“Good to Grow” – Tips for first sowings

Sustain’s Good to Grow Day on 25th April celebrates community gardens. Here’s a helpful extract from How to Create a New Vegetable Garden by the guru of no-dig, Charles Dowding.

Extract from

Tips for first sowings

Gardening is an exercise in optimism, and to some extent a gamble too, in view of the unknowable weather to come. So – again – don’t sow too early in the spring: this way you will reduce potential losses of seeds, plants and time. This advice is hardest to follow in a mild winter and early spring, and occasionally it can be worth sowing earlier than usual, but on the whole, patience pays off.

You just need to ignore those allotment or garden neighbours who brag about having already sown this or that. In spring, later sowings often catch up with early ones, to grow larger and more healthily in the end. See what the neighbours think then!

Spring weather is hugely variable

The effects of weather are often underrated or not explained enough in advice on gardening. For example, in my first year at Homeacres, the cold spring meant waiting a whole month later than usual before sowing outdoors. Sowing dates in spring are a guide only, and if the weather is too cold or wet, you need to wait. In cold weather, raising plants under cover for planting out is more feasible than sowing direct. So:

  • Do not sow before the recommended dates.
  • If weather is colder than usual, wait until it improves.

Sowings made under cover cope more easily with low temperatures, since they are protected from wind and rain. In early spring they grow slowly but surely,  until needing to go out when their roots have filled the modules or pots. Even if the weather is unfavourable, you can plant out and then cover over with fleece.

Using fleece, cloches and minimal hardening off

Fleece covers are easy to use and protect plants from cold wind. The first day of April in south-west England was a great example of this, with some plants ready to go out but the temperature only just above freezing, at 2°C (36°F), and the wind making it feel even colder.

I brought module trays of lettuce, spinach and onion straight from the unheated greenhouse and we put them into beds without hardening them off. This is  possible in spring for four reasons:

  • In an unheated structure, nights are cold and plants are used to low temperatures.
  • With protection from fleece, plants quickly recover from the brief shock of going into cold soil.
  • Fleece creates favourable conditions after planting, in terms of the temperature of both air and soil, and wind protection, which are significantly more useful than any pre-warming of the soil.
  • Rapidly increasing levels of sunshine ensure enough growing time each day for plants to establish well.

I dibbled holes, Steph planted the seedlings, and then we rolled out fleece on top of them, flat over the beds with the cover resting on top of the plants.

The weather continued frosty for another week and with plenty of cold winds all month, but the only damage to these young plants was from leatherjackets eating some roots.

Tip: How to use fleece.

Laying fleece on plants, rather than supporting it with hoops, keeps any warmth closer to the plants’ leaves and roots. It also results in less damage to the fleece, as it is held more securely in place, tight over the bed and firmly on plants’ leaves.

Check out Charles Dowding’s How to Create a New Vegetable Garden here.

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