheds in the sub zero temperatures. Therefore my broad beans (which you may recall I sow in January in pots under cover just as my Dad used to do) were not planted until mid Feb and once they were in and the temperatures looking better I started seed sowing in earnest. Now, if you are thinking you are way behind, worry not. As I write the temperature have plummeted again and I have never trusted February, it’s often the worst month of the year. But we have to hold our hopes out for March and even the most demanding seeds for length of germination will wait until things have really warmed up.
I am fortunate to have a heated bench in the tunnel and so I can give early sowings some bottom heat with a raised fleece to keep in the heat. And therein is probably the next most asked question, ’What should I be doing now?’ What can I sow now?
The answer to those questions is relatively easy. Have a look at the seed displays in the Nursery or Garden Centre and most seed packets (though sadly not all) will display on the front of the packet ‘sow between Feb and April’ or ‘March and May’ etc. Reading this information carefully and following the instructions gives you a good guide as to what to do and when. Equally the instructions will guide you as to the temperature needed for germination so you may be looking at providing heat in a propagator or utilising the window sill indoors. Where confusion may arise is that some tomatoes, like my favourite Sungold actually take much longer to germinate and grow to useable size than say Alicante. This, to the extent that, there could be 5-8 weeks difference in sowing.
Whilst there is a huge variety of veg seed for you to have a go at growing your own I think that these days there are a couple of tips worth applying.
Firstly, if you only have a small veg patch then grow things that you are certain of being successful with because you have done it before, or grow more expensive vegetables. Secondly grow something which is unavailable to buy. For example, Anya potatoes can be very expensive in the supermarket but are relatively cheap to grow as new potatoes in the garden or in tubs. Peas are cheap, but asparagus pea is rarely available in shops but it can be grown to be purely ornamental or picked very young, at less than one inch long they have a taste very similar to asparagus. They can be eaten raw or fried and are often roasted as a coffee substitute. It is a beautiful plant, grown just as peas but its pods are square, angled and winged and the flowers a deep purple red.
The big ‘new’ things now are heritage seeds. So you can have the original purple carrot. The best variety currently available is actually a modern variety called Cosmic purple and is best steamed to retain good colour and flavour. Similarly the much older varieties of tomato, potato etc. In fact the older types of vegetables are making a come back like the Old English roses.
Look at the supermarket plastic bag of lettuce. You can grow all the modern varieties in this colourful bag and see just how expensive it really is to buy like this. Putting just a small space aside or even long troughs, try several varieties with succession sowings. And then try the heirloom or heritage varieties. Your visitors will know by appearance and taste that these were not bagged by the supermarket, (or more exactly some chap in Spain.)
Lettuce ‘Cimarron’ is an heirloom variety thought to have been introduced in the 18th century. It is shaped like a cos lettuce a dark red in colour with a heart that is a creamy colour. It is full of flavour and crisp. Many of the modern varieties are bred not only for flavour but to prevent bolting. Cimmaron rarely bolts. Similarly lettuce’cocarde’, a dark green leaf with a red tinge throughout is slow to bolt. Another cos type lettuce with a green leaf, splashed in red is Forellenschluss, an old Austrian variety whose name means speckled like a trout. These three lettuces in a summer salad bowl are tantalising in colour and each whole lettuce will have cost less than 1p if you sow the lot!!
A packet of Good King Henry will cost you about £1.75. This is a perennial plant so you have it forever. It has been grown for centuries and has an arrow shaped leaf which when picked young and blanched is an alternative to asparagus and the more mature leaves are in my opinion preferable to spinach.
Many of the well known tomatoes are heirloom varieties, like Ailsa Craig and Moneymaker. Less well known perhaps is ‘Harbinger’ which was introduced to our gardens in 1910. It is highly productive and thin skinned and grows well without a greenhouse and its double benefit is that it ripens well off the plant so you are not left with hundreds of green tomatoes at the end of September.
If you are really limited for space, try growing rampion. Its roots are white and carrot shaped and it makes a good winter vegetable or raw as a salad vegetable and its leaves can be used in salad too. No waste with this one!!
The heritage seeds are readily available but you are less likely to find them in the garden centres, best place is online. My Dad, mentioned above and very often in my thoughts because I caught my gardening bug from him. He was the best teacher one could have as a youngster. But when I mention ‘online’ I often wonder what he would have made of that innovation!