It was going so well, all your babies standing tall and fine, and then munch, munch, chomp, chomp – they arrived. The cold, dry early spring meant that, for a while, it looked as if slugs and snails had all but upped and gone. They had not. In fact, they are very adept at hunkering down and holding out until the rain appears again. And appear it did.
I bet you have some holes in your vegetable patch as a result of their hunger. Or perhaps your overwinter onions didn’t do so well, or the carrot germination was patchy and there are gaps there, too. Inevitably at this time of year there are unwanted spaces, usually in the middle of a row or patch. To leave these bare is to invite in weeds and waste valuable growing space.
There are two solutions: either have standby plug plants, or sow seed that will quickly fill the gap. I have learned to always have on hand spare plug plants of lettuce, swiss chard and Japanese bunching onions, maybe six or so plants that I sow in larger modules so they don’t mind sitting around until a gap appears.
I sow the bunching onions in little clusters of three or four seedlings, and single-sow lettuce and swiss chard. I prefer compact lettuce for this method, such as Tom Thumb, butterhead or any of the little gem family, such as ‘Amaze’, which has a nice red blush to its leaf, or ‘Intred’, which has a red heart. A big romaine lettuce will need 25cm either side of its centre to head up well without disease issues, whereas these smaller types can get away with 16cm. There is still plenty of time to sow all of these.
The other option is to have fast-growing vegetables that you can sow directly into the space. My go-to for this is broccoli raab, a turnip relative to broccoli which has spicy leaves. You can eat them at any stage from seedling to flowering, but they are best somewhere around six to eight weeks old. Younger plants can be eaten raw in salads, but once the flower buds appear, I find they are best cooked. Sow after midsummer, right the way to the end of August.
Equally as good are dwarf french beans such as ‘Faraday’, ‘Mascotte’ or ‘Speedy’. These grow to 45cm high and will need a few small, twiggy pea sticks to keep the beans from sitting on the soil. You can sow them until the end of July: sow two seeds per station as an insurance policy, weeding out the weaker one. You need five or more plants to get anything decent to pick, but you’d be surprised how many gaps you can fill with a dwarf bean here and there.