Plans And Plants

I love this time of year, there’s so much to look forward to, sunshine, days at the beach and a riot of colour in the garden. Being in Italy means I can start off my seed sowing earlier than if I was in the UK, but first I like to be organised and have a plan: some would say it’s OCD, but whatever, it works for me.

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The best time is when I have sorted the seeds and decided what I’ll be growing and at the end of January out of storage comes the electric propagator. Seeds trays are washed and disinfected and two trays of compost are popped in to warm overnight.

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Not everything works here in Italy though, some plants just don’t thrive in the summer heat, but it’s fun trying different ones. Despite being native to Sicily, Sweet Peas have failed every year for me and this year is my last attempt, so I started them off in November so they’ll be bigger and stronger when they go outside: I have some outside already in a pot which I can bring in if we get a forecast of snow.

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Space is limited in the propagator and with marble windowsills that can be too cold for seeds once they’ve been removed. I had to come up with a way to keep the seeds insulated. So I started to save polystyrene food trays and I drop the young seedling into these to keep them warmer. I’ve found it works really well and promotes good root growth.

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I also enjoy the preparation that seed sowing and gardening brings, above is one of my sunflower trays. I scrounged the polystyrene trays from the local butcher and the growing pods are toilet rolls cut in half. This system keeps the roots contained and can be planted direct into the ground once the plants are large enough. It helps when you’re planning on sowing 70+ sunflowers.

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Finally, the joy of pricking out. Above is a tray of 15 Coreopsis, I only want six plants for the garden so this means there’ll be nine left over to donate to friends. I’ll no doubt during the summer be sharing photographs of the garden with my readers here. Until then, happy gardening everyone.

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Toilet Roll Parsnips

I’ve just sent messages to friends who live local, asking them to save me their empty toilet roll tubes: No I’m not collecting for a Blue Peter appeal or going on a recycling drive, I want them for parsnips.

I was reading a blog the other day that is written by a lady in France, in it she mentioned that she had never seen parsnips for sale so she grew her own. This prompted me to look into why you never see them in Italian markets. Turns out the story I’d been told previously about them needing a good hard frost to germinate is wrong. Parsnips are fussy germinators apparently and like the soil to be warm when they are sown, and once they’ve popped their heads above the ground they don’t like being disturbed until harvesting time. So I’ve decided to follow the advice of the French lady and have a go at growing my own using the toilet roll method.

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I’ve read that sowing directly into the ground can be an ineffective way of growing parsnips: the moody little rooters can be quite erratic flourishers. The toilet roll method aids the grower and generates more success. Some people first germinate the seed upon damp kitchen paper before planting, but this can be problematic as leads to possible root damage during potting on into the toilet rolls. Literally all you need to do is fill your empty toilet roll tubes with potting compost and sow a solitary seed inside it and keep it warm. Once growing water the seedling from inside the cardboard tube, don’t let the outside of the tube become soaked and when big enough plant the whole thing in the ground. This method is said to ensure all seeds germinate and there is very little root disturbance.

Parsnips need a long growing season so should be ready around mid-November, but the beauty is they can be harvested from ground to plate in minutes, as there’s no need to harvest what you don’t use, the cold earth will keep them fresh. My only word of advice is, if you have chinghiale nearby, keep them protected as the wild pigs love anything sweet.

I’ll keep you posted to how it goes throughout the year.

Roses

One thing that’s definitely different about being here in Italy is the abundance of flowers in January. Down the lane roses that have become naturalised are in bloom, they have no scent but none-the-less brighten up this drab month. Tiny orange marigolds are holding their heads up and there’s a few bluey-purple periwinkles popping up. Sarah’s house has some tiny white flowers outside that look as if they could be made of delicate china and a frothy yellow flower dances in the breeze down by Antonio’s house on the corner near the war memorial. Further down the road is a house with a huge pot filled with bright yellow daisy type flowers and the last of the woodland cyclamen are packing away their pink and purple bonnets.

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My mind has been on preparing the orto for this years’ produce, as I had a limited space last year I’m ready to get on with growing on a similar scale to when I had my allotment back in the UK. This said, it’s tricky getting your head around sowing and planting times when you’re used to the UK seasons. Last year I was sowing my tomato seeds in March when everyone around me was starting to plant out their plants, so I’ve calculated that I need to start off around 8 to 10 weeks earlier depending upon the plants. I’ve already got a tray of fava beans started off and as soon as they get several true leaves they’ll be transplanted into the orto, and I’ll sow a second lot for a later crop. I have sweet peas sown for cut flowers this summer and will be looking at buying some bedding as soon as it becomes available around March. My pumpkin seeds are in a pot, as I always find they do much better if started early and are allowed to establish themselves as healthy plants before they go mad and spread out ready to fruit.

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Last year was a good year for chillies and this year I’ll be growing habanero and Thai birds eye varieties, the habanero need to be started off now so they’re now sown and I reckon two plants should give us enough hot chillies for the year with a good proportion to dry and store for the winter months. I’m also looking forward to growing some new things, like cucumbers, peppers and fennel which I’ve never attempted before. I’ll even be having a bash at growing some Brussels sprouts, as they grow cabbage over here quite successfully so I imagine they’ll do okay.

I’ve just got back from spending a week over in the UK, and while I was there my bezzie mate, Glo who knows I love crazy signs, gave me a calendar with unusual signs pictured for each day, and I promised to post the sign that corresponds with the blog posting, so here’s today’s which appropriately is an Italian one. (Apologies for the poor quality photo, I’m not organised yet.)

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