Diarmuid Gavin: Veg out... it's time to get planting
As soil is finally starting to warm up, it's time to get planting vegetables outside
April has arrived and while the days are lengthening the weather remains turbulent, with driving rain and some sleet and snow blighting the Easter weekend. However, I'm an optimist and believe that now the soil will warm up, so we should turn our attention to the veg patch.
In milder areas you may already have started sowing directly outdoors but in many parts of the country conditions will only now be right for this job. I spent a few days in County Kerry over the holiday period and a friend there reckons they are three weeks late getting spuds into the ground. It all depends on our soil types. Clay will stay cold and wet longer than a light sandy soil. Sow too soon and germination will be patchy and seedlings slow to take off.
We can be scientific about this and get a thermometer to test the soil: +7 degrees is sufficient for most of our hardy veg to get going. Or you can ask a local allotment or veg gardener and copy what they are doing. Once I see weed seedlings emerging, I take this as a green signal to get sowing.
Nature has a wonderful way of adjusting to seasonal variants so let's not get caught up in how challenging the early part of this year has been. We've not missed out on a growing season yet so if we get to work now we may still catch up.
The following seeds can go straight to their planting positions outside - broad beans, carrots, parsnips, beetroot (right), spring onions, lettuces, radish, peas, spinach, summer cabbage, salad leaves, leeks, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, turnip and summer cauliflower. You can also plant onion sets, early potatoes, Jerusalem artichoke tubers and asparagus. Wait until early May to sow French beans (above) and sweet corn outdoors. The following will only germinate indoors at the moment: marrows, courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, aubergine and cucumbers.
Don't use all your seeds at once; you'll usually find there's plenty in the packets. Keep some back for sowing in a few weeks' time. This is called successional sowing and helps to prevent you having a glut of a single crop at one time.
If weather has been clement, you may already have prepared the seedbeds. If not, make sure the area is weed- and stone-free and rake over the top to provide a fine crumbly surface. The finer the tilth, the easier it is for smaller seeds to push through. If there are big clods of soil, a small seed can get buried under it or suspended in an air hole with no way of getting moisture or rooting.
Create a drill - a shallow indent - by dragging a stick or hoe across the soil. Straight lines are best, then any rogue weed seedlings are easily spotted diverging from the line. Consult your seed packet (these are usually full of useful advice) for when to sow, how deep and how thinly. Don't worry too much with fine seed - it is difficult to spread evenly but once seedlings emerge, you can thin them out so there is room for each to develop.
If you find it too tricky, try seed tape. This is where the seeds come pre-packaged at their correct spacing in a biodegradable mat. As with seeds, just cover lightly with soil. Now gently water in using a rose on a watering can or hose so you are not disturbing them. Keep an eye on the weather. If it doesn't rain in the next few days, give them another sprinkle.
Finally, label what you have sown - it's easy to forget! You can make this a fun project with children as a way of getting them involved in the process. Use your imagination and recycle objects. Labels can be made from old wine corks, clothes pegs, wooden spoons, jam jars, pencils, clothes hangers, small terracotta pots turned upside down, jam jars, broken bits of terracotta, twigs, stones - just something to identify which row is which.
If it's practical to write on the label, include the date. This will help you assess their progress, if they are doing well or otherwise. Now the exciting wait begins.