Decisions, decisions

Deciding whether to use seeds or seedlings can have an impact in the garden. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Deciding whether to use seeds or seedlings can have an impact in the garden. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Gillian Vine looks forward to spring in the vegetable garden.

I call it research, but the truth is that I’ve wasted a huge amount of time lately.

That’s because several new seed and plant catalogues arrived at the beginning of this month and I’ve been happily going through them, highlighter in hand, selecting things I fancy.

Then came the difficult part. I really cannot justify buying everything I’d like — where would I put persimmon trees on my little section? — so the lists have had to be pruned.

There’s another task before I start ordering: sorting seed I have in tins in the shed. Some has expired, like the radishes that should have been sown by 2016 and I’m totally off broad beans and can’t see using up the seed on hand, while the watercress I tried last year is still growing so brilliantly I don’t need to sow more. My New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides) self-seeds like crazy, so that’s another saving.

Beetroot can cope with fairly fresh manure,  but parsnips (below) will fork on contact with...
Beetroot can cope with fairly fresh manure, but parsnips (below) will fork on contact with manure. Photos: Gillian Vine
I seem to have enough carrot and beetroot seed, so have no need to buy those either, but I’ve run out of courgette seed, a splendid excuse for trying a green-and-yellow bicoloured beauty called Zephyr, and there is, as always, the dilemma of whether to grow one variety of tomato from seed or a selection of plants in October. Decisions, decisions.

More important than choosing what to grow is where to put it and this is the ideal time for everyone to assess his or her vegetable plots.

The first thing to consider is what worked last season and what failed. Were flop crops unsuitable for your area or just a quirk of the season? Then ask, did vegetables do badly because they hated being semi-shaded or couldn’t tolerate hot, dry ground?

Seed packets often give limited information on what best suits plants, so time spent reading a gardening book to check their needs will pay off.

Planting or sowing too early or too late is a common cause of failure. In my case, last season I was late getting corn sown, so the plants failed to mature properly, so most of the cobs didn’t ripen or looked very sad. A garden diary helps keeps tabs on such things and, over a few years, gives the gardener a guide to the optimum sowing/planting/harvesting times.

The writer’s sweetcorn was a disaster last season.
The writer’s sweetcorn was a disaster last season.
Starved soil can be an issue. We expect a lot from our ground, so keeping it well fed helps ensure the best possible outcome. For instance, rhubarb is a great southern crop but a very greedy one, so an annual mulch of compost or rotted manure satisfies its appetite and produces long, thick, tender stems.

Assuming the weather is suitable, digging and fertilising over the next fortnight will ensure sowing and planting hardier vegetables such as peas, broad beans, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower can begin early in September.

Don’t put fresh or even semi-rotted animal manure or blood and bone where carrots and parsnips are to grow or the result will be decidedly twisted. Beetroot, which has different ancestry, is one of the root crops that can tolerate fairly fresh manure.

Late sowings of broad beans can be made in September.
Late sowings of broad beans can be made in September.
With sustainability very much on our minds, packing in more makes sense, so in planning for the coming season, do a bit of lateral thinking. Actually, in my case, it’s vertical thinking. Having downsized several years ago, I am still struggling with space issues, so this season I plan to try some potager ideas, mixing vegetables and flowers. It won’t be fancy, but I am going with purple-podded peas on a fence beside a flower bed. The peas are Blue Shelling (which has faintly perfumed purple flowers) and Shiraz (two-toned pink and purple flowers), so I’m confident they’ll be as decorative as they are useful. Unfortunately, Scarlet Runner beans will clash colour-wise, so I’m eyeing the back fence where I was going to have sweet peas and the old Italian climbing zucchini, Rampicante.

Onward and upward will be my motto this spring,

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