Late winter: a time for hope
by Jenny Hey and Mark Purrett
Easter holidays; a few promisingly warm days when the bees start flying, birds singing, and a green haze begins to drift across the bleached colours of winter. And then comes the lambing snow, and the old adage chimes as a warning to those whose green fingers are too keen: “Ne’er cast a clout, ‘till May is out.” Whether “May” refers to the month, or the flowering of the hawthorn, the message to growers is essentially the same: don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t be fooled into believing we have left winter behind. Not just yet.
So what can we do at the moment, that won’t all go to ruin in a late storm or frost? Windowsill sowings of seeds seems like a good idea, and brassicas are something to focus on at this time of year, for now is the time to sow brassicas for next winter. Recommended varieties for Skye are “Nautic” for sprouts, “Westland Winter” for kale and purple sprouting broccoli “early”. There are also quite a few heritage varieties that grow well on the west coast. “Sutherland Kale” was a lost variety, recently rescued, that tells a wonderful success story to support the importance of seed saving
Potatoes generally do well in Skye and provide a wonderful flexibility as to how they are grown. Traditionally they were a staple crop grown in lazy beds, using seaweed as a mulch / compost. There is plenty of evidence for this type of cultivation across Skye, for example at Galtrigill. The method certainly has plenty of benefits as a way of breaking in new ground for cultivation and, you never know, if you do start a new potato bed you might even make a significant discovery, like this Viking anchor, found in 2009 in Sleat!
Potatoes can also be grown in containers as varied as salt lick boxes (make sure they have holes for drainage) or old tyres in the corner of the garden, stacking them up and filling with compost each time shoots appear. Early crops can be planted now in a polytunnel or greenhouse, bringing the harvesting of new potatoes forward by at least a month. Harvesting early crops like this can help to avoid some of the main diseases such as blight.
The first task is to choose your varieties and chit them ready for planting outside at Easter, or inside as soon as possible. Potatoes fall in to various categories depending on when you wish to harvest them, and what sort you like to eat. Have a look at the Allotment Garden or Parkhill Garden Centre guides to decide what varieties are right for you. For more advice on how to grow potatoes look at the Royal Horticultural Society website or video.
How to make a lazybed the traditional way. From Quickcrop blog
Potato tubers beginning to sprout (‘chitting’), in a cool, light place. After 4-6 weeks they will be ready for planting.
Now is also the time to dream of the smell and taste of strawberries, and pot up bare rooted strawberry runners purchased commercially, taken from your own plants or gleaned from friends, to bring on in a polytunnel or cold frame ready for planting in spring.
Strawberries are also flexible in their growing locations. Polytunnel crops provide early rewards and can be grown in boxes or hanging baskets or troughs, which can be moved out to make space for other plants when they have finished fruiting. Outside crops ripen later, and must be netted so as not to become food for the birds. And beware of mice and voles, who love to feast on their seeds.
Like potatoes, strawberries are also divided into categories of early and maincrops, so choose varieties to give a good succession throughout the year.
There is still plenty of time to buy strawberry plants.
‘Malling centenary’ is a juicy, tasty, early variety, while “Florence‘ is a late variety – tasty, heavy cropping and with good powdery mildew resistance.
For more advice on how to grow strawberries visit Gardeners World or the Royal Horticultural Society.