In the garden

Believe it or not, but it’s high time to get out the seed trays and labels. Leeks are best sown in January to ensure nice sturdy transplants when the time comes to dibble them into rows in the garden.

The seeds don’t need much heat to break from their coating; a warm window sill will do, and once the “grass” is up the trays can be trans­ferred to an unheated greenhouse prior to hardening off.

I also like to get going on salads and some brassicas as early as pos­sible. Matters on the salad front are a bit grim at Lea Gardens this year, and everybody is growing thor­oughly sick of coleslaw and raw, grated beetroot. We manage to scrape a few handfuls of saladings now and again, mostly the youngest and most tender leaves of Swiss chard, American land cress, the odd scrap of Chinese greens and the over-wintered foliage of giant cress, Cardamine raphnifolia.

The tangled, matted stems of this evergreen perennial provide excel­lent ground cover, particularly in damp places. Large heads of cool lilac cuckoo flowers appear in spring, and last for a good month. A perfect foil and cover for spring bulbs such as miniature narcissi. The leaves are edible but tend to be on the bland side, except during winter, when they have a nice, peppery edge to them.

It is a member of the cabbage family, and when it comes to bras­sicas the aim is to get a succession going, something I’ve yet to master on any significant scale. Making suc­cessive sowings sounds so easy in theory yet in practice there’s always far too much to do to find the time for another sowing session in May or June.

But there are other ways and means of achieving this, as I found out by pure chance last year. The method I recommend to you is taking a leaf out of the crofter’s handbook on raising kale, but don’t worry, there’s no need to take to the hills and build a planticrub.

Sow your cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli as you normally do, and pick out a proportion of plants as usual. Leave the rest to starve in their seed trays, and place them in a sheltered spot outdoors. The seed­lings won’t grow very large, but they’ll develop hard stems and a sturdy constitution, just like their planticrub raised cousins.

Once you’ve cleared the ground of early salad crops in June, or even early July, plant them out in good fertile soil, and you’ll start harvest­ing from late September onwards, a month or two after your early caulis have run out of steam.

A method often recommended is to choose a selection of slow and quick-maturing cultivars. This works a treat with cabbages and sprouts, but cauliflower and broccoli still tend to start cropping much at the same time in my experience, regardless of variety.

Members of the cabbage family are great for bridging the hungry gap, provided you leave a good bit of stalk in the ground at harvesting time. These stumps will start putting out new shoots in late winter, and keep cropping for as long as you can spare the space they occupy. These spring greens can be eaten raw or cooked, and the most delightful ones are the doll’s house cauliflowers.

This should keep you going until the first salads are ready for picking or cutting. Most germinate happily in a frost-free greenhouse, as early as February. The leafy cut and come again mixtures are also great for pot culture.

There’s plenty of time for herbs yet, with one exception. Parsley is slow to germinate and slow to mature, but responds well to a little gentle bottom heat. A window sill above a radiator should do the trick. Keep a pot of it and a pot of salad leaves near your kitchen door. The more frequently you pick, the better they’ll grow.

Further south broad beans are sown in the autumn to give them a head start. I’ve never been successful with this in Shetland, at least not in the open ground. The beans germ­inate readily enough, but the seed­lings are always destroyed by the winter gales. Early sowing under glass works well in my experience. Popping single beans into 9cm pots in early February means you’ll have sturdy, well hardened off plants by May.

The same also works well with peas – two to a pot – and here you can make sure of a succession crop, by sowing a row or two at the same time you set out your green-house raised transplants.

Few gardeners I know are indifferent to broad beans – they either love or loath them – and the latter can sometimes be converted by serving them the young shoots and tiny, tender pods and flower buds as a steamed vegetable or a cooked salad dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. The first young beans are delicious eaten raw, dipped first in oil, then in salt, as a nibble with pre-dinner drinks.

I hope this has whetted your appetite, and if you haven’t bought your vegetable seeds yet, now’s the time to get your skates on.

January is also a very good time to sow the seeds of shrubs, trees and hardy perennials, especially those that need a cold period before they germinate. Make your sowings as you normally do, but instead of cov­er­ing them with a layer of compost, use coarse sand or fine grit instead, varying the depth according to the size of your seeds, a mere sprinkling for dust-fine seeds, a good centimetre for the likes of tree peonies. This will stop the trays from getting soggy, and discourages the growth of fungal spores.

Place your sowings out of doors in a sheltered place, where they will thaw and freeze several times – weather permitting. During a mild winter you can help the process along by crushing a few ice cubes and liberally sprinkling the sowings with the shards and splinters. Snow is the best germinator I know, and whenever there is room in the freezer, I store a few bags full to cover my cold sowings with.

Most seeds should germinate in spring, but a few stubborn ones might need another period of alter­nating freezing and thawing to completely remove their germination inhibiting seed coating. Keep them in a shady place over summer to prevent them from drying out, and you’ll be rewarded with forests of seedlings in early 2010.

It is better to use small pots, or half pots, with a greater depth of soil, as these won’t dry out as rapidly as seed trays. If you use clay con­tainers, make sure you soak them over night prior to sowing.

Some seeds, such as those of certain lilies or peonies, germinate in two stages. In the first year they only produce a small root, followed by the first leaves the year after. That’s why it’s vital to keep seem­ingly empty trays and pots moist at all times.

Waiting more than a year for the fruits of one’s labour might strike some of my readers as tedious, but this is not so. The sowings, once made, need little attention from the gardener, and managing to raise something rare from seed always features as one of the most thrilling of horticultural moments in the gardener’s year.

And why raise things from seed in the first place when the garden centres are crammed with desirable plants? The answer is simple. Many plants, especially those that don’t make “a good pot” within a short span of time, never turn up in garden centres, and herbaceous peony spe­cies are often among them. The same goes for a wide range of plants, including lilies. The most desirable wildlings are only available from specialist nurseries – at a price.

Furthermore, a good proportion of the lily stock available to the amateur gardener is riddled with virus – I frequently come across pot-grown liliums showing the tell-tale yellow streaked foliage in garden centres and supermarkets. If you buy plants thus affected, the aphids, and other insects in your garden, will soon spread it to all your healthy lily bulbs.

Far better to make a clean start with a packet of seeds, and once you have a healthy little flock, you can use quicker propagation methods, such as scaling your bulbs. But that is a subject for another day.

Rosa Steppanova


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