What to plant now for winter
One of the things that often trips up vegetable gardeners is the time a seed or small seedling takes to grow to harvest. Crops like leeks, for example, are notoriously slow, taking three and a half to four months before you have something of a decent enough size to eat. And if you leave planting them until late autumn they will take even longer as very little growth happens over winter. From seed, leeks will take six to eight weeks before they are ready to plant out, so if you want them for winter you need to be planting leek seedlings (not seeds) now.
Broccoli and cauliflower take two or three months to grow, depending on weather conditions and variety, so you’ll need to plant seedlings over the next few weeks to be harvesting from late autumn through the winter. I like to plant six to 12 plants (a mixture of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower) two or three times during the month of February to get a continuous supply throughout winter.
Kale and brussels sprouts can all go in as one planting, because you can continuously pick both of these crops.
White butterfly is a real scourge at this time of year, as are slugs, and you will need to be vigilant to keep your seedlings bug-free. It’s such a disappointment to come out in the morning and discover your tender seedlings have been demolished. I use neem oil or pyrethrum and there is a new organic product called No More Caterpillars that seems to work well. Down in the south we don’t get the same problems with slugs as we do in our Auckland garden, where they are rampant. Small dishes of beer will drown them and fine sand around the plants puts them off.
Some vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, beets and leeks, will stay in the ground without going to seed right through to the spring, when the lengthening days kick off the message to send them to seed. On the other hand, once a broccoli or cauliflower head is in effect the flowering bud won’t hold its firm, tight head for long – longer, certainly, in the winter than the summer (when you have just a few days to harvest), but nonetheless you are better to pick broccoli and cauliflower as soon as they are ready rather than leave them to start going into flower, as this toughens the stalks. If you have too many ready at once, store them in the fridge in a sealed bag or container and they will keep fresh and green for about a week.
What to do with your current harvest
My idea of menu planning is a leisurely wander around the garden in the early evening, picking whatever is ready and then using it as the basis of that night’s dinner. At the moment my Wanaka garden is overflowing with mountains of tomatoes, artichokes, zucchini and corn, all ripe for the picking. Plus, the trees are laden with delicious sun-ripened stone fruits including sweet, juicy cherries, apricots, nectarines and plums. I'm in heaven!
Some of my favourite flavour combinations at this time of year are crunchy vegetables enhanced by the earthiness of nuts and seeds, as in my Crisp Cauliflower & Cashew Salad and Stirfry Cabbage with Sesame Seeds.
If this up-and-down weather has got you hankering for something a little more substantial, try my Leek & Mushroom Chicken Pot Pie. My discovery of the week, though, is the simplest salad made with raw beets and fennel with the added depth of walnuts and a salty hit of goat cheese.
Beet, Fennel, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad
Quantities can vary according to your preference, but for four people I use two medium beets, peeled and cut with a mandolin into the thinnest possible slices (you really do need a mandolin to get the beets and fennel fine enough). Arrange these onto serving plates. Shave one or two raw fennel bulbs equally as thinly and pile on top of the beets. Sprinkle with a small handful of fresh walnuts and a crumble of goat cheese, then spoon a little extra virgin olive oil over the top. Finally drizzle a teaspoon of pomegranate molasses around the plate – it’s the magic ingredient that brings it all together. Season and serve. Fabulous!