Five favourites - winter vegetables
Organic veg grower and no-dig pioneer Charles Dowding shares his favourite vegetables for winter pickings.
Every year, I fill my shed and house with stored vegetables ready for winter, but what I love the most is food harvested fresh from the garden. This is possible even in the dark heart of winter, and some flavours even improve in the cold weather.
For me, the greatest delicacy in winter is a plate of Brussels sprouts. They are bitter, which is good for the liver, but when homegrown in healthy soil, the flavour is milder and sweeter. The intense flavour and dense texture means you don’t need many on your plate for a taste sensation.
To ensure your sprouts stay tight, rather than blowing open, I recommend growing F1 varieties, as some older varieties have not been well maintained during seed production. F1 varieties are seed strains that are specially bred to have certain qualities and often produce better harvests.
My two favourite root vegetables for winter are parsnip and beetroot, and of these, beetroot is the absolute top. Beetroot is packed full of health benefits, it is easy to grow and can be left to stand outside in the ground until needed if given a little extra covering of soil or compost.
Beetroot grows quite quickly, so for winter harvests, the best time to sow seeds is in June. I sow beetroot into module trays under cover, and then transplant them out into the ground after I have harvested my early peas or broccoli. Easy to grow, quick to harvest, high nutritional value - what more could you want?
I cannot imagine a winter without leeks. They can be used in so many dishes and bring so much flavour, especially when sautéed in oil or butter to bring out their sweetness, they’re also delicious when just sautéed in water. They don’t need protection from the cold, their sweetness increases after a touch of frost. While leeks are valuable over winter, they really come into their own in spring, when there’s little else ready to harvest. Leeks will continue to grow and can get impressively large in April, until seedheads develop in May.
When I was growing up, kale was not popular, it was often grown for animals to eat. The way it was cooked didn’t help, boiled for too long resulting in soggy leaves with tough stems. Now I appreciate it as a winter treat, especially the tender leaves of varieties such as 'Cavolo Nero' and 'Red Russian'. Plus you can cook kale in all sorts of ways, my favourite is to roast it for a few minutes with a little oil to make kale crisps.
There are some winter salad plants which show incredible hardiness, and an extraordinary ability to put on new growth in conditions which most crops would struggle with. My top three are Claytonia perfoliata, American land cress, and corn salad. The most hardy is corn salad whose leaves have a lovely dense texture and nutty flavour. The best time to sow is early September, after many other harvests finish.
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