Resourceful gardeners can deal with any situation. When the ground’s rock hard and blanketed by drifting snow, turn the windowsill into a garden for the next few weeks. Looking out on a white world as I write, that’s my only place for a tasty harvest.
If you make fresh, successional sowings every 2 or 3 weeks indoors, you can combine having tasty leaves to eat with a supply of seedlings to prick out and eventually plant in the big outdoors.
When rummaging around for suitable seeds, choose any older half-used packs that have reached or passed their ‘use by’ date. Germination rates fall as seeds age, but that won’t matter here because you’ll be sowing very thickly and some failures won’t matter.
There’s a goodly range of suitable plants. For the quickest harvest, go for rocket: it starts germinating after 2 or 3 days and you’ll get some usable leaves after a fortnight. Lettuce, especially the loose-leaf varieties, tolerate a few pickings, but that’s more difficult with slower-growing iceberg and romaine types.
And why not add a few mustardy leaves from mizuna and red frilled, not forgetting chard and kale?
Tough, undemanding peas are a tasty option. Any variety of podding peas, not just mange-tout, does the job. Let the shoots grow to 5cm, then carefully cut off the top 2cm as you would pinch out sweet peas, and the seedling will become bushy, throwing out fresh shoots from near the base.
As ever with peas, you’ll get quicker germination by soaking seed in water for 24-36 hours before moving into seed trays.
Fill seed trays with peat-free compost or your own compost and place on a solid tray to catch any drained water. Then thickly sow to the recommended depth. When watering indoors, use a mist sprayer or cleaned-out household cleaner spray bottle.
Use warm water and keep the seed trays moist, preventing them from drying out on a sunny windowsill.
Seed obviously germinates and grows more quickly if you have grow lights. Mine are working overtime in the greenhouse and I’ve got a small unit with clear LED lights on the kitchen windowsill.
But enjoy good results by allowing seed to germinate in a warm place and then move to the conservatory or warm windowsill.
As the weather gradually improves and it begins to look as if outdoor planting will soon be possible, plan to use some of a later sowing for outdoor planting.
Once plants have produced 2 true leaves, prick a few into 5cm pots or root trainers and allow to grow on. They should be fine for 3-4 weeks, but you could still pot them on again if winter overstays its welcome.
Don’t disturb the remaining seedlings for 2 or 3 days to let them recover from any disturbance.
By cutting individual leaves, the little plants will keep producing for several weeks. Even if you grow 3 or 4 different kinds of seedlings, you can’t expect a big bowl full of leaves but they make great sandwich fillings, add punch to a bean salad or to home-made fish cakes.
You’ll greatly improve your plant ID when using your own compost. Inevitably some unwelcome seedlings may muscle in. Chickweed and bittercress are very edible but tiny nettle seedlings, though also safe, aren’t ideal for eating fresh. But aquilegia and foxgloves should not be eaten.
Over the next month or two I’ll follow the example of our geese. They scour the ground for their favourite fresh green flavours, so why shouldn’t I be an enterprising herbivore as well?
I’ll even graze on young nettles and ground elder, once they’ve been cooked, of course.
Plant of the week
Salix caprea “Lemon-rose” is a form of goat willow that has particularly beautiful catkins in early spring. The catkins open from mahogany red buds, starting silvery white and becoming lemon yellow flushed with pink. They are much enjoyed by hardy bumble bee queens.