Growing vegies in winter is an absolute delight. The commitment of regular watering is mostly taken care of by Mother Nature and the risk of insect attack is greatly reduced in the cooler seasons. Here are a few tips to help you along the way to a thriving, productive winter vegetable garden.
The right crops
The most important thing to be aware of is to make sure you are planting the right varieties to suit those cold wintery days. Just because some seedlings are available on the shelf doesn’t mean it’s the right time of year to plant them. Far too often we see basil seedlings for sale in June and July that have been commercially grown in a nice warm glasshouse. In most areas of Australia, the unsuspecting gardener who purchases these lush-looking seedlings will take them home, plant them with lots of loving care only to watch them slowly shrink and disappear in the following week or two (however if they had of been planted in spring they would have doubled in size in the first week and gone on to produce enough foliage to fill many a jar with pesto!).
If you are new to growing your own vegies at home, it’s important to do a little research before heading out to purchase seedlings. A planting guide that’s structured for your location is a tremendous asset and plays an important role in making your food garden a success. For your state’s winter guide, check out our Seasonal Garden Guide on the right hand side of the homepage.
Placement of the vegetable garden during the winter months is particularly important. Most varieties need at least 4-5 hours of direct sunlight a day in order to thrive. Vegetables grown without sufficient light tend to become stretched and weak. Not only will production be poor, but the plants are likely to become vulnerable to attack from fungal diseases. Choosing the right winter location can be deceptive, as the angle of the winter sun drops lower in the sky, so an area that received plenty of sun during summer could be immersed in shade throughout winter. This is an important factor to take into consideration when placing large raised growing beds; once in place and filled with soil, moving them is not really an option. Growing in smaller containers that have a volume of between 20 and 30 litres can be ideal during winter. Planting 2-3 seedlings per container of most winter vegetable varieties can produce excellent yields and the containers are easy to move around, making it simple to find just the right location.
Preparation of the soil is a vital factor in guaranteeing healthy bumper crops. If your soil is sandy, the addition of fine granulated clay at a rate of 2-3 kilos per square metre will do wonders. Mix the clay into the top 30cm of the soil and combine around 25 litres of compost per square metre. If your soil already has a clay content, just add the compost. Quality compost plays an important role in balancing a soil structure and pH, and its ability to hold onto nutrition and retain soil moisture is a tremendous asset. Compost is also teeming with billions of soil microbes that digest organic matter, including animal manures and organic-based fertilisers, making them more readily available to the plants.
Feeding the vegetable garden correctly is essential and when it comes to fast-growing plants, which most vegetable varieties are, so we need to ensure we don’t let them starve. Our vegetable garden at home is situated close to the front door and often when visitors call the first question they ask is “how do you get your vegetables looking like that?” My answer is simple – it’s how we feed them.
Before planting, each square metre of soil is enriched with 150 grams (approximately three handfuls) of blood and bone and 200grams (approximately four handfuls) of pelletised chicken manure. When choosing blood and bone, look for a product containing added sulphate of potash and trace elements. Pelletised chicken manure is exceptional value and acts as a semi slow-release. Both are natural organic-based fertilisers that feed the soil and the microbial life within, promoting strong, healthy growth and the wonderful flavour often associated with organic and homegrown food. Once our seedlings are planted it is really important to follow the lead of professional growers and liquid feed them weekly, ideally with a seaweed or fish-based fertiliser. This keeps the plants growing at a steady, healthy rate, reducing plant stress and ensuring maximum production. Follow up with top dressings each 4 -6 weeks with blood and bone and pelletised chicken manure to ensure your harvests look just like the vegetables you see in the shops, but so much tastier.
What to plant
As a general guide, winter seedlings include peas, snow peas, kale, broccoli, onions, cabbage, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, shallots, cauliflower, beetroot and broad beans. Punnets of seedlings represent great value and make establishing a vegetable garden quick and easy. As most seedling punnets are planted mechanically, often 2-3 plants will be growing in each cell. When it comes to varieties such as onions it’s not uncommon to have 10 to 12 seedlings in an individual cell. If these are planted out without separating, the onions would be simply too crowded and unable to form properly. Separating multi-planted seedlings is easy; once the plants are removed from their individual plastic cell, swish them in a small bucket of water and the soil will fall away, leaving just the seedlings and their fresh white root system. Gently separate and they are ready to plant.
We often give our seedlings a head start by planting them into 10cm pots and placing them on a bench for the first couple of weeks, then planting them into the garden once they are a little more established. If you choose to plant young seedlings directly into the soil, put a guard around them made from a short 10cm piece of stormwater pipe and place a ring of copper tape around the pipe. Snails and slugs will not cross over the copper barrier, giving the young seedlings an excellent chance to establish.
Root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, turnips and swedes grow well in winter and of course are a must for those hearty winter stews. These varieties are best grown from seed. Soil preparation is similar to that for seedlings, but it’s important that the blood and bone has had time to be washed into the soil and allowed to settle. A small farrow 1cm deep is ideal for most varieties. Fine seed can be mixed with a handful of dry soil or potting mix to separate them before placing into the farrow. Water them in well and seedlings will start to appear in 10 to 14 days. Thinning should commence once the seedlings are about three weeks old.
Protecting your vegies
Growing the right varieties for the right time of year dramatically reduces the chance of insect attack. Broccoli and kale grown in winter are often trouble-free, but stretch the growing period into late spring or early summer and they can be plagued with bugs. If you are experiencing problems with insect attack, it’s best to use as natural a spray as possible. Natural soap spray is ideal for sap-sucking insects such as aphids, thrips and mites. It won’t kill the eggs of the target pest, so it’s important to follow up with a second spray in a week’s time. This will ensure any new hatchlings won’t have time to mature and lay eggs of their own. If caterpillars are a problem, use a bacteria-based insecticide such as Success or Dipel.
About the Author – Steve Wood
Steve is a WA nurseryman with over 35 years experience and is a local ABC radio garden talkback host. He is also a presenter with the Greenfingers TV series and The Garden Gurus, as well as runs Great Gardens Environmental Workshops. Steve has an extensive organic fruit and vegetable garden and is a passionate promoter of homegrown produce.