Start planning your winter food garden now, before summer becomes autumn, as dictated by the March solstice.
Something of a mind shift is required to start planning your winter food garden in March, when all the summer vegetables are at the peak of their production. Nevertheless, it needs to be done, because by April it is too late.
Start by reviewing what is in your garden. Remove plants that are at the end of their productive life, especially those with diseases. Be quite ruthless about this so that fresh compost can be added to the beds.
Diseases and pests
The cooler temperatures, heavier dew and end of season rains create favourable conditions for mildew and other fungus diseases. The vegetables most likely to be affected are tomatoes, long season squashes, like butternut and gem squash, as well as runner beans. Mildew is unsightly but won’t kill a plant. To keep the disease load under control take corrective action by using a fungicide recommended by your garden centre. Pests are less active, except in the Western Cape where red spider may be a problem because of the hot, dry weather. Sufficient watering should keep infestations at bay.
Put a plan on paper
Once you’ve taken stock of the garden and estimated how many more weeks of harvest are left, decide on your winter crops. These must be in the ground by the end of this month, or early April, so that they are well established before the cold sets in.
What to grow
Unlike the summer crop, there are fewer vegetables that grow through winter which means that fewer beds are needed for root vegetables, salads, legumes and brassicas. Grow what your family enjoys eating. For instance, the idea of growing broccoli may be appealing but if the family doesn’t eat it, it is a waste of money. Rather devote more space to cool season salad crops and herbs like lettuce, rocket, coriander, oriental vegetables and dill.
Good to know:
Some winter crops need to be sown from January but if you don’t have space in the garden, sow and grow them in pots or trays until space becomes available.
When planning which beds to use, make sure that you don’t plant long crops in beds that are needed for early spring planting. Beds that will not be used for vegetables in winter can be filled with a green manure or a compost crop. Suitable crops include garden peas, bush beans, mustard and linseed. A green manure is dug into the soil when the plants start flowering and a compost crop is cut and removed to the compost pile. A third option is to leave the beds fallow and allow them to rest. A layer of mulch, weed-Gard or plastic can be laid over the bed to prevent weeds. However, in a food garden less than five years old it makes more sense to build up the soil’s organic content by growing a cover crop.
From March the angle of the sun is lower and the intensity of the rays becomes milder. The difference between summer and winter light is sufficient to require food gardeners to factor this into their planning. In winter full sun throughout the day is very important, whereas in summer the ideal is morning sun and afternoon shade. Keen observation may also show that the sun favours some beds in summer and others in winter, or arrives earlier in some parts of the garden.
Keep detailed records
Every garden is different, as are your individual tastes and expertise, so it’s imperative that you keep a record of everything you do – including how the light changes with the seasons. Do this and you will be amazed at how much easier planning will be the following year.
Information supplied by Mayford Seeds and Di-Di Hoffman of Bouquet Garni Nursery, potted herb grower and marketer. Visit Di-Di at www.herb.co.za to subscribe to his free weekly Go Food Gardening newsletter.