Winter hardship is mostly a figment of our imagination. Like, when was the last time you funnelled cold water down a rain jacket and into your underpants? Oh yesterday....well sure, but it doesn't happen often, does it? Oh, it does. Ok, well sure there may be some exceptions, but for the most part winter is more of a mental barrier into the garden than a physical one. It's a time when you find yourself pulling back and settling into domestic comfort, and perhaps having conversations with your imaginary winter garden psyche. Yep, winter can be one big mental block that creates inaction where it counts.
But thankfully the cool season in Australia, by relative terms, is actually pretty balmy for the most part and some vegetables don’t mind a little crispness in the air. Our climate means that at any moment - right now for example - you can pick up a container, fill it up with good quality potting mix and plonk in a few salad greens. A month later and you’re picking salads fresh, rather than from a plastic bucket at the supermarket. Root vegetables actually develop their flavour in the winter air. Frosty nights and cool crisp days help to convert starches into sugars, turning what would otherwise be earthy lumps of nutrition, into sweet tasting earthy lumps of nutrition.
Winter is really the only time of the year when the garden actually hits that mode of cruise control. When quite literally there is little watering or pests to bother with because nature and your thoughtful garden infrastructure are playing pivotal roles. That time is now.
So while we may stop and baulk at the idea of trudging out into the garden, the food chain does not, and there’s always something to grow and do in the winter garden.
What to plant now - Red Mizuna
Red Mizuna is a winter pro, and grows without fuss now. At a time when the cold can be a formidable opponent for any new edible plant, the winter thermostat seems to suit it. So even in July, an opportunity still exists for growing this vegetable. It has a sharp mustard bite combined with a hint of sorrel zest, these two qualities intensifying as the plant matures. Generally the younger the foliage, the more subtle the flavourings.
Maybe the best quality of red mizuna is its longevity. If we happened to live in a perpetual winter this plant would thrive all year round. Unfortunately, spring and summer are inevitable. As soon as the thermostat is lifted its natural tendency is to go to seed and form flower heads. Picking them off as they appear will keep production rolling, and this battle can be fought for many a month, but in the end it will be lost. It is the first time we blame warm nights and sunny days for ruin.
In addition to Red Mizuna, we find ourselves plonking in a host of other greens. They include;
- Sorrel (English and Red Veined)
- Mustard Greens
- Spinach (English, Baby and Perpetual)
- Wasabi Greens
Along with leafy greens, we also make room for some root vegetables that should be ready to harvest in time for spring planting, those include;
- Kohl Rabi (technically an elongated stem, but who's counting)
And of course, now is a great time to plant spring onions and celery. These varieties are what we consider grazing and sacrificial vegetables - ready and available at any moment of calling, and willing to make way when spring realigns our priorities.
Make sure that when planting now some protection from the overnight cold will be appreciated and will help plants nestle into the cool environment. Try creating a mini poly tunnel or even some bottomless plastic bottles over individual seedlings. Anything to help break the cold and warm things up a little.
Young seedlings will be a real treat for your neighbourhood possum or rat in their time of need, so set up netting as insurance. You shouldn't need to worry about the white cabbage moth in the cooler parts of the country, but in warmer areas they will still be prevalent, so netting will take care of them too.
Once planted, mulching may seem superfluous for retaining moisture, but it still acts as a protective blanket for your soil, keeping temperatures consistent and prohibiting weeds that thrive now. Don't forget to tick this box.
Foraging for edible weeds is easy come winter time. It’s when a lot are at their most prolific, and you can find any number of weeds growing wild and plentiful. It always surprises us how many ‘weeds’ are in fact edible. Last week we noticed a woman harvesting some greens in front of our St. Kilda East nursery and assumed it was the chickweed (see below). Rather it was Milk Thistle, that we're told is best sautéed. Apparently a real treat in her native Papua New Guinea.
The lady was bypassing the chickweed, which in our parts is more commonly cursed than found simmered in a pot. However when you've throw enough of it in the compost pile, try pureeing cooked chickweed to make the most delicious winter soup that money really cannot buy (have you tried buying it?). It also works great as a fresh salad green.
You’ll also see a lot of stinging nettle popping up around town. A sign of high nitrogen levels in the soil it is also a food source in its own right. Cooking them will take away the sting, making it a great substitute for spinach. If food is not what you’re after, try making a compost tea which can then be used as a plant tonic. Simply infused the foliage in a tub of water - weighing them down so they are properly submerged - and in a couple of weeks the water will be a nutrient rich drink for your garden.
Planning for spring
If there is one thing we gardeners are guilty of it’s obsessing over the weather. So as we enter the toughest of winter months it makes absolute sense to obsess about the weather than lies just beyond it - yes that’s right - the encroaching spring! As far as we’re concerned, planning should start now.
Whether you have a garden full of thriving winter veg, or whether it lays sad and dormant (awaiting the spring comeback), we can start to assess when real estate will become vacant and what to replace it with, circa September. Start ordering your seeds (go on, do it) and mapping out a layout. Channel the spring psyche and winter won’t be so bad.
There is a hierarchy in the spring crops, regarding their demands for heat and warmth, and typically we reserve the best spaces for those that sit at the top. For that reason the nightshades - tomatoes, chillies, capsicum and eggplant - are always allocated the best positions, followed by the second tier legumes and gourds. Salads and root veg round up the tail, but as they enjoy a little protection partially shaded spots will suit them just fine and no one is complaining.
We also consider some no brainer crop rotations. While this is another principle that we have borrowed from our farming practices - along with companion planting - it is a little more relevant in the small space garden where we should exploit every trick at our disposal. It helps to alleviate the need for fertilising and also maximises what the plant gives you back in return.
So to be smart come spring, it means avoid planting hungry nightshades where equally hungry brassicas have just depleted the soil. Follow brassicas with summer beans, and let your nightshades follow where you have just grown broad beans. Crop rotation also helps to prevent diseases such as root knot nematodes, as well as giving you a lot of patch credibility. That, in a lot of ways, is what gardening in winter is all about.