Timing is everything
One of the problems of stipulating times for planting by the calendar is it ignores the most important aspect of growing anything, the weather. I feel much more bouncy and optimistic on a warm sunny day and this is true of the things we grow, they depend on warmth to germinate. They need some water, but not too much. There is a great variety of needs. When we visited Yosemite Park in the 1970s forest fires were raging, being controlled by firefighters. Incidentally the professionals were supported by volunteer prisoners from penitentiaries and native Americans from New Mexico, one of whom wore a bandana emblazoned with 'American before Columbus' which I was quite taken with. They were deliberately containing the fire and stopping it from harming human settlement, but allowing it to burn. Years of completely restraining fires revealed that the vegetation was not regenerating and they worked out that the seeds need intense heat to be ready to grow. Hence the change of policy.
Everything depends on the soil and the weather. My soil is well drained and is not susceptible to waterlogging so, providing it's warm enough, I will be planting towards the end of this month, but only if the weather conditions are right. I'm in Manchester so if you are further south you might consider making a start a little earlier than me. If there is any doubt I will wait for there is no point whatsoever bunging in seeds if the soil is too wet or too cold. For those who like a scientific approach the soil temperature needs to be up to 5°C.
Summary of what I will plant mid to late February or early March
click on the underlined plant names for more information
These are planted in ‘sets’ or bulbs rather than seeds. I ‘dib’ for them, only a couple of centimetres or so, rather than just pushing them in; even though my soil has a lot of ‘give’ in it. The tips will just be showing. I was advised to bury them to stop the birds pulling them out, but we have very intelligent birds on our allotment and it just delays their fun. I have to net them. For three years I wrapped thread round sticks but they soon worked that one out and strutted in and out having a competition to see how far they could throw the shallots.
Shallots are really worth growing as they are relatively easy and prolific and are a very tasty addition to roasted vegetables and many stews like Coq au Vin. When you have a lot you tend to use them more and get used to the lovely flavour. For example, I can’t resist throwing in a few when I roast potatoes. In the past I have grown Jermor, Longor and Santé, which are lovely French varieties. This year I have loads of my own left that I have saved. I have sorted out the largest to plant as soon as it is ok to do so. Shallots are delicious pickled, which reminds me I have a bottle left!
There have been years when I have forgotten to plant garlic, and it can be planted now. In some ways this can be a good idea if you put the garlic in the same bed as your onion sets. This is because the deadly whiterot is stopped once soil temperature is raised. When the whiterot is activated the garlic which was planted earlier, before Christmas, helps the whiterot to spread as the garlic already has a developed root system, which is the very reason for planting it early in the first place.
Only reapers, reaping early,
In among the bearded barley
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly;
Down to tower'd Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, " 'Tis the fairy
The Lady of Shalott."
Marvellous: and, unfortunately nothing to do with shallots whatsover!
I will make an early planting as they are quick to respond when the weather picks up. The surface of the soil is best raked to a fine tilth so that large stones won’t get in the way. A shallow ‘drill’ about 1cm deep can be made by stretching a line as a guide and running the ‘wrong’ end of the rake handle along it. It is worth spending time on dropping seeds in individually every centimetre or so. It’s all very well books telling you to thin them but it’s very difficult to extricate the roots if they are planted too close, and most of the seeds come up so why waste them? It does take a bit of dexterity and patience but when you think about all the time you spend on everything else I reckon it is worth it. A row of a couple of metres is enough for me, and once they show, like little pieces of grass poking through in a line, I will extend the row by planting more seeds. I won’t grow row upon row of them but will use up space at the edge of the onion and shallot beds. The varieties I plant are White Onion of Paris and White Lisbon.
You need to get onion seed going as early as possible, so it has long enough to mature. I will start them off inside, and plant out when the weatherand their size allows. I have some interesting seed from France which grow into a strange elongated shape. Surprise, surprise they resemble the tiny, charcoal like chips.
Broad Beans with Protection
I keep my own seeds from year to year & plant them as soon as the weather lightens up a bit. Originally they were Jubilee Hysor and The Sutton but I don't know what they are now except they are very tasty, especially when small, about three times the size of a pea. I have quite an idiosyncratic way of planting them, but it works. I prepare and rake the surface of the soil on about half one end of a raised bed.
Using a line I mark out the rows about twenty centimetres apart. My beds usually allow for four rows. I then dib holes about 4cm deep along the rows, staggering the holes in adjacent rows. I then drop individual seeds into each hole. Finally I gently cover the hole using the end of the dibber and cover each seed with a plastic bottle that has had the bottom cut out and the bottle top removed. This has a number of effects. It provides some protection against the bean seeds disappearing. It creates a mini greenhouse in which the seedlings may flourish and be protected from extremes of weather. It stops slug damage. Finally, it delays the inevitable arrival of pea and bean weevil which creates such a visually attractive serrated edge to the leaves.A severe infestation in dry weather can badly affect the growing tips of a young plant, even killing the plant in extreme conditions.
If there are no poached egg plants nearby, something which is very unlikely, I will move some into the adjacent walkways, because they will attract insects to devour the inevitable blackfly: Hurray! (see Companion Planting section for a picture of the mature bean crop with flowers).
It's one of the great pleasures of allotmenteering to be able to pick them small, steam them for a nominal time and eat the succulent beans quite early in the growing calendar. Loads of people tell me they don't like them, but I don't believe it. I think they have had old ones with hard skin shells, or 'has beans'. You can even eat them raw they are so lovely. It is only towards the end of the crop that we start to look in the recipe books to see if there are new ways of serving them. So far we haven't improved on steaming them; something which is also true of all our favourite vegetables when the crop first appears.
Chitting Early Potatoes
Chitting Early Potatoes
This is a good thing to do if you want to give your earlies and second earlies a head start, or like me, want to make sure they don't sprout great long useless white chits by being left in the dark. Place them in egg cartons or similar so the more pointed end is faced upwards and the eyes will develop or 'chit' in the light. Choose a light but not too warm place to put them as soon as you buy them or when they arrive from the supplier. I have used my loft since the conservatory went in an extension to the building. Although it's sometimes difficult to tell, the more pointed end is the end which will grow upwards towards the light, and the flatter snubby end is the base. I remove the ones at this end but not any others.
Some experienced gardeners say that the number of sprouts affects the size of the potatoes but not the weight of the overall crop. I'm not too bothered about that, but I do think that they need water and muck. More of this when we plant them, but bearing in mind the latter it is worth mulching the early potato bed soon if you haven't already. My preferrred types are: Lady Cristl (First Early: a bit waxy as new potatoes and for salads); Desiree (Early Maincrop: a fantastic floury potato for baking); Nadine (Second Early: fantastic roaster, when fresh I cook the small ones with the skins on, so tasty);Pink Fir Apple (Maincrop but a salad variety,very tasty and a great cropper).
Cutting down the Autumn Bliss raspberries
Pruning Autumn Raspberries
Sometime around mid month the autumn fruiting raspberries will need to be cut back to ground level, and I will spread a manure mulch under all of them, both autumn and winter fruiting. Summer varieties are pruned once they have cropped, and only the canes which have borne fruit that year, for the other canes bear next year's fruit.
Warming up the soil
Warming up the soil for Early Salad
I will cover a small part of the lettuce and beetroot beds with fleece on a warm sunny day, so that it warms it up ready for an early sowing next month. I may even plant a few lettuces in compost in small pots, four to each pot. The idea is to transplant the lot and whatever comes up grows away from each other once in situ. I rarely, if ever, thin rows of seed out. I found out that radish is a brassica by chance, as I wondered what it was which was burrowing into the root: cabbage root fly. So I shall be planting my French Breakfast radish seedsin the brassica bed.