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Geoff Hodge Web Editor Peterborough

I've been a horticultural journalist for 20 years, a gardener for longer than I want to think about and a veg grower for 25 years.

  • Date Joined: 21 Nov 2006

To start or not to start - what a question!

Posted by Geoff Hodge on 25 Jan 2008 at 04:24 PM

"I'm late!, I'm late! For a very important date." So said the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. And if I was an exhibition veg grower I would be late. I've just sown some ‘Mammoth Improved' onion seeds, whereas exhibition growers always try to sow their onions on Boxing Day or as soon after the shortest day as possible.
These are now sitting in the propagator in the garage. Sadly, I can't get electricity down to the greenhouse, so always have to sow seeds nearer to the house. In the past I've always used the conservatory, but light levels there (it's north facing) mean that the seedlings grow a bit tall and lank. But how can the garage be any better? Well, we've just got our hands on a growlight and we've set it up in the garage to see how well it does. We'll be using it to grow on a range of plants; I'll let you know how we get on.

But at this time of year seed sowing is a real matter of timing. Like you, I'm itching to get going, but I know that starting too early is a mistake. It's fine sowing peppers, tomatoes and other crops needing warmth in a propagator now (January/February) as they'll germinate quickly, but if you don't have the right conditions to grow them on afterwards (a minimum temperature of 10C and good light levels) they'll start to suffer. Sowings made in March (and even April for crops being planted outside) will soon catch up with these early starters and often produce far better plants and crops as they've had better conditions to grow in.

It's the same outdoors. Sow seeds now and they'll rot rather than germinate if the soil's too cold; most seeds need a minimum soil tempearature of 7C. Rather than sowing now and basically wasting your time, effort and money, cover the soil with clear polythene. This will warm up the soil, so that when March arrives the conditions will be perfect for germination, growth and - of course - beautifully tasty early crops. I can't wait.

Another advantage of covering the soil is that it encourages weed seeds to germinate; is that an advantage I hear you say. Well yes. Once they've germinated you can hoe them off and, providing you don't disturb the soil greatly afterwards (I practice no-dig techniques in raised beds), you'll be more-or-less weed-free for the rest of the year.

Of course, if you're one of those lucky types who can afford to heat their greenhouse in winter then the sky's the limit and you can sow and grow just about what you like. For the rest of - patience IS a virtue!

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