Now is the perfect time to start many early crops to get a head start on the season. Let’s get sowing and planting!
I’m sure you’ve heard me banging on about marvelous marigolds and awesome alyssum before, but there’s a good reason why I absolutely dote on them: they are hugely attractive to both vital pollinators like bees and butterflies, and pest predators such as hoverflies, parasitic wasps and minute pirate bugs. Basically, grow them and watch your gardening woes melt away!
Start these flowers soon to attract pest predators like lacewings and hoverflies before pests descend in early summer.
Let’s start with alyssum, which blooms throughout the summer and often well into the colder months too – this flower is a real trooper! Simply scatter the seeds across pots of sieved all-purpose potting mix then lightly cover them over ans give them a drink to wake up the seeds. Place them on a sunny windowsill to germinate.
French marigolds (Tagetes) will sing their hearts out all summer long. Sow the seeds, which look a bit like little tasseled magic wands, across the surface of your potting mix, then cover and water. Germinate them under a humidity dome, with some additional heat such as a heat mat. Remove the humidity dome the moment they germinate, and move them to a sunny windowsill.
Transfer the seedlings of both flowers into their own plugs or pots to grow on for planting later in the spring. I like to do this as soon as the seedlings are big enough to handle, while the roots are short and stubby, because they are less easily damaged at this stage. Wait until you know there will be no more frosts before planting the tender marigolds outdoors.
Sow Early Salads
It’s time to wake up your first salads of the season! Winter varieties of lettuce are tolerant of cold weather, so it’s worth making an early sowing this month to have young plants ready for planting when winter finally gives way to spring.
Sow the tiny lettuce seeds into pots of all-purpose potting mix, and cover them over with a slight sprinkling of the mix. Press it all down to the seeds are in good contact, then give them a water.
There are two ways to ensure prompt germination of lettuce. The first is to ensure you’re using seed that isn’t too old. Old seed can give variable results so, if in doubt, do a simple germination test, or use fresh. The second thing you can do is to either cover the sown pot with clear plastic, or pop your pot or tray into a clear plastic bag. This will raise humidity so that the seeds stay cozy and won’t dry out.
Keep your lettuces indoors to germinate on a warm windowsill, where the light will also help the seeds stir into life. Once the seedlings show through, remove the cover. They can go out into a greenhouse or cold frame to continue growing. Transfer seedlings to their own plugs for the next phase of their life before planting at around 10-12 inches (25-30cm) apart.
I’d say it’s also worth making early sowings of spinach to have a longer harvest window, because the plants invariably stretch out to flower in early summer, which stops leaf production. Sow three or four seeds per plug of all-purpose potting mix. Germinate them indoors, then move them out into the greenhouse or cold frame. They should be ready to plant around a month later into a sunny or part-shaded spot, in soil that’s well-drained and fertile. Commence harvesting the moment the leaves grow to a useable size, taking one or two from each plant at any one time so those remaining can grow on to replace them.
If you’d like ideas for your own salad bed, check out the free trial of our Garden Planner, where you can find a beautiful, ready-to-go Salad Garden from the Sample Plans collection.
Plant Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunchoke)
Jerusalem artichokes (a.k.a. sunchokes) are super-productive, yielding up to a couple of pounds or a kilo of tubers per plant. They’re ready to enjoy during the chilly winter months, just when you crave the warming, creamy, earthy flavor that they offer!
Although they can go out really early, if your ground is frozen, you’ll of course need to wait until it’s workable. Set them about a foot (30cm) apart in each direction. They are big plants, so you could get away with spacing them as much as 18in (45cm) apart if you have a bigger area to cover.
Dig a hole for each tuber, about 8in (20cm) deep. Optionally, add a handful of well-rotted compost to the planting holes to give them a little boost when they stir into life. Then just cover them back over.
Jerusalem artichokes are one of the most easy-going crops you can grow. They are mega hardy, thriving down to around zone 3 where the minimum temperatures can be close to −35°F (−37°C), they’re rarely affected by pests, and they can even cope with lightly shaded spots. They look stunning too, towering way above head height and cheering the soul with their yellow blooms later in summer. In fact, this makes them fantastic for use as a natural screen or windbreak. They’re also perennials that will come back year after year, so some of the tubers you harvest next winter can be held back to replant to give you a perpetual supply.
Water them in dry weather, but other than that, they’ll be left to do their thing until it’s time to enjoy them from early winter. Wonderful stuff!
Early-Sown Sugar Snap Peas/Mangetout
Snap peas, or sugar snaps, are a real delight because there’s no fiddly shelling involved – you just eat the whole thing! And, boy oh boy, do they taste amazing!
As part of a general health drive I’m making an effort to eat more salads for lunch, and adding some of these fellows into the salad bowl always brings joy. Both snap peas and snow peas – also known as mangetout because you eat the pod as well (mange tout is the French for ‘eat all’) – can be frozen as they are, packed neatly into containers and popped into the freezer, so there’s every reason to grow more of them!
If it’s still too wet and cold outside for direct sowing you can sow them under cover into toilet paper tube pots. Toilet paper tubes are great because they give the roots plenty of room to stretch down, so when they are planted – tube and all – they’ll already have a good root system itching to break out into the surrounding soil.
Pop in a couple of seeds per tube of potting mix, and then cover them over to a depth of around an inch (2cm). Grow them on under cover until they are about 6in (15cm) tall, when they can be hardened off and go outside. If your soil is not frozen or too wet, you can sow them direct too. I like starting them off under cover in a greenhouse or cold frame because there’s much less risk of slug or pigeon damage in the early stages of life. Having said that I do still cover them over as a precaution once they’re planted, because our pigeons are persistently pesky so-and-sos!
Lemongrass From Seed
Lemongrass makes a rather unusual but really rather beautiful houseplant during the winter months, but can be grown outdoors in summer, or all year round in warmer areas.
I’m really loving Southeast Asian cuisine right now, and lemongrass – along with ginger - is an absolute mega star in this area. Sown early, you should get a harvest this season, before overwintering the plants for an even earlier crop next year. If you’re in a warmer climate you can start your lemongrass off a bit later, should you so wish.
Sow your lemongrass seeds into a pot of sieved all-purpose potting mix before covering them with the very, very slightest hint of potting mix. The seeds need light to germinate so shouldn’t be covered too much. Give the pot a good watering.
As it’s a tropical plant, lemongrass needs warmth and humidity to germinate. Use a humidity dome, or cover with clear plastic secured with a rubber band. Put it in a cozy spot, such as a warm windowsill, or on a heat mat. Once they have germinated, very carefully transfer the seedlings into pots. Plant around three to six seedlings per pot to grow on in clusters.
Lemongrass won’t tolerate the cold, so keep temperatures above about 43ºF (6ºC). Pot them on once they fill their smaller pots, and keep them growing in a sunny, warm position. Once your plants have bulked out nicely you can start harvesting by pulling off sections of lemongrass to enjoy in your cooking as needed.
I’m looking forward to trying some lemongrass tofu, made from garden-grown stalks, and maybe even a beautifully aromatic Thai tom yum soup - mmm! If you’ve got any other recipe ideas, drop me a comment below.