February is still early in the year to be sowing, but if the worst of the cold weather can be kept off the seeds and seedlings then there are many crops that can be sown now: onions and leeks; cabbages, kales and other brassicas; peas and broad beans; lettuces and other leafy vegetables such as chard; and later in the month the early sowings of radish, beetroot, and perhaps even turnip.
For our first sowing we started some brassicas, chard, spring onions, and broad beads. The sowing mix was a combination of sieved multipurpose compost, coir, and fine vermiculite. I used more or less equal parts for everything except the broad beans, where I used, perhaps, two parts compost to one part each of coir and vermiculite, thinking that the beans may enjoy a little more compost than the other seeds.
The brassicas and chard were sown in a module tray, with nominally two seeds per cell. The brassicas will be thinned to a single seedling, the chard left as it comes. The chard seeds are multigerm anyway, so a small clump is to be expected. Depending on the prevailing conditions when the seedlings are ready to be moved on, they could be planted straight out or potted on. The latter is more likely as I do prefer to plant out quite strong young plants; they seem more able to deal with potential pest problems if they have more substance to them on planting. The vagaries of the weather may also dictate potting on, as if conditions are not fine when the seedlings reach that point, it is better to pot on than to allow the roots to become bound up in the confines of the cells awaiting better weather.
For the brassicas we sowed two kales, the classic Dwarf Green Curled and Couve Tronchuda, the Portuguese kale or cabbage as it is sometimes known. The latter does not heart so might be considered more kale like, though the leaves have the rounded shape typical of cabbage leaves. We already have a few pots of Wheeler’s Imperial, an old variety of spring cabbage, to which we added today Brunswick, a fairly substantial and solid sort, and Red Drumhead, a classic red cabbage. For chard we often grow Fordhook Giant or occasionally Rhubarb chard, but this time happened to have an Italian sort referred to rather unimaginatively as Verde a Costa Bianca.
We have already sown onions for bulbs so this sowing was for spring onions. We filled three-inch pots with compost and scattered multiple seeds across the surface, then topped up with a little more compost. In due course these will be planted out in clumps, and probably harvested in one go, though it should be possible, with care, to twist out just a few if needed. As usual, we have the classic White Lisbon but we also sowed some of Rossa Lunga di Firenze, an Italian variety of onion with an elongated red bulb. There is no reason why these should not make fine spring onions; they might have the beginnings of a bulb rather than the more usual straight stems, but that is no detriment for our purposes. Indeed, White Lisbon will also bulb up if given the chance, though it is typically taken at a stage when little or no bulb has developed. Really, any variety of onion could be used to produce young so-called spring onions.
The broad beans were sown in deep four-inch square pots, giving them plenty of compost in which to develop and giving us some leeway in when exactly we plant out. We have some Aquadulce overwintering already, but these have been beaten ferociously by the freezing winter winds that have been unusually harsh this year. There may be something to salvage from them, but I am starting to lean towards cutting our losses and grubbing them out. Before the latest cold spell arrived, I thought they might just about manage, but today they look in a very sorry state.
Overwintering anything is a bit of a gamble. It is not so much the cold temperatures, as plants such as broad beans will shrug off a brief freeze without any signs of stress, but prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures are not so good, unreasonable amounts of warmer and wetter weather can result in rots, strong winds can snap young stems, and icy winds can cause plant tissues to dehydrate. Covering plants to protect from the elements helps in some ways, but reduces air flow and contributes to decay, so it can be difficult to win this battle some years.
As the overwintering crop looked decidedly dodgy, it seemed sensible to make an early sowing this year to follow on or replace. We have other varieties to sow later but for now we have started 25 pots of The Sutton, a dwarf sort that is well suited to early sowings and should begin to crop by the end of April or, more likely, early May.
So, the new season is well and truly under way. There will be more to sow later in the month and things will really pick up as we move into March. There are just a few weeks to go now until propagation and planting out take over and little time can be found for other jobs in the garden. We still have winter pruning to do, planting of fruiting bushes in the fruit cage, and planting fruit trees for fan training around the new fence. Then there are infrastructure projects – possibly a new (small) polytunnel, the fruit cage is unfinished, the cold frames have no glazing, there is still some old woodwork to replace, the new ‘north border’ needs dividing into distinct sections, and some of the paths need attention. The ‘winter work’ never seems to be done by the end of winter and then it is so difficult to catch up when sowing and growing are the priority. I dare say a few of these jobs will be on the list for next year’s winter work.