Although the winter weather seems an eternity away, now is the time to plant winter vegetables that will deliver a bounty to your dinner table
Since moving to Bowen Island almost a decade ago and digging into the year-round ritual of maintaining a large organic vegetable garden, I have regularly entertained a favourite fantasy – creating a winter garden that renders basketfuls of crisp broccoli, gleaming spinach leaves and large, sweet carrots, even as the first snows start to fly. While over the years I have regularly attempted to realize this dream, summer’s distractions have always seemed to drag me away from my objective. Hence, my winter garden rarely delivers more than a small handful of what appear to be baby carrots, and a few mottled Swiss chard and spinach leaves. Whether one enjoys success or not, gardening is a continual cycle of planning, preparing, planting, maintaining and harvesting. Once again, early this spring, I laid out this year’s garden plan in our 10-year Lee Valley Gardener’s Journal. And, once again, my husband, mindful of his annual obligation in the maintenance of both a healthy garden and marriage, kindly refrained from reminding me that traditionally every October he winds up ploughing under most of my dismal crop to plant the fall rye that will hold the soil together until spring arrives again. So what keeps going wrong?
Upon pouring out my winter-gardening angst to Mary Ballon, president of West Coast Seeds, she had a chuckle, then assured me that enjoying a bountiful winter vegetable garden is not only a simple matter, it’s much less work than I have been making it out to be. Her first question to me was “How much are you planting?” My response of row after row of greens and potentially a dozen wheelbarrows’ worth of broccoli, cauliflower, onions and leeks elicits a groan from her: “Don’t plant so much. That is more than you could ever eat, and when you try to do so much it becomes overwhelming. “Half a dozen big kale plants are plenty of kale for over the winter and spring,” continues Ballon, “Also, when you’re planning what to plant and how much spacing to allow, remember that a winter-harvested plant will be larger and its leaves will be broader due to the lower light levels.” In addition to less sunlight, another challenge for winter vegetables is the season’s chilly winds. Offer protection whenever you can. Ballon plants her winter veggies downwind of summer’s cornstalks and recommends using floating row cover or a cloche as a form of wind protection in exposed areas. Too much rain is also a problem, and waterlogging is often a more serious detriment to a winter vegetable garden than the wind or cold – raised beds are usually a good solution.
To answer Ballon’s next question of where was I starting the seedlings, I sought to impress her with my knowledge of companion planting: The carrot seeds were tucked in with my summer lettuce, and also with some of the onions; lettuce shared space with a large strawberry patch; broccoli was planted in my onion and celery bed …. “Stop!” cries Ballon. “For a winter-harvested vegetable garden, raising transplants is the key to success. The seedlings do best in containers or a specialized nursery bed. Otherwise, they get lost. “Plant your seeds in pots on the porch if you can – where you will be able to keep them watered and stay ahead of the bugs. Then when the rains start, put them in the garden and let them fend for themselves. That way, you have a better chance of spacing everything appropriately – some plants get very large, such as Purple Sprouting broccoli, which will grow to one-and-a-quarter metres tall and one metre across.” Of course, one challenge of raising seedlings on your porch is the problem of caring for them while you’re on holidays. Ballon’s solution? “Take them with you,” she smiles, “and look after them while you’re at the summer cottage. If you can, plant a few of the seedlings in your cottage garden at the end of the summer and you’ll have kale and spinach waiting for you in the spring.” If your holiday is not conducive to taking a tray of seedlings with you, you can leave the pots in a tray of water for a few days, or ask a neighbour to babysit them. Using 15-centimetre or larger-sized pots will make your seedlings less vulnerable to summer drought. In answer to her final question of when I have been putting in my seeds, I was sheepish in my response. I tried to explain how I always seem to plant too late because I can’t help but think of a winter vegetable garden as something to be planted once the summer gardening season starts to wind down. “It’s actually a common problem,” Ballon concurs, “and one we’re trying to resolve by changing the term ‘winter’ to ‘summer-planted’ vegetable garden. Many of the vegetables you would like to harvest in the winter should be started by mid-May or June.”
Great Winter Vegetable Choices
Naturally, having sorted out some of the challenges of a summer-planted vegetable garden, the next step was to decide what to grow for winter harvest. Here are a few of Ballon’s favourite picks. For each, be sure to follow the plant-specific soil-preparation advice in your seed catalogue or on the seed package.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli:
Plant this favourite at the end of June and let these extremely cold-hardy biennial plants provide your table with their succulent purple shoots the following March and April.
Start in late May to early June for harvest in time for Christmas. After the winter harvest, look for yet another in the spring, when the plant sends up long flower stalks that are tender and delicious steamed or eaten raw.
Sow Bolero or Royal Chantenay through July for a late-fall harvest. Other varieties, such as Autumn King, Cleopatra and Merida, will survive the entire winter when sown in late summer.
Begin in mid-July and transplant into the garden in mid-August. Overwintered cauliflower, such as Aalsmeer and Purple Cape, don’t start curd formation until after spring frost.
Start in mid-June and harvest this member of the lettuce family all winter. The mildly bitter hearts are actually less so after frost.
Plant in late June and harvest well into the fall. Prized by European cooks, fennel’s swollen leaf base has a distinctive anise flavour when served in salads and casseroles or braised as a side dish. The seeds and fronds are also a wonderful enhancement for cooking.
Kale and Collards:
Start in late May for a harvest through fall, winter and spring. The West Coast Seeds Gardening Guide says it all: “Easy to grow, vigorous, prolific and nutritious, resistant to cold, easy to harvest, store and prepare, rich in vitamins and minerals and sweet after frost.” Kale and collards can be steamed, boiled, stir-fried, eaten raw in salads, juiced or thrown into soups.
Choose a winter-hardy variety, such as Siegfried Frost, and plant to mid-June for harvest up until the following April.
Some lettuces are better choices for a winter garden, namely Continuity, a large, bronze-red butterhead, and Winter Density, a butterhead/romaine cross that is bolt resistant and frost tolerant. Lettuces will last well into the fall, and into a mild winter, particularly if covered with a lid or plastic. “Keep them out of the rain,” cautions Ballon, “and don’t let them sit in puddles.”
Plant a whole package in August and pull the thinnings out through February to use as green onions, then harvest the bulbs in summer for salads and barbecues.
Keep planting these versatile and nutritious greens, with plantings in mid-June, mid-July, and August, for fall and winter harvest. Three are particularly conducive to the winter garden: Chinese cabbage can be started up to eight weeks before the first frost, and will withstand winter until the temperature drops to 10° C for more than two weeks. Leafy mustards are very hardy and can be planted into October and harvested through the cold season. Sweet and mild Kyoto Mizuna can be cut and picked many times and will last through the winter if cloched. All these nutritious greens are wonderful in stir-fries and salads.
Plant up to mid-July in a deeply dug bed. The flavour improves after a couple of good frosts.
“You can’t go wrong with these – they are sweet and delicious, foolproof and big,” says Ballon. This root can be eaten cooked or served raw on the dip tray. Spinach: Keep planting spinach for a continual supply. Try starting new seeds every three weeks through the summer and fall for a good supply long into the winter and potentially the spring.
Plant in mid-April, mid-May and mid-June and harvest through to the following spring, depending on the harshness of the winter, for steaming or salads.
This fast-growing crop can be sown from May to August, and in addition to the roots, provides tops that are delicious when steamed. Carol Pope is the editor of GardenWise magazine and is passionate about learning to grow edibles in her home garden.