"Winter distractions"

Finding ways to endure winter!
Sunday, 26 July 2020     

Basil seedlings can be started indoors now

During the month of July, I have been busy working out ways to distract myself from the tedium and discomforts of winter. Instead of brooding on the bareness and general dishevelment of my sad-looking garden, I have concentrated on things to engross and amuse me.

What I decided I was missing the most was signs of growth, as basically my garden is moribund at this time of year. This is as it should be, as the garden deserves to have its downtime, but I still craved the thrill of seeing active plant life. The solution I came up with was to plant some seeds indoors, using a very old electric 'mini propagator' I have, consisting of a heated base upon which sits a perspex box, into which punnets sown with seeds can be placed. In the colder months, this device really does accelerate seed germination (though is not necessary if you have somewhere warm to place your seed punnet, which should be enclosed in a plastic bag to retain heat and humidity), and the basil seeds I planted were up in only three days. The thrill of seeing those tiny green shoots was palpable, raising my spirits instantly. At this time of year, it is possible to start various warm-season herbs, veggies and annuals indoors, nurturing them on a well-lit windowsill until they are large enough to go outside, by which time the weather should have warmed up.

Another form of seed-raising to indulge in at this time of year is growing microgreens in the kitchen, to use as highly nutritional and flavoursome additions to salads or to garnish cooked meals. They are basically baby seedlings grown en masse and harvested when they have developed two to four true leaves. Many herbs and vegetable seeds can be used to grow microgreens, such as basil, beetroot, bok choi, kale, lettuce, sunflower, spinach and snow peas. It is important to use seeds that have not been pre-treated with a fungicide, as traces of chemical residue may still be left on the young plants when they are consumed. There are seeds available to purchase specially for microgreen-growing, and seeds sold as being 'organic' should generally be OK. Various kits are available for growing microgreens, but it can be achieved in normal punnets using vermiculite or seed-raising mix.

Another diversion has been to plant up (temporarily) empty spots in the garden with by sowing seeds of hardy, fast-growing herbs and veggies for quick crops to use in the kitchen during winter and early spring. As I have big clumps of Dahlia for summer blooms in my front garden, the area they inhabit is bare and boring at this time of year as they lie dormant below the soil, so I have sown seeds of coriander, baby spinach and dwarf curly kale into the vacant patches for an infusion of fresh greenery that is also edible! It also prevents the areas from being overtaken by weeds at this time of year. This simple tip was gleaned from the wonderful book Just Vegetating (2012) by British gardener Joy Larkcom about her life spent exploring vegetable-growing and introducing gardeners to many unusual vegetables and ways of growing them. She was one of the pioneers of the salad mesclun mixtures of baby leaves so widely available in green grocers and supermarkets today. Seedlings can be planted instead of sowing seeds, for a quicker result.

Since March this year, I have been growing a lot of vegetables in tubs, and these crops have been a wonderful source of salad ingredients over the past five months. Lettuce, spinach, rocket, watercress and kale grow very well in our cooler months and I haven't needed to purchase any salad leaves during this time. I've branched out into growing beetroot, scallions and celery now, in addition to snow peas and sugar snap peas on a fence. It is a simple pleasure to be able to wander out at dinner time and garner enough ingredients for a salad. I have also been growing parsley, dill, coriander, mint, oregano and thyme, and these are also much used in my cooking. There was a huge rush on seeds and seedlings in March and April, leading to shortages, but now it is possible to buy them again, in nurseries or from online seed sellers.

As another avenue of seeing plant growth, I took lots of cuttings of my coleus plants. This was also as a safeguard against losing them in winter, because cold days can ravage the poor plants, and severe chill can kill them outright. I popped my cuttings into a vase of water on the kitchen windowsill (by now becoming rather crowded!), covered with a plastic bag, and I have enjoyed watching roots form on the stems in the vase as the coleus cuttings enjoy their snug position indoors. In a few weeks' time, they should be ready to be potted up in a propagating mix and can venture outdoors once the weather has warmed up. Coleus are wonderful foliage plants for shaded spots in Sydney gardens, and I would never want to be without their glowing colours.

As far as I am concerned, winter ends on 31 July and 'sprinter' (a term coined by Tim Entwhistle to cover the months of August and September in Sydney) begins on 1 August - so there isn't long to go!

This blog was originally posted on 26 July 2015; updated 26 July 2020.

 Reader Comments

1/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 July 2015

Congratulations, you have filled the somewhat dreary days of winter with many interesting activities, sure to bring a smile to your face! It is so exciting to observe that green "fuzz" in a punnet, signifying the seeds have germinated. For those who have not grown from seed previously, try, you will experience the thrill of propagating. I agree, winter is almost at an end - bring on sprinter! Thanks, Margaret. The seed-raising has been a great diversion for me! Deirdre

2/13  Tracey - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 July 2015

I"m not ready for Sprinter- I still have a few plants in my annual move around that aren"t in their new place yet. Guess I better get a move on! I, too, have such moves yet to be done! Deirdre

3/13  Helen - 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 27 July 2015

Sprinter is a great concept. For we as soon as the shortest day is past we are on the count down for spring. It is a great time for relocation of plants as I know they won"t sulk with spring on the way. I too am always so relieved when the shortest day has passed. I love the first signs of spring - so exciting for us gardeners! Deirdre

4/13  Lynne - 2479 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 27 July 2015

Welcome back Deirdre! Lovely to once again find your blog in my inbox. Us up here in the North of the State don"t have such a slow down in the garden growth and it has actually been a relief to have a little bit of a growth respite during the Winter months - from such things as lawn mowing and weeding anyway. I have been enjoying my winter garden and I notice that there are buds appearing on many plants, just waiting for that first sign of Sprinter and they will be off and running.. Yes it is true that winter gives us a reprieve from some of those chores. I need to learn to embrace winter more! Deirdre

5/13  Robin - 2045 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 July 2015

I"m with you Tracey. There are buds on my jasmine warning me that I don"t have much time to finish winter"s huge list of moving and pruning jobs! It is true that really in Sydney, winter is relatively short! I need to finish many winter jobs too. Deirdre

6/13  Georgina - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 July 2015

Just love this time of year as the sun and warmth starts to return. The bulbs are all popping through and buds are swelling on bare branches. Time to make all the winter dreams become reality! Thank you Deirdre for all your inspiration to get us gardening again after a winters hibernation. Thanks, Georgina. I adore early spring! Deirdre

7/13  Noeline - 2081 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Welcome back Deirdre,I noticed a little crocus had popped up this morning in the garden and I felt happier than I have in weeks,funny how the changing seasons affect us.Will have a go at the coleus thanks for the tip about the window sill. I think as gardeners we are attuned to the rhythms of the natural world so the early signs of spring are very uplifting for us! Deirdre

8/13  John - 2261 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Wonderful blog! A great reminder of what can be done when all seems hopeless AND that sprinter is only 4 days away! Woo hoo! Can"t wait for your spring write up. Thank you, John! We are lucky to be having superb (if cold) sunny weather right now, which makes everything seem so much better. Deirdre

9/13  Ruth - 4034 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Tuesday, 28 July 2015

By Ruth 4034 Hi Deirdre, lovely to have you back. I have 2 of my favourite plants blooming during winter, The Nutmeg Bush Iboza "Tetradenia riparia" and Rondeletia amoena. The nutmeg bush attracts hundreds of bees and the Rondeletia has the most divine scent. When they are in full bloom near each other I know Spring is on it"s way and feel the thrill of "now" and the coming new season. Thank you for your blog each week. Two gorgeous shrubs! The nutmeg bush is in bloom in mid-winter here in Sydney but the Rondeletia does not come out till August/September. Full of buds, however. Deirdre

10/13  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 July 2020

and since shortest day, how quickly the light is changing in my garden especially noticeable last week, sun higher creeping into my back yard darkness and gloom! 'Tis good, shaun. Yes it is wonderful once we get past the shortest day! Deirdre

11/13  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 July 2020

A good blog from '15 and now Deidre, thanks. We are seeding tomatoes, basil and capsicums on heat pads this week. I agree with Shaun I too have noticed the change in the sun's slant and welcome it to the shady areas of winter. Tastiest micro green this winter for us was Red Radish- least liked was chickpea. With the lovely rain it will be perfect to finish getting stuff moved and planted. The rain has been wonderful for the garden and yes, I need to get on with finishing moving plants that are in the wrong spot! Deirdre

12/13  Jil - 5126 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 27 July 2020

I opened your blog, Deirdre, and went 'snap' as there's a very similar plastic box arrangement right at my feet (living room floor, heated!) in which Paul is nurturing cuttings of something he stole from the golf club. Still enjoying your garden stories! Great to hear from you, Jil! Yes that propagating box is great for cuttings as well as seeds. Hope the cuttings go well! DeIrdre

13/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 28 July 2020

As always, Deirdre, your blogs bring hope and encouragement. My winter sowing of veg has not been as successful as yours, but I can now harvest lettuce and the baby spinach and beetroot are putting on growth. I, too, have taken cuttings of coleus, begonias and fuchsias, keeping them in my shed, and all appear to have taken root. Roll on spring! Great you have some veggies to harvest, Margaret, and your cuttings are coming along well. Deirdre

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