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Food for thought
7:00am Saturday 3rd March 2012 in Homes & Gardens
Tips on how to grow your own vegetables - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson.
As 'grow your own' campaigns have gathered momentum in the last few years, many people have had a go at growing their own veg, even if they've just had time and space to sow a few lettuces in a window box.
But if you're one of the few who has steered away from veg, perhaps preferring your flower borders to look ordered and formal, now's the time to create some space especially for edibles and think about what you are going to sow.
Check the soil temperature first, because if you sow too early the seedlings will struggle and become vulnerable to pests and diseases. It's likely that the recent cold snap will have delayed many sowings for a few weeks.
As a general guideline, in mild areas early sowings can be made into the ground towards the end of February, but in colder areas you need to cover seed beds with plastic sheeting or cloches for at least three weeks before sowing, to warm up the soil. But nothing is set in stone.
Use a soil thermometer to check the soil temperature in the morning, pushing it 5-10cm (2-4in) into the soil. If it remains above 7C (45F) for a week, you should be safe to start sowing early vegetables in prepared beds. Seed sown before that temperature is reached will germinate, but will be more susceptible to soil diseases.
To prepare a seed bed, the soil needs to be broken down to a fine tilth and the surface levelled off with a rake - it should end up like a fine, crumbly texture. Throw out any stones, weeds and other debris you come across while doing this. It's also advisable to add some fertiliser such as chicken manure pellets or blood, fish and bone to the soil before sowing.
Then you can grow a wealth of vegetables, from spring onions, leeks, beetroot and radishes, to carrots, parsnips and kohl rabi. If the area you have is too small to rotate crops, then grow what you like where you can, but don't plant the same crop in the same place two years running.
Always sow vegetable seeds in straight rows, which makes it easier to hoe weeds out during the growing season.
Set out a garden line or pegs and string to mark the position of the rows and use the row spacing for each vegetable following the instructions on the seed packet. Allow for different spacing between rows of different crops, so that a larger one doesn't swamp a smaller one.
Then make a seed drill using a narrow trowel or stick and sow the seeds as evenly as you can in the bottom of the drill.
After sowing, cover big seeds such as peas with around 1cm of soil, but less for smaller seeds. Water thoroughly with a fine sprinkler which won't disturb the soil or wash away the seeds afterwards.
Carrots can be sown at two-week intervals to provide a succession of crops during the year. Early potatoes can be chitted, putting them upright in seed trays in a frost-free place such as a windowsill with the end with the most eyes uppermost. They should be kept in a cool, light place so that the shoots grow strong.
Once they have sprouted, select two or three fat shoots to grow on and rub out the rest. Seed potatoes can be bought from garden centres. Don't risk using old ones from the supermarket because they are more likely to become diseased.
One of the earliest vegetables to crop is the broad bean. Sow seeds in pots in a cold frame or greenhouse, which will produce seedlings ready to plant out in March.
Quick-growing lettuces such as 'Little Gem' can be sown in late February or March in mild areas, in rows 15cm (6in) apart. If the soil is workable, make a first sowing of the quick-growing carrot variety, 'Early Nantes'.
When seedlings are large enough, any surplus can be pulled (which means thinning out). Larger clumps can be thinned to leave one or two strong seedlings.
Other vegetables, such as celeriac, can be sown indoors in pots from late February to mid-March but they need a minimum temperature of 15C (60F) to germinate.
If you persevere with growing vegetables from seed, before you know it, you will be sitting down to a meal of delicious vegetables you have grown yourself - and will probably have enough left over to give to your neighbours.
Best of the bunch - Chionodoxa The name of these pretty pint-size bulbs means 'glory of the snow', and all originate from the Mediterranean.
The blue species provides a dazzling splash of colour in February or March when planted in quantity, as the clear blue star-shaped flowers fading to a chalk white centre appear above green pleated leaves.
Chionodoxa will flower in part shade and in the wild it is found in poor soil in harsh mountain conditions.
In the average domestic garden it should establish itself vigorously and makes wonderful underplanting for deciduous shrubs such as magnolia. It also goes well with other spring bulbs, such as paler yellow daffodils. Good varieties include C. luciliae and the slightly later flowering C. forbesii.
Good enough to eat - Hot chilli peppers It may be cold outside but you can create some sizzling heat in the kitchen if you start off some hot chilli peppers on a warm windowsill, conservatory or heated greenhouse, sown now at 20C (68F) in pots of seed compost.
They need to be sown early because they can take up to 30 days to germinate and if it all goes wrong, you'll have to try again.
Transfer them to individual 9cm (3.5in) pots when large enough and grown on at 18C (65F). Tips should be pinched out when they are around 20cm (8in) tall to promote bushiness and stop the plants becoming top heavy. When the roots have filled the pot, the plants can be transferred into individual 30cm (12in) containers or growbags.
Be warned, they will not withstand frost, so don't start hardening them off until early summer. Choose somewhere warm and sheltered, ideally against a sunny wall which will help to ripen the fruit. The plants should be trained up canes and loops of string and fed with a general purpose fertiliser until the flowers form. They can be picked while they are immature, but won't be as strong as the mature pepper.
Hot varieties include 'Thai Dragon', which produces red fruits around 10cm (4in) long and 'Caribbean Red Hot', which bears bright red, wrinkled fruits.
Three ways to... Succeed with steps 1. Remember they should be in keeping with their immediate surrounding. If you have a formal, precisely laid terrace connected to the steps, use similar material for the steps.
2. If your steps are some way from the patio, further into the garden, they could be made from different natural materials such as logs or natural stone, to reflect this.
3. Make the most of a change of level by incorporating other features such as planting within the cracks of the steps to soften the line, or cascade planting from a raised bed at the sides of the steps to create interest.
What to do this week :: Test your soil to see if the pH needs adjusting or if the soil is lacking any major nutrients.
:: Continue to re-firm any young plants lifted by frost.
:: Check your greenhouse for signs of aphids such as greenfly and blackfly and take action immediately.
:: Keep beds clear of weeds. Groundsel and chickweed should be removed from growing chrysanthemum.
:: In mild regions, sow half-hardy annuals under glass for pricking out towards the end of March.
:: Lift and divide clumps of overcrowded perennials.
:: Plant new roses before spring.
:: Continue to order seedlings and young bedding plants, which will be delivered later in spring to pot up and grow on to flowering size.
:: Remove damaged or diseased branches of apple and pear trees.
:: Keep sacking or old carpet handy to put over cold frames during very cold weather.