Make your vegetable beds cosy and warm now and don’t neglect yourself either, advises Fiann Ó Nualláin, who provides a healthy and hearty broth recipe to get you through the cold, winter weather.
December is the month of wrapping presents. It is also the time to wrap up tenders in the garden. A time of year for the bubble-wrap, hessian, straw and chicken wire supports. And while it is time to think about wrapping up the gardening for winter, there are still things to be done now – actions that will be rewarded come next spring. So do a task this weekend that’s actually a present for yourself – go cover any bare soil.
Now that a good deal, if not all of the harvest is up and the rains coupled with any recent top dressing have replenished the ground with vital nutrients, it’s the perfect time to protect from the elements and stop nutrients leeching out. Covering now will help even heavy clay soil warm up quicker in spring, and prevent weeds colonising in the interim. The few months of protection will benefit the edible gardener with earlier sowings of brassicas, legumes, spinach as well as early carrots, parsnips, non-bolting beetroot etc.
Simply prepare the site as if preparing a growing bed; if you dig over just break up any large clods, rake level, remove as many weeds as possible, and spread a top dressing of compost/manure. If no dig, just weed as much as possible and top dress – the light deprivation from the cover should finish off the rest of any weeds missed. Then cover with a membrane layer – I use recycled tarp and a roll of thick black polythene from the builder’s merchants, both can be stretched taut and give close contact with soil.
The tarp has eyelets for tent pegs, the plastic will take a few judicious slabs/rocks to hold it in place and a burying at the edges, in some instances. Remember to weigh down the centre too as a flapping/ballooning cover lets heat out. Clear plastic is used in the hot season to solarize soil (kill off pest and disease build up), but in cold seasons random weeds will just continue to germinate under it - so dark plastic is best. In six weeks, ground temperature will be up to sowing levels, but wait 8-10 if you can, for excellent results. The biggest advantage is the cover stops nutrients being washed away by rains.
There is perhaps still a lot going on in the veg patch, at least on the harvesting front. Beetroot, cauliflowers, winter cabbages, chard, parsnips and turnips still offer sustenance and you can continue to lift leeks, celery and celeriac as required, but you might like to add some fleece or the old school method of a layer of straw, to protect them from winter frost. The thing to remember is that snow insulates while frost damages (for the most part); frost enhances some vegetative tissue towards sweetness, especial root crops. So if you like your parsnips sweet, don’t molly coddle them too much.
You can harvest from under a blanket of snow, it’s no different to taking some Brussels sprouts or carrots out of the freezer. But a hard frost is a nightmare to try get a leek or parsnip out of the ground intact – never mind getting the veg out - its often hard getting the fork in! So the winter warmers of fleece, or cloches, or hoop tunnels, or straw layers are as much about harvesting the crops late in the season, as it is about extending season or helping these hardy crops maintain in the sub zeros at night. All these crops mentioned above are suited to overwintering so we don’t need to panic.
Remember to wrap yourself up too. It can feel like sub-zero in the day, if not actually hovering close to it. We gardeners are a hardy lot, often a stubborn or impatient lot – getting into the garden without thinking of our own needs and I myself often need a reminder to slap on a bit of sunblock, or wrap a scarf around.
I do however eat a lot of tomatoes in summer months to increase my natural sun protection via their lycopene content, and in winter I love warming roots and cider stews and immune boosting soups to build my stamina against the chill and to prevent colds and flus. I am not saying don’t wear the woolly hat, just that we can wrap ourselves up warm from the inside too and prevent illness in the process.
There is the theory that hot soup of any kind raises the temperature in the nose and throat and so creates an unwelcoming environment for viruses (that otherwise thrive in cool, dry places or which often find a way in via our frigid gardening faces - your nose running while you weed or get the bulbs in, is an automatic response to flush out any potential grip opportunities for invading viruses). This is why broths are traditional flu cures in many cultures across the world.
Now imagine the benefit of hot soup with ingredients to boost your immune system and your stamina to weather extremes. Stews or chunky soups (don’t blend to a pulp after cooking) that are made with root vegetables are true winter warmers because root veg require more energy to digest than leafy veg, or sandwiches, and as your body works to break down the roots, that energy and the amped-up process of metabolism enables a thermogenic effect – the process creates internal heat and safely increases body temperature. And at a time of year when comfort food is often high on the agenda, it’s good to point out that thermogenic foods in boosting metabolism, help us more efficiently burn excess fats too. Win win.
Gardener’s Winterwarmer Broth.
Wash, peel and roughly chop the veg. Add to water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for twenty minutes. Stir in coconut oil and spices. I t’s okay if the potato breaks down — it will add thickness to the broth. Bring back to a boil. You can blend, but it’s more effective served chunky.
Just finished a bowl of it myself and I am roasting now. Off to hug the banana – see if I can get it to fruit before I put it to bed for winter.
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