Posts tagged ‘grow your own’

January 7, 2013

Gotcha Oca! Oxalis tuberosa – A new root crop with a future?

by Ciaran Burke
An Oca tuber

An Oca tuber

I first grew Oxalis tuberosa about fifteen years ago. I received the seed from a seed list, it was listed as an alpine plant from South America. I grew it in a well drained compost, lean, without much fertilizer and it eventually produced an attractive yellow flower. It was quite nice. Last year I was re-acquainted with this Oxalis, under quite different circumstances. A gardening firend of mine, Carmen Cronin who runs the Clare Garden Festival gave me some tubers of a vegetable plant which she described as having shamrock-like leaves and that it came from South America. I suspected that it was indeed my old friend O. tuberosa, although she called it OCA and pronounced it Och- ah.

Young Oca plants being potted up into compost bags

Young Oca plants being potted up into compost bags

Well I was intrigued! The tubers were waxy textured and brightly coloured, some red, some yellow, others almost white. The following week I planted them in pots with the help of some students taking part on The New Growth Project course that we run in our garden. We watched the plants closely, all were curious to see how they would grow, would these funny looking tubers be a substitute for the beloved spud? We joked that one day people might be ordering bags of Oca fries to go with their burgers.

Oca plants potted up

Oca plants potted up

That was back in April. We planted the tubers in 2 litre pots of garden compost and later potted on the plants into re-cycled compost bags filled with more of the garden compost. These were kept in the polytunnel where we work with the students. The growth of the Oca was far more than I expected and by mid-summer we were battling for space with the South American vegetables.

Oca plants growing in the tunnel during the summer- they grow very big

Oca plants growing in the tunnel during the summer- they grow very big

Ocas are relatively unknown as a vegetable, apparently they grow them in New Zealand where they call them yams, which is a very misleading name. Oca or Oxalis tuberosa are related to wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, a native of Irish woodlands. The foliage is very similar being trifoliate and shamrock like. The foliage can be eaten, it has an acidic sour taste which is quite appealing, similar to sorrel.

Oca will grow vigorously, some of the plants produced stems 2 metres (over 6ft) long by the autumn. Oca are not suitable for growing outdoors in all parts of Ireland, early frosts will turn the fleshy stems to mush before tubers start to form. The plants have a short day photoperiodic response for tuber formation which means that tubers do not start to form and swell until mid-October. Covering the plants with polythene or fleece will help protect them from light frosts.

Frost in October killed outdoor Oca plants before their tubers developed

Frost in October killed outdoor Oca plants before their tubers developed


I found that plants in the polythene tunnel also got frost damaged when temperatures went below zero degrees Celcius (32F). As the days got shorter the students and I checked the plants weekly. After the tomato plants were cleared from our upper tunnel we moved the plants that we had been fighting for space in our potting tunnel to the bed vacated by the tomatoes. We laid the trailing stems of the Oca on the beds. Along the stems small tubers started to form. Portions of the stems that were covered with soil developed larger tubers.  Next year I will earth up the tubers more as some close to the surface had holes eaten in them by birds. Otherwise the Oca were untroubled by pests and untroubled by diseases. I did not give any extra fertilizer to the plants while they were growing as the plants were growing so big, but addition of supplementary fertilizer low in nitrates might help increase the yield of tubers if applied late in the growing season. We kept the plants watered throughout the summer.

oca plants transferred into other tunnel- the long stems trailed onto the raised bed after the tomatoes had been cleared out

oca plants transferred into other tunnel- the long stems trailed onto the raised bed after the tomatoes had been cleared out


During late summer I experimented with taking cuttings of the Oca plants. They rooted quickly and easily and by Christmas most of the plants had made one or two decent sized tubers. I will use these plants for replanting this year.

One of the Oca plants grown from cuttings

One of the Oca plants grown from cuttings


Our first harvest of the tubers was made just before Christmas. Two good portions were made from a well cropping bag.

Red oca from one of the bags

Red oca from one of the bags

So after all this, how do Oca taste? On Christmas Eve my wife and I roasted our first harvest of red and yellow Oca tubers. Oca tubers can even be eaten raw, but i prefer to cook them. They can be fried, boiled, steamed, deep fried or roasted. After washing the well, they are easy to clean due to their smooth and waxy skins. We then tossed them in rapeseed oil and baked them for about 20 minutes until they were tender.

Oca tossed in oil and baked for about 20 minutes...delicious!

Oca tossed in oil and baked for about 20 minutes…delicious!

OCA ARE DELICIOUS! They remind me a little of a fried potato seasoned with vinegar.

So next season we are going to grow more Oca. I look forward to experimenting with them; I am going to take cuttings from the first flush of growth and see if the plants make more tubers, I will earth up the stems as they grow. I will also experiment with day length control, and try to induce tuber formation early by covering the plants with black polythene for a few hours each morning to produce a shorter day length.

I can see it now, fast food outlets on Saturday nights after closing time “Do you want Oca fries with your burger?” “Yes please!”

Oca tubers from one of the bags

Oca tubers from one of the bags


Moving some Oca plants in composst bags outdoors- these were covered with fleece

Moving some Oca plants in composst bags outdoors- these were covered with fleece

Tubers developing at the base of the plant grown from cuttings

Tubers developing at the base of the plant grown from cuttings

Oca grown from cuttings in late summer

Oca grown from cuttings in late summer







October 4, 2012

The New Season Starts Now- 5 things to do in the garden now…

by Ciaran Burke

Traditionally autumn is the harvest festival, apples have been picked, the jams made and as the nights get longer and the days cooler, we gardeners may be tempted into hibernation. Yet, there is lots to do in the garden. October is time to start planing and planting for next year’s harvest.

Five jobs to do in the garden now to ensure early and plentiful harvests next year

  1. Take a pH test of your soil
  2. Plant autumn onion sets
  3. Sow over wintering salad onions
  4. Sow broad beans
  5. Sow winter/spring lettuces

Autumn is the ideal time for taking pH readings of the soil. pH is the measurement of alkalinity or acidity of substances and for gardeners it is important to know the pH of your soil. pH readings tell us a lot about the soils ability to make nutrients available to plants. Autumn is the ideal time to do this; if your soil is acidic you should add garden lime to raise the pH. Most vegetable crops prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. The effects of lime on a soil pH are due to a chemical reaction which takes a number of weeks to achieve. Autumn applications of lime will mean that your soil will be right by the time spring arrives.

Autumn planted onion sets will produce an earlier harvest compared with spring planted sets. Different varieties are used now; we planted Electra, a red variety and Senshyu a yellow variety. We have had success with these varieties in the past, even during vey cold winters. Autumn  planting varieties are not good for winter storage.

Onion ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’ seeds can be sown now to produce tasty green onions next spring.

Broad Bean Pods

I love broad beans. They are a very hardy crop and if sown in October, ideally the plants should be 2.5cm (1 inch) or higher before the onset of winter. Sow the seeds of a suitable variety such as ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ at a depth of 4-5cm (1.5-2in). Broad beans like well dug, manure enriched soil.

There are many varieties of winter lettuce suitable for sowing now and over wintering. Ideally they should be given a degree of protection; in a polytunnel, under a cloche or covered with fleece. the green varieties ‘Valdor’ and Erika are ideal and the red leafed ‘Roger’ have all done well for us in previous years, proving to be very hardy even when frozen for a few weeks in the tunnel during a very cold winter.

Over the next week or so I will post more detailed information for each of these tasks.


September 27, 2012

Fruit of the vine- a gift of grapes means lots of grape jam

by Ciaran Burke

I got the call on Sunday morning,” I have friend of a friend who has a grape vine…”. The vine grower now lives in France, but the vine in question grows in Sligo. Nobody wanted the grapes, the caller thought of me, “would I like the grapes?”  Yes, definitely. We arranged to meet on Tuesday morning, we were told there were lots to pick, but were not sure how much that was. So we packed a couple of buckets and off we went to Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, a short drove from our home.

We arrived at the vacant house, a west wind blew damp and fresh, the garden overgrown, the grass long and weeds invading the driveway. We followed our friend Mary to the tunnel, a stunning sight greeted us. The vine had started to wander, side shoots stretched out like tentacles, reaching into the air, looking for something to grab. The main body of the vine was supported on a homemade support sytem of wood and steel, winding stems looked ancient, older than their years. They twisted along the suports from the far end of the tunnel. Almost the entire length of the structure was filled by its fruitful presence. The large leaves tried to hide its bounty from our view. We gently eased back foliage to see the large clusters of grapes revealed. We got busy with out scissors, our buckets soon overflowed, luckily I had a crate in the car, the harvesting could continue.

Grape vines are easy to grow, the west of Ireland climate does not provide good ripening conditions, a protected structure such as a greenhouse or plastic tunnel over comes the disadvantage of our location. Each end of the tunnel had plastic netteing for doors allowing good ventilation, essential for vines so as to reduce the incidence of powdery mildew, which can be menace for Vitis vinifera.

So what to do with all these grapes? First of all jam. We have also made cordial and my wife Hanna baked a delicious rustic Italian grape cake. All the recipes are on their way, but first the jam!

Grape Jam Recipe

Grape jam takes a little work to prepare. The work involves removing the pulp from the grape and separating the skins. Then the pulp is cooked and sieved to remove the stones. While the pulp is cooking you blend the skins with a food processor or hand blender. The skins are then added to the sieved pulp, then cooked slowly for about 30 minutes. Then add sugar and boil like mad for about another 30 minutes until the jam is setting. A good set can be achieved without the addition of pectin. I try to limit the sugar quantities to a minimum, partly for healthiness but I also prefer the jam to taste of grapes and not be too sweet.


  • 4kg of grapes
  • 500ml of water
  • tbsp of lemon juice
  • 1.5kg of sugar


  1. Remove the skins. This is easy, just squeeze the fruit so that the inner pulp and seed ejects from the opening where the fruit was attached to the bunch. Put the skins in a separate bowl. Two people doing a 2 kilos took about 30 minutes
  2. Put the pulp containing seeds to cook, when they start to boil reduce heat to simmer for about 10 minutes
  3. Meanwhile chop up the skins using hand blender or food processor
  4. Sieve the grape flesh to remove the seeds, a coarse sieve will do, I used a colander with small holes
  5. Retutn the grapes to the saucepan and add the puled skins. Add the lemon juice and water and bring to boil
  6. Reduce the heat to simmer the fruit for 30 minutes, cooking slowly releases the pectin
  7. Slowly add the sugar and then turn up the heat
  8. The jam will boil heavily and keep the temp up high. It took about 30 minutes for the jam to start thickening.
  9. When it is starting to set, fill the jam into sterilized jars.

This amount made 13 8oz jars. When making jam stir the fruit occasionally to make sure it does not stick to the sauce pan, never leave it alone as it is sure to boil over and burn as soon as you turn your back.

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September 22, 2012

Kitero’s arrival and the cabbage that was loved

by Ciaran Burke

Amelie walked with her dad, or rather she ran ahead and he followed. Fueled by the curiosity and enthusiasm that only a young child can possess, running along the grass path and past the stone-walls she entered the vegetable patch. Calendula flowers made her exclaim, then she saw the heads of cabbage, firm pale green globes cradled by large firm leaves. It was love at first sight, she bent down to hug the cabbage and then the lucky brassica received a kiss to its crown. Her Dad laughed, she giggled with delight, then she buzzed off to chase a white butterfly.

Calendula flowers

Snail eating some oat meal. Oats or bran is ideal for cleaning their digestive systems. The process takes about five to seven days.

Our visitors, a lively family, a lovely family, came to eat snails. Our petit gris, collected from the garden and reared in the shed, fed with bran to purge their digestive sytems. The kids preferred to eat Hanna’s delicious almond ring biscuits but us adults enjoyed l’escargot, the snails cooked in a white wine and tarragon sauce. Before they left, Amelie and her brother Gael brought us a gift, a new resident for our garden, Kitero.

Hanna’s almond rings baked according to her granny’s recipe from Finland. they proved to be a much bigger hit with the kids than my snails!

Kitero came from Knock. He arrived in a box and dressed in a fine red Kimono. His socks filled with sand and a beaming smile on his round green face. His hat and gloves on, ready for the cold, because Kitero is always on duty, in all weather, Kitero our scarecrow.

Kitero watches over our cabbage

We made him a home, he sits happily on the wooden edge of a raised bed, where he watches over our cabbages, including the kissed one. Kitero’s job is an important one, wood pidgeons love cabbages even more than Amelie. Where as she was happy to place a gentle kiss and give a firm hug, pidgeons would rather eat their leaves.

The feathered ones are not the only winged visitors to like our cabbage. Cabbage white butterflies, flutter around them looking for places to lay their eggs. When they do, usually on the underside of the leaves, caterpillars will soon emerge, hungry ones that will munch holes in the leaves. Unfortunately Kitero does not scare caterpillars, actually I am not sure if he would scare a bird, he looks too friendly. When I find groups of yellow eggs on any brassica leaves, including the relatives of cabbage such as Brussels Sprouts and Kale, I squash them. Those that I miss emerge as larvae, they get squashed. Some people do not like to squash them, instead they favour re-location of the pests, but I have no qualms about delivering a deadly squueze to a few caterpillars that I find on my cabbage leaves.

Caterpillars on brussel sprouts- Pieris brassicae, the larva stage of cabbage white butterfly

Cabbage is a widely grown vegetable and it likes the cool climate of the west of Ireland. It is hardy and reliable. Easy to grow in well prepared soil. Many people turn up their noses at cabbage, perhaps too many childhood dinners of over cooked and mushy leaves. I went through a phase of rejection but I have a renewed love of the green globes. Not that I have kissed a cabbage lately, nor given one a hug, but cooked with love to produce a tender dish kissed with the flavour of caraway and honey, cabbage is a vegetable I readily embrace again.

Sautéd Cabbage with Caraway Seed and Honey – Recipe


  • Half cup of finely chopped onion
  • 4 cups of chopped cabbage
  • One tea spoon of caraway seeds
  • Table spoon of honey
  • Oil for frying


  1. Sauté the onion in oil until soft
  2. Add the caraway seeds and stir for a couple of minutes
  3. Add the chopped cabbage and stirfry until the cabbage becomes tender but not soft (ten minutes)
  4. Stir in the honey and serve

Serves four as side dishes. One variation that an American visitor shared with us a while ago is to use dried chillis instead of caraway, both recipes are delicious! If you have tired of boiled cabbage this could make you fall in love with cabbage again!

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June 24, 2012

Growing A Stir-fry part 2 – Chop Suey Greens

by Ciaran Burke

Chop suey greens

Chop suey greens are sometimes called chrysanthemum greens. They have a nice aromatic flavour, the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. The young stems and leaves are great in a stir fry.

Chop suey greens are types of Chrysanthemums, botanists have done a bit of chopping and slicing of the Chrysanthemum genus and the chop suey greens are now classified as Xanthophthalmum coronarium, quite a mouthful! They are quite hardy annuals that can with stand frosts and tolerate low light levels in winter and grow best in cool conditions. They can be grown in tunnel in winter and are also suitable for containers  They will grow about 15cm high and wide in their leafy stage and attain 60cm in height when flowering. The flowers are yellow, daisy-like and quite pretty. it could be grown as much for its flowers as for its aromatic flavoured stems.

Growing Chop Suey Greens

Site and Soil type

Easy to accomodate as they will grow in most soil types, their growth will be more vigorous and lush in soil with higher fetiltiy. they grow well in full sun but will tolerate some degree of shade.

Sowing and growing

First sowing for very early crops can be made undercover and grown on in tunnel. As soon as oil warms up in Spring and the soil is workable sow outside, in mid March in our garden.

Autumn crops can be sown towards the end of summer and winter crops can be grown in tunnel if sown in autumn.

The seed is small so do not cover thickly or sow in shallow drills outdoors. You can start early crops in trays or module for transplanting later. For direct sown crops in drills thin the seedlings 10-13cm (4-5in) apart and transplant plants from trays at the same distance.


The first harvests can be made after 4-5 weeks when shoots are 5-10cm (2-4in) high, young leaves and shoots are more tender. You can treat them as Cut and Come Again and plants will re-sprout after cutting. We use not onluy the leaves but the young stems too. Leaves can be used raw but stems are better cooked. Over cooked leaves have a tendency to become bitter.

Leaves wilt rapidly after harvest to use immediately.

Flower of chop-suey greens- Xanthophthalmum coronarium

Do not let the plants go to flower, unless you want to use them as ornamentals or to collect seed for the next year Plants left to flower will often self-seed in their plot. To prevent flowering chop back plants when they start to become woody and the plants will often regenerate.

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