Warm the cooking pot with veg from a winter garden

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Winter garden with raised beds

Winter gardens benefit from raised beds; keep delicate leaves protected Photo: MMGI / Marianne Majerus

Winter vegetables are the prime reason to venture out into a bitterly cold
garden. Eye-catching rows of sprouts,
leeks

and cabbages
highlighted by the low winter light and frost cannot help but steal the show
with their architectural shapes. They are ornate yet sturdy – and delicious.
At this time of year I love a wide palette of plants to cook with and,
unusually, I often spend more time cooking it than growing it.

Quick, simple and often raw summer fare is replaced with more labour-intensive
stews, risottos and soups which are perked up by different herbs and veg,
roasted, blanched, fried or sautéed.

Winter herbs – especially salad burnet,
thyme,
parsley,
chervil
and coriander
– in copious quantities help transform the mundane to the sublime.

After a manic week, last Saturday I was tempted to sleep all day, but stepping
into the veg garden to do some gentle titivating, my energy levels rocketed
back. It must be the invigorating mix of fresh air and the motivating aspect
of tending plants. Whatever it is, I do know, though, that I have to tempt
myself out initially with a favourite task, but once out there even tedious
jobs become compulsive.

The beauty of raised beds is that I can do most jobs whatever the weather. Now
I am earthing up all my brassicas, I heap piles of compost around their
bases – not only does this help keep them stable, but it’s also a way of
getting more organic matter on the raised beds. It must keep their roots
marginally warmer too, so prolonging growth.

Beware soggy carrot tops (ALAMY)

People often ask me when is the best time to add more compost to raised beds
and they are concerned that after a few years they start to overflow. Apart
from earthing up, I add compost whenever I change a crop. Although carrots
will tend to fork when grown in freshly manured beds, so these are the
exception.

It is not unusual for me to apply a barrow load or even two to a
two-metre-square raised bed; my thin soil eats it up and, so far, after a
good 15 years or so, my raised beds have not bulged over. I am thinking of
raising the height of my beds by a foot or so, but only because I am
experimenting with using woven panels of sweet chestnut laths lined with
black polythene. Sweet chestnut is a durable wood, but I want to find its
limits.

Another question I am often asked concerns the removal of leaves from sprouts:
should you remove the side leaves and/or pinch out the tops? Roger Welbury
from Holme Farm, Boston, is a leading Brussels grower. He says commercially
they remove the tops of plants because that has the effect of making all the
sprouts mature at the same time. This is crucial to the commercial grower as
they are mechanically harvested in one go. At home, though, if you grow a
modern variety such as ‘Maximus’ F1 and do not pinch out the top, you can
prolong the picking of them from September to well into early spring,
negating the need to grow early mid and late varieties.

Leaving the tops of Brussels sprouts on prolong their picking time
(MMGI/MARIANNA MAJERUS)

‘Maximus’ are my favourite; they are sturdy plants and the flavour is
definitely sweeter and less “sprouty” than most older varieties.

I will purée, stir-fry, shred and add them to pasta and salads. They are my
number one brassica. As to removing their side leaves, this can be a good
idea. They have a tendency to shed them, and so when they become yellow and
manky, just pluck them off. This helps air movement through the crop and
stops the spread of disease. I may stake them too, but I don’t begrudge them
this bit of extra time; they are so good for so long. When they have finally
finished in spring, I pick out and eat the tops, throwing the old stalks to
the cattle and sheep.

My main aim in the winter vegetable garden is to keep the soil full of
productive crops (no green manures for me) to prevent the winter rains
washing too much goodness from the soil. I keep celeriac
in as long as possible. The roots will double in weight between
mid-September and the beginning of November. So just before the first hard
frost I will lift them, remove their leaves, leave them to dry for a week in
the greenhouse and then store them in sacks in a cool, dry, dark place. I
will lift my yacóns after the first hard frost; the eating tubers will
slowly dry at room temperature allowing the mild flavour to intensify.

All my root veg otherwise are stored in situ in the ground. The lifting and
clamping business is too onerous.

In a hard winter I will have to use them fast, as exposed tops of beetroots
and carrots can become soggy (some mulch with straw or compost to stop this)
and potatoes
can become slug-ridden after Christmas.

Celeriac are kept in the ground as long as possible (ALAMY)

Most veg are definitely sweeter, though, after a frost: carrots, kales,
parsnips
and sprouts because they increase the sugars in their cells, which act as
antifreeze; with more frosts, sugar levels increase further. Leeks
apparently go dormant during arctic spells then start growing during warm
periods and become sweeter.

It is important to have a warm, sheltered veg garden for you and the plants.
Get some hedges or woven panels in if you need to filter the winds. My French
beans
were still cropping in November this year and as they were
pulled out with the last of the courgettes,
in go the garlic
– this year I am trying ‘Provence Wight’. It has huge cloves, apparently,
and keeps well. I will also be putting in the newish autumn onion setts
‘Tornado’ – this can be planted to mid-November (both from Thompson
& Morgan
).

For the broad beans, though, I will wait until February, and I can be sure
that sowings of ‘De Monica’ will overtake a slower, autumn-sown variety.

In this mild weather my beds are burgeoning with leaves of all kinds,
watercress, spinach,
lettuces
,
young
kale
, rockets
and chards,
but I will also plunge in bulbs,
tulips
and alliums,
as well as the odd pocket of wallflowers
to brighten up the spring larder.

Buy vegetables
from Telegraph Garden Shop

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