Sowing winter crops

Sowing winter crops

Garden Life
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Tips from Sarah the Gardener

The timing of preparing for winter always seems too early to be true. The summer sun is still beating down and swimming at the beach still seems like a desirable activity and not something best left for the brave and foolhardy. The garden is still flourishing and the tomatoes and zucchinis are still producing fruit like there is no tomorrow. Everything around us at first glance has signs that summer is still in full swing and the possibility that it could go on endlessly.

All good things must come to an end though and if you look a little closer at the summer garden you will find evidence of old and tired foliage creeping in around the edges. There will be gaps across the garden where something delicious once grew and has long been eaten and enjoyed. The beans, once relished as a fresh and delightful addition to the family meal are now boring and completely taken for granted while many still cling to the plant forlornly getting stringier by the day. The ground will be a shadow of its former rich and light self as months of lying beneath baking hot sun would have hardened the soil and the crops will have depleted the nutrients.

The downward turn towards the autumn has begun, whether we are prepared to admit it or not. Now, as with the beginning of the summer growing season whose early roots begin in the late stages of winter, so it is the same for the winter crops. In this late stage of summer is the perfect time to begin to think about the winter if you want to continue the joy of growing food over the cooler months.

Not everyone thinks about winter gardening and the focus is on making the warm season garden last as long as possible before the plants are killed by cold weather and frost, the tools are put away for the season and the last vestiges of the garden are either cleared away or left to their own devices. By then any hope of a winter garden will have long since gone out of the window of opportunity that only remains open for a brief period in late summer and early autumn.

Winter crops - soil

Preparation

For most people, space in the garden is limited and in order to have a winter garden, some tough choices need to be made. Do you allow the powdery mildew infested zucchini to limp along a little longer under watchful care, frequent spraying and feeding? Sometimes it is just better to make the call and put it out of its misery. Any plants that are no longer thriving with harvests that are dwindling can be removed to make space for the new winter crops.

The soil then needs some attention to replace the goodness that has been removed over the last few months of verdant growth from hungry plants. Mixing in compost, well-rotted manure, blood and bone and fertiliser should restore the nutrients required by the new crops, in a similar fashion to the soil preparation for the previous season.

Planning

The vegetables available for the winter season aren’t half as exciting as the superstars of summer, like the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers and most of them seem to be from the brassica family. Having said that there are plenty of great vegetables to choose from that can be grown over the winter months to add variety, interest and a fresh crunch of greenery on a cold winters day and compliment the seasonal comfort food perfectly, so you can’t really complain.

Just make sure you select the right variety for your area and for your winter conditions. Some gardeners’ winter means snow and freezing conditions and others’ winter can just be a little cooler with a bit more rain.

The same rules apply to winter crops as summer ones – grow what you like to eat. There is no point in having rows upon rows of turnips, just because they like to grow at this time of year but you really don’t like to eat them. You may have more space in a winter garden so it will take more self-control in this respect.

Once you have decided what you want to grow, you need to work out where it will grow and for this, it is a good idea to make a plan, allowing the correct spacing for the full-grown plants. You may need to work around soon to be finished, existing plants so interplanting can work well and the older plants can protect the younger seedlings from the full heat of the summer sun.

Winter crops - Bed

Sowing

Sowing seeds in late summer and early winter is quite different from the spring. The harsh summer sun can dehydrate a seed tray in an hour and the recently-germinated seed can wither and die before breaking the surface. The gardener needs to be more vigilant to ensure the soil stays moist instead of yo-yoing from dry to soggy. Setting the seed tray on moist newspaper can help. Pay attention to brassica seedlings since if they are allowed to dry out at any stage of their life they will bolt to seed once they are big enough to do so.

The good news is that in the heat of late summer seeds germinate much quicker than in spring and you should see seedlings within a week or shortly thereafter. Transplant them into bigger pots as you would in the spring or start a nursery bed for small seedlings where they can grow to a good size in a safe place in the garden which reduces the risk of drying out in small pots. Once they are big enough, plant out into the garden in their final position.

Pests

In the final stages of summer, the garden can be full of pests, diseases and fungal spores as the result of population explosions from having a plentiful supply of crops to feed upon. Most of these are taken care of by the first good frost and won’t hinder the winter garden long term. However in the formative stages of the cool season crops these plants are at risk of perishing from attack before they get a chance to get going. Extra vigilance is required and possibly a good butterfly net.

Starting early in the late summer gives the plants the best chance of survival as they stretch their roots into the lingering warmth of the soil and boost their young leaves under the influence of the late summer sun, giving them the reserves they need to make it through the long cold winter and still produce a bountiful harvest. Winter gardening can be just a rewarding as summer gardening – and now is the time to get started.