Updates from February 2012.
Update 18th February
Finally there is growth again and seeds in the greenhouse are suddenly appearing after a long wait. I turned the heat on two weeks ago so they were doing little before that. The lettuce were sown nine days ago and are ready to prick out: the Chartwell seed were saved last year by Robin Baxter (see allotments page) and are clearly on a mission!
Weather note 18th February: the cold spell lasted for only half a moon and the month’s second half is settling into a milder, damper pattern with good temperatures for all seasonal sowings, still mostly indoors (early salads, brassicas, spinach, peas for fruit and shoots, onions, salad onions, parsley, beetroot etc). Outdoor sowings are restricted to broad beans, before things start more earnestly in March. This is a chance to lightly rake over beds and knock out lumps of compost/manure that have been nicely softened by frost. Any tilth you create will endure until you are ready to sow, better than in soil which has been dug and then tends to crack or cap if raked too fine. I notice this difference on the beds of my experiment.
The passing of Candlemas on February 2nd is a welcome sign that mornings grow lighter at last, keeping company with the brighter afternoons. But unfortunately, an old saying often applies here:
*as the days lengthen, so the cold strengthens*
Outdoor sowings this month are limited to broad beans and even they are going to struggle to germinate this February, which looks like featuring a lot of cold east winds.
Last February I sowed parsnips outdoors and they grew well, but I shall not be doing the same this year, partly because they have developed a fair bit of canker around their shoulders, which has probably been accentuated by well grown roots being in soil for so long. Luckily the badgers don’t mind eating the upper, cankerous part, leaving the lower parts of roots for me to extract.
Meanwhile there are seeds to sow undercover, including broad beans, peas for salad shoots, sweet peas, (mousetraps recommended near those three), onions and spring onions, shallots, cabbage of early varieties such as Derby Day and Greyhound, cauliflower, calabrese, beetroot (Boltardy only), lettuce, spinach and parsley.
All of these vegetables are frost hardy so will survive any freezing nights (or days!) in a conservatory, polytunnel or greenhouse. On a windowsill in the house they will germinate quickly, but also become long stemmed/leggy quite rapidly and then need to be moved into full light, even if it is cold.
Small seeds can be sown by scattering on trays of seed compost – without any extra compost on top of lettuce seeds, and just a little on the others – then prick out (transplant) into modules/cells once they have just two leaves. Germination is often hampered by either too much compost on seeds, or over-watering. Moisten the compost before sowing, so that no further watering is needed for as long as a week while seeds are germinating. Then give water sparingly to germinating seedlings, which need little when young and risk “damping off” with mouldy stems if they are kept too wet.
If you have already experienced damping off in seed trays, sowing in modules reduces the risk. Sow two broad beans, cabbage, cauliflower, calabrese and lettuce per module and then thin to the strongest seedling as they grow better in singles.
Many other vegetables grow well in clumps and this saves compost and space for growing them. Sowings can be tailored to finish with a suitable number of plants in each dibbed hole at planting time. Per cell, I suggest you sow two or three peas, six to eight onions and spring onions, two shallot, four beetroot, and three or four spinach and parsley. The idea being to have as many plants as is viable to grow in one clump, because these vegetables can all be grown as clumps, without thinning before planting.
All of the above sowing numbers should result (apart from lettuce and brassicas) in clumps of plants which can be set out in late March and April without any thinning. They grow nicely in groups, for instance of four or five beetroot, and when plants are nearly full grown in June, there is usually one root that is larger than the others: it can be twisted out and the remaining roots left to carry on growing, until a week or two later you can twist out another root of fair size, and so on. Bulb onions grow similarly and are usually pulled all at the same time for drying off in August.
Peas grow well in clumps of two or three and when growing them for shoots I space the clumps about a foot apart, often planted under fleece around mid March. By mid April they should be tall enough for you to pinch off the top two or three inches of stem, a delicious treat for salads with a summer-like taste of pea. The plant looks moribund after this first picking but a week or so later it will send out more shoots from lower down, giving many harvests during a period of up to two months.
Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies can also be sown now but I prefer early March, and even then they still need extra heat to germinate and grow. Whichever date you choose for these vegetables, be sure that you will have enough space undercover to accommodate all the plants in April and early May, when they still need frost protection and take up a lot more room undercover.
Outdoors, if you managed to spread some compost or manure on top of soil in autumn and early winter, any dry and unfrozen spells in February are good for knocking it around with a rake or manure fork, to break up the larger lumps. Continue removing any weeds you see, so that you have a clean and crumbly seed bed, ready at any time.
Stored vegetables come into their own now. Potatoes have started to make shoots in the milder weather but after rubbing them off the spuds look lovely again. I am enjoying a lot of salads with grated roots such as celeriac, beetroot, parsnip; also some squash for colour and sweetness.
I am happy to be wrong in my weather forecast as temperatures are more or less back to normal, and since we have just passed the threshold of ten hours sunlight per day there is every chance of some growth happening!
I am finding more salad again in the tunnels but some plants have succumbed to the frosts, with a couple of nights nearly -10C. Most damage is to plants in the top tunnel, which usually fares better. I plan to fill any larger spaces with pea shoots, whose plants are almost ready to go out.
Outdoors the longer stemmed broad beans are quite damaged, but may shoot from their roots. Spring cabbage, Tundra and savoys, flower sprouts and cauliflower have recovered, and kale is doing well in the continued absence of pigeons. Red Russian is the most tasty kale and is more prolific than Cavolo Nero at this time of year. Some plants of Sutherland have been frosted in their stems, strange as I thought their Scottish ancestry would inure them to cold: or could their upbringing in mild Pembrokeshire be nullifying that? (the seed is from Real Seeds).
It was -8C last night and below freezing all day on my north facing slope, so all the vegetables are now looking throoughly limp. I shall not know how well they have survived until we have a spell of milder weather, perhaps not for another month.