It may be gloomy outside, but it’s not too soon to start planting. Some vegetables actually grow better if you start them off early! So here's my recommendations for the best vegetables you can plant right now…
Early Planting Onions and Shallots
I love all kinds of alliums: onions, shallots, leeks, and of course delicious, pungent garlic!
Onions are often planted as sets, which are small, immature bulbs that continue growing once they’re planted, but they can also be grown from seed. I prefer starting with seed because seed-started onions are less prone to bolting (flowering prematurely), which renders the bulbs tough and inedible. Seed is also cleaner – there’s little risk of introducing diseases such as white rot into your garden. And it’s cheaper too!
You can sow onion seeds into a pot or flat, then transplant them individually into separate plugs to grow on before planting in spring. Growing them as clusters of bulbs works really well too – just sow around four to six seeds directly into each plug or small pot. The seedlings will then be planted as a cluster, with no thinning needed. This saves having to handle the delicate seedlings, and planting will be quicker too because the clusters are planted slightly further apart than individually onion plants would be. Transplant them into the ground in spring around 10in (25cm) each way. You can harvest the largest bulbs in each cluster first, and leave the remainder to grow on until they all need to be lifted in summer.
Shallots store in good condition for many months, making them a really handy addition to the chef’s pantry because they’ll still be good to use long after you’ve eaten all of your stored onions.
I like to start with sets (also known as cloves) of shallots. Like onions, you can start shallots from seed, but in this instance sets win out because each set should produce a new cluster of bulbs rather than just the one or two you’ll get from each seed. Plant them from late winter about 6in (15cm) apart each way so that just the very tips are left showing. Pesky pigeons and other birds may mistake the tips for juicy worms, so if you find they get hauled out by prying beaks just push them back in or cover them over with horticultural fleece or a low wire mesh tunnel to keep birds at bay. If it’s still very cold where you garden, wait until the soil is workable in spring before planting. In milder areas, you should be able to plant in autumn, perhaps providing some protection over the winter.
Both onions and shallots – and garlic, which is up next – love a sunny spot and fertile soil improved with garden-made compost.
I planted my garlic in the autumn, but don’t worry, you haven’t missed the boat. If you haven’t got yours in yet, plant them now! If it’s very cold – perhaps your soil’s still frozen solid or under snow – plant them into pots of potting mix, keep them under cover, then plant outside once the soil’s workable.
Sowing Beans and Peas in Winter
We had an unexpected bitterly cold snap earlier in the winter, which killed off all my broad bean seedlings – and it was all looking so promising! So, it’s time to re-sow.
This time I’m going to start my broad beans off in the greenhouse in toilet roll tubes filled with potting mix. These give a nice and deep root run, which the beans will love, and by keeping them under cover in my greenhouse this will hopefully avoid any upsets from a late winter cold snap. Sow one chunky seed per tube, pushed down an inch or so, then cover over with potting mix. Easy! Plant them outdoors once the seedlings reach a couple of inches (around 5-7cm) tall, spaced about 8in (20cm) apart in both directions.
I love broad beans. They’re the only bean you can sow while it’s still cold, they offer superb ground cover, and the shelled beans are superb in everything from a beany houmous to a hearty stew.
It may be too early to sow any other types of beans, but not too early to wake up a planting of peas! Choose a variety suitable for early sowing (usually the smooth-seeded types) and start them off in a greenhouse or cold frame, not only to shield seedlings from the weather but also to hide them from mice, which love to feast on the seeds.
It’s best to sow peas into plug trays rather than seed trays because this will avoid disturbing the delicate roots at transplanting time. Fill the plug tray to the brim, firm the potting mix down, then pop in two to three seeds per plug. Push them in a bit then cover them over with a little more of the potting mix and water them in. Plant out in spring about 4-6in (10-15cm) apart.
Leafy Greens For Early Spring
Peas are great for pods, but they’re just as good for eating as a leafy green, particularly when you consider how quick-growing peas can be.
Sow pea seeds for pea shoots into any flat tray that’s at least a few inches deep. Fill the tray with potting mix, then spread the pea seeds over the surface about an inch (2cm) apart. Cover them over then water well.
These will germinate in time if left in a greenhouse or cold frame, but you’ll get more reliable results by starting them indoors, and away from mice! Other leafy lovelies to try indoors include lettuce, spinach, and salad leaf mixes for crisp cuts of goodness at a time when fresh greens are scarce to say the least.
It’s also worth pushing the envelope and starting off some salad seedlings that will eventually end up either outside, or in greenhouse beds and containers. Lettuce is a prime candidate for this treatment. Sow the fine seeds into pots then bury them under the slightest suggestion of potting mix. Cover them up with either a sheet of glass or a polythene bag held in place with an elastic band to increase humidity and hasten germination. Germinate them indoors on a windowsill, or under growlights if you have them, then transplant the seedlings into plug trays once they’re big enough to handle. Grow them on in a bright, protected environment till it’s time for them to head out in early spring, weather permitting.
Another leafy staple is cabbage, and summer cabbages can be sown – you guessed it – right now! Summer varieties produce satisfyingly chunky, round heads, packed with nutrient-dense leaves. Sow them into plug trays, two seeds per plug. If two seedlings germinate, remove the weakest to leave just one per plug.
Transplant the seedlings into the garden in early spring at around 20in (50cm) apart each way. I have an area of moisture-retentive soil set aside for mine, which I’ve improved with plenty of organic matter courtesy of a recent delivery of beautifully crumbly, well-rotted manure.
Start Peppers & Aubergines Indoors
If you have somewhere warm to germinate seeds and, crucially, somewhere protected from the cold and most definitely frost-free to grow the resulting seedlings, then late winter is a great time to start off warm-season fruiting vegetables like peppers and aubergines. If you don’t have a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame to grow on the seedlings and young plants, there’s little to be gained from such an early start so I’d recommend waiting until spring.
Peppers and aubergine are started in exactly the same way. Space the seeds individually across the surface of a pot or seed tray of potting mix so they’re at least a thumb’s width apart, then add a little more mix on top. Cover with a sheet of glass or a polythene bag held in place with an elastic band. Chillies can go onto a warm, indoor windowsill to germinate – no need for a heated propagator. Aubergines on the other hand really do love it extra toasty, so if you do have a heated propagator or other warm place to encourage them to sprout, use it.
Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, carefully tease them apart then pop them into individual pots to continue growing on a sunny windowsill indoors, before moving out into a greenhouse or polytunnel when the weather starts to warm up. I never heat my greenhouse, so when frosts threaten I just gather up my tender seedlings and move them indoors for the night.