It’s a common misconception that the garden in winter resembles Abney Park in Stoke Newington with requisite teen Goths lurking in every shady nook. My mum has witnessed over two decades of gardening mania with my dad, and even she thinks of the winter plot as a sad and barren thing. Postcards featuring charming frosted landscapes don’t help garden PR and neither do freakish and garish poinsettias every Yule.
We all remember science lessons at school and learning about photosynthesis. Most of us can’t recall our own zip code or location of our car keys, but we know with absolute certainty that sunlight is necessary for plant growth. Unless you are one of the aforementioned Goths, it’s quite important for humans as well. Along with the term photosynthesis, we can also rattle Seasonally Affected Disorder off our tongues.
According to mythology, Orpheus (the King of the Emos) lured Persephone into the Underworld where she chowed down on pomegranates, a mystical and cost-effective marriage ceremony. Her grieving and slightly scary mum, Hecate, held dominion over the grain and bargained with Orpheus for Persephone’s safe return above ground six months of the year. Sunshine, fat tomatoes and skin cancer represent her joy, whilst her sorrow is in the form of dark days, barren fields and galoshes.
Whilst Dr. Phil would have a lot to say about Empty Nest Syndrome, our perceptions of a bleak winter are rooted in this mythology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst summer exhales and hands us leaves, fruits and flowers, winter inhales and concentrates its energy. Rather like Persephone’s life, there’s a lot of activity underground between September and February. For starters, root vegetables thrive in the cold and the dark.
Some gardeners believe that frost improves the flavour of parsnips and most gardeners advocate planting garlic, onions and potatoes in the cold of January for harvesting in the spring. Horticulture fleece, cloches and polytunnels go a long way towards warming the soil if you’re at all worried about ground temperature. Seed catalogues and nurseries offer many autumn varieties of seeds for September and October shipping including:
- Broad beans
Rocket and spinach are possibly the most versatile of all, as they can grow in shallow soil on a sunny windowsill or under horticultural fleece outside. A yearlong supply of greens is infinitely achievable.
Don’t forget your green manure either. Planting mustard or fenugreek in late autumn will give you nitrogen-rich material to dig into the soil before the first frosts kick in. Frost has the added benefit of breaking compacted clods of earth down to a fine, rich soil ready for spring planting. Winter is so much more than cleaning tools in the shed!