It’s an exciting time of year. We are preparing beds for outdoor sowing, pots for indoor sowing, and peering in anticipation for any seedlings to appear. In spite of my best intentions I missed the opportunity to sow my parsnips in autumn, I delayed a few days and the rains came down and then the ground froze till February. Next year!

So far I have sown chillies, and germination has been good. They are growing slowly at room temperature with extra light. Aubergines, basil, coriander, lettuce and cucumbers have also germinated. All of these seedlings will be re-potted once the roots just fill the current-size pots.

The herbs are destined for the kitchen windowsill, the lettuce will be planted out as a ‘catch crop’ in the glasshouse bed, the aubergines will be planted into a polythene tunnel in early July, and the chilies and cucumbers will move to the cold glasshouse in May, to grow on in my biggest pots.

A catch crop is one that develops to the point-of-harvest quickly. There are periods where the ground lies empty as the space allocated is for more tender plants which can’t be planted for some months. So you sneak in a crop of lettuce, or radishes, or anything that can be harvested in that gap.

The timing of my seed sowing is dependent on the speed of growth of the seedlings and when I aim to put them in their ultimate home. Take note of your own sowing times and planting times for future reference.
My next batch of sowing is now in process. The soil in the raised beds is dry enough to hoe and rake-off weeds, leaves and sticks. My plan is to sow the hardiest of vegetables, early peas and early carrots, broad beans, lettuce, and summer spinach. They will give the first harvests. If I were growing onions I would plant the sets (little onions) now too.

The soil in beds at ground level is still too damp. It will be cold. It is better to wait before preparing a seed bed so as to get the young plants off to a good start in warmer, drier soil. They will be more vigorous and will grow more quickly than sowing into cold soil.
To cut the germination time on early peas, put a layer of peas into a mushroom tub. Half cover them in water for a few days before planting out. Some can go straight into the ground, others can go into a section of guttering with soil/compost, and once they are all up the whole length is pushed gently into the garden. If they are well established in the gutter the whole length knits together.

Early peas have rarely been damaged by weather but the voles and pigeons love them young, so cover them immediately. They soon get going and outgrow their predators. There is some risk to this method, as timing and good ground conditions are important.
Tatties can also buy time by chitting them. Set the seed potatoes into egg tray with the sprout buds upward, and plant them out once the sprouts are a few centimeters high. Once the sprouts are showing, keep a fleece handy for frost protection.

On the windowsill or in the cold glasshouse a variety of lettuces, endive, amaranth and rocket are coming up, some are in segmented trays. The seedlings in each segment will need thinning to 2 or 3 plants, and when their roots fill their segment they will be potted up as a group. I won’t use this technique for larger plants like tomatoes or squashes, they will be pricked out into individual pots.
When the plants are well established in their pots begin to harden off those going to the garden, to get them used to the outdoor conditions. Put them outside in a very sheltered spot during the days and bring them in at night for most of a week or longer if their destination is exposed or the weather is coarse. Don’t rush this process. Balance the pace with the needs of the growing plants.
Those which will end up in a covered structure such as cold frames, cloches, or polytunnels can go directly out there.

A cold frame is basically a box with an opening lid which is roof-shaped or slopes down to the opposite side. The sides are usually either glass or wood. The frame provides a few degrees of frost protection and all-important wind protection. Lightweight cold frames can be placed onto beds and seedlings can be planted within. Heavier frames can remain on the ground and are used for trays and pots.
Cloches take numerous forms. A common one consists of a rigid framework such as a set of metal hoops put out in a line, which is covered with clear polythene or windbreak fabric pulled taut and secured at both ends. Cloches provide wind, a bit of frost, and bird protection.

Window frames with glass can be secured together to create a shelter of any shape with sides and an opening roof. Some people use plastic squash bottles with the base removed, inserted over an individual plant and held firm by a bamboo.

The aim is to keep plants growing steadily while acclimatizing them to cooler conditions. A check to their growth can result in a long recovery period, ‘bolting’ (flowering way too early), or nutrient upsets resulting in them turning unhealthy-looking colours. Checked growth most commonly happens if we leave them in a pot for too long after they are ready for the next size, or move them along too quickly before they can adapt to current conditions. Think young animals, they emerge from their dens slowly in fits and starts.

If you cannot plant into a cold frame or cloche when your plants are ready, continue to harden them for longer, then before you plant them out try to fashion protection against the wind using enviromesh, a solid barrier, net curtains—whatever you have. It will be needed until about the end of May, by which time your crops should be established and grown well.

Whatever protection you chose, anchor it well. Use strong stakes and hammer them in well. Fabric or polythene must be fixed securely. Check your structures as the wind gets up, because a flapping cloche cover can break tender leaves and stems and kill the crop. And have extra protection handy to guard against hail or a sudden sharp frost.

Thin fleece sometimes lasts less than one season, and then spreads itself in small pieces across the garden and into nearby shrubs. Good quality fleece lasts many seasons.

All this protection is aimed at getting the seedlings old and tough enough to cope with weather. A number of plants that are ultimately tough enough to grow well outside are tender or half-hardy in the early stages. Tender plants need more than frost-free conditions, they need night time warmth. Hardy woody plants are tough, but you may see their tender new growth get frosted. Hardy plants normally can be sown outside directly, though extreme weather may damage them physically by tearing leaves or breaking stems.

Assistance at the initial stages helps the seedlings establish more quickly, develop good root systems to support the top growth, and develop their immune systems. Keep a close eye out for slugs, millipeds, birds and aphids who are all looking for a sweet feast. A large slug must look enormous to a tiny seedling, and regular patrols will be needed!