Urban gardener: Ready, steady, sow

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The Independent Online

A couple of weeks ago, some friends who have taken on an allotment in nearby Tolworth in Surrey, proudly showed me their French beans that had germinated on the windowsill.

"A bit early for that isn't it?" I said thoughtlessly deflating the overwhelming sense of pride as the lank seedlings, looking like a group of bleary-eyed, anorexic models on an early morning shoot, were fanfared into the room. Mercilessly, I twisted the knife, "You're at least two months early. In fact, we probably won't plant ours until June."

I remember those virgin steps well. Taking on our plot for the first time we planted everything we could get hold of and filled every available surface at home with trays of seedlings destined for nothing more than a protracted death at the hands of inclement weather or waking slugs. It was a complete disaster and we very nearly gave up. Eight seasons later and, while we are still very much beginners in the eyes of seasoned allotment stalwarts, experience has helped us quell the rising panic that there isn't the time to keep on top of all the tasks associated with the vegetable garden at this time of year while holding down a day job.

Climate change has done much to fuel the alarming pace at which things happen from now on, so you have to keep your nerve, accept your time restraints and do things when convenient rather than when the books tell you. We generally sow our seeds a bit later than usual when the soil is warmer, germination quicker and the initial feeding frenzy from slugs has abated or at least divided among plenty of other emerging plants. But with Chelsea nipping our heels and effectively wiping the month of May from our calendar some organisation will be necessary if we're going to get any produce from our plot this season.

Last year we gardened using the lunar calendar which, whether you believe in it or not, can help maintain a semblance of order. The theory of gravitational forces affecting growth seems plausible enough, the waxing moon drawing up moisture and benefiting leaf growth, the waning moon concentrating forces below ground and boosting root growth. I can't say if there was any improvement in the quality of produce but the practice of dividing vegetables into separate categories (leaf, flower, fruit, root) and dealing with just one category on any given day did help to plan sessions of seed sowing, pricking out and harvesting in a state of dignified calm.

I've only just ordered my new calendar ( www.lunarorganics.com) and did mean to wait until it arrived before planting anything but was unable to resist a period of settled weather at the beginning of this month in which to plant our first early potatoes ('Rocket'). I also sowed parsnip, carrot and onion seeds. The onions will be OK but there's more chance of Brentford FC getting automatic promotion this year than this first batch of parsnips and carrots surviving the initial wave of slug attack. The thing is, it was old seed, although not past its sell-by date, and the creased packet had a sort of ambivalence about it, shrugging its shoulders as if to say "Oh well, cheerio" before going over the top. Feeling good about planting seed knowing that you're potentially sending it to its doom is, I admit, slightly perverse. But sowing seed in open ground is a potent affirmation of the start of a new season. If they have to be sown again and again, so be it.

This weekend, weather permitting, will be busy. Lettuce that I'd sown late autumn and over-wintered in the greenhouse is already cropping so more will be sown along with other salads. Beetroot and leeks will be sown under cover (beetroot in plugs, leeks in a wide deep pot), and transplanted when they reach a decent size. Outside onion sets might go in and I may also follow a friend's lead and sow some carrots in large containers on shelving where not only slugs but carrot fly can't do any harm. It's not really the same. Pulling a carrot from the ground has a better feel to it than emptying it out of a pot but if the ones in open ground don't make it then second best is better than nothing.