Plant a fruitful winter veggie patch

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Raised beds are perfect for veggies. Picture courtesy Dave MaczugaRaised beds are perfect for veggies. Picture courtesy Dave MaczugaFor a fruitful winter veggie patch, you need to "get cracking" this month!

Autumn is knocking at the door, and in the morning and evening on the Highveld, there is already a slight nip in the air. If you want a fruitful winter garden, you need to "get cracking" and start sowing or planting out your winter vegetables this month.

Vegetables need to establish themselves in autumn when the soil has cooled down sufficiently, but is still warm enough for good growth. You should try to get at least 6 to 8 weeks of good growth on your winter veggies before the major frosts come, anything less and your plants will struggle over the really cold June and July period. Also, remember that in very cold regions June and July are not good months to sow seeds.

If you live in a region which receives early frosts, for slower maturing varieties like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, it’s too late to sow seeds, and it will be worth your while to purchase trays of established seedlings from your garden centre.

Broad beans with pretty white Primula malacoides blooming in front.Broad beans with pretty white Primula malacoides blooming in front.The usual planting time for a winter garden is March, April and May, but in warm frost free areas, most winter crops can be planted throughout winter. In these warmer regions, continue to sow seeds of vegetables that you can plant out into the garden once the weather cools down. In sub-tropical regions March is the last month to plant onions, and April is the last month to plant green peppers. Otherwise, cabbage, spinach, beetroot, tomato, beans, peas, coriander, rocket, chillies, carrot, lettuce, gem squash and butternut can all still be planted.

Although lettuce, spinach, cabbage, mustard greens, kale and turnips generally grow best in cooler weather, there are varieties that are more tolerant of severe cold than others, and there are also those which are more tolerant of warmer temperatures than other varieties. Heat-tolerant varieties which are slower to bolt or produce a seed stalk are grown in the summer months, and are also more suitable for subtropical regions. For this reason it is very important to purchase seeds from a reputable garden centre which will have the right varieties on their shelves for your region, at the correct time of the year.

Root crops like carrots, beetroot, radishes, parsnips, leeks, late season onions, shallots, kohlrabi, garlic and turnips all thrive in winter. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, oriental cabbages, cauliflower, celery, broad beans, lettuce, peas, Swiss chard, kale, true spinach, mustard, endives, mizuna and Asian greens like pak choi and tatsoi also do best in the colder months.
Most vegetables, and especially winter ones, need plenty of sunshine, good well drained soil, and regular watering. It is vital to prepare the beds thoroughly about 2 weeks before planting, incorporating lots of compost, a generous dressing of bone meal and a balanced organic fertiliser. In acid soils a dressing of agricultural lime can be added. Look out for worm pellets, called vermicomposting, or volcanic rock dust, which both work especially well with vegetables. Once the soil temperatures have dropped significantly you can start planting your first seedlings out into the garden. Try to do this early in the morning, and water thoroughly afterwards.

Broccoli loves cold weather!Broccoli loves cold weather!Whether you are growing in the ground or in raised beds, the secret to keeping vegetables happy and flourishing throughout the year is mulching. Mulching with organic materials like leaves, dry grass clippings, mature kraal manure or compost, and even straw, will keep the roots cool and moist in summer, and warm in winter.

Try to select a sheltered spot in the garden to grow your vegetables, as hot drying summer winds and freezing cold winter winds could destroy your crops, but remember that vegetables still need a good air flow around their leaves. If you do not have a sheltered spot, building permanent walls or installing wooden trellises may be a solution; or temporary windbreaks can be built using shade cloth, bamboo or other materials. These temporary windbreaks will serve as protection until planted windbreaks mature.

Peas and spinach grow well together.Peas and spinach grow well together.Many plants can be planted as windbreaks, but be careful that they do not grow too large and are suitable for your region. Smaller plants like lavender and rosemary are good examples, but one plant which is often overlooked is the beautiful Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica). Despite its common name, Nandina is not bamboo and does not spread like bamboo. It grows in sun or shade, is cold hardy and makes an excellent windbreak. The tall straight stems also make surprisingly strong and long-lasting plant stakes if they are cut right down to the ground and allowed to dry out.  Its height and spread can also be controlled by pruning. Visit your local garden centre for the best advice on what to plant, the choices are endless.

For the average family garden it is best to plant out smaller quantities of vegetables at regular intervals during the growing season, rather than planting too much all at once. Successive sowing and planting will ensure a more continuous harvest of crops, rather than a huge quantity all at once. Remember to plant larger growing varieties of vegetables on the south side of your vegetable garden where they will still benefit from plenty of winter sunshine, but where they will not overshadow smaller growing crops. To save space in smaller veggie patches it is best to plant crops in small squares, rather than in long rows.  Once your veggies are planted, water and feed them regularly so that they can become well established before winter really sets in.

Eco Tip: Protect newly planted vegetable seedlings from small pets and bad weather by recycling plastic bottles and yogurt tubs. Cut off the bases, remove the tops, and bury the containers into the ground over the newly planted seedlings. Buried bottles, with just the screw top open, will still allow for watering and air flow, while creating a perfect miniature microclimate inside the bottle for your plants to thrive. Keep the tops in case you see a bad storm coming and can rush outside to place the tops on the tubs  – well worth the effort if it will save your newly planted seedlings from harm! Remove the coverings once the seedlings are nicely established.

Raised beds. Picture courtesy Benjamin Hayes Raised beds. Picture courtesy Benjamin Hayes Ease and convenience are the benefits gardeners appreciate the most when growing vegetables in raised beds, but there are many other advantages. Because a good soil structure with perfect drainage is easy to obtain in raised beds, they are the answer if your soil is less than perfect, and especially if it is heavy clay. In spring, the soil will warm up earlier in raised beds, allowing you to sow summer crops earlier. The soil will also stay warmer for longer in autumn, increasing your harvesting time for late summer crops. If the soil is mulched thickly in winter, the temperature inside a raised bed will be a few degrees warmer than garden beds, keeping your winter crops growing well through the coldest months.  

A disadvantage of raised beds is that they will dry out faster than in-ground beds, especially during hot sunny weather and on windy days. Soaker hoses and mulches are essential to cut down on the amount of water you use.

Space can also be used most effectively in raised beds, and there is no soil compaction from walking over the beds, and thus less digging over is required.  Vegetables growing in raised beds will also receive more sun and air circulation than those in garden beds, helping to keep them healthy. Long-rooted plants like carrots do especially well in raised beds because there are no stones to hinder their development. Herbs like mint or horseradish, which can become invasive in the garden, are also ideal to contain in raised beds.

You can build a raised bed using a number of non-toxic materials like planks, bricks, pavers, or even large stones. If you are using wooden planks for construction and don't want nasty chemicals leaching into the soil, leave the planks untreated. Depending on the wood used, the life-span of an untreated plank is several years, and this is not bad considering all the advantages of this system.
Avoid pressure-treated lumber and stay away from creosote coated beams. Old car tyres will also leach harmful chemicals into the soil.

When building your raised beds do not make them too large or it will be awkward to tend to the vegetables growing in the middle, rather construct several small beds. Before building and placing your raised bed, dig the soil over at ground level to a depth of about 20cm, if your raised bed is also 20cm high, this will give you a total depth of 40cm to grow your vegetables in. Fill the bed with good topsoil, enriched with compost and manure. Soil fertility can be maintained by adding organic matter regularly.

Growing your own vegetables can be most rewarding and a lot of fun, but don’t bite off more than you can chew, by sowing or planting more than you can realistically look after, and don’t despair if you have a few failures – this is all part of the learning curve. You will soon learn which varieties do best in your garden and how much to sow for your family’s needs. Once you “get the hang of it” your veggie garden will be overflowing with delicious home grown, organic produce.

“Growing Vegetables in South Africa” e-book has all the information you need to know about growing your own vegetables at home and includes all the commonly grown veggies as well some more unusual ones.

All 100 pages of this e-book are jam-packed with good advice and the instructions are so easy to follow, that even a child could understand. In fact, growing your own veggies can be so much fun that the whole family will want to get involved.

Whether you want to grow vegetables in the conventional manner, or are keen to practice companion planting and organic methods, if you follow the growing instructions in my e-book you will soon be harvesting your very first crops, and nothing is more rewarding than that first meal, using your own home grown produce.