Winter Greens

posted in: The Forest Garden | 0

One of the most common questions asked is ‘What do you eat in the winter months when the weather is less favourable?’ Well there certainly are various leaves and tubers amongst other edible gems, and some of the top fruit lasts into February. Of course the furry skinned Kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) being brought inside to complete its ripening process from November to February is a favourite too.

However, most abundant of all are the winter greens which will mean different things to different people. Today I would like to focus on perennial Kales, and Sea Beet.

Perennial Kales can grow to 1m plus and live for approximately five years. By now the harvest should be in full swing. Harvest down to the last 4 to 6 leaves per plant if you wish, as this will help keep the foliage at a level where the plant will be less prone to wind damage.  Staking for many locations will be essential.

Daubenton's Kale
Daubenton’s Kale

I keep three different forms of this kale including one called Taunton Dean which seems to be the tallest (1.5m) and has a slightly blue hew to it with a tinge of red to the mid rib within leaf. One called Daubenton’s variegated and is a ‘cousin’ to another called Daubenton’s which has a plain green leaf although they too can have a red mid rib when the plant is short of food.  All three as far as I am aware, and certainly here with me have not attempted to produce seed which makes them productive all year round. However all of the kales are productive in the depth of winter here in Cornwall UK in our Marine temperate 7 climate. I personally like to eat at least 6 raw leaves a day as I graze my way around the Forest Garden and nursery. However, most people cook them by lightly steaming them. Alternatively, chopping them up fine into a salad is a pleasing option.

Kales are very nutritious but most of all it’s that intake hit of Chlorophyll (that is missing from many of our diets) that I feel contributes to my uplift in energy and mental focus. It is one of the best high return food fuels that we can put into the human body.

If you study kale you can often observe a fine hew on the surface which I understand to be a fungal layer associated with the plant can, as I understand, be beneficial to the human digestive gut flora, if eaten raw.

Daubenton's variegated Kale
Daubenton’s variegated Kale

Kales are brassicas and favour lime based soils. With annual brassicas where the ph level is to low (to acidic), lime spreading has to be done annually due to the lime being lost in digging or ploughing. A perennial Kale in a no-dig bed can be limed if lime is required (check your soil ph and act accordingly) but due to the lack of digging, a single application of lime will in most cases can last the life time of the plant by acting as a slow release agent.

Plants are best planted out small from a 9cm (P9) pot or a 1 Litre pot and allowed to grow into their environment. If planting out a larger plant that has been grown under protection I have found it worth removing all of the foliage bar the lead shoots and let the plant grow fresh leaves to suit its new location. The new leaves are usually smaller but more turgid and suited to the outdoor life.

If you have a polytunnel or glass house, you can grow plants either in the ground or, for a year, they will do well in pots. Pots are at best looked at as a temporary home for most plants with the exception of those such as bonsai and others where root restriction is beneficial.

With regards to pests, slugs and snails will be tempted but amongst the standard armoury, a layer of green waste compost across the whole of your bed followed by a layer of lime (if required for ph adjustment) and then fine beach sand around the base about 300mm in diameter can be beneficial as the slugs don’t like the salt and need to expend a lot of slime to travel across it. You will have to experiment as to how often you will need to top up the sand to retain the salt content; if the lime layer is used without the salt this will also need checking to ensure it is effective. All of the above layers leave no hiding places for slugs.

Cabbage white butterflies will be tempted to lay their eggs so either use suitable netting or you can apply an organic spray two or three times a year which will make the foliage indigestible to the caterpillars.

I am informed that this spray has no known detrimental effect on humans. The spray period is usually from April to August, so there is no need to worry about your winter production as the butterflies are not airborne at this time of year.

Sea Beet harvesting should be in good production too. Sea Beet is found on the shorelines of the UK’s beaches growing where most plants would fear to tread at the top of the beach, often in sand, so they have adapted to have a tap root to insure a sufficient water supply. This plant is the perennial relative of the annual spinach plant grown in our vegetable patches and on our farms. Harvest young leaves regularly to avoid them getting weathered. Urine occasionally applied over the roots is one of the best natural fertilisers for this plant as is the occasional dose of Epsom Salts. It is useful to mulch with 40mm of green waste compost. This plant enjoys being planted in manure. Do not fret if they look like a disaster in the summer; it is just that the plants put everything into trying to make seed. For eating purposes, it is how they look in the winter months that matters.

Enjoy your Forest Gardening


Revised – 19/03/18