A Slow Start

Bulbs on the bench
Bulbs on the bench

I fear that whatever I write about the garden and the weather I will end up either a Jeremiah, Job’s comforter or even worse a Polly Anna. So we will summarise the current state of the vegetable and cottage gardens as wet, sodden, saturated and waterlogged, which is quite remarkable as I garden on almost pure sand, and move on.
This winter the weather has been so bad that we’ve had to move the bulbs into the main part of the polytunnel. The low light levels and lack of ventilation are not ideal for the bulbs, but we should get a few more flowers as we move into March.
Nothing much happens in the garden during January and February, primarily because the light levels are so low. We now get 2 hours 20 minutes per day more daylight than a month ago, but under leaden skies, it is still very dreary. It will be another week before we reach the magic 10 hours of daylight and then it is time to start seed sowing. I now know that if I sow too early, the seedling become very etiolated and never really recover. However, if I wait until the end of February by the time the seedlings get going there is normally sufficient light to initiate healthy growth. There are exceptions of course, some seeds need a cold period to germinate, and these are sown during the winter and kept outside in the fruit cage – exposed to the weather but sheltered from the wind. Most will germinate in April, but others will hang around for a year or so.
The early potatoes were planted in the polytunnel last week and I have also sown a row of carrots and spinach. As part of the “fighting the hungry gap” strategy I have sown fennel, beetroot, Chinese cabbage and winter lettuce in modules. These are given a boost of a little heat to get things moving and will be grown on before planting in the main ploytunnel bed. A little later I will direct sow mizuna and salad leaves as the soil becomes a little warmer and there is more light. Next comes the celeriac, which can be slow to germinate (bottom heat helps) and needs a long growing period to get a good crop. It will be grown on in pots and planted out in April, or if it is as cold as last year in May.
At the beginning of March we will be getting 12 hours or more of daylight and then it is time to get busy with the peppers and tomatoes. Thereafter it becomes the regular logistic nightmare of trying to sort of priorities for the propagators and room on the benches for the seedlings before they’re ready for planting or hardening off. My careful schedules are always cast into chaos by the weather, it will either be too hot or too cold, too dry or too windy, but at least I will be busy gardening!

Propagators

We have both a commercial and home-made propagator. The latter is a soil warming cable in a box of sand with a polythene cover which can be closed to maintain humidity and heat as required.

The vegetable and herbs seeds always have priority, feed the body first and the rest will look after itself. This year I am trying a new approach in the cottage garden, using direct sown annuals between the herbaceous perennials to fill the gaps which appear when the bulb foliage dies down. This is a risky strategy as they will either not germinate, get swamped by weeds, turn up their toes when their roots encounter my sandy soil, become a slug salad, get blown over or rot in the wet. As I can’t nip down to the garden centre to buy replacements, I  plan to grow some additional plants in modules and have some extra packets of Eschscholzia and Calendula for emergencies. As I write I am beginning to see the weakness of my cunning plan, but it is too late as a lorry load of seed has been ordered!
Sowing the first seeds of the year is one of my great pleasures and the child-like delight of seeing the first leaves appear never fails. I might be au fait with the science, but it does not diminish the simple pleasure of watching seeds germinate. So tomorrow I will put on my survival suit, wellies, Mae West and sou’wester, and splash  and squelch down to the polytunnel to see if anything has germinated.

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17 thoughts on “A Slow Start

  1. It is so exciting sowing the first seeds. I usually start far too early and then looking after everything becomes a nightmare. You are very organised with your propagators.
    You have lots of nice bulbs coming on in your pots to cheer you even if the weather stays miserable.

    • I always have good intentions but it soon descends into chaos, which is why I’m still an apprentice. The Head Gardener is meticulous in everything he does and has totally given up on me.
      It is worth going to the polytunnel everyday to look at the bulbs and as an extra bonus they’re delicately perfumed.

  2. It is the most exciting moment of the year, those first seeds germinating. It will all go to rat shit later, I know, but for the moment it’s full of the promise of a new growing season.

  3. You sound to be very organised with your seed sowing – wish I could follow your example! Have you tried growing Digitalis ferruginea in your sandy soil? I grew some from seed a few years ago and after flowering and setting seed all the plants in the border died. But every year since then we get more and more seedlings popping up in the gravel driveway, so they must like it well drained.

    • I am sure that that I fit to be a mentor, I might start off well but it goes downhill rapidly.
      Digitalis has been on my “possible list” for a while and almost made it this year. Digitalis purpurea grows inland and on the wetter east coast (peat soil) and it is possible that one of the other species might like my sandy soil. So thanks for the tip, it’s still not too late to buy some seed.

  4. Those are amazing statistics about the increase in daylight – and yet it still seems to take us by surprise every year. It’s one of the things I have noticed more since I have been Rambling in the Garden – and the difference light levels make to seed growth. That’s a commendably tidy polytunnel you showed us – I am very impressed! My fingers are itching to get on with my March allocation of seed sowing so I can continue with my childish pleasures – enjoy yours too!

  5. Very wise words about not sowing too early – I shall try to heed them! Somehow I forget this each year, and end up with at least one tray of leggy, sad-looking seedlings that have had to wait too long to be planted out. I was wondering how your polytunnel held up in an exposed site? We don’t have a tunnel or greenhouse at the moment, but we’re moving the veg patch to a space where there will be room for one. I’d love a tunnel (more room for less money!) but I’m curious how they fare in high winds!

    • I have to confess I learned the hard way with my seeds. After the short winter days we really notice the increase in day length, but its hard to wait until March to begin seed sowing.
      As for the polytunnel its only tidy in the winter!

    • I think we’re all impatient to get going especially when the new seeds arrive in the post!
      Our polytunnel regularly withstands winds of 50-60mph and we get our fair share of 70-80mph storms each year. It survived gusts of 90mph+ last winter without any damage. So I have no problem in recommending a Keder polytunnel. They supply both small greenhouse sizes and big commercial units, so it is worth looking at their website. They’re not a cheap option, but you get what you pay for, complete with a 10 year guarantee.

      • Thank you very much for the info – I’ve had a look at the Keder site, they look amazing. We’ve toyed with the idea of making our own tunnel, but I fear it would not be nearly as sturdy in high winds. (I don’t fancy having to go and pluck it from a nearby hedge! )

      • It is a difficult decision, but you have to work out the long term costs and work of regularly replacing the plastic. If you contact Keder they can probably arrange for you to visit one of their tunnels, bound to be one nearby.

  6. Hello C,
    We’ve also been very impressed with the images from your Keder – both the lovely plants and impressive organisation… quite beyond our chaotic abilities. But we’re wondering whether we’re going to have to consider a polytunnel if the seasons become so erratic, and light levels remain so low. There was an interesting question today on GQT about LED panels to encourage early sown seedlings – we haven’t tried them, but empirically our few Cymbidium orchids which have been subjected to 3 Watt warm light LEDs in the otherwise very gloomy kitchen for the last few weeks are looking really healthy, so maybe this is something which we’ll have to start thinking about using to encourage growth outside the middle six months of the year.
    I wondered how dead level the base has to be for a Keder, before it’s erected?
    Best wishes
    Julian

    • I have never used grow-lights, but they are used quite extensively commercially. There has also been quite a lot of work done of calculating the exact ratios of red and blue light to get the right balance to maximise growth. It is not something I’ve ever contemplated, although with our low winter light levels it might be a good way to boost winter growth in the polytunnel.
      The site of our polytunnel was reasonably flat and once we’d removed the tussock grass we were down to sand and it was easy to level. For commercial houses, the guys erect the structure, and you can just let them get on with it. They will also assess the site as part of the planning process. They don’t seem fazed by anything and give good unbiased advice.

  7. Gosh, what trials. We’ll done for persevering and managing such a varied an extensive crop sewing in such challenging conditions! You put me to shame. Here in the SW of France starting isn’t usually a problem with mild springs, but I have to choose carefully for the summer with extreme heat dehydrating and crisping certain things up in no time when it hits the high thirties.

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