It’s high summer and your vegetable plot is inordinately productive. For the vast majority of grow-your-owners, May to September represents delicious abundance, while October to early spring implies miserly dearth. To understand that this is not the case takes a leap of faith and a commitment, but trust me: this gardening graduation from fair-weather, sun-kissed hobbyist to rosy-cheeked, thermal-donned buccaneer will reward you well. Crinkled savoy cabbages and Tuscan kales of the deepest emerald green, succulent spears of purple sprouting broccoli, crunchy, sweet, finger-sized carrots and plump leeks are all easily within your reach. Is there a catch? Well, only that you need to act now to reap the benefits later.
Cauliflowers, cabbages and kale, plus brussels sprouts and sprouting broccoli, come under this label. While these long-season crops should have been sown back in April, it’s still possible to get hold of plug plants from garden centres and nurseries – look for F1 hybrid varieties (cauliflower ‘Boris’, for example, or purple sprouting ‘Red Fire’ and cabbage ‘Tundra’), because they’re more vigorous. Plug plants (professionally raised in greenhouses) are ideal for first-time growers.
Plant them in an open, sunny site with caulis, cabbages and kale 40cm apart each way; Brussels sprouts 50cm apart; and the sizeable purple sprouting at 80cm widths.
Push 5ft-tall bamboo canes around the edge of the bed, top with an upturned plant pot and cloak the lot in butterfly netting. Water in dry summer spells and hoe occasionally until they get established.
It’s too late to sow them this year, but have a word with allotment holders – they are bound to have some spare seedlings. Leeks are planted “bare-root” (ie with no compost around their roots), so, if you are given a clump, water it well then thin into single plants. An open, sunny site deters fungal problems such as rust. Make holes 10-15cm deep with a dibber (or a stick) at 20-25cm spacings. Drop a leek plant into each one, water it in well and then cover the bed with fine, insect-proof mesh to protect against leek moth and allium leaf miner. The odd hoe and water till the weather cools down is all the attention they need.
Here’s a nifty trick: if you sow carrots later in the summer (ie between now and early August), the cold weather will halt their growth. The result? Delicious baby carrots from October to April. ‘Autumn King’ types are renowned for winter hardiness, so opt for these if you garden alongside or above the Pennines; otherwise, any type seems to work.
Sowing in dry soil can be tricky, so make your drill slightly deeper than normal (4-5cm) and give it a thorough soaking. Once sown, cover with earth and firm it down well, but don’t water in. Don’t risk root-fly attack; prevent it by covering the whole row in fine, insect-proof mesh (such as Enviromesh).
Spinach and swiss chard
Leafy beets, sweated down in butter and liberally dressed with black pepper, make a nutrient and flavour-rich side dish. A single row of perpetual spinach or swiss chard started off now will stand all winter, only becoming inedible as it runs to seed in April. There’s only one variety of perpetual spinach, but you will find numerous forms of swiss chard: white-stemmed ‘Lucullus’, multicoloured ‘Bright Lights’ and, my favourite for flavour, red-stemmed ‘Fantasy’.
August sowings can be too slow to bulk up in short summers, so squeeze a row in now, keeping it well watered until it’s established. A drill of each, 3 metres long, will provide ample pickings for a family of four. It doesn’t need cloching and, in winter, avoids any pests and diseases.
Hardy salad leaves
Hardy leaves provide wonderful ingredients: rocket, landcress, mizuna, komatsuna, mustard, winter purslane, corn salad (lamb’s lettuce), endive, chicory and radicchio – your culinary repertoire won’t know what has hit it. Hardy salads thrive in cool, wet weather, but it’s too late to sow them in autumn if you plan to crop them outside. Follow the same guidelines for sowing carrots and give them a good dousing in times of drought. Covering them with a glass or rigid plastic cloche in late October keeps them soft and palatable right through till they run to flower in April.