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How To Grow Winter Vegetables

How To Grow Winter Vegetables

by Charles Dowding

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It is possible, with the help of this book, to enjoy an abundance of vegetables at the darkest time of year, whether stored or ready for harvesting when needed. It also covers growing for the “hungry gap” from April to early June. Not much grows in winter, but a well-organized plot may nonetheless be quite full. This book helps gardeners plan carefully,


It is possible, with the help of this book, to enjoy an abundance of vegetables at the darkest time of year, whether stored or ready for harvesting when needed. It also covers growing for the “hungry gap” from April to early June. Not much grows in winter, but a well-organized plot may nonetheless be quite full. This book helps gardeners plan carefully, and well ahead, sowing and planting at specific times through the year. The main part of the book is an extensive month-by-month sowing, planting, and growing calendar. Further sections cover harvesting—from garlic in July right through to the last of the overwintered greens in May—and storing your produce. Many salads can be grown in winters, especially with a little protection from fleece, cloches, or larger structures. The book includes a whole section on frost-hardy salad plants, explaining how to ensure harvests of fresh leaves throughout winter. The beauty of winter and its produce is captured in glorious photographs from the author's garden.

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“An invaluable book, intelligent of course, and inspiring too.”  —Anna Pavord, gardening correspondent, the Independent

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How to Grow Winter Vegetables

By Charles Dowding, Jack Dowding, Susie Dowding, Steph Hafferty, Lucy Pope

Green Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Charles Dowding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-900322-88-1


A forgotten season

Making the most of winter's amazing possibilities

Winter can offer vegetables in two ways: fresh harvests, such as leeks and salad leaves, and produce such as carrots and onions that have been stored from earlier harvests in the summer and autumn. Having these vegetables to hand can make a huge difference to one's health and well-being through the seemingly long months of cold and dark. The secret to having this produce in winter is to grow throughout the year and to start sowing as early as possible in the spring.

Winter's two parts

What do I mean by winter? A precise definition by time is difficult when the seasons overlap so much, and changes in the weather can sometimes make it feel like winter in October and also in April. This book covers the winter half-year, as opposed to the summer half-year, and I define it in two parts.

True winter is under way by December, when growth is almost halted, and continues until March or even April, by which time daylight and some early warmth have returned, although there are still very few fresh vegetables to eat.

Then, in April, May and even into June in a cold spring, there can be a long and frustrating wait for plants to grow and mature. Although the weather may be fine and warm, there is surprisingly little to eat from the garden, in a period known as the 'hungry gap' – a kind of 'second winter' in food terms. In the past this period was occasionally characterised by famine as people waited for the first new harvests, such as broad beans.

This book will help you grow vegetables for true winter as well as for this hungry period, winter's shadow. You need to garden many months ahead, with sowings of purple sprouting broccoli in June, spring cabbages in August, broad beans in October or November and spinach in early March, all for harvests in the hungry gap.

You will also find lots of advice on helping vegetables survive winter in better shape and then grow strongly again in the spring. A cover of netting, barely visible, can be enough to lessen the effects of frost, wind and snow so that plants endure when they would otherwise have perished. Using fleece in the spring brings growth forwards dramatically. Both of these are simple to use and cheap to buy.

Right: 'Cavolo Nero' kale in early December.

Summer & winter vegetables contrasted

Growing vegetables in summer is a busier activity than in winter, partly because winter vegetables need to be sown, planted and weeded in summer. If the summer is wet and the tomatoes are poor, at least your winter vegetables will be growing well.

Periods of harvest

An important difference between summer and winter vegetables is that in summer many plants – such as courgettes, runner beans and tomatoes – offer repeated harvests over a long period. Continual summer warmth encourages harvests from the same plants for some time. This can result in summer gluts, and perhaps even some complacency, because winter harvests do not repeat, or do so only slowly.

In fact, most winter vegetables, such as cabbage hearts, leeks and parsnips, offer one harvest only. There is little new growth in winter, so it needs to have happened in spring, summer and autumn. During all this preparation time – as long as six to eight months – the gardener is busy but unrewarded until the season of harvest finally arrives.

Fortunately there are also some fast-growing winter vegetables to sow in summer, such as salads, kale and turnips, which fill the gaps left after summer harvests. The sowing calendar in Part 3 has as much to say about July to October as it does about March to June.

Summer weather for winter harvests

Summer weather plays an important part in growing for winter, and it helps to be aware of a marked difference in the weather needed for different plants. For instance, most summer vegetables grow fast, offer their harvests in fine weather and do best in seasons of plentiful warmth, without too many long periods of rain and damp.

However, in Britain at least, the weather does not always behave like that, so tomatoes can be blighted, beans may rot and sweetcorn may not ripen before winter arrives. These are all immensely discouraging experiences.

But all is not lost: at the same time, summers of cool, damp weather are excellent for many winter vegetables.

We cannot predict weather in advance but, by growing a range of vegetables that have different likes and dislikes, the chances of success are generally increased. A damp Atlantic climate is actually as good for many winter vegetables as it is tricky for many summer ones, so if you live in such an area this book has much to offer!

Garden ahead for winter

The best harvests for winter are achieved by good soil preparation and sowing the first seeds as soon as winter ends.

Best sowing dates

Many vegetables grow quite slowly, and some sowings for winter, such as celeriac and parsnip, need to be made as early as March. Every month has a 'best time' for sowing at least one winter vegetable, so it is not a matter of popping all your seeds in at once. Kale and savoy cabbage can be sown as late as June; indeed they often grow more healthily if sown slightly later than is recommended on the seed packet.

July and August are busy times for sowing winter salads, so I recommend that you make a note in your calendar of the timings given in Part 3, in order to be prepared with seeds when they will have the best chance of growing you a good harvest.

Making soil fertile

The other aspect of being prepared for winter is the condition of the soil in your plot – how healthy and fertile it is. Good soil grows great vegetables, and I give advice on how to achieve this, mainly in Chapters 3 and 4. My speciality is growing without digging, and there are lots of tips here for managing this, but if you enjoy digging you can skip over the no-dig parts of Chapter 3 and concentrate on the rest of the book.

I also garden without using any packet fertiliser or synthetic sprays, and have evolved methods of treating soil and growing vegetables that have more chance of working in an organic garden or allotment. In order to avoid dealing with unexpected problems and coping with disappointing losses, I suggest that you familiarise yourself with the potential pitfalls of pests and diseases, then garden in a way to minimise the risk of encountering them. That is the philosophy behind all my advice, and I trust it will help your growing to be successful, with less need for artificial inputs.

Stored food

In addition to delicious fresh harvests from the garden, a great deal of winter food can be stored, either in the house or in a cool, dry place outdoors.

An indoor larder

When your winter vegetables have grown to maturity there will be a long period of harvest. This is divided into two parts. In the first you are harvesting vegetables to store – starting as early as July, with garlic maturing. In the second part you are harvesting fresh from the garden, throughout winter. Two things stand out here.

• The first is to harvest each vegetable at its best time so that it comes out of the soil in a healthy state. For example, garlic will sprout if left in the ground too long and then won't keep so well, while potatoes may be infected by blight or eaten by slugs. See the monthly calendar in Chapter 10 for advice on the harvest requirements of each vegetable.

• The second is how best to store each harvest made during summer and autumn, and even sometimes in winter. Each vegetable has slightly different requirements for keeping: some keep better in the warmth of a house; some in cool but frost-free darkness; others in a cold outdoor environment, just sheltered from the rain. All this is explained in Part 5.

An outdoor larder

There is one thing that no stored vegetables can offer: fresh, green leaves, always welcome at a time when any fresh food is so scarce.

Success at harvesting leaves such as kale and salad, as well as green vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, depends on three things:

• the weather, which we cannot control

• our choice of suitable varieties, and growing them well enough that they have more ability to withstand severe weather

• any protection we can give them.

When this goes well, the plot or garden can serve as a food store for gathering leaves off the same plants, over a long period. See Chapter 11 for tips on better ways of picking so that plants are able to continue producing for longer, often into spring.

Some salads are winter hardy to a certain point only. See Chapter 14, pages 192-3, for how to protect them with cloches, and Chapter 15 for growing them in a greenhouse or poly-tunnel, where they will withstand being frozen at night and can then grow a little in the relative warmth of any sunlit winter and spring days.

Being outside in winter

Growing winter vegetables has another advantage, besides all the good things it gives us to eat. It takes us outdoors, sometimes in nasty weather and also on days of lovely low sunlight. However chilled we may feel, the experience is always invigorating – often warming in a way – and winter can be a quietly uplifting time, especially on days when there are hints of spring just around the corner.

A particular benefit of spending time outside in winter is the extra daylight one can absorb. When inside I notice how days can seem utterly miserable, dark and gloomy, yet on going out it feels much lighter and less depressing, quickly lifting my mood.

The vegetable plot also benefits from our attention throughout winter, even though there are far fewer jobs than in summer. Weeds have not entirely stopped growing, and it is really worthwhile to do a little winter weeding, keeping the soil clean in readiness for early spring sowings. Then, as soon as harvests are finished, ground can be cleared and vegetable residues composted, so that by winter's end the whole plot is either growing something or is pristinely prepared for spring.


A winter's scene

Tips for understanding and adapting to winter

The dark background

Certain aspects of winter are different every year, most noticeably the temperature. Perhaps because of the dramatic alternations between mild and cold winters, we overlook a feature of winter that is equally important to gardening and that never varies: light.

A lack of light

Daylight in winter is in short supply and limits new growth even on days of mild sunshine. In my work I observe the growth of salad plants through autumn, winter and spring, and they have taught me fascinating things about the effects of day length on growth. Plants in the greenhouse and polytunnels are most revealing because although they often have sufficient warmth to grow, they are, even in milder weather, clearly restricted by the short days.

Midwinter lulls

The lowest point in terms of new growth depends on your location. Here in Somerset there is almost a hibernation of plants from mid-December to mid-February, especially when temperatures are low. Any new growth at this time is often from plants converting stored energy into leaves, as with the appearance of snowdrops in February, growing from the energy in their bulbs.

There is a month or so on either side of this period when growth is possible, but it depends a lot on the temperature. This is most apparent with newly planted seeds – for instance, broad beans, which can be sown in late October to early November. Even in a mild autumn they grow very slowly, while an early onset of cold can keep them almost invisible.

Yet even in midwinter, plants can grow new roots, with more of winter's growth happening underground than above. This means that when milder conditions occur in late winter, new leaves can more rapidly be created by the existing roots. Overwintered broad beans and garlic can grow at surprising speeds in March, using the energy of their winter-grown root network, at a time when newly sown seeds barely grow at all.

This is why there is a 'hungry gap' in spring, when plants are still growing, fast, but are often not mature until early summer. On the other hand, overwintered plants have picked up from where they left off in the autumn, with all their established leaves and roots to propel new growth in early spring.

All these observations lead us back to the importance of sowing in good time and at the right time, if we want good vegetables to eat in winter and spring.

Vegetables for winter

So what might a winter garden contain in the way of vegetables for harvesting between about December and April? Here I offer some ideas to help you imagine what is worth growing, in four categories according to how much space and protection each vegetable needs.

The first four vegetables and some of the salad plants too belong to the same plant genus called Brassicaceae, the cabbage family. Their attributes that interest us most in winter are the ability to resist frost and continual wetness, and being able to make new leaves in weather that keeps most vegetables dormant.

Remember that successful winter harvests depend on the soil being in good condition, with sufficient organic matter and good drainage. I have found that this is best achieved by surface composting without any digging or cultivation – see Chapter 3, pages 32-8, for advice on soil.

Large spaces

• Brussels sprouts, when given plenty of room and also a long period of growth, offer tasty harvests in winter, when cold weather helps to sweeten their flavour.

Kale is probably the easiest green leaf to grow for winter harvest and is one of the hardiest. There is a good choice of varieties with a range of colours and leaf shapes, and there are also flat-leaved kales, which taste sweet in salad.

Purple sprouting broccoli is mostly for early spring, but some varieties, such as 'Rudolph', can make new shoots in milder midwinter weather.

Medium spaces

Cabbage can cover a long season according to the variety you grow – do make sure you buy seed or plants of varieties that heart up (more or less) at the time you hope to be eating them – for instance, 'January King' (although this one may mature any time between November and February). Savoy cabbages are the hardiest of all, and late varieties of savoy will heart up from February to early April at a time when greens are extremely precious.

Swede grows little in winter but is extremely frost hardy and can safely be left in the soil for harvesting when needed. Sometimes my swedes have all their leaves eaten by pigeons yet still sit proudly and in good condition until early April. Swede has a more solid and sweet flesh than its cousin the turnip, which is less frost hardy and best stored indoors.

Parsnip is the king of winter roots, much denser, sweeter, hardier and stronger tasting than potatoes. Parsnips sit happily in the soil all winter, ready for harvesting when needed at any point until about late April, when new growth takes goodness out of their roots.

Leeks are not all capable of surviving hard frost, so be sure to choose a variety such as 'Bandit' or 'Atlanta' if you want harvests in a cold winter. Leeks can put on a lot of new growth in March and up to the end of April, so are a most welcome addition to the small group of hungry gap vegetables.

Small spaces

Some salad plants, although making little new growth in winter, are able to resist most frost and keep their leaves in reasonable health outdoors. Corn salad (lamb's lettuce) is the most reliable and maintains a lusty green colour at all times. Land cress is equally hardy but suffers more from slugs and birds. Winter purslane resists frost and pests but sometimes discolours in midwinter.

Winter harvests under cover

If some protection can be afforded, especially for salad plants, the possibilities for new growth are multiplied many times. In the severe weather of early 2010 I had a cloche full of lettuce, rocket, mustard, endive and chicory, which endured temperatures of -15°C (5°F) and long spells of dull, wet weather. By March they were nearly all growing strongly again. Larger structures offer even more possibilities: Part 6 explains how to grow a regular supply of winter salad leaves under cover.

The plot in winter

Winter harvests can get right in the way of digging. Here is another reason for swapping the digging fork or spade for a manure fork. 'No dig' means literally that, and works best when some well-rotted compost or manure is spread on top of the soil. This can even be done when vegetables are still in the ground, giving more time for frost and weather to break up lumps in surface compost.

Keeping organic matter on top of the soil, instead of digging it in, is good for soil health and will lead to excellent vegetables the next year and onwards. Aim to use materials that are dark and well broken down, rather than fibrous mulches, which encourage too many slugs.

Not disturbing soil also results in less weed growth, although you will still need to remove the occasional ones. During winter, weeding should continue in mild weather: clean soil means that as soon as the remains of winter vegetables are cleared after harvesting, the soil is ready for sowing and planting in the spring.


Excerpted from How to Grow Winter Vegetables by Charles Dowding, Jack Dowding, Susie Dowding, Steph Hafferty, Lucy Pope. Copyright © 2011 Charles Dowding. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles Dowding has been growing organic vegetables commercially for 30 years, without soil cultivation. He is the author of Organic Gardening and Salad Leaves. He also writes articles for several gardening publications, lectures, and runs courses on how best to look after soil and plants.

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