Cool crops: Winter planting and harvesting
A winter gardener needn’t hibernate reluctantly. Sarah O’Neil finds there are just enough tasks to do to stop those green thumbs from itching.
For the keen gardener it is often too cold or wet to go out into the garden. It is so easy to say “not today”. However it is well worth making the effort to leave your cosy spot by the fire, pop on your gumboots and head outdoors. There are exciting things that can be done that will result in bountiful harvests in warmer times. There is also a wonderful array of vegetables to harvest now: parsnips, jerusalem artichokes, romanesco, spinach and brussels sprouts, along with carrots, broccoli, cabbage and kohlrabi. There’s even cool weather lettuce for the picking.
Though you should be reaping the rewards of an abundant harvest from the warmer months, with stored potatoes and pumpkin, preserved tomatoes and frozen sweetcorn, sometimes you get a hankering for something fresh, something with crunch. You shouldn’t have to go far, as the winter garden can be full of wonderful things to eat — carrots, broccoli, cabbage and kohlrabi and even cool-weather lettuce. The winter garden shouldn't be a barren place because there are many exciting things to grow.
I like to grow the veges that are a bit of a luxury, or at their best when freshest. Asparagus is one of these special plants, but to have this decadent treat, first you have to grow it and this takes patience. In the first year you aren’t supposed to harvest it. In the second year you can take a few, and after that for the next 25 years or so you can harvest as much as you like. They start out as crowns which look a bit like an octopus. These crowns are available from good garden centres in July. In rich fertile soil and a well-drained spot, dig a trench about as wide and as deep as your spade. Create a ridge along the bottom of the trench. Spread out the ‘tentacles’ of the crown over the ridge. Cover with about 5cm of soil and then, as the asparagus begins to grow, gradually add more soil to the trench until it is full. Now all you have to do is wait.
Growing strawberries is like growing candy. You can get strawberry plants from garden centres in winter or from a friend who has too many baby runners that have sprung up since the summer. They need a rich fertile soil and a well-drained sunny spot, but also do well in containers. However you will need to protect them from the birds with a net. The key to a bountiful harvest is to keep picking them. The more you pick, the more you get, and that is one task I don’t mind doing.
Good things take time and though it may be a few years before you have apples coming out of your ears there is a fabulous Chinese proverb. “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” And now is perfect.
Popping a tree in the ground is really simple. First choose your tree — and these days you can find fruit trees for even the smallest backyard. Next choose a sunny but sheltered spot, then get digging. Make a hole the same depth as the root ball of the tree but slightly wider. Mix the soil from the hole with a good quality compost. Pop the tree in the hole so it is at the same level as it has been grown at. Gently add the soil back to the hole, filling in around the roots but avoiding air pockets. Firm it down with your foot.
Hammer a stake into the ground beside your tree, but outside the hole so you don’t damage the roots. Use a soft tie to secure the tree to the stake. But not too tightly — trees like to feel the wind beneath their leaves! Give it a good drink of water and you are done.
Onions and garlic
There is an old wives' tale that says "plant your onions and garlic on the shortest day and harvest on the longest day''. But luckily they can be planted at any time throughout the winter. Especially as the longest day is usually a few days before Christmas and I have better things to do then than harvest onions.
Take onion seedlings that are about 15cm long and plant them into fertile soil about 10cm apart — but not too deep, as onions grow on the surface. Garlic, on the other hand, needs to be planted about 5cm deep. Ordinary cooking garlic may contain disease or have been treated to prevent it sprouting. so pick up some seed bulbs from your garden centre. Break the bulbs apart and plant the cloves, pointy end up, with about 10cm between them. These plants hate competition, so keep them weed-free.
Filling your garden with the trendiest veges in town can take your garden from ordinary to fabulous. Kale is one of the hottest superfoods, boasting more vitamin C than an orange, and is definitely the latest must-have in stews, soups, casseroles and even salads. It is an amazing plant, and has a real structural element as its beautiful feather- shaped leaves burst forth, filling the winter garden with a lush green presence. And it is robust enough to survive the worst winter can throw at it. We like kale chips, which are easy to make: Cut the mid stem out and chop kale into bite sized pieces. Lightly coat in oil, sprinkle with salt and bake at 150C until crispy. Watch they don't burn.
Turnips really don’t deserve to be ostracised by society. Sautéed with butter and bacon, or tossed in with the roast to bake in all the delicious juices are two of my favourite ways to enjoy this much maligned root vege. Autumn-planted turnips should be ready from now through the winter but you would be hard pushed to find a good turnip in the stores, the best way to get quality turnips is to grow them yourself. They couldn’t be easier, a few seeds scattered across a fertile soil and lightly covered will result in the tastiest treat in a mere 6-10 weeks. If you hurry you could probably get some in the garden this weekend before it is too late.
I am expectantly waiting for a frost. However I don’t fancy my chances, not if the past few years are anything to go by, as we have had hardly any. It's a bit of a shame as yams are said to be sweetened by a frost, so I may need to look for the other portent that tells me when to dig up my yams. This should be done before the winter rains waterlog my ground. Should the rains not come then I can pretty much dig them up any time over winter to accessorise my favourite roast. My kids don’t like them, probably because in my family they have always been called “old man's toes'', but that’s ok — it means all the more for me. And if I find I haven’t planted enough, the good news is I can start planting more from July to October.
Silverbeet is one of those old fashioned veges that many of us remember being boiled to death, resulting in a grey sodden splodge on the plate. But it is now experiencing a bit of a renaissance, and with this new flush of popularity it comes in a range of funky colours — red, pink and yellow — alongside the original silver white, which really brighten up a winter garden. It can be planted any time between April and September, but its best feature is that it can put up with a frost, so it will be there come rain, hail and shine, ready to add a fresh, crisp, touch of green goodness to our heart-warming winter diets.
Sarah O'Neil, Hubby the Un-Gardener and their two boys have planted a large garden as part of their journey to discover "the good life". Visit Sarah's website, Sarah the Gardener.