Winter vegetables? Winter is likely the furthest thing from your mind as you wander among the lush rows of lettuce in your garden. I have no room, you sigh, eyeing that remaining patch of lawn. But don’t despair—winter vegetables can actually fit quite readily into your existing garden. Start them this summer, and just think: in January, you’ll be able to walk on past the dollar-a-leaf organic kale at the market.
With the exception of mustards and field peas (which are best direct-sown), winter veggies are seeded from late June through August, then raised as transplants. Sow seed thinly in a reliable seed-starter mix. Four or five weeks later, you’ll have a husky plant that will withstand winter cold. Then, simply plug your transplants, or “starts,” into the space left by peas and other vacating vegetables. Winter vegetables are light feeders; your already-well-fed garden needs only a light sprinkling of complete organic fertilizer at planting time.
One caveat: these veggies dislike heat, so starting them in summer requires a bit of staging on your part. Rear seedlings outdoors in partial shade (morning light is fine); the dappled light under trees is ideal. Use a table or bench to keep seedlings away from marauding slugs. Regular maintenance is easy, since you’re watering the summer garden anyway. Fertilize seedlings weekly with half strength of one part each liquid fish and kelp emulsion.
Here are eight winter veggie picks that will thrive in mild-winter climes, but I’ve also included recommendations from gardener friends who grow in colder zones. For more winter protection, consider row covers, or turn a raised bed into a mini-greenhouse with a “clip” system.
I’ve also provided some simple but delicious recipe suggestions to get you started on enjoying your harvest of tasty and nutritious greens this winter.
Lovely and aromatic when braised with tomatoes and herbs in a classic Niçoise-style dish, this Allium tolerates part shade, while its roots improve soil tilth. Sow winter-proof varieties like Siegfried Frost in July, eight to 10 seeds per pot. When they reach 10 to 12.5 centimetres tall, transplant them 7.5 centimetres apart. Periodically hill soil up around your leeks as they grow to create tender, blanched stems.
Tuck leeks into containers; their willowy form enhances decorative kale and winter pansies. The nectar-rich blue flowers are loved by pollinating insects.
Leek & Barley Soup
Precook 1 c. (250 mL) barley in 8 c. (2 L) water until al dente, about 30 minutes. Drain.
Sauté 2-3 c. (500-750 mL) sliced leeks in butter until soft. Combine barley and leeks with enough vegetable or chicken broth (or water) to cover. Simmer about 40 minutes.
Adjust seasonings, and if desired, garnish with parsley and a squeeze of lemon.
Brits know these as cabbage greens—their huge, flat leaves are really unruly opened-up cabbages. Frost is mandatory to bring out their sweet taste, and one or two leaves make a meal. Collards are loaded with iron and calcium. Raise as transplants in July.
Try them chopped, sautéed with bacon and onions—they’re so delicious you’ll always want collards in your winter garden!
Also try: mache, endive, radicchio, arugula, broccoli raab.
Young Scottish lassies of yore practiced soothsaying with kale. As she pulled the leaves off the stalk, the girl would call out names like “Jock!” or “Hamish!”, the last leaf predicting who her future husband would be. While the accuracy of kale in fortune-telling has yet to be proven, at the very least, kale’s many assets include being tough, easily grown and nutritious.
Try Red Russian, Redbor, Dinosaur (Lacinato) and other varieties. Give the big plants room—half a dozen of these can feed a family. Kale is a favourite of Mary Ballon, winter vegetable aficionado and owner of West Coast Seeds in Vancouver. It reliably self-sows, so relaxed (non-weeding) gardeners will have it forever.
Delicious steamed, drizzled with butter, or chopped and simmered in soup with potatoes, white beans, sausage and lots of garlic.
Once upon a time in Switzerland, a lonely beet shrivelled in the freezing ground. The greens kept growing—et voilà, Swiss chard! I especially love Bright Lights, with its stems and mid-ribs in every colour of the rainbow except blue. Harvest by cutting the outer leaves with a sharp knife.
Use in a multitude of ways: chopped in pastas, soups, even desserts like a semi-sweet torta featuring Swiss chard, ricotta cheese and rum-soaked raisins. Italian cooks love the stems….
Swiss Chard Stems in Blackened Butter
Steam 10-centimetre lengths of chard stems (2-3 big handfuls) until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Over medium heat, melt 3 tbsp. (15 mL) butter in a skillet, add 6-8 (or more) fresh sage leaves, and sauté until the butter browns and the sage is slightly crisp.
Add 2 tsp. (10 mL) capers, along with the drained stems, and sauté 3-4 minutes.
A star pick for your winter garden is an heirloom that originated in France in l885, Rouge d’Hiver. This prima donna is tough enough to withstand frost. Seed transplants July through August.
Also try: Winter Density green romaine and Merveille des Quatre Saisons (Continuity), a butterhead for mild winters, whose pink-bronze colouration becomes glorious in the cold.
Winter Lettuce Salad Composée
Combine winter lettuce leaves with slivers of fennel; arrange on plate.
Top with cooled, cooked sliced beets and sprinkle with toasted walnuts.
Dress with a simple walnut oil/balsamic vinaigrette, and a snip of chives or parsley from your winter garden.
Also called mustard greens, these three Brassicas are idiot-proof, tolerating poor soil, freezing and snow. Best direct-sown sparingly (germination rates are generally excellent) in August, or even September on the coast.
Use the thinnings in salads, in stir-fries, or to add homegrown crunch to sandwiches.
Quick Dressing for Asian Greens
Boil together 5 tbsp. (75 mL) rice vinegar and 2 tsp. (10 mL) sugar. Heat until mixture is reduced by half, about 1 minute.
Add 1 tsp. (5 mL) each minced garlic, grated fresh ginger, tamari, and olive and sesame oils.
Fringed mizuna’s delicate appearance belies a tough nature. Arzeena Hamir of Terra Viva Organics, a Vancouver-based purveyor of organic gardening needs, favours these feathery, mild-tasting greens and serves them at Christmas dinner. Mizuna is easy to grow: “Toss the seed in—don’t worry about thinning!” laughs Arzeena. To appreciate mizuna’s attractive symmetry, however, thin to 25 centimetres between plants.
It’s lovely raw, or try steaming the leaves briefly, then drizzle with an Asian-inspired dressing.
Tah Tsai, tatsoi… whatever! Patrick Steiner of Stellar Seeds in Sorrento (zone 3-4) loves growing these delicately flavoured, spoon-shaped greens. Tah Tsai begins as diminutive edible edging, and expands to the size of a large, shiny-leafed African violet. Carefully thin to an eventual spacing of 20 to 25 centimetres—they bolt if crowded. Toss thinnings into salads or stir-fries.
Enjoy whole baby rosettes steamed for 45 seconds, then anointed with dark sesame oil, a dash of tamari and a touch of grated ginger root.
Also try: Komatsuna (Japanese “spinach/mustard”).
Giant Red Mustard
Calcium, iron and beauty in a single package, Giant Red gives new meaning to the description “holds well in the garden.” The plant can be frozen, thawed, snowed on, transferred from garden to pot in January—and you can still eat it. Thin 25 to 30 centimetres apart to achieve sturdy, statuesque purple/red rosettes.
Old leaves contain more heat, but their mustard-like tang works well in stir-fries and soups.
Giant Red Potsticker Soup
Simmer purchased frozen wontons or potstickers (available at Asian markets) in vegetable broth.
Add Giant Red leaves at the end, when wontons are done.
Minced ginger root, thinly sliced scallions and a drizzle of dark sesame oil complete this heart-warming winter soup.