In January there’s a real temptation to get out those seed packets and start sowing, to brighten up short dark days with the promise of new leafy life. Do resist! Here’s why I don’t start sowing seeds in January.
Even though I have heat mats, grow lights, a green house, a polytunnel and other gardening equipment which can help me extend the growing year, the seeds stay in their packets. It is still the depths of winter, and as an organic gardener I try to grow as seasonally as possible, with nature.
Here, electric greenhouse glow lights are illuminating the polytunnel, in my previous garden in Bruton (2020)
Waiting is cheaper, and better for the planet
Whilst heat mats and lights certainly create excellent growing conditions for many plants, we need to consider the cost both financially (with ever increasing electricity costs) and also environmentally. So although I do use them to grow aubergines, waiting until February means that I save weeks’ worth of energy, and money.
Sowing at the best time for the seeds means less waste, which saves money and resources too (seeds, compost, etc)
Know your onions
Make an informed decision, then you can decide what works best for you, in your situation. The answers to these question will vary from plant to plant. The needs of onions are quite different to those of courgettes.
- How quickly do they grow?
- What are their light needs?
- What are their warmth needs?
- How much space do they need?
- How much light and warm undercover space have you got?
- When can they go outside?
- When is the last frost date in your area?
We’ve all made mistakes
It’s how we learn. Everyone was new to gardening once and even the most experienced gardeners make mistakes every year. So if you’re now looking at your sprouting seeds and thinking “oh dear” don’t worry, we have all been there.
When I was still fairly new to growing veg year round, a bright sunny early March day filled me with such enthusiasm that I sowed my runner beans. Runner beans grow very, very quickly. They are not frost hardy. So I potted on and nurtured these beans indoors, in our home, for two months until they could go outside. We had pots of beans everywhere! With a toddler and baby in a tiny house, beans in every room wasn’t the easiest of situations.
With hindsight it would have been cheaper to have composted those first beans and sown more later on – the cost of all of those pots of compost, oh my.
And this is why I always now sow runner beans a week or two before they can be planted outside.
As I write this, my garden in Wales is frozen solid. It looks pretty under a blanket of snow. Although there are signs of the spring to come – snowdrops and hellebores emerging from the ground, daffodils starting to sprout – it is very much still wintertime.
The days are short, the temperatures are low. A few weeks ago it was so cold, reaching -11C (12F) in the polytunnel for several nights in a row, that the pipes froze and we were without water in the house for three days. It was so cold that even some winter hardy veg such as cabbages and kale turned to mush.
Although every day there’s a little more daylight, there is still not enough hours of daylight for most plants to flourish.
Winter is a magical time. It’s good to spend time contemplating and planning, resting, conserving energy before things go brilliantly bonkers in the spring. Check your seed stash, make compost, read gardening books for inspiration, repair your tools, fix that hole in the shed roof….
Sometimes it is ok to sow in January
If you want to start sowing now then of course it is entirely up to you. The key is to make an informed decision before sprinkling those seeds onto compost.
Some gardeners who grow show onions, for example, start their seeds in the depths of winter and nurture them lovingly until it is warm enough to plant their cherished onions outside. Fair enough. Aubergines and chillies too, if you have the right growing conditions for them to thrive (see below).
(I sow onions in mid February, they are for cooking and storing.)
There is a huge amount of pressure these days, especially on social media, to start sowing NOW as if we’re in some kind of horticultural race. Yet plants sown at the right time (for their type) catch up and thrive. You will have an abundant garden!
Sometimes the “get sowing now” posts are due to eagerness, sometimes inexperience – not knowing how quickly tomatoes or cucumbers grow, for example. For sure some of the pressure can come from a need to generate new content on social media, to keep engagement, or from sponsors wanting to sell seeds and products. I do have sympathy with that, especially when social media is linked with one’s work.
There’s also bullying sadly, with some daring to point out that it is winter, it is cold and dark and many plants simply do not thrive, being called “the sowing police” or worse. A friend who has decades of practical professional gardening experience, and horticultural qualifications including a Masters degree, was abused on social media for explaining why it’s not a good idea to start tomato seeds in the depths of winter.
Others recommending waiting have been accused of not caring about the mental health benefits of growing. Gardening for mental health is marvellous and personal: it benefits some, whereas others find that their mental health improves with other activities.
For some, nurturing seedlings is a valuable bright spark of hope in the depths of winter. For others, starting sowing too soon has led to distress as they watch their much cared for plants fail to thrive. Every year through my work I am asked for advice from people distraught because plants sown too early struggle to thrive.
I totally understand the eagerness that makes sowing in January seem so tempting, so grow something that will be happy: micro-leaves. They’ll thrive, you have the joy of nurturing something green, and they add flavour and nutrition to winter meals.
Peas for pea shoots, old brassica seeds, spicy rocket, mustards, even basil if you have some warmth – all work brilliantly as micro-leaves and taste fabulous.
In this You Tube video, my daughter Caitlin and I explain how to grow different kinds of micro-leaves using old food packaging. You don’t even need any compost.
Unless you have superb glazing, windowsills can be very cold, especially on frosty nights. In my cottage, the 120 year old windows have a variety of different secondary glazing panels. On very cold nights, the panes are covered by frost inside the house.
If you are growing anything on windowsills, take this into account, even if you’re using heated mats. Cover frost tender plants and seedlings with bubble wrap in the evening when you draw the curtains, to protect them.
“But my seeds have sprouted, it must be the right time”
Sometimes there’s a misconception that because seeds will sprout, given a little warmth, then it’s ok to sow them in the winter.
Plants need light and warmth to grow healthily, and unless you are blessed with fabulous growing conditions, it is well worth waiting until the right sowing times for your seeds.
For example, a squash seed sown in January will sprout. It’ll grow on a windowsill and all seems well. The plant quickly increases in size, needing bigger pots and more space. It’ll start desperately seeking light. A windowsill really isn’t the right environment for a squash seeking to spread its tendrils far and wide. The squash needs to grow in the garden, but there’s still three or four months to go before most gardeners in the UK can safely plant squashes outside. That’s a long time to nurture a squash triffid in your home.
The plant will likely fail to thrive, becoming sickly and leggy, and in a panic about its demise, start producing flowers on spindly stems, in desperate hope of reproducing.
Squash sown in April or May (depending on your location) will grow quickly and flourish in the ever increasing warmth and daylight. Crucially, you’ll be able to plant them out in the ground when the time is right, too.
Seedlings grown in conditions without adequate light become leggy – long, spindly stems stretching to the light source.
Legginess makes a plant more susceptible to aphid attack and disease.
Although some leggy seedlings (eg: brassicas, tomatoes) can be pricked out and carefully ‘buried’ in compost to their ‘necks’ (ie: just below the leaves) and they’ll grow on sturdily, this is a fiddly and time consuming process. Much easier (and better for the plants) to wait until the days are longer and avoid legginess.
Some seedlings will not recover from legginess (eg: radish, pak choi, mustards) and will bolt – go to flower. Compost them (or eat as micro-leaves if the leaves are edible) and start again when there’s more daylight.
You can reduce the risk of legginess by using electric grow lamps, or by making reflectors using card and shiny foil.
Around Valentine’s Day, in the middle of February, something marvellous happens. Daylight starts to exceed 10 hours a day, and will continue to increase daily until the summer solstice in June. This is the key minimum number of hours for most plants to grow and photosynthesise properly.
This is a great time for sowing onions, lettuce, peas, non-bolting varieties of Florence fennel, brassicas – find out more in this blog.
Many seedings need gentle warmth to germinate. The old advice for knowing when to start sowing directly outside is when the soil is warm enough to sit on comfortably with a bare bottom! Too soon, the cold and damp can cause seeds to rot.
Electric heat mats and propagators are ideal, but of course you do have to factor in the cost (electricity prices are scary) and the environmental impact of using electrical devices.
In this video I explain how to make a simple off grid DIY heated propagator. Using household items, this is an ideal way of getting things germinating when the time is right.
Hot beds are a traditional way of providing heat using natural materials. An excellent resource is Hot Beds: How to Grow Early Crops Using Age Old Techniques by Jack First.
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Chillies and aubergines
Slow growing heat and light loving plants such as aubergines and chillies can be started now, if you have the right growing conditions to support them until the weather is mild enough for them to grow on undercover in the garden (by ‘undercover’ I mean here in a greenhouse or polytunnel) or outside. For much of the UK, the last frost dates are in May and both aubergines and chillies are not frost hardy: very cold temperatures will kill them.
I’ve got a bit of a thing for growing lots of aubergine varieties. This is why I have grow lights, they take ages to grow in the UK. Growing all of these aubergines is absolute decadence. They are not native to the UK, and require a lot of nurturing.
Usually I start aubergines and chillies on heat mats on February 1st and use grow lights once they have sprouted. This year, I am away visiting my Dad in Thailand – where both aubergines and chillies are perennial – so will be starting them on 11th February, about 5 minutes after I arrive back from my trip! Or possibly 10 minutes, may have a cup of tea first.
Yes, I did arrange my travels so that I would be back in time for February 14th’s sowing-a-thon.
Affordable, abundant growing
For 2023 my regular monthly feature in Kitchen Garden Magazine is all about gardening on a shoe string.