"Winter crops" - My latest blog

There are lots of edibles that grow in winter!
Sunday, 18 July 2021        

Attractive tubs of leafy winter crops in the garden of Linda Macaulay in Sydney

I have always thought of July as the most dispiriting month of the year, and this July is surely shaping up to be the most dismal. I look to my garden to try to buoy my spirits: winter flowers are uplifting as I illustrated in last week's blog. Whilst many plants are dormant in winter or growing very slowly, there are a number of leafy edible vegetables and herbs that are grow robustly at this time of year, providing interest, as well as food, for the gardener looking to be distracted from the stark and/or shabby parts of the garden - and these grim times. These crops often find the hotter parts of the year challenging and they may tend to run to seed very quickly at those times so are best grown in winter.

We all know how quickly leafy vegetables bought from the greengrocer or supermarket will go off, especially the bags of individual leaves. Growing a variety of your own leafy crops and being able to pick them just before they are eaten means there is maximum nutrition and freshness in the salad bowl! Eating leafy greens every day confers many health benefits, as they are rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Growing my own salad crops also allows me to defer my visits to the shops just a little longer right now!

Lettuce (Lactuca sativa), mainstay of our salad bowls, can be grown in a tub or trough. If you grow the 'loose-leaf' types, such as oak-leaf lettuces, then leaves can be picked a few at a time, and the plant will continue to grow and produce for ages. There are so many beautifully hued small loose-leaf lettuce varieties around these days, as seeds or seedlings, often available in mixed colours, that it is possible to make a most attractive display of them - even a feature - in a large, low bowl. I find lettuce does much better in the cooler months. With all the leafy crops I grow, I try to feed them regularly with a soluble, organic-based fertiliser.

Silverbeet (Beta vulgaris) can be grown year-round (although it will suffer in extreme summer heatwaves and should be given some shade in summer), whereas spinach (Spinacia oleracea) generally definitely does better in cooler weather. Rainbow chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens) is a form of silverbeet with stems coloured golden-yellow or ruby-red, which look very decorative in the garden. I have also had good success with the so-called 'perpetual spinach', which is, in fact, a green-leaf variety of silverbeet with short stems and largish leaves that taste more like spinach than ordinary silverbeet. It doesn't run to seed in its first year as the other forms, giving a longer cropping period, and it should survive for a a couple of years in the garden. It is more heat-tolerant than true spinach. Spinach and silverbeet can be picked leaf by leaf, and will thus go on producing for a long time. They can be eaten raw in salads or used in many cooked vegetable dishes.

The so-called 'mustard family' (Brassicaceae) contains many highly nutritious leafy crops that seem to grow best in the cooler months of the year. They all like moist, fertile soil to support their rapid growth: poor soils result in bitter, tough leaves. Like the leafy crops described above, they will all regrow after being harvested so that a number of cuts can be made; but it is a good idea to make successive sowings to ensure a long period of supply as the plants eventually become exhausted! All of them can be grown successfully in containers. I sometimes plant seeds or seedlings of these plants in the bare patches left in winter by herbaceous plants such as Dahlia. They are all quite decorative! Rocket (Eruca versicaria, syn. Eruca sativa), with its peppery leaves, is perhaps the best-known member of the mustard family, being a quick-growing leafy green for salads, pesto and pasta dishes. Kale (Brassica oleracea Acephala Group), another member of the mustard family, has become a trendy food in recent years. Kale is used in salads, stir-fries and many vegetable dishes. There are many decorative forms of kale, with curled or crinkly and/or coloured leaves of various shapes and sizes, which can look most attractive in the garden.

The various forms of cress are also nutritious members of the mustard family. True watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a perennial plant with piquant, crunchy leaves and it needs lots of water, as it naturally grows in streams. It could be grown hydroponically in a garden. Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) is an annual plant, familiar to many from childhood, when it was grown on a piece of cotton wool as 'mustard and cress'! It too appreciates moisture but doesn't have to be grown in water. It has a similar flavour to true watercress but the leaves are more tender. It can be grown in small containers and kept indoors. Land cress (Barbarea verna var. praecox) is very similar to garden cress, and also appreciates plenty of water, without needing to be actually grown in it for success. It is a good substitute for true watercress for sandwiches, soup, garnishes and salads.

There are the other leafy members of the mustard family that are sometimes called 'Asian greens' - such as bok choi or pak choi, mizuna, komatsuna and tatsoi - which all seem to be cultivars of Brassica rapa. All these plants are useful for stir-fries and salads.

Common garden nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) begin to grow now, and as well as being decorative, the spicy leaves (reminiscent of watercress, though from different plant family) and the colourful flowers can be used in salads and in rice-paper rolls. Large leaves can be used themselves as wraps for salads or in sandwiches.

Three decorative annual herbs that belong to the Apiaceae family of plants, which characteristically have a frothy cloud of tiny, umbel-like flowers, seem to be at their best in the cooler months. Coriander, chervil and parsley all have attractive lacy foliage, and all enjoy the same conditions: cool, moist, well-drained soil, and regularly fertilising. Because of their tap roots, seeds are best sown directly into the ground; but with care, they can be planted out from punnets of seedlings. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), so useful in Asian and Mexican cooking, should be sown frequently to ensure a good supply. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is a lesser-known herb with dainty, ferny leaves that have a delicate aniseed taste, and it is used in salads, soups, sauces and cooked vegetable dishes - added at the last minute so as not to obscure its suble flavour - or as a garnish. Along with parsley, chives and tarragon, chervil is one of the components of 'fines herbes', a combination that is integral to French cuisine. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) will grow all year round, although like the other two, it is best in the cooler seasons. It is one of the best-known herbs for culinary use. Curly parsley is very decorative if grown as an edging in the garden, though the flat-leaf Italian parsley is of greater use in the kitchen.

Another few crops I have been growing this winter are radishes (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) and snow peas (Pisum sativum Macrocarpum Group). Both are very easy and give fairly quick results, and it is so satisfying to be able to pick some of these to add to salad bowls or cooked meals. Snow peas need a good support - the horrible winds of Friday and Saturday this past week wrought havoc on my vines and they had to be quickly tied up more securely. The more you harvest your snow peas, the more the plant will flower and provide more. The taste of a freshly picked snow pea bears no resemblance to the flabby specimens often seen in the shops!

I also have citrus crops giving me a generous bounty at the moment. I am quite self-sufficient in limes, lemons and lemonade fruit and have even ventured into marmalade making! The limes demand to be made into the occasional G&T - who am I to disappoint them?

Blog first posted 1 July 2017; updated 18 July 2021.


 Reader Comments

1/10  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 July 2017

I have had success with lettuce, chard and spinach this season. My Asian greens are growing well, but are not ready for harvest. I am not fond of coriander, so never grow it, although it looks decorative in the garden. I grow the Italian and the curly types of parsley, but much prefer the curly type, in cooking - I think it has more flavour. I am now waiting (a long one) for my developing garlic, to reach maturity. Currently, my veg patch is sharing space with poppies and dwarf marigolds. You sound as if you have lots of great edibles on the go, Margaret! It is so rewarding to grow veggies. Deirdre


2/10  Robyn - 5035 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 03 July 2017

Hi, Excellent leafy green and herb gardening. Very much the same as my winter veg patch here in Adelaide although I do have midi cauliflower, broad beans, snow peas, and garden green peas coming on. Happy gardening Robyn Sounds great, Robyn. Lovely to have all those growing in your winter garden. Deirdre


3/10  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 04 July 2017

Nice timely article when there's not much going on. I am growing the land cress as a catch crop for the white cabbage moth next to my mini cabbages as per Jerry on the ABC advises - hope it works. Also in a protected corner the pretty leaves of Sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) look cheery in the garden and in a salad whereas my French sorrel in a shady corner has died down.Peas, kale, lettuce and spinach are doing well and it's nice to still pick something from the garden apart from camellias:-) Great idea re the cabbage moth distraction. I grow rocket etc under a mesh-covered cage to keep the rotten cabbage moth out. I forgot about sorrel -- it's so pretty in the garden. You have lots of crops! Deirdre


4/10  Barb - 4358 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 07 July 2017

Great idea to add herbs and vegetables to the garden - my roses love garlic chives growing under them. Our spinach is doing well this year as are the peas and brocolini, leeks and onions. I am so lucky to have a husband who loves growing vegetables - so our vegetable garden is nearly as big as the rest of our garden. This year we have had no luck at all with cabbages or cauliflowers- despite buying seedlings from 3 different places and spraying for mildew - they might need rain. Happy gardening.


5/10  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 July 2021

Your variety of winter crops to grow is so encouraging. I wish I had such a success story! My lettuce, spinach and broccoli crops have been eaten to the ground, possibly by rats? However, the garlic and parsley are still thriving. I have also needed to cover my poppies as the foliage is being stripped. That's so frustrating with crops being eaten! Hope the cover for the poppies continues to work. Deirdre


6/10  Jean - 4035 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 19 July 2021

Deidre The Abutilon you wrote about last week is a delight. I grew these years ago but the grasshoppers devoured them so I gave up. But right now I have a striking one loaded with gloriously red blooms. I use Molasses to spray regularly and its worked wonders! Thanks for that great tip! I love abutilons. Deirdre


7/10  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 July 2021

Yes the veggies are a happy sight in the wintery months. I am still growing the same winter crops as in 2017 but this year have had a lovely crop of chervil which I use in salads and other things. As well I have a nice crop of watercress which I am growing in a large terracotta pot with a very small hole and next to a tap so gets plenty of water, keeping the potting mix quite boggy and it grows very well. Gardening, if only to look and plan is good for our health in this 'stay at home' time. I really like chervil and watercress. That idea is a good one to keep the potting mix really moist. Deirdre


8/10  Hanni - 2134 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 July 2021

Dear Deirdre, thanks a lot again for your wonderful blog! It makes my Monday, especially in these dire times. Thank God for our gardens! I can only agree on the usefulness of growing winter crops. My Broccoli is nearly ready to be harvested, as are my snow peas. There are still lettuce and sorrel around, also parsley, thyme and garlic chive. But thats not all - I am delighted to see some edible weeds coming up. Chickweed, milk thistle and a tiny cress are great additions to my daily salad. That all sounds great! Edible weeds are another whole topic in themselves! I once did a wonderful walk in the Botanic Garden with Diego Bonetto, an edible weed expert. It is amazing how many there are! Deirdre


9/10  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Deirdre, Thanks so much for your WinterCropInformative! I gave up on crops when I became single and went quite native (in many ways!!) in my back garden but this has inspired me to try again in a much smaller fashion and I would certainly reap the benefits, fresh and all for me (big smile)!! I love your Blogs, Shaun Thanks so much, Shaun. I'm finding growing edibles is saving my sanity at the moment. Deirdre


10/10  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 20 July 2021

PS: As we're all gardeners and aware of nature, a brother who lives in the bush just sent me a picture of a very plump possum that came down his chimney last night and took up residence on top of his frig. Planned or accidental,? I guess it was freezing on the Liverpool plains, or the meece chased him!! Qui sais?? I'm laughing! not in my sedate city bubble even in Lockdown! To all stay Positive but Test negative eh!! Keep gardening & start winter cropping, Shaun Love the possum story. The same thing happened to us once and the possum led us a merry dance till we managed to send him out the front door! Deirdre


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