With cold wet weather and lockdown restrictions in place, it’s no surprise if not much is happening on most allotments (early February 2021). Chances are, we’d be only going out for a short while anyway if we weren’t being told to stay home, save lives etc. But that doesn’t stop us bemoaning the fact that we’re not supposed to be going anywhere, feeling anxious and unmotivated to do anything when we really don’t know when the lockdown will finish.
Yesterday, I read about a way of improving wellbeing suggested 10 years before the pandemic: the “three good things” approach which helps us connect with the rest of the natural world that is carrying on regardless, even if we’re stuck indoors. Just note 3 things in nature each day: maybe a robin pecking at the soil for food, the pattern of frost on a leaf, green shoots on last year’s bushes – and straight away you feel more connected and can look forward to the future.
Then think how lucky we are to have an allotment to go to, and our plots will be bursting into new life whether we go or not. So what will they be like come the summer? Couch grass and brambles, or stocked with delicious things to eat? And what do we need to do now to make that happen? For me, I’m honestly more happy to spend most of the day being warm and cosy at the moment. I can start off some of my favourite veggies, looking forward to better weather and being able to be sociable again on site – whenever that is possible
February is a good time to be sowing seeds for onions, tomatoes, peppers, some types of cauliflower, cabbage and broad beans or ‘chitting’ your potatoes ready for planting outdoors in late March. So here’s a few ideas for ‘newbies’ and anyone else who hasn’t previously tried to get an early start to the growing season.
If you have some space indoors such as a windowsill or unused table, you can create just the right conditions to germinate some of these seeds. By the time it’s warm enough outside for them to survive, they’ll be well on the way, and you can look forward to a bumper crop by the end of summer!
Detailed tips on growing seeds can be found in lots of places:
Or www.thompson-morgan.com/seeds-to-sow-now https://www.thompson-morgan.com/in-the-garden-this-month
Or just google what you want to grow, or see what’s on YouTube.
What do you need to get growing?
Apart from some seeds, you’ll need:
- compost (available from WEGA Stores Saturdays and Sundays 11-1),
- growing containers – such as seed trays, pots, recycled fruit or vegetable punnets, cell or modular trays, all with drainage holes in, while cardboard tubes are good for broadbeans
- trays or dishes to stand the containers on
- polythene bags, clingfilm, plastic sheets or glass, to cover
- a watering can
Seed packets usually have instructions for how and when to grow the contents.
Tomatoes. For example, for many tomatoes your instructions might be like this:
- February to April: Sow seeds 0.5 cm deep in pots or trays of good sowing compost and cover with a light sprinkling of compost
- Water well and place in a warm place – 15 to 20 C is ideal for germination. Keep moist. Covering the container with clear glass, plastic or cling film will help stop the seeds drying out but will still allow light in.
- Seedlings usually appear in 7-14 days.
- Transplant to individual small (7.5 cm) pots when 10-15 cm tall. Grow on in cooler but not cold conditions.
- April to May: when 20 cm tall, plant outside in large pots or growing bags. Keep protected through May. You can plant in the ground outside after the last frost is past late May/early June. Choose a sheltered position in full sun on fertile, reliably moist, well drained soil
- June/July: Plants in flower – feed them with potash or tomato feed after the first flowers have set fruit.
- July to October: Harvest your tomatoes.
There are so many different types of tomato seeds in the catalogues – 53 at the last count in the Kings catalogue, from huge beef tomatoes to sweet cherry ones, and instructions will vary between varieties. Not too difficult to grow, they just need some care and attention along the way. Once you’ve tasted home-grown, you won’t want to go back to shop-bought.
Peppers and Chillis also benefit from an early start indoors, to give them the best chance to develop and ripen in our climate, but only some are suitable for transplanting outdoors – for example, California Wonder and Chilli pepper De Cayenne sold by Wilko.
Onions can be more tricky to grow from seeds, and lots of people stick with onion sets, but if you do want to try, February to April are the months to start indoors using trays and pots. Recommended temperatures for germination are typically lower than for tomatoes at 14 C.
Cabbage and Cauliflower. Not the easiest vegetables to grow but they suit our climate and it’s very rewarding when they do develop well. Only some can be started indoors in February – for example All the Year Round, Boris and Snowball Cauliflower, and Dutchman and Golden Acre Cabbage. They also need lower germinating temperatures, usually 13 to 15 C.
Broad beans are tough plants and can be grown outdoors in a sheltered spot from the word go, but they also benefit from an early start indoors – use pots or cardboard tubes. For other types of beans – climbing, runner, dwarf – you need to wait till March or April.
Potatoes. Early starts for potatoes involve ‘chitting’ which should help to produce a better harvest. Chitting is another word for sprouting which you encourage by exposing your potatoes to warmth and light, but not too warm – around 8-10 C (50F). A porch, conservatory, green-house or garage is about right – frost-free but not as warm as a typical living room.
You’ll need some old egg boxes or seed-trays or other boxes with ruffled up newspaper in them – or any container where you can put the potato tubers upright, stacked side by side with the ‘rose end’ facing up. This is the end with the most small dents in the skin or ‘eyes’ and the eyes are where the sprouts will start emerging in a few days.
Where to get your seeds
Garden centres, supermarkets,on-line suppliers – plenty of places to stock up if you haven’t already ordered and have none left from last year. Websites for on-line suppliers – check out our Links Page for a list of both large well-known companies and smaller ones offering organic or less common varieties.
Bargains possible at places like Wilko, B & M, Poundstretcher, Aldi, Morrisons, although not nearly as much choice as the specialist garden suppliers.
Quality and quantity of seeds varies a lot and you will probably pay more for larger quantities of better quality seeds – but not always.
Seed swaps and donations from other plotholders – these can be advertised through the website or a site WhatsApp group.
Ask the longstanding plotholders on your site which are their preferred sources and varieties – they’ll also know what suits the soil and other conditions you’ll experience.
Get your timing right
Frost kills a lot of young plants, and the general advice for many of them is to ‘plant out when the danger of frost has passed’. Easier said than done as sometimes frosts return after an early spring. The UK average for the last frosts is the last week of April which is why May is the typical month for planting out anything you’ve been cultivating indoors.
With potatoes, you’re aiming for the foliage to appear above ground after the frost danger has passed, and it takes seed potatoes about 4 weeks for that to happen with main crop potatoes. So the last week in March is roughly the right time to plant them out, whereas with tomatoes, beans etc, you will need to wait till late May or June before risking outdoor conditions.
If in doubt, ask one of the experienced plotholders for tips, to avoid wasting your time and money on seeds which fail to get going. If that happens, there’s always the option of buying some plug plants grown at a nursery – or seeing if anyone else on the site has some spare. And check out the WEGA Stores – to see if there’s plug plants for sale there.