Winter Sowing

There’s a joke doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment that the short, dark days of winter cause gardeners to suffer from SAD – not the Seasonal Affective Disorder that blights so many, but Seed Acquisition Disorder. It’s funny because it’s true – barely are the Christmas dishes cleared from the table than it is spread with seed catalogues to start planning the new season’s crops.

If you have a heated greenhouse or propagator, or a choice spot picked out in the airing cupboard, then you may already have sown your first seeds. It’s not uncommon for keen gardeners to put in a pinch of chillies now, or even tomatoes, but those plants will have to be cosseted until the weather is warm enough for them to go outside – which could be May. For those of us without a heated greenhouse to move them into, it may be better to wait, and avoid having plants go lanky on the windowsill in the interim.

But if your green fingers are getting itchy, there are plenty of things that can be sown now, and that will thrive even in a cold greenhouse. You can steal a march on spring by sowing such hardy vegetables as smooth-seeded peas or broad beans. In modules, on the staging, they should be safe from the predations of mice, and will definitely be safe from the winter rains that they will find more problematic to deal with than the cold.

They can be joined by early sowings of carrots and beetroot, and cold-hardy salad crops such as winter lettuce and cut-and-come-again salad mixes. You can’t hope for much real growth before the days start to get noticeably longer in February – but once they do your crops will romp ahead and set you on the road to fresh and early harvests to relieve the monotony of stored roots and winter brassicas.

If you sow regular vegetable seeds, fresh from their packets, then you can normally be assured of a decent level of germination within a matter of weeks. But there are plenty of other seeds that you can sow that need a little more time to get going – and January is an ideal time to start them off. Perennial vegetables and tree or shrub seeds often need a period of cold to break their dormancy before any warmth will bring them into growth. Seed catalogues often recommend popping them into the fridge in a little damp compost for a couple of weeks, but it’s a dicey process – the lack of air flow can cause mould to set in, and it’s hard to remember when the seeds need to be planted out. It is often easier to sow them into pots, and let nature take its course.

Winter sowing is easy enough – sow seeds according to the packet instructions, and set them out in the cold for the winter weather to do its work, so that the seeds will be ready to germinate in spring. A spot in a cold greenhouse is often ideal, keeping pots out of damaging damp and in ideal conditions where the temperature fluctuates with the weather outside. Some species will respond to this treatment within a couple of months, but others may need to go through two winters before they germinate. For that reason it’s important to label them well – both with the species and the date of sowing. It’s easy to throw out an ‘empty’ pot, thinking that the seeds have failed, forgetting that they need a bit more time! Well labelled, and safe amongst the other seeds in the greenhouse, your tree seeds will benefit from the occasional drop of water to stop them drying out, and you’ll spot signs of germination as soon as they occur.

But if you’re still too full of Christmas pudding to even think about picking up the seed catalogues, or the cold and damp weather isn’t enticing you out into your greenhouse yet – then don’t worry! January is a quiet time in the garden, and most of the jobs we do now can easily wait for warmer weather. Seeds sown in the longer days of spring often catch up with their earlier brethren, and are much easier to look after in the short period of time before they can be hardened off and planted outside. Sow if you want to, but spend plenty of time sitting and pondering the garden. Think of last year’s successes and failures, and your dreams and plans for the coming year. Are you going to stick to tried and tested varieties to ensure a harvest, or branch out and try something new? Spring may just be round the corner, but there’s still plenty of time to decide what to grow this year.