17 May 2022

Notes from the Kitchen Garden: how to keep your greens going in winter

| Bronwyn Richards and Helen Lynch
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Green vegetables

Crisp and crunchy Asian greens throve in winter. Photo: Supplied.

The last month of Autumn often brings more than a few cold, crisp and lightly frosted mornings. These signal that the cycle of our clear, brittle nights full of stars, so characteristic of cool and cold climate Australia, is beginning.

In these conditions, there is a delicious and versatile range of leafy greens that can be the focus of this month’s garden. Planting both seeds and seedlings of vegetables as diverse in flavour and growth habits as the winter lettuces (cos, romaine, frilly and coral) with rocket and lesser-known European winter greens such as cress, minutina, corn salad (mache) and miners lettuce (winter purslane) is well worth the effort.

These greens are true ‘winter picking greens’ and not widely grown in Australia because, while they grow in temperate climates, they prefer the cool, cold weather of our more chilly region. Miner’s lettuce is grown widely in North America and Europe. Leaves and flowers can be eaten from this vegetable, which is one of the hardiest around.

Woman with vegetable seedlings

Harvesting Asian greens in winter. Photo: Supplied.

Upland cress, corn salad and minutina are widely eaten in England, France, Italy and Holland. They can certainly liven up a stir fry or salad. Upland cress or winter cress is not to be confused with watercress, though.

This tasty collection of greens needs a good nutritional start, especially given they are growing in our colder months. First of all, preparation needs to include lots of lovely compost.

Not everyone has the space to make their own compost, but don’t hesitate to make lots of it if you do. All the green clippings from the garden, like grass, weeds, green trimmings from the vegetable garden and so forth will break down into nitrogen-rich compost.

Leafy greens also like nitrogen, and one of the best natural sources is composted animal manure.

Lettuce plants

Lettuce thrives in winter if planted at the right time. Photo: Supplied.

Alternatively, you can buy some organic compost. Make sure it has a veggie-friendly pH of around 6 to 7.5. You have to watch out for this. Many sand-and-soil composts are often quite ‘hot’ with a high pH of 8 or 9. The pH of compost will change over time if the compost is left to mature further. Just be aware that the wrong pH will retard plant growth dramatically.

Spread the compost over the bed, using at least one standard bucket per sqm. Dig it lightly into your bed – 15 cm is plenty of depth. If planting a no-dig garden, layer up, finishing with at least 15 to 20 cm of quality compost.

While lettuce seedlings are readily available, the more unusual greens will need to be started from seed. Plant seeds shallowly and cover with a thin layer of soil and water well.

Salad greens

With good planning, leafy salad greens can be harvested into winter. Photo: Supplied.

Remember that soil temperatures will be cooling down and seed germination may be quite slow. All plantings at this time of year will benefit from some frost protection.

There are a large number of materials that can be used – old sheets, feed sacks, hessian, shade cloth, the list is endless. These materials are placed over plants at night and removed during the day. Using these materials and this method will depend on the number of plants to be covered, the size of the garden and a commitment to regular removal.

There are specific horticultural fabrics available that are breathable, permeable and allow light penetration that creates a ‘softer’ micro-climate modifying temperature by about 2 to 3 degrees allowing the area covered to breathe and moisture to penetrate. It is sturdy and long-lasting.

Horticultural fleece

Horticultural fleece will protect more tender winter greens from hard frosts. Photo: Supplied.

Horticultural fabrics can remain on the bed, held in place by a hooped frame called a cloche. This can be homemade or be a purchased, purpose-built frame. Homemade frames are made with rebar and poly pipe with the fabric held in place with purpose-specific clips.

The main pests at this time of year are snails and slugs. Snails are absolutely thriving in wetter parts of the region. Experiments with homegrown escargot are looking pretty good right now.

Happy gardening!

Bronwyn Richards and Helen Lynch run Wynlen House Artisan Village Farm and Learning Centre, a small village organic market garden in Braidwood, NSW. Since 2006 they have grown and sold fresh vegetables, eggs, preserves and garlic, and teach others to do the same.

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