For the gardener, February may not be the greatest month, but at least the first primroses arrive to brighten the garden. Those with polythene and cloches can get ahead and warm soil for early March sowings, and some will have plenty of winter greens hanging on. Check under cloches for slugs and open to the air on warmer days to stop moulds and botrytis on young seedlings. Start sowing broad beans and peas in succession, protected sowings of rocket, oriental greens for cut-and-come-again, leeks and lettuce.
• Complete all digging by the end of February and dig-in the majority of your green manures. Hungarian grazing ryes contain germination inhibitors and need two weeks to break down before you can sow.
• To dig-in green manures, either roughly chop the top growth and turn it into the soil, or leave leguminous vetches and field beans as a mulch, although this can entice slugs. Green manures with a large amount of top growth, or those that have become too mature to easily dig in, can be added to the compost. This source of green (nitrogen) is valuable in reactivating a heap that has stood still over winter.
• Never work on wet or sticky soil. It will ruin the structure of the soil and reduce crop growth.
• When digging wear practical boots with steel shanks. Flimsy footwear will give you sore feet.
• Start warming prepared beds. Cloches and clear plastic are best at warming, and keep the soil dry, making a big difference in early spring sowings. Carpets, hessian and fleece also warm soil, but don’t keep it dry. Beware of slugs.
• Adopt the ‘no-dig’ technique. Add copious amounts of organic matter to the top of the soil (usually in raised beds) and sow seeds on the surface. As the vegetables grow, add more compost around them. Worms and other soil organisms will incorporate this matter into the ground over the growing season, doing the ‘digging’ for you. You will need large amounts of organic matter; partially rotted straw can be used as the base layer. You’ll get slugs, but impressive results too, particularly on heavy soil.
What to cut
• Harvest oriental greens, Japanese bunching onions and spring onions, endives, parsnips, leeks and celeriac. The first autumn-sown salads should be maturing and, in the greenhouse, cut-and-come-again, micro greens and pea shoots.
What to sow
• Somewhere sheltered, sow beetroot, rocket, broad beans, summer and autumn cabbage, bunching and spring onions, leeks, carrots, kales, peas and radish.
• Under heat, sow leeks, onions, celeriac, celery, globe artichokes and hybrid broccolis.
February is a good month to get lost in seed catalogues, but order quickly, particularly rarer heirloom seeds, which are produced in small batches that sell out quickly. Here are some of my tips for good cultivars to order over the next few weeks:
Tried & tested cultivars
• I love tomatillos. Simpson’s Seeds has ‘Mexican Green Husk’, the Organic Gardening Catalogue offers ‘Mexican’ and ‘Violet’, and Real Seeds offers a ‘Verde Pueblo’, with a mild skin. Roast to sweeten, and use as tomatoes. They crop whatever the weather. Sow February to March under heat. Plant out after the last frost.
• Komatsuma and tatsoi are good alternatives to spinach, particularly if you have slugs or your spinach bolts. Tatsoi produces many leaves and is easy to grow. Sow midsummer for autumn/winter eating.
• Last year’s wet and cold was not good for winter squash and pumpkins, but Franchi’s ‘Berrettina Piacentina’ was a success for us.
• I’m on the lookout for the most handsome veg this year. Chiltern Seeds’ Basil Collection has six cultivars, all pretty in any border and great used for pestos. I love purple pak choi, with its yellow flowers. Stems, leaves and flowers can be stir-fried. Sown in autumn, it will be ready to harvest in spring.
• Chop suey (chrysanthemum greens) are best fried or steamed. Pick young stems regularly and you’ll get second and third flushes. Mature plants bear orange flowers that taste good in autumn stews.
• I’ve had it with cardoons. Too much fuss to cook and overused in the flower border. I’m replacing mine with artichoke ‘Violetta di Chioggia’. It has all the stature of the cardoon and large purple flower heads for the table.
• I grew several snow peas last year, all as pretty as a sweet pea. Mange tout ‘Carouby de Maussane’ (Organic Seed Catalogue/Chiltern Seeds) has purple flowers; ‘Ezethas Krombek Blauwschok’ has grey/purple flowers and lovely purple-pods – perfect for the border.
• For pretty lettuces I’m growing ‘Flame’ (Real Seeds), a red, loose-leaf type that’s slow to bolt, and the dark red, oak-leaved ‘Delicato’ for salads from late summer to early winter. The Romaine ‘Devil’s Tongue’ (Real Seeds) has big red- purple leaves and looks lovely with frilly crisp head ‘Reine des Glaces’ (Real Seeds). ‘Catalogna’ is a loose dandelion-leaved type, fairly slug-resistant, and looks great with the red-edged, pointy leaves of ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ (Simpson’s Seeds).
• The prettiest mustards are ‘Green Wave’ (Real Seeds) and ‘Red Frills’ (Jekka McVicar). Both are mild, but by the end of winter they have a heat that needs to be steamed rather than eaten raw.
Click here to read Alys's recommended vegetable seed suppliers.
Alys Fowler studied horticulture at Wisley and is now a regular presenter on BBC Gardeners’ World television