On the following page we'll explore:
- Planning – what to grow and when
- Sowing – getting an early start; plus summer sowing for later crops
- How to fill gaps – different plant varieties; quick growing veg to fill the empty spaces; cut and come again
- Extending the growing season – greenhouse, polytunnel, and cold frames
Start by looking at hungry gap times: early Spring has little veg or fruit available, and of course, winter is a challenge for many crops. Here's what you can grow, or store, to keep you in vegetables throughout both these seasons:
- Brassicas - kale, cabbage, turnips, and broccoli will all grow over the winter months.
- Some varieties of spinach beet will survive frosts.
- Root veg such as carrots and beetroot can be harvested late autumn, and stored carefully for several months. As can potatoes, onions and garlic.
- Parsnips taste better when harvested after the first frost, they too will store.
- Squash and pumpkins are cut late autumn and will store throughout winter.
- Both French and Broad beans can be podded and dried in the autumn for winter casseroles.
To get fresh greens ready for early Spring, sow or raise plants early in the year, indoors. Cool, light windowsills in late January and February are perfect for seed sowing, especially if you don’t have a greenhouse.
Quick germinating lettuce and other salad leaves will give you greens in a matter of weeks. Some herbs, such as coriander and parsley, will also get going.
Sowing into a module tray is great for raising plants such as brassicas or lettuce. Because modules have a greater depth of soil than seed trays, they allow the young plants plenty of growing time to put down roots and mature. This means you can either delay planting outdoors (maybe the conditions aren’t right – too cold or wet) or you can plan a succession of plantings, by putting out a limited number every few weeks. This succession means not every plant will mature/bear fruit at the same time. And you will have a constant supply of veg.
The key to success in having veg through the autumn and winter is to continue to sow, even in mid-summer. This captures the productive growing time in late summer/autumn.
Carrots, for instance, can be sown in June for use over winter. This also has the added bonus of missing the first attack of the carrot root fly. Sow an 'early' variety again in mid-July - or August - for a final quick crop.
Here is some other veg you can sow in mid-summer:
- Beans, dwarf French - mid-July
- Beetroot - mid-July
- Spring cabbage - mid-Aug
- Calabrese - mid-Aug
- Carrots, early - mid-July
- Chicory, red - mid-Aug
- Chinese cabbage - mid-Aug
- Endive - late Aug
- Kale - Aug
- Spinach - Aug
- Spinach beet - Aug
Choice of Variety
Choosing the right variety is important when you are sowing through the season. ‘Early' varieties will give a quicker crop at the start and end of the season.
Lettuces, for instance, come in many shapes, sizes, and colours. Some can be grown well into autumn. The loose leaf varieties are slow to run to seed. And the 'cut and come again' variety extends the harvesting period.
Try mini-veg varieties. These are ready to harvest sooner than a large size variety, which is particularly helpful if you have a short growing season (further North) and they can be sown to cover the ‘hungry gap’. The reason they are called 'mini' is that they will crop well at close spacing.
You can sometimes fill the gaps by choosing a different type of vegetable. Here are some suggestions:
- Spinach beet and Swiss chard are excellent alternatives to spinach, cropping for months rather than just a few days.
- Kale is hardy, easy to grow, and comes in many types. If sown as late as August, it will keep you in leaves all through the winter and the spring hungry gap
- Kohl rabi is not the easiest vegetable to grow, but when it does well it is delicious. It can be sown from late February to August and can be ready in as little as seven weeks
- Asparagus needs a permanent spot, and it will be several years before you get a good harvest, but it is a great hungry gap filler from late April to early June
- Squash (pumpkins) store well into the following year
- Cabbage needn’t be huge. Growing smaller should mean an earlier harvest.
For advice on how to grow any of the above, and other vegetables, see our How to Grow cards.
If you harvest veg early you can prevent a mid-season glut. New potatoes, the size of golf balls, are delicious, as are slim small broad beans which can be eaten pod and all.
Cut and come again veg, like spinach beet, and loose leaf lettuce, can be picked as soon as the leaves are big enough to eat, and they will go on providing leaves through their growing season (always leave a few on the plant to keep it growing).
Extending the growing season
You can protect many crops throughout winter and early spring by using fleece, cold frames, and cloches.
Pots and containers can be covered with cardboard or hessian, packed with straw or bubble wrap.
Greenhouses and polytunnels give sheltered growing space, but you'll need to add extra insulation to prevent deep frost penetration. Use deep pots or grow bags inside for your veg. Or – if you have space – create a growing bed. You can grow outdoor crops such as potatoes and peas in the greenhouse beds, using the extra protection to bring them forward several weeks. By July and August, the space is clear for winter salads and veg.