The edible garden in winter – hurray for cabbages!
Like the Algarve, a good-sized (and growing) area of the world has a “Mediterranean” climate. This means that during a large part of the year we have little to no rain, and these arid conditions are among those that can really benefit from permaculture practices, especially so when gardening in the winter.
The winter months are an excellent time to add all types of bulbs, plants, trees and shrubs to your Mediterranean garden. Using raised beds, mulching and adding home-made composts to the vegetable garden adds richness and quality to the soils ready for the new growing season.
Here’s the secret … actually autumn (any time after the first rains) is the start of the best gardening season in Mediterranean climate areas. Winters are better for growing many crops because this is the time when we hope to garden using just the natural rainfall.
If watering is needed, add liquid feed made from borage or comfrey as both can be put into a water butt or a container. Most of the vitamin and mineral-rich leafy vegetables, which go to seed in too-hot summers, grow much better in mild winter climate areas. The ground is still warm even as the air starts to get cooler.
Best autumn plantings are the cool-weather lovers – the leafy vegetables and the root vegetables including almost all the common vegetables of the Brassica (cabbage) family: broccoli and cauliflower (actually we eat the flowers of these two); all cabbages including wonderful local varieties such as Couve-portuguesa, Tronchuda, Galega Lisa and Repolho, collards, kale, mustards; also lettuces, celery, chicory, Swiss chard, endives, spinach, lamb’s lettuce, purslane (beldroegas), and miner’s lettuce/claytonia. Also, the newly-popular “spicy greens”: arugula, broccoli raab, as well as radicchio or rocket. Seed and plant swaps are a good source for local varieties. We are all familiar with the famous perennial cabbage, Couve-galega or Walking Stick cabbage – remove a few leaves at a time rather than the whole head.
Root vegetables to plant now include carrots, parsnips, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, beets and kohlrabi. Crops of the wonderful cabbage family can be grown for their roots as well as their leaves: celeriac and parsley as well as radishes, swedes and turnips.
Although potatoes and the sweet potato are traditionally planted in the spring, they can also be planted in autumn in less exposed Mediterranean climate areas. The tops will be killed by any frost, but the tubers will be very tasty (you may wish to replant by saving your own seed potatoes but be careful of shop-bought potatoes as some are sprayed with hormones to keep them from sprouting).
Carrots can also be grown during the winter in Mediterranean climate areas. Get them off to a good start while the weather is still warm, and they will get through the winter fine and be harvestable for early spring eating.
A good companion planting is carrots with onions to deter pests. The best artichokes are also those grown in the winter because they grow slowly and put on all that tasty “meat” on their leaves.
Also plantable in winter are perennials such as rhubarb, chayote, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), sorrel, salad burnet, currants, Florence fennel, and gooseberries; “weeds” like dock, nettles, sow thistle, dandelions, and shepherd’s purse; traditional favas “broad” beans (like lupins, often planted to enrich the soil but also a great food crop), and snap peas (sugar snap/sugar/China peas); and members of the Allium genus, including garlic and shallots (neither of which will be ready until summer but which need a long growing season), “bulbing” onions, green onions (also called bunching onions or scallions; includes Welsh onions), chives and leeks.
And, if your food forest is established, hopefully you may also be harvesting winter fruits from trees and bushes such as pomegranates, winter apples, persimmon, and all the citrus as well as nuts (including a winter favourite, sweet chestnut). And don’t forget your herb garden and harvesting the newly plump leaves of rosemary, thyme, mint and the aptly named Winter Savory which is great with beans. If you have a greenhouse, the more tender herbs such as basil and coriander can be grown through the winter.
A traditional Christmas Eve supper in Portugal, “Bacalhau Com Todos”, has salt cod cooked with olive oil and lots of winter vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and potatoes – all the better if they come from your own garden!
With grateful thanks to Judith Goldsmith of San Francisco, Permaculture Teacher and Author.