Several of my friends have asked me recently what exactly they should be doing now in the garden to be sure they have vegetables growing or ready to eat by the summer. So here’s a guide to what I’ve been doing the last few weeks (and should be done sometime before mid-March).
Tomatoes, peppers, aubergine and summer squash should be sown in February and March and kept indoors on a warm window sill until the end of April or beginning of May. Sow seeds in shallow trays of clean compost (don’t use soil from the garden, as seedlings are very susceptible to fungal infection – the first lot of tomatoes I sowed in the beginning of February were all killed by damping off, a blanket term for a range of soilborne fungal infections that affects seedlings soon after they germinate, causing them to darken, weaken and topple over at the base). Once the seedlings are 3 or 4 centimeters tall, move them on to individual pots, where they’ll live until you plant them outside in the spring. At this point you can be less fussy about the soil you plant them in as developed plants will be less susceptible to minor diseases.
- healthy tomato seedlings
- seedlings killed by damping off
Pruning trees and shrubs is made to sound so complicated by bodies such as the RHS that most people assume it’s a dark art. Plants are categorised into over 20 pruning groups depending on when, how and where they flower, and each group has its own very specific set of pruning times and methods. Just to make it even more fun, not all organisations group them the same way, so one man’s pruning group 6 may be another man’s group 17. On top of that, several plants, such as Clematis, are subdivided into their own pruning groups because the many different species of Clematis all need to be treated so differently. To learn it all (I’ve tried) completely exasperated me, until I realised that in the fruit and vegetable garden, you really just need to follow three basic rules (and always making a downwards sloping cut, just above a healthy bud). Hoorah.
1) If it flowers before June, it’s spring-flowering, flowering on the previous season’s growth, and needs to be pruned as soon as the flowering has finished. For example, Akebia quinata.
2) If it flowers after June, it’s summer-flowering, flowering on the current season’s growth, and needs to be pruned in February or March (do this now). For example, Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender).
3) If it’s a fruit tree , it needs to have its branches shortened in August, and then again in the Winter (sometime between December and February) to stimulate Spring growth. Fruit is produced on two or three year old wood, so providing you don’t prune too far down, there’s no danger of losing your fruit-producing wood.
You’re going to need weed-free beds to start sowing seeds in very soon, so now is the time to hand-weed, dig out or smother any unwanted weed growth. Skimpy weeds like Stellaria media can be pulled out by hand or trowel, Taraxacum officinale will need deep down digging. Ideally, last winter you would have covered your beds with thick carpet or cardboard and smothered them all – if not, give it a go this winter.
From March and April, you will be sowing the bulk of your seeds so now’s the time to buy them. Also buy some mesh if you plan to grow cabbage – it’s the best way to protect it from the cabbage white butterfly, and is also great for protecting lettuces from slugs and snails.
Chitting (or not)
Before potatoes are planted in about a month’s time, they need to be chitted. Chitting is just another way of saying “leave them in a dark cupboard for a few weeks to shrivel up and start sprouting shoots”. I’m also looking forward to growing Oca this year (thanks Naomi!), so they and any other tubers you plan on planting will need to be given the same treatment.
There’s actually a big debate among gardeners at the moment on the need to chit, which Emma Cooper sums up nicely here.