The winter garden
Despite the cold and miserable weather Sarah O’Neil’s garden is still a busy place.
The pace in the winter garden is much slower than in spring and summer. There are far fewer pests and the harvest arrives at a much more manageable pace, a "what shall we pick for dinner'’ kind of pace, rather than the "if we don’t do something with those zucchini we are going to have too many marrows" pace of the summer garden. There is a calm stillness on those rare but magical crisp blue-sky days.
Gardening in early winter is like living on borrowed time, with one eye on the weather forecast and one arm reaching for the frost cloth. Micro-climates within gardens can allow some summer crops to limp on until they are hit with that first frost, so this winter watch your garden and when the frost comes, see where it lingers and where it doesn’t seem to touch at all. Make a note of this and use it to your advantage when planting out in the new season, so you can enjoy all that is good about summer longer into the winter. Some summer crops that will continue giving for a while are:
Peppers and chillies
These are actually perennial which means they would last for seasons if it wasn’t for the frost, so until the weather turns nasty you should be able harvest these regularly to add spice to your winter fare.
My zucchini have pushed beyond the powdery mildew and are robust enough to provide us with yet more tasty crops. I have gone from being sick of them to relishing the flavour, as they won’t be with us much longer.
An early winter harvest can be taken from autumn-sown peas, and though they are cold-tolerant and will do well in a mild winter, if the flowers or young pods become exposed to frost, they will be damaged. The winter garden can also play host to a regular supply of fresh vegetables that prefer the cold. There is no need to cosset these crops as they do just fine on their own and the frost is said to make them even sweeter.
Carrots can be grown year-round and are a great staple to have. They don’t take up much space and the best thing about the carrot crop is you can leave them in the ground until you need them, and they'll still be fresh and crisp.
This is another crop you can have in the garden all year, although it doesn’t like being planted when it is too wet or too cold. Though it can be the star of a salad or burger in the summer, in the winter it is far tastier roasted, drawing out all the sweet flavours and making it the perfect accompaniment for a roast. It also makes the most delicious chocolate beetroot cakes and muffins.
Sown late in summer, fennel can be harvested to give a light fresh aniseed flavour to break up the comforting hearty foods of winter. It is a fabulous partner with fish and when roasted it is elevated to something very special indeed. Try Kathy Paterson’s fennel baked with cream.
A good winter garden should have a corner set aside for leeks, for where would we be without a heart-warming leek and potato soup or a comforting chicken and leek pie? They are easy to grow and require very little maintenance.
My parsnips have been in all season. I am very tempted to try them now, and I could, however that first frost sweetens them and makes them so much more delicious. So I shall wait for the frost — although I can’t say I’ll wait anxiously.
Silverbeet is so easy to grow and is rich in vitamins and minerals and all things good for you, so make the effort to include this leafy green in your soups, quiches and stir-fries. Make a silverbeet and feta stuffing for a boned-out lamb leg.
Then there are all things brassica — cabbage, broccoli,cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi. As most of these can be grown year-round in warmer climates, they are available for harvest all year round. The great benefit of the winter brassica is that it's not bothered as much by the dreaded white butterfly, so no nasty surprises on your plate —although I’d still check! Try Dr Libby’s brilliant brassica soup.
When planting carrots, beetroot and brassicas check the varieties to make sure they are the ones best suited to cool season growing. Other things you can plant now include:
These are planted as tubers throughout the winter and grow into the tallest yellow flowers, so make sure they are in a spot protected from the wind, but also make sure they are somewhere where you don’t mind them being, because unless you harvest every last trace, they will be with you for a long time.
The sweet flavour of freshly harvested asparagus makes the patience required between planting and eating worth the wait. Oh my goodness, it is amazing. You must try it. Set aside a permanent place in the garden and plant a crown or two in a free-draining spot. Spread out the roots on a mound at the bottom of a 20cm deep trench and as it grows, fill the trench. During the first year don’t harvest but cut down the fronds in winter when they turn yellow. In the second year you can eat one or two but leave the rest. In the third year you will have happy healthy plants that will continue to give you to most delicious, tender spears for the next 25 years.
Winter is the perfect time to plant or refresh your crop of strawberries in readiness for the spring abundance. Strawberry plants only really do well for three years and then the harvest can drop, so if yours are older than three years I would consider replacing them with new ones or runners from the old plants. I have split my strawberry patch into thirds and each year I replace a third of them, so I will always have some plants at peak production, while the others are getting themselves together or beginning to wane.
Onions and garlic
The old wives tale has it that onions and garlic are to be planted on the shortest day and harvested on the longest. Onion seedlings are best planted out when they are about 10-15cm tall and should generally be planted at the same depth they were in the pot, at about 10-20cm apart. Think of how big you want your onion to grow when spacing them out. Garlic should come from seed garlic to avoid spreading disease. To ensure the best crop, only plant the fat cloves from the bulb. Poke a hole in the soil and plant the garlic so it is twice as deep as itself — about 5cm under. Make sure they stay weed-free because onions and garlic hate competition.
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 sarahthegardener.co.nz for more.