If you're reading this on a hot summer's day then the idea of casting your mind forward to winter may seem at best odd. But it's the wise kitchen gardener who makes plans now for the vegetables that will stock the larder when the cold comes home to roost.
Many of our favourite winter staples can still be sown in midsummer to ensure a steady supply of leafy greens, roots and flavoursome shoots. Depending on your climate, others will need to be at the seedling stage by this time of year if they are to put on enough growth to push through to winter. Ready-to-go young plants are widely available for planting out if you've missed the boat for hardy staples such as Brussels sprouts, leeks and sprouting broccoli.
Roots for Winter Harvesting
Maincrop carrots and beetroot are ideal for starting off in summer to provide a winter cache of welcome roots. In milder regions these roots can be left in the ground during the cooler months to dig up as required.
Gardeners growing in areas prone to penetrating frosts will need to lift up all of their roots by mid-autumn, taking care not to spear roots with the prongs of the fork and storing only those free of blemishes. Trim the foliage before storing to within 1-2cm (under an inch) of the root, brush off excess soil then lay the roots down so they aren't touching in boxes of sand. Carrots and beetroot will keep this way until early spring.
Carrots: Sow seeds 1cm (0.5in) deep into finely raked soil, leaving 15-23cm (6-9in) between rows. Thin the seedlings to at least 5cm-10cm (2-4in) apart for decent-sized roots.
For winter storing it's hard to beat the long-term favourite 'Autumn King', which is exceptionally hardy and boasts a rich flesh colour. This variety is so hardy you may get away with leaving it in the ground all winter. A cover of straw will prevent the ground from freezing solid and should allow you to unearth the roots as they're needed. That said, a ready-to-hand store of lifted carrots is more likely to be used when the weather's freezing and the last thing you want to do is venture outside!
Beetroot: Set the seeds out in rows that are 20-30cm (8-12in) apart, allowing for a final spacing of 10cm (3in) between plants. Keep rows free of weeds to allow the roots to swell properly. I find that the popular variety 'Boltardy' is still the best – it has a lovely sweet flesh, is hardy and very resistant to bolting. For a quick crop of baby roots sow the seeds much closer together and lift while they are still young.
Sowing kale in summer will ensure legions of luscious leaves throughout winter. I'm a big fan of kale thanks to its unfussy character and its ability to shrug off the worst attentions of pests such as cabbage whitefly and caterpillars. Any mild spell during the winter will see kale plants grow on just that little bit more to provide a quiet succession of harvests throughout the cooler months.
Curly leaved varieties such as 'Dwarf Green Curled' are worth a sow, but for luxurious leaves I'd plump for 'Cavolo Nero' or 'Black Tuscan' (this is in fact the same variety sold under different names). It produces strap-like leaves of dark, Savoy cabbage-like quality that's a real treat. Shred the leaves, lightly steam them then dish up with a generous dob of butter and a grind of the peppermill – the gardener's elixir!
Vegetables to Plant Out in Summer
By midsummer in cooler regions, the boat will have been missed for sowing most other brassicas. If you've already grown your own young plants ready for transplanting or planting out, then good on you! If you haven't, just look out for one of the many winter collections of brassicas sold in garden centres, nurseries or online.
Broccoli and sprouts: Brussels sprouts and sprouting broccoli for harvesting from late winter should be planted out to leave 60cm (24in) between plants. Get these into the ground as soon as possible so they have plenty of time to grow on into sturdy plants. Consider covering the plants with mesh or netting to prevent cabbage white butterflies laying their eggs on the leaves and decimating your chances of a successful crop.
Leeks: This is a staple winter crop and one I'd personally hate to be without. Its long, smooth shanks add a richness to the winter diet, whether served as a base ingredient to a stew or in its own right as the star of a meal (a leek-dominated quiche is delicious).
Set ready-to-plant young leeks into holes made with a dibber so that the roots are at least 7cm (3in) deep. This will encourage a longer, white stem. Space plants 15cm (6in) apart. Cover the roots back over with loose soil then water in carefully, filling to the top of the hole. If you have plenty to choose from, only use the very biggest leeks to ensure good growth before winter. The hardiest leeks like 'Apollo' can sit in the ground right up until late spring, providing a go-to vegetable at the leanest time of the year. Harvest the largest leeks first to allow the remainder to grow on.
If the summers are very hot in your area you'll need to wait a little longer to sow, but now is a great time to start thinking about what you want to grow for harvesting in autumn and winter. Our Garden Planner can advise you on when to sow or plant out in your location, so start planning now to get some real winter performers in the ground! Add to this the plethora of winter salads that can be sown towards the end of summer and into autumn, and there's no excuse for the cupboard to run bare once the growing season's over.
We'd love to hear your plans for winter crops, so leave a comment and let us know what you plan to grow this year.
By Benedict Vanheems.