The winter vegetable garden

news: The winter vegetable garden

During the autumn and winter the Algarve climate is still mild enough to allow us to make use of the vegetable garden. In the last couple of months many gardeners will have started off their brassicas (cauliflower, cabbages etc) and will be transplanting them now. Depending upon the type grown, these will remain in the soil from now until early spring. Tomatoes and courgettes will carry on producing until the wet weather finally rots the stems, as will pumpkins. Peppers should carry on maturing well into winter.

The problems

No matter what you do, come November there will begin to appear chunks of land with nothing growing. Many Algarvean gardeners tend to leave these summer vegetable patches to their own devices over the winter, only returning in February or March. The usual approach is to drench the whole area in chemical weed killer, dig or burn off the killed weeds, add some rotted manure and then begin planting again a few weeks later, once it has been rained in. Although this works perfectly well for many people, it does have a downside. If one is trying to be kind to the environment, liberal quantities of herbicides tend to stick in the throat a little. Without them though, weeding would become a mammoth task. As well as the chemical issue, is the issue of wasted land – I hate to see good land sitting doing nothing when it could be producing wholesome food.

The solution

There is a solution – a way of thwarting weeds, preventing soil erosion and avoiding chemicals whilst enriching the soil, as well as providing vitamin rich vegetables, at a time when they will be appreciated. The solution, I believe, lies with broad beans and the humble garden pea. Both plants can be planted from October to November. Both survive the Algarve winter unscathed and go on to give peas and beans in March and April, a time when few other fresh vegetables are available. Not only do they grow well, they grow densely enough to prevent weed seeds germinating and, as they are legumes, they actually fix nitrogen from the air, adding it to the soil, leaving the soil more nitrogen rich than when it started. Once you have harvested the beans, the plants can be dug in as a green manure in time for the spring rains, or added to the compost heap.

Preparing for planting beans and peas

Broad beans (favas) and peas (ervilhas) have similar requirements. The soil doesn’t need to be particularly rich, but needs to start off weed-free. Dig the soil over and clear it of weeds any time now (mid-September). If you know the soil to be acid, add some lime now and leave it for a month, watering it in well if there is no rain. Remove any weeds as they appear. In a month’s time, (mid-October) add some well-rotted manure or fertiliser, allow this a couple of weeks to be rained in. Mid-October to mid-November is the best time to plant your seeds. Below is the method for growing broad beans, next month we’ll cover peas.

Broad beans

Buy beans for planting from an agricultural store or from a market and make sure they are suitable for planting. The beans you buy like this should be appropriate for your area and offer excellent value for money, giving about 20 times as many plants for the same cost as the ones packed by seed companies. Plant the beans in shallow trenches, spacing them about 25-30cm apart (this gives a better crop than planting them close together). Push them to a depth of about five centimetres.

The first shoots should appear in a couple of weeks and will grow vigorously. Growth may slow down during December and January, but the plants should be compact and sturdy enough to withstand strong winds

Usually very little watering is required apart from the first few weeks and perhaps to extend the crop into April. Just ensure the ground does not dry out below the surface. Beautifully scented white and black flowers will appear between February and April, followed by the beans. These can be harvested very small, when the pods are still tender and cooked whole. Alternatively, you can wait until the pods just begin to swell with the outline of the beans showing in the pod. These need to be picked, podded and the beans boiled or sautéed. At this stage the beans can be frozen quite successfully, although you will need to blanche them in boiling water first.

The Portuguese tend to leave the pods until they are huge and gnarled. The beans at this stage are a lot tougher, each bean has an outer skin that needs to be removed and the beans have an altogether different taste – sweeter and more nutty. At this stage they can be podded and dried for storage. English language books suggest that the beans at this stage are overripe and virtually inedible. I tended to agree, until last year when a neighbour gave me a recipe for Fava Rica. Suddenly it all made sense.