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Tip of the month: April

Don't be hasty

“Patience is a virtue” they say.  It’s an old adage that’s as true for gardening as anything else. In fact, timing is the key to success with so many gardening tasks and unless you have patience you are likely to be caught out. Take sowing early veg , for example. Jumping the gun and sowing earlier in an attempt to get early harvests is futile if the soil or weather conditions aren’t suitable. The seed will either just lie there dormant until conditions are right, or worse, rot or be eaten – never to be seen again. Even if they do struggle to emerge, seedlings are likely to receive a check in growth if temperatures fall again. The plants will never fully recover and will be much more susceptible to pest and disease attack later on. In fact, you will get much more reliable results all round by waiting until temperatures rise and the soil dries a little, so that the seeds germinate immediately, establish quickly and romp away.

Perfect timing

Traditionally gardeners used to wait until the first flush of weed seeds emerged, before sowing their earliest crops outside. Today, though, you can check the soil temperature directly using a soil thermometer, which is particularly useful since not all seeds germinate at the same temperature. Cauliflowers, lettuce and peas, for example, need just 5oC, while beetroot, carrots and onions require 7oC, and French and runner beans at least 10oC. Take readings in the early morning just below the surface at the depth you intend to sow to get the most accurate information. In colder areas or if your soil is particularly heavy, you can still get early crops by sowing in pots indoors and planting out when the soil conditions improve.

Careful planning

The critical point of timing might not be right at the start of a process, but part way through. Take sowing tender bedding for example, which is sown in the cosseted environment of a propagator within a greenhouse, or coldframe or indoors on a windowsill, so germination temperatures aren’t a problem. Further down the road, though, the young plants will have to be planted out which is where potential disaster looms. If you’ve been hasty and sown too early the plants will be ready to plant out when the weather is too cold. If kept inside they will become cramped and leggy and never recover.

Don’t be seduced

It’s very tempting to buy lots of different plants when visiting garden centres at this time of year. Often you will see displays of tender bedding and vegetable plants for sale during April, regardless of the prevailing weather conditions outside. Buyer beware – only purchase tender plants if you  have somewhere you can keep them safe, such as a greenhouse, until the weather conditions improve. Even hardy plants that have been ‘brought-on’ by nurseries for early sale will require acclimatising to the harsher conditions outside before they can be planted outside. So ask at the retail outlet to make sure they have been hardened-off in this way before you buy.

Autumn sowing

Perhaps the exception to the rule is autumn sowing outside of some hardy annual and perennial flowers as well as certain vegetables. Provided your soil does not get waterlogged or remain too cold over the winter months, you can get peas and broad beans ready to eat by the end of May from an autumn sowing – which is several weeks ahead of spring-sown crops. Hardy annuals can be equally advanced with the first to bloom in May. My top tip with autumn sowings, however, is to protect them with cloches  to keep off the worst of the winter weather.