Gardening with Joyce Russell
I always find it remarkable that sowing a tiny tomato seed now, can lead to a 2m tall plant dripping with fruit in a few months’ time. Of course climbing beans can reach such productive heights, but the larger seeds somehow make this seem more reasonable.
So, take a moment if you like to wonder at the potential for growth that those tiny seeds hold, then get on with the business of sowing the new season’s tomatoes!
A good start
Tomatoes and peppers do well if sown by the end of February. You can sow in March and even April too, but the later you sow, the greater the risk of fruit arriving late in the season. Late fruit may suffer from poor fruit-set and slow ripening, so to get the best from your tomatoes and peppers, start them in February. Keep plants in a heated frame until suitable planting conditions arrive in late April or early May.
Buy the best compost you can for starting seeds. Those that are cheap and almost pure peat may hold plenty of moisture, but can be short on nutrients. Coarse compost is suitable for potting on larger plants: seedlings can struggle if battling around large chunks. Choose a good brand with a fine texture, suitable for raising seedlings. Fruithillfarm.com have a good organic option.
Sow seed thinly and be prepared to prick out into individual pots when the seedlings are up. Keep at 20°C for good germination and you can drop the temperature to 18°C when seedlings are established. A covered heated space is the best choice, or put pots in plastic bags and keep on a warm windowledge.
You need to maintain a steady heat for the next eight to ten weeks, so consider the best way to keep those small plants warm. A thermostatically controlled heat mat, soil warming cable, or large propagator, can be an invaluable asset.
Keep compost only just damp until seeds have germinated and young seedlings are established.
As soon as soil dries out a bit, you can start digging beds over. This helps to prepare the ground for planting early onions, shallots and parsnips. You may have to wait a week or two until conditions are right, but it is a great comfort to know that beds are all waiting and ready.
The same applies inside a greenhouse or polytunnel. Dig over empty sections and turn manure or compost into the soil if possible. This will save time when it comes to the busy weeks of planting. Leave empty beds unwatered: this reduces slug activity and helps with disease control. It also means that you can put seed trays, pots etc on the prepared soil. It doesn’t take long to soak the soil again when it’s time to plant out.
Winter plants may look ragged and half-picked at this stage. Provided plants aren’t too bitter, and you enjoy the flavour, then keep picking larger leaves and let the smaller ones grow on. A boost of spring growth can give a flush of new pickings for a few weeks: nip out the tips if plants start to bolt. Some varieties turn bitter much sooner than others and some still taste good even when a flower spike has bolted for the sky. Taste and make your own judgement. The harvest can be slim enough for the next month or two so don’t evict plants before you need to.
If you sowed seed a few weeks ago, then small plants may be a few centimetres tall at this point. Don’t wait for them to grow much bigger. It is often best to get young roots into the ground at this time of year. Roots are less exposed to temperature swings in a greenhouse bed than they are in small pots exposed to every chill.
You can cover each plant with a plastic fruit tub, or with a cut off plastic drinks bottle. This gives extra protection. Each mini-cloche should have some holes, or the bottle top screwed off, for ventilation. If cats or birds scratch around young plants, use sticks with string woven back and forth to deter them.
Pruning fruit trees
This is a good time of year to prune apple and pear trees. Get out while the sun shines but avoid any frosty days or nights. If you misjudge and a hard frost arrives, all it means is that you may get some dieback below pruni ng cuts. Keep an eye out and retrim to a lower bud if this seems necessary.
Don’t leave pruning much later than the end of February or buds may start to burst. This is true for soft fruit bushes too. Read how to prune if you are unsure: summer and autumn fruiting raspberries each require different treatment, for example.