Sow now, weed later

Jimmy Hughes has the air of someone perfectly sure of himself. He inspires confidence. If he was a seed and you planted him, he would grow. Definitely.

He also owns an admirable garden fork made entirely of iron. It is weighty. It confirms the impression that, as a cultivator of vegetables, Jimmy Hughes means business. His plot is well dug and already planted with onions and potatoes. He organizes it along very sensible lines. (Which seems apt, since he has worked all his life for the railways.)

Jimmy's remarks are worth listening to. One thing he told me was: "You don't want to take any notice of what you read on the seed packets. Oh no."

He meant sowing dates, principally. Many British seed packets indicate times of sowing on a monthly grid. But such information is geared to the south of England. Perhaps distances in this comparatively small island are not vast enough to necessitate the hardiness-zone system enjoyed by gardeners in the United States, but there are nevertheless notable contrasts of climate from John o'Groat's to Land's End, from tip to toe. The south is warmer. Spring arrives on a much slower train in the north. So if the instructions on a packet of broad (fava) beans says "FEB/MAR," it is probably best, in Glasgow, to substitute "APR/MAY." (At least I hope so, having only just sown my first row.)

Seed-packet literature is often idealized in other ways, too. On my broad-beans packet it says: "choose a sunny location and ... finely raked, warm, moist, weed-free soil."

Fine raking, OK. But what if the unpredictable sun in "APR/MAY" hardly shines and the soil stays cold? Or the sun shines too much and reduces the earth to dust? And how weed-free is "weed-free"?

Last year I made gallant attempts to rid segments of my plot of weeds before sowing. But I ran out of time! This year I'll just sow and face the weeds later. Some of our Irish plotters always do this. And Jim and Linda's next-door patch couldn't be called remotely "weed-free," but they just sowed everything regardless. They were cooking and eating crops when I was still getting around to sowing them.

I have decided to be less fussy and side with historical precedent.

Centuries ago, weeds were thought positively helpful to have around because they not only nourished the soil but also kept it warm. Then along came new thinking and the gardening fraternity divided into camps: weeders and non-weeders. The advocates advised the doubters to try weeding and see.

IN 1683, John Reid wrote "The Scots Gardner," the first book containing specific advice for Scottish gardeners. He "insisted," according to Annette Hope's introduction in a modern reprint, "on the benefits of weeding." He wrote "I would advise you to keep [the kitchen garden] ... clean of weeds, and if you ever repent it, blame me."

The same writer/gardener astonishingly proposed prewinter sowing of peas "in the full moon of November."

"Pure moonshine?" Ms. Hope asks. No, she says, and cites a crop of peas that was sown near Edinburgh in November 1986, survived frosts and snows, and was ready for eating on May 31 the following year.

Realist Jimmy Hughes has only just sown his peas. My own packet of a new "early cropper" called "Fortune," intriguingly suggests sowing any time from November to March.

But even though the packet's blurb praises this pea's "winter hardiness," it still advises cloche protection from "severe conditions." I think I'll sow mine in mid-May.

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

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