The Diary of a Winter Harvester

Wildly sown in the garden 

By Lisa Barrett

As our ‘lockdown’ organic vegetable garden moves into its second winter and we recognise the seasonal changes we had time to observe this time last year, the gardening to-do list shifts from frantic autumn planting to slower tasks; harvesting, some cautious planting and weather watching, even tempting us to look forward to spring planning.

Winter harvesting will be about comfort food, soups and green curries: beetroot, carrots, Asian greens and all the autumn-planted veggies: purple broccoli to entice the kids, rosette baby cabbages and our first alien-looking kohlrabi. In our home there will be pulling out of jars of summer from the freezer, tomatoes and basil saved months ago. Peas will be sorely missing from our personal harvest basket this winter, such delicacies the birds spotted early in autumn despite the usual tricks of dangling shiny things, and a cat who is mostly present, albeit primarily as lizard-consumer.

To keep the harvests coming we suggest planting broad beans in late autumn, the kids love planting them (you can’t help feel like Jack with magic beans in your palm). I love that they’re the highest nitrogen-fixers in the legume family and will make good companions for the cabbage, kale, and kohlrabi. 

After this I suggest a second batch of winter seedlings, leafy greens such as lettuce and radicchio, planted with onion and celery. Additional purple brassicas will get squeezed in among the chamomile flowers, these flowers help disguise their scent and purple varieties of cabbage are less favorable to the cabbage moth. 

In July we suggest adding more peas with narrow tripods (and perhaps a few more toy snakes as part of plan B) for support, potatoes alongside beetroot and enjoy the last of the gardening pause, before things get exciting again in August when we can start on those summer veggies and scatter giant marigolds in anticipation of the aphids that will arrive on all new growth in the warmer weather. Leaving plants to go to seed rewards both us and the pollinators with dainty floating flowers (also attracting wasps and ladybugs) and there’s few things better than that surprise of a self-sown tatsoi, coriander or dill. 

Last winter’s our leaf mold project worked well – we collected leaves over winter, chopping them up with the weed-eater in a plastic tub, to use as mulch. This autumn we mulched using eragrostis grass, which is keeping our cat from using the soil as a litter-tray, a bonus benefit. 

Checking the weather forecasts for frosts should become a part of your daily routine. Strive for mulching, only watering before 12 noon and avoid wetting the leaves in order to help protect plants. For those really cold nights we’ll drape frost blankets over DIY garden-made hoops, removing them in the icy morning so the veggies can absorb as much of the Highveld sun as possible. 

This winter we will assume our spot in the vegetable garden as living scarecrows, the sunniest spot on our property. Becoming observers of the lowering of the sun’s path across the sky, the shortening of days, the passing of that solstice, the completion of a cycle. We will be watching hungry birds tucking into nourishing leaves, new butterflies, the cabbage moth flying over …and flying off (the optimism of organic gardeners!). I’ll be out in the garden every morning, camera and coffee in hand, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the first sweet pea buds, winter flowering sunflowers, the ranunculus and anemones we pressed into the soil with hope in April.

With all this slowing down there will be time for spring planning, aiming for as much biodiversity as possible to encourage a healthy soil and mini-ecosystem that keeps everything in balance. 

Here are some of my favorite winter companion plantings 

(Top Tip: check a planting calendar for specific planting times based on climatic zones):

  • Plant brassica’s with aromatic plants to deter cabbage moths, such as celery, coriander, marigolds and scented geraniums. Certain flowers make good companions for brassica’s; chamomile’s scent masks that of brassica’s, and also enriches onions and cabbages (it also makes the most delicious tea, just add 6-8 fresh flowers to hot water). 
  • Plant nasturtium’s with brassica’s as their leaves’ similar shape may cause confusion.
  • Plant calendula with broccoli (their strong colour attracts predatory hoverflies, the sticky stems act as aphid traps and attract ladybugs to eat the aphids). 
  • Plant carrots and beetroot with lettuce, spinach and peas. Borage, dill and aromatic herbs nearby will attract beneficial predatory insects. 
  • Plant broad beans in spots where you need to enrich the soil with nitrogen before planting leafy greens. Bush beans, beetroot and potatoes improve each other’s yield, add marigolds for their ability to control eelworm.

Winter to-do list:

  • June: Plant lettuce, kale, spinach, broad beans and Asian greens seedlings. Garden maintenance e.g. compost heap, tripods and teepees. Collect autumn leaves to decompose for leaf mold mulch. For late spring flowers plant indigenous winter bulbs such as freesia, ixia, tritonia and sparaxis up until the middle of June. 
  • July: Sow peas, cabbage, potatoes. Add a layer of compost and mulch to the surface of beds to add nutrients, retain moisture and suppress weeds. Plan spring and summer plantings. Sow seeds in trays indoors in a sunny spot.
  • August: Go wild with sowing lettuce, spinach, cabbage, celery, aubergine, peppers, tomatoes, beans, peas, beetroot, carrots, potatoes, Asian greens, and herbs such as rocket, coriander, dill, fennel, sage. Sow marigolds for organic pest and disease control and edible flowers such as nasturtiums, borage, cornflowers and violas for a botanical pick-me-up when despite your best efforts, the garden creatures get a bigger share of the harvest than you do. 

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