Only the toughest plants cope in the winter veg patch. Temperatures swing from mild to very cold, rain, snow and winter gales are on the cards, and there are queues of hungry critters bent on a winter feast. So what are the best ways of getting the most of our winter crops?
Some plants are less robust than others so should feature more prominently in early winter meals and others need extra protection against predators. And remember, winters are much harsher in some parts of Scotland than in the south and midlands of England, so some advice you read may not apply in this country.

Though by no means tender, celery simply can’t tolerate more than one or two light frosts so, even if flavour is enhanced by early frost as is often suggested, only molluscs will savour repeated cold snaps. Its relative, celeriac, is a bit tougher and you don’t need to feverishly dig it up yet, but if a protracted cold spell is forecast, dig up any remaining bulbs. They should be kept slightly moist so store in a cool shed in a shallow box, covering with soil or damp sand.

The same approach applies to carrots, parsnips and other roots. If you have no frost-free storage space, cover carrots, parsnips, beetroot and other roots with some soil or spent compost. Make sure the whole root is covered as any exposed flesh will turn corky. Neeps do not need protection against frost, in fact the flesh turns a deeper shade of orange and gains flavour once the weather turns cold.
Winter greens – broccoli, kale, cabbage and sprouts – vary considerably in how they should be treated. They are often classified as early or late, like Mini Cole and Tundra cabbages. Tundra, a late one, survives whatever the elements throw at it, but you may find slugs relishing it, after laying eggs round the roots. Placing and refreshing slug traps in the bed early throughout the growing season prevents this. 

Broccoli spears and cauli curds can’t survive frosts, so eat soon or cover with fleece, keeping the membrane off the plants. Most kales are robust and handle anything and provide a fresh flush of leaves in spring. One or two varieties, such as Nero di Toscana, are a little less hardy so are best used before the harshest weather.
A final word on sprouts. I’ve always found home-grown buttons are sweet and tasty, unlike any I have ever bought. 

These ones have an unpalatable metallic taste, but I also find my own ones start tasting like that after mid-January. So be sure to finish them before then.
Whatever you’re growing, try to prepare for a hard or snowy spell by harvesting whatever you need in advance. It saves breaking your fork and splitting any root while trying to prise it out, not to mention frostbite. And frankly, vegetables of any kind lose flavour and get that unpleasant tinny taste when frozen slowly over a few nights and defrosted quickly before a meal.     

Plant of the week

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is an evergreen, woody herb with many culinary and cosmetic uses. It originates from places with milder winters than Scotland and is borderline hardy with us so it is best to give it some winter protection. If growing in a pot, move it to a frost-free greenhouse or bright shed or at least in to the shelter of a wall or overhang. If growing in the ground, put a “jacket” of mesh material over it to trap some of the warmth that radiates from the soil.

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