Is 'Winter Veg' a misnomer?

No, of course it’s not.  What sort of crazy author-generated question is that?

But I’ve often wondered about it, as in many of the cooler climates around Australia, vegetables don’t really grow over the winter They might be able to be picked over the winter, but what you’ve got, in effect, is an outdoor refrigeration system.  Most of the growing has to be done in the lead up to winter.  It took me an embarrassing number of years of failed winter crops to work this out.

To be fair to myself (and on this rare occasion, I’ll allow it), it’s inevitable that when some vegetables are labelled as winter vegies, you’ll try and grow them then – that you’ll start to plant them as winter arrives.  The ‘winter veg’ label may not be a misnomer, but it is misleading.  They’re winter croppers, not winter growers.  The trick with them is to date back from when growth tends to slow or stop due to the cold in your zone (and even plants that love the cold can’t grow fast then, as respiration rates slow right down), and to plant or sow with enough time for maturity to be achieved before this time.  The time required will depend on the plant.  Broccoli might take ten or twelve weeks to mature, while leeks might take twenty.  If you haven’t left enough time before the onset of cold, all you’ll wind up with is shivering, frightened seedlings sitting around all winter, and nothing to eat.

It’s sometime in May, for me, when growth comes to a grinding halt.  If I don’t have broccoli seedlings in by March, I may as well forget it.  But if I nail the timing with something like calabrese (which has a long season of smallish broccoli heads), the first heads will be pickable in late May, early June, and there’ll be just enough growth that I’ll be able to keep picking pretty much until spring.

Check out these broccoli plants.  The pic on the left shows the current state of broccoli sown on the first of Feb, while those in the centre pic would have been sown three or four weeks earlier.  Both have virtually stopped growing, so those on the left won’t get to cropping size until well into spring.  That’s useless.  I’d have starved by then, if I hadn’t already started picking from those in the right pic (which I confess were bought as seedlings from a nursery, who clearly had the brains to sow them at the right time)

The same is true of my chervil.  I didn’t think to sow it until April 3 – way too late for it to get to picking size before being slowed down by the onset of chilly weather.  The consequent plants look like the pic on the left, and won’t really change for the winter.  Pathetic, and unpickable (well, I could pick from them, but I’d need to strip them entirely, and they’re now growing so slowly there wouldn’t be anything more to pick for months). The pic on the right is of a single plant that self-sowed about a month earlier, from seed in the soil from last year’s crop.  It won’t change much over the winter, either, but check out the difference – plenty of pickability.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that as everything grows slower over winter, you’ll need more plants from which to pick than you do in the warmer months.  Parsley grows so fast over late spring, summer and early autumn that a couple of plants can supply a family.  You’ll want at least three times that number of plants over winter, as there’ll be minimal recovery between pickings.

Of course it’s all different in Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide, where minimum temps allow for a lot more winter growth.  But it’s still a game of timing – enough to allow for a decade of two of frustrating mistakes, if you’re like me.

Damn, I wish someone had told me all this twenty years ago..

but would I have listened if they had?

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