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Ever wondered how we keep your veg box stocked up in winter? Or think about what your farmers get up to while we're all wrapped up warm inside? We're lucky to work with a number of local farmers who grow an abundance of seasonal veg for us all year round, but it's not easy. Growing produce in winter in particular comes with its challenges. Metske from Bore Place Market Garden noticed how many of his farmers' market visitors were surprised that he and his partner Zowie stop coming to the market over the winter period, so they sent us this update on what keeps them busy (or not) when the temperature drops.
How difficult is it to keep the UK harvest going in winter?
Growing vegetables overwinter in England is a hard task. The temperatures and hours of daylight are so low that there are hardly any crops that grow over winter. If growers have polytunnels or glasshouses it is a bit different and although growth there is slow as well, it is still possible to produce some crops overwinter.
What seasonal winter veg can we expect to see from UK farmers?
Outside crops that should be available over winter are kale, turnips, carrot, beetroot, celeriac, cabbage, cauliflower and brussels for instance. If the weather is mild maybe spinach and chard. This list is not complete and a lot is down to the type of land/soil you have. On the lighter and well-drained grounds (less clay) it is still possible to drive into the field without causing too much damage also the quality of the produce is often better.
On our soils, it is so clayish that you can’t get any machinery into the field without making a mess and the quality is often poor. Smaller growers harvest with wheelbarrows and it is all very labour-intensive and heavy.
When did you make the decision to stop growing during the winter period? And what are the downsides to ending the season early?
About 20 years ago I decided that I did not want to continue growing over winter. I never had the luck to end up farming on the lighter grounds and always grew veg on heavy clay. Now I am older I am happy to have made that choice. I work hard over spring, summer and autumn and try to catch up a bit over the winter. The tricky thing is it means we have to make our income in a short period of time so there is a bit of risk involved in this choice.
So, what do you do when you're not growing delicious veggies for us?
After our last market, I joked that I would be off to Barbados. Sadly I did not make it but did see my brothers and sisters and friends in the Netherlands for a few days. In the time past, I have got the fleeces in and tidied up in the field. Irrigation pipes need to come in, water pumped out of the field, we planted some garlic in our small polytunnel and I harvested the last fennel and kale just before this last frost period.
All this takes place in a lower gear and with more cups of coffee in between than normal. All staff members have gone (we employ three people over the summer) and I am now on my own again. We also need to pull out our old kitchen and replace that over winter, but for now I am busy with creating our crop plan. What are we going to grow, how much and where? It is a big puzzle that involves me figuring out how I am going to grow enough vegetables for all my customers and the market stall. I also don’t want to grow too much or veg that others grow in abundance or are better at so that I can’t sell mine.
How do you plan for the next growing season?
All the books come out at this time of year, the Dutch and English books on how to grow veg and the seed catalogues to see what seed is available and where to get it from. I order organic seed where I can (90 – 95%) and sometimes when organic seed is not available I ask the Soil Association for a derogation (special permission) to use non-organic seed, although this is a last resort and we never compromise on our organic growing methods. By the end of the year, I hope to phone in my seed and plant order, and get hold of enough potting compost. If I am really productive I have also already made a start with my bookkeeping but that can wait if I am feeling lazy.
What benefits do you notice from working like this?
I like this summer-up and winter-off working pattern. It fits in well with the day length and I like to think of it as a more natural rhythm. It seems to work for me. So I wish you all a peaceful 2023 and I hope that a lot of things in the world will change for the better.