Sunday, 17 February 2013

Gaining a head start

These dark-coloured Hellebores appear through the ground-cover

At last, the sun is shining, everywhere in the UK as well as here in the north Cotswolds from where I write this blog post. I walked around d the garden this morning, and despite all the work that needs doing, it is a joy to be outside again. My insistence on feeding the birds, come what may, has as always resulted in more bird-table visitors, and more obviously staking out territory for nesting sites. To many, my garden would be anathema; a tamed wilderness, and not all that tamed at present, but I know that come Summer, when the aphids strike, I will not need to spray for the wild-life will be there to consume creatures that will otherwise attack my produce.

I have a passion  for green flowers
Back indoors  having been entranced by the sight of three buzzards low over the orchard, mewing and calling to each other; I need to record their arrival after the long winter; though they are resident in the area. I should of course stay outside and actually ‘garden’ as many of my Facebook friends are doing on this bright and sunny Sunday; but writers have deadlines to catch come what may, and the garden will not go away; it will still be there calling for attention. My scheduled ‘posts’ have gone topsy-turvy – they are always ‘of the moment’ no matter what I had planned – so in the hope that the better weather will hold, I bring you some suggestions for ways to make use of a cold greenhouse  - or a kitchen windowsill – to start edible crops early. ‘Old hands’ will have their own favourite methods, but if you are new to all this, you can get cracking as soon as you have your seeds to hand.

Setting potatoes to chit in the greenhouse - don't forget labels
For Potatoes, you need to plan ahead for ‘earlies’ that will produce the first crops in late June or early July have to be in the ground by late March or during April. What we have to watch is that the growing shoots, even when earthed up in ridges, are not affected by late frosts (here even as late as June!) – and we have a heavy clay soil, very cold. So as soon as they arrive, I set them to chit: egg boxes are perfect, and can be recycled afterwards on the compost heap; but don’t forget to add labels if you are growing more than one variety. Place the trays in a light frost-free place (cover with fleece, doubled if necessary, if you are placing them in a shed or greenhouse). But watch for greenfly which appear out of no-where as the weather warms up. Tips for planting out will follow in April.

Sweet peas being hardened-off prior to transplanting
Sweet peas also benefit from an early start indoors. Helping them to develop a sturdy root system prior to planting out can be achieved by sowing in late September and over-wintering in a cold-frame; but you can still encourage superb blooms by starting them off right now. Each seed has an incredibly hard coat, so I chit these too. Place between sheets of soaked kitchen towel within a sandwich box, the lid will deter mice. Again, label the varieties. I place a quantity on a tray and cover with slates to exclude light, but always check regularly to see the paper remains moist. At the first sign of a shoot breaking through the hard casing, gently place the seeds in pots, lifting them with tweezers. For this stage, I use the larger size of polystyrene coffee cups (a material that keeps the roots warm) and seed compost mixed with multi-purpose compost. Once the seeds are in position, I top up the pots with vermiculite, place the pots in a seed tray (water from the base) and ensure that mice traps are set.

Early broad beans just beginning to germinate - the pots are placed within
seed trays for ease of watering, and to preserve the wooden wine-boxes
My ‘polycup’ method really encourages root growth and lessens disturbance when seedlings are ready for transplanting. It’s perfect for large seeds such as beans and marrows, squash or courgettes. If the rootball is reluctant to slide out of the ‘cup’, you simply break away the sides. The smaller size is easily accommodated in batches within wooden wine boxes, or deep polystryrene boxes, or even polystyrene storage boxes. With either of the latter, you can sink the pots in additional moist compost which help to keep the young seedlings from drying out. I rarely water from the top for fear of the seedling leaves being scorched by sunlight whilst I am out at work. I cover all boxes with netting or cloches – we have a problem with field mice but check them morning and evening. Of course, although this is my preferred method, there are numerous handy pot-and-tray systems to make life as simple as possible.

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