WARMTH NEEDED Tomato seeds can be sown at the end of February or beginning of March for growing on a south-facing window sill or on a heated bench.
In The Garden
The grand auld stretch, as they call it, is here now that we have left the long month of January are now into February. Us gardeners are busy looking at the garden and checking how things are fairing after a couple of pretty hard frost spells in December and January.
I always get excited in February, as it really is time to start planning and ordering seeds for the coming season. If you are lucky enough to have a polytunnel or glasshouse with enough room to grow early plants, it is a good time to start sowing. Otherwise one can start sowing indoors in mid March/April to plant out in April/May
I use Seedaholics, a great local seed company. They have a vast range of seeds – flowers and vegetables – and they dispatch very quickly. They also include a useful information sheet.
Irish Seed Savers, based in Co Clare, is another seed provider. The seeds grown on their Clare farm are rare open-pollinated heirloom varieties and certified organic. Their mission is to conserve and distribute these wonderful varieties, and to empower people to do this in their own gardens, smallholdings or farms.
The Irish Organic Centre in Co Leitrim also has a range of seeds – and are worth checking out, while the Brown Envelope seed company based in Co Cork also has a range of organic seeds. Pre-Brexit, some growers, particularly commercial growers, may have bought their seeds in bulk from UK. Unfortunately, this is not possible now, so many commercial growers have had to look locally for their seeds.
I have already started to sow tomato seeds. However, I have a small lean-to greenhouse and a heated cable bench. If you want to get your tomatoes germinating early, this method is realistically the only way to achieve this. For most growers, I would recommend sowing tomato seeds at the end of February or beginning of March – you could grow them on a south facing window sill or on a heated bench. These plants would then be planted out into a polytunnel or glass house at the end of April or early May, once the risk of frost has gone. (It is not really feasible to grow tomatoes outside in this country.)
For vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, beetroot, spinach, scallions, I recommend sowing these seeds in a tunnel or glasshouse or south-facing window sill from early April, with the idea of planting out at the end of April or beginning of May. This gives the seedlings two or three weeks’ head start on the weeds.
If you do not have a good propagation space you can sow seeds direct into the ground when the soil is warm enough – usually the beginning of May.
Annual flowers, such as cosmos, cornflour, nasturtium, marigolds, can also be sown in the same way – inside in April or directly outside in early May.
When planting out seedlings, one needs to take into account the weather conditions. It is a good idea to bring your plants out for two or three days and bring them in at night in advance of planting out – this is called hardening off. Later in the season hardening off is less critical.
It is better to plant out in the morning, as the plant then has the entire day to acclimatise. It is important to watch the weather forecast at this early stage in the season – obviously one would not plant out seedlings if there is a risk of frost. Air temperature needs to be in excess of 6 degrees for growth to happen.
I recommend using a peat-free organic compost for seedlings – this compost gives slightly slower growth but the seedlings will be stronger. Fruit Hill Farm based in Co Cork sell an organic peat-free compost. Living Green organic compost is also available locally.
Once the seedlings have germinated one needs to pay particular attention to ensure that they do not dry out and die. I recommend at the early stages using a fine spray gun – you may need to use this twice a day if the weather is sunny. When the seedlings are bigger you can use watering can with a fine rose.
It is still not to late in February for garlic. Onion sets are widely available in garden centres, and I would recommend getting these in the ground at the end of February or the beginning of March – ideally one should add two inches of farmyard manure or garden compost to the soil before planting onions.
We cannot forget the potato – you will see seed potatoes in garden centres, and I would suggest buying first and second earlies now and chitting them. This means putting the seed potatoes in a cool semi-shade spot until ready to plant outside in late March/early April, using two inches of farmyard manure and some seaweed.
Hopefully, you will enjoy a great crop of vegetables later in the year.
Chris Smith has been running Western Herbs & Veg for more than 30 years, producing organic herbs and vegetables for sale at Westport Country Market. He is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.