It isn’t easy gardening in winter, let alone on Dartmoor. The UK, with its distinct seasons, offers a challenge to keeping a year round vegetable supply. By late autumn, it feels as if there is nothing left to harvest after the near glut in summer. Even in spring, as plants are beginning to grow, there are too few things ready to harvest. We’ve had to learn about what to grow and when, protecting our vegetables, and making use of different vegetable varieties to fill empty spaces in the garden.
So far, the new and improved raised beds, which Roger built this past spring, complete with their chicken wire surround to keep out pesky critters, are working a treat. We have been feasting the past few months on kale, beets, spinach, winter purslane, radishes, and land cress. The rainbow chard is beginning to look pickable and our spring cabbages are blossoming out to a respectable size. Our progress comes as a huge satisfaction.
Growing for winter is truly a year-round job. It begins in the summer when we must resist being seduced by the bounty of veg we gather at that time, staying focused on the leaner months of autumn and winter to follow. By October, light levels are low, affecting the speed of germination. Add in a healthy dose of wind, rain and cold, which begin to dominate the weather forecast, and it is tempting to throw in the trowel. As is our style, we ignore all the obvious discouraging signs and charge ahead.
We’ve never had much luck with leeks, and so didn’t bother this year. But now, I’m regretting having not given leeks, garlic and more onions a spot in our winter beds. In reading up on these edible alliums, I discover that garlic actually needs a period of cold and so wants, nay begs, to be in the ground and growing well before the arrival of winter. I will need to make a note for next year in my little black book.
We have a forecast of snow for later today, so Roger has just put on his waterproofs and headed out to cover the beds with horticultural fleece. Most days this autumn and winter have been easy for us to tend to the garden. But this week it feels like wind, rain, freezing temperatures, rabbits, slugs, and a host of other challenges are joining hands to welcome us each time we go out to pick some lettuce. I have half a mind to forego our Five-A-Day.
Despite all the challenges, lettuce does well through the winter as does spinach, which actually is easier to grow in winter than in summer because it doesn’t go to seed so quickly. We are always thinking about what to grow and whether or not to bother. I don’t have any interest in growing peas and beans, they aren’t suited to our location. Nor, do I have any interest in Brussel Sprouts. Despite how much I love them, they take up too much space in the garden.
Winter gardening also involves planning for the spring. While sitting by the fire with the snow coming down, thoughts drift to: What will we repeat? What will we try new? What will we completely abandon? Two years of aubergines and we aren’t going to bother again. They grow, they flower, and then nothing. It’s best to learn from mistakes and build on our successes. With that in mind, Roger has purchased several fruit bushes which do well in acidic soil. Where to plant these is yet to be decided, but we will need to get them in the ground soon. Of course, my make shift bird netting for the blueberry bushes will no longer do, so we are discussing how to go about building a fruit cage which will be easy to access and yet not blow over in some of the strong winds we get in our moorland valley. Despite this new challenge, which we brought on ourselves, we are both looking forward to growing more fruit.
While the rain hammered down this morning, I was dry inside the greenhouse giving it some attention by tipping out pots with finished plants from the summer, pulling weeds which are making their home inside the greenhouse, watering the strawberry plants, and giving it a good sweep. In the early spring, we’ll take everything out and clean the glass and give the floor a scrub to rid it of moss and mould, but there’s no point doing this in winter.
With our winter garden, it’s vegementary, really. It’s all down to the planning. Typically, we have big gaps form March through May and in the past, November onwards. Not this year! We gave some thought to how we were going to rotate our crops in the raised beds and when we needed to plant things out for winter. Because there are any number of things that can go wrong: Some leafy crops are prone to bolting; caterpillars seek out and find cabbages; there’s club root, flea beetles, birds, slugs, snails, whitefly, and heavy rains, and strong winds. It’s apocalyptic! But the stuff that survives, thrives and provides, delights us. Really, we just try a few things, see what works and then repeat.