Gardening diary: Early spring
It’s a good time to cultivate seedlings indoors while the weather is still cool. David Haynes shows how.
Some of last month’s plantings (cabbage, onions and silver beet) may look like they are in suspended animation, alive but not kicking, so I’m nipping off the top half of the onions to see if rebalancing root and shoot will give them a kick start. In addition, other less vigorous plants can be covered by a homemade cloche to provide protection against frost and wind — anything that’s clear and allows air-flow will do.
It’s still more winter than spring this month, so instead of direct sowing, seeds can be sprouted indoors to be transplanted later once soils warm up. For those seedlings that don’t like root disturbance during transplanting, it’s best to germinate these in toilet rolls with a ball of newspaper at the bottom end. These are filled with seed-raising mix to within a centimetre or so of the top lip, thoroughly watered and stacked in old ice cream cartons to keep them upright. The same cartons (with drain holes added) can also be used to sprout salads for later transplanting.
The process is the same irrespective of the container used:
- Soak or fine-spray seed-raising mix.
- Sprinkle (small) or place (large) seeds on top of surface.
- Cover seeds with a fine layer of seed-raising mix to a depth no more than twice the seed diameter.
- Firm down the surface.
- Spray with a fine mister to settle the seed-raising mix around the seeds.
- Label what you’ve planted.
- Place in a warm and sunny place (I use old containers covered with glass to keep the seed beds moist and warm).
Once the seedlings have two or three sets of leaves they will need to be either separated or thinned (all but the strongest seedling removed) prior to planting. Generally, root crops (such as carrot, parsnip, turnip) are best thinned as their reaction to being handled is usually to respond by growing deformed and sickly vegetables. Leafy crop seedlings are generally tough enough to withstand a gentle soaking and separating in a bowl of warm water.
Q. When can I plant lettuces?
A. All year-round. The trick is to choose the right variety for the time of planting.
Whether romaine (eg. cos), butterheads (eg. buttercruch), crispheads (eg. iceberg) or loose leaf (eg. lollo rossa), salad leaves can be grown all year round. Seed packets or catalogues indicate when they are best germinated and if they are frost hardy.
To grow lettuces successfully, follow these basic rules:
- The soil should be finely tilled, pH-neutral and contain plenty of organic matter such as well-rotted compost or manure.
- Water the plants every morning.
- Plants need full sun in the cooler seasons…
- …but partial shade in the height of summer.
- Sow a few seeds every fortnight for a regular supply, rather than be faced with a glut of lettuces for a short time.
- Keep the plot weed, slug and snail-free.