A new calendar year and a new start to the sowing calendar. At this time of year, I am always itching to get out in the garden, to be out in the fresh air and to blow away the January blues. I also have an urge to start sowing, especially if January weather is mild.
There is nothing that says that ‘winter is coming to an end’ more, than watching your first seedlings start to emerge from compost filled trays and pots. However, for most seeds, January is still a bit too early to start sowing and I know I will have to hold back and focus my attention elsewhere. Luckily, there is a long list of jobs which can be done now, that will not only save time later but should help make sowing and growing as successful, productive and satisfying as possible.
So here are some jobs you can get on with;
- Plan a rotation system for vegetable plots to ensure that the same crops are not grown in the same beds year after year. This helps prevent disease build up and avoids nutrient depletion in the soil. For example; Brassicas (Cabbages, Cauliflowers, Brussels and Broccoli) grow better following on in soil where Legumes (Peas, French Beans, Broad Beans, Runner Beans) have grown the previous year. Make a note or simple plan of what you plan to grow where, this can then also be used as a reminder of what you grew in previous years for when you start planning at the same time next year.
- Prepare your seed beds by covering them with polythene, cloches or fleece to help warm the soil up prior to sowing. Avoid using old carpet as the chemicals used to make them fire retardant can leach into the soil and contaminate it. If you have heavy soil in your beds, leaving it exposed to continual freezing and thawing will help to improve the soil structure by breaking it up. Consider also adding organic matter (e.g. leaf mould, compost) and grit to improve the drainage. If the soil is very wet, avoid treading on the bed as this will compact and ruin the structure of the soil.
- If you are going to be using pots, trays, modules, labels and propagators that were used in previous years, ensure you give them a good clean prior to sowing. I wash pots and trays in warm soapy water to remove any residue of compost from the previous year which may harbour diseases.
- If this is your first year of sowing seeds, then you will need a few pieces of key equipment to get you started. The basic requirements are containers or modules. Plastic pots, seed trays or modules can be purchased fairly cheaply from most garden centres and DIY stores. The size and number that you require will obviously depend on what you are sowing. You can also improvise and recycle many different containers as long as they have drainage holes in the base e.g. yoghurt pots, plastic fruit and mushroom punnets, cardboard or plastic coffee cups, toilet roll inners and plastic sandwich trays with lids, just to name a few that we have previously used. Plastic labels are also an essential too, they can be reused and it is really useful to get into the habit of labelling the seeds you have sown (including a date!).
- Consider whether you want to invest in a heated propagator. Domestic heated propagators cost from about £20 for a small one, up to £150+ for larger varieties that may have thermostats to control the temperature. The advantages of heated propagators are that you can start sowing seeds earlier (and therefore have a longer harvest if you sow successionally) and it will result in faster and less erratic germination. However, it is not essential and for many years we grew a large variety of vegetables very successfully without one. We simply used a windowsill near a radiator to provide enough warmth to germinate seeds indoors from February onwards.
- For best results, you will need to obtain some seed compost. Avoid using any seed compost left over from last year (as the micronutrients will have been depleted and it may contain mould spores) and do not use garden soil or garden compost as these could contain diseases or be too high in nutrients for successful seedling growth. Most ready-made seed composts are a mix of loam, peat, grit, sand and fertilizer in the optimum proportions to enable seed germination. John Innes seed compost is the industry standard and is the seed compost we choose to use.
- Possibly the most fun job at this time of year is deciding what you want to grow. If you have grown vegetables or flowers from seed previously you will probably already have your favourite’s and be looking for something new to add to what you already grow. If you want to try a new variety, why not have a look at our small seed packets first?
- If you are new to sowing and growing your own, it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming looking at seed catalogues or seed packet displays at garden centres with their vast choice. Obviously, the size and nature of your plot is an important consideration so if you want to best utilise the space you have, then I would start by listing all of the vegetables which you and your family like to eat and then whittle this down to the ones that can be grown from seed successfully in the climate where you live. For example, Beetroot is a really easy crop to grow, but if no one in the family likes to eat it then it’s not really worth the space or effort to grow!
- If you are very limited on space or are growing predominantly in pots, baskets or window boxes, you may want to look at our Perfect for Pots range. It contains varieties that can be grown successfully in pots or other containers and all of this range is available in our small sized packets priced from just 55p.
- As well as growing vegetables you already like to eat, why not also be a bit experimental? Since January is a time for starting new healthy habits, why not kick start and plan to grow something that you wouldn’t normally eat or would like to eat more of – Broccoli Raab (Cima Di Rapa), Black Tuscan Kale and Swiss Chard are all crops which can be easily grown in a limited space, be harvested over a long period and are really healthy. So, what’s to lose?
- If you have seeds left over from previous years and are not sure on their viability, place a few on a moist kitchen towel, fold in half, and place in a plastic sandwich bag before leaving somewhere warm. Keep the kitchen towel moist and continue checking until the germination time has expired for that particular seed. Depending on how many of the seeds have sprouted in this time will determine the percentage viability. If this is low, you may still decide to sow but increase the number of seeds you sow with a view to thin out if required. Seeds which generally only last one year are parsnip, spinach and sweetcorn and in all of these cases it is best to buy new seed.
- Sow your Chilli seeds now! Chillies were originally cultivated in the warm climates of South America and Asia, and to successfully grow in the UK, the earlier start they have, the more time they will get to spend growing and ripening in the heat of our mid to late summer. A heated propagator is not essential, but the seeds must be left to germinate at a temperature of between 18–21°C (65 to 70°F).
Lots to do let’s get cracking!