It’s still a bit nippy out in the garden these days but it won’t be long before it’s time to harden-off your little seedlings so that you can plant them out in the soil. You’ll know your seedlings are ready to plant out once they’ve developed a few ‘true leaves’, i.e recognisable leaves of the plant, and a firm stem. I heard Monty Don saying that you know the soil is warm enough to plant into when it doesn’t feel cold to the touch. So with that on the horizon let’s get ready.
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Hardening-off is the process of acclimatising plants, grown indoors, to external temperatures. You start by putting them out in a sheltered spot (with little or no wind) on mild days out of direct sunshine, remembering to take them in at night. As the weather gets milder you can start to leave them out over-night and once the seedlings have spent at least 3 nights outside and no cold-snaps are due you can plant them out into the soil.
Planting Seeds Directly
Not all seeds need to be started under cover. Some can be planted directly into the ground as soon as the weather is warm and dry enough. This is particularly useful if you don’t have a green house or space to start seedlings indoors. Here’s a link to a handy seed planting calculator that’s best on the date of the last frost in your area. Clever, eh?
As with seedlings you can cover directly-sown needs with a cloche (see below) to speed up germination and growth.
Where to Plant your Seedlings and Seeds
If you can, plan your fruit and veg patch over the winter so that you don’t lose valuable planting time in the spring.
Aim to locate plants so that they get the appropriate amount of sun. We assume that all plants want full sun all the time but this can cause salad leads to go to seed (bolt) very quickly and it can stress some plants leading to wilt or midlew. Here is a handy infographic on the light levels required by different plants. If your plot is in full sun you might use sun-loving plants in front and use their shadow to shield lower-light-loving plants.
Once you’ve settled on the right spot for your plants have a think about where they’ll move to next year. You need to rotate the location of your crops in order to avoid a build up of diseases and pests in the soil. The tried and tested rotation is to have root vegetables follow onions, which follow brassicas, which follow legumes, which follow potatoes. I find the following mnemonic a great way to remember this sequence; ‘People Love Bunches of Roses’
People – Potatoes are great at breaking up the soil.
Love – Legumes and fruiting vegetables such as peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers fix nitrogen into the soil
Bunches – Brassicas such as brocolli, cabbages, brussel sprouts. These are hungry plants and will love the nitrogen left in the soil for them by the legumes.
Of – Onions, Garlic. You can leave this one out if you don’t have the space.
Roses – Root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, leeks, onions etc. These guys don’t need much nitrogen so will do okay in soil that had brassicas in it previously.
If you don’t want to grow potatoes or onions you can just leave them out and plant legumes, brassicas and then roots. Any other vegetables not on this list can just be planted in spots that had roots last year.
Some plants do very well when planted with well-suited companions; called companion planting. For example Native American’s would plant squash, corn and beans together. The corn would shade the moisture loving squash and provide support for the beans to climb and after the corn and beans were harvested the squash would enjoy the extra space and ripen in jig time. Similarly some say that planting onions or garlic close to carrots masks the smell of the carrots thereby helping to camouflage them from the carrot rootfly. The website Tipsplants.com have a very useful infographic on companion planting that you may find useful. The same information in a very easy to read companion planting graph is available fro One Creative Mommy.
How to Plant
Most seedlings can just be popped into the ground when it’s time for planting out but some plants like brassicas and sweetcorn need some extra tlc. Brassica seedlings need to be planted deeply to prevent their long stalks from blowing around in the wind and getting damaged, while sweetcorn needs to be planted in blocks to help with wind pollination. It’d take too long for me to go into all of the various vegetables here so I suggest you find out if the veg you’re growing need special treatment in this guide on growing vegetables in Ireland from the Green Vegetable Seeds.
Whatever you are planting remember to make sure the seedling is firmly planted, being careful not to damage the stem, and well watered in. I would then water watch it regularly in the first week to make sure it doesn’t dry out and then just once a week after that.
For extra insurance can cloche your newly planted babies with some plastic sheeting or fleece (see below).
If you’re planting seeds directly in the soil remember to stagger the planting of these so that you don’t end up with a glut of vegetables all ready at the same time.
Most seedlings don’t tend supporting when first planted, it tends to be something that you can address as they grow but that’s not the case for vegetables that you want to train up a structure like peas, beans, cucumber or squashes. These are best planted at the base of a support structure from the get go.
Climbing plants can be left to trail on the ground if you prefer, this is less work initially but the fruit may not get exposed to enough sun and it takes up much more space than growing them vertically. Plus if we’ve a very wet summer the fruits can rot on the plant, along with the slugs having a good old much of them.
The type of structure you go for will depend on the number of plants and the weight of final fruit. The simplest structure for something like peas and beans is to tie 3 or 4 (or more) bamboo or willow sticks in a tepee structure. You then plant your seedlings at the base of each stick and either tie them onto the canes as they grow or wrap the structure with some support netting that the plants can wrap their tendrils around. This support netting comes in plastic or jute. I would think jute would be the better option because at the end of the season it can be impossible to separate the plant material from the support netting so compost the whole lot together, which you can do with the jute version, might be the easiest option.
You could make a more elaborate support structure from bamboo canes or opt for something sturdy like this ready-made pea and bean support frame from Quickcrop.ie.
Lovely Greens has an excellent tutorial on how to build a support for cucumbers from a pallet.
When we’re planting seeds or seedlings we have 2 challenges to manage; weather and pests. If it’s too cold the poor little seeds or seedlings won’t grow and they’ll wither and die. Similarly if it’s too wet, they’ll just be drowned and probably rot off. It’s hard to do much about the weather other than water your seedlings when it’s very dry or windy – wind dries out plants just as much as sun – and support them so they don’t get bashed around by the wind.
Pests will vary garden to garden, in mine it’s birds (particularly pigeons), squirrels, butterflies and slugs. You may not have much of an issue with pests so don’t be alarmed by the following information on cloches and fruit / veg cages. You may not need them at all. I didn’t have much of an issue with pests in my first garden but we’re under constant attack in my current one. I’d suggest doing nothing for the first year, see what you need and then plan over the winter for the following one. Cloches and cages can be great if you need them but they are a hassle, and sometimes expensive, to construct and can make weeding or harvesting your fruit and veg quite a palava.
Plants are at their most vulnerable when they’re young and the growth is soft. Once plants get established they may get nibbled by slugs but typically they can stand their own. It’s really only in the early days that you need to be very vigilant.
In my quest for natural slug deterrents I’ve trialled crushed egg shells, copper tape barriers, rings of coffee grounds and sharp sand around plants but none of these have managed to keep these little beasties away. I’ve also tried organic bird-safe slug pellets but as with most slug pellets didn’t see much benefit. If you don’t need to protect many plants you might want to try wool pellets, which I’ve heard work very well but haven’t tried myself. To date the only thing that has worked for us to date is Nemaslug, particularly when it’s applied early on in the season. I’ve just bought a standard pack from Mr Middleton and will be applying it in the next couple of weeks. You can farm your own anti-slug nematodes, if you have the stomach for the process.
I’ve been told that the ultimate treatment for slugs and snails is a hedgehog or a frog, which is why I’m planning to build a wee pond in my garden this year or next. Apparently having a pond in a garden is guaranteed to attract frogs. I’ll keep you posted on my findings!
Pigeons & Birds
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) are particularly attractive to the hoards of pigeons that frequent my estate. I’ve tried hanging old CDs around as bird scares but with no joy. If we don’t net our broccoli plants pigeons will have them stripped bare in 24 hours. The same goes for our fruits bushes, which are constantly raided by squirrels and birds in my garden.
Of course it’s not butterflies that actually damage the plants, it’s their little babies, who can munch their way through your precious plants in jig time. A friend told me that the cabbage white butterfly is territorial and will run a mile if you position a fake white butterfly, made from a milk bottle, near the susceptible plants. I’ll test this out this summer and let you know how it goes.
Cloches and Cages
Cloches are the most popular, and basic, form of plant protection in gardens. They can either be for individual plants or for a row of plants. You can vary the height of cloche hoops to suit the plants you’re protecting but sometimes it’s more efficient to protect plants in a rectangular cage.
Cloches – Individual cloches range from beautiful wire or glass bell cloches (see below) or glass lantern to a simple milk carton with the bottom cut off it.
Most fruit and veg gardeners cloche a row of plants, which can be done with a rigid cloche, made from solid sheeting and supports or flexible, made with hoops and a net or fabric covering. Rigid cloches can be homemade, see image above, or bought ready made as a complete system.
Flexible cloches can also be bought as a complete system, like those from Easy Tunnel (see above) or made with separate hoops and covering.
When it comes to cloche hoops the world is your oyster; from DIY options (see above) to crafted elegant metal versions the stunning metal cloche hoops from Agriframes shown at the top of this article (see top photo)
or these rustic cloche hoops from Plant Belle Shop in the UK. Just be aware that, although pretty, uncoated metal frames in the garden will rust and this rust can stain hands, clothes and fleece.
or these modern rectangular aluminium ones from Gardening Naturally
We have two Easy Tunnels and they work very well, but we find them a bit narrow for our beds at 450mm wide. This year we’re going to give these 860mm wide bamboo cloche hoops a try. If the size suits our garden we may well invest in metal ones in time.
Of course you’ll need to cover your cloche supports with some sort of covering and I go through the options at the bottom of this article.
Fruit / Veg Cages – You can buy lots of proprietary cage support structures online, made from timber or metal or bamboo, but if you’re starting out you might want to keep costs low and construct one yourself.
DIY cages are composed of two parts, the support and the covering. The support can be as simple as posts fitted with terracotta caps that you drape the covering across and pinned to the soil or weighted down with bricks or stones along the edge.
Another option is to make a frame from bamboo canes. We’ve tried this in the past but we found it impossible to tie the canes together to create a strong enough support. I managed to pick up these cane connectors on my travels and gave them a try this year. They worked to a point. It was hard to find canes with just the right size to fit into the holes and when i did the overall structure wasn’t very sturdy. I suggest these are okay for small cages but not large ones. Another cane connector I came across, which can be used with aluminium bars is called a Buildaball. Maybe this would result in a more robust cage.
Here’s a big daddy of fruit cages, made using a DIY kit from Hubs in the UK. Stunning, isn’t it?
Sheeting for Cloches and Cages – Whether you’re using cloches or cages you’ll need something to cover it and different forms of sheeting serve different functions;
- netting protects from pests,
- fleece can protect from pests and the cold. The use fleece in my garden it to protect carrots from carrot root fly up to June.
- plastic sheeting (rigid or soft) can protect from the weather and create an micro-climate inside the cloche, speeding up germination and growth.
When it comes to netting the most important thing is the size of the holes. A net with large holes may stop birds but it’ll be useless for butterflies so go for 10mm x 10mm or lower to stop these critters. I’ve recently found butterfly netting that’s 5mm x 7mm, which is what I’m going to use in my garden over my broccoli, but if you need to protect plants that are insect pollinated be careful not to go so small as they’ll be kept out too! There is a form of netting with holes so small it looks more like fleece. Called enviromesh, this form of sheeting protects plants from sun, insects and heavy rain while letting moisture and air to pass through.
Most of the netting on the Irish market is hard and not very flexible. This is fine for simple structures, over hoops to make a cloche, but it’ll drive you crazy if you’re trying to pull it over square or rectangular frames. For this reason I’d recommend a woven mesh netting like this one from Fruithill Farm in Cork. If you want less than the 4m x 10m size that Fruithill farm sell you can order it by the length from Gardening Naturally in England. They don’t deliver to Ireland so you’ll have to use Parcel Motel, or similar to have it delivered to Ireland.
Whatever netting you go with make sure it’s pulled taut. Loose netting is a real hazard to birds as they can get tangled up in it if they land on it.
I think that’s enough for now. Time to get out into the garden!
Check out the other articles in this series
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Design and Layout
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Raising seedlings,
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Feeding and Watering,
- Wildlife Friendly Gardening
- Sustainable Gardening Hacks
- Guide to Composters and Composting