Did you think it was all over in the vegetable garden for the year? That you could harvest your spring sowings, clear the patch and then relax? I have some news. Whether it’s good or bad depends on how you feel about getting stuck into a little gardening. If you’re sitting back relaxing in your deck chair at the moment (something mad dogs and gardeners find quite hard to do), just imagine for a moment being able to pick fresh salad and vegetables from your garden until the winter – and beyond. Spending a little effort now could bring rewards for months to come, so here are some quick and easy crops to sow now:
Salad leaves… Some lettuces and leafy things like spinach are quick to bolt in hot dry weather, so it’s worth getting into the habit of sowing little and often to ensure you have a good supply. It can take as little as three weeks to grow some salad leaves, especially now that the soil is warm and welcoming (although lettuce prefers to germinate in coolish conditions). Sow in succession by using guttering pipes (get them from the DIY store – don’t use the ones on your house), then you can have a row of seedlings waiting to slide into position once the previous crop has finished.
Now is a good time to sort through your seed packets and mix and match a salad from what you’ve got lurking around. Traditionally a mesclun (originating in Provence and literally meaning a ‘mix’) is a combination of chervil, endive, lettuce and rocket. But it’s fun to make up your own mix; you could try the young leaves of Swiss chard, spinach, kale, mustards, sorrel, and herbs to liven up the lettuce..
Salad leaves will happily grow in containers – grow them outside the back door as a practical and tasty alternative to summer bedding (mix in some edible flowers if you need it extra jolly). Treat them as cut and come again, rather than pulling them up when you’re harvesting; try to take the outer leaves each time and they should go on cropping for weeks.
If your family hasn’t had enough of salad by the autumn, there are quite a few winter hardy lettuce varieties available to sow this month. Most are the butterhead type and have romantic names like: ‘Merville de Quatre Saison’, ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ and ‘Arctic King’. It’s impressive to be growing lettuce in the winter – possibly equally impressive to be eating it on a cold day in November.
French beans… If you’re quick you might be able to get in a crop of either climbing or (faster to produce pods, but a bit less prolific) dwarf French beans. Sow them directly into the ground and within around 10 weeks you could be harvesting some slim and tender beans. It can be like playing Russian roulette at this time of the year, as occasionally an early frost comes and does for the crop in late September, but we’ve been having some mellow autumns recently, and if you’re keen on beans (I’m a reckless bean gambler), it could be worth the risk.
Brassicas… Kohlrabi is about the quickest brassica to grow and it’s very easy too, despite looking and sounding exotic. You eat the swollen stem, which looks like a golf ball and tastes like a broccoli stalk. I really like it, but then I like broccoli stalks. Quick heading broccoli will make (slightly smaller and slimmer) heads in half the time of normal calabrese (what the shops call broccoli). There’s a good chance the heads will form in the autumn, but, depending on the weather, they may leave off ‘heading up’ until the spring. Either way you’ll avoid a dreaded boiled caterpillar moment when you cook it, as most of the pests (that normally swamp brassicas in the summer and hide unnoticed among the florets until it’s too late – for everybody) will have gone to ground for the winter.
Best of both… There are some exceedingly obliging crops that can be salad leaves when young in late summer and then go on to be more substantial vegetable side dishes later on in the autumn and winter. Spinach, kale, pak choi and Swiss chard are particularly useful. If you only sow one of these, try kale, as it’s very good for you, doesn’t taste bitter (despite what you might suspect from such a worthy, tough looking plant) and will sit there ready to pick and add to soups, pasta dishes, casseroles, whatever, through the most Siberian of winters.Spring onions… There’s a good quick variety that can be sown all through the year called ‘White Lisbon’, but early August is probably the very latest time to sow them in time for them to become pencil thick. They are hardy though, so will wait out the winter if they haven’t bulked up.
Herbs… Chervil, coriander and parsley can be sown now for autumn and winter harvesting. They’re really easy to grow and if protected by a cloche (or grown in pots inside) will tolerate the cold. Once you get into the habit of sowing a few herbs now and then it’s very satisfying to be able to just nip outside and snip off the amount you need fresh each time, instead of relying on dried or expensive shop bought herbs.
Spring harvests… Some fast growing varieties of cauliflower and spring cabbages can be sown now. I find cauliflower tricky on my light sandy soil, as it likes heavier conditions and is very greedy, but I can usually manage a cabbage or two. The sweetest young cabbages are those that are harvested in the spring, either as thinnings (spring greens) or squeaky leaved, pointy young cabbages like ‘Duncan’ or ‘Durham Early’. These aren’t exactly salad crops, but they’re very useful for harvesting during ‘the hungry gap’ (when the winter vegetables are over and before the early summer ones are ready). Net them against pesky pigeons through the winter though.
There’s nearly as much to sow in the late summer and early autumn as there is in the spring – if you can find the space in the garden for it (and the energy to get sowing again), that is. I quite like growing things at this time of the year; the mad rush is over and the pests aren’t so rampant. There can be solace in it too, especially if things have gone wrong with the summer harvests – you can just pull out all the failures and start again. So come on, let’s get (back) out there.
- words: Jo Arnell
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