Outside Sowing

Sowing anything into the open ground now - even under cloches - is pretty much a waste of time in my experience, as the weather is so unpredictable over recent winters that even if it germinates and grows on well for a while - poor weather later on in winter may destroy it and waste expensive seed. That is unless you live in a very mild area, with very well drained soil and don't have a slug problem (is there anyone who doesn't?. If you're lucky enough to have a well drained, warm soil and are desperate to sow something - you could sow varieties of overwintering broad beans and peas outside - but I've always found that sowing into modules or pots of peat-free co,post in a greenhouse or on your windowsill in late Jan. or early Feb. next year will produce far healthier plants, with an equally early and usually far heavier crop. It's always far safer on my heavy soil - avoiding the risk of possible plant losses through unpredictable weather or slugs. Few of us want to spend cold evenings outdoors slug hunting - and they're still active unless the winter is bitterly cold! Spending a bit of time in the warm planning next year's rotations really well and choosing what varieties you want to grow is a far more useful and productive way to spend one's time!

 

If you have a sheltered cold frame, greenhouse or tunnel

You could still sow suitable types of winter lettuces like 'Winter Gem Vaila' (little gem type), 'Rosetta' - (a reliable indoor winter butter head), and also old fashioned varieties such as 'Black Seeded Simpson' a huge loose-leaved butter head type which can be picked a leaf at a time. Seed is expensive and with expensive F1 seeds you don't get many in a packet - so sowing individually into modules is by far the most cost-effective method even if your tunnel soil is still warm enough for germination of direct sowings in the soil. Sowing into modules also reduces the risk of slug or early woodlouse damage and provides better air circulation - thereby preventing 'damping off' diseases. Even the cheap 'value' lettuce or other salad mixes can still be successful sown thinly in early Nov. - I've often harvested these in the polytunnel until the following May! The reason those mixes are cheaper is because they are usually older, tried and tested, 'bog-standard' open-pollinated varieties (cheaper to produce), which can often be more disease and cold-resistant than expensively bred 'F1' hybrids.

 
You can still sow peas for pea shoots  - 'Meteor' or Oregon Sugar Pod are good varieties widely available. Soaking overnight and pre-sprouting somewhere warm first is helpful to prevent rotting. Some varieties of non-hearting leafy cabbage greens such as Unwins 'Greensleeves', that have been specially bred for winter sowing, will start to produce useful leaves in the tunnel early in the new year if sown now. 'Cavalo Nero' and 'Ragged Jack' or Russian Red kales can still be sown for baby leaves/micro salads, as can some of the hardier oriental greens like mizuna, mibuna, oriental mustards, cress and oriental salad mixes - depending on the weather these can grow on quite quickly now if it's mild. If the weather is very cold after they've germinated, they will still grow on slowly, with growth speeding up early in the new year when the light increases. Seedling crops like mustard and cress or sprouting seeds can also be a useful addition to winter salads - and easy to do in a warm kitchen. Make sure you rinse any jar-sprouted seeds well and regularly - preferably 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or spoilage diseases building up. The warmer your kitchen - the more often you will need to rinse them - but the faster they will grow.
 
It's often worth sowing some fast-growing early carrot variety such as 'Early Nantes' or 'Amsterdam Forcing' in pots, deep containers, or even in long modules like loo roll middles, for planting out into the tunnel later -  these will overwinter perfectly if covered with fleece and will crop in late winter/very early spring - thereby avoiding early carrot fly. With a little more warmth, say a kitchen windowsill, parsley can still be sown - flat leaved is much hardier and better flavoured.

 
Sow some hardy annuals for bees & to attract beneficial insects
 
Calendula, borage and limnanthes (poached egg plant) will all flower extra early next year and attract beneficial insects like hover flies to help with pest control and also bees to help with pollination of crops like erly broad beans.
 
Germination of all of the above will be far quicker given average room temperature in your house and the faster they germinate the less likelihood there is of seed rotting. If you germinate things in the house - you must put them out into the tunnel/greenhouse into good light as soon as they have germinated. If they get drawn and spindly from lack of light - they'll be far more prone to diseases. Another reminder that if it's necessary to water any seedlings in modules - then water them from below by sitting in a tray of water for a minute or so. Never saturate them - and ventilate well. This will hugely cut down the risk of 'damping off' disease. Using a good peat-free organic compost like Klassman which I use is worthwhile too - I find seedlings are far healthier in that.  If frost is forecast you can use fleece for overnight protection - but uncover in the mornings to let the air in and dry the fleece well before using again otherwise it will give no protection.

 
There's still just time to sow a green manure crop,  as soil temperatures are still above 50degF/10degC after a relatively mild autumn. Mustard, red clover, phacelia and Hungarian grazing rye are good ones to sow in the tunnel or greenhouse or for outside. These are all for digging in in early spring. They provide protection and cover for soils to prevent leaching of nutrients, provide carbon which is food for worms and soil dwelling bacteria - eventually becoming humus which encourages beneficial soil microbes. Clover and phacelia also have very pretty nectar producing flowers which attract bees and other beneficial insects if you leave some at the end of a bed to flower in spring. Overwintered biennial herbs such a s parsley and coriander will flower early next year and do the same. Borage also makes a very good green manure. It makes a lot of green matter which encourages worms and also has a long tap root which draws up useful magnesium from low down in the soil profile. If you leave one or two plants to grow on it also adds a nice cucumber flavour to healthy spring smoothies and salads! Keep green manure seed beds damp until germination occurs and if we have a very cold winter, cover with fleece if hard frost is forecast while the seedlings are still small. Sow all seeds thinly to avoid overcrowding.
 

Garlic cloves can be sown/planted now - both outside and also in tunnels for a really early crop of big bulbs next year - most varieties need cold weather for good root development. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from this year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres - not supermarket bought bulbs which will be unsuitable for this climate and may even bring in diseases like onion white rot - this can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and be spread around the garden on your boots - infecting all members of the onion family including leeks!  For the same reason I don't use onion sets in the vegetable garden. If I want some extra early onions - then I grow some sets in pots or containers. This way they're much earlier than any grown in the ground - and if you're unlucky enough to get any disease you can just throw the remains, along with the compost they were grown in, into the food/green waste recycling bin - rather than spreading it around the garden! I grow all my main crop onions from seed sown in early March - it's very easy and by doing this I avoid the possibility of onion white rot. Seed sown onions also are far less likely to 'bolt' in difficult weather - a major problem this year - and they always keep far better. Mine always keep until well into spring - if they last that long!


To produce your earliest ever crop of potatoes in the New Year - if you haven't saved any early or second early tubers from your own spring crop, then keep an eye out for suitable varieties of potatoes such as 'Annabelle' in the veg departments of shops before Christmas. As long as the tubers you buy haven't been treated with anti-sprouting chemicals - these will be raring to go and will happily send out nice, fat eager-to-grow shoots, if you take them out of the bag and bring them into the warm. These can then be used for planting 'extra early' potatoes in pots in mid January, so that you can have your first new potatoes at Easter! (M&S usually have the best quality 'Annabelle' which readily grow when planted). Some seed suppliers such as Tuckers may also have Lady Christl available for delivery before Christmas - I have grown this variety for many years and it's the fastest 'bulking up' variety I've ever found for doing these extra-earlies, having usable sized tubers underneath them after only 8 weeks growth - before any other variety. Duke of York and Sharpe's Express are also good. Here's a link to an article written by Irish Times journalist Fionnuala Fallon in 2011 on how I plant my 'extra early' potatoes, sadly without the photos:     http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/2.770/when-it-comes-to-potatoes-it-s-early-days-for-the-expert-1.1278590
 
I enjoy sharing my original ideas and experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and also complimentary that others find "inspiration" in my work. If you do happen to use it or repeat it in any way - I would appreciate very much if you mention that it came from me. Thank you.

Latest Diary Entries

Latest Tweets

Listen