MONTH BY MONTH GUIDE
Timings are for southern England. Delay for up to three weeks for colder parts of the country.
Get on with winter digging if the ground is not frozen or sodden. Incorporate as much compost and rotted manure as you can. Order seed and seed potatoes. When the potatoes arrive spread them on a light, frost-free shelf to "chit" or sprout. Garlic and shallots can be planted at any time in winter if the ground is suitable. If you have a heated greenhouse or propagator, sow onions and celeriac.
If the weather is mild, you can risk a sowing of early peas or broad beans late this month - but keep some seed back, in case a late frost fells them. Start lettuce, carrots, radishes and turnips under cloches. Prepare seed bed in a sheltered position. Incorporate some compost from the compost heap: if you do not have one, sowing compost or the contents of a growing bag will help. Rake to a fine tilth.
Make your first serious outdoor sowings of summer and autumn vegetables on the seed bed. Most brassicas can safely be started now. Leeks and onions benefit from a long growing season, so they should be among the first sown. Onion sets can also be planted. Parsnips take their time, but sow them directly into your main plot, as they cannot be transplanted. Mark the row carefully and keep the hoe away until they are established and visible. You can risk putting in early potatoes but be prepared to earth them over if a frost is forecast after the first haulms have appeared. Indoors, sow tomatoes, aubergines and peppers in seed trays, moving them to pots when they are big enough.
Easter is the busiest weekend of the year, the traditional time for sowing maincrop potatoes, peas and much else. Make first sowings of carrots and beetroot where they will grow and broccoli in the seed bed, and successional sowings of vegetables you began last month. Runner beans and French beans can be started in pots indoors or out. Sow squashes, courgettes, marrows and sweetcorn in pots indoors.
Begin transplanting seedlings from the seed bed to the main plot, raking in some fertiliser. Brassicas are ready to be moved when they are three or four inches high. Dip the roots in a club root preventive mix. Build the support for your climbing beans and sow the seed, or transplant if you started them indoors. As potato haulms grow, draw the earth around them with a hoe. By the end of the month you should be able to plant out your tomatoes and other tender vegetables; but if the weather looks uncertain it does no harm to wait. Make sure they have enough support. From now until they start cropping, remove side shoots. Enjoy your first harvests of the season - spring cabbages and cauliflowers, lettuces and radishes, broad beans and early peas.
Transfer leeks to their final positions by making a hole with a dibber, dropping the seedling in and filling with water. As they grow, draw earth around the stems every few weeks. Chinese cabbage and other oriental vegetables can be sown from mid-month. If you do it earlier they bolt. Dig a few early potatoes: they will not have formed large tubers yet but the "new" taste is irresistible. Water everything regularly, particularly potatoes and leeks. Watch for the first sign of blackfly, and bring out the spray.
The really rewarding harvests begin this month, when you start picking peas and runner beans. Pick regularly, if they stay too long on the vine it discourages the production of new blossom. Courgettes, too, need to be cut when small, or they will grow into marrows. Dig up garlic and shallots when the leaves die down and let them dry out before storing. Chicory for winter salads can be sown now. A late sowing of almost any summer vegetable should produce crops into the autumn. Keep the hoe on the move to deter weeds. Rake fertiliser into the ground around growing crops to give them a midsummer boost.
Spring cabbages and winter lettuce are among the few seeds sown in late summer. But most of your time this month is spent gathering the fruits of your hard work. The first tomatoes, peppers and aubergines should be ready. When four or five trusses have formed on the tomatoes, pinch out the growing point to encourage the fruit to ripen. The haulms of early potatoes will have died back. If you leave the tubers in the ground they are liable to be attacked by slugs or wireworm, so dig them up and store them in a dark, cool place. Onions too should be lifted, dried and stored.
Brussels sprouts, cabbages and cauliflower need to be harvested as they mature, but you can leave leeks and parsnips in the ground until you are ready to use them. Finish digging the potatoes. Marrows, squashes and pumpkins should be rampaging all over the place. Let them ripen on the vine, then cut them off and store to prevent slug damage. As space is freed up, sow a green manure crop, such as winter beans or grazing rye, and dig in just before they flower next spring.
Tidying begins in earnest, as the summer vegetables disappear. Store bean poles and pea sticks for next year. Bring unripe tomatoes indoors. Late in the month sow Aquadulce broad beans for early crops next year. If you are not sowing a green manure you can start winter digging now - but remember that if you do it too early it might need another dig in spring.
More digging and clearing away. Peruse the seed catalogues for next year's order. One legend says you should plant garlic on the shortest day of the year. Enjoy your Christmas sprouts and parsnips.
BEANS, PEAS AND BABY VEG
Bean poles and pea sticks are emblems of the allotment and vegetable garden. The plants they support yield the crops that gain most from being eaten really fresh. Whether to grow climbing French beans or traditional runners depends on taste, but runners give a better yield. The conventional method is to sow the seed in the ground after the last frost, but I find germination poor when I do that. Instead I sow in pots indoors in early April, planting out in May.
Either way, the ground needs to have been well prepared, with plenty of compost dug in. I put my poles in a wigwam formation, 10 coming together in a point, because this makes good use of space, although it means I sometimes have to grope blindly in the centre to pick the beans. The traditional row of crossed poles is the most popular means of support. Plastic netting has to be well anchored to a frame.
I have never found much difference between the various varieties of runner bean. Desiree is a reliable stringless sort, while Enorma produces long pods. If you have neither time nor inclination to put up poles try Pickwick, a dwarf runner that needs no support and yields well. There is a wide choice of dwarf French beans, with flat pods (Masterpiece) or rounded (Prince). They even come with purple pods (Purple Teepee) or yellow (Golddukat).
Early peas should be sown now. Leave maincrops for another week or two. The varieties you choose will depend partly on the height of your support. If you have access to twiggy growths three feet long, then choose Early Onward or Hurst Green Shaft. If you have longer supports you will get a better yield from Alderman, climbing to nearly six feet. Many have switched to mangetout, where the yield is better because you cook the whole pod. Again, the height of the support could determine your choice.
One of the advantages of growing your own is that you can pick them in their infancy. Boil young broad bean pods whole; eat courgettes the size of little fingers and carrots even smaller; pick beetroot like ping-pong balls; all these are rare treats which might cost a fortune in the shops. You can even grow your own miniature cauliflowers and cabbages, but these must be grown fast and picked soon, or they will end up tasting the same as the larger versions. The caulis have a certain charm (choose Cargill from Thompson & Morgan, 01473 688 821). Noisette, a tiny Brussels sprout, is one of the sweetest tasting sprouts of all, but they are a fiddle to prepare. The Organic Gardening Catalogue (from the Henry Doubleday Research Association, 01203 303 517) lists this and many other unusual and extra delicious vegetables. Tom Thumb is a good tiny lettuce, and Minicole a cabbage for small plots and small appetites.