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Gardening: Winter Veggies

Winter-Veggie-Garden-BasketHow to plant a winter veggie garden

Yes, there’s loads of vegetables that will thrive in winter! Here’s our guide to what to plant and how to keep it all going. By Marion Whitehead

Cooler weather favours winter vegetables such as the brassica family of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale, as well as celery, leeks, onions, chives, carrots, beetroot, turnips and parsnips – the basis of wonderful warming soups and stews. Sow Swiss chard, spinach, rocket, peas, parsley and lettuce to keep greens firmly on the menu. For something different, try celeriac, kohlrabi, salsify and striking globe artichokes to add interest to your veggie patch.

Produce picked from your own veggie patch doesn’t get any fresher and will help keep colds and flu at bay throughout the winter.

Whether you favour trench beds, double digging or the less arduous “no-dig” methods, soil preparation is vital. Treat seeds and seedlings as you would new-born babies: give them a warm and cosy spot, with lots of nourishment so they grow well. Humus in the soil from good compost stimulates microbes to provide nutrition for growing plants and also helps retain moisture, without waterlogging. Recycle garden waste into compost throughout the year to ensure a ready supply, or buy good quality compost, avoiding mushroom and other sterilised varieties, which will be devoid of micro-organisms as well as weed seeds.

Spread  a layer of compost onto your vegetable beds and remineralise with volcanic rock dust. It provides more than 72 minerals and trace elements to improve soil structure, nutrient availability and bacterial action, providing a buffer in the living soil.

Winter-Veggie-GardenPam Hart, of Hart Nurseries in Ottery, which promotes and practises organic gardening, says a little rock dust goes a long way. “For best results we recommend applying it along with ample compost,” she says. “It builds plants’ immune systems and makes them less susceptible to disease.”

Well-rotted manure, which has preferably been cycled through a compost heap to prevent weeds germinating, is also beneficial. Pam does not, however, recommend BounceBack, a pelletised form of chicken manure, as it is high in salt and gives fast but weak green growth, which attracts pests. She prefers Talbourne’s Vitaveg which is organic and has 15 minerals and trace elements, rather than petroleum-derived NPK chemical fertilisers.

The same principles apply if using containers or raised beds, an increasingly popular option with those who don’t like to bend or who live in apartments. Make sure of good drainage by lining the bottom with a layer of coarsely chopped branches or hedge clippings, followed by straw. Build a trellis to support peas in the middle or the back, depending on space available.

When planning your bed, take note of what grew where last year so that you can rotate crops. Heavy feeders like brassicas should follow legumes, which enrich the soil, and root crops take the place previously occupied by heavy feeders.

Winter-Veggie-Garden-LettuceGroup together plants that promote each other’s growth: lettuces are good companions to beetroot, cabbages, leeks and onions, while spinach and peas are friends with cabbages, and onions get on well with carrots. Interplant quick growers among those slower to mature to maximise space and crowd out weeds.

While root crops are normally planted in situ, leafy vegetables can be transplanted from seed trays. Growing your own veggies from seed is cheaper, but you can buy seedlings from a nursery if you’re in a hurry. Hart Nursery sells single plugs at R1 each, as well as trays, so even if you have a small garden you can enjoy a variety of veggies.

Winter-Veggie-Garden-TraysA tip from Pam when sowing seeds: put ground cinnamon in a shaker and sprinkle over the seeds to prevent damping off. It acts as an anti-fungal and a solution can also be sprayed on young plants. Don’t allow seeds to dry out, even if it means watering them with a fine spray twice a day.

Mulch is the organic gardener’s mantra. Spread a thick layer around young plants, like tucking a blanket around a baby, but don’t let the decaying matter touch the stem. Coarse compost is best as it feeds the plants as it breaks down, but you can use autumn leaves (oak are good as snails don’t like them), straw, dried grass clippings, dead weeds (without seed heads) and practically anything at hand in the garden that can be recycled in this way. Bark is best kept out of the vegetable garden as beetles make their homes in it and acids are released during the decomposition process.

Feeding and Watering 
Winter-Veggie-Garden-SpinachOnce your plants are established, if you’ve composted and mulched properly, you shouldn’t need to water more than once a week in the Western Cape winter, says Willie Schmidt, owner of Aspidistra Nursery who is well known as the gardening fundi on Pasella. “Too much water causes disease.”

Water in the early morning. Doing it by hand allows you to check plants at the same time, but if you have a large garden, an irrigation system is a great time saver. Drip systems are the waterwise option, but pop-ups are still popular. Pam’s standby feed is ordinary, common household vinegar, also a natural anti-fungal and anti-viral agent. Diluted by one cup to five litres of water, it’s a foliar spray that puts minerals back into the soil and deters pests, including snails. “Use it stronger at 10% and it’s a weed killer.”

With correct soil preparation, no more feeding is necessary as compost and volcanic rock dust will keep your plants going for the entire season and lay a good foundation for spring plantings, when the year’s second dose of rock dust and compost boosts your veggie patch.

Pest Control
Use strong-smelling herbs and flowers such as marigolds interplanted with veggies to deter pests. “Use lots, not just one plant in each corner of the bed,” recommends Willie. Sage, thyme, borage, feverfew and camomile look good as well as confusing goggas, while yarrow helps plants resist disease.

Place broken eggshells around lettuces to keep snails away as they don’t like walking on them. A cutworm tip from Pam is to place squeezed half lemons upside down in the garden overnight. In the morning, collect the nasties congregating inside them.

If you have to spray, make your own with the chillis you harvested and dried at the end of summer, together with some lavender and garlic, says Willie.

Or turn your problem blackjack weeds into a spray effective against most insects, including ants, aphids and caterpillars, advise plant researchers Warren Spring and Nicci Diederichs. Boil a cup of seeds for 10 minutes, cool and add to one litre of water with a large tablespoon of grated Sunlight soap, strain and spray on the crop.

Irmela Reichardt, an organic gardening pioneer in South Africa, lists numerous, easy-to-make remedies to repel bugs in her classic book, Natural Gardening, including tips on how to turn your weeds into a plant tonic.

Pam uses a vinegar spray against woolly aphids (1 cup to 5 litres water) with some Sunlight soap added to make it stick to the leaves.

If all else fails, she recommends the Biogrow range of natural organic products. “Bioneem is non-systemic and is good against whitefly, caterpillars, beetles and insects,” she says.

Harvesting happens quicker than you may expect, especially if you’ve planted varieties such as cos lettuce and bok choi greens, because you can pluck outer leaves from a fairly young stage.

Growing veggies organically is about more than just putting wholesome food on the table and living in harmony with the environment. “It’s good for everything, heart and soul,” adds Willie.

A shortened version of this article first appeared in Landscape Design & Garden magazine.