Winter vegetables to grow in your garden

Val Bourne / 05 November 2015

Gardening expert Val Bourne shares her recommendations for the best vegetables to grow for fresh winter produce.



Having winter vegetables in your garden is just like having a winter pantry because they can be harvested little and often so there are no daunting summer gluts. The hardy standbys are parsnips, winter brassicas and leeks and these need starting off in spring. However, in the autumn it is still possible to buy a winter collection of vegetable plants that includes spring cabbages, calabrese, chard, perpetual spinach and Red Mustard for late winter and early spring use.

Read our guide to starting a vegetable garden from scratch

You can order seeds for spring sowing in the autumn. Keep them in a frost-free cool place, a biscuit tin in the shed is ideal. Opt of F1 Parsnip ‘Gladiator’ and sow the seeds in wide 4 inch drills (10cm ) once daytime temperature approach (10C ) 50F. Members of the carrot family (umbellifers) need warmth, but even given optimum conditions parsnips still take 30 days to appear, so patience is essential. Brassicas germinate easily however, taking between 6 -10 days, and are best sown in modular 6 x 4 trays in spring. Leeks are also best done in modular trays. Use 8 x 5.

Browse the Saga Garden Centre for great offers on fruit and vegetables now.

Top tips for growing winter veg

Parsnips

Sow in April or May for better germination straight into the ground.

Always choose an F1 variety because these have hybrid vigour and this promotes better germination and growth.

Parsnip seeds are large and papery so sow them on a still day to stop them blowing away.

Create a wide drill. 3 - 4 inches (up to 10cm) across and water it well, this will alleviate the need to thin out the seedlings.

Space the seeds out by sprinkling and cover with half an inch of soil. Protect the area from cats etc because parsnips take 30 days to appear - sometimes longer.

Keep the drill well-watered and well-weeded.

Harvest after the first frosts, because cold weather turns the starchy roots sweet.

If you want to eat some before the first frosts arrive, dig and clean the roots. Place them in a poly bag in a refrigerator for seven to ten days.

Recommended Award-winning F1 Parsnip Varieties (British-bred by Toser Seeds )

‘Gladiator’ AGM
‘Albion’ AGM

Read our guide to growing parsnips

Winter brassicas

Brassicas are far easier to grow than parsnips because they germinate easily and reliably. They also grow well on lighter soils due to being coastal plants. Dry summers do not bother them.

Sow in modular trays. Placing one or two seeds per module, preferably in a greenhouse or in a light windowsill, or buy your plants.

It is best to grow your own, however, because brassicas stall if they are kept in trays for too long.

The secret of success with all brassicas is to plant them out just as the roots fill the module, usually by early May.

Puddle them in if it’s dry by tipping water into the planting hole. The technique is to dig the hole, place the plant in the hole and pour on lots of water with a can. Replace the soil immediately, because the action of the water disappearing into the ground sucks the soil down preventing air spaces.

Cabbage white and Small white butterflies lay eggs and the caterpillars eta the leaves. I’m organic so I net straight after planting, using butterfly netting stretched over canes topped with flowerpots. The net stays on for the whole time because as the caterpillars subside the pigeons develop an appetite.

Feed them well with nitrogen after planting and again in August. Pelleted chicken manure is excellent for brassicas.

Read our guide to growing brassicas

Kale

Kale is far hardier than any other brassica and it can be cut and used from late-Autumn and will stay in leaf until late-spring, filling a hungry gap. Every vegetable plot should contain at least one.

‘Cavolo Nero’
The handsome Tuscan kale can be picked over a long period. It’s very hardy and has a milder flavour.

Dwarf Green Curled
The crinkliest brassica and the hardiest of all. Can be picked in midwinter when other crops have failed. Has a strong flavour.

‘Starmaker’ ( exclusive to D.T. Brown - www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk)
The inner rosettes of this new British-bred kale are bight-pink and, when steamed, retain their colour on the plate. The outer leaves are dark-green.

Read our guide to growing kale

Brussels sprouts

Harder to grow well than kale or cabbage and they can suffer badly in cold winters. They need to be well-spaced to perform well (2 ft part / 60 cm ) and they are greedier feeders. You can harvest the tops and the bottoms.

Bosworth F1 AGM
This variety is mid-season but stands well so can be picked into early spring. Smallish dark-green buttons with a sweet flavour. My preferred variety.

Napoleon F1
A later, hardier variety that takes between 30 and 36 weeks to mature so it won’t be ready until after Christmas. Very strong-stemmed.

Purple Sprouting
Can be killed off in severe winters, but is useful because it can be picked in March and April after most other winter brassicas. It has a superb flavour.

‘Red Arrow’ AGM
This crops between late-February and April, if sown in late-March or April so it’s the most useful.

The New Petit Posy
This is hybrid between a Brussels sprout and a kale and that gives this brassica the hardiness of a kale and the growth habit of kale. The buttons consists of frilly foliage, but these are delicious to eat, with a mild flavour and they stay on the stems for months - so there is a long picking window. Do not sow too early: March or April are best.

Winter cabbage

A real winter standby which can be cut in severe weather.

‘Marabel’ F1 AGM
A January King improvement, with a dense small rounded head of grey-green red-tinted leaves.

‘Resolution’ F1
A new British-bred mid-season Savoy for mid October - mid December harvesting. Mid-green and attractive with solid round head.

Read our guide to growing winter cabbage

Leeks

Invaluable as they can be cooked as a vegetable or used as an onion substitute in casseroles. Leeks should be planted out in May, but will do most of their bulking up in September.

Use 5 x 8 modular trays, put one or two seeds in each space. Keep them cool, at the back of a greenhouse ideally, to prevent bolting (running to seed prematurely).

Once they are the height of a pencil, although they may be more slender, drop them into holes made with a dibber.

Top up the hole with water and allow the leek to grow in the hole.

Continue to water in this way whenever dry weather occurs in the first month after planting. Once they look established leave them to their own devices.

Lift as you need them, using a fork, as they are best eaten very fresh. They will not store.

If a leek bolts, snap off the stem.

You can earth them up to blanch more stem.

‘Oarsman’ AGM
A smooth-skinned, maincrop F1 hybrid leek that’s much kinder on the stomach than the thickly textured, cellulose-packed ‘Musselburgh’. Long, sleek shanks that cook sweetly.

‘Carlton’ AGM
An earlier F1 variety producing mid to dark-green flags, but ‘Carlton’ bolts more easily some -so not for dry gardens.

Read our guide to growing leeks

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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