Veg All Year Round (Part 3) – Winter

Winter growing is all about preparation, and about making the most of the fresh offerings. We think of winter as c. December to March, and that is as much to do with light levels as it is with temperature.  

First, here are some pictures of what winter growing looks like for us:

A late-December scene in a winter with little snow. Lots of happy brassicas.

A blanket of snow covering one of the veg patches. 

A typical midwinter harvest. In a good year – weather-wise, and planning-wise – we harvest something like this most days.

Young plants in winter stasis, ready to burst into life as the light and warmth returns.

Winter plantings, just waking up.

Preparation

There are several aspects to preparing for winter growing:

  • Weather and Environment
  • Space
  • Time
  • Storing harvests

Weather and Environment

Successful winter growing hinges on knowing and understanding your conditions – and putting things in place to work with that. For us, light is a big issue because we’re so far north. At the winter solstice we get just over 6 hours of daylight here, and this combined with our temperatures means that any plantings are mostly asleep for most of the winter season. Snow is an unpredictable factor for us – some years, we get snow, some we don’t. More often than not we don’t, which means that we can rely on outdoor harvests for much of winter. We are also sheltered from winter storms – not that it doesn’t get plenty windy here, it does. Our temperature is also higher than other areas of the Highlands. 

If you’re new to winter growing, do a bit of research into this – look at average temperatures/light levels/weather statistics, and – if you’ve been in your place a few winters – think back on how it has been these past few years. If you’re new to your garden, take this coming winter as an opportunity to record these things to help you plan ahead in the future.

Space

Our winter growing takes place both indoors and outdoors: on no-dig beds on the ground, and in polytunnels. Both spaces are important for us and they provide different things at different times. 

Most winters, we end up with a steady supply of leafy greens outside – things like kale, spinach, perpetual spinach, and chard. Sometimes other brassicas such as kale work as well, and brussels sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli. Leek is also an outdoor staple, though we find that they tend to grow slowly and swell up towards the end of the winter season most years. 

We use the tunnels to provide fresh veg (again, mostly leafy – but definitely including things like lettuce, rocket, and various ‘oriental’ greens) towards the end of winter and into spring. In the tunnels we are also thinking ahead to the following year, with late summer/autumn plantings of things like garlic and broccoli, which will ripen the following late spring or summer but need to be planted before winter. 

You might also want to think about protecting your crops – with clothes, netting, or other coverings. Here, we’re looking at two types of predators: pigeons and other birds, and ice/snow. 

Time

As a general rule of thumb, July and August are a great time to sow winter plants – in particular leafy greens. The sowing schedule, linked and attached in previous tutorials, has details of when exactly we sow different plants. That said, some winter things require more time – leeks and purple sprouting broccoli, for example, need to be sowed earlier than that to be ready in winter. Again, the sowing schedule indicates this. 

One thing to consider when planning your winter growing is to think about light and temperature. Plants will not grow much when it gets cold and dark, so you need to sow things early enough that they have time to grow big enough to survive the cold and dark weeks and then be ready to put on new growth as the light returns and the soil wakes up. Sow things too early and the plants get too big, and are killed by the cold. Sow things too late and the plants won’t grow enough and will be killed by the cold! There is quite a lot of trial and error in this to work out how to get this right in your particular conditions, because light and temperature really matters. Here, it starts to get darker – and noticeably so – from mid-September, and any early September sowings probably won’t make it. But further south you have more time, and sowing winter things in early August might be too early there. Bear this in mind when you’re looking at ‘winter veg’ websites and books – think about where the author is based, and what the light levels and temperatures are there, and how that compares to where you are trying to grow. 

Storing harvests

Winter does not yield more fresh veg than we can eat – and sometimes does not yield enough for our needs. And that’s with a fairly repetitive diet built around leafy greens! So, winter is the time when we turn to our freezer and store cupboard, and this requires prior planning. In particular, we’re very grateful for any frozen fruit and any stored root veg like onion and carrots and beetroot, and for the garlic and potatoes. Winter is also a great time to eat squashes if you have managed to store them appropriately or if you have frozen them. Any and all summer veg are very welcome, too – frozen beans, peas, broccoli and cauliflower are particular favourites. We put aside a bit of each summer harvest for use in winter, and it is surprising how quickly a handful here and there adds up.

We have stopped freezing leafy greens because we know we can grow enough of those to get us through the winter, but if you’re not sure that you’re going to manage that I’d recommend wilting them in a pan with a bit of garlic and onion, and then freezing that. We tend to eat large portions of leafy greens so one small freezer bag will do us for a meal, but if you want smaller portions then freezing your wilted greens in muffin trays works really well.

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