During January we experienced many hard frosts and very little rain. It has started to feel like a 'proper' old-fashioned winter; the ground has been unworkable for much of the month, and we wonder whether February will continue where January left off? If we could actually get the parsnips out of the soil, we are sure we would appreciate that sweetness which hard frosts give the roots!
If you have not already placed your seed order with us, we do urge you to do so soon, before varieties start to sell out. We always find that new varieties go very quickly, with so many of you keen to try what is new for the season ahead. If you prefer to buy young plants rather than grow from seed, there is still some time to consider your requirements for this summer.
Flowers and Shrubs
Did you know that quite a number of perennial flowers will bloom in their first year if the seed is sown during February in gentle warmth? This means you have a great many more options for summer-flowering plants, rather than relying solely on annuals. Perennials have the advantage that they will re-flower as bigger, better plants in subsequent years, so you really get your money's worth when you grow them. Look out for the symbol in our catalogue which tells you whether a perennial can be treated in this way. Achillea, agastache, delphinium, gaillardia, helenium and verbsacum all fall into this category - so why not get sowing now?
February is also the ideal month to sow seed of slower growing half-hardy annuals, or half-hardy perennials usually treated as such. Fibrous and tuberous rooted begonias, geraniums (zonal pelargoniums) and antirrhinums are three which immediately spring to mind in this category. New for 2017 are Begonia Show Angels Mixed F1, a large flowered, tuberous type, Geranium Quantum Mixed F1 with its unusual, star-shaped flowers, and Antirrhinum Antiquity, which has unconventionally open-faced blooms. All can be sown either in a heated propagator or in small pots on a warm windowsill.
If you planted any shrubs in the autumn, check them to see they're still growing firmly in the soil, as winter winds may have rocked them and made them become loose. If this is the case, heel soil into the base of the plants to protect against further movement. Herbaceous perennials can have some of the same treatment. The soil around them contracts and expands with freezing and thawing, often resulting in the plants pushing themselves out of the ground.
Autumn and winter flowering shrubs that are starting to fade and lose their blooms can now be pruned. The prunings can be shredded and added to the compost heap or used as a mulch or soil conditioner. Now is also a good time to prune summer and autumn flowering clematis, just as the buds start to swell.
Hyacinths are popular indoor plants for the winter months, but there is no need to discard them when they have finished flowering for the season. As the foliage dies back and turns yellow and then brown, they can be planted outside, where they will usually flower for several springs to come. Plant them a few inches deep, either direct in borders or in large pots. If you can plant them close to a door of the house, you will be able to enjoy their heady perfume every time you go out or come back in.
Ornamental grasses are coming back into vogue, but they can look a bit tatty at this time of year. We suggest cutting them back almost to ground level, from where they will make plenty of healthy new growth as spring progresses. The foliage of several grasses can be sharp, so it is a good idea to use thick gloves when cutting them back.
Evergreens and conifers are not as popular as they once were, but they do provide colour interest at this gloomy time of year - and they also give welcome shelter and warmth for a host of wild birds.
And how about this for patience and determination! Despite having been a grower for more than 50 years, our trials manager Brian still enjoys a horticultural challenge. During those years he has learned the value of patience, and nowhere more so than with his experience of Strelitzia reginae, also known as bird of paradise.
Brian sowed some seed of the flamboyant South African native back in 2008, and waited for it to germinate in his greenhouse; the process took two years, but finally green shoots emerged. He has been nurturing the plants ever since, and in December 2016 he was rewarded when the first flower appeared on a 2m tall plant - six years after it first emerged.
"It has been growing in general purpose compost all that time", explains Brian, "and it even managed to survive being frosted once, despite its tenderness. It's great to see it flowering after all that time!"
Brian tells us that in the wild, Strelitzia reginae is thought to be pollinated by the sunbird (Nectarinia afra), which lands on the corolla tongue or spathe, probing for nectar. The tongue opens, pollen is released on to the bird's feet and feathers, from where it is transferred to the swollen stigma of another flower. Gardeners who fancy a similar challenge to Brian's can buy a packet of 10 seeds of Strelitzia reginae for £2.55.
We are celebrating 2017 as the Year of the Bean - will you join us? Of course, it's too early to sow runner, French and climbing beans at the moment, but do consider ordering your seed now ready for sowing from April onwards. We have some splendid new varieties which we strongly recommend. New and exclusive is our Guinness Record, which we believe will prove to be well-named. Whether you grow for the kitchen, as most of us do, or like to enter a few pods in the local horticultural show, this really is worth trying. It produces heavy crops of long, smooth, delicious pods, which can reach 50cm (20in) long with good growing. It's red flowered and has resistance to all bean viruses.
Also new and exclusive is runner bean Snowdrift which has (you've guessed!) white flowers. Its pods set really well in all conditions to produce a bumper crop of succulent fleshy beans. Our trio of new and exclusive 'runners' is completed by peach flowered Aurora. We gave a gardening writer a trial packet of 30 seeds of this last spring; he reported 100% germination, a bumper crop of really tasty beans, and reckoned the plants were as ornamental as they beans were delicious!
If your soil is reasonably light and weather conditions are favourable, you may feel like making a sowing of parsnip or carrot seed later in the month. Remember no seed will germinate in cold, wet soil, but if you can provide some cloche cover for a week or two before sowing, the soil temperature will rise and it will dry out enough to make a sowing worthwhile. Replacing the cloches after sowing will be of real benefit too, but if you are unsure or cannot offer such protection, it is usually better to wait until March before making your first outdoor sowings of the new year.
Have you ordered your seed potatoes? There is still time, but many varieties do sell out fast at this time of year. When you receive them from us, we advise 'chitting' them to aid the formation of short, stubby shoots so that when they are planted later on they will have the best start. This chitting process is really nothing more than standing them upright - old egg boxes are perfect for this - with the buds facing upwards in a light, cool, frost-free place for a few weeks. Look out for our three new varieties - second earlies Elfe and Gemson, plus maincrop Pink Gypsy. Elfe has a sweet, buttery flesh, Gemson boasts Maris peer as one of its parents, while Pink Gypsy has unusual pink and white skin.
We know brassicas are really popular with many of our customers, and we strive to bring you the best new varieties. New and exclusive for the 2017 season is the really rather regally named Brussels sprout Windsor F1. Sown from February to April, it will produce a fine crop of firm, dark buttons from December through to February, making this British-bred strain ideal for Christmas lunch.
Cauliflower Triomphant F1 is also new to our list. This holder of a prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society will also be ready around Christmas and into January. It has pure white heads, which remain well protected by ample foliage. Don't sow the seed of this one until May, though.
Our sales certainly suggest that kale is coming back into popularity with UK gardeners. We think they will be tempted by our new and exclusive variety called Red Devil. This really looks attractive, with a red vein running down the middle of each leaf. More importantly, it has a lovely flavour, whether picked young as baby leaves (an ever-growing trend with kale) or left to mature. Red Devil is also ultra-hardy, providing valuable 'greens' even in the worst of our weather.
We have once again given some of our vegetable seeds to the Chernobyl Children's Appeal, set up by Peterborough couple John and Rosie Sandall to support families of victims of the world's worst nuclear power accident, which happened in the former USSR in April 1986. The Sandalls have visited Chernobyl in Ukraine twice yearly for the last two decades, taking with them much-needed supplies and funds raised solely by themselves Unfortunately, the after-effects of that accident more than 30 years ago are still being felt by the people who live there.
John and Rosie tell us tomatoes, squashes and cucumbers being particularly popular with the families who grow them wherever they can in their gardens. Chernobyl's continental climate means temperatures can range from 35°C in summer to well below 0°C in winter, which can be challenging for vegetable growers.