Best winter vegetables to grow
Fancy growing vegetables in winter? Here's our pick of the best to try.
Plenty of vegetables can be grown in winter. Hardy crops like kale, Brussels sprouts, beetroot and turnips thrive in cold conditions, with some cropping throughout winter and others overwintering for an early harvest in spring. Other crops can be grown or overwintered with the help of fleece, cloches, and an unheated greenhouse or cold frame, giving you an extended cropping season on your vegetable patch.
Growing vegetables in winter
You don't need any special equipment for growing vegetables in winter but it helps if you have a greenhouse or cold frame, as these will protect more tender plants from frost. If you don't have a greenhouse or cold frame you can still grow hardy crops like Brussels sprouts, winter cabbage, leeks and parsnips, but if you want to try growing more tender crops, make sure you're on hand with fleece or cloches to cover the plants when cold spells are forecast. These leafy crops won't necessarily grow in winter but, as soon as temperatures increase again in spring, they will put on growth and give you a very early harvest of leaves when there's little else available.
When to plant winter vegetables
Most winter vegetables, including winter cabbage, turnips and leeks, are sown in August and September, when the warm soil and good light levels ensure good germination. Some, such as parsnips and Brussels sprouts, are sown in spring (they take a long time to crop but are usually considered worth it).
Leafy crops such as chard, parsley and rocket are sown in late summer to autumn, and can overwinter with some protection.
Browse our pick of the best winter vegetables to grow, below.
Maincrop turnips are fantastic winter vegetables and can be added to soups and stews and even Sunday roasts. Sow in August for a winter crop, thinning seedlings to 23cm apart. Harvest as and when you need them, ideally when the turnips are around the size of a golf ball.
Turnip 'Golden Ball' is an ideal winter root vegetable as it is perfect for roasting and grilling, and bears large, smooth roots.
Celeriac is closely related to celery and has a similar flavour. It can be used as a purée or roasted and served with other root veg. Sow celeriac in seed trays or modules in April, and plant out from May, spacing plants 25-30cm apart in rows 30-45cm apart. Celeriac will be ready to harvest from October but will taste better if exposed to frost. In colder regions, cover the plants with horticultural fleece to stop the ground freezing and make harvesting easier.
Celeriac 'Mars' bears large roots that can be overwintered in the ground as long as they have a little protection, and stores well.
Sow Brussels sprouts in seed trays or modules from March to May and plant out when large enough to handle, spacing plants 60cm apart with 75cm between rows. Firm plants in well and stake them to prevent wind rock. Harvest from October. As with many winter crops, it's said that Brussels sprouts taste better after a frost.
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Brussels sprouts 'Brodie F1' is the supermarket's choice, bearing super sweet buttons that are easy to harvest.
Purple sprouting broccoli
Purple sprouting broccoli overwinter and crop very early in spring. Sow from March to May and plant out when large enough to handle, spacing them 50-60cm apart with a similar distance between the rows. Harvest your spears when the flowers have developed but are not yet open. Remove the central spear first to encourage side shoots to develop.
'Purple Rain' is a British bred variety that doesn't need a spell of cold weather to produce tasty sprouts.
- Buy Purple sprouting broccoli 'Purple Rain' from Thompson & Morgan
- How to grow purple-sprouting broccoli
Sow in September, in rows 40cm apart and approximately 1.5cm deep. Cover seeds with soil and water well. Thin seedlings to 25-30cm apart. You should be able to harvest young chard leaves from October but then it will stop growing until temperatures increase again in spring. Cover with a cloche or horticultural fleece when frosts are forecast.
'Bright Lights' is a particularly ornamental variety, bearing stems in red, yellow and white.
Chicory can be cooked or eaten raw as a winter salad. There are three different types: 'forcing' chicory, grown for plump hearts that are good for blanching, red chicory or radicchio, that's great for colourful salads, and 'non-forcing' or sugar loaf chicory that can be cooked in a variety of ways or eaten raw. For a winter crop, sow non-forcing chicory in July and August, sowing thinly 1cm deep in rows 30cm apart. Thin out seedlings to 25-30cm apart between plants and keep weed-free. Cover with a cloche in autumn to extend the season.
Chicory 'Rossa di Treviso Precoce' bears long pointed green foliage that turns red as the weather gets colder.
Winter cabbages include red cabbage, which works well in winter dishes but can also be pickled, and savoy cabbage, the perfect accompaniment to a Sunday roast. Sow in spring and thin or plant out to 45cm apart, with 60cm between rows. Use fine mesh to protect from flea beetle, white fly and white butterfly caterpillars. Harvest as and when you need to.
Watch Monty Don plant out winter cabbages in this video clip from Gardeners' World:
Mizuna has a peppery flavour well suited to salads and as a garnish. Sow in August, in a greenhouse or cold frame for harvests throughout winter. Thin plants to 15cm apart and 23cm between rows. Alternatively sow on open ground and cover with a cloche in autumn to extend the harvest.
Loved for its dark green leaves, kale makes an excellent addition to winter stir fries, salads and roasts. Sow in spring and thin or plant out to 45cm apart with 60cm between rows.
Kale 'Nero di Toscano' is a particularly attractive and hardy variety.
Parsnips are a winter root vegetable that work well in soups and stews and are delicious roasted with a Sunday roast. Sow thinly in spring, and thin to 15cm spacing in rows 30cm apart. Keep the area weed free throughout summer and harvest from autumn. It's said that frost improves the flavour of parsnips but you might want to cover the ground with fleece to stop the soil freezing and make harvesting easier.
Parsnip 'Tender and True' bears long, slender roots that are perfect for roasting and mashing.
Winter vegetables: pests and diseases
The advantage of growing crops in winter is that there are very few pests about – most are hibernating. Turnips, Brussels sprouts and other brassicas harbour a variety of insect pests until temperatures fall, including flea beetle, 'cabbage' white butterflies and whitefly – you may find whitefly persists into winter. Whitefly and flea beetle are usually nothing to worry about, while cabbage white caterpillars can strip plants of their leaves. However these will grow back in spring before the butterflies emerge from hibernation.
Pigeons can be a problem in winter, however, and it's a good idea to net your brassicas – particularly kale – to protect your crop.
Brassicas are also susceptible to diseases such as club root, a fungal disease that lives in the soil. If you find swollen roots then avoid growing brassicas in the soil for at least seven years. On acid soils, an application of garden lime can reduce, although not completely eliminate this disease.
Advice on buying winter vegetables
- Ensure you have the right conditions to grow winter veg – including soil type, shelter and sunshine if needed
- Invest in cloches, fleece and cold frames to make the most of your winter crops
- Always follow the instructions on the seed packet
Where to buy winter vegetables
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