As someone who grew up in the tropics, I feel absolutely no shame in admitting that I am a total fair weather gardener. With plant growth slowed or at a complete standstill for six months over the UK’s long winters, every year at precisely this time I feel like a sort of starter’s pistol has been fired: it’s finally time to spark new things into life. However, hard as it may be, here’s why suppressing an itchy horticultural trigger finger can be a huge bonus in the race to spring.
By the end of February each year, my big stack of seed catalogues is well and truly dog-eared. My huge stash of seed packets – from tomatoes to cosmos – is neatly lined up and my compost and seed trays are all ready to go. Try as I might, I inevitably succumb to the temptation to sow at least one of these at the earliest possible date recommended by the guide on the back of the packet. I always justify it to myself as a great way to give many of these delicate plants a bit of a head start, meaning earlier crops and a longer season on interest. Yet, every year within just a few weeks I regret it.
You see, with the lower light levels at this part of the year, most of the tender species we grow as summer bedding – which originally hail from the sun-soaked subtropics – will quickly start to etiolate. You will see this from their stems getting longer and longer as the light-starved babies stretch towards the window pane, often eventually even collapsing under their own weight. Although it is true to say that plants almost always recover from this initial stress, I find the resultant growth come the summer is never quite as vigorous as crops that haven’t faced this early check in their development. That’s even before we get on to the issue of the inevitable annual windowsill over-crowding, as this prime horticultural real estate is taken up with armies of little seedlings all in competition with each other for light and space. What always sounds like a great idea in theory at the time of sowing, in my experience is rarely borne out in practice. But the good news is things simply don’t have to be this way.
Sowing them just a few weeks later, towards the middle or latter end of the sowing window, not only gives them more ideal conditions at this crucial phase of their life, but the lack of this stress means that they catch up to their older siblings and perform better. This is particularly the case with fast-growing crops, such as sweetcorn and pumpkins, that can be sown as late as May, giving you more time and space to focus on other things right now.
So, at the risk of saying do as I say, not as I do, remember the spring sowing season is more successful and more fun when taken at a leisurely jog rather than a manic sprint. A summer of great results is well worth a couple of weeks of early spring frustration, I promise.