Guide to growing winter veg

Guide to growing winter veg

Expert organic grower Charles Dowding explains how to grow crops to harvest in the colder months.

August is the perfect month to start vegetables that will be ready to eat through the winter and on into the hungry gap in the following year. This may seem a long way off , but it’s important to sow in summer so your crops are big enough to survive when the cold weather comes. And because the soil and weather are warm in August, your seedlings will grow fast.

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You can sow seeds of many veg directly into the ground, or raise new plants in module trays to fill the gaps that appear as you harvest summer crops. There are a few winter staples that it’s too late to sow from seed, but by buying young plants you can still enjoy them this winter. There’s no need to dig or prepare the ground, just clear the surface of old crops and weeds, and, unless you spread a lot of compost on your plot in autumn, add a 1cm layer of compost, to feed the soil and your plants. Then you’ll be ready to sow and plant your veg for winter.


How to start

Guide to growing winter veg - sowing seed
Guide to growing winter veg – sowing seed

Sow direct

In August, many winter crops can be sown direct into the ground. Knock out any lumps in the soil, then firm it down, either with the back of a rake or by walking on it, so it is even and will hold moisture better. Use the edge of a hoe or spade to make drills 1-2 cm deep and water the base of each one. Sow your seed and cover with dry soil. Wait a week before you water again – this will keep the soil surface dry and discourage weed growth.

Sow in modules

While you can sow direct, sowing in module or seed trays in a greenhouse, or even on a bright windowsill, gives more reliable germination and makes it easier to protect against pests in the vulnerable early days. Fill modules to the brim with multi-purpose compost, firm it well, then see if there’s space for more compost (above). For many winter veg, sow several seeds per module. After 10 days, if all of the seeds have germinated, thin out the weakest one or two from each module, then plant the rest out as a clump. This is efficient in terms of time, space and use of compost.

Sow in seed trays

Fill your trays with a 50:50 mix of multi-purpose compost and vermiculite or perlite (to improve drainage), then water until the mix is saturated. Scatter seed thinly on the surface. Cover the seed lightly with more of the compost mix and then lay glass or a plastic lid on top. Wait five days before you water again. Many people will tell you to wait until seedlings have their first true leaves (leaves that look like the parent plant) before you prick out, but I do it when they have just their first two seedling leaves, as they transplant easily at this stage. Insert a dibber or pencil under the seedling’s roots, levering it upwards, and pull gently on the leaves rather than the stem (above, right). Transplant into a module tray, coiling the roots in until the stem is completely buried.


How to transplant

Guide to growing winter veg - planting out
Guide to growing winter veg – planting out

How to plant out

To reduce transplant shock, move plants into the ground from trays when they’re still young. Yellowing leaves are a sign that they’re running out of nitrogen, so always try to plant out before this. Brassicas and spinach are ready to go out just two to three weeks after sowing; lettuce, endive and chicory can be up to four weeks. With a dibber or a hand trowel, make a hole in the soil deep enough to bury the whole stem, this will help produce more sturdy plants.

Where to plant

As you harvest summer crops, you may create gaps that you can use to grow veg for winter. Otherwise, plant your winter veg out in blocks rather than rows, as blocks are easier to cover and protect against pests and the weather. Allow 30cm of space around veg you’re growing for large leaves and 20cm around salad crops.

When to water

The most important time to water is at sowing and planting, and over the following couple of weeks until your crops are growing strongly. At seedling stage, apply water plant by plant, rather than over the whole area – this will help stop weeds germinating and competing with your seedlings. Once your veg is growing robustly, it should only need watering in very dry spells and when leafy crops like rocket, endive and spinach are nearly ready to harvest.


Get a bigger harvest

Guide to growing winter veg - protecting plants
Guide to growing winter veg – protecting plants

Protect from pests

While netting will protect your crops from birds and rabbits, mesh will keep insects at bay too. Place wire hoops across your beds at 1m intervals and use mesh that is wide enough to be held in place with stones at the edge and can be lifted easily for weeding and harvesting.

Protect from weather

All these vegetables are frost hardy, but you need to protect them from harsh winds, which can shred leaves. Fleece does the job (above, left) or try mesh – although it’s less warm, it is sturdier and can stay over plants all winter long. A covering of snow may weigh it down, but it will only flatten plants a little and can be easily brushed off.

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Keep the harvests coming

Keep leafy vegetables cropping for months by carefully picking the outer leaves, rather than cutting off the whole plant. Picking may take a little longer than cutting, but it will mean that the one sowing you make now will keep giving you leaves for several months, yielding a much bigger harvest overall.