Patrick's Day - it's time to plant spuds

March 17 is always a landmark day in the diary for the garden, says Olive Ryan
Patrick's Day - it's time to plant spuds

The first planting of potatoes traditionally takes place on March 17. Picture: iStock

WE have been enjoying some good, dry and cold spring weather over the last week or two, and it has been great weather for getting tasks completed as the ground did dry up in most places.

Temperatures are still low, particularly at night time, so keep an eye on any young seedlings sown and cover with horticultural fleece if necessary.

As the annual deadline of St Patrick’s Day approaches this week, it is time to consider what jobs need doing as a matter of priority. Every year, March 17 is a real landmark in the diary, signifying the cusp of the beginning of growth in the garden. Jobs can of course be completed after this date and all plans are very weather-dependent, but it is good to have a deadline to work towards.

Seeds of hardy and half hardy annuals like Tagates, Calendula and Sweet Pea are good to sow earlier as they are tolerant of cold temperatures, but be careful with less hardy plants as a frost will kill or stress them if planted too early.

It is best to wait until temperatures are more favourable for growth before sowing the bulk of seeds, particularly vegetables, as if they get a cold spell it may stress them and result in bolting later in the season.

Tagetes Alumia Vanilla Cream, a hardy annual, can be sown now
Tagetes Alumia Vanilla Cream, a hardy annual, can be sown now

Seeds sown when conditions for growth are more favourable — warmer soil, warmer air, and more daylight hours — will thrive and overtake seeds sown during less favourable environmental conditions, so hold off a little longer for many seeds unless you have covered growing space.

The first planting of potatoes outdoors is traditionally associated with March 17. There are three main types of potato, first earlies, second earlies, and main crop.

First earlies are usually planted in March and mature in 10-12 weeks, producing smaller potatoes full of flavour.

Second earlies are also planted in March and mature in 12-14 weeks and also produce a smaller potatoes with good flavour, while main crop potatoes are planted later in April and take 16-22 weeks to mature and produce larger tubers and a more prolific harvest, which can be stored for a few months.

‘Orla’, a good first early potato that can be plated outside now.
‘Orla’, a good first early potato that can be plated outside now.

There are a good range of blight-resistant early potatoes available like ‘Orla’, ‘Red Duke of York’ and ‘Lady Christl’. The beauty about first and second earlies (both planted in March) is that they are usually on the dinner table before the fungal infection potato blight becomes a problem.

Without a doubt, blight still remains the greatest problem when growing potatoes, and having the crop harvested before conditions become ideal for the spread of the disease solves this problem.

Any pruning that needs to be done should be completed in earnest over the next few weeks. The basic rule for pruning is to remove the three Ds — dead, diseased and damaged material. After that, every plant needs to be considered based on if it flowers on current years growth or older wood, hardiness and the time of flowering.

Before undertaking any pruning, it is best to identify what it is that is being pruned and then check the timing is right as more harm than good can be done if the timing is not right.

It is important when pruning to always prune to a bud so that healthy growth will follow after pruning eliminating the risk of disease entry.

Pruning hydrangeas now will prepare for the summer spectacle of colour
Pruning hydrangeas now will prepare for the summer spectacle of colour

Hydrangea flower heads can at last be removed and escorted to the compost heap. The mop head hydrangeas flower on year old wood, so bear this in mind when pruning severely.

Do retain any new stems that do not have old flowers at the tip as they will produce the best blooms this year.

It is a good idea to take some of the older wood down to the base of the shrub as this will encourage new growth from the base, helping to rejuvenate that plant.

Hydrangeas can become very congested, carrying a lot of dead wood, ivy or other ground cover, and suffocating the crown of the plant. Doing some decongestion now while the framework is visible will revitalize the plant and result in healthier growth and better flowering in the long run.

Generally, we tend to prune the flowers from the hydrangea back to a pair of healthy buds and this works well for a few years, but eventually the centre of the plant can become very dense and overcrowded. Stand back and take a good look at your plant this year and perhaps reduce some of the thicker older stems back to the base of the plant. This will increase the life of the plant, encourage new growth and result in a healthier and more vibrant plant and flowers as a result.

Coppicing hazel, cornus and willow can be done now before bud burst and it will result in lots of new growth from the base during the year. The rods that are removed can be used for a number of useful purposes in the garden, basket making, construction of obelisks and other plant supports, fencing, walking sticks, fishing rods and firewood. They also make great bases for wreaths, that can be used all year round to celebrate different flower harvests in the garden.

The good weather over the last week or two has enabled the emptying of compost heaps and bins. It is a joy to behold the worms in their hundreds munching away on the fresh household waste added to the top of the bins.

Composting requires some organisation.
Composting requires some organisation.

Composting does require a degree of organisation and good housekeeping for it to work properly, but it is so worthwhile, especially when spreading the brown gold that results in spring. Start small with a compost bin and you will get hooked gradually.

Happy Composting and Spring Gardening!

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