Grow citrus and hearty veges so winter meals will be stunners, writes Meg Liptrot.

Do you like making hot soups and casseroles in winter? It's miserable outside and you don't fancy driving to the supermarket to buy a vital ingredient? Now's the time to plant some of those key veges or herbs needed for a hearty winter's meal.

Celery is one of these veges. An insipid thing by itself (unless covered in dip) celery is the core of a perfect soup. You don't need much, so it makes sense to grow it and pick stems when needed. There's nothing worse than fridge-limp celery.

In warm areas, get seedlings in the ground before soil temperatures drop too far. Try growing celery in raised beds, or a good-size pot if your garden soil is too cool. Celery plants enjoy ample moisture and home-made compost.

Parsley's another great plant in winter to add freshness to many dishes. This versatile, easy-to-grow herb is full of iron and is lovely in omelettes. Flat or curly, it's perfectly happy in a terracotta pot.


Alternatively, you can get a herb called "par-cel", which is a cross between parsley and celery.

For some fresh input over winter, sow easy-to-grow greens such as mesclun salad and rocket. Clip young leaves as a "cut-and-come-again" crop. Rocket adds peppery tang as a side dish. A simple pizza with tomato and mozzarella can be topped with a few rocket leaves and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Rocket also grows happily in a pot.

Plant a good lemon tree and it will be your friend for life, especially in winter. Growing up, my dinnertime chore was to run next door to my grandparents' house and pick a lemon. It's so ideal for fish dishes. Or, plant a Tahitian lime, a close relative of the lemon with a different flavour to traditional, dark green Jamaican limes. Green, they have more of a lime taste, then, as they yellow, they taste more like a lemon. The trees often produce more fruit than lemon trees.

Having plants at the ready in your garden will inspire meals, too. Broad beans should be sown now for a late-winter, early-spring harvest (spring is a time in the vege garden when there's not much ready to pick, so broad beans are good value). Don't overcook as they'll lose their flavour. Young broad beans are tender and the inner bean doesn't need shelling. They are super-easy to sow as they are large seeds. Press into cultivated soil to the depth of half your finger and cover with remaining soil.

There are many members of the brassica family which will add healthy colour to winter meals. Kale comes in many shapes and sizes and is a hardy plant. The leaves are leathery and require a saute or steam to soften. Squeeze a little lemon over them to freshen and serve as a side dish, or add kale to stir fries in place of cabbage. Seedlings of all brassicas, such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and kale, are available now. Or, sow seed in a tray in a warm spot and transplant once they're finger length. Remember some eco-friendly snail bait as slugs and snails are out in force when soil is damp. One of our community gardeners uses a clever trick, placing old tin cans (with both ends off) around her young seedlings to protect them.

Leeks and onions are fiddly things to plant, but well worth it. They take a couple of months to mature so get them in the ground now. Leek seedlings are quite delicate and should be kept weed-free while young. Plant in a shallow trench then slowly mound soil against stems as they mature. This will ensure you get more useable white stem. Now you can make that warming winter classic - leek and potato soup.

Sow now before it's too cold
Get busy in the autumn edible garden
Plant now:
* Soil temperatures are dropping fast, but there is still some time to plant winter veges if you get in quick.

* Once your soil is dug over and composted, plant cold-hardy lettuces (cos, miner's, endive). Plant spinach and silverbeet seedlings.

* In warm areas, sow root crops such as carrot. The soil should be dug over and cultivated to a fine tilth before sowing.

* Rotate your crops. Sow root-crop seed after a heavy feeding crop such as brassicas, rather than into freshly manured or composted soil, as the roots tend to fork. Start planting garlic from now through to midwinter.

* Sow peas. Set up a tall chicken-wire panel for them to grow up.

* New seed potatoes are available in the shops. Potatoes are okay to plant in frost-free areas, or plant under a large plastic cloche to protect tender foliage in cold climates, or in tubs. Straw can be used to lightly cover potato plants to protect them from frost, lightly mound it up as the plants grow.

* For a little colour, plant calendula (the winter marigold). The petals also make a soothing tea and it is a good vegetable garden companion.

Harvest now:
* Harvest your summer-grown potatoes, onions and garlic as the top foliage dies off. Leave to dry in the sun for a couple of days, then store in a cool, dark, dry and ventilated place.

* Preserve the last figs and feijoas; they're great in relish. Store the last of your autumn fruit such as apples and pears. Persimmons are starting to ripen now, as are bananas.

Garden care:
* Remove old tomato vines and fruit affected by brown rot such as peaches (including fallen fruit), but don't put infected material in the compost heap. This will help prevent reinfestation by the fungus. Clear up fallen apples affected by codlin moth and add them to a hot compost. Turn the rest into cider.

* Mulch fruit trees and remove competing grass from around the drip line of new trees. Plant comfrey and flowering bulbs instead.

* Spray citrus and ornamentals affected by black sooty mould or overwintering whitefly with an oil-based organic clean-up spray such as Aquaticus Glow.