There’s always a temptation – one I admit I succumbed to when I first started growing – to start sowing seeds at what seems to be the earliest possible opportunity. We get that first warm(ish) weekend in mid-February or early March, when surely Spring can only be a few days around the corner, and the urge to start sprinkling seed around starts to become all-but irresistible.
Over the past few years I’ve learned, through trial and error (mostly error…) that it’s far better to exercise patience than it is to watch your first few crops of precious seedlings fall foul of the pitfalls of early Spring. A late March or April frost could kill them off, or they could stretch out towards the dribs and drabs of available sunlight until they’re so thin and leggy they’re likely to snap as soon as you look at them, or they might simply run out of steam before the conditions are warm enough for them to start developing the root, stem and leaf systems that they’ll need to power them on to productive adulthood. Better to wait until a little later in the season – especially here in North Manchester, where the weather’s seldom balmy until April at the earliest – than lose the lot and have to start over again.
There are a few exceptions to the general rule of thumb, of course: early-cropping veg, hardier varieties, those that take their time to germinate or need a long, slow growing season to develop, and crops destined to spend their entire lives under cover in a greenhouse. These are the sorts of seeds that I’ve learned you can get away with sowing round about this time of year. I’ve already sown my chillis (to grow under cover) a few weeks back – they’re doing quite nicely in the propagator at the moment – and over the past couple of days I’ve sown two more essential food crops: leeks (long season) and broad beans (early, hardy).
I’m a late but enthusastic convert to eating leeks. Up until three or four years ago I hated the things (due to a childhood trauma involving being force-fed leek and potato pie until I ran out of tears to cry) but then I tried them sautéed in butter and the proverbial lightbulb clicked on. I’ve grown them every year since, with a pretty decent success rate, although last year’s crop wasn’t the finest I’ve seen, mainly due to various house-move related timing issues.
This year I’ve sown three varieties of leek (Allium ampeloprasum / Allium porrum – sources differ): ‘Elefant’ (Mr Fothergill’s), ‘Herfstuezen 3 – Porvite’ (Thompson & Morgan – no longer on sale) and ‘Walton Mammoth’, an heirloom variety that I was sent as past of my first Heritage Seed Library selection.
I’ve changed my sowing method slightly; in the past, I’ve sown leeks in standard, shallow seed trays and then picked out individual seedlings to grow on in modules. That’s definitely one of the most laborious, tedious gardening tasks I’ve set myself to-date and has meant the loss of a number of seedlings in the process: not great fun.
This year, I’ve sown them in a deeper tray instead, with 2-3cm of seed compost on top of around 7-8cm of multi-purpose. The theory being that they’ll grown and develop to the ideal pencil-thickness in those tubs, and when the time comes I can just split them up and dib them in to their final growing position in one go. Less fuss, more leeks. I’ll keep you posted.
I’m a huge fan of all the members of the Fabaceae family that I’ve encountered so far. They’re a joy to grow and a wonderfully versatile, protein-rich food crop. This year I’ll be growing around a dozen different varieties of beans; it is the International Year of Pulses, after all.
The first to go in, sown this afternoon, are Broad Bean (Vicia faba) ‘The Sutton’ (SowSeeds.co.uk). It’s a white-bean variety, which should contrast and compliment nicely with the ‘red epicure’ (Unwins), which I grew and enjoyed last year and will be sowing tomorrow. I’ve also bought a packet of ‘aquadulce’ (Thompson & Morgan), which I grew last year as well. I’m saving those for an Autumn sowing, to see if I can over-winter them for an even earlier crop next year.
After some reading around, I decided to soak the beans overnight in tepid water to see which ones swelled and were therefore more likely to be viable. Of the 28 I soaked, 23 were definitely nicely fattened and one was borderline. Those 24 have now been sown in modules of standard multi-purpose compost: beans aren’t so delicate that they need special seed compost and the young plants should grow strongly in the richer compost. With any luck they’ll be large enough to be planted out sometime in April and Jo and I should be feasting on garlic-butter sautéed broad beans by June.