WINTER started with a roar and seems to be going out like a lamb. The Arctic conditions that brought the nation to a standstill from late November to early January, are far behind us.
While another cold snap is always a possibility, the days are getting longer, the sun warmer and there is a definite sense that spring and all the good things that will bring, is just around the corner.
It’s the time when nature comes out of its enforced hibernation and wildlife in all its guises goes a-wooing.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we have managed to overcome the restrictions nature has imposed on us when it comes to the sowing and growing of food.
Heated greenhouses, new disease and weather-resistant plant strains and the advent of fast and efficient air travel, means we are no longer slaves to the growing seasons. It is now possible to eat tomatoes, new potatoes, lettuce and celery all year round.
No matter these commodities may have had to be flown halfway around the world.
But however nice we may think it is to eat green beans in December or raspberries in February, they can never be as flavoursome as fruit and vegetables sown and harvested when nature intended. There is nothing more satisfying than growing your own – whether on a windowsill or balcony, in tubs, or in your own allotment, such as the one The Journal has adopted at the National Trust’s Gibside estate.
The 9m x 4m plot is looking decidedly bare at the moment. But that’s good. It’s a blank canvas and just right for planning what you want to grow and where you want to plant it.
According to Sue Adamson, Gibside’s kitchen gardener and keeper of The Journal plot, these are among the first questions you need to ask yourself when faced with a virgin vegetable patch.
But it’s not just a case of randomly picking vegetables out of thin air based on their colour or appearance. Purply-red beetroot may look appealing and add a splash of colour to a garden, but what’s the point of planting it if you – or anyone else – don’t like it?
“The most common mistake when deciding what to grow is not choosing the things you actually like to eat,” Sue explains. “What’s the point of cultivating regiments of leeks or cabbages if you don’t enjoy eating them?”
So what’s Sue’s advice? Sit down with family and friends and decide exactly what you are going to grow to suit everyone’s tastes.
Think about growing something unusual too, perhaps produce that isn’t readily available in the supermarkets.
Good planning isn’t just important to ensure you enjoy the fruits of your labours. It’s essential for the health of the soil. Crop rotation allows the nutrients in the earth to remain balanced.
Sue explains: “If you grow the same plants in the same area year on year, the soil will become tired and lacking in essential nutrients.”
Crop rotation is also important to combat pests and diseases. Growing the same things all the time allows carrot fly and mildew to get a hold.
But rotating crops breaks their life cycles and helps to keep their populations small and relatively harmless. Think of it as spring cleaning your garden – an apt thing to be doing at this time of year.
Sue has drawn up a plan for The Journal garden which incorporates a mix of root and green vegetables, salad crops, fruit and herbs.
Once you have your scheme you can begin working out when your crops need to be planted. It’s a tad early at the moment to begin sowing and planting outdoors.
There are still jobs that can be done, though. The main leek crop can be started off in pots in the greenhouse or on a windowsill before being transferred outdoors in June or July when the seedlings are about six to eight inches high. This will give you a good crop from September through to the following April.
Other plants you can get going inside include lettuce, tomatoes and if you have a heated greenhouse, aubergines. Cabbages and broccoli can be started off indoors in April. It’s a good idea to grow brassicas from seed if you have the space. There is less chance of introducing the dreaded club root disease.
Outdoors, if the weather stays fair, you will be able to begin sowing crops such as carrots, parsnips and broad beans. The trick when sowing directly into the soil is to wait until it warms up. A good indicator the time is right is when the weeds start appearing again.
Peas, beetroot, potatoes, salad leaves and onion sets can all be successfully sown in the next few weeks.
You will find that growing your own quickly becomes an obsession as you watch your garden grow and begin to reap the benefits of your toil. And it all starts here.
See The Journal allotment for yourself at Gibside, near Rowlands Gill, Burnopfield, Gateshead, NE16 6BG, 01207 541 820, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gibside. Open daily 10am-5pm.
IN THE ALLOTMENT – JOBS FOR MARCH
Sow leeks in three-inch pots in the greenhouse or on a windowsill. Scatter the seed lightly.
Chit seed potatoes. This simply means encouraging them to sprout before they are planted out. To do this, stand the tubers with the blunt end uppermost in a tray (old egg boxes are good for this), in a cool but light location. The potatoes will be ready to plant out when the shoots are between 1.5cm-2.5cm in length.
If the weather permits sow the first row of carrots under protection or in raised beds to protect from carrot root fly.
GIBSIDE is holding a special Seasonal Gardeners’ Walk tomorrow, March 19, at 2.30pm. It’s your chance to discover what’s new in the garden this month – from blooming plants to growing tips – as well as see the latest progress on restoring the Shrubbery Walk to its 18th- Century glory.The walk, which lasts around 45 minutes, is free, although normal admission charges apply. For more information call 01207 541820.