Allotment tales: They sulked on the windowsill, growing pale and leggy

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I bought snow shovels and thick socks. I knitted a woolly hat. But the darkest days of winter were mild, wet, and ferociously windy.

My cheap plastic cloche which has survived several winters and was protecting some salad greens has blown away. Fortunately, kale, broccoli and leeks have pulled through and are looking good.

Winter days when the midday sun has a bit of warmth are a snare and delusion as far as gardening is concerned. Last February I was lured into buying some butternut squash plug plants. They sulked on the windowsill, growing pale and leggy. When it was warm enough to plant them out, they were quickly overtaken by seeds planted directly in the soil. This year I will be copying the Royal Horticultural Society, whose trials on squashes were started off in mid-May, some three months later.

Gertrude Jekyll, the great gardener of the Arts and Crafts Movement, said: “A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness.” While her thoughts were probably on plants for flower borders, her words of wisdom are equally relevant to the allotment just now when patience is essential for later success.

Seed packets often have very misleading planting times for those of us who live in the north. There is nothing to be gained by wasting your seeds in cold ground. Nor is there much to be gained by cluttering up your window sills with seed trays if there is nowhere ready to plant them out. Seeds like the soil to be warming up. Emerging seedlings hate sudden changes in the weather. The inevitable consequences of being too hasty include bolting beetroots and patchy germination. So it does no harm to add at least a month to the suggesting sowing dates. I’ve just come across a new guide of practical tips and recommendations about growing fruit and vegetables in the north compiled by Sheila Wickens of Grow North, part of the Transition Black Isle group.

But I haven’t been sitting inside waiting for spring. While it was sad to see so many fine trees uprooted in the gales, I have managed to gather an impressive collection of birch and beech branches. The thicker stems are going to become supports for climbing beans and all the twiggy bits will make splendid pea sticks. They will be better than bamboo canes, and greener too, as most canes are imported from the Far East.