Being a canny Yorkshireman (albeit emigrated to North Wales), I'm keen to keep an eye on the pennies. So, I'm always loathed to spend full, garden centre prices on plants unless I really have to, or I'm looking for something very special. So, previously I've gone down the route of growing many plants from seed. It's very cheap and you can get loads of plants for your money. The down side is that it is often time consuming to do, especially when it comes to pricking out dozens or hundreds of seeds and potting them on.
For this reason, this year I have given plug plants a try. If you're not familiar with plug plants, they are very young plants, usually only a few weeks old, which arrive as very small plants in "plug" form. They typically arrive in plastic modules like those shown in the photo, holding five or six plants. As the plants are so young, they are typically very small - maybe 1 - 3cm, however, a lot of the hard work has been done for you by the nursery. You've got just as many plants as you need without waste and there's no time consuming pricking out to do, you just simply pop the plugs into a pot of compost and away they go.
A couple of weeks ago I talked about the shady courtyard I was planting up, well for the area I bought bought 24 Heuchera plug plants for £26.94 inc. VAT and delivery, which works out at just over £1.12 per plant.
As you can see from the photo, when they arrived they were tiny compred to a 10cm / 4" pot. However, as you can see, after just seven weeks we've got a batch of healthy, growing plants which will soon be ready for either potting on into a larger pot or even planting straight out.
For Heuchera plants of this size, you'd probably be looking at £4.99 in the garden centre. So, for the sake of an hours work planting up the plug plants, a bit of compost and a bit of watering, you've saved yourself nearly £100.
Sure they aren't going to give you the instant impact of mature garden centre plants, but for the sake of waiting a couple of months I'd rather save my £100!
Just after I bought the Heucheras, I bought a few hundred more plug plants for Hardy Perennials and bedding plants and paid as little as 15p per plant...but we'll save that for another day.
We've got a small courtyard type area that should be perfect for putting a little table & chair set in and sit chilling out with a sneaky glass of wine. But at the minute it's not particularly inviting - two bare walls, an empty fence, bags of builders rubble and a couple of dead pots. It's only a small area, approx. 3m by 5m and there is a narrow bed running along the front of the fence, but nothing has been grown in there for the last five years apart from weeds. The courtyard as a whole is nice and bright, facing South & East, however, the fence with the adjacent bed is North facing so a bit more shady.
As a first stage for improving this area, I've started planting up the bed in front of the fence. As it's a small area, every plant has to justify its presence there and also has to meet certain criteria:
- As the fence is North facing, I need to take care that the plants going in will thrive or at least tolerate shade. - The area is also viewed from a window from the house, so I want to make sure there is something to look at all year round, so making sure there is some Winter colour. - The plants have to be suitable for a small space, so either don't grow particularly big or are happy to be pruned regularly.
To get me started, I've chosen five larger shrubs to create the structure for the bed:
1 x Pyracantha "Golden Charmer". You may also know Pyracantha as Firethorn. Being a climber, it is ideal for screening of part of the fence and is perfectly happy in a North facing situation. This variety should be festooned with white flowers in Spring followed by masses of orange berries in late Autumn & Winter. It's also happy to be pruned back as hard as you like if it starts to outgrow the space.
1 x Jasminium Nudiflorum - (aka Winter flowering Jasmine). Again, another climber to helps screen the fence which is very happy in shade. The particular feature of this plant is that it brightens up any garden in Winter as it develops attractive yellow flowers and can also be pruned back if it outgrows the space.
3 x Cornus Alba Sibirica - a variety of red stemmed dog wood. If left to it's own devices, Cornus would far outgrow the space available, however, it too is perfectly happy to be cut back hard...and in fact the best feature of this plant positively thrives from being cut back. The main feature of this plant is the red bark on the stems which are visible in Winter once the leaves have dropped. However, to maintain the red stems and encourage bright new growth, the plant benefits from annual cutting back to ground level, so it will never outgrow the space.
With these five shrubs in and creating the structure for the bed, as the next task I've started to infill with lower growing perennials. For now I've put in a few Helleborus Niger to give some late Winter / early Spring flowers and Hostas of various varieties. In addition I've set off a few plug plants of Bergenia Codifolia for evergreen leaves and Spring flowering, along with various Heucheras to give coloured foliage throughout the year. These are too small to plant now but are growing well and may be suitable for planting later in the season.
I'll keep you updated on how things in the bed progress.
If you're like me, you end up using dozens if not hundreds of little seed pots every year as you sow your seeds, prick out your seedlings and grow subsequently them on. Traditionally I have always used the plastic pots, but as a responsible gardener, I questioned whether I should be using biodegradable versions instead as they generally become more popular - but are they any good?
So last year, I tested biodegradable ones for the first time, using Gardman Fibre Pots. It's fair to say that both the plastic pots and the fibre pots have pros and cons to them and usage will be personal choice, but here are my thoughts:
By the nature of most types of biodegradable pots, they are only used once - as you're planting the whole pot in the ground and allow them to rot down. However, the plastic pots can be used again and again if cared for properly. So in terms of cost and cost per use, the plastic pot is a clear winner.
Although I've found it hard to find any tangible figures about the environmental impact on producing plastic versus fibre pots, the general consensus is that the production of fibre pots has a lower environmental impact in terms of lower energy usage to manufacture, materials used and overall carbon footprint. Also, when it comes to disposal, you either end up with a pile of them in your garden, or thousands (if not millions) of plastic pots are sent to landfill, taking many, many years to rot down and having a far greater environmental impact than the fibre pots. However, the flip side of this is that the plastic pots can be used time and time again. When they are used and re-used numerous times, it could be suggested that the plastic pots could actually be considered the more environmentally sound option in the longer run, although at the end of their life when they crack & break, the landfill disposal problem still exists.
Ease of Use
For me, this is where the biodegradable pots have a distinct advantage, being an out & out time saver. When you're growing seeds and seedlings in any great quantity, the time required to pot-on seedlings between different sized pots can take forever - easing the seedling out of the pot, transplanting it to the new pot and all the time taking care not to damage the seedling or the roots. However, with the fibre pots, you don't need to worry about doing this, simply plant the whole pot on. Similarly, when it comes to planting out the plant, you don't have to waste time taking the plant out of the pot, simply pop the whole pot into the ground and away you go.
One of the arguments put forward in favour of using fibre pots is that you avoid root damage which can be incurred when transplanting seedlings and young plants. However, my concern was whether the roots of the young plants would be strong enough to push through the sides of the fibre pots and would they rot down quick enough to avoid holding back the growth of the plant. I needn't have worried - the plants grown in the fibre pots were just as good as the ones grown in the plastic pots. When I dug out a couple from the ground, it was clear that the pots were rotting down after just a couple of weeks and the roots were growing unencumbered just as though the pot wasn't there.
Overall it's clear that there isn't one option clearly better than the other. If cost or cost per use is your priority, then the plastic pots are clearly the ones for you. If being environmentally friendly is important to you, then it can be argued that the plastic pots could have the edge if you're going to make sure you use them time after time. Although the important issue of disposal in landfill of the plastic still remains however many times you re-use them. The big winning point for the fibre pots is how easy they are to use and how much time they save you when you are growing seedlings in any quantity. And at the very end, as far as my tests have shown, there's no difference in the quality of the final plant whether you use the plastic or the fibre pots.
So what will I be doing? Well in the first instance, I'll continue using the plastic pots I already have until the reached the end of their useful life. However, as and when I need new pots, I'll be migrating over the the biodegradable variety.
With February continuing to be a total washout, and you've followed our six step plan and got your greenhouse spick & span, make the most of it and start sowing your seeds. February is a perfect time to make a start as the day lengths become longer. Here are just a few ideas on what you can make a start on in February:
Sweet Peas - Traditionally, many people recommended soaking these over night before sowing in order to soften the tough outer casing. You can do that, but in my experience I've not found it necessary as long as the compost is nice and moist. Put three seeds in a 7.5cm pot filled with seed compost.
Salad Leaves - For early summer harvesting, sow now into seed trays of damp seed compost.
Tomatoes - Similar to Sweet Peas, I typically sow three seeds into a 7.5cm pot before subsequently thinning out the weaker ones when they germinate to leave the strongest plants to grow on. Alternatively, you could sow a single seed into each pot and grow them all on.
Chillies & Sweet Peppers - Sow a single seed into a 7.5cm of damp compost.
Leeks - Similar to salad leaves, sow into seed trays full of compost and doing this month will provide you with early crops to harvest.
Onions - Fill the cells of a 40 cell modular seed tray with seed compost. Into each cell pop a single onion seed for larger onion bulbs, or in twos or threes for smaller ones.
Broad Beans - Similar to onions, use a 40 cell modular seed tray and place a single bean in each cell, or alternatively, sow a single bean into a 7.5cm pot.
Peas - Similar to Sweet Peas, sow two or three seeds into a 7.5cm pot, which allows for one or two not to germinate and for the weakest plants to be culled.
Carrots - These can be sown now directly into the ground where you wish them to grow. Only issue will be that the ground will still be cold, so to warm up the soil and provide protection from frosts, place a cloche over the seeds.
Brussels Sprouts - If you want to grow your own sprouts for the Christmas table, late February is the time to get them going. Similar to carrots, sow them in rows under cloches or inside a coldframe