Yes I know, I know – the sun is shining, the birds are nesting, you’ve got seedlings in the ground and you’re poised to harvest the first new potatoes of the season. It’s all about spring right now.
But forward planning is the difference between a veg patch that’ll feed you for most of the summer, and one that provides you with good home-grown grub all year round.
Whatever the season, you’ll find me with one eye on the next (and likely, the one after that, too). It’s the best way I know to avoid the ‘boom and bust’ cycle, when you get everything maturing at once then absolutely nothing to eat for months. The skill of true self-sufficiency, and the way to provide yourself with a year-round supply of food, is to even out the supply until your harvest becomes a steady stream of produce from January to December. It’s one of the key lessons my students learn on my course, Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening
Right now, for example, I’m thinking about winter. Winter crops mature slowly, taking ten or even twelve months to reach picking size – so you have to get them in the ground early, at the same time as you’re sowing your summer and autumn crops.
These are big plants, spaced 45-60cm apart, but don’t worry if you haven’t much room – you can grow summer crops underneath and between your kale, broccoli and sprouts while they’re still seedlings.
May or early June is the ideal time to sow from seed: no earlier, or they’ll reach maturity by the autumn (especially in our warmer summers lately) and they’ll be past their best before real winter hits. I sprinkle a pinch of seeds over the top of a 10cm pot of good quality peat-free multipurpose compost: cover with more compost, keep damp and they come up in no time, then I can separate them out into their own, larger pot to grow on before planting outside in late June.
Of course you can always cheat – plug plants are available right now in garden centres and mail order. They’re a little more expensive, and the varieties are more limited – but it’s easy and convenient, and a great short cut when you haven’t time or space to sow from seed.
You don’t need too many plants: about nine for big, generous brassicas like sprouts, kale and purple-sprouting broccoli to feed a family of four, or with smaller brassicas like winter and spring cabbage a few more – I plant out about 12. And don’t forget to fill in the gaps with lots of other winter goodies: you can still sow leeks, swede, chicory and parsnips as long as you get your skates on and do it this week.
Here are my five picks of the winter crops to sow now:
Kale You need never get bored of kale as there are so many different ones to try. I love ‘Black Tuscan’, with deeply ruched, strappy black leaves; bone hardy ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ and asparagus kale, which sends up sweet asparagus-like stems in spring. The secret to enjoying it at its best is to pick leaves young – no more than 10cm long, when they’re at their sweetest and most tender.
Sprouts Sow just one variety of sprouts and you’ll be picking (a lot) for a couple of months. Split your sowings between three varieties – one early-cropping, one midseason and one late – and you can have sprouts from September to March, all winter long. Pick them while still small and tight, and steam rather than boil to keep them crisp and crunchy.
Leeks You can’t ever have enough leeks in my book – in fact they’re one of the few crops you can grow almost year-round, starting from early-maturing varieties like ‘Pancho’ sown in February or March for June picking, to sturdy winter varieties like ‘Musselburgh’ sown now to see you through the winter months.
Purple sprouting broccoli A hungry gap treat, purple sprouting is incredibly generous, producing more sweet purple sprigs every time you pick. One plant will crop for weeks – though you can do the same trick as with Brussels sprouts and sow early, mid-season and late maturing crops to extend the season from November till May.
Parsnips You’re definitely running out of time to sow parsnips now, but there’s just time to get a row in. Use fresh seed, and be patient – parsnip seed can take up to a month to germinate. If you think you might lose them, add a pinch of radish seed to the drill alongside the parsnips – the faster-germinating seeds act like a marker (and you get a second crop from the same space, too!)
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