My Best Wishes for A Very Happy & Healthy New Growing Year to Everyone!
It's amazing just how even just a little bit of increasing light can make you want to 'earth yourself' by getting plugged into the soil again! It's only a few days since the winter solstice but already there's a noticeable stretch on the brighter days. It may be my imagination but the plants in the polytunnel also seem a little bit brighter too! It's not long now until the mad spring rush of sowing and planting is here again. For now, things move at a more leisurely pace - but there are still some things you can sow and do this month if your gardening fingers are itching like mine!
General advice for seed sowing:
There are quite a few things you could sow now or towards the end of January in pots or modules for planting out later in a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered cold frame. You won't gain a huge amount though - and by leaving it for another couple of weeks the light will be far better, so seedlings will be sturdier, get a better start and you'll use less energy. Most seeds will germinate at normal house temperature around and as things take a week or so to come up anyway - you can sow some things inside the house and then put them out into good light as soon as the seedlings are up. Seedlings like lettuce, spinach and hardier salad plants will be fine in a greenhouse then, with just some protection from frost with fleece. Light governs their development to a great extent - so you can save money and energy by not wasting any heat needed for another couple of weeks yet - no matter how keen you are. Don't forget you can also do your seed sowing inside in comfort on the kitchen table - there's really no need to go outside in the freezing cold unless you're a masochist!
In my 41 yrs experience I've found that a good organic peat-free compost is the most reliable and best choice for everything. Any extra expense is well worth it in terms of seeds and seedlings not lost. After sowing - put your seed trays or modules somewhere in your house out of the way at average room temperature and most seedlings will be up within a few days. Make sure to put them somewhere where you check on them twice a day as things like lettuce can become leggy very quickly if not given good light immediately. Once things have germinated, probably in a week or so for most things at this time of year, they will then need the very best light you can give them - which means either a tunnel, greenhouse or perhaps a cold frame against a south facing wall. They also need very good air circulation - so sowing in modules is the best option and this also avoids handling vulnerable seedlings which may result in possible 'damping-off'.
It's too wet, windy and cold for tiny seedlings to be outside completely unprotected at this time of year but if sheltered from the weather most are fine as long as no frost is forecast. If it is - then bring them into the house again on frosty nights and put them out again first thing in the morning. This may seem a bit of a faff but it's worth it. Sowing too early on windowsills often means unhealthy, leggy and drawn seedlings due to lack of light. If you don't have a greenhouse, polytunnel or frame outside, I would wait another couple of weeks yet - even if like me you can't wait to get started! Although some more tender heat lovers like tomatoes etc would need a warm propagator, I don't waste heat by sowing tomatoes yet as even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be healthier than any sown now!
Remember - these are suggestions for things you could sow now - NOT things you HAVE to!!
For tunnel planting later: - in a temp. of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C. - you could sow - carrots in long modules like loo roll middles - sit modules on 1/2 inch compost in something deep like a plastic mushroom box to keep them upright, (approx. 32 loo roll tubes fit into a mushroom box) - fill them - and the gaps between them - with seed compost - then sow a tiny pinch of seed into each covering with vermiculite. Make sure the cardboard rolls don't stick up out of the compost or they will act like wicks - drawing out moisture and drying out too much which could then shrivel and kill tiny roots. These will be ready for planting out in the tunnel in clumps - each about 30cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves. Also early calabrese (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout/sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket.
For planting outside later: - sow alpine strawberries ('Reugen' is a very productive large fruited variety from Chiltern seeds that fruits April to Nov.), bulb onions, shallots, very early leeks, early spring/summer & non-hearting leafy type cabbages (collards), summer cauliflowers and autumn red cabbage.
At the end of the month you could sow tomatoes if you want an extra early crop - but bear in mind that they will need keeping warm for several weeks though - again in very good light - or they will become drawn and 'leggy'. (Tip - a well known correspondent with the Irish Times told me that he raises his early ones in the warm under a Velux window in his house which provides very good top light - genius - wish I had one!) I always grow the bush variety 'Maskotka' (bush cherry) which is my earliest ripening one - sown in mid-late February it's first ripe fruits are always ready to pick on 1st June. The variety 'John Baer' (delicious, very early large fruited) - is also an excellent variety for sowing at the end of this month. You could also sow early aubergines - 'Bonica' is the best ever variety for home gardeners to grow from seed - I've grown it for several years now and it's totally reliable. It came out tops in the RHS trials about 10 yrs. ago as being the best for UK and in my experience it's the best variety for Irish conditions too. Remember though that both tomatoes and aubergines need a minimum temp. of about 70deg.F/21degC. for germination, reducing the heat afterwards to approx. 55deg.F/15deg.C, or just below, and maintaining that level until final planting out in tunnel beds or in pots eventually. You can achieve this bottom warmth quite economically with a roll-out heated mat.
Alternatively - you could use my trick of rearing some day-old chicks under an infra-red heat lamp beneath the greenhouse staging! I used to do this every year! Chicks need about 6 weeks of warmth and can then go outside on free range in March once they're fully feathered and are weather proof! The small amount of rising heat keeps the greenhouse bench warm enough to keep out frost so you don't need a heated propagator. Killing two birds with one stone in a manner of speaking .....or rather not ..... but raising them!! Don't try this unless you're already fairly experienced with poultry though, as you can lose small chicks very quickly if they get too hot or too cold. You also need to keep the rats away - they're as bad as foxes! I find if I get day-old chicks in mid-March - then they will reliably come into lay around the beginning of August and will then lay continuously throughout the following winter without needing any additional light. I used to rear hundreds of chicks for laying and also broiler chickens for eating this way when I was a commercial organic poultry producer and it works very well.
For bees & beneficial insects - you could sow some single flowered, nectar producing hardy annuals in modules now. Flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendulas etc. will come into flower early this way and then they'll attract early hoverflies and ladybirds which help to control aphids. Early flowers also attract bumblebees and early honey bees to help pollinate early polytunnel crops like broad beans. Keep beneficial insects supplied with nectar and pollen then they'll be happy and stay with you all year. If there's no flowers for them to feed on - then they'll go somewhere else! An ecologically balanced organic garden is not just about growing vegetables!
Make sure that any seedlings germinated indoors or in a propagator are protected with fleece on cold nights after putting out into the tunnel - and if very cold weather is forecast also make sure to protect heated propagators with extra bubble wrap or fleece over the top at nights to preserve heat and save energy. I save every scrap of Christmas bubble wrap for this and also for tucking into odd small corners in the propagator to save heat loss! Also make sure that the compost is never too wet - if you think it may be- then draw some of it out by standing the modules on kitchen paper and newspaper for a while. Over-watering seedlings at this time of year will kill them faster than anything!
There's still plenty of time to plant garlic cloves outside for a crop of big bulbs this year
Most autumn planting varieties need cold weather for good root development - so in my experience at this time of year, it's really best to plant those varieties suitable for spring planting - as the seasons can be so unreliable now. We may get an extra mild spell in Jan. which would stop the autumn/winter planting varieties from developing their roots properly. If the ground is too wet and sticky - you can plant them in small pots or modules and plant them out in a few weeks time. The only garlic I've ever grown really successfully from a spring planting is 'Christo' - which I've always found very reliable. Choose firm, plump and healthy outside cloves from last year's crop, or buy certified virus-free ones from garden centres.
Do not plant cloves from supermarket-bought bulbs - these will most likely be unsuitable for our climate and can bring in serious diseases like onion white rot. This can survive in the soil for up to 20 years and also be spread around the garden on your boots! For the same reason I never use onion or shallot sets in the garden. If you want some extra early onions - then grow some sets in pots or containers - starting them off under cover in their containers and then putting them outside later. This way they'll be even earlier than they would be if grown in the ground because their roots are much warmer - and if you're unlucky enough to bring in any diseases with them - you can just throw the compost away into the food/green waste recycling bin rather than spreading it round the garden - which you otherwise would if you put the used compost onto your compost heap!
I now grow all my main-crop onions from seed sown in modules in early March - this avoids the possibility of onion white rot. The varieties I like are 'Red Baron' and 'Golden Bear' (Organic Gardening Catalogue) - which is supposed to have some resistance to onion white rot. Onion white rot is also encouraged by low soil temperatures and wet weather - sowing seeds in modules means they're warmer, have better growing conditions and can then be planted out to make a nice even bed or row with no gaps. Sowing direct in the open ground can waste a lot of expensive seed and small seedlings are far more vulnerable to attacks by slugs, and losses due to poor weather etc.
Organic growing is all about understanding your plant's needs and providing the very best growing conditions for them in order to minimise the risk of pest or disease attack as far as possible. This is exactly the same whether they are vegetables or ornamental plants.
On the kitchen windowsill you can sprout seeds and sow micro salads
Things like like mustard and cress, radish, broccoli, kale etc. are easy to grow in jars or trays. Sprouting seeds are highly nutritious and can be a valuable addition to winter salads - young seedlings are actually higher in health promoting phytonutrients than older plants. Broccoli sprouts are particularly rich in these. Make sure you rinse them well and very regularly though if they're in jars - at least 2/3 times a day, with filtered water, to avoid bacteria or disease building up. I actually prefer growing them in trays on kitchen paper or compost, much in the same way all school children grow mustard and cress. They will often need watering twice a day even at this time of year in a warm kitchen, particularly as they get a bit bigger.
It's very important to use organic seeds for doing this - as these will not have been treated with potentially harmful pre-emergence fungicides (this is forbidden under organic standards). There's a good range of organic seeds available on www.Amazon.co.uk (look under 'organic sprouting seeds') and also from some seed companies - but as you need fairly large amounts of seed for doing this - I find Amazon is generally the best value for bulk buys.
As I've already said - there really isn't a great deal to be gained from sowing things too early - there's also a greater risk of losses from disease etc. It's far better to wait until the end of the month when the light is a lot better and as a result any seedlings will be far sturdier. Unless you're in a desperate hurry to get ahead if you're busy, anything sown in another 3 or 4 weeks will definitely catch up and often actually overtake any seeds sown now. In the meantime - it's really better to get your compost and seed sowing kit all ready to go and also do some of the other jobs mentioned in the Veg. garden and Polytunnel sections of the diary - many of these will save you time later on in the spring - (lovely thought - can't wait!) - when you will be busy preparing ground etc.
It's time to get on the starting blocks! Spring's only just round the corner! So if you haven't done so yet here's another reminder - ORDER YOUR SEEDS NOW!