Gardening: Allotment tales

Whether we are seeing the effects of climate change or just some seasonal variations, spring is off to a slow start and my allotment still looks quite bare. An unidentified predator has eaten my overwintering broad beans, but the garlic is looking good.

I have a few reliable seasonal indicators. Last year, rhubarb was so prolific I was freezing the surplus by the end of March. This year it had scarcely shown any growth by then. I have yet to see if the ancient pear tree is going to bloom at the end of April as usual. The ground was too cold to plant potatoes on St Patrick's Day. But nature has a way of catching up.

I draw the line at being tempted to get ahead by buying trays of vegetable seedlings. Cost is not the only reason. I noticed an irresponsible chain of national garden centres was selling French beans when it was still frosty. While they might survive in the south of England, our Scottish summer is shorter and cooler. Even an icy blast while crossing the car park could be enough to set them back. Plant them outside too early and they will curl up their toes and perish. Keep them on the kitchen windowsill and they will grow lank and leggy through lack of light. Trays of carrot and parsnip seedlings are doomed to failure. Most root vegetables hate being transplanted.

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Growing vegetables from seed is cheaper and success more certain. A bag of peat-free multipurpose compost, and some containers, which can be anything from proper flower pots to yoghurt pots with a few drainage holes punched in the bottom, are all that is needed. Planting a few salad seeds at fortnightly intervals will ensure a plentiful supply for just a few pence. For beetroot and spinach seeds which do better planted directly in the soil, it's a matter of being patient, and waiting until the ground warms up. You don't need a thermometer to tell when the time is right. Just watch for the weeds beginning to flourish. Covering a patch of soil with a bit of polythene will help it heat up. Small seeds need to be lightly covered with fine soil while big seeds, like beans and sweetcorn, like to go deeper. Some seeds, like parsley, take a long time to germinate, others seem to pop up within a week.

• This article was first published in the Scotsman, Saturday April 10, 2010