February is still early in the new gardening season but it is always nice to set a mixture of seed and try to get a head start on things, and, if a little protection can be offered – from propagators, cold frames, greenhouses or polytunnels, for example – then often these early sowings will succeed in delivering the first fresh vegetables of the new season. There is that challenging period, known as the ‘hungry gap’, when overwintered and stored crops are running low but the garden is yet to produce a new harvest, and getting fast growing crops going early in the year can help to minimise this tricky time. Early sowings come with various risks. Direct sowings into cold wet soil can result in seed rotting before germination; germination can be poor during cold spells; a return of cold weather can encourage some plants to bolt; plants may grow away slowly and may not recover from early checks in growth; and the weather can ravish young seedlings if not afforded sufficient protection. Later sowings, made when growing conditions are more favourable, can perform better, sometimes overtaking those made earlier under more challenging conditions. So early sowings can sometimes be a bit of a gamble, but if one has the space available, the time, and seed to spare, there is nothing wrong with attempting to get things going as soon as possible, so long as one is prepared for the occasional failure.
It is interesting to think of the time when a garden had to provide enough produce for the entire year when it was only really productive for, say, five months of the year. I am certainly glad I do not have such pressure and can supplement our own produce as and when I please. I know some gardeners do strive for self sufficiency and if they manage it that is an impressive achievement. I am, of course, happy not to buy fruit and vegetables but I do not want the pressure of having to produce all of ours, something that might be a little more difficult in our recently renovated kitchen garden, which has less growing space than it did before.
Our final sowing of February, except, perhaps, for tomatoes that might be started at the end of the month, covered peas, lettuce, rocket, beetroot, cima di rapa, and radish. We did sow some peas in late autumn and attempted to overwinter them. The results were not good and the plants were grubbed out a few weeks ago. I remember now why I stopped overwintering peas outdoors and moved them into the polytunnel as soon as we bought it. They are hardy enough in theory, but tolerance of cold temperatures is not sufficient to ensure survival. We had the young plants covered with fleece for protection. A storm blew through and ripped off the fleece and decapitated many of the pea seedlings in the process. What survived was then subjected to freezing temperatures over a long period and, worse, freezing winds. The latter causes plant tissue to become dehydrated, looking scorched as they might if not sufficiently irrigated during a hot spell. What plants had survived the initial onslaught reached a height where some support would be needed and recovering with fleece became impractical. The plants were then beaten mercilessly by a series of further storms and, though they cope reasonably well with a short-term freeze, the prolonged low temperatures and high winds at the start of the year were too much for them.
I will not bother again with over wintering peas outdoors. I may find space under cover for an early crop, though it can be difficult. Our covered growing spaces are primarily for tomatoes, peppers, chillies, and such things. Here in the south, these can generally go in at the end of April or early May, and thus there are many crops that we could get a head start on undercover but will not necessarily be finished in time to be cleared for the main summer crops. The loss of our large polytunnel is particularly noticeable in this regard. The main central bed provided a large area for such crops whilst the borders along the sides were reserved for the tomatoes and peppers.
We sowed three varieties of peas in lengths of gutter as we have in the past: Prince Albert, an early sort, Purple Podded, and Hurst Greenshaft. We also sowed some Alderman peas in deep modules, three to each cell, where the roots should have plenty of room to develop. Alderman is a particularly tall variety, easily capable of reaching eight feet, so will be treated a little differently when planting out. For that one we need to use our ten feet long bamboo canes and wrap them with horizontal strings for the peas to climb.
We had already sown a tray of lettuce for a cut-and-come-again crop, and seedlings were just appearing as we sowed a cell tray with three varieties to grow on to full sized plants: Four Seasons (also known as Marvel of the Four Seasons, Quattro Stagioni, or Merveille de Quatre Saisons), a butterhead type with red edged leaves; Bloody Cos (also known as Spotted Cos), a particularly old variety so called because of the red spots on the leaves; and Wheeler’s Tom Thumb, a small green butterhead type. We sowed a couple of seeds per cell and will thin to a single plant in due course. Alongside we sowed some rocket, with two or three seeds per cell and will probably not thin those.
A further cell tray was filled with beetroot Boltardy, three or so seeds per cell. Boltardy is an excellent all round variety, but one that is particularly handy for early sowings as it is, as the name suggests, quite uninclined to bolt, a characteristic of great importance early in the year when a cold spell can trick the plants into thinking that they have gone through the winter and should now be setting seed. This is common to biennial plants. Our beetroot seedlings will be planted out in clumps, at least some in one of the cold frames which, after quite some years, have finally got their lights.
Our final sowings were made direct into a couple of the cold frames. These will be used for melons later in the year but what we have sown now should be well clear by then. We sowed a row of Long Scarlet radish and four rows of a fast maturing cima di rapa (also known as sprouting turnip tops, broccoli raab, and rapini) in each frame. These are both happy with cool conditions but whether they will germinate well at this time of year is questionable. The lights were only fitted a couple of days ago so the soil has not had much time to warm up. Of all of our early sowings this one is the biggest gamble and if it doesn’t pay off, there is only the loss of a pinch of seed and a little time, so we shall be philosophical about that. I would be more confident if the lights had been fitted earlier and soil allowed to benefit from the extra warmth trapped within the cold frame on those nicer days; though it has been a bit sparse the sun has made an occasional appearance and the temperature within the fairly shallow frames would probably have risen quite nicely during those periods. Time will tell whether we have succeeded with this early sowing.