Winter on the allotment

How to keep your vegetable patch going strong through the winter

By Bunny Guinness

Do you grow as much winter veg as you could? Growing fabulous rows of a wide choice of feisty vegetables stops the garden becoming just a window landscape and gives it real purpose.

Charles Dowding, one of our country’s most respected vegetable growers, has just finished his book on winter vegetables and he gave me some good tips. Charles was one of the pioneers of veg boxes and has grown organic vegetables since the Eighties.

If you haven’t a crammed patch, don’t worry – there is a surprising amount you can sow or plant now. Garlic is a must for me and Pippa Greenwood, a garlic aficionado, swears by ‘Albigensian’ – while ordering this I will add shallots, broad beans, certain onions as sets (for example, ‘Senshyu’, ‘Shakespeare’) all of which can go in now, while some seeds can be sown under cover to plant out in a few weeks.

For example, lettuce ‘Meraviglia d’Inverno San Martino’, (sow until December) and peas such as ‘Piccolo Provenzale’ and the mange tout, ‘Gigante Svizzero’, (all www.seedsofitaly.com) can be sown until the end of this month.

My ‘Oregon’ sugar snap peas, sown outside in the first week of February last year (another option) gave me early pea shoots and a steady supply until August, not massive quantities, but enough to pop in stir fries, salads and to supplement other vegetables.

I hate seeing empty soil over winter as I am worried the rain will wash all the nutrients out and I always prefer to see green. The later you sow, the fewer leaves you get to pick at over winter, but with an early spring they start to romp and you have masses at a really useful time.

I am a great fan of autumn-sown broad beans and Charles pointed out that when you plant them at this time of year they put tillers out – that is, you get multi-stemmed plants that give more, earlier beans than spring-planted ones.

A good autumn-sowing variety is ‘Aquadulce Claudia’, and Charles has found ‘Masterpiece Green Longpod’, excellent, too. He sows them outside because the mice invade his greenhouse, whereas I always module sow inside (I have active cats).

I like making plant supports in advance as it’s a great mild winter day job and I have more time to make them fun and functional.

As well as plants that I am sowing now, I have those sown in August, such as mixed leaves, rocket, fennel, pak choi and lambs lettuce.

These give me greenery up to the first really tough frosts (often after Christmas) – a layer of fleece thrown over as necessary before the real cold starts is all that’s needed to keep them coming.

Charles found that last year his late August-sown coriander (‘Calypso’), spinach and leaf chicories were tough nuts – surviving well through winter. Chard and herbs such as parsley and chervil do too.

Apart from the leaves, there are the stalwarts – the leeks, parsnips, swede and Jerusalem artichokes. All are particularly good as you can leave them in the ground and lift them on demand. I am regularly seen lifting parsnips and so on in frosty conditions, in pyjamas and wellies, for Sunday lunch.

Beetroot is a bit of a grey area: last winter’s temperatures meant some people had failures with leaving them out, but mine in sheltered raised beds were fine. Carrots are best lifted by mid-November and celeriac by the end of the month.

All this talk of clamping winter vegetables fills me with horror and I was relieved to hear that Charles finds a sack or box in a cool barn for carrots and onions adequate and a lot less difficult to put in and take out.

Other tips from Charles concerned attacks from the leek moth, which seems to be on the increase. He found that if the leeks are as thick as his thumb when hit, they will grow out of it and only one plant out of 50 had to be discarded.

People often hear about stopping sprouts – removing the topmost sprout when the lowest sprout is about 1cm, which encourages the sprouts to mature together.

This is only useful for freezing, as most of us want a successional supply. Remove the yellowing lower leaves to help prevent rotting.

When you cut cabbages, keep the cut stalk in situ, and you get delicious small greens to harvest from these later.

Pigeons and perennial kale once supported many households in cold winters. But some kales such as the ‘Redbor’ and ‘Red Russian’, are star performers.

The former stands 4ft high, with dark purple, curled leaves like parsley and the latter has tasty young leaves. And if you don’t fancy eating your pigeons, keep an eye on them.

As soon as the snow arrives so do they, thrilled that the tasty foliage is held out of the snow’s way for their enjoyment. So have that cover ready.

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Preparing for Winter

By Marj Foodie

As I’ve cleared crops I’ve been digging so that the winter frosts can help break down my heavy clay soil. There is a lot of digging to do and as the weather gets colder and wetter, it is more difficult to find opportunities to go digging so, I try to dig a bit every time I am at my plot and dig a bit between other jobs – I was going to say ‘chores’ but, that sounds as though it is work I don’t enjoy. I think the only job which really is a chore is carrying endless containers of water to my poly-tunnel or to young un-established plants in dry weather. Although my heavy clay soil is very fertile, it is extremely wet and sticky in prolonged wet spells but, dries out very quickly. This allows me about three to four days when the ground is diggable between the heavy mud and the rock-hard clay which splits open in lengthy dry spells.

Unfortunately, that happened this year when young plants like brassicas should have been planted out and beans should have been sown. So, this has been a poor year for those crops – not a total failure, just hard work achieving pretty low production. As I, in common with most other allotment gardeners, grow far too many beans anyway, it wasn’t a disaster for them but, I am sorry that my brassicas have been a bit miserable as they are – by a long way – my favourite group of vegetables.

My potatoes have been lifted, dried and stored a good six to eight weeks ago but, (I am always afraid of blight) I lift them as soon as they are ready – late August, if possible. This has the advantage of providing warm enough weather to dry the potatoes quickly before I store them. If you have not lifted yours yet, make sure you do so before the frost hits as it will destroy your crop. I was in Northern Ireland last week and was surprised to see many fields in prime potato producing country with crops still in the ground. Clearly the haulms had not been removed and had been allowed to die back naturally. I guess the farmers are using fairly heavy duty chemicals to protect their crops from blight, though not from the frost, and it will hit them before it attacks my plot! Though thinking of the chemicals makes me glad I produce my own. Thinking of storing potatoes – make sure they are dry, remove as much of the clay attached to them as possible. Store in a cool, frost free place [garage, attic room, unheated room in your house, frost-free shed – I stored a bag in my shed last year but, when I went back to get them in January they has been frosted – spongy, wet and smelly!]. Store in cardboard boxes, hessian sacks or paper potato sacks – not plastic as they will rot – and make sure they are protected from light. This all sounds like a pain but, really – put them in a cardboard box in the corner of an unheated room and cover with several sheets of newspaper – bingo! Of course, if you have several tons……….!

I’ve already done my main seed order for this year. I do love, on a wet miserable day in autumn, poring over this year’s seed catalogues and working out what I will grow next year. I think it is one of my favourite jobs. Of course, as always, I’ve ordered too many different beans, too many brassicas and too many different lettuces and probably several others. Some of these will keep so it doesn’t matter but, when my order arrived, I realised I’d forgotten something. It’s the same every year. I forget to order wallflower seeds. I always grow them in a seedbed on my plot then bring them home for my garden and my neighbour’s garden. I will just have to place another order.

I have already planted/sown my shallots and garlics this autumn. My shallot harvest was poor this year, although onions were amazing but, I will try again, this time in a raised bed. This year I didn’t grow enough garlic though that might have been because I ate so many early in the season as wet garlic and, wanting to introduce others to this delight, I gave a lot away. I hope I have planted enough for next year. I bought only two varieties – those which have done best on my plot – Solent White and Purple Wight. These two have been the best producers on my plot over the last few years. I have planted the cloves from six bulbs of each. I’m hoping this will be enough.

I have also started my autumn broad beans – Aquadulce Claudia. As, in the past, I’ve had little success with planting straight into the ground (no more than 25-30% germination), I have taken to chitting or sprouting the beans first (set out on wet paper – make sure it stays wet! Within a week or less they should have sprouted). Then I pot up those beans which sprout. I have now put these into my poly-tunnel and will keep them there until the plants are about 20cm ( 3-4 inches high). As the poly-tunnel is cold it is possible to plant them out to a prepared bed during November. I will cover them with fleece to keep the worst of the frost off them. This method has been hugely successful in the past, providing me with heavy crops of excellent beans early in the season which miss the black-fly plague. However, last winter’s bitterly cold weather did affect my crops. I will grow by the same method again but, I plan to sow some in the spring as well, just to make sure I have a crop. I do like my broad beans.

As I’ve been ranting on somewhat about last year’s bitterly cold weather I will also say that I’ve already cut back my globe artichokes and covered them for the winter. Last year’s very harsh weather destroyed 50% of my established bed. I am actually surprised that 50% survived! This year I have taken the painful step of cutting back strong lush growth so that I can cover it with fleece. I do hope it works. I’ve not done this before, although really, all the advice books on gardening suggest that you should do this and cover with straw. – I don’t have a source of straw so, fleece must suffice!.