Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Maximising the growing season: strategies

On the menu this year: season extenders
We're still doing well with vegetable variety at this time of year, but at these latitudes April and May are often 'lean' months in the homegrown produce department. However, our vegetable supplies are getting more plentiful and varied each year, thanks to the following:
  • Sowing late and overwintering
  • Starting early with quick-growing crops and planting out into the polytunnel
  • Growing more and different varieties of crops that will happily stand outside over winter
  • Growing more of crops that store well
  • Growing perennial vegetables

Overwintering crops

Broad beans sown in late October
After a lot of experimentation, we've decided to concentrate on crops that can overwinter outside in our mild winters, such as broad beans and field beans. We're also going to focus on spring brassicas, not just purple-sprouting broccoli and spring cabbage, but also spring-cropping cauliflower and romanesco. These are just so easy: sow direct in early summer, transplant when they've reached critical mass and then leave until they're needed (weeding occasionally, of course).

Fresh salad - a real boon in winter
The other crops that work well over winter are spring onions, lettuce and other hardy salad leaves, such as rocket, claytonia, land cress, lamb's lettuce, tatsoi and celtuce. Here they even work outside if sown in late August and we're planning to fill up any empty raised bed space with salad this year. The hardy lettuces (Winter Density, Merveille de Quatre Saisons, Valdor) will be housed in polytunnel where we've had great rocket crops this winter. The salad leaves work outside here, but they do prefer to be out of the wind!

As for other veg that could be overwintered, such as beetroot and peas, it seems a bit of a waste of seeds. The plants that survive cold conditions and slug attack only have a marginal start over the ones sown at the beginning of February. There is just too little daylight over the winter for the seedlings to grow much. So a better bet seems to get started early.

Early quick-growing crops

Golden pak choi
Before we had the polytunnel we used mini-tunnels (hoops with a plastic sheeting over the raised beds) or cloches, but now we have a lot more space to play with. My favourite quick-growing spring crop is pak choi. This year we are growing both purple and golden varieties. Another good oriental leaf is komatsuna. We're also trying a hardy & early (a highly desirable combination of seed attributes around here) beetroot called 'Early Wonder' and a carrot called 'Snow White'. And to see whether the tunnel will speed things along, there are a few test plants of peas 'Douce Provence' and broad bean 'Aguadulce'. Most of these crops will have to be out of be out of the polytunnel before the tomatoes move in - which is why salad leaves work so well.

More winter crop variety

Versatile kale
A lot of crops will happily spend the winter outside here: brassicas, chard, celeriacs, leeks and swedes, for example. Since hard frosts are rare, we can also just dig up parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and oca as needed. So the plan is to grow more of most of these and to grow different varieties of some. Kale is a good example. To me, a curly Scotch kale and Nero di Toscana are like two different vegetables. That's why we are going to grow four different varieties of kale this year. In the case of leeks and Brussels sprouts, we are going to grow three different varieties each, one early, one maincrop and one late, to max out the harvesting period.

Storing more

More garlic stores needed
We also want to lay in bigger stores of onions, garlic, potatoes and squashes. The last squash made it to mid-February, but we would have kept even longer. Last year we managed a seamless transition of potatoes from main crop to earlies, when we had enough potatoes to last us until early May and then frozen homemade chips until the first new potatoes were ready in early July. That is the gold standard we aim for. However, last year we had potato blight and our potato stores are going to run at the end of this month. This year we're growing more maincrop potatoes to compensate for potential blight problems.


One of the many great things about perennial veg is that they just get going by themselves and if the weather is mild, they start early. We're already eating Egyptian onions now and the first rhubarb of the season is not far off.

Right, time to get sowing some early crops!

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