With the approach of winter tasks in the vegetable garden will be coming fewer. There may still be some crops still to harvest, such as beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leeks, leaf chicory (endive (frisee), scarole and radicchio) and some of the more hardy ones like swiss chard and cavolo nero (black Tuscan kale) should carry on all through the winter. Mainly however it is a time for cleaning up and preparing for the next season.
December and January is the time for digging as starting earlier is likely to encourage the germination of weeds with a thick covering of weeds over the whole of the dug area by spring. Digging is however a controversial matter, with many gardening writers saying it is unnecessary and prone to cause injury to the back. I once heard a member of the BBC’s Gardening Question Time team say that the proudest achievement in his gardening year was to have done no digging at all! Personally, I think it is useful as long as your back is up to it, as the frost breaks up roughly dug ground, especially of lumpy London clay, in a wonderful way for the following season. It also enables the soil to be enriched and its texture improved by the digging in of well rotted compost or manure. If not done too early, it also suppresses the growth of weeds.
Some crops can be planted in November/December such as broad beans and garlic and left to overwinter. Individual cloves of garlic should be pushed into dug earth, about 6 inches apart, so that their tips are barely covered by the soil. The old saying is that they should be planted on the shortest day of the year and harvested on the longest, but they are usually ready to lift well before June.
If the vegetable plot is of any size, for example an allotment, it is a good idea to draw up a plan of what will be planted where, including planning for a second crop in the same year on previously cultivated ground. Early crops of broad beans, early potatoes, dwarf beans and peas will be harvested by about the end of July and their space can be lightly dug over and replanted with another crop for harvesting later in the year or during the winter, such as Swiss chard, cavolo nero and leaf chicory. Leaf chicory makes excellent winter salading; good varieties are Variegated Castelfranco, which produces a good head of light green leaves with red markings, and Sugar Loaf, which produces a head like a large cos lettuce but is much hardier. Leaf chicory is crisp and slightly bitter, very popular on the continent but much less so in Britain, though often bought, expensively by weight in packets in supermarkets under such names such as mixed Italian salad leaves. To give these late planted crops a good start, it is wise to sow them in seed pots in mid June, with the seedlings pricked out into seed trays as soon as they are large enough to handle. These will grow to small plants to be planted out in the garden as soon as the space comes available.
Winter salad plants need some protection from slugs, especially small recently hatched ones which crawl into the hearts and can reduce them to a lace-like condition. Blue slug pellets are another controversial issue and are widely believed to cause damage to birds and other wildlife though there in fact appears to be little evidence that this is so if they are applied in accordance with the instructions, that is to say spread thinly and not in heaps.
Avoid planting too much of any particular crop, particularly of things as prolific as runner beans as most of the crop can go to waste. Successional sowings every two or three weeks of things like lettuce, peas and dwarf beans should be made to avoid the whole crop becoming mature at the same time.