As the garden starts to slow, there are still plenty of edibles to pick, store and grow for winter, says Martyn Cox.
Make the most of dry, sunny days in the vegetable garden. It’s the perfect time for digging soil and harvesting hardy crops, such as kale, sprouts, cabbages and leeks. In poor weather, try growing some plants indoors. Flavour-filled micro-vegetables will grow quickly on light windowsills, while portions of herbs can be dug up, plunged into pots and brought indoors to sprout.
Out of season mint
Mint dies back when the weather turns chilly but I’ve got a clever trick for making them produce fresh leaves indoors. Dig up a few healthy roots and cut into 10cm (4in) long pieces with a sharp knife. Fill a 15cm (6in) pot with multipurpose compost and lay a few pieces of root on the surface. Lightly cover with compost, water and place on a light, warm windowsill. Keep the compost barely moist and shoots will appear within a couple of weeks. If you have plants in pots, clear away any decaying foliage, and then place in a warm, bright spot to encourage new leaves.
Kale was once considered a fodder crop for overwintering cattle but is now hailed as a superfood due to its tasty leaves that are packed full of vitamins and antioxidants. It is also one of the hardiest veggies around and is capable of enduring a cold snap down to -15C. As a result, it’s one of the most desirable crops to grow for winter pickings. If you set young plants in the ground back in the summer, then snip off leaves as required. Take lower ones first and discard any that are yellow or tatty. Ensure you cover these winter staples with bird netting to prevent hungry pigeons from stripping leaves.
Right. Let’s get one thing straight. Rhubarb is a vegetable that’s eaten as a fruit. There, now I’ve answered that age-old conundrum it’s time to start off this wonderful edible from bare-root, dormant plants known as crowns. Among the best varieties are ‘Timperley Early’ with its green and white stems, old favourite ‘Victoria’ and the delightfully named ‘Fultons Strawberry Surprise’, which boasts very tasty, bright red stems. To plant, dig over soil and work in plenty of well-rotted manure. Dig a hole, and then pop in the crown, spreading out the roots – the tip of the crown should be just visible above the surface.
Check stored crops
Some edibles will keep for ages if stored correctly, but a single mouldy fruit or veggie will quickly contaminate its neighbours. To prevent this happening, regularly check apples, pears, potatoes, onions, carrots and anything else you’ve managed to squirrel away for autumn and winter. Remove anything that shows obvious signs of rot or damage, or that feels softer than the rest. Don’t be too heavy handed when you inspect your produce: handle everything carefully to avoid bruising or damaging the edibles, which is likely to encourage deterioration when placed back into storage.
Supermarkets sell packs of forced chicory but these tender, succulent, leafy heads with a bitter taste are great fun to grow at home. Start off by buying a pot of ready grown chicory, such as the variety, ‘Witloof de Brussels’. Cut back all the growth to leave short stubs above the ground. Put a bucket over the top of the pot to block out light and put in a frost-free place, such as a garage or shed. In several weeks, short, stocky white growths, known as chicons, will have formed. These can be cut off at the base and the process repeated until spring.