It can be daunting knowing this is one of the most precious, critical times for grow-your-owners – an uneasy feeling can descend as you spend time on one task but ponder if you'd be best doing something different instead. For those of you new to grow your own and learning that from late February/early March onwards, veg gardeners tend to get a bit frenetic, here's a run down of the main tasks to focus on.
Priority one: Plan what you're going to eat, buy and grow
Again you may have already thought about this but if not, make a list of what you eat as a household, what you can realistically grow and what you're happier to buy in. Onions and maincrop potatoes will be on my to buy list as they take up lots of room (my garden is tiny) and they're cheap food. But I've just planted some heritage salad potatoes, sown some 'Cuor di Bue' beefsteak tomatoes and started off six different types of basil. My reason? They all taste amazing when eaten fresh and you can't find them readily in the shops.
Priority two: Buy seeds and order plug plants
Once you've sorted out your list above, work out whether it's best to sow seed (crops like radish, salad leaves and beetroot are robust and really easy) or buy plants (chillies, aubergines and tomatoes need quite a lot of heat and good light – can you give that to them?). Plants can be bought later, freeing up valuable propagating space now. See my previous blogpost here.
Priority three: Get your propagator set up
I've had my heated propagator since I was 15 (I'm twice that age and more now) and it's by far my best gardening investment. If you're sowing indoors then I'd really recommend buying one. I set mine up in January and it will run until April at the very least: getting it fully functional now will mean that seeds can be sown as soon as you buy them. Ones with a thermostatically-controlled heated base are more costly but they're much more versatile, too, as the range of temperatures allows you to sow all manner of seeds. Make sure they're positioned in good light, and check daily for signs of germination.
Priority four: Get your ground ready
Now that things are ticking along in the propagator and plants are ordered, it's time to tend to your outdoor growing space (you don't want to be in the situation where young plants are desperate to get out of their pots and your ground is still smothered in weeds and last year's detritus). Dig, hoe or mulch – whatever is your chosen method to clear the ground. One nifty technique for very weedy patches is to create a "stale seedbed". Rake cleared soil to a fine, crumbly seedbed, cover it with clear plastic (a tunnel cloche is ideal) and then leave for a fortnight. Weed seeds near the surface will germinate – then you can hoe them off so that when you sow your veg, that flush of weeds will be gone (hoe shallowly otherwise you'll just bring new weed seeds to the surface).
Priority five: Tend to your growing on space
After a quick dig, the next focus is your propagation area. Once seedlings emerge they can stay in the propagator for a few days but you really want to get them out of this environment as it's naturally very warm and humid – great for germination but not for stocky, robust leaf growth (you'll end up with sappy, lush growth that's a magnet for pests and diseases). Find somewhere well lit from more than one side - an entrance hall, porch, conservatory, or, for the blessed few, a greenhouse – and warm (16C minimum). Young plants will happily sit here for three or four weeks, until the weather behaves and you can start moving your plants outside (but that's a whole different blogpost).