Tips on How to Grow Winter and Spring Vegetables
Created | Updated Feb 11, 2015
For the eager beginner, Winter might pose a few problems. Part of the job is planting your vegetables in time for spring, or picking the veg you planted earlier in the year (what do you mean, you forgot?). Then there's maintaining your allotment and generally keeping an eye out for slugs and parasites.
But what else does the winter gardener need to do to grow healthy, edible vegetables? When we asked you, the Community, this is what you told us...
Keep your Veggies Going
Don't be tempted to dig up any more than you need at one point: the veg will almost always keep better in the ground than anywhere you can store them. It won't work after a hard frost though, but if you know in advance the frost is on its way, stick a cloche1 over your crops for a few days to let the ground warm up a little.
Potatoes and leeks are a case in point. Late summer and autumn crops will cope in the ground till Christmas at least. You might even manage to put together leek, potato and onion soup (with a few spring onions) as late as early January. Parsnips can also be kept in the ground, but carrots can't: the dreaded carrot fly will sniff them out and eat them. Meanwhile piquant rocket leaves will grow continuously throughout the winter, as will dandelions (although only use the young leaves). These are both handy as rabbit food if you run out.
If crops do have to be dug up, hang them. This really does keep them going longer. Shallots and onions plaited into an old fashioned-style rope look great and will keep for months - just twist one out of its papery coating from the bottom of the rope. Even tomatoes, left on the vine and hung in a cool porch will keep for many weeks without going to that nasty green mush that you get when you put supermarket tomatoes in the fridge.
Preparing for Winter
A gardener's activities don't stop once the last apple falls from the boughs. There's plenty to do even when the last of the summer vegetables and fruit have been harvested, before the ground has frosted over or become waterlogged, and the last leaf has blown away. For a start, you should cut or burn off and rake away all rubbish from the previous crop, including weeds and their seeds. Then comes the soil preparation for plantings in late autumn and early spring.
Good crops only come from well-aerated and fertile soils. Heavy clay soils particularly benefit from autumn preparation, before becoming waterlogged. Dig and invert the soil to at least six inches to bury the weeds and set the ground up proud to aid drainage to make tilling easy at planting time. The best tilth on clay comes about by the natural frosting of the ground, which busts up the clayey clods. The lightest textured soils (such as light loams and sands) are more flexible, and primary cultivation can be delayed until nearer planting time. Even on the lightest soils, inversion by ploughing or spade digging can be beneficial in burying the weeds.
Winter and Spring Crops Suitable for the Open Ground
Autumn planting of vegetables and salads is practicable in areas that don't get very hard winters. While some of your plot is storing veg and another part is resting, put aside a patch of ground for winter and early spring produce.
Love 'em or hate 'em, Christmas dinner wouldn't be complete without a handful of those little green balls of trouser-trumpers rattling around the plate between the parsnips and the chipolata sausages.
Brussel sprouts or Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera, take up to 100 days from seeding to harvesting, so to get your sprouts on Christmas Day you should be sowing seeds in early/mid-September. Alternatively, in early/mid-October, you should be able to get established seedlings from the local nursery.
Propagate these seedlings in rows a metre apart, with a foot or so between each plant. Water well (if Mother Nature doesn't do it for you) throughout the growing cycle, easing off a couple of weeks before you need to harvest. Shortly before harvesting, and as the lower leaves show signs of turning yellow, nip out the central stem of the plant. This will curtail vertical growth and will ensure that all the sprouts on the stem ripen at once. Ideally, old Jack Frost will be nipping at your nose during this fortnight, keeping the sprouts firm and tasty. Mild weather will give you mushy, loose, open sprouts.
To harvest, pare the sprouts off with a knife, or break them off by hand.
November is a good time to plant garlic, which requires a long growing season. It will take about six months before it's ready.
If the ground is very wet then simply make a ridge, about 8 to 10cm high, and plant into that. Don't use the stuff you buy in the supermarket, use a seed merchant and get a variety suited for your region. Good UK varieties include the new Early Wight and later maturing Solent Wight. The variety Elephant has a huge bulb with mild flavour. Separate each head into cloves and put them in, point up, about 10cm apart and 5cm deep. For every clove you plant you'll get a head of garlic. It is ready when the foliage goes yellow and starts to fall over.
A Few Other Reliables
Broad beans are a favourite for autumn planting, but not before November in southern England or they get too soft and lush, making them liable to be killed by frosts and susceptible to botrytis and other fungal diseases. Good varieties include Super Aquadulce for autumn sowing, moving on to Witkeim Manita early spring, and Bunyards Exhibition for spring sowing.
Hardy lettuces Valdor and Arctic King can be sown outside on light soils in August and September for harvesting in early spring.
Purple sprouting broccoli is hardy and should provide a crop for early spring.
You can also 'force' rhubarb to grow through winter. You can buy special pots to stick over the top of the cluster, but it's just as easy to put a bucket over them. You're more likely to be successful if you put it in a pot and leave it in a dark shed. Just remember to keep it watered. It will grow well, but the stems will be pink rather than red.
Of course it's easier to grow vegetables over winter in a greenhouse than outside. If you've got one, it might sound obvious, but... keep the door shut! That way, you'll keep the heat in. If you've got windows (or anything else) that regulate the temperature automatically, they'll probably work best if you do as much as possible to maintain a 'stable' temperature. If you have a heated greenhouse then you're laughing.
Potatoes can be grown in a big flower pot or bucket in the greenhouse. The same goes for lettuce. Check the seed merchants' catalogues for suitable varieties.
Cloches and Polytunnels
If you haven't got the room, or the cash, for a greenhouse, you can still grow winter vegetables. All you need is a good cold frame and/or floating row covers and some good quality mulch. It's best to locate the cold frame on the south side of your house (if you're in the Northern Hemisphere, but any sheltered location that gets several hours of sun a day will work. You can make a fairly good (but small) cold frame out of old plastic drinks bottles. Just cut in half, and you have two - but keep the cap screwed on what used to be the 'top' of the bottle. These mini cloches are particularly useful for seedlings and small plants.
Spinach, kale, and some varieties of lettuce will live through the winter in a cold frame. Certain kinds of onion work well from an autumn sowing as well and you'll get a much earlier crop than if you'd waited till spring. Other possibilities are cabbage, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and most root crops. Leeks, beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, and rutabagas2 can be sown for winter harvest. The flavour improves if they're left in the ground until a hard freeze.