When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Menace to greens
7:50am Thursday 19th May 2011 in Gardening
If it seems strange to be writing about winter vegetables in May, think again, for this is the time to plant cabbages, sprouts, purple sprouting and kale. You can either buy your plants now, or there’s still time to sow seeds if you get on with it straightaway. I’m a firm believer in growing winter ‘veg’ including leeks, parsnips, winter salads and winter brassicas, and this year I’m adding swedes too. Plants of Distinction have a new F1 hybrid called ‘Tyne’ swede (0844 856 0763/www.plantsofdistinction.co.uk).
I prefer to eat fresh food seasonally and I deplore buying flown-in produce from warmer climes: the air miles are damaging to the environment and the pocket. I want to eat asparagus and strawberries as spring breaks into summer, not when frost is on the ground. In winter, I want roast parsnips and winter squash Charles Dowding, a famous no-dig gardener who grows crops organically and commercially for a living, has written a new book, Winter Vegetables (Green Books £14.99 — 0845 458 9911/www.greenbooks.co.uk). I hope it will encourage more gardeners to grow them. After all, that’s when vegetable prices are at their highest and when shopping loses its appeal.
Most gardeners are growing summer vegetables of their own in some way, but they rarely seem to aspire to winter crops. If you’ve got the room you should have a go, particularly as so many commercial vegetable growers have given up on growing during the inclement weather.
Brassicas are the mainstay in my own garden and the secret of my success is raising my own young plants in modules and then planting them out just as the roots reach the bottom of the tray.
Sown in mid-April they will be in the ground in late May or early June. But if you leave them to linger in the trays too long their growth stalls permanently and they never race away.
The main difficulty with brassicas is protecting them from cabbage white caterpillars. Now that oilseed rape is widely grown this is much more of a pest and, being organic, I won’t spray. I rely on butterfly netting and a sharp eye. Harrod Horticultural (0845 402 5300/ www.harrodhorticultural.com) sell excellent, durable netting of the correct gauge and width.
Sadly, we have too few natural predators in Britain to see off the caterpillars in sufficient numbers. Cotesia glomerata, a small fly, does kill the caterpillars eventually but unfortunately they carry on nibbling for some time before the yellow rock wool splits from their tummies. These yellow things are the cocoons of more Cotesia glomerata. Should you find any sulphur-yellow soft fluff leave it well alone.
The cabbage white gets the upper hand because the eggs are laid in clusters, not singly as is usual. One butterfly under your net can devastate your crop. If this were not bad enough, caterpillars have legs.
They creep through netting (even though the eggs were laid elsewhere). For this reason I no longer grow brassicas on my allotment.
Charles Dowding’s excellent book covers the nitty gritty of each vegetable in bullet points. He then selects varieties, describes sowing and planting, spacing and problems. He uses this approach with a huge range of salad leaves and vegetables and also goes into storage. For the record, my tried and tested winter varieties are F1 Leek ‘Oarsman’, F1 Parsnip Gladiator, Kale ‘Cavolo Nero’ and ‘Dwarf Curled’, F1 Brussels Sprout ‘Bosworth’, Broccoli ‘Choice Selection Mixed’ (T & M) and F1 Cabbage ‘Tarvoy’.