Growing for winter is a year-round job. You have to ignore the bounty all around you through spring and summer and sow away single-mindedly: parsnips in March, kale in May, carrots in July, and so on. But this year, as for many years, I have been a little slack on this, and I find myself heading into autumn with the outdoor pantry looking bare.
One of these days I will learn this lesson, but for now it’s time to scout around and see what can be thrown quickly into the ground to provide a few morsels over winter and some early crops next spring.
By October, light levels are getting pretty low, and that does affect the rate and speed of germination, but there are a few things that are actually best started at this time – and some you can still get away with.
NOW IS A GOOD TIME TO...
Plant garlic, onions and shallots
All of these edible alliums are definitely happy planted now. Garlic, in particular, needs a period of cold, so it wants to be in the ground and growing well before the winter weather moves in. It is hugely heartening to see the green shoots appear just after Christmas, despite everything, as though spring has arrived early. It may seem a foolish move to stick your head above the soil at that moment, but it is the right thing for garlic. Some onion and shallot sets can be planted now, too. It is no more difficult to plant a lovely form of shallot than it is a bog standard one, or a dull old onion for that matter. I particularly like the French types 'Echalote Grise’ and 'Hative de Niort’. If you like banana shallots, then 'Jermor’ is the one for you. All of these (and some interesting onion and garlic choices too) are available from mammothonion.co.uk.
Sow broad beans
You don’t have to sow your broad beans now, but, again, it is hugely pleasing to see new growth so soon after Christmas.
Autumn-sown broad beans will also produce beans up to a month earlier and are likely to be less devastated by blackfly than spring-sown beans – as long as they survive winter. You may not lose the lot but you will almost certainly have gaps, so I make (or try to remember to make) a sowing in the greenhouse in very early spring to fill them. Covering the autumn-sown ones with a cloche after sowing can help them make it through the winter, too. Of course, if you have a polytunnel you are almost guaranteed great survival rates and an early crop.
Hardy broad beans that are best for sowing now are 'Super Aquadulce’ and 'Aquadulce Claudia’. This year, I am also trying 'The Sutton’. It’s pretty hardy but also dwarf, as many of my own losses stem from the plants being blown over on my windy hilltop plot. Push them into the ground at a fairly close spacing so they support each other as they grow, and to allow for winter losses. I’m sowing them 4in (10cm) apart then thinning in spring if needs be.
As it becomes too chilly and gloomy to sow most seeds outdoors, so micros come into their own.
For the uninitiated, micros are tiny seedlings of strongly flavoured plants, harvested while very young (like the punnets of mustard and cress sold in supermarkets). The seedling is like concentrated essence of the whole plant, and this way you can extend summer flavours such as dill and basil into autumn and winter. The beauty of micros is that they don’t hang around long enough to realise that they are in the wrong season: almost as soon as they poke their heads above the soil, you snip them off for a garnish or salad. At this time of year, though, they may need some encouragement; if you can’t sow them in a greenhouse, pick a sunny windowsill.
Unwins sells a range of seed for microleaves, including purple basil and red amaranth, both of which will need warmth indoors to get going now. Otter Farm sells a bumper pack including individual packets of wild rocket, coriander, radish and fennel, all of which should grow well in a greenhouse.
To sow, take a seed tray (or a half seed tray if you are growing on a windowsill) and fill with seed compost. Wet the compost, then sprinkle seed over the surface. Don’t cover with more compost, but use a book or tray to exclude light, then remove this cover as soon as seed germinates. Harvest by cutting with sharp scissors or pulling up the whole plant when they have reached around 2in (5cm) high and use as a garnish. The taste is strong, clean and punchy: you don’t need much.Make two sowings a week apart and you’ll never be out of microleaves.
Take mint cuttings
Mints grown in pots will start to die down very soon but if you take root cuttings you can have fresh mint indoors all winter. Tip your plant out of its pot and look for the thick white roots that circle the perimeter. Cut off a few lengths, each a couple of inches long, then pop the plant back into its pot. Lay the roots on the surface of a pot of compost, then cover with a little more compost. Water, place on a windowsill indoors and new shoots will soon appear.
YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH...
Sowing winter lettuce
Lettuce does well through winter if you choose the right varieties and can give it a little protection. You can still get away with sowing hardy types such as 'Rouge d’Hiver’, 'Winter Gem’ and 'Winter Density’. If you can sow under cover then do so, one or two seeds into each plug, later thinning out the smaller ones. Plant outside under fleece or – even better – under a cloche (see harrodhorticultural.com).
Sow peas now and they will produce a crop much earlier than spring-sown. You do need to pick a hardy type, and 'Douce Provence’ is one such. It also has the benefit of being fairly dwarf and at just 30in (75cm) tall needs little support, which is handy for winter. It will do even better in a polytunnel but is well worth sowing now, outside, too. Or, for young pea plants, visit mr-fothergills.co.uk.
Spinach is a pain to grow in the summer when it runs to seed within days of reaching edible size. I much prefer to sow the hardy types in autumn to see me through winter. These need to be under a cloche, but you should still get good growth if you sow 'Monoppa’ or 'Atlanta’.
Planting spring cabbages and calabrese
It is too late to sow these, but you might still find plants in the garden centre or, even better, you can order them now from Delfland Plants (organicplants.co.uk). Cabbage is fine out in the open but the calabrese needs the protection of a polytunnel or cloche. Both will be attacked by slugs even at this seemingly low-slug time of year, so do watch out.
Read more at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/howtogrow/11136709/A-gardeners-guide-to-growing-winter-vegetables.html