To get off to the best start early in the year, make sure that you provide the right environment for your seeds to germinate. Seed compost is essential, don’t use multi-purpose compost as it is too rich and the fragments too large.
Read the instructions on the seed packet carefully and try to provide the recommended amount of light, moisture and heat. You can successfully raise seeds on a windowsill with perhaps a piece of glass over the top or covered in cling film to retail moisture, but be careful as room temperature can vary quite widely and may easily dip to below what is required for germination.
Seed is too expensive to waste, so the answer could well be a propagator. Made from tough plastic with a clear top to let in the maximum amount of light, they act as mini-greenhouses, keeping the seeds nice and warm. Heated propagators are best with humidity controlled by vents and evenly distributed warmth controlled by a thermostat.
Once the seeds have germinated, they will need to be pricked out, potted and placed in a light location. This is where a cold frame comes in handy. You can’t transfer seedlings and small plants straight from your warm house into the garden, they need to be prepared for the conditions outside, and the best way to do this is to place them in a cold frame.
These are usually made from timber with a glazed top that can be raised in increments to ‘harden off’ the plants inside. You can build one fairly easily yourself or there are plenty available from companies such as Swallow or Forest.
Cold frames and mini-greenhouses are also useful for growing spring maturing vegetables over winter such as lettuces.
After placing your plants inside, leave them for a day or two before opening the top slightly and then closing it in the evening. Gradually open it to a greater degree during the day and then start leaving it open at night until the plants are fully hardened off and ready to plant out.
Some plants of course need consistently warmer temperatures than you’ll experience during a British summer. Although vegetables such as aubergines, chillies and peppers can be grown outdoors, the harvest will be much better if they are inside a greenhouse. Tomatoes are also a favourite greenhouse crop even though outdoor varieties are very successful.
Greenhouses can also give your plants a head start in the spring, but you may find the choice between timber or metal, the plethora of sizes and various design variations, overwhelming.
Wood has a traditional feel, can be easier on the eye and blends into the garden. It should offer better insulation and will be cheaper to heat than aluminium. Softwood needs attention or it will warp and rot but cedar will last for many years. Metal greenhouses, usually aluminium, are generally easier to assemble and more affordable, they tend to allow in more light and powder coated metal will not corrode.
Whatever the style, the general rule is to go for the biggest you can afford. From 4ft x 6ft to the cavernous 20ft x 10ft, your greenhouse will soon be full to capacity. Locate in the sunniest position that should be sheltered from high winds and any winter storms.
Raised Beds And Planters
If you are growing vegetables outside, you might consider using raised beds or containers. Although not suitable for all vegetables, the theory behind their success is that the deep soil that isn't compacted gives the roots lots of room to grow downwards. Hence vegetables can been sown in blocks instead of rows and closer together, significantly increasing yield.
Easy access is also guaranteed since the bed is only 3 – 4ft across and can be tended from either side. As you don’t tread on a raised bed, the free draining soil structure should be maintained and only a little forking before planting is required.
You can also control in a much more effective way the soil’s pH. Most vegetables prefer neutral to acidic growing conditions, so if you have naturally alkaline soil, by using a raised bed or planter you can create a more acidic environment. The opposite is true of course If you are growing lime loving plants.
You can purchase raised beds made from treated timber or construct them yourself with two boards measuring about 6in (h) x 1ins (w) x 4ft long and two others of the same thickness and height but as long as you like, 6ft or 8ft would be a good choice.
Position 12in pegs near the end, and flush with the top, of each board. With the pegs facing inward, use a mallet to drive them into the ground, then screw or nail them to the boards to form a rectangle. A long spirit level is useful to ensure that they are level. The bed is then filled with manure, compost and top soil.
Increased productivity will soon outweigh the initial expenditure and, unless you enjoy digging, they are very much a labour saving idea.
Feed The Soil Not The Plant
In the short term chemicals might well improve yields but, because organic matter isn't replaced, the soil structure deteriorates. At the same time the eco-system of pests and predators breaks down and increasingly strong pesticides have to be used.
Organic gardening is about working with nature rather than against it, if nature has succeeded in sustaining life over millions of years, it must have something going for it. The organic gardener grows a wide variety of plants and feeds the soil rather than the plant, allowing them to take up the nutrients when required. The theory is that this will make them stronger and more pest resistant.
Maintaining and improving soil fertility is therefore key to organic gardening success.
To aerate the soil and let winter frosts break it up, dig annually in the autumn. This will improve the structure, particularly if you add organic matter such as manure.
Make sure you feed the soil with the big three nutrients: Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potash. Other trace elements are required and all these can be found in organic fertilizers such as mushroom compost; liquid seaweed extract; bonemeal or hoof and horn; wood ash; and fish, blood and bone.
Chemical Free Environment
There are several methods to achieve a chemical free environment
Employ fleeces and cloches as protective barriers to combat pests. Try companion planting, for example grow nasturtiums near brassicas and the caterpillars that attack the latter will prefer to lay their eggs on the former. The smell of marigolds is said to deter aphids from feeding on adjacent crops, they also attract hover flies, whose larvae feed on aphids.
Thin out plants so that air can circulate more easily and keep plots and beds tidy so that diseases won't be harboured. If you are growing vegetables, use crop rotation – this will prevent diseases that relate to a particular plant from building up in the soil and nutrients are replenished more efficiently.
The bugbear of all gardeners is weeding. Chemical weedkillers are the easy solution, but sprays can be hit and miss, destroying beneficial insects and their habitat as well as weeds. Nothing beats hand weeding and hoeing, making sure you catch weeds before they self seed and completely removing perennials including the tap root.