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Cheating

Last year's carrot seedlings tucked up under a nice cosy cloche

When you’re faced with stubbornly and relentlessly chilly weather like this at a time when you’re straining at the leash to get seeds into the ground and growing, there’s only one thing you can do: cheat.

Actually, there are two things really. You can also be sensible, and patient, and wait for a month or so until temperatures have risen a few degrees, the malevolently low and light-leaching cloud has become bored with annoying us and gone off to bother someone else, and spring starts properly (as opposed to officially, which is an entirely arbitrary thing and very rarely has anything to do with actual growing conditions).

But I’m not known for my common sense, or my patience, so I just cheat.

It quite often doesn’t work: I was really ridiculously quick off the mark this year and had seeds in compost by 5th February, such was my desperation to kid myself that winter was over. Silly me. Even in my frost-free greenhouse the temperatures have been bumping along at around 5°C for weeks now - far too cold to germinate even my early sowings of ultra-hardy beetroot, lettuce and turnips.

I won’t be chucking them out just yet as there are a few sub-categories of cheating I can employ first to see if I can get them to change their minds. Small seeds are often just fine sitting around waiting till it gets warm enough to germinate, so mine have a chance of coming up yet if I can find the right tricks to convince them it’s spring.

So now that I’ve given up on any hope of sunshine or double-digit temperatures any time soon (according to the Met Office, we’re stuck with this till the end of March), it’s time to ditch any pretence of doing things naturally and simply play a trick on them so they think it’s nicer out there than it actually is.

A clear polythene cover brings soil up to spring-like temperatures

Here are my cheating methods of choice for a chilly spring:

Propagators: Buying a heated propagator is a moment that comes in every serious gardener’s life. It is not a moment to be thrifty. You really do get what you pay for. A little bottom heat, as they say rather saucily in gardening lore, does wonders for germination rates, but every seed germinates within a specific temperature range, and if you can’t control that range you may still not be able to produce the right conditions. So splash out: choose the largest one you can afford, and make sure it’s got a variable temperature control.

Windowsills: The nice thing about houses in winter is that they are heated: more often than not, to a pleasantly comfortable 17-21°C (depending on how profligate you are with the thermostat). And that happens to be just around the same temperature as most seeds need for germination. A word of warning here though: when the heating goes off, temperatures can plummet dramatically, especially by the window. So on cold nights, bring your seed trays right into the room and sit them on a table till morning.

Stale seedbeds: We don’t all have access to fancy gear like greenhouses and propagators (and I don’t know about you, but my seed trays have to fight it out with the cookery books for windowsill space). But there are still cheats you can use in the open garden.

Cover veg beds with clear polythene several weeks before sowing, and the soil underneath basks in the slightest watery sunlight, raising temperatures several degrees. The technique, known as creating a ‘stale seedbed’, also keeps excess rain off (no more soggy sowing) and lets you sow much earlier than you could otherwise.

Cloches: You can get a similar effect to the stale seedbed technique simply by putting your cloches in place a fortnight ahead of time, long before you want to sow. You’ll trap warm air under the plastic or glass as well as raising the soil temperature, drying out the soil too. Then when it comes to sowing time, all you have to do is put your seeds in and pop the cloche back in place while they germinate: simply keep it there till it’s warm enough to do without.

Pre-germinating seeds: I’ve talked about this before as a useful technique for finding out how many of your parsnip seeds are likely to germinate. But it’s also a great way of giving your seeds a bit of a shove off the starting line in early spring. Seeds need quite high temperatures for germination, but once you’re past that bit the seedlings themselves will grow in much cooler conditions. Pre-germinate your seed in the airing cupboard first, then pot the little sprouts up to grow on. As shameless cheating goes, it doesn’t get much better.

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