Autumn sowing in the veggie patch

Posted on: 04 October 2018 by 50connect editorial

Spring and early summer are not the only times of the year when we should think about sowing our vegetables.

vegetable patch planting

Spring and early summer are not the only times of the year when we should think about sowing our vegetables. I do a lot of my sowing in late summer and autumn, using recently occupied ground following potatoes, carrots and other crops which have been cleared. The advantages of sowing in autumn are that the soil is still warm and there's usually, by mid-September at least, plenty of available moisture so the seeds don't usually need watering in. Also, the weather's nearly always warm and pleasant for sowing in, and there's not a great rush to get everything sown all at once as there is in the spring. The only drawback is that the ground is not always unoccupied. Vegetables for autumn sowing fall into two categories:

  • Crops which are to be harvested before the end of autumn and into early winter, such as quick growing radish and salad crops.
  • Vegetables which germinate in autumn to then over-winter to provide a spring harvest, or for the earliest growth the following year -- peas and broad beans, for instance.

In the first category, it's important that seeds are sown before the end of September if they are to be given a sporting chance of developing sufficiently to give a worthwhile crop, be it of leaves or of young roots. If they are sown a little late, it is always possible to give them a bit of cloche protection to keep the first frosts off. Weather protection is important when it comes to growing winter salads; not so much to keep the frost off (most are quite hardy enough, hence their suitability for the purpose) but more to keep the winter rains and winds from damaging the leaves. Which is where a polytunnel comes in particularly handy. If you are growing in a tunnel or glasshouse, it's possible to keep sowing salads up to the end of October.

In the second category, they should actually be sown no earlier than mid October in most cases. It's important that plants sown for overwintering are not encouraged to make too much growth before the onset of winter, hence the later sowing date. If too much growth is made, they can sometimes be too lush to survive the worst winter weather, and few will survive. One of the most common reasons for broad beans to fail from an autumn sowing is if they have grown too tall -- they then wind-rock and suffer irreparable damage to their roots.

Coriander

Winter salads

I reckon there is a greater diversity of winter salads than there are summer ones. It is during winter when they are most appreciated, providing valuable vitamins when they are most needed. Remember, these are all salads for autumn sowing: some winter salads, like chicory, for instance, need starting earlier in the year for them to be worthwhile.

  • Chinese Mustard Green in Snow. A particularly hardy type of mustard, mild in flavour and resistant to the weather. Suitable for growing outside throughout the year, although spring sowings tend to run straight to seed.
  • Cima di Rapa Quarantina. An Italian winter green which is only suitable for autumn or early spring sowing: summer sowings run straight to seed. Quick to mature, providing tasty greens in late autumn and early winter.
  • Coriander. Coriander is much less likely to run to seed, in my experience, if sown in autumn. Much hardier than received wisdom would suggest, it will withstand very severe weather without cloche or tunnel protection. One of the tastiest and most useful greens.
  • Corn Salad. Any of the corn salads are entirely hardy, although the larger leaved types are not so weather proof. A late summer sowing is best if they are to produce strong rosettes. Corn salad gets its name as it germinates after summer wheat has been harvested.
  • Italian Dandelion. Not a true dandelion, but a type of chicory with similar growth to dandelion. Very hardy and the leaves are erect, keeping clear of rain splashes which are apt to spoil many winter leaves.
  • Kale. Normally it is recommended that kales are sown in late spring to early summer. This way, large plants are produced from which leaves can be picked through the winter. But it is possible to sow them as a cut-and-come-again crop, sowing densely and cutting all the leaves when they are large enough. If mild weather prevails, more leaves are produced to replace them. The leaves never get large, but they're very tasty.
  • Lettuce. Most lettuce are not particularly hardy, tending to rot off easily or succumbing to mildew in cold weather. Varieties with an open habit tend to fair better. Black Seeded Simpson is a variety more likely than others to overwinter.
  • Land Cress. Very hardy, and an underrated overwintering green resembling watercress and with a similar flavour.
  • Mitsuba. Not to be confused with mizuna (below). Japanese Parsley is what it is otherwise known as. Like many Oriental greens, it is better sown in autumn or very early spring as at any other time of the year it will run to seed.
  • Mizuna. An extremely useful green, and one of the most weatherproof. Can be used raw or cooked, whole or purÈed. Very ornamental, too.
  • Miner's Lettuce. Or Winter Purslane. Very hardy and weatherproof, only growing through winter -- summer sown plants will run to seed, if they develop at all. Will withstand dry shade and can be established under trees. Fleshy leaves are a particular treat in a mixed salad.
  • Pink Purslane. A relatively recent introduction, with similarities to Miner's Lettuce but with larger leaves and attractive pink flowers; the flowers can be eaten, too.
  • Winter Radish. Roots are just as valuable in a winter salad as leaves. Winter radish mature through autumn to yield in late winter. Black Spanish Round, for instance, is especially hardy, while Red Meat has an interesting red core which is particularly striking on the plate when sliced.

sweet cicely

Overwintered Crops

These need to be sown in autumn but will only give a worthwhile yield the following spring.

  • Alexanders. This gives a flush of useful greens with lengthening days in early spring. A common hedgerow plant, the leaves are tasty and nutritious.
  • Good King Henry. This one's a bit of an odd one out in that it's actually a perennial. However, it will not germinate unless the seeds are sown in autumn. Only after they have experienced winter cold and thawing will they germinate the following spring.
  • Herb Patience. Another perennial, but one which runs to seed if summer sown, but gives a lush crop of useful leaves following an autumn sowing. Germination is improved, too.
  • Hamburg Parsley. This tuberous form of parsley, and indeed any other form of parsley, will not make much growth over winter but will grow away rapidly to give a lush crop of leaves in the spring.
  • Salad Burnet. A tasty herb, useful as an addition to salads. Will not perform well if summer sown, but romps away the following spring from an autumn sowing.
  • Sweet Cicely. Another salad addition enjoying rapid growth in early spring.

 

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