Vegetables for Winter Eating
Regrettably, the surfeit of summer vegetables generously supplied by our gardens comes to an end as autumn progresses. Eventually, we must shift into winter mode, with winter harvested vegetables and, for the more ambitious and energetic among us, frozen and bottled summer produce.
Though preserving our vegetables seems like a good idea, not all of us want to make the effort or have the time to do that. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to have a wide range of home-grown vegetables in the winter.
Vegetables in Storage
Durable vegetables such as bulbing onions and potatoes are grown through the summer, harvested late in the year, and can then be stored for months in a cool place like a garage or shed, where they are protected from the elements. Storing these crops successfully is not a particularly difficult task, though it does depends on following a few simple rules. For example, onions must always be dried down before going into store, and potatoes must be kept in the dark so that they don’t turn green and bitter.
Winter squashes are gardening newcomers that are also stored for winter use. Like potatoes and onions, storing them is not difficult, though they need special handling if they are to last. Successful storage begins with the harvest, which must be delayed until the skin surrounding the fruit has hardened. At this point, you should cut the fruit off the plant with a knife or secateurs, leaving at least 2.5 cm of stalk. Once they are harvested, the fruit have to be ‘cured’ to further toughen their skin and improve storage life. Curing is simply a matter of keeping the fruit in a warm environment for 10 to 14 days – either outdoors if there is a sunny spell and the fruit are protected from rain, or in a tunnel or greenhouse, where it is both drier and warmer. After curing, the fruit should be kept in a cool, frost-free spot where the temperature can be maintained between 10 to 15º C.
Curing squashes: outdoors and indoors
For more information on harvesting and storing winter squash click here.
Left to stand where they are grown, hardy vegetables such as leeks, swedes, kale and cabbage can easily survive a winter in the garden. The naturally cold temperatures of the outdoors refrigerate the crops for free, and the plants can be conveniently harvested when they are needed for kitchen duties.
Leeks and swedes will stand all winter available for harvesting at any time.
Winter cabbages, sown in the summer, willl heart up in the winter will stand in the garden available for harvesting when needed. However, varieties vary enormously in the length of time they will stand before bolting.
Tundra cabbage is a particular hale variety for this laid back approach to storage, and will keep in the garden will until mid-spring before it will start to bolt. A cross between white and savoy types of cabbage, Tundra produces firm heads that can be used raw in salads or cooked in stews and stir fries.
Tundra is a winter cabbage that will stand well into mid-spring before it bolts.
Main crop carrots, such Nairobi and the Chantenay types, are another vegetable compliant enough to withstand in situ storage. Unlike Tundra, however, they may need some protection from the frost, so it is better to insulate the unharvested roots by covering them with straw – preferably from an organic farmer as it will have no residue chemicals. Even then, overwintering works best on well-drained soil where waterlogging isn’t an issue. Mice and slugs can cause problems, so periodic checks under the straw is a good idea to check for their unwanted presence.
If the in situ soil has a tendency to get waterlogged or is not a suitable environment for storing carrots for any reason, then maincrop carrots can be harvested and stored by, while still damp, put in a container and covered over with damp sand.
kales are extremely resistant to freezing temperatures and are highly adapted to outdoor storage. A standard garden vegetable for years, the green curly type has been joined by the likes of Scarlet Kale (red curly leaves), Black Tuscany (elongated, blistered leaves that are almost black) and Red Russia (tender, red-tinged leaves that are slightly curled).
Not only can the leaves be picked throughout the winter, but the plants are versatile enough to produce tasty side shoots in the spring, rivalling anything purple sprouting broccoli can offer.
Eventually all kales will go to flower. At first the young buds and flowers can be eaten.
Starting Your Vegetables from scratch
Almost any quick growing, cold hardy vegetable can be sown in the autumn and grown through the winter in a greenhouse or tunnel. Though vegetables suited to this style of protected, off-season cropping, include turnips, beetroot, chards, radishes, and several annual herbs such as dill, coriander and parsley, the logical first choice to grow are Oriental greens – they are productive, easy to grow and offer a stimulating choice of varieties.
Oriental salads (pac choi var. Joi Choi in the foreground) in a polytunnel in the winter – with snow on the plastic!
Chinese cabbage: Chinese cabbages are faster growing than typical British cabbages. They are mild-flavoured and light green, and their leaves can be either tightly packed into a head or formed into a bunch of loose leaves. By far the most common is the headed type.
Komatsuna: A robust grower that has fairly broad, dark green leaves with wide mid-ribs. The plants are large-sized and make an excellent substitute for both kale and spring cabbages. Fairly bolt resistant.
Mibuna: Form bunches of elongated, excessively narrow leaves – they are almost grass-like in appearance. Mizuna Plants produce dark green, deeply cut leaves with thin, white mid-ribs. Relatively slow to bolt.
Pak choi: The plants of pak choi (also called pac choi and bok choi) develop into heavy, upright bunches of leaves with thick, crunchy mid-ribs that are either white or light green in colour. The variety, Joi Choi, is particularly slow to bolt.
Tatsoi: Leaves are dark green and spoon-shaped with relatively thick mid-ribs. Tatsoi plants are prostrate and bolt quite quickly.
Mustard: Leaves are distinctively strong-flavoured and have a fairly unrefined texture. They can be quite tall and broad, though there are shorter varieties whose leaves are deeply cut and frilly. Plants have a tendency to bolt prematurely.
To start the crop, sow seeds into modular trays under cover in September or October in milder areas of the country. The seeds will quickly germinate and morph into seedlings ready for transplanting in three or four weeks. These can then be transferred either to the ground or a grow bag, leaving about 20 to 25cm between them each way.
Sowing mizuna seed into a module tray in September; transplanting mizuna into a polytunnel in October
Though harvesting can be done at any stage of the plant’s growth, a good time to start is when the leaves are at least 20cm tall. Harvesting, however, is not an exact science, and the ideal height will vary: for example, tatsoi tends to have a prostrate growth habit and the leaves do not grow upwards.
The easiest way to harvest is to cut the whole plant leaving a 3-5cm stubble so that the growing point is undamaged. This will continue producing leaves and the plant will regrow, and when it is tall enough, the process of cutting can be repeated. This cycle of cut-and-grow-again will continue until about March, when the plants will start to bolt.
Cutting Joi Choi and the stump after cutting. The growing point has been undamaged and the plant will regrow.
For more information on cut-and-grow-again click here.
© Michael Michaud