Growing early vegetables

Val Bourne / 03 February 2014

Gardening expert Val Bourne suggests the vegetable varieties you can plant in late winter to get early vegetables, including carrots, peas, broad beans and onions.



During the cold winter months many of us look forward to the warmer months ahead when fresh, home-grown produce is plentiful. If you’re itching to get planting there are several early varieties of vegetables that can go into the ground in late winter.

What to plant in February

Anything that’s sown or grown in February has to be truly hardy for obvious reasons and you are always gambling a little when sowing that early. So I only recommend the following crops - dwarf broad beans, dwarf peas and early carrots. 

However, you can also plant garlic, shallot and yellow onion sets - as long as the sets (small bulbs) haven’t been heat-treated. I also recommend investing in some heavy-duty, polythene cloches to warm the soil up for later March sowings. Prepare the ground first and then cover.

Dwarf varieties of broad bean with pale-seeds are much hardier than taller, green-seeded varieties. The two best early varieties are ‘The Sutton’ and ‘Claudia Aquadulce’ and these shorter varieties don’t need staking in most gardens. When it comes to peas, the shorter round-seeded varieties, ‘Feltham First’ and ‘Meteor’, are the hardiest and they can be sown in February. 
However, these early ‘marrowfat’ varieties lack the sweetness and colour of later, wrinkle-seeded varieties like ‘Early Onward’.

Shallots, garlic and yellow onion sets can also be planted now. But red onions are less cold-tolerant. Onions prefer rich soil as they are shallow rooted. Shallots and garlic prefer a warm, sunny position.

Early broad beans

Use two lines (string tied between short sticks) mark out a double row 24in apart. Sow your bean seeds one-and-a-half inches (5cm) deep and 9in (22cm) apart. I usually put two seeds in each hole, vertically positioned with the scar downwards. I also sow several seeds at the end of each row for gapping up.

You can also buy ready-grown plants of these or sow seeds under cover and then plant them out. Pick off any black-fly infested leaves and pinch out the tops once the first beans form to encourage more flower buds.

Read our guide to growing broad beans

Recommended early broad beans

  • 'Imperial Green Long Pod'
  • 'Jubilee Hysor'

Early peas

Many gardeners fail with peas simply because they don’t plant enough seeds. 

The best method is to zigzag lots of seeds across a shallow, foot-wide trench before adding twiggy supports or nets. In good growing conditions, the tips of the peas will appear within 7-10 days so prepare for the enemies - the birds and mice. Mouse traps and wire netting should do the trick. Once through and away, water well whenever it’s dry.

Remember sow plenty!

One for the mouse
One for the crow
One to rot
And one to grow

Later varieties are taller, but there are more peas in each pod and they are bright-green and very sweet.

Read our guide to growing peas

Recommended early peas

'Ambassador' maincrop
'Hurst Greenshaft' maincrop
'Balmoral' late maincrop

Onions, shallots and garlic

All three are members of the allium family, but they are treated slightly differently when planted.

Onion sets can be submerged so the tip just shows. Shallots are usually placed half in the soil and half out. 

Garlic is planted deeper (5-10cm or 2- 4in) and it’s the earliest of the three to be planted. It needs a cold ‘conditioning‘ spell and can be planted from late autumn onwards. Space cloves 10cm (4 inches) apart in rows 30 cm (12in) apart.

Always trim the papery tops off all sets carefully with a sharp pair of scissors. This helps to prevent birds from pulling planted sets out by their papery tips.

Shallots

Shallots sets are traditionally sown on the shortest day and harvested on the longest because they take roughly half a year, or 26 weeks, to mature. They prefer warm, sunny summers and the rounder shallots keep better than the longer thin varieties. 

Shallots are delicious roasted or added to casseroles and they have a subtler, more aromatic, flavour than onions. The red varieties are the tastiest, but the yellow-skinned ones keep for longer. If you've got the room, go for both.

Despite being smaller in size than onions, shallots actually take up more room because one set produces a cluster of five to nine babies. 

As shallots mature, the bulbs splay outwards. Plant 20cm (7- 9in) apart, pushing the set halfway into the soil, and space the rows 23cm (9in) apart. 

Avoid planting shallots on newly manured ground and try to give your shallots a warm, sun-baked spot if possible because they grow better and ripen better in sunny summers. But although they are not quite as hardy as onions they often store for longer.

Recommended shallot varieties

Red

  • 'Pikant' 
  • 'Red Sun'

Yellow

  • 'Golden Gourmet'
  • 'Topper'

Onions

Onions enjoy well-dug, fertile ground which has been manured or composted a season or two before planting. Space your sets 15cm ( 6in apart) in rows 22cm (9in) apart and push each set into the ground so that the tip is at ground level. 

It’s essential to keep down the weeds by using a small onion hoe because shallots and onions are very shallow-rooted and they can can’t cope with competition from weeds.

Always look for medium-sized sets about an inch across. They are less likely to bolt than larger bulbs.

As with shallots, there are red-skinned and yellow-skinned onion varieties. But red onions are harder to grow well and they need better growing conditions. However, a row of gleaming 'Red Baron' is a sumptuous sight in summer and red onions have a sweeter flavour when cooked too. Excellent yellow-skinned globe-onion varieties include 'Hercules' and 'Sturon'. 'Stuttgarter Giant' is a flatter onion that also does well (all widely available).

Heat-treated shallot and onion sets

Heat-treated sets are more-expensive and they aren’t usually available until late March. The heat treatment makes them less likely to bolt, or run to seed. If bolting does occur remove the flower bud and stem.

Find out how to grow onions

Early carrots

Carrots are umbellifers - members of the cow parsley family. Other members include parsnip, fennel and parsley. 

Umbellifers germinate best in temperatures of 12 C (5 -55 F) and above. However, some varieties of carrot can be sown early and these include 'Early Nantes' and 'Adelaide'.

Use a line and make a shallow drill and water it well. Sow seeds by sprinkling thinly 1 - 2 cm (half an inch) deep in rows 15 cm apart (6 in). Germination takes approximately 14 - 21 days if the temperature is consistently above 7 c (45 F). Thin to 4 - 5 cm (3 in) - preferably on a damp day when seedlings can be lifted easily without alerting pests.

Most carrot varieties are orange because they were bred by patriotic Dutchmen who wanted to honour the House of Orange. Multicoloured carrots are fun to grow, attractive on the plate and they contain a wide variety of different antioxidants.

Thompson & Morgan sell a Healthy Coloured Collection of five carrots specially selected for their health benefits when eaten raw. They are Purple Haze, Yellowstone, Healthmaster, Sugarsnax and Rainbow.

Find out how to grow carrots

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.