Winter Babies

By Sally Nex

Thinking of winding down in the veg patch?

Well – don’t hang up the trowel just yet. Quite the opposite: I find the autumn months are among the busiest of all. You’re tucking up empty veg beds for winter beneath a nice thick mulch of organic matter, while making sure your winter supplies – the stalwart army of kales, Brussels sprouts, leeks, parsnips and winter salads that see us through till spring – are shielded from the worst of the weather. I’m going around with short stakes right now, hammering one in alongside each of my taller brassicas then tying the stems in securely against the howling winter sou’westerlies that ravage my little corner of the country from now till the first frosts set in.

And while all that’s going on, you’ve also got to carve out some time to pull out the seed trays and getting next season’s crops under way.

Sowing to overwinter also takes the pressure off when the real March seed-sowing madness begins: and in some cases, such as garlic, it’s essential since bulbs need a spell of chilling (at least three weeks below 7°C) in order to split into cloves. If they don’t get it, you’ll end up with a single big onion-like bulb to harvest: still edible, but not quite what you were aiming for.

Not all veg overwinter well. You need to enlist varieties which laugh in the face of frost and wind and produce seedlings sturdy enough to cope with the worst winter can throw at them. Here are my top five veg to sow right now:

Pop overwintering onion sets in the ground now for early crops next summer

Overwintering onions

Also known as Japanese onions as they were first bred there to withstand sometimes bitterly cold winter temperatures, these tough customers are far hardier than their namby-pamby summer cousins, Sow now, direct into the ground so the tips are just at the surface, about 10cm apart and they’ll be ready by late June – a full month sooner than maincrop varieties. They don’t store well, so pull them fresh through summer.

Recommended varieties: Senshyu Yellow, Shakespeare, Radar

Hardier shallot varieties like Zebrune need a long growing season to do well

Shallots

Shallots are often dismissed as fancy onions, but do make space for them as they have a lovely, delicate flavour and they’re great value for money, with each set developing into a cluster of fat bulbs. The longer you can give them in the ground, the bigger those bulbs will be – though autumn-sown shallots won’t store quite as well as spring-sown ones so reserve them for eating fresh. Again, don’t be tempted to plant just any old shallot variety, as some are more sensitive to cold.

Recommended varieties: Zebrune, Griselle, Longor

I start my garlic cloves in small cardboard pots so they’re growing strongly before I plant them out

Garlic

It’s not just nice to plant garlic in autumn – it’s essential if you’re to get good-sized heads packed with cloves. So make sure you get your cloves in by December, sown direct or into modules or small pots of compost left outside on a shelf where they can be chilled, then planted out from February onwards. Garlic also grows really well in a greenhouse, where it loves being baked and avoids rust – a nasty rain-borne fungal disease which can wipe out your crop outdoors.

Recommended varieties: Solent Wight, Cristo, Edenrose

Once they’ve germinated broad bean seedlings grow strongly through winter

Broad beans

Sow broad beans in autumn and not only do you get to pick sweet, plump beans as early as late May – you also guarantee yourself a trouble-free growing season. Blackfly can decimate a spring-sown crop of broad beans, but by the time they get to work in late June your harvest is already well under way. And fungal diseases like chocolate spot don’t get a look-in: by midsummer, when they take hold, your broad beans are safely gathered in, freeing up the whole bed for replanting with another crop.

Recommended varieties: Aquadulce Claudia, The Sutton

Sweet peas

Growing your own doesn’t only mean veg: grow your own cut flowers and you cut your carbon footprint, save yourself a packet and fill your home with colour and scent. Sweet peas are among the easiest, and you’ll often find a wigwam or two on allotment plots. But they do have quite a short picking season, so you risk running out midsummer unless you sow two or three batches. Sow the hardiest now for your first posies of the season from late May; then a second batch in spring, followed by a last late sowing in June or July to keep your vases filled till the first frosts.

Recommended varieties: Cupani, Winter Elegance, Matucana

Sally Nex

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