The Holy Grail of growing your own is a having a regular supply of crops but successional sowing is easier said than done. We’ve all been there. Seeds such as lettuce germinate easily and we end up with way too many seedlings. We know this is the point to be ruthless, to only pot on a small, manageable number of plants. In reality though, most gardeners can’t bring themselves to throw away potential plants, so we pot them all on and then plant out enough to keep a market garden in business. The result is in 6–8 weeks’ time a lettuce glut that would make Peter Rabbit deliriously happy. And if, in the meantime, we have forgotten to sow another batch we end up lurching from feast to famine.
So what are the keys to successional sowing? Well, discipline is crucial – sow only small batches particularly of crops such as lettuce. Timing is next on the list. Some crops such as courgettes and beans need only two sowings, the first in mid-spring and the second about 6 weeks later, which will extend the harvest into autumn. For salads and fast-maturing crops such as radish the best strategy is to sow every 3–4 weeks from March to September.</p>
Choose your varieties carefully as some salads, particularly oriental leaves, are best sown early or late in the season as they are prone to running to seed prematurely in warm conditions. For late summer and early autumn sowings select varieties which are hardy and you’ll be able to pick your own salad leaves in autumn and winter rather than having to buy those bags of soggy lettuce from the supermarket. Hardy salads will benefit from some protection; cloches, enviromesh and horticultural fleece will all help to protect them from the worst of the winter weather. Cold frames and greenhouses are perfect for extending the growing season. Fill them with seed trays and planters sown with mizuna, pak choi, corn salad and mustards to spice up winter meals.
Some salads will stop growing over winter, they’ll sit there braving the winter weather, but as soon as it starts to warm up again in spring they will put on a spurt of growth providing you with a welcome crop of leaves. Try raddichio and cultivated dandelions for bitter tasting greens perfect for stimulating the body after winter. These salads are especially popular on the continent where foraging for early spring greens was, and still is, a vital source of vitamins after a long winter. The bitterness is an acquired taste but mix them with other more subtle winter-hardy salads such as ‘Marvel of Four Seasons’ a French heritage variety also known as ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’ , ‘Winter Density’ and ‘Reine de Glace’.
Of course, even the best laid sowing plans can go to pot when slugs devour your crop or the weather is unseasonably warm or cold but if you’ve always got a new batch of young plants waiting in the wings it’s possible to have a steady supply of crops throughout the year.