We all know that winter hasn’t finished with us yet, but isn’t it great to be really up-and-doing again. Thank heavens the clocks will go forward soon and we’ll have more time in the evenings to get through the hundreds of gardening tasks clamouring for our attention.
Judging by the response to our new pocket-book on Beginner’s Veg, it’s clearly not just me feeling the urge to be growing! Let’s start with a few jobs now, including seed-sowing, making more plants for free, and some judicious spring-pruning…….
Where shall I sow ’em?
Sowing seeds is the BIG spring job, and there are a zillion places where you can go to find advice on the subject, not least the instructions on the packet itself. The most straightforward hardy seeds can be sown outside, of course. But lots of others need heat, or cold, or soaking first, or chipping, or coating in gold leaf for all I know. And many flower and veg seeds need to be sown inside before being planted out when the danger of frost has gone.
I just want to make a few observations from my own experience about what you sow your seeds into. There are many advantages to sowing them into ‘modules’ – compartmentalised trays. Though many of these are made of plastic, they are very re-usable as long as you clean them carefully between seasons, and I have had mine for many years. There are also plenty of biodegradeable alternatives around. There is a huge variety of cell-size; I find the 5cm sq. size the handiest because if I use a smaller size, I usually have to pot the little plants on twice before they can be planted outside.
The big advantage to using some sort of modular tray for this is that each plant has its own space without the early competition of other seedlings. If you sow a TEENY amount of fine seeds into each cell of compost, you then thin them to the strongest seedling which can grow on without root disturbance. There is much less chance of the seedlings collapsing (‘damping off’) too. The roots can gradually fill the cell turning the plant into a ‘plug’, which is simplicity itself to put into its next-size pot or ultimate growing position when the time comes. The trays can sit in a cold greenhouse, on the windowsill, etc. and the addition of a see-through cover over the top of each tray helps prevent the compost drying out. Lovely. But there is a problem for those seeds that need heat, and that is usually SPACE.
You may be lucky enough to have acres of room for heated propagators, soil-warming cables and so on, but most of us don’t. So we must find ways to make best use of what we have. I do have one small heated propagating box, and for many seeds, this addition of warmth at the base is certainly a great boon to germination (I like that too, but that is for another conversation, which involves a hot water bottle on my lower back at the end of a hard day’ gardening…..!). But it can only contain one modular tray. My own solution is to sow my seeds thinly into smallish pots of moistened seed-compost and put these in the box.
Once the seed has germinated, I take the pot out of the box, leave it uncovered on the window-sill for a few days, and then delicately ease the seedlings apart (holding only the tiny leaves, not the stem) before planting them into the modules or trays to grow big and strong elsewhere. Yup, I know it’s more effort, but it is massively space-saving.
Now, be honest, do you see the word ‘Cuttings’ and immediately think “Oh no, no, not for me – much too tricky and liable to failure.” Well, at this time of year, there is one type of cutting that is TAILOR-MADE for beginners to these Dark Arts, because it almost always works! So many perennials are quite a price these days, and this offers a really good free way of bulking up your flower drifts or creating presents for friends and family:
- Lots of herbaceous perennials will be starting to send up lots of soft green pithy new shoots shortly – lupins, phlox, chrysanthemums, delphiniums, plume poppies, campanula, etc. With a sharp knife, cut a shoot below soil level including a bit of the solid base bit at the bottom of the shoot (that’s why these are called ‘Basal Cuttings’). If the shoot has an actual root or two, so much the better!
2. Tidy up the shoot, and cut any bigger leaves in half to reduce water stress as it roots.
3. Tuck your cuttings firmly round the edge of a pot of gritty peat-free compost, water them in then put the whole pot into a clear plastic bag (again, I’ve re-used mine for years) and tie the top. Untie it at least every couple of days to let some air in.
4. Leave the pot anywhere light and protected, and you should see new shoots developing quite quickly. Once you can see clearly that they have rooted, pot them up separately to grow on. They might even have flowers their first year. Go on, I dare you to have a whack at this, and flex your horticultural wings a little more!
- I think I have cracked how to keep tulips going for more than one year! I planted large pots of T. ‘Estella Rijnfeld’, ‘Peach Blossom’ and a few others quite a while ago, and once the flowers are over, I cut the stems and give the leaves some liquid fertiliser. I then move the pots to an out-of-the-way place for the rest of the year, with an upturned wire hanging basket over each pot to stop squirrels and mice getting at the bulbs. It doesn’t come off until I can see the new shoots the following spring. Four years of gorgeousness, and counting!
- Start to think about how you are going to make your garden beautifully ready to receive guests again after Lockdown – tidying, adding colour, some impressive pots of fresh veg leaves perhaps… We 3Growbags will have lots more ideas for you on this subject next week, but a good way to start might be to take advantage of our wonderful summer bulb offer – click on the box below for details.
- If you haven’t already done it, cut back mid- to late-flowering shrubs like Buddleia, Lavatera, Euonymus, or Cotoneaster. Tidy up Hebe and Artemisia. You should also cut back winter-flowering shrubs now, such as Viburnum, Garrya elliptica and winter jasmine (as in the lovely feature pic this week). Cutting back Sambucus (elder), Eucalyptus, Rhus (Sumach) and Cotinus (smoke bush) now will give you bigger, more dramatic foliage. If you wisely left the old flowers on mophead hydrangeas to protect the plant somewhat from the worst of the cold winter we’ve had, you can cut them off in the next couple of weeks down to the fat new buds below – I expand on this topic in an earlier blog – link below.
The link to an earlier blog about sorting out hydrangeas is here.
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