Jo Arnell heads to the veg patch to prep for an autumn harvest
If you have some space in the vegetable garden – or if you’ve been thinking about growing vegetables but haven’t got round to it yet – there are still lots of edibles that can be sown now for harvests in the early autumn and the winter. Some of these are satisfyingly speedy and will be ready to eat in a matter of weeks, while the slower growing will become a living winter larder, providing a supply of nutritious roots and leaves to pick once the summer is over.
Spring sown crops face a barrage of challenges – growth is strong, but the weather can be unreliable and there are so many pests and weeds around that it can be a battle trying to protect tiny seedlings from being overwhelmed. Starting again in the summer (or just starting) brings its own challenges – the weather is often hot and dry and you may be on holiday for part of the time, but it can be more successful. Some vegetables – Florence fennel for example – are supposed to be sown after the solstice and the slower rate of growth after that midsummer moment may mean that crops like beetroot, rocket and spinach won’t rush to flower and set seed.
Salad leaves, especially the cut and come again mixes you can buy, will be ready to eat within 3 or 4 weeks. If you pick the outer leaves each time, you’ll be able to keep the crop going for the rest of the summer. Later in the season rocket and spicy mustard mixes are good – these tend to bolt (run to seed) when sown earlier in the year. You can buy stir fry seed combinations for plot-to-wok moments – pak choi, tatsoi, choi sum, Chinese cabbage and mizuna are quick and easy – and will happily grow in containers too.
Dwarf beans are faster to grow than climbing varieties, because they don’t have to climb a pole before making pods – you should be able to harvest climbing beans within 10-12 weeks of sowing. They are a tender crop, so July is the last month for sowing to be sure of avoiding an early frost.
Mange tout and sugar snaps will be speedier to grow than peas, as it is the whole pod that is eaten while the peas inside are tiny. They will need supports to scramble up – either twiggy pea sticks, or canes with netting. They should be ready to pick in around 9-10 weeks.
Tiny turnips, mini carrots and radishes make great patio crops – they don’t take up much room and carrots especially may be better grown in containers to avoid them being attacked by carrot fly. This pesky little beast lays its eggs at the base of the plant and the larvae burrow down into the carrot roots, riddling them with holes. Luckily it only flies about 2 feet above the ground, so raising your crop – in a container or raised bed, is usually enough to put them off.
Tiny turnips, as opposed to the larger, woodier types beloved by Baldrick, are great for slicing into stir fries and adding to the first autumn casseroles. I’m not often tempted by turnips, but have sometimes grown one called ‘Snowball’ and can recommended a variety called ‘Sweetball’ that can be grated into salads and slaws. It is also not too late to sow the larger ones for autumn and early winter harvests.
Kohl rabi looks like a root, but is actually a swollen stem, growing just above the ground and is really quick and easy to grow. It is often sown – like radishes, as a ‘catch crop’ in between rows of slower maturing vegetables like parsnips or leeks. It can be eaten as a side dish on its own, sliced into stir fries, grated with carrot to make a coleslaw, or added to a casserole. It tastes like broccoli stalks.
Autumn and winter crops
Resilient and steadfast, packed with vitamins and phytonutrients, the dark green leaves of cavolo nero (black kale) look beautiful, especially dusted with frost in the winter – just looking at them does you good. There are several striking varieties of kale, all robust and ready for Siberian conditions. ‘Red Russian’ is another handsome variety, then there’s the shorter, frillier and equally nutritious ‘Redbor’. They can be harvested in the autumn, but the leaves start to taste sweeter once there’s been a frost. Kale will keep going all through the winter, but it may need to be netted – against caterpillars and whitefly in the summer and pesky pigeons in the winter.
Chard is another fine looking leafy crop, maybe even more beautiful than kale. Swiss chard is probably the best variety to grow for flavour, but there are some fabulously colourful chards around too, which are ornamental enough to grow in the flower borders. Chard ‘Bright Lights’ contains a mix with red, orange and yellow stems and there’s a magnificent variety called ‘Pink Flamingo’ that looks too good to eat. Chard leaves have an earthy taste due to a compound called geosmin, which is also found in beetroot. Use it as you would spinach. Small young leaves can be added to salad mixes, the stems of bigger plants chopped and added to stir fries. Cook larger leaves as you would spinach.
True spinach is unrelated to chard, but the perpetual variety is actually spinach beet, which is similar. It is another excellent leafy crop to grow through the autumn and winter. True spinach especially is much better grown either side of the summer months. Like some other leafy veg – pak choi, rocket, mustards etc – it is a cool season plant and will bolt in hot, dry weather. Repeat sow young leafy varieties for an extended supply – it seems to take a lot of leaves for just one serving, as they melt to nothing once cooked. Use the young leaves in salads, and lightly steam the larger, older leaves.
Preparing the ground
If you’ve started to harvest your summer crops and have cleared some space where they were growing, add some organic matter prior to planting out anything new. Vegetables, especially those in the brassica family (cabbage, kale etc) are greedy plants and nutrients may have been depleted by previous crops. If you are preparing the ground for the first time, be ready for a rush of weed seedlings to emerge – when you dig over the soil – especially for the first time, you will bring weed seeds up to the surface. If possible let these germinate first before planting out your new crops.
It is good to sow vegetables in rows – not just because it looks tidy and smart, but for ease when harvesting and also so that you can tell the seedlings apart from the weedlings and be able to hoe in between the rows.
A large expanse of just one crop may attract pests – they can often detect a food source by scent too – apparently carrot flies can smell carrots from a distance of two miles! Interplant with herbs, hardy annuals and companion plants to confuse them and to bring in pollinators and pest controllers.
Water seedlings and young plants to establish, but after that, unless we are in a period of drought, or you’re growing crops that make pods or fruits – beans, squash, sweetcorn – you should not need to water on a regular basis. Plants should be able to find their own water once they have developed a good strong network of roots. Adding organic matter (but not to carrots or parsnips – they don’t like rich soil) will help the soil to retain water and it will also ensure that the soil is rich in microbes, which live in symbiosis with the roots of plants, helping them to access nutrients and water.
It is seldom plain sailing where edibles are concerned, but sowing once the mad spring rush is over has advantages. Crops will still need protecting from pests, but the soil is still warm, there is a window of mild weather – often lasting until October or November and, as we move from summer into autumn, the ravening hordes of pests begin to slow down and the weeds aren’t quite as invasive. Growth is slower, but fed, watered and nurtured, bountiful harvests can continue for months to come. It is definitely not too late to grow some vegetables.
Join Jo for Garden Design courses at her garden in Woodchurch 07923 969634 hornbrookmanor.co.uk
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