February is often labelled the cruellest month in the horticultural calendar. However, Flo Whitaker suggests there is still plenty of opportunity for growth
Signs of spring are all around, but the bitterest weather may suddenly appear during the month of February. Fortunately, spring-flowering plants are hard-wired to cope with challenging conditions - any damage is usually minimal.
Gardeners can also suffer from a serious February ailment – Cabin Fever. After being cooped up for months, it’s tempting to rush outside on the first warm day and randomly sow seeds of everything. Alas, disappointment is guaranteed – most seedlings will not cope with February’s unpredictable nature. However, if given some protection, a few stalwart vegetables can be sown now.
Pea and broad bean seedlings are surprisingly robust. Sow individually into cells/modules in a cold greenhouse (protect with horticultural fleece or newspaper on frosty nights) and set out into the veg garden when plants are 10-15cms tall. Sow more than you require as hungry mice in search of a nutritious meal may find them. Birds, especially pesky pigeons, enjoy the foliage, so use protective mesh or bird-scaring devices when planting out.
Hardy mixed salad leaves will also survive in an unheated greenhouse, (cover during severe cold). Sow into a large-ish pot or trough, containing approximately 10cms of soil, and treat as a ‘cut-and-come-again’ crop. When the seedlings have made two or three pairs of leaves, snip the lower ones off the stem. The plants will continue to grow and yield several harvests. Perpetual spinach, known as ‘Spinach Beet’, can also be started in the greenhouse. Grow for salad leaves, (as before), or sow in individual modules and plant outdoors in April for a mature crop in June/July.
Given a well-lit, warm spot, (16⁰-18⁰) tomato and pepper seeds can be sown indoors. A heated propagator is ideal. A sunny windowsill or conservatory will also give good results – just remember, windowsills become cold when central heating goes off. Seedlings trapped in the cold zone between chilly glass and drawn curtains will suffer, so bring them into the room at night, replacing them on the sill the following morning. Basil and parsley seeds can also be started indoors. Most gardening books reckon it’s too early for parsley, but I find a February sowing works fine!
Instead of seed trays, sow into small 8cm pots, otherwise you’ll quickly run out of windowsill space. To prevent seedlings growing crooked or spindly, (‘etiolated’) give the pots a quarter turn every day. If you fancy indulging in a nostalgic Blue Peter moment, cut a long strip of card approximately 20cms wide from an old cereal box. Cover one side with aluminium foil. Position pots close to the window. Prop up the card on the room side, with foiled surface facing the window. This simple light-capturing backdrop will assist upright growth.