|1. Recycled loo roll middles make great 'modules' packed together in a recycled mushroom box for early sowing of root crops||2. Carrot seeds sown into the top of loo roll 'modules', covered with a pinch of Vermiculite, then with a polythene bag to keep moisture in|
First I would like to wish you all a Very Happy, Healthy and Productive New Growing Year!
It's amazing how even just the smallest amount of increasing light makes me want to 'earth myself' by getting plugged into the soil again! It's barely a few days since the winter solstice but already there's a noticeable stretch on the brighter days. It may be my imagination but the birds seem to be singing a bit more loudly and the plants in the polytunnel also seem just a little bit perkier too! Or is it wishful thinking? It's not too long now until the mad spring rush of sowing and planting is here again. For now though - things move at a more leisurely pace - but there are still some things you can sow and do this month if your gardening fingers are itching to get back into compost, like mine are and you want to get ahead just a little bit! It's surprising how many things there are that you can sow now. As I always say - sowing seeds is sowing hope - and that's something we all really need right now. Whatever seeds we sow - whether it's fast growing healthy salad vegetables in case there are shortages in shops in a few weeks time, or flowers for bees and other beneficial insects - I know that it can help make us feel so much more positive and hopeful whatever our problems, and that has benefits for our metal health too.
General advice for seed sowing:
There are quite a few things you could sow now or towards the end of January in pots or modules for planting out later in a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered cold frame. You won't gain a huge amount by sowing too soon though. By leaving it for another couple of weeks the light will be increasing, so seedlings will be sturdier, will get a better start and you'll use less energy. Most seeds will germinate at normal house temperature - and as things take a week or so to appear anyway - you can sow some things inside the house and then put them out into good light in a greenhouse or frame as soon as the seedlings are up. Seedlings like lettuce, spinach and hardier salad plants will be fine then, with just some protection from frost with a couple of layers of fleece. Light governs their development to a great extent - so you can save money and energy by not wasting any heat needed for another couple of weeks yet - no matter how keen you are. Don't forget you can also do your seed sowing inside in comfort on the kitchen table - there's really no need to go outside in the freezing cold unless you're a masochist!
In my over 40 years experience I've found that using a good organic peat-free seed compost is by far the best and most reliable choice for sowing everything - not just from a plant health point of view, but also for environmental reasons. Any extra expense is well worth it in terms of valuable seeds and seedlings not lost. After sowing - put your seed trays or modules somewhere in your house at average room temperature - and most seedlings will be up within a few days or a week. I find seeds like lettuce take about 3 days at normal cool room temperature - they don't need a lot of warmth. Make sure to put them somewhere where you will remember to check on them twice a day, as seedlings like lettuce can become leggy very quickly if not given good light immediately they have germinated. Once they have appeared, probably in a week or so for most things at this time of year, they will then need the very best light you can give them - which means either a tunnel, greenhouse or perhaps a cold frame against a south facing wall. They also need very good air circulation - so sowing in modules either individually or in 2's or 3's to thin later is the best option - as this avoids handling vulnerable seedlings while 'pricking out', which may result in damage and possible 'damping-off'.
It's too wet, windy and cold for tiny seedlings to be outside completely unprotected at this time of year, but if sheltered from the weather most are fine as long as no frost is forecast. If it is - then bring them into the house again on very frosty nights and put them out again first thing in the morning. This may seem a bit of a faff but it's worth it. Sowing too early on windowsills often means unhealthy, leggy and drawn seedlings due to lack of light. If you don't have a greenhouse, polytunnel or frame outside, I would wait another couple of weeks yet - even if like me you can't wait to get started! Although some more tender heat lovers like tomatoes etc would need a warm propagator, I don't waste heat by sowing tomatoes in a propagator yet, because even those sown in another month will catch up and probably be much healthier than any sown now! Having said that though - I may just chance sowing a few Maskotka bush tomatoes indoors, as it's always my earliest, most good-natured and and hardiest tomato. Luckily, it's also one of the tastiest - and I'd love to see if I can get it to ripen even earlier than the first week in June, when it's normally reliably ripe!
Remember - the suggestions below are for things which you COULD sow now if you want to - NOT things you MUST!
For tunnel planting later: - in a temperature of around 50 deg.F/10 deg.C, you could sow now:
Early carrots in long modules like loo roll middles as I'm doing in the picture above. Sit the modules on 1/2 inch compost in something deep like a recycled plastic mushroom box to keep them upright, (approx. 32 loo roll tubes fit into a mushroom box) - fill them - and the gaps between them - with seed compost - then sow a tiny pinch of seed into each covering with vermiculite.
Make sure the cardboard rolls don't stick up out of the compost or they will act like wicks - drawing out moisture and drying out too much - which means they could then shrivel and kill tiny roots. These will be ready for planting out in the tunnel in clumps - each about 30cm apart - probably at the end of next month when they have 2 'true' leaves.
In modules or pots you could also sow early broccoli (I grow 'Green Magic' a productive early variety), 'Red Ruble', 'Ragged Jack' & 'Cavolo Nero' kales for baby leaves, spring onions, lettuces, broad beans, early and mangetout or sugar peas, green and red 'frills' mustards, mizuna, oriental mixed greens, beetroot, Swiss chards, salad leaves, radishes, and rocket. I will also be sowing celery Tall Green Utah, from The Seed Cooperative, as celery germinates very slowly - taking about 3 weeks to appear, and grows slowly at first - so will not need pricking out for several weeks after that. I'm experimenting this year to see how early I can get a good polytunnel crop of this indispensable vegetable.
At the end of the month you could sow cordon tomatoes if you want an extra early crop - but bear in mind that they will need not just potting on at least once but will also keeping warm for several weeks before eventual planting out. They must also be in very good light - or they will also become drawn and 'leggy' - and therefore more vulnerable to disease. (*Tip - a well known correspondent with the Irish Times told me that he raises his early ones in the warm under a Velux window in his house which provides excellent top light - a genius tip - wish I had one!) I always grow the bush variety 'Maskotka' (tasty bush cherry type) which is always my earliest ripening tomato - sown in mid-late February it's first ripe fruits are reliably ready to pick on 1st June without fail. The variety 'John Baer' (delicious, very early large fruited) - is also an excellent variety for sowing at the end of this month. You could also sow early aubergines - 'Bonica' is without question the best ever variety for home gardeners to grow from seed - I've grown it for many years now and it's totally reliable. It came out tops in the RHS trials over 15 yrs. ago as being the best for UK and in my experience it's the best variety for Irish conditions too. Remember though that both tomatoes and aubergines need a minimum temp. of about 70deg.F/21degC. for germination, reducing the heat afterwards to approx. 55 deg.F/15 deg.C, or just below, and maintaining that level until final planting out in tunnel beds or in pots eventually. You can achieve this bottom warmth quite economically with a roll-out heated mat.
For planting in polytunnel or outside later:
You could sow alpine strawberries. 'Reugen' is a very productive, large-fruited variety which fruits April to Nov. and will produce fruits this autumn if sown early enough. Also bulb onions, shallots, very early leeks, early spring/summer & non-hearting leafy type cabbages (collards), summer cauliflower