Life on the Veg Patch: March

Recycled fruit punnets from the supermarket make excellent trays for seedlings, says Julia Parker

Life on the veg patch - recycled seed trays

by Liz Potter |

March is the perfect month to start growing vegetables – and there’s lots to sow! It’s easy to get carried away, so make a list of what you and your family actually eat; don’t waste valuable space on veggies no one likes. My favourite easy crops to sow in March are broad beans, beetroot and salad for a summer harvest, then leeks for the winter season. I also grow a few unusual things – artichokes and luffas are fun; imagine growing your own sponge!

For me sowing from seed is better and cheaper than buying plug plants, but if you don’t have time or the in-clination, plug plants are the answer (but remember they do cost more). Sowing seeds works for me: if some-thing goes wrong I just re-sow rather than having to buy more plants. I never sow all the seeds at once – little and often is my mantra – a seed packet goes a long way here on the patch.

I’m lucky that I have a greenhouse, but don’t worry if you don’t: a shed with windows or a windowsill in the kitchen or spare bedroom is all you need. Placing your seed trays in natural light is key, otherwise seedlings become pale and leggy, which are no use to anyone other than the compost heap!

March is the perfect time to sow broad bean seeds directly in the garden. They’re hardy annuals, which means they can survive cold temperatures. I sow the seeds in a fairly sheltered spot, 5cm (2in) deep in rows about 20cm (8in) apart. Add a stick or bamboo cane next to each seed – the beans grow quickly and will need to be tied to the cane within a few weeks to avoid the tender stems snapping in strong winds. I’ve lost plants in the past, which is upsetting. Water regularly and pinch out the main growing tips when the plants are about H1.2m (4ft). This directs all the energy back into the plant, encouraging lots more healthy pods and beans. Did you know broad bean tips are edible too? I steam them for a few minutes; they’re delicious and very mild.

I love recycling household containers for sowing: plastic fruit punnets make brilliant seed trays and are the perfect size to sit on a windowsill. I sow all my salads, beetroot and leeks in them. Often they have lids that you can use as a propagator lid and then, after germination, turn them upside down and place underneath the seed tray to catch the soil spills and water. It’s best to wash the punnets first and make a few holes in the base for drainage with a small screwdriver. Fill with multipurpose compost, tap a few times to remove air pockets, then top up again. Water the compost lightly, sprinkle a few seeds on top with a light covering of compost, then place on a windowsill or cool place with lots of natural light.

I sow salad seeds every 5-6 weeks, using fresh compost each time. This successional sowing provides me with fresh salad throughout the summer. When seedlings appear, I water carefully: too much and they’ll rot and die. Less is definitely best!

By the end of March I harden off my seedlings when the weather is nice. This process takes a few days, bringing them back inside at night. When the seedlings are big enough I’ll transplant them outside. I plant beetroot in rows, allowing 10cm (4in) between each one; for leeks I make holes with a dibber, dropping each seedling in and watering them in so the soil naturally backfills each hole. They might look unhappy at first but should all be standing upright in a few weeks.

One fun crop to sow now is the luffa: with our unpredictable weather I prefer to grow mine in the green-house.

I soak the seeds on damp kitchen paper on a tray or in a glass jar with the lid off, leave them somewhere warm and within 10 days the seeds will have geminated. Transplant them carefully to a large-ish pot and keep in a warm place, watering regularly. Once the seedlings are big enough, I transplant to the greenhouse; they’re vines, so training round a frame helps with space. Apply a liquid seaweed feed every two weeks.

Male and female flowers will start to appear from midsummer. Bees are scarce in the greenhouse so I hand pollinate, and the fruit starts to grow in a few days. If pollination has failed, these turn yellow and fall off! Come autumn, the fruit start to dry on the vine and turn brown. Simply peel away the skin to reveal your luffa and don’t forget to save all those seeds for next year!

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