An early start to planting season

There are some interesting vegetables to consider for this year. Jonathan Holliday suggests a few

A mild winter demands an early start this year, and where better than at the vegetable patch, having done a bit of work to keep it clear of weeds.

Through the winter I have been lifting Jerusalem artichokes and they are now at the tail end of harvesting them. A strange and versatile vegetable, it is related to the sunflower and grows to six feet or more. In numbers, they can screen a compost heap or a neighbour. But remember that they can become invasive. Because of the tuberous root system, they are useful for breaking in rough ground and the tubers can be lifted as required. Not often found in vegetable shops, they are particular in both flavour (almost nutty) and texture (smoother than potato). Boil, mash or use them for winter soup. If you don’t have them, now is the time to be planting.

Another interesting vegetable, Kohl Rabi can also be sown now. It is the swollen, ball-like stem that is eaten, with a distinctive flavour and a consistency similar to broccoli. Sow in succession in small quantities from February to June.

I am a great fan of the often maligned broad bean and, if in doubt, try eating the young pods whole. Broad beans like fertile soil so it helps to have had something dug in during the previous year. Sow early as they are often the first fresh vegetables of the season and they are prone to black fly attack, something that only gets worse as the season progresses. A tip to discourage blackfly: nip out the plant tips when the plants are in full flower, which will also encourage the development of the beans.

In the greenhouse it is time to sow tomatoes and cucumbers. Tomatoes can be sown earlier if germinating indoors, but in cold greenhouses nothing will happen before February.

Cucumber is perhaps a little later. Sow cucumber seeds edgeways, one per three inch pot. It likes 60 degrees so you may need to start things off on a window sill indoors. Cared for well, you can expect 25 fruits per plant. The ordinary varieties have both male and female flowers and you need to nip out the male flowers if you are to avoid bitter fruits. The female flowers are the ones with a more swollen base.

Birds choose to nest in the strangest places — but generally not before March. Birds love hedges, of course, so any renovation is best done before the nesting season. Ornamental grasses also make good nesting sites. An alternative to the natural nesting site is the pre-fab. Jacobi Jayne and Co produces a large variety of homes to suit all discerning bird tastes.

My final February tip is for any citrus plants you may have in the house or conservatory. Often too big to re-pot, it is nonetheless advisable to try to improve the quality of the soil. Scrape away the spent compost and replace with fresh-John Innis No 3.

Dr Holliday is a GP in Windsor

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