Many fishermen believe winter offers the best chances to catch the big one; some surfers don an extra layer of rubber to ride waves usually clogged by every man and his dog during summer. So it shouldn't be a surprise that, during winter, you can have some of the best gardening of the whole year. I know for some a winter garden is not worth the effort and, with daytime temperatures (in Auckland at least) dropping as low as a shocking 12C, it's not surprising. But for those of us prepared to risk everything that nature has to throw down, a treasure trove of good eating is to be had.
Brassicas characterise everything a winter garden should be, stout, colourful, interesting 28-05-2012 05:30:00and above all tasty. Their reputation among many of my readers (particularly the under threes) has unfortunately been sullied somewhat by bitter experiences due to excess dribble and the store-bought product. That's not to say store-bought brassicas aren't terrific, but in comparison to homegrown, freshly picked young shoots and leaves available in the winter veggie garden - well let's just say homegrown brassicas are a whole other ball game.
Broccoli is my number one pick for winter. As many of the varieties now grow multiple smaller, sweeter florets instead of one big head the space required to grow them is less of an issue. I'm able to harvest a few florets of each plant at a time which only seems to encourage more to growth. This means that, overall, I need fewer plants to see me through the winter. Many gardeners plant broccoli after fruits like tomato or eggplant, but an American friend insists broccoli should go in after onions. This means the broccoli is planted in a nitrogen-depleted soil.
Nitrogen is good for leaf growth but will discourage strong heads, which is what we want. Good preparation should include a free draining soil in a sunny aspect with new or unbroken ground delivering good results. A good low-nitrogen mulch is leaf-mould, which you can make by stuffing leaves into a plastic bag with a shovelfull of soil and leaving them for three to six months. You can substitute dried leaves for the leaf mould.
Calabrese is a fancy broccoli/cauliflower and needs slightly warmer conditions (12C is fine) than the more traditional varieties. Calabrese is worth growing for its handsome spiral head alone; it is often sold under the banner, "romanesco". Cabbage however is all about strong leaf growth so a nitrogen-rich soil is important. To maximise the nitrogen in the soil plant your cabbages after legumes like beans and prepare the soil with plenty of rich organic matter. I recommend pea straw as a mulch; it retains a good deal of nitrogen. Many of the other brassicas on offer will fall on either side of the cabbage/broccoli fence depending on which part of the plant is desirable. This late in the season, punnets are better than seed and most varieties of brassicas available do best in the cold so winter's your big opportunity. Don't miss out!