Seeds of hope
Sowing home-saved, or non-F1 hybrid, open-pollinated Heritage seeds will provide plenty of food for us, bees and beneficial insects. It will also give us more self-reliance and resilience, help to protect a healthy biodiversity and ensure our future food security.
Sowing seeds has been mankind's sign of hope and belief in Nature for millennia. At a time when many of us are fearful for the future of food, farming, the environment, biodiversity and our children - something which we can all do is to keep faith with Nature. If we care for Nature - it will provide us with the sustenance and solace which we need.
This month - in a heated propagator - you could sow:
For growing in a tunnel or greenhouse later : Early tomatoes, aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, calabrese/broccoli, celery, celeriac, mixed Chinese leaves, Physalis (Chinese gooseberries) and dwarf French beans (for very early cropping in pots). Also half-hardy annual flowers like Nicotiana, which need a long growing season.
Early sowing in warmth will gain you a couple of weeks in most cases - but bear in mind that all of these will need warmth at the base for quite some time yet though - After the initial higher temperature germination in a heated propagator, they will then need growing on with a minimum bottom heat of around 50deg.F/10deg.C - in a draught-free space, perhaps on a hotbed or a roll-out heated mat, protecting with fleece if frost is forecast, potting-on when necessary to avoid any setbacks, then gradually hardening off, and finally planting out in the tunnel as soon as the late winter/early spring crops are cleared from late April to early May onwards.
In more gentle warmth - at approx 50degF/10 deg.C:
On a roll out heated mat with an adjustable thermostat, or possibly in your house, putting out into greenhouse or cold frame as soon as possible after germination, when good light will be vital to avoid etiolation - or becoming drawn towards the light - taller, weaker and more vulnerable to pests and diseases.. Seedlings will also need frost protection at nights. (Bear in mind that most of the cheaper propagators on the amateur gardening market are permanently set to approx. 20 deg.C, or slightly warmer, unless they have adjustable thermostats. These may be ideal for tomatoes but not for seeds preferring cooler germination).
For planting out in the tunnel - or outdoors under cloches later - You can sow brassicas such as early summer cauliflowers, summer cabbages, red cabbage, early Brussels sprouts and the new varieties of 'summer purple sprouting' broccoli, lettuces, perennial veg. such as Welsh onions, globe artichokes and seakale, spinach, spring onions(scallions), early leeks and bulb onions, shallots, early peas, broad beans, kohl rabi, white turnips, land cress, rocket, salad mixes, hardy herbs, watercress.
Now is also a good time to sow bee-friendly, single-flowered, fast-growing hardy annuals like limnanthes, calendulas, convulvulus tricolour, borage etc. - these provide early flowers for attracting beneficial insects like hoverflies into the tunnel to help with pest control, and will also help small insect-eating birds to rear their broods. Early flowers will also provide a welcome early meal for bees - which are vital for pollination of early flowering polytunnel fruit trees like peaches. Provide the food they need and they'll keep coming back, as bees quickly learn where reliable sources of food are and communicate this knowledge to the rest of their fellow bees, clever things - a mutually beneficial relationship for them and us!
Directly into soil pre-warmed with cloches, or in pots/modules in the tunnel without heat (covering on very cold nights with fleece):
You can sow more hardy crops, such as broad beans, carrots, kale 'Ragged Jack', Black Tuscan and other kales for baby leaves, Ruby chard and 'Bull's Blood' or McGregor's Favourite beetroot for high anthocyanin beet leaves, pre-sprouted mangetout and early peas, for both pea shoots and podded peas -(pre-sprouting in warmth ensures faster germination which means seeds are less prone to rotting and pest damage), lettuces, herbs, (not basil yet - it's too cold) mixed leaf salads, oriental mustards and salad mixes, rocket, summer spinach etc. These will all crop before June in a polytunnel or greenhouse if sown now - preventing the 'Hungry Gap'! There is no such thing as a Hungry Gap' if you plan your crops well and are prepared to give them some protection from harsh weather - even outside!
Planting half of the module-sown plants in the polytunnel, and the other half outside under cloches is a good way to spread cropping times. Other hardy crops like beetroot, kales and chards can also be sown in modules now for planting outside under cloches later.
Remember - even most hardy seeds won't germinate below a soil temperature of about 45degF or 7degC.
Another tip - lettuce and spinach seeds prefer to be fairly cool for the first 24-48 hours, as higher temperature can trigger dormancy- so don't sow these in too much heat. I always sow them in my kitchen at normal house temperature,(my house is cool - not summer T-shirt temperature!) there I can also keep an eye on them and uncover as soon as they start to germinate. I then transfer them out to the polytunnel so that they have really good light, protecting them at night if frost is forecast.
Small seedlings will need protecting from frost with fleece if it's very cold. If you can provide these conditions then almost everything but the most tender crops can be sown in suitable modules in mid-late February for planting out under cloches later - but don't grow them on with too much warmth or they will be too soft and 'leggy' as light levels are still relatively low.
Keep an eye out for mice which are very partial to pea and bean seeds and will even dig up and eat the seeds when the plants are already a couple of inches high, as I know to my cost!
All of these things could be germinated anywhere warm and then grown on in very good light on a windowsill if you have room - but do bring them inside the room at night if you close the curtains, or they may get chilled on cold nights. And remember that a south-facing window may be far too hot even at this time of year on sunny days, and the direct sun can scorch tender seedlings. - One well known journalist in the west of Ireland told me he puts his tomatoes under his Velux office window with good top light after germinating them in the warm - what a great idea! I couldn't work out how he'd got them so early when he wrote complaining that my advice on side-shooting tomatoes was far too late for his plants! His Pantano Romanesco plants had already gone completely bonkers by May!! That particular beefsteak variety needs even more severe discipline than most - but the exceptional flavour makes it more than well worth the extra trouble!
It's much too early yet to sow most melons, cucumbers and squashes. These are very fast growing - taking only about 12 weeks from sowing to harvest, and they hate root restriction. The only exception is watermelons - the larger types of which really need starting off in mid-late Feb., as they need a long growing season to be successful. The small 'Sugar Baby' types will still crop well in a warm polytunnel if sown in March. Watermelons are also very tender, susceptible to even the slightest frost and are actually damaged below 50deg.F/10degC. - so unless you have a heated greenhouse - (and who has in these carbon-conscious days?) they'll be far too big before it's warm enough to plant them out in the tunnel or before their allotted tunnel space is vacant. Potting them on into larger pots and placing on a 'roll out' heated mat to provide bottom warmth is a much more energy efficient option. I find it's best to wait until at least mid March for sowing most of the cucurbitaceae family - they can then grow on quickly without any check.
Ten years ago I tried sowing the delicious yellow courgette 'Atena' very early as an experiment - sown on 23rd Feb. and grown on in gentle warmth, it was planted into large pots in the west tunnel in early April and was given extra protection with fleece on cold nights. It gave a really early crop in early-mid May. I now do this every year - it's definitely well worth taking a bit of extra trouble to get some delicious super-early courgettes!
As soon as the ground is in reasonable condition you can plant Jerusalem Artichokes. If it's still too wet you can plant them in 2 litre pots for planting out in a few weeks time.
You can also plant shallots, onion sets and garlic either in the ground or again in pots if it's too wet - but you must choose varieties of garlic which are labelled as 'suitable for spring planting' - such as 'Christo'. If you plant 'autumn planting' varieties now they will just produce one single bulb rather that splitting into individual cloves which is what you want.
If you have well sprouted seed of any variety of potato you can plant some in large pots or directly into the tunnel soil now. These will need protecting from frost at all times. First early varieties are obviously best as these will bulk up quickly - giving a crop in about 10-12 weeks in late April or early May depending on variety - those grown on in pots from planting to harvest will also be slightly earlier than those planted out in the tunnel borders.
Don't attempt to sow anything outside into cold wet ground yet! If you haven't done so already - get cloches or a polythene cover out onto vegetable beds outside now to dry them out and start them warming it up. If your ground hasn't been covered all winter either with a crop, green manure or mulch as it should be - it could take weeks to dry out after all the wet weather we've had. Another reason why ground should always be covered in winter - apart from the soil-loss, damage and possible pollution aspect!
I always use a good, well drained, organic peat-free seed compost for all my seed sowing - it's by far the most successful and natural medium for plants. If you're not using organic peat-free then make sure you use a seed compost - rather than an multi-purpose compost. These may contain far too much chemical fertiliser if not organic, which can either inhibit germination of seedlings, or even burn and kill emerging roots!
*JUST ONE MORE THING - Always open seed packets with clean dry hands - not 'garden muddy' hands! Most seed will last for ages if kept really dry and cool at all times. I find that a dry cool room is usually far better than most domestic refrigerators which can be far too damp. (the exception to this is celery, carrots and parsnips, which tend to have reduced germination when more than 1 year old) Sow seed little and often - preferably in modules if you have room - it's far more time and cost-effective than sowing in rows and transplanting. It also avoids wasting seeds as it avoids root disturbance and possible damage or setback when 'pricking out' from seed trays - or from slugs eating vulnerable tiny seedlings.
P.S. WHEN SOWING SEED - IGNORE THE SEED PACKET ADVICE WHICH TELL YOU TO SOW THE SEEDS ALL AT ONCE IN A ROW OR IN A SEED TRAY as this can waste seed - REMEMBER - THEY WANT YOU TO BUY MORE! SEED IS VALUABLE AND PRECIOUS - ESPECIALLY NOW AS SOME SEED SUPPLIES ARE SHORT DUE TO BREXIT! TRY TO BUY NON-F1 HYBRID SEED IF YOU CAN - YOU CAN THEN SAVE YOUR OWN SEED, AVOID SHORTAGES OF SEED NEXT YEAR, AND BE MORE SELF-RELIANT!
And one last thing to remember if you're short of time.... Always sow any seeds that need sowing now!
Years of experience have taught me that if you're a busy person with lots to do and a family to look after, unforeseen events can often get in the way and you can lose your chance. Remember, you can catch up on everything else later when you have time. But if you miss sowing seeds at what is the right time for them - you can't catch up on that!
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Here's a little something which I wrote 4 years ago, which you may find useful:
How to Brexit-proof your veg supply! Easy, fast-growing veg to start now - which guarantee you a Brexit-proof harvest in just 8 weeks!
(Here are some of the fastest - there are many other ideas in the general 'What to Sow Now' list for February above, which can be started now to crop later - such as baby carrots, chards, beets and perpetual spinach beet)
Loose-leaf lettuce, salad mixes and lettuce mixes. These are widely available in many seed ranges, but are often very cheap (often less than half the price) from some DIY chains).
Endive and chicories for baby leaves
Broccoli Raab - tasty leaves and small broccoli-like flower buds
Oriental veg or salad mixes - usually available as either spicy or sweet mixes.
Mizuna, Mustards, Tatsoi and Texsel Greens
Kales for baby leaves
Radishes can be sown in modules inside now and planted in pots or sown directly in pots.
Peas for pea shoots
Scallions or spring onions
Collards or loose-leaf cabbages
Watercress can be grown very easily by rooting some shoots in water from supermarket salad bags. Remove the lower leaves, put in a jar of water for a few days an they will grow new roots from the stems. Then pot them up in some organic peat-free compost, keep frost-free anywhere in reasonable light and they'll be producing plenty of lovely new shoots for salads etc. by the middle of March. Other easy veg to root in a little water are cabbages, spring onions, leeks and celery.
(For baby leaf lettuce or cut and come again use - DON'T cut the whole head with scissors as usually recommended. Doing this slows up growth a lot at this time of year as the plant needs it's leaves to photosynthesize - just pick one or two leaves from each plant, as this won't affect growth too much and the plant will repay you by providing a harvest earlier and for much longer.)
You could sow all sorts of seeds as microgreens - just as we used to sow mustard and cress as children on damp kitchen towel in small containers - these will be ready to harvest about a week to ten days after sowing. Any veg or herb seeds can be used for growing microgreens and when plants are small they are often far higher in nutrients than their full-grown counterparts.
You can also sprout seeds like sunflower, amaranth, peas, mung beans, alfalfa, fenugreek, mustard, kales etc. - these can be ready from 2-3 days. Soak for a few hours or overnight in jars, cover with muslin held onto the jar with rubber band to avoid losing them down sink when draining, and be sure to rinse and drain them well regularly - twice a day or more, to prevent possible mould or disease.
It goes without saying that using organic seed for either sprouting or microgreens is best, as apart from organic seed being far more healthy and vigorous - non-organic seed may possibly have been pre-treated with toxic pesticides!
Buy potted herbs in supermarkets, split them up and grow on in pots (see my How to grow Basil article).
If you can't get veg plants - some supermarkets sell growing lettuce in compost cubes in their veg departments. These aren't organic, but if you plant them into organic peat-free compost and cut off the tops immediately - then the leaves that grow afterwards will be as good as organic!
Seed potato tubers can be started now in pots and you could be harvesting new potatoes from these in as little as 8 weeks! An excellent, fast-growing, early salad potato is Lady Christl, and it is the fastest potato to bulk up. And if you can't get seed potatoes - any potatoes you buy in veg departments of supermarkets will sprout in a few days put in a warm dark place. Salad varieties like Charlotte or Annabelle are particularly suitable. Soak the tubers in water for half an hour or so and give them a gentle scrub with a soft brush, then dry off with paper towel. This will remove most of any possible anti-sprouting chemicals on the surface of the tuber - which would otherwise stope them from sprouting! Then put in a box under the kitchen table or somewhere warm and I guarantee they'll be sprouting within a week!
Happy gardening everyone! May all your seeds be good ones and all your crops this year be successful!
(Thank you so much to all the people who have taken the time to write and thank me for my work - or thanked me on Twitter. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work. Thank you.)