The often-overlooked pleasures of winter vegetable gardening
A Cape winter vegetable patch offers slow, green growth and quiet miracles and a lushness that the rest of the garden lacks at this time of year. Along with brassicas, roots, legumes and leaf crops, it provides enticement to be outside, enjoying the occasional, gifted sunny days, in an otherwise indoor season. And it has none of summer’s incessant demands for the hose and sprinkler: the Cape rains that used to inconvenience me now fill me with gratitude for the free watering service they provide.
And in a supermarket society where seasonality is largely forgotten (along with the environmental costs that have made such profusion possible), the best way to learn how to appreciate food, to renew our connection to what we eat, is to grow some of our own. In doing so, we discover the rhythms of the seasons, celebrate the simple yet miraculous processes of life, learn restraint and patience in a world of instant gratification, and find new appreciation in the natural abundance our gentle climate provides, year round.
As in summer, winter vegetable beds need three things: good soil, lots of sun, and water. In the Cape, the rainfall takes care of the latter (although I did reel out the hose once or twice last winter, when it was unusually dry).
Good soil comes from the addition of compost or rotting vegetable matter, which in turn encourage good microbes and happy earthworms. Soil for Life’s “Grow to Live” and Jane Griffiths’ “Jane’s Delicious Garden” can give you lots of direction on building healthy soil.
Sun is a little harder to negotiate, especially in an urban environment where houses and walls can block out direct sunlight. You need to work with what you have: I garden under a deciduous tree, which gives me the ideal 6 hours of sun in winter, and in the summer months, I grow tender lettuces and herbs in semi-shade, and squeeze tomatoes and cucumbers into sunny pots lining my driveway.
Plants are terribly forgiving (they yearn to survive, even more than you want them to!), but the basic rule is: you need to have three out of three necessary conditions for vegetable plants to flourish, and will get little or even no crop without all three. I have tried in different homes and situations to grow with two out of three; aside from tough leaf crops (chard, spinach, lettuce) veggies can’t be grown with less than three hours of direct sun a day, all vegetables need water, and poor soil grows poor vegetables.
If you have limited space, as most home gardeners do, I recommend planting each crop in squares of ground, rather than long lines. You tend to fit more in, the beds look fuller and lush, and tending and harvesting is easier. Map out your beds in squares and rectangles of varying sizes, from 30x30cm through to 60x40cm beds for larger crops, and plant each type of seed or seedling equidistantly over the designated square, according to the spacing directions on the back of the seed packet (or in your gardening book). If you still yearn for soldier-straight lines somewhere, edge the whole bed with pansies, or spring onions (which are quite soldierly in demeanor).
Root crops (carrots, beetroot, radishes, turnips) thrive and are particularly sweet-tasting in winter, as are leeks and onions. Brassicas (broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower) also do best in the milder months. Leaf crops, such as lettuce, chard, spinach and Asian greens, do relatively well, too. Of the legumes, peas and broad beans (also known as lima beans) are winter crops. Unfortunately for tomato lovers, the ‘fruit’ crops (tomatoes, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and brinjals) belong firmly in a summer garden.
The usual planting time for a winter garden is April/May, but in frost free areas, most winter crops can be planted throughout, especially if you use seedlings to get a head-start.
Thanks to Kate for this nugget on winter veggie gardening. Read her thoughts on heirloom veggies and where to get seeds and seedlings around South Africa. We look forward to hearing more from this veritable foodie, as the season turns and spring planting begins.
Images taken by Kate, and from Ambro.