Still hardy out so hold off on planting

Kitty Scully advises that only really hardy plants should be set outdoors this month —sowing indoors for transplanting later is the way to go.

Despite what UK gardening books may advise, there are very few crops that actually enjoy being planted outside in Ireland in March. Instead this is the month for preparing ground and sowing seeds indoors in plug trays for later transplanting next month.

That said there are a few seasonal stalwarts that can handle current ground temperatures and do best if direct sown outside now. Here are three of my chosen early sowers:

Potatoes

Early potatoes are a favourite crop among many a home grower and if you are short on space, these are possibly the only potatoes worth growing. Although they yield less than maincrops, Earlies will be out of the ground before blight season hits, thus freeing up space for follow-on crops in mid-summer such as leeks, kale or salads.

It is also true to say that the quintessential fresh-dug flavor of early potatoes is unmistakable compared to later season spuds. Chitted or not, now is the time to plant early potatoes and traditionally St Patricks day was the day for it.

Being a hungry crop, beds will benefit from a good helping of farmyard manure and plants will do best in deep loose friable soil. Earlies are grown at 30cm spacing each way, unlike later sown main-crops that demand to be planted at approximately 45cm each way.

There are lots of Early cultivars to choose from with Sharpes Express, Orla, Colleen and Maris Bard being some of my personal favourites. Potatoes are more or less a low maintenance crop.

Plants will need a regular hoe, earthing up and unless a severe drought hits, minimal watering is required. Once plants start to flower they are ready to harvest and Earlies are generally harvested as required, as they do not store well once lifted.

Jerusalem Artichokes

Another hardy crop, which I have mentioned before, and well worth sowing now is Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). No relation to globe artichokes, these knobbly tubers are super easy to grow and will remain in the ground surviving hard frosts when most other vegetables are reduced to mush.

Tubers are planted much like potatoes about 30cm x 30cm apart and 15cm deep. Plants grow tall (up to 3m) so make sure to grow them in an area that is not subject to prevailing winds or in danger of shading neighbouring crops.

They do best when planted in blocks as opposed to straight lines and this minimizes the chance of their light inhibition of neighbouring crops.

There are many varieties to choose from but ‘Fuseau’ is a newish cultivar prized for its less knobbly tubers making it a lot easier to prepare compared to other cultivars.

If you haven’t grown or eaten these tubers before, it is certainly worth trying a few but be warned, once in the ground they can be invasive and are nigh impossible to remove so can be treated as a perennial crop.

You may want to contain them in a raised bed less they become a nuisance weed. Plant now and harvest as needed from late autumn right through to the following spring.

Shallots

Shallots sound a little bit posher than onions and it is no wonder that chefs go wild for them. As they are smaller than onions, shallots have a milder sweeter flavor and are even easier to grow.

Like their close relatives, shallots are grown from sets but they differ in the fact that each set multiplies to produce clusters of six to eight small bulbs that are harvested in exactly the same way.

They mature faster than onions and store longer and are planted and grown in the exact same way as onions, enjoying well dug fertile soil with sets pushed into the ground with tips just showing. Cover with fleece or netting to prevent birds wreaking havoc and pulling out freshly planted sets.

Space shallots 15cm apart in the row and 30cm between in rows. Like onions, shallots can also be raised from seed but sets certainly are the easiest quickest option for planting now. Shallots are an easy to grow crop and like onions they will require regular hoeing to keep competitive weeds at bay. Watering should not be an issue unless drought hits.

Harvest in midsummer when tops start to dry out and treat the same as onions. This year we are growing ‘Red Sun’ shallots in Airfield.

These are a high-yielding cultivar with large, round red-skinned bulbs prized for their mild and sweet flavor. ‘Banana Shallot’ with their elongated shape are another cultivar worth growing.

Other crops to direct sow now include broadbeans, onions and spring garlic which I will examine in detail next week.


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