At this time of year, many outdoor growers are winding down their plots. It’s time to clear away tender plants before the first frost, gather in the last of the harvest and make sure the hardy brassicas that can survive the winter weather are protected against marauding pigeons.
For indoor gardeners it’s time to get sowing again to ensure exciting and tasty harvests all through the winter. There are plenty of hardy salad vegetables (such as lamb’s lettuce and land cress) that will thrive during the winter season and are much more tender and productive when grown indoors or with some protection. But the real stars of the autumn show are the Oriental vegetables.
Like the outdoor winter stars — kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts—many Oriental vegetables are in the brassica family. But the resemblance isn’t obvious and once you start to investigate what’s available you’ll find everything from tender salad leaves right through to sprouting broccoli style plants and spicy stir-fry leaves. They’ll all grow rapidly, and right through until spring, if you get the timing right.
If your growing area is unheated and unlit then you need your plants to do most of their growing during the autumn, before temperatures (and more importantly, light levels) drop too low for them to make active growth. They will then happily sit and stay fresh, providing fresh harvests right through until spring when they will suddenly burst into life again.An early spring harvest is their last gift, before they start to flower and can be removed to make way for spring sowings.
With supplementary lighting they can be kept in active growth all winter.The advantage of sowing Oriental crops during late summer and early autumn is that they’re far less likely to bolt (run to seed early) as the days are waning, so do ensure that you’re not mimicking lengthening days with your lights.
The classic Chinese cabbage that produces a tightly formed head (often pointed) is best sown indoors in August, but there are plenty of other leafy vegetables that can be sown in September and October.
Kailaan is an oriental broccoli, but it produces flowering heads on much smaller plants than purple sprouting broccoli and so is much quicker; you can expect a harvest of young shoots in 20 to 30 days, or you can wait for the plant to mature in 60 to 70 days.
Pak choi is a familiar plant to many, in habit very similar to Swiss chard.Young leaves can be harvested individually and used in salad, or again you can leave the plant to mature and harvest the whole thing as a stir-fry vegetable after four to five weeks.
Tatsoi is a smaller relative, forming low-growing rosettes of glossy green leaves that are shaped like spoons. It can also provide continuous pickings of young leaves for the salad bowl, for stir- fries or to be used as a spinach substitute.
Mizuna is a very attractive plant with light-green, feathery leaves. It looks quite similar to rocket and has a peppery flavour that adds a tasty note to salads. Leaves can be harvested when you need them over a period of several months, or you can harvest the whole plant by cutting close to the ground and it will sprout again. The first harvest comes three to four weeks after sowing, and mizuna is a good plant for giving high yields from small spaces.
Mustard greens come in a range of different colours and make a very attractive addition to a salad when the leaves are young.Their spicy flavour increases as the leaves mature, and large leaves are more suited to cooked dishes. Mature plants can be large, reaching up to 60 centimetres depending on the variety.
Oriental brassicas vary in size, but the recommended spacing for plants is around 30 to 40 centimetres (check the seed packet for the spacing for your choices). In the dark days of winter, mildews and fungal diseases are more of an issue so don’t scrimp on spacing as it reduces airflow and increases the risk of disease. It is also important to pay attention to watering (if your plants are growing in soil) as plants that are slow growing in winter have low water requirements and should not be left sitting in cold, wet soil.