Practicing Patience

Sweet Million tomatoes outside in August, sown in mid March

It’s February, and the temptation to brighten the dull and dismal days with some seed sowing is almost too much to bear. We want so desperately for spring to be with us and we yearn to see green shoots pushing up through the ground. Anyone who has ever planted a seed will know the pang of excitement at the first sight of green amongst the brown compost. In our honest and understandable desire to experience this comes the peril of sowing too early.

In some ways we are lucky to live in a world of heat mats and grow lights. But these gadgets which are designed to make our lives easier and grow us healthy plants often end up doing the exact opposite of this. They lure us into believing that we can cheat nature and raise healthy plants without listening to the seasons. The truth is obvious; these gadgets cannot replace natural conditions of seasons. By which I am mainly talking about sunlight. Plants are literally water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. We would not expect a seedling to do well with very little water (depending on the plant of course – some cacti and succulents manage fairly well!). Equally we cannot expect our seedlings to thrive without sunlight. We can add some light, or extend the number of hours of light in a day artificially with lights, but the majority of plants we grow in our gardens and allotments in the UK don’t need it. They just need to be sown when the time is right. 

After Valentines day (February 14th), day length starts to increase rapidly. There is more and more natural light becoming available to our plants, and this is a green flag for starting to sow. 

Most things still can’t be sown in February, but things that need a long growing season like chillis, peppers and aubergines can be sown. These should be provided with some warmth in the form of a heat mat or propagator, because they aren’t “meant” to grow in our climate here in the UK so we have to help them along a bit!

But what is actually so bad about sowing things early? Well, as gardeners I feel as though we have a responsibility to seeds as tiny little lives to do the best for them. We also have a responsibility to ourselves not to create too much work for ourselves, particularly not in spring! If we sow too early we not only have to provide extra heat and light for our seedlings, but we also grower weaker plants that need extra help even when conditions are good. For example etiolated (“leggy”) seedlings; they stretch up more than they should, producing more growth in their stems to try and get more light. This creates a weak stem which often topples over under the weight of just a few leaves. We can bury the stems of some plants (like tomatoes, chillis and aubergines) and they will set roots out from their stems, but if conditions still aren’t favourable, they will just do the same again. Even a slightly weaker stem can be a problem when fruit starts to set as the plant may not be able to support itself and we risk the plant breaking.

But it’s more than just producing weaker plants. Plants like tomatoes use climatic signals to tell them when to set fruit. It doesn’t just happen when they are big enough or old enough. Tomatoes need temperatures over about 15 degrees in order to set fruit. So planting tomatoes in March gives them plenty of time to get big enough to bear fruit before the temperatures get high enough to trigger fruiting. 

Chilli “Sombrero” sown indoors in February and given some extra heat to trigger germination

The point is that by sowing too early, we set ourselves more work, for no extra benefit. 

Seeds are precious little capsules containing tiny lives. They shouldn’t be wasted, or disrespected. During wars seeds banks are given the highest level of protection because they are paramount to the future survival of plants and in turn, us. As gardeners we are custodians of tiny seed banks ourselves (in my case in a small basket in my kitchen). When we plant these seeds we must endeavour to do it in a way that is respectful to the life within. 

Find an experienced gardener in your local area who can give you the gift of their wisdom as to when to plant what. Personally I use Charles Dowding’s sowing times as he is fairly local to me, but find something that works for you, and don’t forget to learn from your own experience too. A bunch of leggy tomatoes filling up your conservatory in March isn’t ideal. When they get too big for your greenhouse or windowsill is when they should be going into their final growing space, so the aim is to get that timing right.

So keep those itchy sowing fingers in your pockets a little longer, the time is almost upon us!

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