To sow or not to sow, that is the question…


I’ve noticed a bit of a trend the last couple of weeks on the various Facebook forums where people are proudly showing what they’ve got growing and how mature it is, to have it all rubbished by people saying “it’s too early” OR proclaiming very loudly that they haven’t sown a thing yet! The thing is, it’s not actually a competition to see who can start seeds earliest or play chicken to start them last!

This is not helpful for new gardeners either who are just learning and get easily confused by all the different messages.

Sowing seeds is not black and white, different crops need different conditions. For instance, there are very valid reasons for starting chillis and peppers early, they are very slow growers and need a long season especially the crazy superhot chillis like Dorset Naga or the worlds hottest chilli, the Carolina Reaper. I don’t grow these but I know many people like to, the hottest chilli I’m growing this year is a habenero.

The Carolina Reaper chilli pepper – the worlds hottest chilli

I start my hotter chillis in early-mid January in a heated propagator. They are so very very slow to both germinate and to grow so I need that extra time plus if you have germination failures, you’ve got time to resow. I’ve had to resow my Cayenne’s 3 times this year, both my stock seed and the fresh seed I bought point blank refused to grow. It was actually a pack of seed that came with Kitchen Garden magazine that is now growing happily away.

Early February, I sowed the rest of my chillis, the sweet peppers, and my aubergines. These also need a long growing season and it’s better to start them early. You can start them later if you don’t have heat mats and lights but you might struggle to get a crop in the UK.

Talking of light, not having enough light is the main cause of problems for people starting seeds too early. The light levels in the early part of the year are really poor and unless you supplement with grow lights, you’ll have weak leggy plants. I tend to grow in the dining room here, which is West facing and the natural light is awful until late afternoon at this time of year, so I have to use grow lights. They don’t have to be expensive, I’ve managed for the last couple of years with the cheap lights you can buy from Amazon, although this year I have treated myself to a slight more powerful light for my tomatoes.

A cheap grow light can make a difference to the health of your plants

Mid- February is the ideal time to start tomatoes because by the time you are getting sick of them on every windowsill, the weather is good enough for them to go into the greenhouse to grow on with just a bit of protection on chilly nights.

Potatoes should be chitting merrily on a windowsill to get planted around Easter unless you have a polytunnel or space in a greenhouse and can do an early crop undercover. I’ve noticed that there is alot of debate about what to do with main crop potatoes as you don’t actually need to chit them but as you can’t keep them in the dark as they’ll turn into potato spiders, I long ago came to the conclusion that as I buy them in late January and don’t plant them until Easter, it’s just easier to pop them on the windowsill and let them chit away. It doesn’t make any difference to the harvest quantity.

Alliums such as shallots and onions need sowing from seed in late January, traditionally onion seed was sown on Boxing Day for competition growing. Leeks can be sown later, I have sown mine this year mid-February. Sets of both shallots and onions can be sown into modules now and kept in the greenhouse until they have well established root systems

Onion sets, shallot sets and shallot seed in my greenhouse, late February 2023

Early brassicas and salad leaves all are cold tolerant and can cope with a chilly greenhouse.

Broad beans that haven’t been overwintered definitely need sowing now, mine were sown a week or so ago and are just starting to make an appearance

Broad beans germinating – February 2023

There are lots of annual flowers that are supposed to be sown now as well, then pricked out and grown on for planting out after the last frost date. This is usually what I miss doing, mainly because I forget but there are even more that you can sow in March, so it’s good to get a few going.

At the end of the day, you can probably leave everything until March, if you wanted to and get good harvests of crops, especially if you don’t have heat mats, grow lights etc. I sow early because I don’t have a lot of spare time and by doing a little each week, I keep on top of what I should be growing otherwise March arrives and I’m overwhelmed, heck I’ll probably be overwhelmed anyway but atleast I’ll have some stuff growing.

Once again this is not a competition! You do what is the best thing for you to do, if that means going to the garden centre and picking up strips of plant plugs, do that. It doesn’t matter, gardening is supposed to be pleasurable not a chore and if you are feeling pressured to do something, just take a step back and relax. It’s just a garden, if you don’t grow something this year, there is always next!

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