It’s one of the biggest myths in the gardening world that there’s a spring 'sowing season'. Yes, there are plenty of plants (particularly for the veg patch) that we sow in spring – it’s a busy time in the garden. But, equally, there are plenty that aren’t sown in spring. A spring sowing of tomatoes would be considered late – keen gardeners start theirs off in the new year. And although a seed packet might show an ideal sowing window in spring, there are plenty of plants that will thrive from an earlier or later sowing, given the right care. Staggering your sowing is one way of ensuring that you have a succession of flowers through the year, or that your crops don’t ripen all at once (usually in those two weeks you’re away on holiday!).
One set of plants that can benefit from not being sown in spring is the oriental vegetables. Many of these have a tendency to bolt (flower too quickly) when they’re sown before midsummer – the lengthening days give them the wrong signals. From a midsummer sowing they are leafier and more productive, providing you give them enough water. There are any number of oriental greens that are good for quick salads in the summer, and will crop into the autumn to give you stir-fry material. Even later sowings, given some protection, can keep you in fresh greens into the winter.
Kailaan is an oriental broccoli, producing flowering heads on much smaller plants than purple sprouting broccoli, and much more quickly – making it an ideal choice for small gardens. You can have a harvest of young shoots in 20 to 30 days from sowing, or wait 60 to 70 days for the plant to fully mature.
Pak choi is a familiar plant these days, quite similar in habit to Swiss chard (height depends on variety). You can harvest individual leaves for cut-and-come-again salad and stir-fry greens, or wait around 8 weeks to cut a full head. There's even an attractive purple-leaved variety that's very ornamental.
Tatsoi is similar, but forms small and low-growing rosettes of glossy, spoon-shaped leaves. Great as a spinach substitute, it can give continuous harvests of leaves over a long period.
Mizuna is taller, with lovely strappy leaves. It has a bit more flavour, packing a bit of a punch (like rocket). Harvest individual leaves, or cut the whole plant and it will re-sprout. You only need to wait about a month for your first harvest, so mizuna is ideal for giving high yields in small spaces.
At the other end of the spectrum, the oriental mustards make large and hardy plants, taking up a lot of space but giving you large harvests over a long period. The spiciness of their leaves tends to increase as they mature, so larger leaves are more suited to cooking than for salads.
Rather than putting away the propagator and the seed packets until next year, you can continue to sow batches of salad leaves and chard, and carrots and beetroot. When they mature they’ll make a nice change from the army of courgettes that’s about to descend on the kitchen! And gluts can be transformed by second sowings of leafy herbs such as parsley, coriander and basil, which will bask in the sunny weather (and that parsley will continue to brighten up the dark days ahead, as well).
With fresh supplies on the way, we don’t need to be too bothered by anything that bolts, and can leave the flowers to benefit the local wildlife
And, even in the depths of winter, there are seeds that can be sown. Hardy annuals and other species that need a period of cold to germinate can be sown and left outside to fend for themselves (or tucked up in the greenhouse where you can keep an eye on them) and will come to life in the spring.
Yes, there are some species for which you’ve missed the boat. Whilst you might get away with a late sowing of courgettes and summer squash now, and even perhaps cherry tomatoes (it will depend on the kind of weather we get), it’s too late to sow the long-standing winter crops. If you want to have Brussels sprouts, sprouting broccoli, cabbage and kale and leeks this winter then the time has come to order plants instead. They take so long to grow that the idea time for sowing them is in the spring.
But I think, if I looked into it more, I would find that there isn’t a month that goes past that isn’t the ideal time for sowing something, and that thought makes me smile.