What to sow now, some into modules and some in trays for pricking out, seeds or sets for onions, preparing no dig beds for planting, winter veg to eat now, winter salads, a shed for Homeacres compost loo, and our trip to Dublin.
Seeds to sow now
Outdoors you can sow broad beans now, although if mice are around its best to sow in modules undercover. All other sowings at this time of year are undercover-only, because it is still too cold outside and even when early outdoor sowings do germinate, they often struggle to make worthwhile growth.
I have just sown lettuce and cabbage in seed trays for pricking out, and in module trays I have multi-sown spinach, onions, peas for shoots and radish. How many seeds per module depends on how large you want the harvests to be. For large spinach leaves I sow two seeds per module, for pea shoots two or three, for salad spinach I sow four or five. Onions grow to a medium size with four or five plants in a clump, so six seeds is about right, shallots are better with three or four seeds as each shallot is then subdivided, and for radish I sow four per module.
All my current sowings are on the conservatory windowsill, stacked up while germinating Then today (15th) we shall fill the greenhouse hotbed with fresh horse manure and move all the sown trays onto that. The photos are from last year, it should be very similar.
Why bother with pricking out?
The numbers of seeds for direct sowing into modules are a guide only because there are so many variables, from compost quality to temperature to seed freshness. Some of these unknowns can be balanced out by sowing seeds in trays, for pricking out.
In particular, the germination of lettuce and brassicas is often uneven, so pricking out allows you to choose the strongest plants, and saves having empty modules from direct sowing of non-viable seed. Sowing in trays means that precious space in the greenhouse or on the windowsill is germinating many more seeds. also its easier to sow tiny seeds such as celery in a tray, where they often take a fortnight or more to germinate.
Sow now in seed trays: early brassicas such as cabbage, cauliflower, calabrese (all for cropping in early summer – its still early for sowing autumn and winter brassicas), lettuce, spinach (not leaf beet or chard), celery without compost on the seed, preferably with a glass over the tray, parsley, dill, coriander, tree spinach, sorrel. Also chilli, pepper and aubergine if you have somewhere warm to put the tray, at least 20C. For tomatoes, I suggest waiting until early March.
Most garden onions and shallots are grown from sets, most onions you buy are grown from seed. Both methods are good, but growing from seed is cheaper, and from now until mid March is the time to sow. Use larger modules, say 4cm wide and/or of good depth, because alliums are greedy plants. Having said that, they are also very tough and if your module seedlings start to yellow while still small, from lack of nutrients, its possible to plant them out in March, with a cover of fleece on top.
Sets on the other hand do not want planting yet, otherwise they are checked by cold soil and then are more inclined to flower in June. Once that happens, you cannot have a bulb, so its worth waiting until mid March before planting sets, and even later for red onions. Last year I planted sets of Red Baron and Sturon on April 26th and the harvest in early August was excellent.
Do keep beds weed-free, any fine days now are good for hand weeding. If you have winter weeds such as bittercress, groundsel, goosegrass (cleavers), chickweed, speedwell and annual meadow grass, they all risk setting new seeds at this time of year. Perennial weeds such as couch grass want removing with a trowel, to extract some root, but if your soil is thick with perennial weeds a light-excluding mulch is worthwhile, see here.
When there are no weeds and in dry weather, undug beds with compost on the surface can be lightly raked or forked, in a horizontal way and through the compost only, to break up lumps and create an even surface for sowing and planting. Winter frosts this year have helped to soften the compost. If you are spreading compost now, break up lumps larger than say an orange, before spreading it, using a fork or manure fork. If it is mushroom or municipal (green waste) compost, this is not a problem as the compost is fine already.
Over many winters I have tried different lettuce varieties, sown in September and grown undercover, and Grenoble Red is always the winner; even outdoors it often survives and then grows healthily from March. This year all the cos and oakleaf varieties are succumbing to mildew and slugs.
Forced chicory is a banker but its a lot of effort for few leaves; they look and taste excellent.
Its approaching a leaner time of year for vegetables, but for now there are still plenty of winter roots and leaves. I am picking Brussels and Flower sprouts, kale and leeks, with parsnips still to harvest, and plenty of stored vegetables, including onion, garlic, squash, celeriac, beetroot and swede. Apples have kept well too, although they win no prizes for looks, with wrinkled skins. The flavour has concentrated however!
Outdoor greens are scarcer than normal after pigeons ravaged the perennial kale while I was away in January. It is difficult to net because of being so tall but I have rigged up a structure with water pipes, threaded into sticks in the soil.
Homeacres now has an almost-ready compost loo, designed and created by Dave Readman of Cotna in Cornwall, and his friend Dave Barker. Its a 6×8 foot shed with compartments for pee-only (half a straw bale to soak it up) and for poo at the other end. Dave has still to cut holes in the floor and make the seats in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile he and Sara are at Cotna in Cornwall, a beautiful haven of organic smallholding and holiday homes – and compost toilets!
When I arrived at Homeacres two years ago, this area was covered in huge brambles and shrubs. After clearing much of that, I saw why it was not pasture, because its the site of an old septic tank (Homeacres is now on mains sewage).
From this side the shed is screened by remains of forsythia, on the far side I plan to plant some sticks of willow viminalis, a fast grower. We chose this spot because it is redundant ground and there is a slope to accommodate the poo-bins under one end.
Our trip to Dublin, February 9th 2015
Steph and I were impressed to find a new, no dig garden in the heart of Dublin, created on an area of rubble and buddleias by Tony Lowth and his team, which is Martin the gardener helped by volunteers from the nearby National College of Art and Design, who own the land.
Tony is a “guerilla composter”, from wastes he collects around the city, so the beds are simply compost on top after clearing the buddleias, brambles and their main roots. Its still early days, with a plan to supply city outlets with fresh vegetables, especially salads.
I gave a lecture in the college which attracted a lively audience and there is a good feeling about the place, so its one to watch.