Edibles to sow in the urban winter garden
by Tom Moggach
After a mild Christmas and the warmest year on record, it’s no wonder we’re all confused. Will spring come early? Should we still brace ourselves for a cold snap? When should seeds be sown to get a flying start? These are all questions this article will strive to answer, plus you’ll find a handy planting plan for the months ahead.
A recent survey by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland found that 368 species of wild plants were spotted in flower in their New Year Plant Hunt – 15% of all British flowering plants.This is a remarkable and “unprecedented” figure according to botanist Dr Tim Rich. Specimens observed included cow parsley and gorse, species that more typically flower around May. So what are the implications for us urban gardeners? And for the plants in our gardens?
Firstly, this pattern of increasingly milder weather should serve as a warning. The familiar rhythms of the garden may well be starting to change. “Something really unusual is going on with the weather patterns that is affecting the plants,” confirms Rich.
The first lesson is that we need to learn to be extra flexible – starting by taking timings in gardening books with a pinch of salt and relying instead on common sense.
For example, it may well be a mild start to the year, but there is still no advantage in starting off seeds too early. You may be tempted to sow lettuce seeds on your window sill, but the seedlings are likely to be weak and spindly due to low light levels and later sowings will quickly catch up. Instead, bide your time. There is nothing edible worth sowing in January, however mild the weather. Take this opportunity to jot down a planting plan for the months ahead – there are some suggestions at the end of the article.
As you map out your plans, don’t slavishly follow the times suggested on seed packets. Take a step back and reflect on the logic that informs them. Each seed has a different range of temperatures within which it will germinate. Peas will germinate from around 4°C, so can be started off early in the year – hence the months suggested on the packet. Peppers, on the other hand, need at least 20°C, which explains why you need a warm greenhouse – or a garden somewhere much warmer than Britain – to get them going. Let this logic be your guide.
Next, spare a thought for gardeners in the milder south of England. There have been few frosts so far this year, and this may have negative repercussions for some plants. Garlic, for example, benefits from a blast of freezing weather. Cloves may remain smaller than usual without this drop in temperature. Rhubarb and blackcurrants both crop more heavily after a frost, too. So if your harvest is on the small side, this may offer some explanation. Pest populations are another serious concern. Bouts of cold weather help to kill off pests such as aphids and whitefly, for example, which slows down their reproductive speed in the months to come. So don’t be surprised if we are fighting against larger pest problems this year, if mild weather continues. All gardeners should cross their fingers for a few weeks of freezing temperatures before spring starts in earnest.
Here are some suggestions to help with your planting plan for the months ahead:
- If the weather remains mild, make a first sowing in plug trays, under cover, of beetroot (for the leaf), sorrel, lettuce, rocket, land cress and peas (for the shoots). Sow oriental greens such as mustards, mizuna and tatsoi –again ideally in plug trays under cover for planting out later. Mustards are a wonderfully diverse group of plants that add colour and spice to salads. Try sowing varieties such as Green Wave and Red Giant now. These should be harvested when leaves are still small in size. These sowings should bring you some early mixed salad.
- If the soil is warming up, you can also plant Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes and rhubarb crowns outdoors any time from now until April.
- Also try broad beans, spinach and radishes. Ideally offer them some protection if you are planting outdoors.
- Chit potatoes for planting later in March. First earlies are your best bet if space is at a premium.
- If you want to grow chillies, get organised this month. Some types require a long growing season and are best started off in a heated propagator in February. Alternatively, place an order for plug plants with a specialist nursery online such as Sea Spring Plants.
- Sow flowers including poppies and campanulas.
- Early in the month, sow early peas (for their pods) in lengths of guttering that you can slide into prepared trenches in the soil once they are sturdy seedlings. Prepare the trenches by filling with garden compost.
- Plant onion and shallot sets. If you have a bit of space, you can try parsnips and turnips, too. Ideally, garlic is planted before winter but you can still have a go in March and expect a harvest.
- By late March, try summer carrots, chard, orache and soft herbs such as parsley, chervil, dill and coriander
Tom Moggach runs City Leaf, which trains people in urban food growing skills, and is author of ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City’ (Kyle Books).