Yes it really is possible to find fresh and tasty things to eat in early February – direct from the veg plot! This is the first year that I’ve successfully grow crops for winter, so I thought I’d share a few tips and highlights with you. What you do need is a little forward planning, and some kind of protection from the worst of the winter weather. You don’t have to invest in a greenhouse, a simple cold frame works really well.
The cold frame is a simple structure made from timber planks with a polycarbonate plastic lid. Luckily for me, the non-plant obsessive in my life likes a bit of DIY and used leftover materials from our greenhouse project to make two of these. If you decide to give this a go, don’t forget to include an option to keep the lid partially open for ventilation, this will help keep air circulating and prevent the spread of fungal diseases.
I have a mix of leafy goodies growing in the cold frames: rocket, mustard greens, chard and red russian kale. All are hardy and if sown in early autumn (September to mid October) will keep producing leaves for your salad bowl through winter. They really required minimal maintenance – the cooler autumn and winter temperatures mean you don’t need to water, and it’s easy to keep on top of the weeding in this more controlled environment. So much easier to weed one or two square meters than an entire plot, as you will note from my photos!
Here’s one that can cope outside: curly kale is a particularly winter hardy crop, and provides a welcome splash of fresh greenery amidst what is a desolate winter scene at my allotment. It has survived frosts and below zero temperatures. I planted it as a seedling in spring last year – it was one of the first things to go in the ground in what was then my weedy new allotment. So if you are looking for something for next winter, think of planting some curly kale this spring. It’s low maintenance too – untroubled by pests and diseases – but they grow tall so as you can see I have staked mine to stop them toppling over. I noticed that there seem to be a few anti-kale memes doing the rounds on social media but I honestly don’t get it, I find the taste quite mild and inoffensive. I use it mainly in stir-fries and curries for some quick and easy green leafy goodness.
Next up we go into the unheated greenhouse (don’t panic if you don’t have one, a cold frame will do just fine). These crops were all sown from seed in September. We have radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, winter lettuce and even a few radishes. I planted most of the radicchio outside in the open – big mistake! – all were demolished overnight by hungry slugs – clearly the bitterness of radicchio is not a problem for their taste buds! Luckily I put a couple in greenhouse where they have remained untroubled by molluscs.
The lamb’s lettuce is doing well and is another easy, low-maintenance plant. If you take just a few leaves from each plant it quickly grows back, so you can treat it as a ‘cut and come again’ crop. The winter lettuce is more substantial and is being protected by plastic rings – just in case a wayward slug does decide to explore the greenhouse. It’s growing strongly as the daylight hours increase so I will be harvesting the first ones soon.
All of these plants are pretty tough and just need that little bit of extra protection, plus the addition of some good compost at planting time. Keeping an eye on slugs and the occasional watering (in the greenhouse) is all that’s needed.
With spring round the corner, it’s time now to plan for the new crops for this year. Too early to sow at this stage, but a little preparation of the beds now will pay off later. Here I’ve put down straw and chicken manure (we are lucky to have three chickens who provide free fertiliser for us). This will gradually break down into the soil and make an excellent ready-to-go planting area later in the year. But more on that later, I’d like to share a post on what I’ve learnt from trialing the no-dig method last year.
And finally: news of the newsletter: it is coming folks! Good things come to those who wait! We’ve had a serious illness in the family since early January, so my gardening writing plans have had to go on the back burner. It’s on its way…