While we are heading in the right direction in terms of day length, February is still a very cold month with little we can sow or plant outside. There are a few crops that we should sow indoors in February either for planting out later or for planting in the polytunel or greenhouse but by and large we are in preparation mode for March. If you have a large greenhouse or a polytunnel (big enough to grow more than your 'exotics' like aubergine, chilli or tomato), it is a different matter with plenty to sow either direct or in seedling trays. We will be covering both today.
Despite limited options for growing outside, there is still work to be done in the vegetable garden for next month when we can sow broad bean, shallots, artichokes, potatoes, onions and garlic. As you may know, I have my beds covered in black mypex ground cover to protect the soil which makes preparation easier as the soil underneath is drier than it normally would be. Although not very nice looking I think I would recommend mypex for all but the driest gardens as it's advantages far outweigh its unsightliness. It protects the soil, keeps it weed free, makes it easier to work and warms it for early sowings.
Cautious early sowing It can be tempting to start seeds off indoors too early as we are all anxious to get started in a new season. Just remember that starting seeds off before their optimum time is usually a compromise of some sort; it is easy to germinate a seed but growing a good seedling plant in cold conditions with lower light levels is more difficult. In the case of aubergine, chilli or tomato, we have no choice but to sow early (because they need a long season to ripen) but for most other crops we are better off waiting until the ideal sowing time.
There is no point in sowing early plants indoors if they must sit in pots for longer than they should because it is too cold to plant them out. A seed sown in a 3cm module (above, a good size for most crops) will need to be either potted on or planted out in 4 weeks or the roots will coil around the inside of the cell and become pot bound. A coiled root will continue in this habit when planted which results in a constricted root and a poor quality plant.
You will also find that seedlings sown later and therefore in more clement conditions, will catch up and often overtake earlier sowings that had to struggle with cold and low light early on. As we have said in the intro, there are a couple of exceptions for February as follows:
Broad beans Broad beans are one of the few crops that can be sown outside in February but not until the end of the month. You need to choose a spring variety, Aquadulce Claudia or Masterpiece Green Longpod are both suitable and have good flavour.
You can also start broad beans off now in modular trays and, so instead of sowing seeds at the end of the month, you can be planting 4 week old plants. It is important to get your plants used to outside temperatures by leaving them out during the day for the week coming up to planting time. Broad beans germinate quickly in trays and are vigourous growers so make an optimistic start to the season.
Onions The easiest way to grow onions is from sets (planted in March) but if you grow from seed you will have a wider choice of varieties and the resulting onions tend to store better. Seeds are sown in late February and will need to stay in their trays for 8 weeks before being planted out in late April/early May.
The handiest method is to sow 6 or 7 seeds per cell and plant them out together with spacing of 25cm each way, this will produce clumps of medium sized onions. Try some of the more unusual varieties like the superbly sweet 'Long red Florence' whihc you won't find as sets.
Leeks I was never much of a fan of leeks until I started growing them but they are delicious freshly picked, all the more so when there is little else in the winter garden.
If you become a leek fan, you can have leeks from late July until the following April from 3 sowings when you pick the right varieties. Early or Autumn harvested leeks are light green, taller with a long white shaft; they are not hardy and will be damaged by winter frosts so are usually lifted by October. Overwintering leeks are untroubled by snow or frost and are a darker green, stockier and with a shorter white stem.
'Hannibal' is a very good early leek sown in February for September to November harvests, 'Musselburgh' is a good choice for March sowing and harvests from November till the following February while the extremely hardy 'Blue Solaise' is sown in early May for harvesting the following May. All of these sowing dates refer to sowing indoors in modules and planting out.
Sowing Parsnips I don't think I have read a 'vegetable garden in February' column without the writer pointing out that, despite what it says on the packet, you should not sow parsnips in February/March. We're such a pack of bores. Anyway, it's true unless you have an exceptionally warm Southern garden. Parsnips have a reputation for being difficult to germinate but this is likely due to being sown in cold, wet soil and the fact that seed only lasts a season so needs to be ordered fresh every year. In warmer gardens late March to late April is best for sowing, for Northern growers like me, early May is far more successful.
Parsnips might seem like a boring crop but once growing they can be pretty much forgotten about until October. I am still pulling mine now (I had some only yesterday) and they are deliciously sweet, much better than anything you will get in the shops.
In the polytunnel
Aubergine, chilli, sweet pepper & tomato If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse or polytunnel things are a lot more interesting. The photo above was taken last February the 21st (my birthday) and shows chilli seedlings germinating in a Vitopod propagator. Chilis need to be sown by mid March at the latest for them to get enough summer to ripen, the same goes for sweet peppers and aubergine. I will be sowing all three next week, tomatoes will follow in the last week of the month. All of the above will be sown in seed trays (not modular trays) for pricking out and potting on which I will show you when I am doing them.If you read last week's mail you will recognise vermiculite in the photo which I use to cover chilli and pepper seeds after sowing rather than using a layer of compost. The advantage is the vermiculite holds onto moisture while creating air spaces which gives a better germination rate for these slow to sprout seeds.
Sowing direct Provided it is not very cold there are a number of crops you can sow direct into your polytunnel beds throughout the month of February. The soil can be warmed a little pre sowing by either covering with black plastic or by using a cloche or mini tunnel which gives a 'double greenhouse' effect and traps more heat from the sun.Direct sown crops include beetroot (Pablo F1), early carrot (Amsterdam forcing), Mangetout peas (Sweet Horizon), Oriental Salads (e.g rocket, mizuna, leaf mustard) radish (French breakfast) and Turnip (Milan purple top). It is a good idea to cover direct sown beds with horticultural fleece to protect from frost and keep in the heat; if you have used a cloche to warm the soil, keep it on.
Sowing in modules The broad beans, onions and leeks mentioned earlier are are sown inside for planting out later but if you have room in your tunnel or greenhouse for indoor crops there are a lot more options for February sowing. The problem with a smaller indoor growing space is you will probably want the room for tomatoes etc... so growing outdoor crops inside might not make sense. If you have the room however, you can start harvesting 4-6 weeks before you normally would outside.Plants to sow in modules now for planting indoors include pointed cabbage (Greyhound), Broccoli Calabrese (Green magic or Green sprouting), Mini cauliflower (Igloo), Coriander (Calypso), Lettuce (many types), Perpetual spinach and Swiss chard and Spring onions (Ishikura bunching). All if the above will need heat of 18˚C to germinate so will need a propagator or warm windowsill.
Potatoes in the polytunnel Again, if you have the room, you can plant potatoes in a polytunnel from late January for an early crop in May (your outdoor potatoes won't be ready until July). You are better to plant a first early variety e.g. 'Casablanca' or 'Homeguard' to harvest early and therefore free up the space as soon as you can.Remember, frost can still be a problem in a polytunnel to which potatoes are very sensitive; cover young plants with fleece on frosty nights. Potatoes also need a lot of water so make sure they get adequate irrigation when they are bulking up in April or you may be disappointed.
Quickcrop Video/Course Project We will be starting filming again next week for our new course with a number of short videos planned including sowing broad beans in modules, sowing early leeks, calabrese, onions and carrots. As we are all friends here I will continue to bring you through the growing year and include any relevant videos if we have them edited in time.
That's it for now, I will see you next week!