Winter growing: it’s time to plan and sow

August (and early September) is the time to plan and start sowing seeds for your winter crops. If you haven’t grown in winter before, here are three reasons to give it a go!

  1. Harvesting food from your small space in the coldest months is hugely rewarding – and some leaves actually taste better when grown in winter.
  2. Empty pots can look a bit bleak and sad. But filled with leaves they can brighter and more cheerful.
  3. The plants’ roots will help prevent nutrients running out of the soil over winter.
Some protection like a cloche (I found this perspex lid in a skip!) will help your plants survive in the snow. Many will survive without, depending on how cold your winter gets, of course. This was taken during 2010, a cold winter in London - and nearly all the crops that weren't covered, the kale and mooli etc, survived OK.

Some protection like a cloche (I found this perspex lid in a skip) will help your plants survive in the cold. Some corps will survive fine without cover, depending on how cold your winter gets, of course. This photo was taken during 2010, a cold winter in London – and nearly all the crops that weren’t covered, the kale and mooli etc, also survived OK.

When do you need to start?

For successful winter growing, most seeds need to be sown in late summer / early autumn. This is because the plants need to be well established by the time cold weather arrives. Small plants will be more fragile and more easily killed by frost. The suggested sowing dates below are a rough guide only for the northern hemisphere – in colder parts you might need to sow a little earlier, in warmer parts you might get away with a little later if the winter is mild.

Cavelo nero, mooli, and red giant leaves in November - established enough to survive a cold snap.

Cavelo nero, mooli, green in the snow and red giant leaves on my balcony in November – established enough to survive a cold snap

How much can you actually harvest during winter?

You’ll get good harvests of leaves in late autumn. Growth during the coldest months may stop or be be very slow. But, if you pick carefully (just a few leaves from each plant), you’ll find you can still eat occasional fresh salads or stir fries in December and January. Another big plus is that your winter plants will have a head start in the early spring. With a root system firmly established they will put on fast and strong growth as soon as the weather warms. This will give you a good supply of leaves much earlier than if you start from seed in the spring.

Winter salads

The easiest, fastest growing (relatively speaking!) and most productive crops you can grow in winter are salad leaves. There’s a wide choice, including:

  • Land cress: has a strong, assertive flavour, a little like water cress. Sow by late August / early September for winter leaves – it’s perennial so will produce leaves all year round.
  • Winter purslane or claytonia: a succulent winter leaf, packed with vitamin C. Attractive round leaves, that also produce pretty and very unusual white flowers in the spring. Sow late August / early September.
  • Pea and broad bean shoots: one of the fastest growing and easiest crops to grow in winter. Sow up to the  end of October / Early Nov for Dec / Jan harvest.
  • Lambs lettuce: mild flavoured leaf – a good contrast to some of the stronger ones. Sow late August / early September.
  • Winter lettuces – some varieties are hardy enough to survive winter – arrowhead lettuce is one good variety to try. Sow in August or early September.
  • Rocket – good winter crop – and less prone to bolting than in the summer. Sow in  late August or September.
  • Asian leaves including: mustard red giant, green in the snow, and mizuna. Sow in late August or early September).
  • Sorrel: strong, lemony leaf, lovely in salads in small quantities. Sow in August for winter leaves. This is another perennial that will produce leaves year round once established).
A selection of winter salads - many taste particularly full flavoured in winter (perhaps because they grow slower?)

A selection of winter salads including sorrel, winter lettuces and winter purslane – many taste particularly full flavoured in winter (perhaps because they grow slower?)

Other winter leaves

  • Cavelo nero – tall and stately, this can look great in containers, and the leaves are actually more tender and tasty after a frost. The big leaves are  best cooked, but smaller leaves can also be used in salads.
  • Kale – home grown kale can be tender and tasty, well worth experimenting with – I’m currently trying a heritage variety called asparagus kale.
  • Bright lights chard – a bright and cheerful winter crop – and one that often recovers to grow very well in the early spring.
  • Spinach – is less prone to bolting if grown at this time of year. Sow in August.
  • Coriander – coriander does surprisingly well in cold weather, I’ve had my best crops from early September sowings. It doesn’t bolt at this time of year – and although it goes nearly dormant in the coldest months,it usually comes back strong in the early spring.
Cavelo nero can look very fine in containers in winter. And it seems to be very hardy - I've had mine buried for a few days under snow several times!

Cavelo nero can look very fine in containers in winter. And it seems to be very hardy – I’ve had mine buried for a few days under snow several times!

Root crops

  • Mooli: a large white radish – you can eat the leaves as well as the root. Sow in late August.
  • Turnips: sow in August for late autmn / early winter crop – eat the leaves as well!

 

What’s your favourite winter crop? 

 

 

9 comments… add one

  • Slugs and snails haven’t been a problem for me because the deck is too hot for them to travel onto. But I haven’t figured out what to do about white butterfly/ caterpillar attacks on cabbage and kale plants. They take those types of vegetables down fast. Any natural suggestions?

    Reply
  • I too have been plagued with slugs and also by the caterpillars of the tomato moth and cabbage white butterflies.I gave up on brassicas but saved my lettuce by watering around with coffee grounds and using crushed egg shells as I don’t like pellets.So far the lettuce have been well protected.

    Reply
  • Your Newsletter arrived at just the right time Mark. I have been wondering if it is worth trying to sow any more this year. We have had so many Slugs that I have felt like giving up sometimes ! Are there any veg Slugs don’t eat ? I must try growing Kale and Turnips. My Swede, Spinach and Chard are struggling to survive at the moment. I will try starting them off in the Greenhouse next year. I will sow some of your suggested seeds. Many thanks for your wonderful Newsletter. Marion

    Reply
    • Hi Marion

      What sort of space are you growing in Marion? I find the easiest way to deal with slugs is to go round the containers at night before bed and just collect them all up. I got lazy about this this year and they got a bit out of hand for me, too, but I’ve just started doing it again and order is being restored!

      Slugs like the seedlings of nearly all veg (so its a good idea to protect them with mini cloches eg plastic drink bottles cut in half and to be particular vigilant about slug patrols at this time). But once the plants are larger the impact they make is less. Once crops are bigger they do seem to prefer leafy crops like lettuce and chard to most others – they don’t seem to do much damage to my tomato or courgette plants for example. They also love baby runner beans, but can’t making much impression now that the beans are over six feet tall!

      Slugs are, however, quite partial to most of the winter crops I mention…. However as long as you nurture the seedlings carefully, do some slug patrols, and protect the seedlings with cloches if you can, I reckon that sowing more now is well worth a try. Also, most slugs and snails will die off or hibernate later in the autumn.

      Hope this helps

      Mark

      PS nematodes are a good fallback option if the slug problem persists next year.

      Reply
    • Ah! tell me about snails and slugs…..my first sowing of spinach did well very early but the second and third didn’t get a look in…..I’ve had another go and turnips too but honestly…..I know you have to give some back to nature but I’m not getting anything! I think it’s going to be chemical warfare!!

      Reply
  • Quick question, what do you do about watering and the soil freezing in the container. Or is this negligible?

    Reply
    • Hi Shirly
      Good question! I expect it will depend quite a lot on the severity of the climate where you live and what sort of winter we get. Here’s a few things I learnt from my experience of growing in winter in London.
      Bigger pots are less prone to freeze than smaller ones. Also pots that are exposed are more likely to freeze – so protect them from wind (eg put behind a sheltered wall) if this is possible.
      It’s important to keep plants watered throughout winter – but try to avoid watering heavily just before freezing weather is predicted. A very wet pot that freezes will do a lot more damage to plants than one that is drier.
      Wooden and terracotta pots provide better insulation than plastic or metal. I’ve heard of people who wrap plastic or metal pots in bubble wrap or old clothes to improve the insulation although I’ve never done this myself.
      I hope this helps?
      Mark

      Reply
  • I’m growing outside and in containers. On my balcony last year I was still harvesting tomatoes in December! This year, as I harvest my summer crops I’ve been filling the gaps in my little plot with cavolo nero, kale, and sorrel and broadcasting salad seeds everywhere.

    Reply
  • I’ve never even thought about planting out any vegs for a winter crop. Might give it a good go this year and get some beans and peas in at least. I really love to pick them and eat them so fresh.
    I have a feeling we will have a very warm late summer in the UK this year. Lets face it so far its done nothing but rain for most of us ( Im in the north west) so I hope we do see some autumn sunshine. My favorite time of year too.
    I had never heard of cavela nero.. must give it a go as it looks so lovely too.
    Thanks for the post Mark :-)

    Reply

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