To Sow Or Not To Sow?

To sow or not to sow, that is the question most gardeners will be asking themselves over the coming weeks. It can be hard to restrain a gardener champing at the bit, eager to start growing after winter’s enforced sabbatical. I’m often guilty of falling for the first mild, sunny day in February and being lulled into thinking that spring has arrived. There’s a fine balance to strike between starting too soon and missing the boat.

Certainly if we waited until we were sure spring had well and truly sprung we’d be too late to sow some of our favourite plants. As gardeners we’re trying to channel Mystic Meg and foretell the weather of the coming months. Will we have an early blast of heat followed by a cold spell like we did two years ago, will winter drag on longer than we had hoped, or will the seasons move seamlessly from late winter into a gentle, warm spring?

Light levels and cold temperatures are the important factors at this time of year. Early seedlings can become weak and spindly as light levels are not yet sufficient to promote strong, sturdy growth, particularly if they’re on a windowsill. Tender plants can’t cope with low temperatures and frost, so the timing of their sowing can be crucial. Sow too early and you’ll have to look after increasingly large plants. I was once overrun with courgettes and French beans when a combination of sowing too early and late frosts meant my kitchen resembled a tropical glasshouse.

Just to confuse things though some tender plants, such as tomatoes and chillies, really do need to have a head start. They come from countries with much longer growing seasons than our own and to get them to maturity, where they’ll flower and fruit in our climate before we start to head towards autumn again, means they need to be sown in February – the start of March at the latest – to make the effort worthwhile. They’ll need a bit of extra heat to convince them it’s worth the trouble to start growing, especially if it’s cold and snowy outside. This is where investing in a heated propagator will repay you for years to come.

Some of my favourite cut flowers – ageratum, statice and antirrhinums – should also be sown over the next few weeks to guarantee a long season of flowers. Hold back on other tender plants though until the start of April at least.

Half-hardy and tender plants to sow now:

–          Tomatoes

–          Chillies

–          Aubergines

–          Sweet Peppers

–          Ageratum

–          Antirrhinum

–          Statice

Hardy crops such as broad beans, peas and sweet peas can be also be sown this month if you can give them some protection from the worst of the weather. A windowsill, cold frame or unheated greenhouse are all fine.

Hardy plants to sow now:

–          Broad beans

–          Early, hardy varieties of peas

–          Sweet peas

–          Celeriac

–          Chives