Some tips for closing the ‘gap’ between April and June.
(Written March 2009)
Perhaps the hardest time of the year to provide food for the table from your vegetable garden is the period from the beginning of April through to early June. Winter crops have been harvested and new sowings have only just gone into the ground. However with careful planning it is possible to bridge the gap and secure fresh home grown vegetables on through the spring.
It’s important to have a good supply of green stuff so I always make sure to keep a couple of rows of last year’s swiss chard growing into the new season, providing a harvest of leaves from second year growth. During the winter I make sure these low-lying crops are covered with netting or wire mesh otherwise they soon get chewed back to the core. These are the lean months for rabbits, pigeons and such-like; they’ll search for anything to eat that isn’t well protected. I also leave some perpetual spinach in the ground but from experience this doesn’t winter quite as well. As new sowings of these crops come on in early summer I dig out these old rows and add to the compost heap.
Late flowering purple sprouting broccoli is an excellent spring vegetable with a long harvest period – so long as you leave young buds on the stems to grow on, when you cut off the mature florets. To my mind it’s one of the best crops and has a marvellous taste. In order to secure a harvest of this wonderful vegetable I grow seedlings in a tray in my green house the previous April and plant out on the allotment in June. Make sure to firm the soil well in around the base of the plant. This is a plant which is going to stand in the ground through to the following year so I make sure to keep the ground weed free until the stems have thickened and are well off the ground. Then I lay down a thick mulch which also prevents the soil drying out in the hot summer months. Again, during the autumn and winter I cover with netting to stop pigeons and rabbits feeding off the green shoots and leaves.
Last year I tried growing a variety of curly kale, deep red in colour. It looked spectacular but unfortunately the taste was too strong, even bitter. This year I shall grow the green kale, which provides leaves for harvest right through the winter into the following spring: excellent in soups. Again this is a tall standing plant, which needs soil and crop protection with mulching and netting and, in exposed areas, staking against wind damage.
I also grow several varieties of spring cabbage, sown in trays the previous summer and planted out under netting or wire mesh in August. This provides a crop the following April/May. This year despite my best efforts mice got in under the mesh and nibbled away at the hearts of about a quarter of my cabbage plants. Fortunately, the rest are now of a sufficient size that the hearts are well protected by the outer leaves. They are growing on nicely.
In the hope of bringing the harvest time forward and ‘narrowing the gap’ I sow broad beans, onion sets and garlic in November, so that they are well established and ready to grown on once the weather gets warmer. An early spring makes all the difference. Similarly I sow peas and a row of early carrots, both under fleece, at the end of February/early March and keep my fingers crossed.
The other means by which I ensure a sufficiency of fruit and vegetables at this time of year is to purposely keep back frozen surplus crops from the previous year. I have a stack of food trays in my freezer filled with last year’s summer vegetables, previously casseroled in a fresh tomato sauce with herbs and garlic. I also store pickled vegetables: red cabbage and beetroot are favourites in my household. Last year we had a bumper crop of greengages. The surplus were washed, halved and stoned and then simply frozen in plastic bags for later use. They have proved very useful both in pies and crumbles and as stewed fruit – keeping their flavour well. My allotment neighbour had a glut of desert gooseberries last June and allowed me to pick a bucket full. These were frozen in the same way and have provided a useful reserve. In the cupboard there are still a few jars of blackcurrent coulis made last June. We are busy using up these winter stores in order to clear space for next year’s preserves. Now it’s early March and my rhubarb patch is starting to grow. In a couple of weeks I shall be harvesting a good crop of stalks for our Sunday pudding!
My long term plan is to have a polytunnel but until that day I know that with a little effort and planning my allotment can provide fresh and preserved fruit and vegetables all the year round. That’s a great feeling.
(Jonathan gives talks and workshops of fruit and vegetable cultivation and allotment management – for more information post a comment)