Looks like we might all be in this for the long haul so let’s fast forward to next winter; warming vegetable soups, vitamin packed green leaf smoothies, crunchy homemade coleslaw and parmesan encrusted roast parsnips with your Sunday lunch.
It may seem a world away but actually right now is the time to get cracking on the winter veg front.
Having covered all the sexy summer salad-y stuff Elaine has reluctantly handed over the Growbag reins to me, stalwart middle sister Laura, as she knows that my farmer husband Tim is a dab hand at winter essentials like sprouts, cabbages, leeks and parsnips and so we are absolutely the best ones to show you how to set up your very own winter larder.
1. What are you going to grow?
Theres a huge choice out there, from turnips to broccoli and with the run on vegetable seeds you may need to just get what you can but here are some of our tried and tested favourites;
Cabbages – ‘Greyhound’ or ‘Hispy’ for those succulent pointy ones which will be ready to pick as early as July, followed by the exceptionally hardy ‘January King’ which will see you through the rest of the winter. Apparently we should all eat red and purple veg too, so try ‘Red Flare’ or the lovely sweet ‘Kalibos’ (perfect raw in winter salads)
Brussel sprouts – can’t go far wrong with ‘Attwood’ or ‘Brodie’.
Leeks – ‘Musselburgh’ has been around for centuries and gives the volume of stem you need for soups but we’re also trying the slimmer ‘Porbella’ as well.
Parsnips – ‘Gladiator’ seems to have the right idea.
2. Where to grow them
For the first couple of months winter veg will be in seed trays, small pots or little nursery rows in your veg patch, so easy to manage, but when you move them to their permanent spots they need a bit of room so you could be preparing a new veg bed, or some large pots.
They’re greedy things so now is the time to dig in any garden compost or manure, or failing this sprinkle in some balanced fertiliser from a packet. The only exception is for parsnips, which will fork into several different roots if the ground contains manure, and they also do better if sown directly into where they are to grow and then thinned in the same way as carrots.
3. How to sow
You have three options (you’ll be used to this by now from Elaine’s instructions on salad stuff.)
Sow the seed indoors in trays, prick out into small pots, then bring the young plants on until they are ready to be transplanted into your veg patch (remember to ‘harden off’ though like you do with courgettes etc)
Sow the seed directly into a nursery bed in your veg patch, then move them into a more spacious area when they have grown into young plants.
Order the young plants to delivered at a stage when they can be planted straight out (slightly cheating but honestly no-one’s judging)
4. Sowing – label, label, label!
Sowing the seed is straightforward but as many winter veg come from the same family, brassica, seedlings look almost indistinguishable from each other so you must fervently label absolutely everything. You will definitely not be the first veg grower whose ‘cabbages‘ suddenly start producing stems and brussel sprouts. Tip from our younger sister Caroline: just pretend that you knew that’s what they were all along.
5. Planting out
You should be ready to plant out your winter veg around the end of May/early June, after the last of the frosts.
The books will say plant them three foot apart, but Tim assures me he’s never planted anything more than 18 inches apart, and leeks only 6 inches; at this closer spacing they’ll just be smaller plants – what’s the big problem?
Leeks need slightly different planting treatment to the others; first snip the top two inches off each plant, then make cylindrical holes and drop each plant in, but don’t firm the soil around it. Water thoroughly every day for around 4 days, until the roots have established at the bottom of the hole.
Brussel sprouts will need a stake beside each plant as they start to develop their tall stem.
If you have a surplus of young plants please work out a system of safely bartering them for other types of veg plants with neighbours – wouldn’t it be a step forward for mankind if young cabbage plants were the new currency ….?
6. Challenges (not problems …)
Now I promised Elaine that I would be totally upbeat about your chances of success with winter greens but actually you do need to know that humans are not the only species to enjoy eating brassicas. Whitefly, cabbage white caterpillars (the clues in the name) and pigeons adore them too.
The trick is to HAVE A PLAN. Be prepared so you are able to take each mini invasion in your stride as if you were almost expecting them.
Whitefly. Fill a house plant mister with a weak solution of washing up liquid and spray plants every day for a week, the detergent kills the adult flies, but there will be a new batch hatching each day from eggs so you need to break the cycle
Caterpillars. Just pick them off and feed them to the blue tits (Harsh, but all part of your garden ecosystem). You may be able to intercept them at the egg stage – look for the little yellow clumps of them on the leaves and just squash them with your fingers.
Pigeons. You can try dangling CD discs on sticks around your crops but you may need further reinforcements in the form of netting (or bribing small children to keep shooing them away)
Your outdoor veg patch or pot collection is simply the best fridge you could ever wish for, keeping your veg in tip top condition until you need it. We’re only just lifting the last of leeks and parsnips now, at the end of March, and still have purple sprouting broccoli to see us through the ‘hungry gap’ until the first of the spring crops.
NB: If you’re new to The3Growbags, we are three sisters (Laura, Caroline and me, Elaine) who write about gardening once a week and enjoy a good laugh.
You can see all 14 steps to creating a veg patch here. Our regular gardening blog now includes a veg-growing section. We’d love you to join us by entering your email address here. We’ll email you every Saturday.