February 14th – St Valentine’s Day – is a magical time for gardeners. It is around this time that daylight starts to exceed 10 hours, the key number of hours needed for plants to grow and photosynthesise properly. It’s time to start sowing some – not all! – of the vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit for harvests throughout the year.
I’m listing here all of the seeds that I grow now, from 14th February until the end of the month, but first of some info about timings.
Why are sowing times important?
Tempting though it can be, especially on a sunny day when early flowers are blooming and the bird song heralds spring, there is a lot of cold weather still to come. It is worthwhile finding out when the last frost date is in your area as frost tender plants will have to be kept somewhere warm and light until then.
Experimenting is fun and an exciting part of gardening. I love to try out new things – this year I am having a go at growing Banana Musa Seeds, a houseplant from Mr Fothergills. Without trial and error we would have no new discoveries – I wouldn’t have learned how to grow Florence fennel year round without trying out lots of different timings and varieties, for example. So it can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and sow your melons in February….
They will most likely sprout beautifully and start to grow into sturdy little plants, but unless you have a lot of warm, light space such as a heated greenhouse, they will quickly start to struggle. Melons do not thrive in cold temperatures, frost will kill them, and they grow quickly. So that’s why I wait until the end of March to sow melons, so that by early May when they are desperate to be planted in the ground, they can go out into the polytunnel. I sow outdoor melons at the end of April, so they can go out by the end of May, by which time all frosts should be past.
What about climate change?
That’s a really good point. We can all see that things are becoming different now. This winter has been mild here in West Wales. We have had no snow, very few frosty days, flowers are blooming weeks’ early and the birds definitely are thinking about nesting.
So it is possible that the last frost date here might be mid-April rather than mid-May, but quite frankly no one knows. So for now I am keeping to the rhythms and timings of late winter sowing that I have been doing for years.
Think about how long each plant takes to grow
Plants are different and each has their own needs in order to thrive – a bit like us really.
Many plants that I will be sowing over the next couple of weeks can cope with cool temperatures, such as onions, lettuces and peas, just requiring warmth for germination. Others are tender and need to be protected from the cold.
Some tender frost-sensitive plants grow quite slowly, even with heat and grow lights, such as aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers. I started mine on 4th February so that they will be a good size when planted out in the polytunnel in early May. They will need keeping warm with plenty of light until then. These really benefit from sowing by the end of February in the UK.
I grow A LOT of aubergine, which is rather bonkers. Over 20 different varieties this year. I have heat mats and grow lights. They will take a lot of looking after between now and May. If you don’t have the space (or the time!) to cherish aubergines for months, many seed companies now are selling sturdy transplants – let them do the trickier keeping them light and warm part for you!
Others grow more quickly, such as tomatoes, which I’ll start sowing in early March, for all the varieties which will grow on under cover in the polytunnel or greenhouse, and outdoor tomatoes in early April. This is because the polytunnel tomatoes can be planted earlier than the outdoor ones. Even though polytunnels are not frost-free, they do offer some protection and I can use fleece if there are unexpected cold nights.
Melons and cucumbers are speedier still. I start melons towards the end of March/early April and cucumbers, squash and courgettes (and groovy things like Luffas) early-mid April. I’ll post a more detailed “what to sow when” schedule soon, to help you plan.
Remember – things catch up!
Every day is a little brighter, longer and (we hope!) warmer. Seedlings that will struggle to grow in March, becoming “leggy”, spindly, more prone to aphids, will rejoice if sown in April with the gorgeous spring energy and longer sunnier days.
The exceptions are aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers which do need that longer time – they will grow if sown later in the spring, but there won’t be so much of a harvest.
Location, Location, Location?
If you live in areas where the last frost date is early, or even in an area with no winter frosts, then you will of course be able to ‘tweak’ the dates and sow earlier.
Those further north with much colder temperatures until the end of May or even June may need to sow a week or two later. Here there is a shorter growing season, with autumn starting earlier and so if you have the space to keep the plants warm and healthy, there can be benefits to starting tomatoes at the ‘usual’ time for much of the UK so that the plants have a head start when they go out, as they grow quite slowly.
Cucumbers, squash, luffas and melons grow like triffids so unless you have loads of indoor space, or enjoy having snaking cucurbits as companions in your home, best to leave those until a bit later.
Some things simply won’t thrive further north with the much shorter growing season – your experiments will discover what works best where you are.
Sowing Schedule for February
I sow almost everything undercover in February, into modules and seed trays in the greenhouse (I will post a tutorial soon, including what equipment I use) and some are direct sown outside. Sorry that I can’t list all of the varieties I use here (too many!)
Everything under cover is started off on warmth (I use heat mats and propagators) until germinated and really tender things such as aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers stay on the warmth for weeks yet.
Electric lights and heat mats are not a frugal option. I will share my more “off grid” methods here shortly.
I love to grow flowers and sow those too, but this is mostly about growing veg.
Outside direct sowings – assuming the ground isn’t frozen
early carrots (with protection – in the polytunnel or under fleece)
spring planting garlic (the packet will explain spring sown varieties)
spring sown green manures – incl: mustard, forage peas, field beans, crimson clover (handy for areas where you’re not growing for a while)
I mostly start peas and broad beans in modules because of mice, voles etc.
Under cover (ie: greenhouse, windowsill, etc)
early brassicas (incl cauliflower, turnip, kohl rabi, calabrese, cabbage, Cima di Rapa)
Florence fennel (slow bolting varieties)
micro-leaves (whatever you fancy)
onions (spring onions aka scallions and bulbing onions)
pak choi (slow bolting varieties)
Under cover and on warmth for ages
Mine are grown on heat mats and with grow lights. They will be fine on a light windowsill in your house if you’re sensibly just growing a few!