Prepare the soil by digging it over in winter. Then rake it down to a fine tilth ready for planting. Try not to stand on the ground when working as it compacts the soil structure - especially on heavy clay. I always use short scaffold planks when planting and preparing. You can also warm the soil artificially, using plastic or glass cloches, to get an earlier start.
Broad beans, onions, shallots, peas, perpetual spinach
Once March comes you can start with broad beans seeds or plants, onion and shallot sets, early peas and perpetual spinach. However First Early potatoes should wait until the end of March. Even then you will have to earth these up, or cover the tops with soil, to protect them from late frost.
Carrots, parsnips, spinach, lettuce, beetroot
Once the soil warms up in April, sow carrots, parsnips, spinach, lettuce and beetroot. They will germinate best in warmer temperatures of around 12C.
Beans, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines
Frost-tender runner beans, French beans, cucurbits, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines demand even higher temperatures - so leave those until mid-May.
Choose flavourful, tried and tested varieties, avoiding more-expensive F1 hybrids designed to crop simultaneously. Also look out for RHS award winners shown by the letters AGM - or by a trophy logo.
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Leaf lettuces, French beans, courgettes, squashes
Plant leaf lettuces like ‘Salad Bowl’ (Mr Fothergill’s) in and around your tripod of beans. Sow the seeds in a tray, prick out and then transplant. The lettuces will act as decoy plants for slugs and help to protect the growing points of climbing beans. Dwarf French beans are equally good - but they take up more ground space.
Two courgette plants could provide you with up to 60 courgettes from June until October. The smooth, dark-green ‘El Greco’ (Suttons) and the paler, nutty-flavoured Italian variety ‘Romanesque’ (Seeds of Italy) are both excellent. If there’s slightly more room plant a winter squash. The orange-skinned, pumpkin-like ‘Sunshine’ (Thompson & Morgan) is one of the best. Store winter squashes for 6 weeks before eating them - otherwise they are tasteless.
Early potatoes are full of flavour and they generally avoid disease because they’re out of the ground by late July, long before blight and scab usually appear. Earlies can be grown in containers as well as in the ground. ‘Foremost’ is a favourite waxy variety of mine, along with ‘ Charlotte’ - a slightly later waxy variety.
Buy tubers after Christmas and then place on a cool, light window sill and allow the potatoes to sprout or ‘chit’. Harvest fresh after 12 - 14 weeks , as and when you need them. Earlies will not store.
Leafy crops like iron-rich spinach are also excellent. ‘Triathalon’ (Marshall’s) is a vigorous heavy cropper. And whenever there’s room grow a root crop. Beetroot is easy and heavy yielding and ‘Pablo’ (Mr Fothergill’s) and ‘Wodan’ ( Thompson & Morgan) both perform well. Carrots are also deliciously nutty and ‘Eskimo’ overwinters well and can be sown late. ‘Valor’ is a good early (both Marshalls). Try to sow seeds thinly and remember, the more colourful the crop the more antioxidants.
Containerise peppers, chillies, aubergines and tomatoes. Buy you plants at Easter, when the garden centres get them in, and put them into large pots filled with John Innes no 3. Keep them somewhere frost free until mid-May (against a warm wall will do) and then place in sun, standing the pots in saucers in dry weather. Feed with a high potash tomato food every two weeks once the flowers begin to set.
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