Gardening: It's time to start sowing spinach, broccoli and cabbage

 

Last month, vegetable gardeners may have been able to get their broad beans in, as well as their onion sets. This month you could be sowing beetroot, carrots, chard, parsnips, peas, radish, spinach and spring onions. If the soil is workable and not too wet, all these can be sown direct into the ground outside. Under cover you might sow borlotti beans, French beans and runner beans, celeriac, courgettes, cucumber, leeks, pumpkins and squash of various kinds, sweetcorn and tomatoes as well as a wide range of salad crops.

I haven't mentioned any of the broccolis, Brussels sprouts, kale or the many different cabbages that are available now. If you are growing from seed, these should be started off this month, too. But I wouldn't. Grow from seed, I mean. Purple sprouting broccoli is one of the most delicious vegetables in the world, but if you grow it from seed, it ties up time and attention for a very long period. I used to do it, when I was intent on growing every fruit and vegetable that could survive outside in our kitchen garden. In fact, I did it for ages. Now I'd take the easier (though more expensive) option of ordering young plants instead.

If you order straightaway, Delfland Nurseries, who grow all their stock organically, can deliver the pointed cabbage 'Caraflex' or the round cabbage 'Drago' (both £1.95 for five plants). They can also send 'Iron Man' calabrese and 'Freedom' cauliflower immediately (both £1.95 for five plants).

Or you can forget about broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower until June, when Delfland send out their second wave of brassicas (the catch-all term for the cabbage tribe). Then you'll be able to get the very early sprouting broccoli 'Santee', Brussels sprout 'Nautic', 'January King' and 'Stanton' cabbage, red cabbage 'Buscaro', purple cauliflower 'Graffiti' and the lime-green Romanesco cauliflower 'Veronica' all for £1.95 for a pack of five.

That's what I would do, if I were still growing vegetables on the scale that I used to. By June, you'll have got over the flurry of planting seed that occupies so much gardening time this month and will be ready to guard your new plants from birds and other marauders.

If you are short of time as well as short of space, then you have to sit down and work out what you can realistically achieve in terms of growing your own. Some vegetables, such as leeks, may be easy to grow, but they are also cheap to buy and the flavour of shop-bought leeks is much the same as the ones that you grow yourself. That may be a crop you can do without. I'd say the same about parsnips.

Spinach is a different matter. It is absurdly expensive to buy and, as all cooks know, you need an awful lot of it to feed even two people. Since we've discovered that it is as delicious as a salad leaf as it is as a cooked vegetable, there are twice as many reasons to grow it. If you only want to pick it for salads, you can sow seed in a big pot and cut the leaves when they are 5-8cm high.

If you make your own compost, use this to fill at least half the pot (one about 28-30cm across will be best). Top up with multi-purpose compost, then water the pot and allow it to drain. Sow seed as thinly as possible. 'Apollo' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.29) and 'Missouri' (Chiltern Seeds, £1.70) are both good for salad leaves. Sift or sprinkle a thin > layer of compost over the seed and firm down with your hand. Water again and cover the pot with a pane of glass until the seed has germinated. Once it is through, spinach grows quickly, but it must never go short of water.

For full-size leaves, you can sow first in a gutter under cover, or direct in the ground. The gutter method is useful if the ground is still too wet to sow (and if you've somewhere to keep the gutter – either a cold frame or greenhouse). Fill a length of gutter with compost, water it and sow seed as if you were sowing in a pot. When the seed has germinated, slide the seedlings into a gutter-shaped depression in the ground. Firm them in and water them well. 'Medania' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.29) is a useful variety as it stands well in the ground and is reluctant to bolt.

True spinach is an annual, unlike less well-flavoured New Zealand spinach which is perennial. And because it's an annual, true spinach just wants to set seed and perpetuate itself. Little and often is the best way to sow and the good news is that it will succeed in (indeed does better in) light shade. It grows best in rich, damp soil in cool weather. Sow proper spinach from April to May and again in September to October. Feast on it in spring and autumn and do not expect too much from it during high summer, when your salad spinach can fill the gap.

Find time to

Split plants

Herbaceous perennials such as day lilies are already galloping into growth, but where plants are still of manageable size, clumps of polygonum, campanulas, and daisies such as rudbeckia and helenium can be split up and replanted. Old clumps tend to die out in the centre (their version of going bald) with the strongest growth round the edges of a clump. A sharp downward chop with a spade detaches the pieces that are worth replanting. This is easier than fighting with two forks back-to-back in the manner approved in How To gardening books.

Repot camellias

Camellias in pots that have now finished their display, may need repotting in a slightly larger container. Use special ericaceous compost, as they hate any hint of lime and show their indignation in their leaves. Yellow veins begin to disfigure the glossy green. Snip off dead flowers, which camellias are strangely unwilling to let drop.

Think about

More pruning

Cut the strongest stems of late summer flowering shrubs, such as caryopteris, hard back to a new bud at the base. Take out weak stems altogether. You don't need to prune orange or lemon trees regularly, but you can nip back dominant shoots now if you want the tree to keep a rounded, balanced shape. Eucalyptus can be stooled back now, too, if you want to grow it as a bush, rather than a tree. This means that you keep the juvenile rounded foliage, useful with cut flowers, rather than letting the tree develop the longer leaves of adulthood.

Clipping ivy

For a neat, hedge-like look, clip ivy growing on walls or fences. Do it with shears, rather than secateurs. You can clip right back to the clinging stems. The ivy will look naked for a while, but soon there will be new foliage, tight and tidy against its support. If you can be bothered to brush out old dead leaves as well, the effect will be even better.

Cut lawns

Lawns are looking at their worst now. The grass has been growing but there has been little opportunity to get out and cut it. The first cut of the year should be higher than normal. Then you gradually work down to the height that you want. Lawn edges might also need tidying up or recutting with a half moon or sharp spade.

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