THE LEAN MONTHS
We grow fruit and vegetables to provide healthy food throughout the year. Mid summer to autumn is the harvest period, then we store and freeze crops to take us into winter and the following spring. It is the March to early May that is the difficult lean months when our own produce can be scarce. The challenge is to be self sufficient over twelve months, but that takes some planning.
We bring the cropping seasons forward by growing salads, strawberries and other crops under tunnels or in cold frames or greenhouses. Early potatoes is another challenge so we use a very early variety like Casa Blanca or International Kidney planting chitted seed potatoes on the first warm day in spring. The first shaws can be lifted as soon as the plant has flowered and although the crop may be light, the salad potatoes will be delicious. Early strawberries grown under tunnels can also be ready for picking by the end of May.
|The last two pumpkins|
Rhubarb is another delicacy that can be brought forward by forcing. Lift mature crowns in winter and replant under the greenhouse staging, but enclose them with black polythene to exclude light. This will produce tender deep pink stalks well ahead of the outdoor crops. However the mild winter has helped existing rhubarb crowns to put in an early start so it won’t be long before we have fresh stalks, though there is still a lot in our freezer from last year needing to be used up.
The poor summer of 2015 followed by the wet winter has thrown up some real anomalies. Beetroot grew but did not swell up so the meagre crops did not last much beyond Christmas. Spring cabbage was so badly affected by clubroot that none of them survived, and winter cabbage was very poor to grow and is only now beginning to heart up. Brussels sprouts on the other hand have never been better, and it looks like they will be cropping well into April.
|The last Fiesta apple|
Leeks suffered from water logging but are alive and edible, once all the rotten leaves have been removed. Swedes all failed, but this was down to poor seed as the germination was a total failure.
Parsnips were a success and still enough in the ground to last into early April.
Crops stored in cold dry dark conditions in my garage have done remarkably well. Sarpo Mira potatoes look like lasting for another couple of months, and Hytech onions just the same. Carrots are still in the ground as the mild winter has been in their favour and should last till the end of March. Apples have not lasted as in previous years as the poor summer and autumn did not help to ripen them up. Brown rot has been quite a problem. Only Fiesta has lasted into March, but there is still a few good Bramleys for cooking. However a lot of the apple crop was used to make my dessert apple wine, leaving it for two years in demijohns to mature then enjoy a wee glass every so often. Pumpkins stored very well but numbers are in short supply as they like warm growing conditions but never got any last year.
It is the freezer that has been the winner in giving us plenty of crops of a wide variety right through the lean months. Last year our bumper tomato crops ended up in the freezer and now Anna makes an excellent tomato soup. Broad beans were also plentiful last year and although these are used in many different dishes my favourite is still the soup. Dwarf French beans and cauliflower from the freezer give us variety in the lean months.
Blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, saskatoons and brambles have all frozen well and will give us plenty of berries before the new season ones are ready. These will be used for compote which we use daily, and also crumbles and summer puddings.
Wee jobs to do this week
Gardeners always love the challenge of growing the best, the biggest fruit and vegetable or to be the first to harvest their potato or early strawberry. It also gives great satisfaction to pick fresh salads ahead of the normal season. We can do this with a sowing now of lettuce, rocket, radish, beetroot and spring onions in cellular trays to germinate in a warm place, then after a few weeks they can be hardened off before planting out in early April in a cold frame, cold greenhouse or a polythene tunnel. The radish will be ready first and the beetroot last.