Lots of vegetables can be grown from seed outdoors, when the first frosts have passed. Some plants, however, are too tender to start early outdoors, if you want them to get big enough to provide a useful crop. Instead, you can start these off from seed in a greenhouse, so you have more mature plants ready to start in the garden when the weather is warm enough.
If, like me, you don’t have a proper greenhouse, however, you still have some other options. You can buy plugs, which are young plants in small plugs of soil that you can plant directly outside once it’s warm enough. Or you can grow them from seed indoors. Since getting plugs is harder this year, growing your own is a good option, so long as you have seeds and somewhere to put them. I decided to take this approach a few weeks ago, as I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get plugs, but there’s still plenty of time to get sowing indoors. Commercial seeds generally come with pretty clear sowing instructions and if you follow them, step-by-step, you can’t go too far wrong. But since there seem to be a few extra beginners picking up a seed packet this year, I thought I’d show you how things went with a couple of veggie-patch favourites.
One classic British vegetable to start off indoors is the Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus). This year I’m growing ‘Tenderstar’, which has red and pink flowers that produce apparently ‘smooth and stringless’ bean pods. I’ve never grown this variety before, so will be interested to see the results. April is the perfect time for sowing runner beans and anywhere warm, with a decent amount of light will do. A windowsill is a good option, but we no longer have one in our kitchen. Instead, we’re growing things on our kitchen island, which is directly under a skylight and in front of our sliding doors.
Runner beans need to be sown deep (5cm in the case of ‘Tenderstar’), so you need to start with decent-sized pots (7.5cm wide will do) and make sure you have enough space for them. They germinate pretty well, so I only sowed 6 and that’s probably more than I’ll have space for in the garden. Fill the pots with compost and make sure it’s well-watered before you start. I like to use a chopstick to make a hole of the right depth in the centre of each pot. You’ll see from the picture below that it needs to be pretty wide for Runner Beans. Simply push the bean in and fill it in, taking care to firm the compost down so the bean is in good contact with it.
The instructions suggest using a propagator (a tray with a clear plastic lid like a small greenhouse) to help the beans germinate. Unfortunately, my husband has already commandeered my one for his tomatoes (more on this in future, I think). If you haven’t got one though, you can do just as well by placing your pots in a sealed, clear plastic bag – I use freezer bags. As long as the room they’re in stays around room temperature (18-20C), they should be perfectly fine.
Eight days later and these beautiful, giant seedlings have appeared. I don’t want to plant them outside yet. Instead they’ll need repotting, which I’ve already done for some courgette seedlings. These are F1 ‘Atena’ and I started them a week before the Runner Beans. Unlike Tenderstar, they didn’t need the added warmth of a plastic bag and germinated quite happily on my worktop. I repotted them by putting the current pot inside the new one, filling it in with compost, then taking the young plant out of its old container and popping it in the hole made in the new one. Always remember to give seedlings a good drink of water before and after you transplant them. Once they and the weather are ready, you’ll need to ‘harden them off’ first, which means giving them a little time outside each day, to get used to the colder temperatures. I’ll try to do a post on this when I do it.
So it really is that simple! In a Spring where we really are having to make do with what we have at home, I’m not going to let a lack of greenhouse stop us from getting a head start growing our own vegetables this year!