Mind the Gap
Brigitte Norland discovers that to successfully grow food over winter, timing is everything. How to Grow Winter Vegetables by Charles Dowding. Green Books, 2011. ISBN: 9781900322881
Winter at 51 degrees north should be fiercer than it is here in southern England; the southern tip of Lake Baikal, for example, whilst at a similar latitude, albeit in higher terrain, endures months of frozen weather. And in this excellent book Charles Dowding shows us how to make the most of our British maritime climate and keep ourselves fed throughout winter by working with stored crops, those yielding in the darker months and others grown under cover.
He defines winter in two parts, describing December to March as winter proper, when crops can still be harvested, but also writing of winter’s shadow, the ‘hungry gap’ before the first sowings of pulses and salads come to bear.
Never one to try the easy route, Charles has gardened on Iona, in Scotland, in France and in Zambia and now cultivates two acres in Somerset, South West England, in an intensive, no-dig style of management. For those of you unfamiliar with this method, his earlier book Organic Gardening provides an inspirational manual demonstrating how a lively soil is an active soil – one that is growing plants and absorbing nutrients.
Winter crops are, of course, an essential part of that continuum, whether you are eating stored potatoes, pumpkins and onions, picking sprouts, lifting leeks or gathering salads of endive, chicory, purslane, rocket, pea shoots and sorrel, to mention just a few.
Charles’s writing is founded on extensive experience as a successful market gardener who kept detailed diaries and notes of all his growing practice. Planning and setting out your calendar are shown to be worthwhile investments of your time, as winter’s harvest starts in spring, each crop having its own cycle of sowing, planting and harvesting. There are also winter salads sown in July and August; and here timing is essential to benefit from the fading autumn light.
Always encouraging, Charles advises on cultivating a healthy soil, even starting from compacted, heavy clay, and discusses aspects of growing each individual crop, including problems you may meet and how to deal with them. In the section on growing under cover, for instance, he has experimented with nets, fleece, plastic and glass; all have their particular virtues to consider and will help keep you in a daily portion of home-grown fresh green leaves.
Making the most of winter light is as important as eating fresh produce; gardening brings us out of doors to notice cloud, wind, frost or sharp, low light.
The book is set out in a double-column format with highlighted paragraphs and many beautiful photographs. You will, like me, find yourself absorbing the information in a non-verbal way, as though you were walking round Charles’s garden, noticing his spacings, different styles of cover and how the plants look at different times of the year.
The author includes several useful calendars, showing sowing and planting times as well as monthly activities; these would be very useful if transcribed and pinned up in the potting shed. Far from simply indulging daydreams of what you might do this year, Charles combines methodical practice and a love of the Earth – to whom he dedicates the work – to encourage you to get out into the garden and actually do it.