The days are longer, it’s a tad warmer, and you can sense the natural world beginning to stir into life - it’s just wonderful! Are you raring to get going too? Of course you are! Here, then, are five vegetables to start off now, before spring really gathers pace. And each of them will give you that much sought-after head start to the growing season!
Garlic is a vital ingredient in so many recipes, and the starting point to our early planting top five. While garlic is generally planted in the autumn, there are plenty of varieties that can be planted now – and the sooner the better, as garlic needs a period of chilling before it launches into growth.
Get it into the ground as soon as you can, spacing the separated cloves at least six inches (15cm) apart and planting them so that the pointed end faces up and sits just beneath the surface.
If your soil is saturated or frozen solid, you can plant cloves into pots or plug trays to plant out later in spring.
Keep the soil free of weeds and, because garlic is shallow rooted, weed by hand to avoid disturbing the roots.
2. Broad Beans
Unlike most beans, broad beans are impressively cold tolerant and may be planted outside as soon as the soil is workable, or under cover into plug trays or pots if it isn’t.
Sow the chunky seeds about two inches (5cm) deep into well-draining soil or potting mix. These top-heavy beans are best sown in double rows, leaving about eight inches (20cm) between the two rows, then another two feet (60cm) to the next double row to make it easy to get between them for weeding. Or space them as blocks of plants at least eight inches (20cm) apart in each direction.
Most varieties need to be supported to prevent them from flopping over. Use string stretched between sturdy corner posts or stakes.
Every year I enjoy pretty good success growing onions from seed. Many people start onions from sets, which are partly grown onions that are planted into the soil like garlic cloves. However, I find that plants started from seed are less likely to bolt – that’s when they flower prematurely before they’ve reached the point of harvest. Onion seed doesn’t last long, so be sure to use fresh seed to avoid disappointment.
Sow onions in a warm place into pots of seed-starting mix. I start them off indoors, then once they’re up, move them into the greenhouse to continue growing. As soon as the seedlings are big enough to handle, they’re then carefully teased apart and transferred into plug trays to continue growing. Once the roots fill their plugs they’re ready to go outside, usually in mid spring, at about 6-8inches (15-20cm) apart.
4. Leaves Under Lights
If you don’t have a protected area such as a greenhouse or polytunnel, you can still enjoy a jump start to the season with grow lights. One of the biggest issues with growing indoors is the lack of quality light, and grow lights are a great way around this. They’re especially handy for starting off the earliest leafy salads like lettuce, spinach and pea shoots.
Scatter seed thinly into pots or trays of seed-starting mix, then grow them on for a few weeks until you’re ready to tease them apart to pot on into their own pots or plugs. By this point it may even be warm enough to plant them directly outside under the protection of cloches or cold frames. Alternatively, sow pinches of seeds directly into plug trays to grow on and plant as small clusters of seedlings.
Our final crop captures the essence of summer – the tomato. In fact, the following advice goes for all warm-season fruiting vegetables in the same crop family, such as peppers and aubergine.
Sow them right now, spacing the seeds at least a finger’s width apart, then lightly cover them over. Pop them into a heated propagator to speed up germination, or cover them with clear plastic to create a snug environment and place them on a warm windowsill.
They’ll take up to a week to germinate, then soon after they can be individually potted up. Sinking seedlings most of the way up to their lowest leaves gives them extra support, and produces sturdier seedlings. Grow them on somewhere warm and light – those grow lights can be put to good use again – before moving them into a greenhouse or cold frame once there’s no chance of frost. In warmer areas they can then be gradually acclimatised to outdoor conditions before transplanting outdoors, but keep them away from harsh winds which can destroy these tender plants.