April is a changeover month in the vegetable garden. There are plenty of plants that have stood through the winter and are still cropping well and some are only just coming into their own. But it’s also a month when so many new things are planted and sown. It’s important to get a balance between the two, but more important again not to neglect the new for the sake of the old. Keep sowing, clearing and planting through the next few weeks if you want a good variety of vegetables for the next twelve months.
Out and in
I finally cleared my beds of sprouts and leeks last week. There were a few usable offerings but really nothing worth cherishing. The sprout plants went for the hens to peck for a treat and I will smash the stems before adding to the compost heap. Beds are filling up with peas, beans, onions, potatoes and more and I will soon need the space.
Things are even more crowded in the polytunnel, but I do keep salad growing for as long as I can: leaves are coming fast and furious now as plants try to bolt. Fit things in where you can and remember to uncover propagators and open up doors on warm days.
Purple sprouting broccoli
This delicious vegetable takes almost a year from sowing to cropping but it is well worth the wait. Plants can crop from February to May depending on the variety. My favourite is Claret which forms plenty of thick chunky florets on each stalk.
This year’s crop has been different to most. The plants in the polytunnel are producing well and have good big heads. The outdoor plants haven’t reached their full potential at all: they have much smaller heads and much longer stems. I can only put it down to the winter we had. It was too warm and too wet for many plants and some are so confused that they have been trying to bolt for months. (On which note: sprouting shoots of kale are a delectable treat, so keep picking hard before they manage to flower).
Sow seed thinly in a pot of good compost in April and select the strongest seedlings to move to individual pots or deep tubs. Plants can be planted out in the garden in May if they are big enough. If you are waiting for space to clear, then plant a few inches apart in a holding bed or move into larger pots. Plants don’t mind being moved, but they don’t do well if they are root-bound.
There’s still time to sow tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and more, to grow on in a greenhouse or polytunnel. Some varieties can do well outdoors in a good summer, but you stand the best chance if your garden is close to sea level and can provide some shelter while plants are small.
If you sowed seed last month then seedlings should be big enough to move into individual pots. Plants grow fast and they soon exhaust the nutrients in a small pot of compost. It can seem as if April is all about potting on and you may well ask why we don’t put small seedlings into large pots straight off. This usually comes down to what heated space is available and how to get as many plants as you need into a limited area.
If plants are in a propagator that is heated from below, then compost can be dry underneath although the surface seems damp. Lift pots and check, if you are unsure. Try not to overwater plants while they are small. They can be prone to disease if the environment is too wet and too warm.
And depending on the weather, keep an eye on outdoor beds. It was lovely to get a spell of dry weather in the last couple of weeks and to feel the ground firming up and drying out at last. It’s easy to be complacent and to soak up any sun that’s there and not give a thought to watering (I’m hoping it will be dry and not tipping with rain when readers are looking at this).
It will take a long time for deeper levels of the soil to dry; so established plants don’t need a thing. But if there are tree roots through your beds, or there is a long dry spell after you sow carrot seed, then get out the watering can and keep the soil’s surface damp. Seeds need moisture in order to germinate and grow.
Time to sow
Carrots as soon as the ground is warm, beetroot, parsnips, courgettes, peas and beans, potatoes, swedes, cabbages, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce and salad leaves. Basil in pots on a windowledge, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons etc with heat.
• Joyce Russell is a West Cork gardener and writer, and author of ‘The Polytunnel Book — Fruit and Vegetables All Year Round’, the best-selling guide to undercover growing.