There’s a shortage of greens in the shops, it seems. Spinach, kale and lettuce are suffering in Spain from the same sort of conditions that we get here in most winters.
It’s hard to know if this will become the norm for future years, but if it does, then West Cork gardeners could feel a little smug. It’s perfectly possible to grow great cabbages, kale, leeks, cauliflower and broccoli, to name just a few things that grow well outdoors in our climate. If you have a greenhouse or polytunnel then the range of winter crops is widened further.
Buy the seeds in spring and sow when shown on the packet. You may even grow enough to keep friends and neighbours supplied with some of your winter vegetables.
It’s a good idea to dig a bit of soil food in between the rows of salad leaves. This can be a powdered feed, or some well-rotted manure or compost. Try not to sprinkle any on leaves that you intend to pick and use a small fork or spade to turn the feed in where roots can reach.
Don’t damage plant roots in the process. Rows of autumn-sown salad will have been picked hard through the winter months and they need a little boost to help them grow a new flush of young leaves.
Cold nights take a toll and growth can slow for a while, so harvest lightly from rows of rocket, mizuna, mustard greens, purslane etc.
These plants stay in place, as long as they keep producing new leaves, until plants bolt, or leaves taste too bitter.
There’s nothing quite like the bright shades of primulas to add a bold splash of colour to borders. Plants will brighten window boxes, containers and baskets at a time of year when much of the flower border is only beginning to push up leaves.
There are plenty of small plants of all shades in garden centres now and these can flower for years if left undisturbed in a suitable place in the garden.
If a mix of colour is too much for the eye to take, look for more subtle versions: there are some dainty and elegant varieties available. Or check buds carefully and choose plants that produce flowers of the same colour. A patch of purple primulas can be as pretty as a bank of the yellow wild cousins.
First and second early seed varieties are in shops now and maincrop ones will be there in a few weeks time. People have their own favourites from waxy salad to floury monsters, but whatever you choose, take a little care to get seed that is healthy, firm and with small nubbins of sprouts rather than long white shoots. The latter will break, or snap off altogether, if handled roughly and they may not survive to planting time.
Potatoes can be spread out to ‘chit’ in a cool bright place. Near a shed window is ideal if the shed is frost proof. Egg boxes are useful for holding individual potatoes with the eye end (the one where shoots grow) upwards. In this way, each potato should produce three or four strong, short, green shoots.
Most potatoes are planted outdoors in March or April, when the soil is warm and risk of frost diminishes. If you have a polytunnel or greenhouse, it is well worth planting a few undercover in February to grow some early roots.
My preferred option is to plant one or two potatoes in a bucket half filled with compost and to add more compost to earth up as the stems grow. Fill as many buckets as you like in this way and potatoes should produce a trouble-free crop. Be prepared to water regularly, to keep compost damp, and you may need to move buckets outdoors when space is needed in the greenhouse for other crops.
Early and salad varieties can produce a good number of roots in late May, or early June, from a February planting. This is usually a few weeks earlier than outdoor plants.
Try to finish pruning apple trees before the end of the month. This often seems like a mammoth task and one that it is easy to put off. Many books will say that you can prune in March, but with our relatively milder winter, the timing is much shorter than other areas. As a minimum, check trees over and remove any branches that show signs of canker or cut out these patches on larger limbs. This disease won’t just go away without a bit of help!
Start seed for outdoor crops
Sow some lettuce, spinach, beetroot, celeriac and leeks in individual cells or trays. These will be planted outdoors in a few weeks time.
Joyce Russell's newest book, 'Build a Better Vegetable Garden', is now available to purchase at The Southern Star office and online here.