Her Outdoors: Step changes

Jane Merrick

No sooner than we impatient gardeners, spurred on by a bit of sunshine and buds on the trees, get ready for the growing season outside – rather than fiddle with propagators and potting on indoors – than there is snow forecast this weekend. With our capricious British weather, the absurd timing is perfect, coinciding with the last day of winter and the start of spring.

Monday was so warm I sat out on the front steps, sorting out my pots, in a t-shirt, as the thermometer nudged 16C. Girl Outdoors went off inside to find her sun hat. This morning, wrapped in coat, scarf and woolly hat, I checked on my little seedlings of cosmos and cabbages in the plastic greenhouse (now tied to the fence after blowing over in the gales earlier this month) and worried about them collapsing under the cold if it snows this weekend. It is a tricky time, and some may want to err on the safe side, but I prefer to push my growing season to the limit. If seedlings die, I can always sow again – there’s plenty of time to do this.

Sometimes I am so keen to dash off to the allotment, I forget to tend to my front step pots, so I caught up with them this week. Yellow and blue crocuses I planted back in October have come into flower, a bright pink geranium is bursting into bud, while the gorgeous-smelling Daphne bholua, one of the flowery stalwarts of winter, is still going strong. All of these are directly outside the front door, so they are the first thing we see when we open the door in the morning to pick up the bottles of milk and the daily paper. Three different types of mint – the traditional Moroccan Mint, Mint Basil and the downy-leaved Apple Mint – are crowding themselves out in their separate pots and need dividing. I have about 12 pots of tulip bulbs (ten of each variety per pot) which have sprung shoots about four inches tall. This is all very encouraging, and this winter-into-spring moment is arguably one of the best of the gardening year. Winters, even mild winters, feel so long, these little teasers of life hold so much promise of around-the-corner spring.

A few weeks ago I bought two wooden food crates, measuring a foot square and a foot deep, to use as large pots for growing salad leaves and carrots, near to the front door. I wanted to have these two veg close to home, firstly because the type of cut-and-come-again leaves I want to grow are easier to have near the kitchen, and secondly because I have never been able to grow carrots in open ground.

All gardeners have their blind spots (OK, I have a few), and mine is growing carrots. Every year I sow lots of different varieties, at different times of year, and I can get barely more than a handful to germinate, let alone actually grow into a single carrot. So this year, I am using one of these crates to grow carrots, in succession sowings, on my doorstep where I can keep an eye on them.

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A one foot square crate filled with fresh compost

I filled the crate with compost, sowed three lines of seeds that are fine for growing in late February – ‘Amsterdam Forcing 3 Sprint’, a round variety called ‘Paris Market Atlas’ and ‘Artemis F1′ – all from DT Brown. To stop the crate being used as a litter tray for the neighbour’s cat, I’ve put netting over the top.

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After carrot seeds are sown, the crate is covered with netting to keep cats away

When (if!) the seedlings start to grow and I begin thinning them out, I’ll cover the crate with fleece to stop carrot root fly destroying my crop. Carrots hate being transplanted, so they will stay in this crate, and instead the seedlings will be thinned out if they emerge too close together. The thinnings can be used in salads.

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Carrot 'Paris Market Atlas' courtesy of DT Brown seeds

Carrots love free-draining, light soil rather than anything too heavy, so perhaps I should have mixed some horticultural grit or sand in with the standard compost to get the best results. They shouldn’t be allowed to dry out because this risks the roots splitting.

For the lettuce/salad leaf crate, I’ve placed a plastic cloche on top of the soil to warm it up first. Sowing may have to wait until next week in case we really do have snow this weekend. I’m planning to sow oak leaf variety of lettuce called “Red Salad Bowl”, which is loose-leafed rather than hearting and is a beautiful bronze colour; lettuce ‘All Year Round’, a butterhead crunchy variety, and some reliable Japanese salad leaves like Mizuna. As with all pots – even these wooden crates – you need to keep on top of watering in the summer because they dry out more quickly than open ground.

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Lettuce 'Red Salad Bowl' courtesy of Thompson and Morgan

I’m hoping the crates will see a high turnover of carrots and salad. Later this summer, the pots of tulips will give way to the tomatoes and chillies. If I didn’t have my allotment, I would still have my pots, and that makes me very happy.

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