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GARDENING: A TASTE OF THINGS TO COME.

Byline: Charles Lyte

WE'RE not out of the winter gloom yet, but there's cheering news on the gardening front. If the weather's suitable, you can start to get some crops in right now.

Lots of vegetables, particularly root varieties, need a long growing season to reach full maturity by the autumn and winter, so early sowing is important.

If the weather's too cold or too wet, you run the risk of seeds rotting before they germinate, but this problem can be overcome.

Cloches, either traditional glass ones, or the much cheaper mini-plastic tunnels made from wire hoops with a plastic skin stretched over them, will go a long way to drying out the soil and warming it.

And once the soil is dry enough to be worked, it's worth the effort to lift the cloches or mini-tunnels and lay down a layer of garden fleece on the sowing site. This will certainly warm up the soil and pay dividends with good early germination.

Parsnips definitely need early sowing. They are slow to germinate, so do not despair if you see no sign of life for some weeks. Some experts advise setting the seeds in clusters of five or six, leaving spaces between the groups. I have always had good results by sowing quite thickly along the drill. Hamburg parsley, which is grown for its parsnip-like roots, salsify and scorzonera, also need a long growing season.

For a really early taste of spring, sow a row of radishes under cloches. They'll be up in no time to remind you just how much flavour home-grown vegetables have.

Beetroots and carrots can be given the cloche treatment, too, and if you have space in a cold frame scatter carrot seed on the surface, lightly rake it in and shut the lid. If it becomes humid, let some air in during the day.

Celery and the delicious celery-flavoured celeriac should be sown under glass with heat now so that you have strong plants for planting outside as soon as the risk of frost has passed.

Of course, it's essential to prepare the soil very well for root crops - preferably by deep digging and manuring in the autumn. But if this was not possible due to the winter rains, there is still time to dig now to make sure that the roots have a deeply cultivated environment.

In the case of heavy clay soils, it is worth digging out a trench and filling it with a mixture of soil and well-rotted manure or compost. CHARLES LYTE

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SEEING RED: Radishes benefit from starting out under a cloche
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Feb 25, 2001
Words:433
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