The shortest day has passed us by, but by January there is still not much visible dwindling in the cold outdoor conditions and low light levels. By now most of us gardeners have taken stock for the year ahead, got through the Christmas rush, cut back our borders and mulched our beds. But what to do now? While seed sowing only kicks off truly in earnest in March or even later, there are a few hardy vegetables and flowers that won’t begrudge being sown towards the end of this month. In fact, sowing some varieties in Jan will actually benefit the gardener, meaning that there is less to do in the Spring rush. In addition, many things sown now will flower or be ready to harvest much earlier than those sown in two months’ time, so not only will you get a head start, you will have something to do on the seemingly endless January weekends too!
But first, one key thing to remember is that varieties to be sown in winter must be carefully selected, and regardless of the hardiness of your chosen seed, it must be given protection in some shape or form from the cold and harsh outdoor conditions. Any annual which is remotely half-hardy or tender will simply not tolerate being outside at this time of year (imagine going out there in just a t-shirt… that’s how they would feel!) It is no use trying to get cosmos growing now, for example, as even if they do germinate when placed in a heated propagator, they will be so leggy and scraggly by May you might as well have just waited! Similarly, while it is good to get tomatoes started early, February is the absolute minimum. The light levels at this time of year are so low that, if placed in a greenhouse, they will simply not get enough light to germinate or thrive. So to put it succinctly, if you are wondering if you can sow it in January, you probably can’t!
Although, there are a few, more optimistic and sturdy varieties that will soldier on through the cold and dark, if given a bit of a helping hand on the way. In order to sow in January, you need somewhere (preferably warm) to allow them to germinate. A heated greenhouse of propagator is ideal, allowing the seeds to believe Spring has come early! One thing to remember, however, is to stop the seedlings from getting too leggy in these warm and bright conditions. Once the shoots form their first pair of true leaves, move them to a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. But what if you don’t have the luxury of a heated greenhouse or propagator? Remember that this does not in the least inhibit you from growing seeds at this time of year, you may just have to get a bit more creative! Windowsills are perfect for growing seeds, and if lined with a waterproof base and capillary matting they will allow you to give your seedlings the natural light and warmth they crave. Just remember to rotate your pots/trays every few days to ensure the shoots don’t bend too much towards the light. But don’t let that restrict you at all, I have limited indoor space and only and unheated greenhouse; in the kitchen during the winter and early spring a common sight is sprouting dahlias and seedlings on top of my fridge! It is surprisingly warm up there and directly underneath a light. Shelves, conservatories and even bathrooms can be converted into greenhouses (provided anyone you live with doesn’t mind too much!
Once you’ve found a spot for your seed trays you can get sowing. But what can you actually sow now? The most common thing that springs to mind for vegetable, flower and cut flower growers alike are sweet peas. A June, cottage garden favourite, these fragrant blooms will go on providing you with buckets full of cut flowers until the warmest temperatures: the earlier they are sowed the earlier you will get flowers! But don’t be tempted to sow sweet peas too early as they can get leggy indoors with not enough light – the last weekend of January is a perfect time to sow them, ensuring they have the optimal conditions as well as enough light to grow. Geranium seeds can also be sown now, as well as dahlias and delphiniums. Now is also a great time to get thinking about bedding plants for the year ahead, so sow begonias and petunias to save yourself a considerable amount of money in the garden centres in Spring. For something more aesthetic and unusual, sow Iceland poppies on the surface of compost and keep above 12 degrees. Coleus are a more exotic and exciting variety that can be sown this month, a plant grown for its striking deep-pink, pale-yellow and green foliage which will add both colour and texture to your summer border and pot displays.
For those who grow veg ornamentally or productively and also want to make a start for the year ahead, there are certain varieties that will benefit from an early sowing. Chillies and aubergines will benefit from a head start, and there are numerous herbs and salad crops that can be sown for earlier picking, like basil.
It can be all too tempting to grab your seed tin and sow everything for the year ahead during the first week of January; but hold back. Some plants will forgive you for and even benefit from an early sowing, but cold conditions or a prolonged period indoors may lead to the failure of others. If in doubt, check the sowing instructions on the seed packets or advice online or on Instagram – if sowing the Rose Press Garden advent calendar, wait for the grow-alongs and tips: it’s always helpful to know what other gardeners are doing! But if you miss the window for January sowing you haven’t missed the boat altogether; sweet peas, for example, will tolerate being sown as late as April. Seed sowing is so easy, most varieties have a significantly sizeable window in which they will thrive being sown, so make 2023 the year to experiment with seeds in your garden, I promise, you will never look back to plug plants!