Good as gold in the cold
INEVER cease to be astonished by the range of food plants that love to grow through the coldest parts of the year. Not only do they thrive during Tasmania’s winter – which is relatively mild compared with parts of Asia, Europe and North America – but they also happen to be among the most nutritious of all the edible plants.
Take those common old broad bean plants, for example. They actually love cold soil – provided it is well drained – and they remain far healthier and more pest and disease resistant during our chillier months than if they were trying to grow through summer.
And, of course, it is the bean seeds we eat. When they are quite small and a little immature, they are unbelievably sweet and delicious. This is how most young children prefer to munch them, straight from those fat, silky, fur- lined pods.
Broad bean seeds can be directly sown now a handspan apart in rows a metre apart.
Another great food plant that does best during winter is English spinach. In our frost- pocket of a garden I’ve seen half- grown seedling spinach plants frozen solid and crusted white following a freezing night. They still thaw out and bounce back to continue growing once the sun rises.
Spinach is best sown directly where the plants are to grow, preferably where summer beans or peas have just fi nished.
Among the root crops, radishes are ready to eat within a month of the seeds germinating. Winter lettuces also do well in the colder months – best of all are those smallish, open-hearted and often brightly coloured red or bright green varieties. The deep burgundy- coloured “oakleaf” lettuces can be constantly leaf- picked for week after week right through the coldest weather. They are great value because they look so gorgeous and taste marvellous in a winter salad.
Other highly nutritious vegetables that are winter- lovers need to be deliberately planted or sown in January or early February. This ensures they are big enough in late autumn to continue maturing through winter and into early spring.
I’ve been growing two different varieties of swede, New Zealand Butter and American Purple Top, over the last few months. The plants were kept well- watered and occasionally fed with heavily diluted seaweed concentrate and fi sh emulsion. Already they are the size of coconuts but wonderfully tender and still growing.
We’ve already been feasting off our butter swedes – half- steamed with a little water and served mashed with butter, pepper and salt. I knock them off by the bowlful they are so unbelievably delicious. And I’m saving the biggest and fattest for seed by leaving it in the ground so it will fl ower next spring and summer.
However, all swedes need a good, strong frosting, which is why most will be left in the ground for regular harvesting over the next three months. These periods of intense cold cause certain carbohydrates to convert to healthy sugars. When this happens, fl avour becomes concentrated and the eating is truly magnifi cent. It’s the same with our parsnip crop. The seeds were sown in early February into soil which had been enriched six months earlier to grow a nice crop of cabbages.
Parsnips which have been well frosted taste brilliant, which is why I’m resisting the temptation to lift some of the bigger ones. We’ll start getting stuck into them around the middle of June and there is enough for regular pulling to last us well into spring.
And the really great lover of our cold winter soil is garlic. We can plant the cloves now – just shove them into the soil, pointed end up and just below the surface. This is where we in Tasmania can gloat with pride about our proper winters.
Without doubt, they allow us to harvest bigger yields of fantastic, highly aromatic garlic better than anywhere else in Australia. After all, good garlic needs to pass through a six to eight week period when soil temperatures drop below 7C in order to produce big, weighty clusters for harvesting in December.
I’ll never stop raving about kale. This amazing vegetable is nothing more than a primitive cabbage, which is almost certainly why those dark- green leaves are crammed with essential minerals and vitamins. And when lots of savage frosts freeze those leaves, any bitterness is removed and they become deliciously sweet, raw or cooked.
Keep in mind that all these winter- grown vegetables happen to be lime- lovers, so start sprinkling the stuff around. And if you have any wood ashes to dispose of, chuck these around also to supplement the lime.