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?


  1. What’s hard to manage is the sacrifice – to plant winter seedlings in March, you need to pull up the summer crops that are still doing well, and that seems such a tregedy and a waste! I’m facing the sacrifice question this week in Sydney where my hibiscus is still sending out glorious orange flags to lighten the gloom, but if I don’t cut it soon, it will miss spring all together.

    1. Yeah, I get that. The only way to deal with it in my climate is to not give the whole growing space over to summer vegetables (which are only really hitting their strides when the winter stuff needs to be planted). I have to give areas over to crops that can finish their life cycle by mid summer like lettuces, beetroot, carrots etc, that are then followed by the winter croppers. The areas given over to the summer stuff either lie fallow for winter, or I’m playing with the possibility of self-sowing some of the cool climate annual herbs like chervil and coriander amongst the tomatoes in, say, March. Then I’d cut the tomatoes off at ground level after frost so as not to disturb the herbs. That may necessitate removing some of the foliage on the tomatoes to let some light in, but this is an old and recognized method of helping to ripen the tomatoes anyway. I know it’s all getting a bit intense and tricksy, but I love exploring these ideas, even if once proven as possible they’re never practised!

      As for the hibiscus dilemma, It’s not one I share, as frost moves through my garden like the passover angel of death sometime in April, and maintains a stronghold until early November. But what I love about the way Isola Bella handles that seasonality is to make sure that the roses are so damned-good in their season that you don’t care that the oleanders aren’t out. In September, I’m guessing I won’t notice the absence of the roses. I’ve never thought of using that sort of succession to address your dilemma, but it could work ie establishing something so fabulous and attention-grabbing in flower right now that you can sneak in and prune the hibiscus without noting the loss. Distraction tactics – throw in a visual decoy!

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